I ran in the Mt. Evans Ascent last weekend and a nice woman from Alpine Rescue told me, at mile 9 or so, that she wanted to take a look at my left leg. Granted my gait resembled Dustin Hoffman’s in Marathon Man, minus the dental surgery, and I was in last place out of just under 400 or so runners, but still, it kind of sucked. She had kind eyes though, and told me that if I continued, muscle could separate from bone and that would mean a very bad injury. It sounded bad enough that I decided to stop. As in DNF. Oh well.
But for the better part of the last hour before this nice woman stopped me, I’d been mostly walking with a limp that became more pronounced as I went on. I watched much older, sometimes fatter women, put distance between themselves and me as we fast-hiked up above timberline. All the while I was tuned into Radio KFCKD. Anne Lamott, one of my favorite writers, defines Radio KFCKD the voice in the writer’s head that tells her she is incredible, unique and brilliant or that she is void of talent, shitty at most things, including writing, and basically an idiot. KFCKD is from Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, which I need to reread.
Early on in the race as I gasped for air, Radio KFCKD was telling me that 25 to 40 miles a week was not enough training, that my twenty-mile run a few weeks back meant nothing, and neither did my four runs over fourteen miles in the last six weeks. The smooth-voiced KFCKD DJ said I was destined to fail in this race and that I was behind the hydration curve ball although I was dutifully taking my Endurolyte pills on time and drinking what I thought was enough liquid.
The DJ wasn’t completely wrong. The main problem was that I came into the race dehydrated due to about 36 hours of, um, stomach issues, and those issues didn’t let up just because I was trying to race 14.5 miles starting at 10,600′ and ending around 14,200′. The whole race was peppered with a certain evacuation-related awkwardness as well as roiling self-doubt, both of which gurgled too often and seemed to create an emergency about every fifteen minutes.
It’s true that with most races, I’m worried I may not have trained enough or as well as I should have. This seems to always happen to me when I’m tapering before a race. On the other hand I’ve never signed up for a race that begins above 10,000 feet in elevation and ends above 14,000 feet. But this was to be my startlingly successful comeback after almost three years of no racing. Granted I was often last in the races I did, including dead last in 2 marathons, but such ego-puncturing experiences were remedied easily enough: I just started running races with thousands of people instead of hundreds; that way I wouldn’t be assured of last place.
You’d think if one were truly talentless at a certain sport she would give it up. But I like running races. I like the adrenaline and the competitiveness that exists, even in the back of the pack. Towards the end of races I can sometimes pick off stragglers, usually the aged and/or obese or injured runners and doing so gives me a certain sense of satisfaction, even if it only means I am second or third to last place instead of last place. But on Saturday, June 19, 2010, I was the one picked off by about a dozen or so older ladies in much better shape than I, or maybe much more used to running at altitude than I, or both. The back of the pack hunter became the hunted.
I did train a little at altitude. I live at 6,000 or so feet above sea level which should count for something but doesn’t in a race this high up. The Mt. Evans road opened the Friday before Memorial Day weekend and I did get up there but it snowed the Saturday before the race and the road was closed for about five days. Oh and I have to work for a living. I did do a practice run near my house a few times that consists of 1,900′ of vertical in the first three or so miles. But my training was not enough to prevent a DNF.
In the other ear KFCKD was telling me I was in the best shape of my life (possibly) and that I might win my age group (never). I imagined sitting on Oprah’s couch, even though her show is ending, telling the heartfelt story of having overcome being last in several marathons to place in my age group in North America’s highest road race. Alternately, in my other ear, KFCKD was droning on about what a complete dip shit I was to even consider running in anything other than an obese family-friendly 5K walk.
Meanwhile my stomach issues made attempts at ducking behind pine trees for the every-fifteen-minutes-emergency pretty challenging, especially because I was above fucking timberline. My left shin was locked up all the way down over the top of my foot, making it hard to roll my foot for running or walking. I kept hearing my foot slap the pavement like a slab of dead catfish, and I didn’t seem to have any control over it. Occasionally there was a twang of pain all the way up into my hip.
