The air is still and the world is quiet except for the occasional bird song. My own breath and the sound of feet on dirt keep a steady rhythm in my head, a beat that keeps me going, step after step.
I don’t know how many miles in I am but the pain is starting to set in. The miles are getting harder. My feet hurt. My legs are so tired they are almost numb and I worry that they will give out from under me on the descent, so I take it easy. But I’m also pacing off of the two guys ahead of me, and my competitive streak won’t let them get out of sight. I end up gaining on them and catch up on the slow, winding ascent to the last aid station, about 14 miles in.
We’re almost done. I need food but I’m too thirsty to choke much down. I chug cups of Gatorade and chase them with water. Pickles are about the only solid substance I can deal with at the moment. They’ll do.
I chat with familiar faces for a few minutes until the group of runners I’ve been near for the past few miles leaves the aid station, my cue to finish this thing. One more climb, one more descent and I’ll be done.
I wasn’t sure how this day was going to go when it began. I wasn’t exactly rested, I didn’t wake up early enough to properly fuel and prepare this morning and I felt dehydrated from the get-go. But as soon as we started running, the nervousness and uncertainly went away, as it always does. No matter what happens, I’d put forth my best effort, I’d have fun, and the outcome would be what it is.
I felt better than I expected on Spruce Gap, the first and longest climb of the day. I passed a lot of people but also took it easy and reminded myself to cool my jets. We had a long way to go.
The middle of the run is like a blur. Lots of rocks, uphills, downhills, falling into various groups of people along the way, leapfrogging with other runners.
On Charcoal Flats, I wished I was on my bike. It was the only part of the run where I felt that way. These rock gardens would be easier on a bike, I thought as I felt the hotspots start to emerge on my feet. I forced my headspace into one that blocked out the pain. Getting there is one of my favorite parts of running. It is when I feel the strongest, knowing that I can endure when it gets hard.
For me, running in general has been an exercise in pushing through the pain. It isn’t something that came naturally to me. I have put time and work into being stronger and faster and able to run farther. On days like this, I see the fruits of those labors and I feel proud of myself for what I’ve accomplished this year.
The course takes us up another ridge and down a section known as the “Shingletown Cliffs.” It’s a scramble down a big boulder field. We hear the cheers from the aid station at the bottom long before we get there and it adds fuel to the mental fire as we make our way towards the stream below. Volunteers are costumed and little kids are spraying us with squirt guns. It’s a euphoric moment, and I wish I could stay longer, but I down some quick calories and move on.
I was surprised when we turned off the trail and headed straight up yet another boulder field on the lefthand side of the gorge, but I couldn’t help but grin. The hand-over-foot movement up the mountain this way broke up the actual running, a welcome reprieve, even if it was in all actuality a harder method of ascent.
Conversations made the next section pass quickly, but as we neared the last aid station, our group spread out. The miles were catching up to some and others were energized by an eagerness to finish.
On the last descent, down Old Laurel Trail, my quads seized up. My knee started to hurt. I smashed my foot into a rock and felt what I suspected to be a blood blister forming. By the bottom, the people I’d passed on the uphill had all passed me again. I hurt, but I was almost done.
Marci was waiting for me at the road. She’d come to ride and potentially find me on the course. I asked her what time it was. She told me it was a little before noon. I shrieked with glee. This meant that despite the course being harder than I expected, I was still going to finish in under my goal time of 4 hours.
She rode her bike alongside me as I sprinted up the road towards the finish. Her company and the knowledge that I was going to meet my goal gave me some renewed energy, but I was still beat and I felt like puking. I crossed the finish line in 3 hours and 52 minutes with the tank fully drained, the way it should be.