“Why do you run so far?”
Shrug. I struggle not to say something stupid, and trip over my words. “I don’t know. I just. I just. I’m sorry. I’m having a little bit of imposter syndrome right now.” I smile, in what I hope is a charming way, and not a lame fan girl way, which is how I feel.
They look at me, confused.
“I’m 40 years old and I work full time. I’m a mid-packer. You’re the real deal.”
I’d first noticed the frayed back zipper pocked of my UD hydration pack the day before, when filling the bladder for what would be my first time running from the Grand Canyon South Rim (via the Bright Angel trail) to the Colorado River, and power hiking back up again via South Kaibab. This is not the traditional runner’s “Rim to Rim,” which starts at the North Rim and ends at the South Rim, as the former is closed for winter.
More than frayed, the back zipper pouch looked like it might bust open at some, inopportune time in the near future, and I made a mental note to pick up a new one at a local outdoor store, of which I assumed there were many in Flagstaff where I was staying, or in Sedona where I was going next. It wasn’t until the following day, having done the run in reverse down South Kaibab, and refilling my bladder just shy of the half-way point that I noticed offending brown spots inside the four-year-old bladder. Forget Sedona, I thought, this nasty thing wasn’t leaving Flagstaff.
I knew the ultra running elite men congregated in Flagstaff. Young, good looking, and winning everything lately, the “Coconino Cowboys” are the cool kids in the sport. And, while I had a vague notion that one or more of them worked at Run Flagstaff (the store I tried after REI, surprisingly, proved a useless stop), I never expected to actually see any of them.
Which is why I was more surprised than I probably should have been when I entered the empty store and one came around from behind the register to ask if I needed help.
Holy crap I know you. You just ran Black Canyon but dropped. I ran Black Canyon too. We were both there last year when you came in third; I got hypothermia. And I actually think I ran the TransRockies with you back in 2015. I only remember that because you guys all did the beer mile after day 3. I think you were naked. And there was a rumor that you were living out of your car and looking for sponsors. In any case, you have Lake Sonoma coming up next month, where you’ll try and place top 2 for a Western States golden ticket. I will follow the race on Twitter.
“Yeah; I need a new pack.”
Imposter syndrome is a funny thing. When he asked me what I was training for, the ultra-runner’s equivalent of “where do you work” or “what do you do,” I proudly told him, “Bigfoot,” as in the Bigfoot 200. He was impressed.
We talked about packs; what I would need to carry and for how long. And I did come clean that I knew who he was, and that I’d also run at Black Canyon, albeit “well behind” him. We talked about weather and terrain, and my upcoming 100 miler at Umstead in four weeks.
And that is when he asked me why I run so far, then mistook my idiotic stuttering as my having taken offense. He clarified, “I’m not asking because I’m judging.”
“Sorry. I’m having a little bit of imposter syndrome right now. I’m 40 years old and I work full time. I’m a mid-packer. You’re the real deal.”
“But I’ve only ever run a 100k.”
But you win.
I mumbled something about the fact that, with a 4:08 road marathon PR, I was never going to be at the front of the pack. That I’m built for distance, not for speed. And my answers were probably as unsatisfying for him as they were for me.
What I could have said, what I should have said, is that at some point while training for my first marathon in 2014, I secretly subscribed to Trail Runner, Marathon and Beyond and Ultrarunning magazines. That while I told myself the marathon was a bucket list item I’d wanted, at age 37, to check off my list, there was something stirring inside me. There was something about the glossy photos, not of road runners in big cities with huge medals, but of trail runners in the mountains and doubled over at the side of aid station tents. Where others saw suffering, I saw only magic. That within 23 months of completing my first marathon, I completed my first 100 miler, a race I’d signed up for without ever having run farther than 26.2 (though I eventually did complete a 52 miler during the training ramp, my first ultra). I should have told him that I get so excited on race morning I dance in my underwear. That sometimes I cry with joy on the trail. That ultra running calms me down and zens me out. That it’s the only time there are no emails. It’s made me a better employee and a better leader. It’s made me stronger in 100 ways. I should have told him that I found myself at age 38 on the far side of 26.2.
