My legs felt like lead for two days. Not a good feeling when you are lining up for your first 50k. And one comprised of 7,100 feet of climbing.
Maybe it was just nerves. Maybe it had something to do with my speed workout Wednesday. Maybe I am just starting to feel tired after several weeks of 20 plus mile Saturdays – something I have never done before. But Saturday, as I jogged to the start, I mostly felt excited. Driving across the Golden Gate Bridge I felt it. And winding along Highway 1 to Stinson Beach I felt it. And even more so when I passed a coyote running along the roadway. I recognized it as the same feeling I get when I am traveling: I am going someplace new.
At the start I was happy to see some of my teammates. Especially the other newbies who looked about as freaked out as I felt. I have a tendency to go out too fast so I held back the first few miles. The lead pack was mostly men and the very talented Devon Crosby-Helms, who wound up winning the race. I knew I should stay behind her. If I was in front of her, it meant I was going out way too fast and I would hate myself at mile 20. Fine, at mile 15. So I put my head down, looked at the trail ahead, and just climbed. Several years ago my mom gave me a porcelain sign that I keep above my kitchen sink. It reads: Run your own race.
So I did. Although, I am not sure ‘race’ is the right word for it. In truth, I don’t know what I am doing yet. I had never run this far before and I had no idea if and when my body would break. So during the first downhill, not knowing how my body would respond to the pounding 10 miles later, I pulled up and just enjoyed the view. I was alone. The sky was clear, and l was happy.
The week before I ran 25 miles by myself in the Marin Headlands. During one particularly long incline, a coyote appeared in front of me on the trail. He was about 100 feet ahead, but kept turning around every 20 feet or so to make sure I was still behind him. I was. And I was gaining on him.
Eventually, he pulled over and settled in the bushes off to the right. He was digging at the earth with his back paws as I passed. We made eye contact, both of us more curious of the other than anything. For some reason I nodded at him. I guess I felt I should thank him for pulling me up the trail. A few miles later a bobcat popped out of the grass to my left. There were hawks flying overhead. I was alone, but I couldn’t stop smiling: I had never run with a coyote before.
Maybe I will never know what I am doing up on the trails. Maybe each race you are just supposed to learn something new about yourself and how you respond to discomfort. Maybe racing is just another way you get to call yourself out – smoke out your weakness and chase it down the trail. Or, let it get the best of you. Maybe the point of racing is to learn to regroup, and find a new strategy for not letting yourself down. Or to just keep you moving forward. Maybe I will never figure it out.
But I do know this: I love putting on my running shoes every day. It is a vacation from my head that always seems to be working overtime. (And typically on unproductive things.) Racing is a barometer I use to measure myself – how fast am I today? How tough am I? What do I need to work on? The fact that other people are on the course doesn’t matter. I have always been able to push myself whether I run alone or in the company of others. Saturday I wasn’t there to ‘race.’ I was there because my coach told us to sign up for the 50k to get in our miles before the big one. So I did.
And I learned this: I like the 50k distance. I didn’t feel like keeling over at the finish. And I remain terrified for the 50 miler next month. Seventeen weeks ago when I signed up for the Northface race I thought I would be able to wrap my brain around the idea of running for 9 plus hours. I thought I would be more comfortable with idea. I’m not. But I also know that next month will be different.
Because Andy will be joining me where I stopped Saturday. He will be responsible for delivering my tired, sore legs to Emily at mile 45. And she will be the one who will see me at my worst and who will carry me the last 5 miles. And that is fitting. Because she is the first running buddy I ever had, and she is always the person who leads me out of the dark places.
At age 13 we decided we were going to teach ourselves to run. We ran loops in our suburban neighborhood, adding distance a quarter mile at a time. We rewarded ourselves with enormous pancakes breakfasts complete with bacon. And eggs. Moreover, we understood even then that it is important to celebrate each new milestone.
So for the past 16 years we have cheered each other on at 5ks, half marathons, and marathons. We have been there for each other through breakups, health problems, and moves. But also for good things like graduations, new jobs, and promotions. I have no idea how things will turn out next month. I just know that I want to run. To push through the inevitable pain and exhaustion that will come, and take notice of how lucky I am to be exactly where I am. And then binge on waffles afterward.