Yesterday I did something I never thought I would do: I ran a 25 Kilometer race. Without. Stopping. No joke. My legs kept moving for the entire race, carrying me up short but steep ascents before reliably floating me back down between precariously placed cacti and over dirt, rocks and granite. It’s an incredible thing to realize that, with proper fuel and adequate training, human bodies have the ability to do pretty amazing things.
Of course, living with my husband for 10 years has made me aware of this reality as an armchair observer (and when I say “armchair observer” I mean it literally, like full-on sitting in a LAZ-Y Boy holding one of those nifty claw contraptions to help me grab the remote control while observing. Hard.). I’m sure it’s no epiphany to many of you self-motivated endurance athletes that your body has the potential to be a veritable machine. But for a layman like me, whose previous idea of “endurance” was binge-watching Game of Thrones, it was revolutionary to realize that the pursuit of physically ambitious goals can be broken down into the simple equation of desire+work, given the variable of health.
It was the McDowell Mountain Frenzy event put on by Aravaipa racing, set in the rugged desert mountains of Fountain Hills, Arizona. I really had no idea what to expect, and my goal for yesterday’s race teetered between merely finishing the 16 mile course without stopping/puking/falling, to laying the smackdown and winning the whole damn thing. (Like I said, I am very inexperienced in the running realm.)
My husband gave me sage advice on the car ride down to Phoenix, amid the smooth sounds of Kindle-induced sibling rivalry and a screaming sleepless baby: try to hang with the lead women and see how long you go before blowing up. After all, I had absolutely nothing to lose and this initiatory race could be used as a reference point for future races. (Ummm, by the way, did I mention that I officially signed up for Transrockies next summer? 120 miles over 6 days, with 20,000 feet of climbing? Yeah… I’m shocked too.)
The gun went off, and I quickly weaseled my way through the single-track crowd of runners, trying to heed my husband/coach’s advice to stick with the leaders. Severely unaware of race etiquette, my Canadian-ness emerged in full force as I “sooooried” up the line until the 3 lead women were in view. (I definitely didn’t win the race, but I may go down as one of the most apologetic passers in American trail race history. Like, I was SO sorry.)
For the first few miles I felt weightless, invigorated by the delicious amount of oxygen in the air, at least compared to running in my usual hypoxia of Flagstaff’s 7,000 feet. It was overcast with a slight drizzle falling from the desert sky, and I felt good enough to admire the beautifully furrowed topography while still making sure not to faceplant in said terrain. In fact, I felt great for nearly 10 miles and actually began harboring such delusional thoughts as “maybe I could podium.” Ha. Ha. Ha. (Yeah, yeah, I know… “First learn stand, then learn fly. Nature rule, Daniel-san.”)
You guys, I can now say that I officially understand some of your fancy running terms: “blowing up”, “bonking”, “hitting the wall”, because I did those things. With gusto. I went from cruising relatively effortlessly for the first 90 minutes to seriously wondering whether I could finish the last 6 miles. I began dissecting my race into “winds”- as in “Hey, I got my 2nd wind!” Every time I felt like stopping, I convinced myself that my next wind was right around the corner. “Come on, Steph. Don’t stop. Your next wind is coming. I can feel it.” In the end, I used 9 winds.
My husband’s advice on the circular nature of pain, which I’ve written about before, was on my mind constantly. Each time I saw a climb approaching, I told myself that the pain would exist only momentarily, then wane into a descent, giving me enough time to prepare for the next sufferfest. I don’t know if it was a mind-over-matter deal, but I really did feel the ebb and flow of pain and relief, even in the deepest throes of discomfort. This idea, along with my generous amount of self-given “winds”, allowed me to finish the race without stopping.
I crossed the finish line definitely NOT in podium position, but equally proud of myself for having passed my previously established pain threshold. I dug deep, as cliched as it sounds, and found within myself a new base of discomfort (as in, I know I can survive hurting THIS bad, so what’s next?) I was handed an awesome Aravaipa finisher mug and walked over to my beamingly proud husband and three half-naked and fully muddied children.
I left the race with a new understanding of mental fortitude, and a budding sense of belonging into a new world: the unparalleled camaraderie of the running community. As I was passed by handfuls of runners after my decline at mile 10, I noticed how each and every one gave me words of encouragement, advice or even a subtle cheer as they cruised by. For the first time, I felt like I actually belonged to this running world, rather than being a distant onlooker as I have been for the past decade.
But perhaps the most poignant takeaway from yesterday’s race was found in the car ride home, when my inability to go to the restroom before the race rectified itself with a fury.
“I gotta go. NOW,” I looked at my husband frantically. There was over thirty minutes left to our car ride, and we were surrounded by nothing but a narrow shoulder and miles of flat desert. Not even a large cactus to hide behind. No rest stops, nothing. I would have to hold it.
“We can pull over if you want,” he offered, but other than the sparse-to-no cover, I was afraid that if I squatted down somewhere, my quads would seize and I’d be stuck in the high desert with my pants around my ankles. I shook my head.
“I’ll tell you something Brian Tinder told ME that Ian Torrence once taught HIM about ultrarunning,” he said, laughing because he knew all about what I was going through.
“What?” I replied, too tired to follow the pedigree of advice being told to me. I felt like I’d learned enough about running, racing and mental grit for the day. Now I just needed to GO.
“Think beyond the distance,” he said with a hint of a chuckle.
“I’m not RACING, Rivs. I just have to use the freaking bathroom!” I exclaimed.
“I know, but think of it this way: if I’m feeling tired 25 miles into a 50 mile race, I imagine that I have to race 70 miles. That way, running 50 miles no longer seems that far. So, if you have to hold it until Flagstaff, just pretend we’re driving to Winslow, an extra hour away. It’ll make it easier. I promise.”
I thought about it for a while, summoning the newly established pain threshold and mental prowess I had gained in the race. Then I took a deep breath.
“Think beyond the distance,” I said while nodding, subtly gripping the sides of my seat as we laughed.