I wished him good luck at the Lake Sonoma 50 as I left the store. He wished me luck at Bigfoot saying, “I don’t know what it takes to run 200 miles.”
“Neither do I,” I joked.
Later that afternoon, he retweeted a photo I’d posted to the Coconino Cowboys about me wanting to know if I was one of them now that I’d run Grand Canyon twice. One of the others responded, “Back to back canyon days is crushing! Nice work!”
I waited a respectable 12 hours before liking the response.
It took twelve months to realize it was about more than the weather.
I was exhibiting signs of hypothermia and hypoxemia (low blood oxygen) when I crossed the 2017 Black Canyon 100k finish line. Just happy to be indoors at the Mayer High School auditorium race headquarters, I was shocked when EMTs announced to me, “you are in distress,” before attempting to strip me of my soaked clothing and get me to a cot, where I would remain for nearly two hours, a period of that on oxygen.
But all this time I thought the below 40-degree temperatures and incessant rain on the race course caused it. Only now, a year later and back at the Mayer High School track starting line do I realize that I began last year’s race that way: in distress.
It would take me me six months to recover. It was not until I’d read an article by Elinor Fish on the impacts of stress on performance that I understood what I had been doing to myself with long, “always on” work weeks, followed by two weekend days with back-to-back long runs or, more often, race travel. According to Fish, if your “off day” from running is on a work day, it’s not really an off day.
An epiphany. According to Fish’s logic, I’d not had a day off in nearly two years.
Black Canyon was my 12th race of 2017 and, just 7 weeks into the calendar year, I had already run in Florida and in Dubai, as well as traveled to India on business; all many thousands of miles from my Seattle home. I would finally hit bottom in April, after 9 more races (including those in New Mexico and the UK), and business travel to Slovakia. Around the half way point of the Badwater Salton Sea 81-mile race in California, I left my running partner on the trail by himself, despite the requirement that we remain within 25 meters of one another for the entirety of the race. I was in in the midst of a massive panic attack and it was the only thing I could figure out to do at the time. I finished the race alone, losing nearly two hours by first waiting and then carrying on, then pleading with race officials not to disqualify me, while by partner slept in the back seat of the crew vehicle.
I came back to Black Canyon to prove something. Not that I could complete the course (I’d done that last year, despite the hypothermia); and not that I could finish under 17 hours, the time required to secure a lottery ticket for Western States (I’d done that too, despite the hypothermia). I came back to Black Canyon, not to kick the course’s ass, but to give it a bear hug. I wanted to prove to myself I’d thawed out; that I was no longer in distress. I wanted to love this race.
I took a lot of deep breaths. I gazed at the mountains. I stopped and turned around to face the sun. I looked down and, for the first time, noticed the rocks on the trail. Beautiful quartz, in white, purple, pink and coral. Like a child, I discovered that I wanted to pocket all the pieces I found irresistible.
When I started to feel light-headed, no doubt the effect of the warming temperatures and nearly 30 miles of running, I sat down at the Soap Creek aid station and drank 20 oz of Gatorade before continuing on. In more than a dozen ultras, it was my first time sitting at an aid station.
At Black Canyon City, the 60k finish line, my stomach turning on me, I accepted a volunteer’s gracious offer to prepare me some vegan broth; a powdery substance she scooped from a mason jar that I sipped like fine wine before popping two Tums and continuing on.
It was during that 8.8 mile stretch of trail between Black Canyon City and Cottonwood Gulch that I would unite with Benedict, a runner I’d met briefly earlier on in the race. Over the remaining 20 miles, we would accomplish that perfect partnership only trail runners know, of pushing and pulling one another along the trail, waiting and carrying on ahead without expectation and without apology.
And at 59, a mere 5k from the finish, I enjoyed two cups of what I told the volunteer was “gourmet ginger ale.” An off-market brand I’d never heard of, that claimed to be made with real ginger but was still poured from two-liter bottles.
By the time I reached the finish line, it was nearly midnight. 16 hours and 34 minutes after I’d started. Dark. Cold to those waiting, though Benedict and I were in shorts. But I was still running. Nothing hurt badly enough to complain about. I was no longer in distress.
