At 5:30 am, the alarm pierced through my deep and blissful sleep. No, I thought, it can’t be 5:30 already. It feels like midnight. It’s pitch black. This bed is far too cozy to get up and gear up for a bus ride in the dark up to the mountain pass and a cold and possibly wet start to an 11-mile trail race. No.
Why do I sign up for this shit?
Fortunately for me, the night before I had predicted this mental train would arrive in the morning and I had laid out everything I needed so I wouldn’t have to think. Then, I went to sleep visualizing myself being light and easy on my feet, climbing up and over the 2500 foot climb.
I went through my morning race rituals, ate my mashed eggs and avocado sprinkled with sea salt, brewed my strong black coffee and off we went to the busses. The start line energy boosted me up. At 7:45 am, that bed was a distant memory. Half the battle at the start line is worrying about wearing and carrying the right stuff. This time, I felt confident in my choices – easy shorts and t-shirt, carrying not much other than my phone/camera, some shot blocks, my Patagonia Houdini jacket in case hell breaks loose, and a small amount of water.
Exactly two weeks prior, I had a shitty final training run and as I awaited the start, I couldn’t shake that nagging feeling of concern. What if I have the same kind of run today? Then I’ll have to walk and that’s that. The stakes are so small, I reminded myself. Nothing more than my own pride and hubris.
I stood at the starting countdown and felt as calm as I had ever felt at the start of the race. I had no time objective whatsoever; I am not a contender. I am a solid middle of the packer. I told Patrick I could be anywhere from 2:45 to as long as 3:00 if that terrible run two weeks ago was a harbinger. With no pressure and visions of my lightness and easiness ingrained in my head, 3…2….1… and I was off.
And this is where I typically cave and lose all my mental training. Because I am surrounded by people pulling out hot, girls in frilly hair bows, and dudes in white cotton knee socks and I think – “they aren’t allowed to be faster than I am.” Therefore I run faster than I should.
But the words of Bill Gamber, co-founder of Big Agnes, reverberated through my head at that moment. I had asked him (Episode 87, The Gear Show) how he could launch a gear company in a market already crowded with established and large brands:
“I don’t think like that. I don’t think about what others are doing, what they are making and if they are copying us. We just want to make good gear and get people out in the mountains. If they are using our gear, that’s great. If they are using others’ that’s fine too as long as they are getting outside.”
And I stopped worrying about Hair Bow Girl and Cotton White Knee Socks.
I found my comfortable stride and began the climb. I heard footsteps approaching behind and offered to let the person pass me and he said, “Your pace is great. I’m good.” A couple of minutes later, he said, “You seem like you know what you’re doing.” I guess I had him fooled. I told my friend this later and she, the second-place finisher in our division was appalled. Someone TALKED to you?
Oh yeah, I explained to her. That’s what the race is like from the middle of the pack. Not only did this guy talk to me, at one point, he actually said, “So what do you do in your free time?” Really? I thought, he wants to make small talk? “Me?” I said. Yes, you. “Can you ask the girl behind you? I’m gasping for life up here.”
I prefer to suffer in silence.
Still running, climbing. Switchback, stream crossing, break out of the trees, climbing. Switchback and WOW, look at that view. We’ve climbed right out of the misty forest into a high alpine meadow flush with peaks all around us. Someone stops for a photo opp (the racers up front aren’t doing that, either). I say “aren’t we so lucky we are able to do this?” Big smiles. Come around the corner – two girls taking a selfie with the rocky spires behind them. This isn’t some pull-off at a National Park; we powered ourselves up here and it is so sweet.
Now I remember why I signed up for this shit.
I pull out my camera to take some video as I run. Everyone back home just has to see this. Keep running. Up and over the saddle in an hour 14 minutes. At this rate, I’m smashing my expectations. Will Patrick even be at the finish line yet?
It’s all downhill from here but I resist the tendency to increase my pace. I still have 5 1/2 miles to go. Take it nice and easy, I tell myself, if you have anything left, you can blow it all out in the last two miles.
Footsteps approach behind me. “Want to pass me?” I call back. “No, this is a perfect pace,” I’m told again. We start chatting. It’s downhill now, that’s more manageable. I can’t see behind me but they are two women. One is celebrating her 62nd birthday that day. And her daughter is the other. We talk about the great race conditions, the Pacific Northwest, camping in our trailers – they just bought an Airstream. We descend. Two others catch up to us. They don’t want to pass either. Not in the mood to talk anymore, I listen to them chat about ultras around the country. At mile 9, I start to feel like I can’t keep up this pace and I have four ladies on my ass. I call back: “I’m starting to suffer now” thinking I’ll just let them all pass me. “NOOOOO you’re doing great. Thank you for pacing us. We are all suffering!” That was the boost I needed – it’s only two more miles.
A dude walking up the trail quietly declares “nice job, ladies, about 200 yards.” Then we can hear the cheers at the finish line. Around the corner, and there on the suspension bridge, lined with cheering and yelling people I was overcome with emotion and reminded myself to keep my shit together. It’s an 11-mile run, for crying out loud. It’s not an Olympic gold medal. There’s Patrick and my friends. I cross the finish. 2:22.
Later, as I sat on the lawn enjoying beer from a mason jar during the awards ceremony, they called out the winner of the 60+ age group. She came from behind me to get her award and stopped along the way to slap me on the shoulder. I looked and it was the mom celebrating her birthday. She was so excited. “This is because of you,” she said.
I spend way too much time being Type A at work, trying to be in the front of the pack. To-do list focused, missions to accomplish, clients to win, revenue goals to beat, podcast listeners to grow.
When I go for a run, I do it to relax. To find peace of mind. When I register for a race, I do it to up my own game. Not to worry about what everyone else is doing. It took me this long to stop being so hard on myself to get better at running too. And to what end? No one cares if you’re winning the Cutthroat Classic. No one remembers you because you placed so well in that ultra. This race is for me. What we do remember is if we had a great time. If we helped that mom win her first medal. If we made great relationships and thanked our lucky stars our feet are able to take us on such epic adventures of our own choosing.
Life from the middle of the pack will do just fine.[ssba]