I ran the Croom Fools Run 50k Race on Saturday, March 29th, 2014. Here's the thing I learned about running my first ultramarathon:
It's hard. Not like, “Wow I just took the LSAT and that was hard,” or “Man that last 0.2 of the marathon was really tough.” Those things are hard.
But this was HARD. And it was fun in a different way than I've ever had fun before. Here's the story of how my first ultramarathon was spectacular.
Chapter 1: Fitting In
I started Croom with that feeling where you think you have to pee but you know you're just nervous. Like, nerve-racked psycho nervous. Here I was, standing amongst a bunch of hard-core bearded mountain people with head lamps strapped to their hats and Camelbaks and calf muscles that would put a UPS guy to shame. Many of them were older, wiser, and had lower body fat. I met Justin Johnson, a race volunteer and seasoned ultra runner, as well as Andy Mathews, race director, at the check-in at 6am. They were super kind but noticed that, edging toward the start, I was looking nervous.
“It's going to be okay,” they both said, at different times. My face must have been transparent. And pale. I wanted to hide in my car.
I stood there in my Hollywood Run Club shirt and my black running shorts and my Scott Jurek race belt filled with a cell phone and raisins, and I wondered if I was in the right place.
We started to run, and I realized I was. I took no headphones and no music. Just the sound of the person breathing behind me and the thump of the trail shoes in front of me. We ran. I found my rhythm. The trail was inviting – soft footing, quiet trees. I remembered that I love running. I felt natural. The nerves faded.
After the first mile, we spread out fairly far. I stuck with a pack of 8 to 10 runners for 4 or 5 miles. A man behind me kept beeping, and I finally turned to see what the beep was, thinking maybe he couldn't hear it because of headphones. The man had white hair. He was likely in his late 60's. He chuckled and said, “It's alright, that's just my pacemaker. It's almost out of batteries. I'm just trying to make it to the next aid station.”
“OH MY GOD,” I said. “Are you alright?”
“It's just my watch,” he said.
The runner in front of me turned and said, “Yeh he just ran a full marathon last weekend.”
I laughed and ran along, my face as red as my shirt. It was not my place to worry about anybody out here. These people knew what time it was. The beeping eventually blended into the sounds of the woods – birds, wavering trees, the stomp of feet and the snap of tree limbs. Every so often my watch vibrated to tell me another mile had passed. For a long time, I just watched the shoes in front of me. It was peaceful. I did not think.
Chapter 2: Terrain
And then we hit terrain. Croom is not a flat race. It is full of hills, stumps, roots, things to jump over, and areas so steep that you need to use your hands to get up or down. I felt game, but timid. I knew that one twist of the ankle or knee would make the next 20 miles a living hell. So, I toed my way down the declines, and used my hands on my quads to push up the steeper hills. When you've got people in front of you and behind you, leading and following, these sorts of obstacles become easier. You feel like a pack animal. You feel safe.
Then, you get spread out. At about mile 12, I lost sight of everybody. The group behind me fell back. The group in front of me pushed forward. In some ways, I thought this was a cruel joke. I found myself in the woods, alone, looking 360 degrees around without a tech-shirt in sight. Am I even on the right trail? I thought, eyeing the orange markers hanging from the trees. I kept running, but things began to break down between miles 12 and 16. First, my feet started to ache. Then, my knees. Then, the backs of my knees below the hamstring. Soon, each step shot pain up the inside of my leg.
What the hell? I thought. It was only mile 13 or so. I was used to that kind of distance. Something had to be wrong. I could no longer run. I walked, fast. I hiked, I jogged, then hiked again. Something was definitely wrong with my lower body.
My first instinct was to think, HOW. I needed to develop a plan to get through the next 20 miles with this pain. I planned to change shoes into my Newtons at the halfway point, where my drop bag was in reach. I planned to take some Aleve, eat a Clif Bar, and see how the running improved. I also planned to grab my headphones and put music into one ear.
I had been reading this John Douillard book, Mind, Body, Sport, prior to Croom and had convinced myself that I needed to stop using music during runs and reconnect my mind and body.
Fuck that, I was thinking by mile 15. Just give me something, anything, to take my mind off the pain.
Chapter 3: A Decision
At the halfway point, people cheered. I could smell the smoke of a campfire. The race-timers patted me through, and the spectators lounged in their camp chairs drinking Fat Tires while the grill smoked beneath the food tent. The allure of stopping at 16 miles was heavy and intoxicating. The 16-mile racers were done, standing around with dark beer bottles and plates of food. Before heading to change shoes, I stopped at the aid table to refill my water.