I must admit, though, that I picked up the pace when I saw the race photographer. Even in the throes of diarrhea-induced dehydration and some sort of weird shin splint that was spreading to the top of my foot, I wanted a decent race photo. See said fake smile race photo at: http://www.skipix.com/skipixv2/viewlargeimage.php?lang=en&photosetid=4189&filename=DSC_1108.jpg
By mile 6 or so my muscle issue in the front of my lower left leg migrated to my outer lower left leg and was constantly painful. The road was sloped badly and running and walking on the left side of the road (race rules) at a steep angle seemed to be exacerbating the leg pain, although some feeling returned in my dead, slab-o-catfish-like foot. Finally I gave up even trying to run and just tried to walk as fast as I could, except of course when I saw a race photographer.
I tried to listen to my iPod and ignore the nice man in the Alpine Rescue truck motoring just behind me, sweeping the course. I thought about the small ultra marathon I just discovered that will occur practically in my backyard in July, a 50k and a 50 miler. It is ideal for a first ultra and I’ve been secretly planning to do it. Although there are cut-offs for the 50-miler, there are no cut-offs for the 50K, except that you have to finish by the time the 50-milers do. That means, for me, I would have about 14 hours to run and hike 31.07 miles. Almost anyone but a toddler could do that. And then I would have an ultra under my belt, even though most ulrarunners think a real ultra is 50 miles and up.
Focusing on the ultra that I may or may not do helped a little, and a few more miles rolled by. The views were beautiful but I was starting to lose my mind. I couldn’t remember how many miles I had to go, in spite of the Garmin on my wrist and the simple math involved in subtracting how far I’d come from 14.5 miles. I couldn’t remember if I’d taken my Endurolytes either. This is the type of thing that might happen really late in a marathon, but I was only about 7 miles into a fairly short race. So then I tried to focus on all that I have to be grateful for, like my husband.
Fred is wonderful, forgiving and understanding and he tolerates me, my wacky ideas, occasional whining and somewhat idiotic running goals. He seems confident in me no matter what I do, including running. He bought me roses the week before Valentine’s Day just for the hell of it so I had roses for about two weeks over that Hallmark-invented holiday. It is weird to me that I accidentally married a prince who makes me laugh and appears to have a better vocabulary than I. Oh and he’s really tall and can dance.
Other things that came to mind as I was trying to block out acute pain and avoid shitting my pants were my family and host of friends, my great day job, laundry facilities in my house, good health, (well except for the nagging leg pain and loose bowels) and my pets.
But once I was examined by a professional, the Alpine Rescue woman, and actually listened to her say something about muscle separating from bone, I gave up. She knew my summit bag had to be retrieved and drove me to the top, the last 4.5 miles. We drove in and out of runners and walkers up the switchbacks to near the summit parking lot, and she talked the whole way while her aging lab kept trying to crawl into her lap. She was attending the funeral of a friend who died of cancer, later in the day. She told me she didn’t believe in aging, that it was about energy and intention. She offered me stale animal crackers that I was pretty sure were really dog treats after I tasted one. And finally, she dropped me off about 50 yards from the finish line, behind a group of cars and a blind curve.
I saw the finish line, the spectators clapping, the chaos of cars coming and going and the shuttle vans piled almost on top of each other. It crossed my mind that if I started running I could blaze to the finish line where the final race photo would be taken and the finisher’s medal hung around my neck. It would have been that easy. It was just the type of behavior I used to have back when I was having a few social drinks in the morning before work.
But lucky for me, I decided to literally take the high road where I found my summit bag and pulled on my fleece jacket. I drank some water and looked at the mountain goats, but only because they were hanging out by the facilities I had to, um, sprint to use. And then I found a seat in a shuttle van and headed back down the hill. The men in the van (there were no women except the driver and I) were small, thin and apparently very fast. As I listened to their conversations I realized almost all of them were sponsored. By running stores, by nutrition companies, by The North damn Face, etc. So I kept quiet, silently trying to flex my stiffening leg and foot.
As I drove home from the Echo Lake Lodge, a wave of familiar self-pity and self-loathing came over me. I hate failing but, like most people, I seem to have a history of it. So maybe I will go back to the Mt. Evans Ascent next year properly hydrated and stomach issue-free and finish it, we’ll see.
Just then, a few miles before the turn off onto I-70, I passed a small trout pond, the kind where you take the kids fishing for their first time. Pulled up to the edges of it were some teens and young adults, all in wheel chairs, propped up by pillows, some not even able to hold their own fishing poles. But they were grinning ear-to-ear and having the time of their lives, even though they weren’t catching any fish.
© Marie McHale Drake 2010