This year has been a challenging one as I have walked with dear ones through valleys of grief, illness, and struggle. Sometimes, in the face of so much hardship the world can seem bleak indeed. What does one do?
As for me, I decided to run an ultra-marathon of a 50k distance. It’s a striking choice because I don’t identify as a runner and my pace is not particularly fast. However, it appealed to me because a 50k felt absolutely impossible and I thought, if I can do this one outwardly impossible thing, perhaps there are other inwardly challenging things I can do as well, like run rugged ridges of heartache.
I kicked off my ambitions this June with the Catamount 25k and even that felt hard. As I approached the last miles, pressing up a rugged hill, I found my mind wondering if the race would ever end.
I turned to another runner and playfully asked, “Is there hope?”
“There is hope,” she affirmed.
I hungrily took those words to heart.
After the 25k, I trained fastidiously for the Blues Cruise 50k. Throughout the process, my body felt like a roller coaster. I felt energized; I felt ravenous; I felt tired; I felt rundown; I pulled a muscle; I felt glorious. Somehow, I racked up my long-mileage days – 20 then 22 then 24 then 25 – until at last I was ready.
On October 6th, the day of the race had come. I gathered with my brother, who ran the race alongside me, at the start-line. On this cool 50-degree day, the other racers and I teetered from one leg to another, just to keep warm. As I moved rhythmically, I joked with my brother. I tightened my vest. I wondered what the day would bring. Would I reach the finish in the time allotted?
Then 8:30 a.m. arrived, and we were … off.
In a manner of speaking. Perhaps the front-runners sprinted off, but the rest of the 362 racers casually walked across the start line and set off in a light jog. We knew we had a long day ahead.
In the first miles, an electric energy filled the racers as we jostled and clumped together, easily putting in the first part of the day. On the smooth single track, we slithered like a snake, packed tight like vertebrae, pressing person by person over each step, and slowing down simultaneously on the hills.
Then an open meadow hit, and I ran out onto the grassy expanse, passing the runners who pace felt much slower than my own.
My brother kept pace, the whole way. By the 3-mile aid station, we ran together.
At the 6-mile aid station, our parents and my partner cheered us joyfully on. Briefly separated, I arrived at the 10-mile aid station and I didn’t even stop because I knew my brother was just ahead. I caught him climbing a hill and we arrived together to the 13-mile aid station to cheerers, our parents, my partner, plastic flamigos, quesadillas, potatoes and endless well-prepared food.
What a gift. Everything felt possible at mile 10.
My brother took off running. I grabbed more potatoes and sprinted behind him.
Life fell into a rhythm: power up hills, run down, power up hills, run down.
However, my brother gained more and more distance, until at last I lost sight of him. I saw him briefly when we arrived at the mile-18 aid station. Then, he was gone.
I turned my attention to my own race, restocking water, retrieving gear from my drop bag and filling my stomach with potatoes.
I braced myself: Only 13 miles left.
Pink socks. That it is all I remember of mile 18-23. I followed someone with neon, knee-high socks. As we crested hills and ran valleys, I resolutely kept my eyes on the pink socks and kept up with her pace. The miles passed by quickly. I shot by Pink Socks right before the mile-23 aid station. After pounding potatoes and refilling water there, I took off. Miles 24-25 flew by. Running downhill, I easily picked up speed and momentum and passed many people.
Then the rain came.
I ran alone as water pelted me. Drop by drop, the water soaked my hair, arms and shirt. I felt annoyed as my energy level dropped along with my temperature and mental stamina. I wore only a tank top and shorts. I felt desperate for an aid station. “It will come,” I told myself. Time dragged on. I ran out of water. I felt like I should have seen an aid station long ago.
When I finally spotted the mile-27 aid station at the bottom of a hill, relief flooded my body. I sprinted down the path and greedily gulped down Gatorade and wolfed down Lay’s potato chips. I refilled my water bottle and steeled myself with the knowledge that only 4 miles remained.
Unfortunately, the break chilled my body. As I returned to the trail, I repeatedly closed and opened my hands with the hopes of warming my body. Luckily, the endless climbs brought heat back into my limbs.
Soon, I found myself running alone in the woods, navigating a gradual uphill climb. I felt really alone. It had been a long time since I had since another runner. I longed for someone to cheer me on. I tried to cheer myself on. I tried to remember all the people who had shared their support and encouragement with me the day before. I tried, but the memory did not bring energy to my body.
I found myself walking even slight inclines (instead of just the steep ones). My pace slowed. I had hoped for a 6 h 30 min or 7 hour completion time. At this point, I gave up on even that. I only wanted to finish.
Eventually, the race course weaved onto a road and the up a long, open hill. I struggled to find the energy to motor uphill but I pressed on, running the inclines the best that I could. At last, I began to see people in the distance behind me, closing in.
Eventually, one man ran past me, encouraging, “Keep going, Joy!”
I startled at his words.
I looked at him and realized we had met earlier in the race at mile 4. Wow, did it feel good to have someone cheering me on at the end. He told me that we had a mile left as he easily pressed ahead. My heart leapt: there was hope!
Soon thereafter, I spilled out onto a road and looked uphill (always a hill!). I saw that, at last, I was nearing the finish. With deep resolve, I sprinted furiously up that hill (take that, hill!) and flew to the finish line … where my parents and my parents stood cheering me on. I … had done it? The clock read 7:02 as I rushed across. I had followed my brother by 14 minutes. With my mind muddled and my bodied wearied, I simply felt relief that I had made it to the very end.
Thinking back to that day, I think of the warm beacon so many provided: the cheerers who endured the rain to encourage us at mile 25, the aid station volunteers who literally fueled our run, the encouragement of those on Facebook and beyond, the awesome photographers, the racer who cheered me on at mile 30 by name, my brother who ran with me, and the race director and club who made this possible.
These are the memories that I cherish on that long, hard, wet and dreary day – that in the midst of it, I experienced warm, comforting beacons and those beacons brought me home, to the end of my 31 miles. Thanks be.
The featured photo of this post was taken by Jim Blandford.