There, I overheard a woman announce that she was undeniably finished. “I'm off today,” she said. “I'm running the 50-miler, but I'm stopping at 16. It's not worth it. Nothing feels right.”
I swallowed her words like they were champagne. For some reason, for just a moment, this was what I wanted to hear.
I turned to her and I said, “I'm thinking about stopping too. I'm in so much pain.”
This was a turning point. I had stopped thinking about how to do it, and I had begun to reconsider why. This was dangerous.
She looked at me and nodded. “It's just not worth it to me, today,” she said.
“You just have to be okay with it,” she said. Then she turned and walked away.
That's when an angel named Becky Davis stepped in. She had on a green shirt. “Do you think you can run to the next aid station? It's four miles away.” She raised an eyebrow.
I looked at her and considered that. “Yes,” I said. And it was true. I knew I could run four more miles. I just didn't know I could run 15 more miles.
“Maybe try that, then,” she said. “And if you make it there and can't go any further, they'll bring you back.”
I nodded, and thanked her, and ran to change my shoes. I ate a Clif Bar. I changed my socks. I put on my damn Newtons and I ran back through that halfway point. Someone yelled “Go Hollywood!” from the campsite. I'll never know who it was. I didn't turn back. I just ran like hell.
Chapter 4: Sinking
I ran like hell until I caught my foot on a root coming downhill and went flying. I caught the ground with the heels of my hands and felt my legs momentarily fly out behind me. Then I hit the ground on my hip bone, which cracked against a root. My heart sank. The pain shot through my leg and I could feel the grainy dirt edging into the pores of my calf. I was only a half-mile from that aid station I was supposed to run for.
I stood up, dusted off, and looked around. Nobody.
By this time, I felt delirious. I started to think about the fact that ultrarunning was for people who had the time to train, for people who had different lifestyles than me. I started to think about how great the heater would feel in my car, even though I wasn't cold. I thought about wrapping myself in something – anything – a towel, a man's arms, a woman's arms, a fleece blanket, couch cushions. I just wanted to be held. But I got up and ran on until I saw the top of a tent and heard the sound of music blaring from the back of some guy's jeep.
Chapter 5: Revival
That guy turned out to be Mark T. Jackson, manner of the aid station I'd passed on the first loop of the race but was too foggy to remember. “How's it going?” he asked in a tone that suggested that by the look on my face and the dirt covering one side of my body, it was not fucking going well.
“Great,” I said.
I tried to unscrew my water bottle and got the cap off, but let it fall to the ground.
“Whatcha need?” he said. “I have everything.”
“Aleve,” I said.”
“How about some ibuprofen, and maybe two of these, and one of these,” he said, holding out two white capsules and a cup of Gatorade.
If it was crack, I would have accepted it. I cupped my hand and took the Gatorade and swallowed everything in one gulp.
He handed me two more white capsules and he took my water bottle. “Take these in an hour, and drink this entire bottle of water before you get to the next aid station,” he said.
I nodded and put the capsules in my belt. I was his disciple.
“You're low on electrolytes,” he said, grabbing my water bottle and screwing on the cap, which I had tried to put on upside down. “This is all normal. You just need some salt.”
I was going to do what he said, whether he was Jesus or Stalin or Fred Phelps, because I sure wasn't going to do what my mind was telling me to do, which was to sit down and let the tears flow and eat some Goldfish. No.
Behind me, a team of cute women ran in. “Hey,” one of them said. She had on a green shirt. “Aren't you the girl I told to run to the next aid station?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Thank you for saying that. I needed it.”
“Just keep going,” she said.
“Swallow another cup of Gatorade, and two cups of water, and then get lost,” Mark T. Jackson said.
And I did just that. I got lost.
Chapter 6: Those White Capsules
I jogged off, still biting my lip to ignore the pain shooting through my legs. Not far into the woods, those cute women caught up with me.
“Yeah yeah yeah,” hollered the woman in the green shirt, who I later learned was Becky Davis. She had Becky Davis eyes. She asked me how I was. I told her in earnest that I was hurting, but that it was the same in both legs, on both sides.
“It's cramps,” she said. “Here.” She held on another magical white capsule. She was dealing the same stuff as Mark T. Jackson.
I swallowed it, no question.
And then she said this: “Don't let your muscles tell you what to do. You tell your body what you want it to do. If you keep running like you were earlier, I know you can finish this whole thing.”
I nodded and thanked her. I asked her for her name. I knew I was not going to forget this woman – this complete stranger who urged me back onto the trail, then gave me the one sentence I needed to hear that would keep me running for the next ten miles.
