The race really begins with the preparation.
Berkshire Botanical Garden
The day before the race, Matt and I arrived at the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, MA to stretch our legs.
We drank in the quaking aspens, the pond full of water lilies, and the blooming big leaf magnolia. This magnolia has leaves bigger than your arm, and petals bigger than your face.
I stared at the gardens full of blooming peonies.
Last Friday, I had arrived at the Arnold Arboretum after the peonies had already peaked and gone. I had waited all year to see them and I had missed them!
Yet, at the Berkshire Botanical Garden, I saw my friends at last! Here, the peonies burst into fresh flowers, full of tissue paper petals and bold inner stamens. Dozens of white petals crowded onto one bloom.
Matt and I also made sure to check out the best benches – napping by the lily pond, sprawling in the stone-columns-turned-into-bowl-chairs, and resting in the hidden shade of a linden tree. Matt has a good eye for benches!
Eyes filled and legs loosed, we knew that it was time to carbo load!
We drove to Berkshire Mountain Pizzeria and devoured a large vegan pizza.
Stomachs filled, we drove into Pittsfield State Forest, driving around divots, and missing giant potholes on their unmaintained road.
Thankfully, we arrived safely at our campsite. Situated at the back of the row, our site had a lot of privacy. It also had a side path down to the creek, where the water gushed down in a series of cascades. Nearby, just above the creek, was a flat spot for a tent. Wow. We set up our tent there. This spot was the most scenic place that I had camped.
The rushing water put us to bed. I was asleep by 7:30 p.m.
On Saturday, at 5 a.m., I awake to finish my sermon. I love writing on my laptop while sitting on a picnic bench under the trees. The scene seems perfect. Until raindrops start falling … on my laptop. I duck into my car. I try to write as I crane my head all the way down to see the laptop on my lap. After a rugged night in a tent, my neck screams in protest. Hm. I don’t think I can force my neck into this sharp angle. For an hour, I play a game of wait for the rain to stop, then bring out my laptop, then realize it is raining again, and then put my laptop back in my car. I think the rain will stop. It doesn’t.
I give up at 6 a.m. I eat my four-hours-before-the-race bagel. Matt gets up and does the same. I give up on the rain. I cram myself back into the car; place my hiking backpack on my lap; put the laptop on my backpack; hook my laptop to the portable battery by my feet; and then begin typing my sermon. I feel like a sardine. Matt crams himself into the car, too.
This is not how we imagined beginning race day.
By 7:30 a.m, the rain has slowed.
We go out for our two-and-a-half-hours-before-the-race run to shake out our muscles.
We run for ten to fifteen minutes. I had tweaked a muscle earlier in the week. I thought it was feeling better. When I run, that particular muscle surprises me by pulling tight. This makes me feel gloomy, like the weather. I just hope that I can finish the run and remain uninjured. I had a secret goal of hitting a 3-hour race time, but I let even that go. Just a safe race would be accomplishment enough for me today.
Methodically, we continue our race plan.
At 8 a.m., we drink our two-hours-before-the-race smoothies. We had prepared them the day before, blending strawberries, bananas, peanut butter, and almond milk. They are still cold.
I am wearing my winter hat and coat to stay warm amidst the morning chill.
We continue our plan. We don our race clothes. I have new compression race shorts, and a sleeveless race shirt. Matt puts on his running shorts and his half-marathon shirt from Montreal. We put on warm layers of fleeces and long pants over our race outfits. We keep on our very wet socks and shoes — saving our dry ones for the start line.
We pack up our wet tent. And our wet backpacking backpacks.
We throw our sleeping pads and bags into the car.
We will dry stuff out later.
Now, it is time to race.
The Start Line
At 9 a.m., we drive to the start of the race in Pittsfield State Forest.
We pull into the lot.
We check in, grabbing our bibs and race shirts.
We pin our bibs. We place our shirts in the car.
We cut the tops off of our energy block packages.
Matt shoves them into his belt. I shove them into my new shorts.
We fill our running water bottles.
We stop for one last bathroom break.
We walk bags of our stuff to the grassy sidelines of the start line.
On the sidelines, we change into our dry shoes and socks – at last.
I timidly take off my fleece, gaiter, long sleeve shirt, and long pants.
At 9:50, they call us over for a race meeting. Thirty-five runners huddle together.
Careful on the bridges. Watch out for mud. Have fun.
Line up here. Three laps. Manual timing. Show us your bib number.
There is a clock in front of us. The time ticks up to our starting hour.
I start with a nice light jog,
as we move up a steep hill.
Matt is behind me.
My Garmin watch is tracking the race,
but I change the face to just show me the time.
I don’t want to think about my pace.
I only want to listen to my body.
My body calls the shots.
Most of our group takes off ahead of me.
They have a pace. They have a goal.
I content myself to run my own race.
I run up the steep incline on the road
and then take a sharp left into the woods.
I continue uphill on the single-track dirt path
with rocks and roots beneath me.