It’s January 14. I’ve been sitting on my final post of 2017 for two weeks. So long, in fact, that I’ve already completed my first race of 2018 — the Bandera 50k on January 6.
The 2017 race year ended with an anti-climax. I’d registered for the Sporty Diva Last Run of the Year, marathon distance on December 31. A 2.8 mile loop course, racers can complete distances of 2.8 miles, all the way up to 26.2. Because of where Christmas and New Years fell in 2016, this same race was actually number 1 in my quest to run 40 races in 2017 on January 1. While I didn’t love the course, I did come to love the people over the several races we’d run together during the year. I also really liked the idea of completing my quest with the same race I’d started it with.
But by lap 4 of 9, I was sick to my stomach. I walked much of that loop, before announcing to Rose, the Race Director, I was done. Just like that.
In fact, I’d been sick a lot over the last few weeks, something I didn’t realize until I found myself at Mile 27 of the Bandera 50k one week later, doubled over in an abandoned barn on the side of the course. Not how I wanted to start the 2018 race season.
2017 was about completing a personal challenge and supporting others but, underlying those laudable goals, it was a year about quantity. Excess. 49 races. 2018 needed to be different.
I am one of those people who considers herself spiritual and not religious. That’s a comfortable way of saying that I see God all the time when I’m running, but only go to church for weddings and funerals. Still, I was receptive last year when my dear friend Tammy at Freedom Runner Girl introduced me to the Word of the Year, a practice by which you receive a word from your higher power meant to guide your year, rather than making a resolution. You can check out a great article about the practice here. My 2017 word, beacon, guided me through the 40 bibs project.
My 2018 word is sow, as in the planting of seeds. It’s about doing little things that will grow into something bigger later on. That means shifting focus from miles and onto things like my persistently tight hips and weak glutes; on stretching over Syrah as a means of relaxation after a long day. By asking what I am sowing with the decisions I am making, I will be focused on the inputs to running strong miles. And I know from my work as a Director at Amazon.com that, to get the best outputs, you need to focus on the input.
My 2018 goal is to complete the Bigfoot 200. It’s terrifying. Much scarier than running 40 races. But I also believe that my fear is a sign that this is exactly the goal that I should have for this year. I look forward to the journey, and I look forward to sowing the seeds that will get me there.
As I write this, there are 10 days left in 2017. When the year is out, I will have exceeded my 40 race goal by 9 races, and supported 27 other runners in races in 14 states and three countries from 5k to 50k. But the goal wasn’t to support 27 runners, it was to support 40. Where to find 13 runners in 10 days?
I hardly remember running before Run the Year. It was around this time in 2014, on the couch of my temporary corporate housing apartment in Seattle, where my husband and I had moved just two months before from Boston, that I stumbled across a tweet announcing that I could “run the year” — 2015 miles in 2015. Having just completed my first three marathons that year and running a total of 1400 miles doing so, the thought of running 2015 was, quite frankly, ludicrous to me.
I signed up immediately.
By the time I passed the 2015 mark in December, I’d collected not only miles, but friends and supporters. It sounds silly, but I didn’t expect the latter.
Andy L., Jason, Jennifer, Julie, Sal (my spirit animal), Gary, Andy C., Tony, Taira, Delia, Rob … only a few of the people I’ve come to know over the last three years. Some win races and qualify for Boston; some run ultras; some walk their way to 2000 solo or as a member of four-person team; and some are just dong the best they can do every day. It’s all okay; we all support one another.
Everyone should have the gift of these people.
I am honored to partner with Run the Edge / Run the Year to give away 13 scholarships for the 2018 Run the Year program, a number they are going to match, for a total of 26 scholarships. Information about the scholarships, the program and how to nominate someone (including yourself) is available here.
I have just one race left in 2017, the Sporty Diva Last Run of the Year Marathon on December 31. And on January 1, I will begin counting mile 1 toward 2018 in 2018. Join me!
A Marathon Personal Record: in three acts
Act 1: Are you kidding me with this weather?
