Once again, through the wonders of peer pressure, I found myself out in the cold, freezing my tuckus off, waiting for a race start. The Pere Marquette Trail Run — the race whose motto is “No wimps and no whiners” — was going to be 7.5ish miles of climbing and descending (i.e. 7.5ish miles of pain), by the sounds of it. We were sitting around the fire, trying to keep from freezing pre-race, and I shook my head at myself and smiled, knowing that I’d be warm and cozy at home if it weren’t for these crazy people that I called friends. And that despite the appeal of my couch, I wouldn’t have it any different than to be here with them.
Of course, that was before the race. Let’s just say that over the next 2+ hours, it’s possible that I violated the “no whining” rule, you know, once or perhaps twice. Just a note to make it clear how ill-prepared I was for this race — the last time I ran 7.5 miles was when I raced my last marathon. In 2011. My very flat 2011 marathon. So, yea. I knew I could finish, but I also knew I’d be slow.
The race didn’t pull any punches — the first mile contained about 400 feet of climbing, right off the bat. Just in case I didn’t know what I was getting into, the course reduced me to a walk even before I started sweating. I was on the tail-end of the racers — we were all in the last wave to go off, and I was in the back of that last wave — and there were a handful of us smiling and joking about the climb. Good times, good times. As the climb continued, we got strung out and by the end of the first mile, I only saw glimpses of other runners, most ahead, but a few behind me.
I have to admit, it was kind of a weird feeling being so isolated and yet knowing I was in a race. Back in my former life, I was consistently in the top 10% of my age group, usually, so I was never without a crowd of people. And even now, there’s usually a bunch of people who amble along at my current pace. But this particular race — maybe it’s the length or the hills — doesn’t attract a whole lot of slow runners, as I was to find out.
But it was a gorgeous place to run. Or walk/hike/run, which is what I was actually doing. Being slow meant that I could occasionally stop and take pictures — some of the climbs forced me to have to catch my breath anyway, might as well snap a few photos while I was at it, right? And while it was cold outside, it was cold in the way that runners like — as soon as you get going, everything warms up and it’s quite comfortable. It reminded me why I used to really enjoy winter running. And my strategy worked well: hike the uphills, run the downhills and do the best I could with running on the (very few) level sections.
Things started to go downhill (ha! I’m punny!) somewhere just before the 4 mile mark. I was feeling okay, but tiring quickly and it soon struck me that I was only about halfway done. I think if someone had been watching me, they would have seen my shoulders slump dramatically, like I was a teenager being told, no, they couldn’t go to that party where all the super-popular people were going to be even if it meant that would make them a social pariah. You remember how that goes, right?
Regardless, my mood took a hit, but I wasn’t whining quite yet. I was getting cold — I hit a section that was windy, and that cut through me like the Snowmiser from the Christmas cartoon — but the hills weren’t quite as bad. Plus, I might go uphill at the speed of a grandma with a walker, but I can descend like a bat out of hell. Or a bat out of someplace much colder than hell, in this instance.
Throughout all of this, I didn’t see more than a few other runners. One woman, who had done something bad to her knee and was limping to the aid station, provided me with some much-needed small talk while I walked with her until the aid workers came. While I ordinarily don’t mind being on my own, I was starting to realize that I missed having people around me to chit chat with when the going got a little tough. Again – this race was unlike any other than I had done recently.
Back to the race. I moved on from the last aid station, which I believe was at around 5.5 miles, and my attitude soured. I was tired, I still had two miles to go, and I was cold. I knew there were very few people behind me, though, so I kept moving because I didn’t want them to catch me. For whatever reason, my ego had hooked itself on the idea that as long as I wasn’t the last to finish, this would be a victory (completing ignoring the fact that simply being there, taking on this really tough course and finishing in whatever place, would be a victory). Head down, one foot in front of the other. It felt like a marathon death march.
I came out of the woods from one trail, saw the lodge where the finish line was, and was then directed to go back into the woods to finish off the race. I knew I had about 1.5 miles left to go, so I gamely struck back out. That section? That climb was the work of the devil. There was a part where stone stairs had been helpfully placed, but for a short person like me, they were quite the challenge. I started wondering whether I was going to need some technical climbing gear to finish this race out (okay, so perhaps I exaggerate, but this might have been one of my whining incidents). There was a guy taking race pictures on the trail — he told me that once I got to the top of the stairs, it was mostly downhill from there. I latched onto that thought as if my life depended on it.