Once I hit the high point,
a nice downhill awaits me.
My legs feel good
as the woods itself speeds me along.
Suddenly, I am just on
a lovely run with my friends, the trees.
The miles pass.
Matt is gone.
Pine needles are beneath my feet.
Soft, and aromatic.
A woman follows me.
I ask her if she wants to pass, she declines.
I am pacing her. We run together.
We run up to the aid station.
They welcome us with a cowbell and a big cheer.
I follow my plan: one handful of chips for electrolytes.
I eat them as I run.
The miles fly by.
A nice pond to my right.
A grungy panda costume hangs on a branch.
A photograph startles me into a joyous laugh.
I keep my eyes on the markings.
We move up a muddy hill
and a fallen tree blocks my path.
I step over it. I second guess myself.
“Is this the path?” I ask the other runner.
“I am following you.” she replies.
I jog on, and see a flag.
“This is it!” I confirm.
We keep on. Steady. Steady.
The path bends back near the way we came;
I see a black shirt flash by.
“Woo!” I cheer, “Go, Matt!”
The runner doesn’t respond.
I hope that was actually Matt!
Mentally, I have prepared myself for what comes next:
a slow progression of uphills.
We take them together,
until the trail finally empties onto the start line.
I run by the timing tent.
Five miles, done!
I jog to the aid station.
A volunteer fills up my water.
I grab a handful of peanut-butter covered pretzels.
I start hiking up the steep hill again,
shoveling the pretzels down.
I look at my watch.
I did the first lap in 1 hour and 2 minutes.
Maybe I can make goal!
I walk/run to the peak of the hill.
Then I spill down the downhill,
the shoot carrying me like a cascade of water.
I pick up momentum. I keep momentum.
My heartrate picks up.
I cross a road,
and jog into the forest.
I cross another road,
and suddenly there is a snake of runners behind me.
“Do you want to pass?” I ask the one.
“No, you are setting a great pace,” she replies.
“Do you want to pass?” she asks the guy without a shirt.
“No, I love this pace.” he replies.
She is a 25k runner.
He is a 50k runner.
Suddenly, I am pacing them.
It’s like a train going downhill.
The engine might have initially picked up speed,
but all the cars behind the train add to the crescendo-ing pace.
Can’t stop. Won’t stop.
I feel great. I should pace myself.
and so do I.
We run together.
We make snarky comments together.
We crush the hills together.
The downhill to the start line arrives.
And I sprint down it.
Whizzing by the timing tent.
Onto the aid station.
A volunteer fills up my water bottle.
I take a handful of tortilla chips.
Eating them as I speed walk the steep hill again.
I did that lap in 57 minutes.
My goal time is within my reach!
I walk / run to the top of the hill.
I try to keep a good pace on the downhills.
My muscles are tired now.
My heart beats hard.
But I can’t stop.
The pine needles are beneath my feet again.
I whizz by the other aid station.
My water is gone.
I can no longer eat my energy blocks.
I have prepared for this.
I didn’t stop at the aid station on purpose.
This I can eke out.
It is a mental game.
Can I keep going before I give up?
On the downhills, I push.
A different 50ker comes from behind.
“Want to pass?” I ask.
“No,” he says, “This is a great pace.
Keep it up. We will finish strong.”
I doubt his enthusiasm.
What happens when you keep pushing yourself when you feel empty?
Can we do more than we think we can do?
I am ten minutes from the finish.
I just need to not stop for ten minutes.
This is mental; stay in the mental game, I keep telling myself.
A dirt road appears before us.
I am going to push for the final part, my running partner tells me.
Yes! Finish strong, I tell him.
(He does! He places 2nd place for the 50k race!)
I slow now, gratefully.
I am breathing hard.
Slow is all I got.
I am only two or three minutes from the finish.
All I have to do is not stop.
The hills demoralize me; I jog up them.
I crest the hill. The start line looms below.
I don’t have the heart to charge toward it.
Suddenly, the 50k runner from my second lap bombs past me.
Giving it all he has.
Follow him! FOLLOW HIM!
I shout to myself.
I sprint wildly behind him.
Bombing past another 25k racer.
I sprint to the finish line,
blasting past the timing tent at 3:00:38.
“Good job, 728!” The timing tent shouts.
I collapse on the grass next to the 50k runner.
He places third in his race.
Thank you! I told him.
Your sprint got me into the finish line at my goal time.
I did it.
With the help of so many along the way.
I linger near the finish line,
putting fleecy layers over my damp clothes so I can cheer Matt in.
I wait with two kids and their mom waiting for their dad/husband.
We exchange names so we can cheer the other’s loved one in.
Matt comes in, and the kids cheer for him by name, “Matt! Matt!”
I cheer for him and run to the finish line with him to get a picture.
He did his first Vegan Power 25K and he ran it with me!
The family’s dad/husband follows close behind!
I cheer for him by name. His kids run beside him to the finish.
Yes! We did it!
A day well spent. And a day so full of joy.