Thunder. Actual, honest-to-God, claps of thunder echoed through the second floor bedroom of the rental house on Turtle Cove Golf Course in Kiawah Island, South Carolina, muffled only by heavy rain sitting the clapboards sideways.
Absent the thunder, the weather was the same as when my husband, David, and I made the 75-minute drive to the Island from Charleston airport the night before. He’d flown in from Seattle; me, from Austin, where I’d been working for the week, and where the weather was also soul-stealing rain. (In Austin, it would turn to snow shortly after my departure, stranding flights on the tarmac for hours).
For nearly 12 months I’d been planning for the Kiawah Island Marathon, chosen for its flat course and generally favorable marathon weather. After three unintentional near-misses earlier in the year, I had my sights set on a personal record.
And now, compulsively checking my weather app for changes to the 41-degree, rainy, race-day forecast, I can see that record washing away. I’ve yet to run in these conditions without flirting with hypothermia.
Act 2: Maybe I’m doing this wrong.
I was drinking wine when I got the email: 2017 Suncadia Multisport Canceled and moving to 2018. The marathon an hour outside of Seattle was hilly, but beautiful, as I recalled from the 2016 race, which I’d completed in slow and disastrous fashion, days after embarking on a 3-day juice fast. I was returning in 2017 with a full belly not only to run strong, but to attempt a personal record. Having come within 2-minutes of a PR without actually trying to do so on flat courses but without a taper at Disney, in Dubai and in Washington earlier this year, Suncadia felt doable. I also thought that a small PR there, seconds even, would bode well for a more significant PR in Kiawah Island in December.
And now the race was cancelled.
Not for the first time, I flash back to an article I read by Elinor Fish earlier in the week. The one where she talks about accounting for total stress load when training; not just mileage run, but work stress and home stress. The article in which, like a cartoon hammer bonking me on the head, I’d realized my Monday “rest days” from 6-day per week training schedule weren’t really rest days if I still had a full workday. Holy crap, I’d thought when I read the article. I haven’t really had a “rest day” since I started doing Saturday-Sunday, back-to-back long runs when training for my first stage race in the Spring of 2015.
Two years is a long time to go without a real rest day. And it could explain the nagging pain in my right glute that didn’t away after PR-ing the Chicago Marathon last October; the weird throbbing in my left ankle that came and went through the Spring; oh, and the rash on my neck that, while not visible to others, itched like crazy periodically through the day and after exercise, causing me to raise my chin in the air and scratch at the skin around my wind-pipe, like a retriever seeking reward for good behavior.
For a week I’d been sitting on this newly-discovered insight, unsure what to do about it. Suncadia’s cancellation was a divine sign: To speed up, I obviously needed to slow down.
Over the course of a week, I turned upside down the running schedule that had gotten me through 35 marathons and ultras. I emerged from this self-imposed reset with Sundays off, with 20 weeks to go before Kiawah Island.
Act 3: We talked about this. You just need to go.
My alarm went off at 6:00am. With my eyes still adjusting, I tapped the weather app. 6:00 – clouds. 7:00 – clouds. 8:00 – clouds. 9:00 – clouds. 10:00 – clouds. 11:00 – clouds. 12:00 – clouds. 1:00 – clouds. 2:00 – clouds. 3:00 – clouds. 4:00 – clouds. 5:00 – clouds. 6:00 – clouds. Last night’s weather reports showed rain all day but, overnight, they’d proven wrong. The rain had completely moved out of the area.
Downstairs, Cathy, Tammy and I twittered like little girls on Christmas morning, while our husbands waited patiently to drive us to the start line, 2 miles away. We’d armed them with a course map, and precise times at which to look for us among the pack. Tammy, running the half marathon, could be spotted at Miles 2 and 7 in the vicinity of our rental house. Cathy and I, running the full, expected to see them at 2 and 21.5. They would also meet us at the finish, where Cathy planned on pacing me to a PR.
We’d had The Talk the day before. We were running together, but if either of us felt particularly good, or particularly bad, we would separate. Cathy just set a marathon PR in October, and had her sights set on her next “A” race — the 2018 Boston Marathon in April. Kiawah was my “A” race.
