My Garmin buzzes and I glance down. 27 miles it says! With a “wohoo” and a high-five, my running partner and I celebrate our official entry into the ultra-running arena. This is just the boost I need as we are heading down the hot, hard, seemingly endless pavement of Garden Creek Road. Our quest for the finish line of the River Of No Return 50k seems once again attainable. Only 4 miles to go, and they are absolutely, the toughest 4 miles of the day.
Funny how a day can change you. As we assembled at the start line earlier that morning, I was more nervous than I expected I would be. The nerves, along with a stressful week was undoubtedly the cause of the migraine I would carry with me for the next 12 miles. And despite 6 months of training, I felt terribly out of place as I stood there shivering with all those ultra runners, waiting for the start. I think of my mother, the marathon runner. She’s been gone 15 years now. But if she were still on this earth, she’d be right over there, waving a sign and cheering me on. In a way, I suppose this is her fault. Watching her train and run those races as I grew up must have rubbed off on me after all.
As we start, I can feel the excitement in the air and I let out a few hoots and hollers as we head out of the park (that trait is also from my mother). This is a special race for me on so many levels-my first 50k, (actually my first race longer than a half-marathon), racing in my hometown, and the company of so many friends, including my dear friend, Gwen who just happens to be my running partner. We have spent months training together. Through injuries and all the conflicting demands of life with family, kids and work, we have persevered, stuck to our training schedules (mostly), and arrived at the start line ready to conquer this course and collect our jackets!
The first 2 1/2 miles along the highway are fabulous! An endless string of runners along a trail I’ve probably run hundreds of times. What an awesome and humbling sight! As we reach the Interpretive Center and begin our climb, I am reminded that this where the work begins. The beauty of the morning and the company of all the other runners are a nice distraction. We reach the top of the switchbacks and notice a group of runners stopped taking pictures. I glance over my shoulder and see our beautiful valley, basking in the early morning sunlight. I never get tired of that view! One of the the runners is wearing a t-shirt that says, “Pain We Love“. Hmm…I wonder if perhaps they have done this before.
After a brief downhill and stop at a water trough to dip our hats, we begin the second climb which we not-so-lovingly refer to as “the Demoralizer”. This is a tough one for us, but at least we still have fresh legs. We hike and eat, trying not to focus on the headache. Soon enough, we reach the top. Now a welcome gentle downhill to the Birch Creek Aid Station. We are greeted by cheers, food, and smiling faces. After a short stop and a hug from the Race Director’s daughter, we hit the trail and begin the climb to Keystone.
I believe we hiked most of that mountain, stopping only to snap a picture here and there. I feel as though my head will explode from the pain of my migraine, or I may throw up. Neither sounds like a very attractive option. My running partner is full of words of encouragement. I believe if I had been alone, I may have just curled up in a ball and not moved. But, she keeps me going. After many prayers and ridiculously silly conversation to divert my mind, we finally hear the clanking of the bells that can only mean we are upon the Keystone Aid Station.
More food, friends, hugs and off we go to Bayhorse. The downhill is a welcome relief from the climbing. Within a few minutes the leaders begin passing us, heading back up to Keystone. This turned out to be my favorite part of the race. Seeing those strong front-runners powering up that mountain, passing friends, getting and giving high-fives, hugs and words of encouragement. I realize that at some point, my migraine has left me! Then we spot Bayhorse, our half-way mark. We are greeted by our kids and my husband who are so excited to see us. As I run into the aid station, I feel fantastic – like I could run forever!
After what I’m sure is way too much time spent at Bayhorse, we begin the climb back up. Nothing we have done up until now has been as tough as what lies ahead. The climb is relentless and soon enough my legs are feeling like 50 lb weights. A snake crosses my path and I can barely move fast enough to get out of it’s way. I am sure that they must have lengthened the course somehow….where is the top of the mountain?
Finally, we are back at the Keystone Aid Station. We graze and visit too long, then agree to head out. It’s all downhill from here! “We’ve got this” we say. The pounding of the downhill brings with it a new kind of pain – pain we love? My feet hurt, my legs, my hips, my toes and I believe my toenails hurt. Can toenails hurt? I’m not sure what got us down that hill, but I do know I have not acted so silly since Junior High. Everything seemed terribly funny and everything hurt so much. Did I say that already?
When we hit Garden Creek Road we rejoiced! We are getting so close. In a few miles we stop at a well-placed hose to cool ourselves off before hitting that hot pavement that lies ahead. I check my watch, amazed at our time. Our goal is 9 hours. Even with too many stops and much walking, we will be well ahead of that. More hugs from our kids, and our friend Dave has caught up to us, lifting our spirits.
We have not “run” in quite some time. We agree to shuffle down the road. “Do we have to?” Gwen asks. Yes, we can do this! We shuffle along not talking much because we are both so exhausted. It seems to take forever to reach the greenhouses, but we finally do. Our kids are there to accompany us the rest of the way. My son who is 9 rides his bike along with me. I tell him to please talk to me. “Ok mom, so how are you feeling? Is this fun? Will you run the 108K next year?” He says. I tell him to talk to me about anything, except running. I believe he recounted the storyline of Diary of A Whimpy Kid to me, but it was enough to keep my mind off the pain.
I am now at the Golf Course. My dear friend Cherie is cheering, waving a sign and giving me a giant hug. Now I know I can’t quit. I am energized and actually went from a shuffle to a slow trot. Every step hurts….pain we love. We hit the “Y” and there is my 6-year old to run me in. He takes off WAY too fast. There is no way I can keep up with him, but I sure appreciate his enthusiasm! Crossing that finish line felt amazing. 8 hours 14 minutes! It felt wonderful to be done! How sweet to have my boys right there with me, my husband snapping pictures, friends cheering, and more friends crossing the finish line right behind me. I felt mom there with me too. She would have said, “I always knew you could do it”.
As I lie around on the lawn, stuffing my face and laughing with my friends and family, reflecting on the journey we just took, I feel like I belong here with all these ultra runners. That is, until the 108k runners start coming in….