At the beginning of April, I went for a short, after-work run with my friend, Sarah. She was running her final shakeout before heading to Boston. I was trying to shake off my 100-mile DNF from a couple weeks before. We ran at a conversational 8:30 or so pace. As we ran, Sarah told me that she thought I could win my age group at our upcoming 50 miler in July. It had never occurred to me that I could win anything. For the last 2.5 years, I had just tried to get through my races. No matter how hard I trained, I didn’t look like those people who won and I certainly didn't perform like they did. At that point, I wasn’t even confident that I could finish the race.
Sarah and I parted ways earlier than planned that evening. The tear in my calf was bothering me and I didn’t want to push the mileage. Something she said, though, lit the proverbial flame and I started to run faster without even thinking about it. I glanced at my watch: 7:30. “Wow,” I thought. “I wonder how long I can hold that. Maybe I can go faster.” 7:15. 7:00. 6:50. “Holy hell! I broke 7:00.” I was elated. I had hope. Maybe I could place after all.
As I walked home that evening, my left ankle started to burn. “It’s okay,” I thought. “I’ll ice it and take some ibuprofen when I get home.” The next morning, I ran again. Little did I know that would be my last run for more than ten weeks. Nine days later, I learned that that burning in my ankle was actually a torn peroneal tendon and I would be relegated to a walking boot and countless physical therapy sessions for several weeks. I would not be able to run, despite my efforts.
My diagnosis was demoralizing. Like many injured runners, I went to a very dark place. My physical therapist threw around words like “surgery” and “time off.” After weeks of denial, I reached the realization that I would be lucky to run any of the races on my ambitious schedule this year, much less race any of them. I had given up my aspirations of placing at the 50 miler.
I followed my physical therapist’s instructions to care for my ankle and regain strength, but I refused to believe that I had to stop training. No, I could not run, not even the quarter mile that my physical therapist cleared me to run. No, I could not walk or hike or use a stair climber, but I could use an elliptical and a stationary bike and I could still lift weights. So I trained. Instead of going for long trail runs on the weekends, I went to the gym for 3, 4, 5 hours at a time. I trained. Mile after mile on the elliptical, the bike, and, eventually, the stair climber, I trained. Finally, on a day beautiful June day, I ran again. It was not fast and it was not far, but I ran. The next weekend, I ran a little farther. The next weekend, I ran a 50k. I had hope.
Long before dawn on July 28th, I joined several friends (runners and volunteers) at the Timothy Lake Ranger Station on Mt. Hood, where I would toe the line of the 50-mile race. I had many goals for the race: I wanted to PR my time from the year before. I wanted to break 11 hours and qualify for Western States. I wanted to win my age group. Most of all, I wanted to walk away from the race uninjured. I knew this race would either make me stronger or break me down. The knots in my stomach were unbearable. I was blissfully happy to have the opportunity to run after such a difficult recovery, but I was terrified.
As I toed the starting line, I had so many aspirations for the race, but so few expectations. I stood next to my friend Sarah as she tried to calm me down. She looked at me and said: "Let's try to stay together for the first mile or so." I was thankful for the company. When the gun went off, we ran side by side, talking like it was any other Saturday morning. My nerves started to calm.
I knew I couldn't hold Sarah's pace for the entire race (she's simply a stronger runner than I am), but I figured I would try for as long as I could. We continued to run together, passing people when necessary. I felt good.
We reached the end of the first out and back (the first turnaround) at Frog Lake (14.2 miles) in 2:30. I was already tired and my muscles were sore. I questioned whether I had gone out too hard, but I tried to push those feelings of doubt aside. I would never know unless I kept pushing. I knew I wouldn't achieve my goals for the day if I ran conservatively.
Sarah and I ran together for another 3-4 miles, but slowly parted ways when I stopped to use the restroom. I told her I'd catch up, but I doubted I'd be able to. I was tired. I had gone out too hard too early. The next ten miles were very hard for me. I was tired and sore and I had unbearable side stitches. I continued to push, but I never caught up with Sarah. Demoralized, I decided not to look at my watch; I knew my time would just make me feel worse.
As I approached the start/finish area (the 28-mile split), I felt horrible. My calf had been hurting for 6 miles and I was tired. I turned the corner to the ranger station and saw Yassine Diboun waiting for me. He asked how I felt: "Everything hurts, but I'm still moving," I said. He ran along side me, at what must have felt like a crawling pace for him, and asked what I needed. "Oranges," I said. He ran ahead, announcing my bib number to the volunteer.
I reached the aid station and saw my friend Lynn, who was volunteering. "Sarah is going to be so happy to see you," she said. "Sarah? How long ago did she leave," I asked. "She's still here. She's waiting for you," said Lynn. I was so happy. The last ten miles had been miserable. I hoped I could keep up with Sarah for a few miles until the pain subsided. Normally, I have no problem running for hours by myself. This day, however, was one of those days when I needed support. Yassine and Lynn took care of me, bringing me food and wiping the sweat and sunscreen from my eyes. Yassine looked at me and said: "You and Sarah stay together today."
I saw Sarah emerge from the bathrooms. I was so happy to see her. "Unless I hold you back too much, I want to stay together today," she said. "I agree," I responded, and we set out for the second and final out and back.
The next several miles went by without incident. Sometimes we chatted, but we mostly ran in that comfortable silence that comes after hours and hours of long training runs together. When we finally began the climb to the Warm Springs aid station (the second turnaround), we both felt demoralized. The climb was longer than either of us recalled and it felt like it would never end. We finally reached the aid station and met our friend Julie, who was volunteering. She gave us ginger ale and ice, we ate, and we pushed on. As we left the aid station, Sarah said "Okay. We have two and a half hours to get you a Western States qualifier." I didn't think it was still possible, but that comment rejuvenated me and I was ready for the challenge. "I already know I won't win my age group," I said. "I don't want to know our time." Sarah respected that and never mentioned our time again.
We continued to push. I found my pain cave and I kept running. I had no idea how I was still running. Several miles passed and we began to run faster. My calf hurt a lot. Still, I ran. I moaned in pain. I was having trouble breathing. "Do you need anything?" Sarah yelled back to me. "A new heart," I said. "My heart hurts." "Push," Sarah said. I ran up the final hill that I walked last year. "There's the road," Sarah said. The finish line was up ahead. We ran down the road, which was lined with friends and volunteers cheering us on. As I turned the final corner to the start/finish area, I saw the race clock. 10:30, it read. "That can't be right," I thought. I blinked and wiped my eyes, assuming my vision was blurred by sunscreen, sweat, and exhaustion. I glanced up: 10:31. I was going to qualify for Western States! I crossed the finish line in 10:31:58 with a PR of more than 1:15:00, I wrapped my sweaty arms around Sarah, and I started to cry. "We did it!" I exclaimed.
Once I calmed a little, I asked my friend Seth what my age group ranking was. I hesitated because I was sure I didn't place, but I had to ask. He said he would check. He returned: "I didn't want to tell you until they were sure, but you were first." His words echoed in my head. I couldn't believe it.
Yassine found a chair for me and told me to sit. As I ate a burger and cooled off, I reveled in my unexpected accomplishments. Yassine kneeled by my side: "Doesn't it feel good to run that hard?" he asked. "Yes," I said. "I've never run so hard in my life."