Enough time has passed since Run Rabbit Run 100 I can walk up – and down! – stairs without bracing my arms against the railings. I can sleep without shooting pains in the bottom of my feet waking me up. My appetite hasn’t returned yet, but it will, and then at some point I’m sure my partner will find me sitting on top of our kitchen counter eating brownies straight from the pan.
There is a lot to process from those 35 hours, 50 minutes, and 20 seconds and so many angles from which I could write about what I experienced. What’s on my mind the most isn’t the why of it (Why I ran/hiked 100+ miles and why those miles give meaning in my life) though those questions are there. What’s on my mind is the most surprising thing about how I responded: How strongly I wanted to quit, and how early in the race those feelings hit me.
I’m not a quitter. I’m not a quitter to a fault. A few of my biggest regrets of my life have to do with not tapping out when a certain course of action was hurting me. The realization that sometimes it is okay to back out of a goal is something I’ve had to learn.
So when I was only five or six miles into Run Rabbit and I started having these thoughts like, “how can I get out of this?” I was shocked. Sure, I suspected I would eventually want to quit, but I was hoping that wouldn’t happen until at least the last quarter. Not in the single digits. After all, I had made it through of Never Summer 100K without once wanting to stop.
The race had started with a four mile, 3,000-foot climb up a double black diamond ski slope. By the time we dropped down the backside of the mountain, my legs had seized up. They were already tight and painful and I couldn’t help but think how they would feel after another 100 miles. Other runners whizzed by me. I perseverated on how many miles I had left, how much climbing, how many hours. The thoughts were unstoppable and nearly impossible to cope with.
A friend had warned me this would happen. He said 100 miles is a “Jedi Mind Fuck” but in hindsight I realize I didn’t believe him.
Somehow I worked through the desperation of those early miles and rebounded for the teens and twenties, only to hit another bout of anguish in the thirties.
I came into the aid station at mile 42 just after sun set. I was already cold and so very tired. I couldn’t imagine I wouldn’t get to sleep that night and I still had almost another 24 hours to race. I said to my sister, Kristyn, as she helped me change into pants in the bathroom, that I wanted to quit. Nope! She said. Back outside, my entire crew worked together to get me fully dressed and prepared for the night. They stood me on my feet and sent me on my way – now with a pacer to accompany me so that I didn’t get lost – without even giving me the time to figure out how to tell them I was done.
Over the next day, here are some of the many things I said to my crew and pacers: I hate you, Why are you all ganging up on me, I can’t.
I had thought I commissioned my team to help me with the logistics of the race. To get me in and out of aid stations quickly, to feed me, to make sure I was dressed appropriately for the drastically different temperatures day to night to day. I didn’t know it but what I needed them for the most was to be a placeholder for the part of me that wanted to finish this race so badly. I needed them to be the reminder of my passion and determination.
The 106 miles pitted my body and mind against my spirit. Physically I was broken ten times over. My legs were trashed by the half way point. My heels and balls of my feet were bruised. By 24 hours a severe bout of nausea left me unable to eat. I was dizzy, weak, dehydrated, and exhausted.
Mentally, I was just as bad off. I had fought myself for so many miles (I can’t do this, I have too far to go, everyone out here is stronger/faster/tougher than me…), and the only reprieve came in the eighties when I reached an exhaustion so deep I couldn’t think anymore. I started hallucinating and dreaming while I hiked. But at least the negative thoughts slowed.
In the fog of so much discomfort, it was impossible to stay connected to the part of me that wanted to finish. But when I looked at my pacer, Anthony, leading the way in front of me on the trail, he reflected my own resolve. His fast pace matched how much he knew I wanted to be a 100-mile ultra-marathoner.
In a moment of clarity at mile 77, I had told Anthony, “I want this.” I say it was a moment of clarity because it was the first time I could hold both truths 1) finishing would be excruciating and that 2) it was still worth it to me. Saying “I want this” to him was my way of giving him permission to push, and to push hard, the next time I fell apart.
At mile 93, after following Anthony’s heels through the forest for miles and miles, we came into an aid station and I started crying, the kind of hysterical sobbing that threatens to keep you from breathing. It was 3:35 in the afternoon; I was five minutes behind pace. (I had actually made up time since the previous stop, but I was in such a negative mind space I couldn’t focus on that) I still had 13 miles to go and I would have to move even faster to come in on time.
The worst part was that I knew it was my last chance to drop. After the aid station we’d be heading back into the mountains without cell reception or an access point. I had seen others drop from that same aid station the last time I had been there in the middle of the night. A jeep had picked them up, and that image of them huddled together, blankets around their shoulders, hot beverages in their hands, haunted me. Those guys had quit and had found comfort and I could be one of them with a simple declaration. Out of all the damning things in my head during the race, that was the worst.
As I sobbed, an aid station volunteer led me to a chair, squatted in front of me, and began rubbing my (sweaty, disgusting) quads. Anthony was standing a few feet away, waiting to lead me up the next mountain. She asked what was going on. I’m not sure what I fully said, but it included the point that I knew her aid station was the last place I could quit. She looked at me straight in the eyes and said, “You can’t quit here.” She meant she wouldn’t let me. I wanted to yell at her “Who’s side are you on?” But I knew the answer. Anthony and the nice volunteer lady were on MY side. They were only reflecting the determination they saw within me but that I couldn’t access. I was too lost in the pain to tap into it, but they could. They once again stood me up and sent me on my way.
Out of 297 runners who began the race, 141 DNF’ed – did not finish. The race director dropped at mile 99 (yes, running his own course). Before the race, a filmmaker had interviewed 10 elite runners for a documentary but all 10 dropped.
I could have made the tally 142 DNF’s, but I didn’t. I finished with nine minutes to spare, just as the sun was setting on a second night.
Here are a few things that don’t last 36 hours: phone batteries, GPS watches, iPods, deodorant. Somehow I outlasted all those things.
Of those who dropped, I’m sure many had injuries or illnesses that forced the decision. But I’m sure others were “just” exhausted, cold, and tired like I was. The only difference was that they didn’t have people to stand them up and push them out of aid stations.
Ultimately my team couldn’t make me finish. They couldn’t physically force me to hike and run all those miles. But they could hold up a mirror in front of me during the times I couldn’t feel my own resolve.
I wonder how often this process happens in non-running life. We think we want something, but when it gets tough, we get lost in the struggle. It’s too long, too hard, and we’re not good enough, we think. We quit because we forget the reasons that made us want that thing in the first place. It’s easy for so many of us to think we can get through on our own, but so often we can’t. Sometimes we all need friends to help hold us accountable to ourselves.