We couldn’t find the trail to the top.
A group of 10 of us runners were picking our way through the grass along Stinson Beach in search of our path Saturday. Eventually, we located a clearing in the dirt and began a 1,800 foot climb back to where we just came from. And that was our warm up loop for what would be a 20 mile day in the woods. Over felled logs, down rocky river trails, and of course – up.
My coach calls long hills – grinders, and short, steep hills – pops. They sound like items you might purchase at a ballpark. Would you like an order of pops and grinders? Why yes please, with a side of pain and a good helping of crazy. Because that is what it feels like when you are on your toes digging into the hillside, with another mile to climb, wondering how the hell you got here.
I signed up for my first ultra marathon back in August so I could sort out my life over the miles. I figured there was a lot to consider and I might run out of road on anything less than a 50.
That at least explains why I was climbing through fog so thick I couldn’t see the ocean – just the white mist hiding it. I watched K disappear in and out of the clouds as I lost and gained on him on the run. Mostly though, I was alone. And swearing. Not thinking about my future, but concentrating on how this is not a running trail! And yet, I was running it. Albeit slowly.
I am 16 weeks into my training and four weeks from the longest race of my life. And I am terrified. Sometimes I am shocked when I think of the terrain we cover. But in the company of these other crazies I have only one gear: go.
Over the past three months I have watched my body transform. My calves and quads are larger and more defined, new veins rope and protrude around my shins. Maybe that sounds gross to you. But I feel strong. I earned those veins. I just miss feeling fast. So I told my coach.
Me: I miss opening up and feeling my real stride running. I miss running fast.
Him: Well, you aren’t running. You are training.
Boom. I had no response. I shut up and followed him into the woods for the final loop, watching his feet, and trying to keep up. And he was right. If running ultras was easy, everyone would do them. But they aren’t. And if you want to – do whatever it takes so you don’t quit and go home early. No one is going to send you a T shirt in the mail.
So, last night I decided to take my night vision out for a test drive. During the race I will be required to wear a headlamp for the first two hours until the sun rises. I have never worn a headlamp running, let alone a hat to keep it in place. I need to get comfortable being uncomfortable.
As I ran through the Presidio I was enveloped in darkness, save for the tiny circle of light extending two feet in front of me. For a person who sleeps with a light on, this was an unsettling experiment. But, I need to be prepared. I need to learn to trust myself in the dark.
Quickly I learned that you cannot get distracted when night running. You need to focus on the ground in front of you or you will trip. You will fall. You cannot let yourself mentally disappear. You have to pay attention to your footing, to the pain, you have to operate in the present.
And as much as I like to look ahead and plan for the next climb, the next curve in the roadway, night running prevents you from looking any farther than what you can see in front of you. All it is reacting to your surroundings. There is no planning. No daydreaming. Just you, your light, and whatever it is driving you to the finish.