It was an unusual place to be the Saturday morning after Thanksgiving. But there I was, standing beside a tiny lake, in a town of about 1000 people, sharing the starting line of an ultra marathon with less than 20 other runners. I'd participated in some small races before, but this one redefined small. And as the camera snapped a picture of all of us at the starting line, I couldn't help but wonder how on earth I'd ended up there.
Who was I kidding? I knew how I got there. I attempted to run the 35-mile Georgia Jewel back in September. And the distance, heat and mountains got the best of me. My pursuit of that Jewel finish line came to an abrupt end at mile 18. I'd driven to Georgia from Virginia writing the story of my first ultra marathon. I drove home thinking of new words to write my latest story about failure.
I never imagined those words would include St. Paul, Virginia. But if running has taught me nothing else, it's taught me our stories are never over. Our race finish lines mean everything but the race is finished.
That failure in Georgia ate at me. It had been a good year of running, but I kept dwelling on the Georgia Jewel. It's our human nature, I suppose, to let our minds wander to where we came up short when there are plenty of spaces available for them to mingle with victory.
So I turned to Google. Did a search of November Ultra races and found myself in the far southwest part of Virginia. About as far southwest as you can get without being in Tennessee or West Virginia. The name of the race was the Oxbow Ultra. It had options for 6, 12 and 24 hour races. I did a little math and decided I could run 35 miles in 12 hours. That's all I wanted - 35 miles.
When I discovered my running partner and friend Nicole would be visiting family in that part of the state that weekend, that's all I needed. It was off to the Oxbow.
lake. On one hand, it was nice. It let you settle into a nice pace. On the other hand, it did little to prepare you for what was ahead.
As that first mile ended, the course abruptly turned and switched back and started a climb up the mountain that had been staring down at us as we made our first trip around the lake. That first easy mile now seemed like a cruel joke. I swear I heard that mountain laughing at us.
If the uphill climb wasn't challenging enough, the trail was covered with wet and mounded leaves that mixed in with and at other times hid the frequent pools of soupy mud. I spent a lot of time not just wondering how to take that next step up, legs burning from exhaustion, but how do I keep the next step from slipping me over the edge of the mountain and down into the ravine below.
I didn't think about it climbing up that first time, but the leaves would only get slipperier and the mud soupier as runners continued to traipse over and through them collecting their laps.
After a mile of climbing nearly 600 feet up, we emerged from the covered trail into an open highland. Not only was it flat and dry and empty of leaves and puddles, it was beautiful. It was the prize at the end of a fight. Rest for weary legs. It was the reassurance I needed that I hadn't signed up for 12 hours of death defying slip and slide experiences.
new venture, a relationship, a project, a hobby or a dream. We get a vision, it looks and sounds flat and doable and worth it and fills us with a spirit of "I can do this!!"And then we run around the lake and come to the end of the flat part of that vision and hit the mountain.
And we stop. And we stare. And we turn around.......
What would happen if we just took a chance and climbed the challenges in our life. Maybe, just maybe, we'd discover there is something beautiful on the other side. And maybe - maybe that beauty would motivate us to take just one more lap.
And then another.
Until we're accomplishing things and bringing beauty into the world we never imagined we could.
As we ran down off that plateau things got trickier. It's actually easier to navigate wet leaves and mud going up than it is down. I've never spent as much time in a race trying to keep my balance as I did through the downhill sections of this course. In fact, I consider it one of my greatest running accomplishments that I didn't fall this day. My arms and legs flailed in all directions at times to make sure of it, which led to soreness in muscles usually not involved in my running motions, but my body remained in one piece throughout.
The final 2 miles of each lap were along the Clinch River. After the heavy rains the river was high and rolling. Just like I was reminded at the top of the mountain we sometimes need to go exploring to discover beauty in this world and within ourselves, the river reminded me just how many sounds we don't hear each day. We get used to the sounds of traffic and keyboards and YouTube videos, but out there somewhere and always are rivers rolling. Each with their own sound. All of them calling us to hear them.
At the end of that river was the finish line. Once every 5 miles we got to cross a finish line. Each time we did another 5 miles were added to our collection and we were one lap closer to 35 miles. Just beyond that finish line we could step into an aid station and eat pasta and drink coca cola. And discover new treats like Lay's Poppables. (A treat my entire family is now addicted to).
my recipe for ultra success. (And Poppables - forevermore running success includes Poppables).
I want to add another component of this race that helped me. It was the 5 mile laps. Mentally, knowing every 5 miles I could hit a bit of a reset button was powerful. When it comes to tackling longer distances, I need the capacity to break the race down into bite sized nuggets. Well, this race was staged in those nuggets. Never once did my mind drift ahead to the 35 mile finish line - it was always focused on the end of that current 5-mile lap.
I told Nicole it was likely we were only going to get 30 miles today. I think she'd already done the math herself. She reminded me it would be my longest distance ever. My longest timed run ever. That there was still a lot left to run for. So we kept going. Another lap. And then another.
I experienced something in those next laps I'd never experienced before. The transition from day to night in the middle of a run. And on this day, that also meant going from whatever warmth the elusive sunshine had offered to the cold blanket of darkness.
Those slippery leaves, the ever widening and sloppy puddles, they now became trail landmines waiting to trip us up with each stride. The only protection we had was our headlamps. More often than not, though, we had those lights pointed in the distance to spot oncoming coyotes.
It's odd, really. It was probably the longest 5 miles of my life. Each step hurt. Whether going up or down. My legs were cold and stiff and at times I felt like I needed to reach down and manually lift each step into place. But out there in the stillness of the night, in a world far removed from the chatter and soul conflicting tugs of the real world, there was uncommon peace. Peace a part of me dreaded seeing fade back into reality.
In the end, the longing for warmth overcame the desire for peace, and we marched ahead with every ounce of speed we had left in the tank. At this point, it was a very small tank.
you conquer it, and sometimes maybe you come up a little short. Standing there holding that medal, I felt like we experienced a little of both that day. A little conquer. A little coming up short. But I think all of our lives should be in the business of taking on the job of fear and discomfort. It's in the taking the job on at all that is great. So I couldn't help but agree, we did do a great job.
We were making our way up the steps. Headed to the car and then back to our rooms where we could finally escape the chill that had fully invaded both of us now. We heard a voice shouting "Nicole, Nicole," as we struggled up the steps. We stopped. A young man was holding a large growler from a local brewery. He presented it to Nicole along with a certificate and let her know she'd won the women's division of the 12-hour group.
Nicole will tell you the number of runners in that division was quite small. (We won't say how small). But I will say no matter how many runners were in that group, she earned her award. And it was the exact perfect way to put a cap on our day. Standing at the top of those steps, in the dark and chill of a tiny town park, no one else around, it was the most ceremoniously beautiful way to say - great job - great day!
Life is like running.