We crossed the 13.1 mile split exactly on goal pace. We wouldn’t need to negative split — run the second half faster than the first — but we couldn’t go slower.
At Mile 16 I started to pull ahead slightly, but held back once Cathy appeared off my right shoulder. I’d made a similar move at Mile 15 of the Blooms to Brews Marathon in April, and I had proven the wrong decision; I’d missed a PR by 20 seconds.
At 19, despite an inkling to move faster, I hung back with Cathy. Afraid of burning out to early, I’d decided at the beginning to run comfortably until at least 20 or 23. And, to reach my goal, I just needed to maintain. But Cathy would hear none of it. “You’re looking strong. We talked about this. You just need to go.”
Do or die, you’ll never make me… I unwound my left earbud from the strap of my sports bra, where I’d tucked it before the race so I could both listen to music and hear Cathy. My Chemical Romance’s “Welcome to the Black Parade” played into both ears now, an anthem for the final stretch. Go and try, you’ll never break me… I crossed the 20 mile marker and, for the first time since the 13.1-mile split, looked at my watch. Cathy had been our time keeper, but I was now on my own. I’m unashamed, I’m gonna show my scars… I could slow by approximately 20 seconds per mile for the next 10k and still make my goal time. Not a reason to slow, but still, piece of mind. We’ll carry on…
I turned right onto our street and counted the mailboxes to #7, the house we’d rented. Once in sight, I began waiving my neon orange mitten into the air. Tammy descended the porch steps, followed by my husband David, and her husband Chris. “I’m good!” I shouted. “I’m right on time!”
“Good!” Tammy shouted back. “Where is Cathy?”
“Right behind me!” I didn’t wait for a response. I rounded the corner, and they were gone.
I crossed the finish line with a 4 minute and 52 second PR, nearly two minutes faster than my goal time. Cathy came in shortly thereafter, having also met her goal of helping me hit mine.
After 48 races, 9 marathons and 5 ultras, the PR was the last thing I felt like I needed to accomplish this year. I worked hard for this race, but still wonder, vaguely, if I can finish much faster with a proper training plan — one that doesn’t involve 3 marathons and a 50k in the eight week run up. For now, I’m content not to know the answer. I don’t want to stop marathoning long enough to find out.
Deep in the throes of the New Marathoner High, and newly transplanted to Seattle after a lifetime on the east coast, I completed the Amica Seattle Marathon for the first time in 2014 on a day so cold it broke local weather records. A photograph of the winner, his beard crusted with icicles, appeared in the media. Some three years and 31 marathons later, I still tell the story of cold so debilitating that, despite double-layered mittens, I lost the use of my hands to Rinaud’s (a condition not uncommon in women in which blood vessels in the fingers close in completely, cutting off blood flow to one or more digits for a period of time) and, at Mile 18, implored a spectator, a stranger, to bite the top of my gel packet off for me because I couldn’t grip the package strongly enough to bite it off myself. I would pass my husband waiting to cheer me on at Mile 25, his hat pulled low and scarf piled high, with tears streaming down my face. I’m just so cold, I remember whimpering. He felt so badly for me he tried to chase me to the finish.
The 2017 Seattle Marathon website boasted an expected 15,000 entrants across the half and full marathon distances, but the races would finish just under 5,000, amidst sideways rain and 43 degree temperatures. Soaked through every layer of clothing, including those ostensibly protected by my rain jacket and waterproof sneakers, my teeth began a literal chatter in the final race miles, and during the nearly two-mile walk home. It seemed a better idea to just keep moving, than to await an Uber trying to navigate Thanksgiving weekend downtown Seattle marathon traffic. I was just so cold.
While I don’t ever ask myself why I run marathons, I have begun to ask myself why I run this marathon. Pirouetting in the shower, periodically checking to see if I can make the water hotter, even though the lever is turned as far left as it can go, I imagine I’ll run in 2018. They can’t all end like this.
A series of small, friendly races around metro Seattle during Thanksgiving week are big on smiles and low on fan-fair. In one, the Balanced Athlete Half Marathon, participants are few enough to gather inside the Renton, Washington running store before the race, where they sip coffee and hot chocolate; and after the race, where they eat homemade cupcakes.
