Warning: This is a long one for me. If you don’t feel like reading all of it, don’t.
I could see it – the red stripe on the roof of the white finishers’ tent – in the distance, maybe a half-mile away. It was a sight I had been waiting 10 miles – more like 5 hours actually – to see. I splashed through the final pool of water on the course and did my best to pick myself up and kick it to the finish line.
As I emerged from the woods and headed toward the last stretch along the parking lot, I could hear C shouting my name, the sound breaking miles of silence. I saw L’s red light blinking in the twilight. I dug deep, my legs moving faster than they had all day, and rounded the last corner to the finish line.
My teammates were there to greet me as I crossed the mats. The sky was dark as we embraced and embraced again, celebrating our journey. It was a difficult one, one I don’t think we thought we’d finish. But we did.
I had arrived at Chain O Lakes State Park 5.5 hours earlier per Victorious Secret’s team plan. L thought she would finish in 3 hours or so, and C would take 2 or so hours to complete the course. We were hoping that I would arrive when C was half-way finished with her loop. I would have time to stretch, go to the bathroom and be off. However, despite my worrying, we had grossly underestimated the condition of the course and I arrived just as L was finishing.
I gave L a big hug and ushered her to the tent to get her warm. We chatted a bit about the race, her telling me that the first 7 miles (of 10.5) were the roughest but not to expect negative splits. As I listened, I saw ultra and relay runners come in battered and bruised, muddy from head to toe. Some of them were even bleeding. I tried not to worry but with each minute C was on the course, my anxiety levels grew.
A best case scenario had C coming in at 2 hours but L was sure she would be closer to 2.5, if not 3. However, I still insisted that we keep an eye out for her. Five minutes passed and then 10. I watched the tree line with hope but I did not see her.
L insisted that I move inside the tent to stay warm as she swore that my lips were turning blue. Inside, I might have felt better physically but emotionally I did not. Fear began to overwhelm me, and I seriously doubted whether I’d be able to complete the course. Everyone assured me that I could and promised that I would get wet, not cold, and that it was totally doable. The more I was told I could do it, the more unsure I became. Two hours and 45 minutes after C started, I called Mark in tears. I didn’t think I could do it. I didn’t think I wanted to do it. He said that no matter what I decided he would support me but he knew that I was not a quitter.
I hung up, put in my ear buds and tried to lose myself in Adele. I headed back out to L and decided that I was going to do this … or at least try.
C finished in about 3 hours and it was my turn. My feet felt like frozen blocks as I began, shuffling – not running – up the road. I fought back tears with each step and prayed that my feet would warm up. I started to focus on the music as the course veered off onto the trail at just over a half-mile in. It seemed like a steep decline, and I had to give up feeling sorry for myself to pay attention to my footing.
I found in the early stretches of the race that it would behoove me to really take my time on the downhills and do what I could on the flat stretches – the few there were – and charge the uphills. The course was very muddy and going too fast downhill was only going to lead to disaster.The course went from muddy to wet within the first two miles, and I soon found myself running in anywhere from ankle-deep to knee-deep water for up to 30 feet at time.
An example of water on the course, courtesy of Three Rivers Running Company
There were side “trails” made by previous runners to avoid some of the water but I had been warned that it sometimes did more harm than good to avoid the water. The trails were lined with sticker bushes and taking those side trails meant, at minimum, that you would be stuck if you didn’t fall over the brush and limbs.
Despite the trail hazards, I made it to the first aid station – at 3 ish miles – feeling pretty good. So good that I told a course volunteer, who was concerned that I would finish in the dark, that I could finish 7.5 miles in 1:15. He sort of looked at me with knowing concern and warned that there was more water ahead. I blew him off, telling myself that he didn’t know what kind of runner I was, and kept moving. I was doing OK, I thought. I was managing the mud and the water with far more constitution than that girl I had became in the tent.
Just before the 5-mile sign, the course crossed a road and descended into a different section of trail. What I thought was uncomfortable in the early part of the race became a distant memory as my pace slowed to a walk as I trudged along a path that was more like sewage than trail, with mud ankle deep. The next two miles were a combination of walking sideways to keep from slipping, running on the outer edges of trail, running through water if only to rinse my shoes and making sure that I was following the green flags that marked the trail.
The markers indicated a turn onto a service road about 7.25 miles in, and I made sure to take advantage of the flat, dry surface. I ran. Grateful to be unencumbered by the trail. As I made the move down a dirt road (still dry), approaching the 8-mile marker, a big truck sped past me.
“Who does he think he is, speeding in a park like that?” I thought to myself.
Who he was was the same gentleman who warned me of my chances of finishing in the dark. He was on a mission: removing course markers and making sure that I knew the jogs the course would follow. I stopped for a minute to listen, trying to remember each jog in the trail that he mentioned. Then I waved goodbye and descended back into the woods. Alone.
I tackled the hills and mud with determination, the daylight clock ticking, knowing that I had conquered most of the trail. The toughest parts, according to L, were over.
I weaved around the trail, taking in the sights of the frigid lakes surrounding me. It was beautiful – just as L had promised.
At mile 9 or so, I looked up and saw my kind course worker. He had met me on the trail and ran with me for a half-mile until I made the turn he was so worried that I would miss. All I had to do was follow the path. I couldn’t mess up. The finish would soon be in sight.
Before I could get there, I had to go through one more long, deep section of water. I trudged through without care or concern – unlike the way I approached the water so many times before on the course. In five minutes, I would be finished. And that promise was all I needed.
My Garmin read 2:11:56 when I crossed the mats. It was, hands down, the toughest 2:11:56 I had ever spent running on a course tougher than I ever thought I’d tackle. I wish I could find the words to truly describe the joy and pain I felt during that time but I can’t. Instead, I leave you with this:
You have to wonder at times what you're doing out there. Over the years, I've given myself a thousand reasons to keep running, but it always comes back to where it started. It comes down to self-satisfaction and a sense of achievement. - Steve Prefontaine