With his bullhorn, the race director implored us to hurry to the start line. I guess he thought the sooner we were under the wooded cover of the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, we'd all feel a bit more untouchable, whether the bully was real or not. So we lined up. At 6:30 AM the director sent us on our way. And after a two mile run to the trailhead, we entered the woods for the first of three 11-mile loops.
Once on the trail, we quickly realized the bully had already gone before us. The trails were muddy. Every step was a fight for footing. Between breaks in the thunder, you could hear the taunting and ghostly laugh of the bully echoing through the woods.
This was not the start I'd anticipated for my attempt at my longest run ever. There was no way to train for these conditions outside of daily runs through a swamp in the middle of a hurricane - neither of which I'd had access to.
It was clear this day was about me and my heart. No coach was going to drag me through. No inspirational meme was going to coax me on. This day was about the miles I'd put on my feet and legs leading up to this moment, and whatever strength I'd stowed away in my mind.
And if I was lucky, this day would be about discovering some new strength along the way.
day. These peeks made me feel as wet as the air looked. They restrained me with the notion that with each step, a tumble into the muddy trail waters was imminent.
Right on cue I slipped. I grabbed a tree branch out in front of me. My right leg spawled out wildly to the right. My left leg planted in an awkardly downsloaped rock crevice. I froze there for a moment, wondering if the fall was complete, or still in progress.
I managed to save myself. But that early slip portended what this day of running would look like. A constant battle between keep going and keep standing. Could a running bully have a better strategy? Make the runner live in so much doubt about each step that a months long dream of a finish line 37 miles away becomes an unquietable nightmare.
was. Running in the middle of a woods 600 miles from home, around the edge of lakes I'd never before had the chance to see, chasing a dream that had once been just that - a dream, it dawned on me - I'm blessed. In a woods that had clearly been invaded by a running bully, angels still ran. And one of them was smiling right behind me - her dream completely unaffected by the elements.
About 3 1/2 hours after we started the race, we emerged from the woods, completing our first loop. I thought to myself, that's the toughest half marathon I've ever completed. And I also thought, I only have to do it two more times....
We hung around the aid station there for a bit drinking soda and eating pringles chips. These aid stations would become saviors. Not just because of the chips and drinks, but they were another source of smiles. In the rugged conditions, when they could have been home curled up with a blanket and a book, these beautiful people were volunteering their time to protect us from the conditions, and to remind us - bullies don't always win.
As we started the second loop, many of the runners who'd entered for shorter distances were gone. For much of the remainder of the race Nicole and I would run in isolation. On one hand, that delivered me the peace I've come to appreciate about trail running. On the other hand, I periodically wondered if everyone else might have been swept away by the waters that seemed to keep rising, or by the wind that blew stronger by the mile.
and then told her, "I'd save worrying for something we can actually do something about. We're out here in the middle of nowhere. Do you have some particular shelter in mind?"
I don't think she found comfort in my answer, but we pressed on.
Two things were beginning to weigh on me at this point. Two things besides survival that is. I knew we were in danger of missing the cutoff time. The race had a 12-hour time limit; it was clear we were coming up short of that. Everything I'd read said this was a strict cutoff. I began processing the defeating idea of coming all this way, running all day in these conditions, and yet, not getting to cross the finish line.
I also started worrying about darkness. Neither Nicole or I had lights. The only thing I could imagine being harder than keeping my footing in the mud would be keeping my footing in mud I could no longer see.
As we left the final aid station, still nearly 4 miles from the finish line, a volunteer told us, "if you keep moving you can make it." I was in a lot of pain at this point. Each step was excruciating to take. Given I had 10,000 steps or so left, I wasn't sure if by "make it" he meant survive, or if he was crazy enough to believe that with less than an hour to go, we could really make it to the finish line.
Nicole looked at me after he said that and assured me, "I don't care if they close the course or not, we're finishing."
To be honest, in that moment, her words dejected me. I was leaning more toward not surviving. Right then and there, I was more than willing to feel life and pain evaporate right out of me as I plopped face down in the mud. I was tired of the bully, and I just wanted to be finally out of his reach.
But Nicole marched on, and she didn't say it, but she had a vibe about her that said "you'd better keep up."
We emerged from the final loop through the woods at a couple of minutes over the 12-hour cutoff. I fully expected the aid workers would tell us our night was done. It was dark, and I had no idea how we'd find our way to the finish line 1.7 miles up the road. I was also wondering, if they try to stop us, will Nicole ultimately end up being the biggest bully of the day?
But as we approached the volunteers, our cell phones weakly lighting the way, an enthusiastic voice yelled - you're almost there. Keep going. These were not encouraging words. Most of me was hoping to be tossed in the back of the pickup trucks with the other course markings and signs that all said the day was over. Most of me wanted put out of my misery - I'd run my longest run ever at this point - why on earth do I need a finish line?
But up ahead, the light from Nicole's cell phone danced forward into the night. And no matter what most of me wanted, it was clear where that light was headed. So I followed.
We were about a half mile from the finish line when a vehicle stopped alongside us. I was hoping we were about to be kidnapped - so long as the kidnappers wouldn't make me run ever again. But turns out it was Nicole's friend Sara, who I'd met earlier in the day. She'd already completed her 50 mile race and was now going to run the rest of the way with us. She told us she'd talked to the race director and told him we were still on the course and asked him to keep the finish line up.
That's when it hit me. The finish line was still possible. I no longer wanted to be face down in mud or kidnapped, I wanted to cross the finish line of the most physically challenging endeavor I'd ever tackled.
And that's what we did. A few minutes later we crossed the finish line and the race director handed us our buckles. We did it. Ironic, really, that the man who ushered us into the presence of the bully 12 1/2 hours earlier with a bullhorn, would now save us from him with one of the most angelic congratulatory handshakes I've ever received.
I'll always be grateful for angel Sara for leading us into his presence, and to angel Nicole for never ever doubting we'd find him there.
Once again the sport of running has stepped up to remind me that life is full of bullies. But it's also full of angels. Which of those we focus on makes a lot of difference.
This race was so well run. I'm not easily impressed by people who pull of good things in good conditions. But people who can make great things happen in bad conditions - that's when you know you're dealing with professionals, and people who really care about your experience.
I can't wait to go back to the Land Between the Lakes - maybe next year - with hopes of seeing what those lakes look like with the angel of sunshine shining down on them.
Life is like running.