Chapter 7: The Next Ten Miles
For the next ten miles, I flew through the forest like a cocaine-filled reindeer on shots of Dr. Pepper. Nothing could stop me. I soared over stumps, dug my toes through sand, and climbed hills like a convict on the loose. There was no pain. There were not even legs. There was just my feet hitting the ground to the sound of the Sneaker Pimps and The National and Neil Young and Bassnectar and anything else filtering through my left earphone.
Meanwhile, my right ear was catching thunder, which was progressing from a rolling rumble to a shaking boom. As light as things had become in my body, things were about to get heavy in the sky.
Chapter 7: The Storm
The sky decided to stop teasing and unleashed its mighty terror at about mile 23. It was not rain. Rain falls.
This rain jumped. It flowed. It gushed. This rain was like a Latina woman with a bone to pick.
What was once a trail became a flowing creek. What were once my Newton running shoes became boats full of water. I squished my feet inside them and squinted through the sheets of rain pouring in front of me. Suddenly, something came alive in my brain.
I was wet. I was cold. I was disgusting. And I suddenly had more energy and more desire to run head-first out of those woods than ever before. I tucked my head, jumped to the right of the flowing creek-of-trail and ran like a raging bull forward, jumping over bushes and dodging sharp twigs sticking sideways into my legs. Every song that came into my left ear seemed to match what was happening. Cutline – Runnin'. Radioactive – Imagine Dragons. Old Man – Neil Young. England – The National. Wasteland – 10 Years. It was all just happening.
My first writing mentor, David Ullrich, told me that the best writing happens when you are not self-conscious. I believe this is true about running, too. When you're wet, nasty, cold, and hurting, you break self-consciousness. You can no longer be the pretty picture of yourself you try so desperately to be. You just run. And you fucking smile. Because you are most yourself in that moment. Hi, Dave. Thank you, Dave.
Chapter 8: The Finish
The rain lasted until two miles before the finish, roughly mile 29. During those two miles, I hauled my ass up those hills and across those trails however I could. I was out of salt again. I was no longer concerned with time, with the context of the race, with anything outside the moment. As the rain drizzled down to a mist, the pain crept back into my legs. There was no Mark T. Jackson or magical fairy-godBecky in sight. There was no aid station. There was just me and the trail. I had caught up with a few people at the final aid station about three miles back – one lovely man named Chris Gkikas and two runners who asked for the mileage on my watch. It was consoling to hear their voices and to connect, but I was intuitive enough to understand that at that point, we were running separate races. There would be no pack formed. After 27 miles of a race, everyone was in their own place, mentally. One runner was crouching under the aid station umbrella, trying to call her mom. I was scoping out a tree to pee behind. Chris Gkikas, I'm sure, had been thinking about how to make it through 25 more miles, as he was entered in the 50-miler. Everyone had to be okay with being alone. No sooner had we met that we parted, and I found myself yet again, in the woods, solo. Those last two miles were not so much a fight but a surrender. I just let go. I knew I was going to finish. There was nothing to think about anymore. I gave in to the trail, running where I could and hiking where I couldn't.
As I neared an area I'd seen before – a steep climb full of rocks that had to be stepped left to right to left, a man emerged on the trail in a blue parka, facing me. He smiled.
“How much further?” I breathed.
“About 200 yards,” he said, grinning.
I almost cried. I thanked him and leapt up those rocks like I was SuperMario. I could smell the campfires and burger pit at the base-camp of Croom. I could now see the front bumpers of parked cars through the clearing. I ran. I ran I ran I ran. I heard claps and cheers. It was not the hundreds of cheers that come at the finish line of a marathon, but those 15 cheers sounded like the glory and fullness of a whole stadium.
As I crossed the finish, a rain-soaked kid handed me a giant Croom coffee mug. Justin Johnson, who I met at the finish line, slapped me five and told me to eat food. A cute woman named Larissa gave me a Bud Light Straw-ber-rita. The guy who won the whole 50-mile race, Nate Hill, made me laugh like hell. The race director, Andy Mathews, gave me a huge hug. Everybody I walked past had a huge grin and a congratulations. It was all about feeling good. There was a giant barrel of pork rinds. There were pretzels, cheese, donuts. Hamburgers. Hot dogs. Nobody, anywhere, asked, “What was your time?” Everybody just high-fived and hung out in the rain.
I learned things.
On, on. That means the trail is okay. That means keep going. That means the world is yours.
Where To Catch Me