The stairs almost killed me, or at least killed my desire to live, but I finally reached the top. I came out of the trail onto a limestone clearing and I saw 3 other trails and nothing to tell me which one I was supposed to take. As a racer, it’s always my job to know the course, but I’ve never had to worry about this and so I didn’t on this day, either. But there I stood — one path curled back around kind of the way I came, which seemed like a reasonable path to take. One path went further uphill and away, and I decided that even if that WAS the race course, I wasn’t doing it. The third trail was off ahead of me and seemed to head further out. Remember, I had just come from the lodge where the finish line was — that was behind me — and I knew I didn’t have much more than a mile to go.
I made a guess and started to head down the other trail that curled back towards the lodge, figuring that even if it wasn’t right, I wouldn’t screw myself up too much. I didn’t go down too far — probably about an eighth of a mile — and then as I kept going down, I was less able to keep my bearings and decided to double back and just take the trail that I knew would take me back to the lodge even though it wasn’t the course. At this point, I was too cold and tired to mess around with getting myself lost or further away from where I was supposed to be.
I popped out of that trail back into the limestone clearing and two safety-orange vested people were coming from the stone stairs trail — they were the race sweepers — the people responsible for following the last runner. They directed me to the correct trail (not the uphill one, luckily, but the one that seemed to go away from where I wanted to be) and forward I went. They were really nice and encouraging, but all I wanted to do was put distance in between myself and them. Even though I know better than to feel this way, I was embarrassed to be that last runner.
I was headed downhill, so all was good. Even exhausted, I could run downhill. Of course, it wasn’t all like that. I would run, then have to walk when the trail turned slightly uphill. I hung my head, trying not to let it all get to me, feeling myself start to fall apart.
I saw a guy ahead of me and I made him my target. I could beat him. He was being tentative on the downhills, so I became as reckless as he was careful, gained on him, passed him and tried to put distance between us. With a quarter mile or so to go, we hit the flat before the finish line. No longer going downhill and having run out of gas about 2 miles back, he probably had the same idea I did about not being last, picked up his pace, passed me and I had absolutely no answer.
Finally, I came around the corner with the finish line in sight. There were very few people around, but my friends where there whooping it up and cheering for me — I absolutely loved seeing them there. It’s such a balm to the soul to know that there are people who support me, encourage me and know that even though I might be slow, I’m always out there doing the best I can.
And despite that, the shame monster in my head was unrelenting. I crossed the finish line, tears in my eyes, and could only think about how badly I felt because they were there freezing waiting for me to come in. My lizard brain told me in no uncertain terms that this isn’t something I should have been doing, that I should be in better shape, that I should be faster, that I didn’t deserve the love that these friends were so freely giving me.
All that is absolutely wrong, of course. I know this. Here’s how wrong this is — if I came in with exactly the same finish time, but there were people behind me still, I would have been elated with my performance! I knew going in that the course was really challenging, and I set a goal for myself … and I beat that pace goal by 1:50m/m. What’s not to be proud of about that? And frankly, being the last to cross the finish line only means that I started AND finished this bitch of a race. Just like everyone else. In fact, I did more since I did some ad hoc sightseeing in the middle of the race when I didn’t know where I was going.
It took me a bit to collect myself and calm myself down. It didn’t help that I was absolutely chilled to the bone and probably didn’t eat or hydrate enough while I was out there. As we drove to lunch, I told those voices to take a hike (see – still had a sense of humor about it!) and leave me alone. They may have ruined my race finish for me, but I certainly wasn’t going to let them ruin the rest of my day — not when I had such awesome friends to spend time with.
The lesson out of all of this? No matter how much progress I think I’m making in terms of being okay with no longer being speedy or in shape, I’m still not all the way there with accepting myself. This is tough work! But I’ll continue working away at it. I’ll continue being peer pressured into races that I think are absolute craziness. And I won’t have it any other way.