Last week I joined my cousin for a hike up Lookout Mountain, a popular climb near my home in North Carolina.
She’s just months away from graduating college, and the nerves and excitement leading up to her next phase of life, finding a job, moving to a new location, and leaving friends, are consuming her thoughts.
That mixture of anxiety and excitement, albeit on a smaller scale, is one runners know well.
She is a few months away from graduation, I was a few days away from running the Thomas Jefferson 100k in Charlottesville, Virginia. She has been working hard and building up to this moment for the past several years, it’s been my my focus for the past several months.
As we climbed the mountain, our conversation stumbled its way to the power of outward positivity.
How even when you’re feeling discouraged or anxious on the inside, faking it on the outside can in return have a positive effect on your outlook.
She is trying to convince herself that everything will work out after graduation, and is doing it through strong, positive poses, smiles, and words. Side note if she’s reading this: Everything will work out!
Chasing Your Tail
Early Friday afternoon I load up the car with a few pairs of running shoes and a bin full of gear, and take off for Virginia. There, I’ll meet my friends David and Skylar, who are making the trip just to hang out and lend their legs and support on Saturday.
I make it in time for the pre-race brief, grab my swag bag (my first ever to include beer!), and meet up with Skylar and David for tacos and Tecate before calling it an early night.
By 5:00 am the next morning, I and about 50 or so others take off, headlamps torching bright, through the fog of light rain and early morning darkness to start our first of 7 loops around the course.
The TJ100k runs entirely inside the beautiful Walnut Creek Park, on 9 miles of windy, typical East Coast trails. Half way through each loop we’re greeted by a team of volunteers at aid station one. The second is located at the start/finish. We will repeat that loop 7 times before reaching the finish line for a crossing.
My goal for the day is to keep as many loops as possible, including time at the aid stations, under 1:45. If I can do that, I’d be competitive within the top 10 and done in time to nap before dinner with the guys.
I know from halfway through lap 1 that things are going to be tougher than I thought. The trails were muddy and hillier than I had envisioned, and more importantly, my legs don’t have the pep I’ve recently come to expect.
Nonetheless, by the time I finish lap two, the sun has risen, the rain has stopped, and I’m still on pace.
Early into lap three things take their first major downturn. Within a matter of minutes, my stomach completely flips. It starts as simple nausea, so I follow my typical protocol of salt, water, and walking. Quickly that nausea turns to pain, which turns to me on the side of the trail dry heaving gels.
I can’t get anything, including water, to go down, and I come through the start/finish area about 8 minutes off pace.
There, I quickly swap out a pair of shoes and take off for the 4th lap, but about half a mile later, I pull off the trail to relieve myself.
I’ve never peed blood before during a race, but had read plenty of reports from runners who would call it a day after doing so.
Finding Positivity When There Isn’t Any
Immediately I think my day is over. Just 30 miles in to the race, I know this day will bring my first Did Not Finish. Too ashamed to turn around, I decide to walk to the mid-loop aid station and call it there.
The next 30 minutes of walking and light jogging are overwhelmed with a sense of disappointment and embarrassment. My mom and friends are on their way to the starting area at that very moment, and have planned on giving up the rest of their day to support my efforts.
And I’m going to show up having just dropped out.
By the time I reach that aid station, I able to consume a lot of water and fuel, and even though the rain is picking back up, my stomach is settling. I actually feel better than I have all day.
Desperate for at least a small win, I decide to jog out the rest of the loop and speak to the medic once back at the starting area.
Immediately upon arrival, my spirits are lifted. Just seeing my friends and mother welcoming me is a giant relief. I pull them aside, tell them what is going on, and ask for advice. As expected, they urge me to talk to the medic, even if he is going to tell me to quit running.
To my surprise, he isn’t phased. Dehydration he says. My kidneys aren’t tender, so he doesn’t think it’s serious. With the promise to check in after each lap, he gives me the go-ahead to keep running.
I’m surprised and grateful, and in a matter of minutes, both Skylar and David join me for the 5th loop around the park.
So inwardly focused on my nausea and urine, I hadn’t smiled or expressed one positive thought in hours. Suddenly, things are looking up. The entire loop fills with chipper chatter and banter.
Just being surrounded with their fresh, positive energy, and being forced to engage in it, changes everything about the experience.
I’m no longer facing my first DNF, but working towards a near certain finish.
Chest Puffed, Standing Proud
In my recent Black Mountain Marathon report I talk about how encouraging others encourages myself. It’s a tactic so basic, but powerful.
I can’t say I was great at encouraging others during this race, and the mud, slow pace, and slight nausea I could never fully shake, remained an eternal struggle the entire day.
But outwardly, positivity and encouragement are everywhere. With my friends and my mother. With the aid stations, race directors, and awesome volunteers. I do my best to be part of that.
As the afternoon turns closer to evening, and I’m about to head out on my last lap, I think back on that conversation with my cousin.
She stood proud and insisted that everything would fall in to place with her after graduation.
I puff my chest, high-five my mom, and take off up the trail insisting that I will finish strong.
David and Skylar pass me off that last lap like the professional tag-team pacers that they are. With each climb, decent, and slippery flat, they fill my head with that insistent positivity.
I cross the line in just under 14 hours to the joyous welcome from race directors Andy Jones-Wilkins and John Anderson, my mother, and everyone else out supporting runners at the finish.
Sometimes Things Don’t Go As Planned
Sometimes, things don’t go as planned, but with a little positivity, they still turn out great.
Photo Credits: John Anderson and Betsy Neff Hay