It was good.
Then it hurt.
Then I cried.
Now I’m grateful.
That’s all I could come up with when I sat down earlier this week to write this post, a report on my experience at the Black Mountain Monster 24 Hour Ultramarathon. Apparently 24 hours is a big thing to process.
Most race reports are presented as a story, and follow a set structure:
Race morning starts out innocent. There’s nervous excitement in the air, and supporters gather around with anticipation.
When the race begins, things come together. You learn about your body, your surroundings, and find a rhythm.
If everything goes right, you continue down the projected path. You eat. You breathe. You begin working with others.
Eventually, though, something will go wrong. You take a misstep or don’t prioritize the right choice. It could lead to a simple hiccup, or it could spiral into something more difficult.
It’s then that you have the first big decision. How do you handle the hardship? You could end everything there. Or fight your way out. Or lean on someone else for support.
What you do at that moment defines the rest of your race.
It gives you courage to fight through the next misstep, or leaves you so drained that the original plan is no longer viable.
Who you have supporting you. How you handle pain and disappointment. What accomplishments and lesson you already have to tap into. They all play into what happens in the end.
It’s almost as if within one single event, you can experience an entire microcosm of life.
The beginning. The good. The ugly. The growth. The result. And the systems you’ve put in place to guide you through it all.
Katie and I arrive Friday evening to set up a canopy tent and table in the “tent city” that surrounds the start of each 5k loop. This is the staging ground for both the crew and all my aid.
One of the best parts about this race is that it starts at 10:00am, which means Saturday is almost a typical morning. I wake up at my normal time, eat a big breakfast, and drink a large cup of joe. I make my way back to the tent city around 9:00am, accompanied by Katie and my dad, who is in town for both the race and a wedding.
Things start out just as expected.
It takes a few laps to get the legs loose, but I’m moving well and feel comfortable. It doesn’t take long before Katie, dad, and I work out a solid system at each aid station pass. I pull in, tell them what I need, hand over a bottle to Katie, and go check in to register the lap. By the time I get back to the tent, my food is ready and bottle filled.
If I don’t stand around to eat, I’m out in a matter of seconds.
Most of the first 10 hours is all about efficiency. I stay ahead of my projected schedule and feel good. Heat and humidity add a layer of challenge, but I’m able to cool down with an ice cold bandana and water.
I find the repetitiveness of each 5k loop to be an advantage, and automatically switch into different gears on each unique section of the course.
Rain hits early evening, but leaves as quickly as it falls. A change of shoes and shirt, and I hardly notice it at all.
As night falls, friends start to arrive. They drink beer, play games, and light sparklers when I hit major milestones. Their presence is very comforting, and surprisingly I’m not tempted to join in on the fun.
I share laps with my dad (the first one in his wedding tux), my cousins Paul and Lisle, local running store owner Peter Ripmaster, and my running buddy Mike, who is out kicking ass in the race himself.
Things are good, the miles and hours keep ticking by.
Everything changes around 1:00am Sunday morning. I start chaffing, and by the time I really notice it, the damage is done. No matter how much lube I shove down my pants, the discomfort is unavoidable.
Laps become slower, and my right calf begins to cramp every time I stop moving.
A freight train passes the course, and even though I can hear it coming and prepare to brace myself, every part of me assumes life is over when the horn screams less than 20 feet away. My self-pride all buts vanishes after my high-pitched screech echoes down the trail.
And I start to fall off pace, more behind schedule with each lap. The doubt creeps in, and I question if reaching my 100 mile goal is still possible.
There are 8 hours left on the clock, and all I want to do is take a nap.
As the sun flirts with the horizon, I give up on anything more than 100 miles. The new goal is simply to fight my way to the 100 mile mark and quit. Regardless of how much time is left on the clock. As I reach the next aid station, dad is waiting with news:
Dad: “I think you’re in first place.”
Me: “Seriously? I don’t think that’s a good thing.”
Dad: “Why not? I thought it’d pick up your spirits.”
Me: “Because now I feel like I have to keep running…”
You look great!
I think you’re moving better than the other runners!
He slowly plants the seed of trying to win the race. I say nothing, far from convinced.
Little do I know that everyone back at camp has already decided I have to fight for it. I haven’t won a race since elementary school PE, and they aren’t going to let me give up this easily.
I learn during the next lap that I actually hadn’t been in first until passing someone around mile 93. That sets off a firestorm of excitement with the crew. They begin tracking when other runners leave for each lap, and how much time I have to spare.
I set out by myself on lap 32, which brings me to 99.2 miles. In my head I’m going to finish this lap, walk the last mile to reach 100 with Katie and sit on the side of the trail drinking beer until the 24 hours sounds off.
Within minutes of starting that lap, I’m on the side of the trail vomiting. Maybe it’s the nerves, maybe it’s the coffee, maybe it’s just my body giving me one last middle finger. I keep on. A beer and chair await.
About halfway through I run into a friend, Roger, who’s out running the course looking for people he knows. We share a mile or two before Paul comes barreling towards us in the other direction:
Paul: Katie wants you to know that second place left about 10 minutes after you and was looking strong.
Me: Ok, tell her to have everything ready for me. I don’t want to stop between laps.
The decision was made. Game on.
Without thinking, my brilliant plan to drink the remaining time away is out the window. I need to keep moving.
Katie and my dad wait with water and lube, ready to join me for my last lap. I quickly check-in and set out for another 5k. I’m moving slow, but I’m still moving, and unless we hear otherwise, I think that will be enough to pull off a win.
Right at 23 hours, I hit mile 100. Out of nowhere come tears of joy and release. We hug, share the moment, and keep going. The last few miles are a fumbling mess, but miles nonetheless.
With about 25 minutes left on the clock, I finish that loop and find out no one will have enough time to catch me.
Out comes the chair and beer. We did it.
A Microcosm of Life
On Monday evening Katie shared this idea with me:
I feel like we just experienced an entire microcosm of your life during a 24 hour period.
I run these races to chase personal goals. While in many respects the results depend on me and my efforts, I’m nothing without the support that surrounds me.
It’s my own preparation that helps the beginning run smoothly, and it’s who I interact with on a day-to-day basis that carries me during the good.
But as I’m out there, suffering through the ugly, it’s what my loved ones are doing behind the scenes that keep me moving forward.
And it’s them and the support they offer that ultimately shape the growth and the result.
Just like in life, Katie was the rock that kept me going. And her, along with my dad, family and friends, were there to support me, hold me accountable, and celebrate in the outcome.
I’m lucky to be able to run these types of events. We’re all lucky to be runners at all.
Just like in life, our health and bodies can and will fail.
It’s who else we have, the people and community around us, who are there to keep us going when they do.
Fight for them.
Your race, and life, depend on it.
Photo credits: Erin Frazier, Katie Hay, Lisle Gwynn Garrity, Paul Gwynn Garrity, Stephanie Moore