For almost 3 miles, we felt great! Our chatting turned to silent determination as we pushed forward along the course. I had brought a handful of pretzels from the aid station, anticipating the need for an energy boost, but I hardly touched them. My reactions to seeing our progress on my GPS watch switched from resentment at how little time had past to excitement that we had covered another half mile of trail with hardly a thought.
By this point, I was well practiced in an age-old Ultramarathoner's trick of "breaking up the course into manageable chunks." The last had been the bag drop at mile 22, and the next was our final aid station around 26.5.
Unfortunately, as the aid station came closer, time seemed to move slower. "Just 2 miles" until the aid station didn't seem as promising as it should have. We fell back into a slower pace, at one point arguing over the exact distance to our goal. Around this time I learned of Shannon's apathy (maybe even a little resentment?) toward one of the most well known Ultramarathoners around, both of whose books I've read and enjoyed. She also told me about one of her favorite running tricks: when you start to get angry about everything during a run (as I like to call this: "entering the Bite-me Zone"), eat something. It always seems to help, she said. I ate a pretzel.
We reached the aid station, and for the first time during the race, I stopped running to get a refill and a quick bite. My 3rd apple fried pie (the first two of which I ate at miles 5 and 12) tasted awful. We chatted a little too long with the aid station volunteers about running nutrition and snakes, I threw away my last bite of fried pie, and we got on our way for the final leg of the race.
During our next couple of walk breaks, we recognized the fact that I had possibly just become an Ultramarathoner by finishing the 27th mile. We weren't sure if I had to actually finish the race to earn the title, but we decided it was probably close enough.
But soon after, our chats tapered off. We held pace as well as we could, although it became harder and harder to want to continue. By mile 29, we had nothing left to do but grit our teeth and dig deep. We started our final push as we ran through the center of a Boy Scouts campsite. They had jokingly offered us hot dogs on our first pass about 2 hours earlier, but disappointingly, there were no hot dogs waiting for us this time around. We pushed on anyway.
There's this trick I've started using to find inspiration in the later miles. I have a stack of cards that I keep in a pouch, and the cards are printed with my favorite quotes about running. I have a few from John Bingham, a couple Steve Prefontaine, and a smattering of others. Sometimes when I'm getting tired or losing motivation, I'll pick a card to hang onto for a while.
I had started picking cards during walk breaks several miles earlier, but this time I had one specific card in mind. I needed to see it. I needed to hold it in my hand. It's the one card in the stack that would be meaningless to anyone else, and it's the one I needed more than any other.
The quote is from my dad. It comes from almost 2 years ago when my parents visited for the weekend of my first marathon, which I was running with Team in Training in honor of my dad, who was suffering from prostate cancer. I referred to my dad as my "Honored Hero," Team in Training's term for the cancer victims we work so hard for. My dad wouldn't accept the term. He had a humility that told him others were always more deserving of such respectful titles.
The weather was awful on race day (40 degrees and raining during all 5 hours of the race), and I was worried that my parents wouldn't be able to wait outside to see me finish. I had suffered through the last 2 hours of running, mostly by feeling dejected over out-pacing myself at my first-ever marathon, and I was ready for the finish line. I had finally pushed myself back into a run, and a quick one at that, when I made the last turn toward the finish line.
First, I saw the crowd. They were all cheering for those of us finishing the arduous journey. Then I saw the finish line, the pinnacle of the event. Then I heard one voice. It screamed through the crowd, yelling "you're my hero!!!" I knew even before I saw his face that the words were meant for me. My dad stood out in the cold rain, waiting for me, just so he could tell me that I was HIS hero. At a time when I thought my tank had run dry, I drained every last drop trying to prove him right, even though I knew he had it backwards.
"You're my hero!!!"
That's the card I needed to see, because I never stopped running in honor of my dad. He has been my inspiration run after run, race after race, and day after day. The night he died, when everyone else went to rest after a long, sleepless night, I went for a run, because that's what connected me with the spirit of my dad. And by mile 29 of my Ultramarathon, I had spent many miles with the memory of my dad running next to me, encouraging me, giving me strength. As I went into the final 2 miles of my Ultramarathon, I needed to hear my dad's voice one more time.
Shannon continued to be my pacer, and as she pushed the pace, I followed step for step. My friend Brant was waiting for us a mile from the finish, and I made sure to drag him along while he tried to snap a few pictures. I saw more familiar faces as I pushed through the final stretch. At the last moment, before the 20-step climb to the finish line, Shannon pulled back. "This is your first, it's your moment." I dropped down for a burpee (it's a CG thing), turned, and sprinted up the stairs to the finish.
My medal was waiting, along with a cold bottle of water, and many congratulations. I don't remember much else, except how hard it was to stand back up. I did get a couple of great congratulatory gifts from my friends, and a ham and cheese quesadilla from a race volunteer that I barely finished, both hugely appreciated.
You know how sometimes you mentally understand something, but somehow that understanding hasn't reached that place in your heart where you really know it to be true? That's where I was after the race. Sitting at a picnic table between friends, still focused on getting water and calories into my body, slowly realizing that I was done. My 31.1 mile journey was over. I was an Ultramarathoner.
Now, there's 1 question that seems to be on everyone's mind. Will I do it again? I learned one thing during this experience, and it's the one thing that will keep me coming back again and again. To paraphrase Roger Hart:
What did I learn from running 31 miles, speeding through many miles and some not running at all, the miles run over rocks and roots and those long, dusty trails below the trees looking out onto the lake, my feet softly ticking against the trail?
I learned I was alive, and it felt good. God, it felt so good.
Always moving forward,