The other, the Wattle Waddle marathon and Wittle Waddle Half on Thanksgiving Day, marks the first of four races known as the Seattle Quadzuki (4 halfs in 4 days), and Quadzilla (4 marathons in 4 days). Despite that feat of aerobic strength and mental fortitude (particularly in what is notoriously a terribly wet and cold race weekend in Seattle), racers and organizers remain in good spirits.
Races 46 and 47 complete. Bring on the home stretch.
I remember learning about Rosa Parks as a child. A simplistic story of a black woman who refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger, and it started a civil rights movement. As a child, I thought it was a story about a moment of strength. It was not until I got older that I learned the full story. That Rosa Parks got in physical fights as a child to protect herself, and was an active member of the NAACP a dozen years before she rode that Montgomery bus. It was a moment of strength that brought Rosa Parks to the country’s attention, but it was a life of strength that put her on the bus in the first place.
I was reminded of this today while running with Kelly Herron.
Google her, and pick one of dozens of results to learn how, while training for her first marathon earlier this year, she was attacked in a Seattle park public bathroom. Fighting for her life, all the while shouting “Not today, motherf**ker!,” Kelly escaped, stitched and bruised, and shared her story on social media. It went viral. Women and runners everywhere, including me, talked about “that runner in Seattle” and her moment of strength.
Through profiles in Women’s Running, and through social media, Kelly and I connected online shortly before she completed the Chicago Marathon in October. But, given we are two strong women runners living in the same city, it made sense only that we would do one thing together: we would run.
This race was not my longest or my toughest. It was on a course I’d run before, in weather stereotypical for Seattle in fall. But Race #44 was special. Over the course of the race, Kelly and I talked about running and working, the people we used to be and the people we are now. We cursed and we laughed, often at the same time. And as we crossed the finish line, Kelly’s first trail race completed, I realized that it was a moment of strength that thrust Kelly into the public conscious, but a life of strength that put her in that park in the first place. And I am honored she shared 5 miles worth of that extraordinary life with me.
Anyone that knows me suspected this would happen. That I would not only meet my quest of running 40 races in 2017 for my 40th birthday, but that, upon doing so, I was unlikely to take a rest. In fact, as I approached 40 races on October 22, there seemed only one real answer to the question, what’s next? That answer is 52.
Race 41 was at Cougar Mountain in Newcastle, Washington, the same course I ran on July 8th for race 28, when I’d finished that race nearly 25 minutes faster than I’d run it the year before. On October 28, however, I shaved another 11 minutes off my time.
Still, it’s four hours on the race course with nearly 4,000 feet of elevation gain. Yet multi-hour races seem only to drive me to want to do more multi-hour races.
I ran the following weekend’s In Unity We Run marathon in Kent for no other reason than it made me a 33-time marathoner. And, just one week later and 800 miles south, I ran the Mt. Tam 30k in Stinson Beach, California.
Fifty-two is definitely within reach.
Athletes are superstitious. It is reported that Michael Jordan wore his University of North Carolina shorts under his Chicago Bulls uniform while leading the team to six national championships. So when I picked up my race bib for the Runner’s World Grand Slam — races 37-40 on the year — and found it was actually my birthday (I was born on August 23), I took it as an excellent omen.
I gave myself the calendar year to complete this challenge. My birthday was in Week 35, which meant I would have to have raced more than once a week to meet 40 races by that date. I was afraid that such an aggressive racing schedule would turn the challenge from something fun to something tedious. While, in hindsight, I could have hit 40 by August 23, completing the challenge in Bethlehem, where I’ve raced in every Runner’s World Half since the race’s inception 6 years ago, was an obvious finishing point. A northeast race also meant that my east coast girlfriends and family could take part with me.
I crossed the finish line to posters and t-shirts, a new feeling after so many races on my own. And the question: What’s next? The answer is, of course: More races. I still have runners to sponsor, and 11 more weeks in the year. I’m only 40, but 52 feels good. 🙂