"How do you Feel?"

Pre-race (photo by Paul Nelson)

Pre-race (photo by Paul Nelson)

“How do you feel?” asked a friend as we crowded around the start line of the Hagg Lake Mud Run 50k. I always hate that question. The fact was that it didn’t matter how I felt. The fact was that the way I felt wouldn’t matter for several hours. The truth was, though, that I was incredibly nervous. This was my fourth year running this race and I had high expectations. I had been training for weeks to recover from injuries, strengthen my weaknesses, and improve my speed. Then, three weeks before the race, I got sick with the virus that had taken co-workers down one by one. Apparently, it was my turn and no amount of vitamin C was going to change that. To add injury, in the midst of being sick, I experienced a violent attack of vertigo and nausea caused by vestibular neuritis (a viral nerve inflammation), which landed me in urgent care and physical therapy, from which I am still experiencing side effects. Finally, as if being sick, dizzy, and nauseous were not bad enough, my left leg began to seize up during those weeks, making it painful to even walk, much less run. Consequently, I spent my taper sucking on cough drops, drinking tea and eating soup, and rolling my leg. I did not run. I did not regain strength through rest. In fact, between leg pain and coughing fits, it was everything I could do to sleep through the night. How did I feel as I toed the start line? Terrified. 

Henry Hagg Lake (photo by Long Run Picture Company)

Henry Hagg Lake (photo by Long Run Picture Company)

The race course is a double loop -- consisting of a combination of single-track and cross-country conditions with some pavement intermixed -- around Henry Hagg Lake. However, since a loop around the lake is only 14 miles, the race begins with a single out-and-back, totaling 3.1 miles, up and down a gravel road.

As I began the trek up the hill of the out-and-back, I could feel the nagging pain in my left leg. I kept hoping that the ibuprofen I had taken that morning would take effect soon and that the knots would loosen up over time. To my surprise, the hill was not the slog I remembered of previous years. Clearly I had gained strength after a year of running mountains, though I had not realized how much until I ran this hill. As I began my descent, I started to feel better, but I was still plagued by uncertainty. I glanced down at my watch as I would so many times during that day. My average pace was in the low 8s. I needed to slow down. I knew that, even though I felt good, I was starting out way too fast. Still, my 8:35 average persisted for several miles even as I began the first loop around the lake.

I ran the first loop without incident. When I reached the second aid station 13 miles in or so, I was greeted by volunteers I recognized from previous years. I spent no longer than 60 seconds at that aid station, just long enough to refill my water bottle and grab some fuel. As I left, I heard a volunteer say: “We’ll see you in a couple of hours.” “A couple of hours,” I thought. Her words echoed in my head. I had not glanced at my watch in a while. “I must be ahead of pace.” 

I continued through the 4.3 miles from the aid station to the start/finish area. These final miles are often the muddiest miles of the course and are aptly referred to as the “pigpen.” I ran through the pigpen as quickly as possible, trying to be light on my feet and jump the mud where possible. While running through this section, however, I landed wrong on my right foot, tweaking my right knee. I heard a pop. It hurt instantly, but it was manageable pain, so I assumed it would subside with time. Unfortunately, it never did and I contended with the knee pain for the remaining 16 or so miles.

 (Photo by Long Run Picture Company)

 (Photo by Long Run Picture Company)

As I reached the start/finish area at the end of my second loop (27k in), I felt exhausted. My legs were tired and my knee hurt but, more notably, my body had the exhausted feeling one gets from overexertion at the end of a cold. I turned the corner of the trail and saw the race clock: 2:57:34. I was three minutes ahead of my anticipated time. I was thrilled, but I was exhausted. “How do you feel?” a friend yelled from the aid station. I hesitated to acknowledge how I felt. “Like crap,” I said. “You’re bleeding,” she said. I looked down. My arms and my legs were dripping blood from the blackberry bushes that pervaded the trail this year. I was glad to see the blood. It meant that the sharp pain I had felt in my right calf for several miles was the result of a gash from a thorn and not a tear as I had feared. I spent the most time at this aid station (probably close to three minutes), talking and refueling. “There’s hot chocolate over there,” said a friend. “I can’t get comfortable,” I said. “I have a PR to run.” With that, I headed back onto the trail.

 (Photo by Long Run Picture Company)

 (Photo by Long Run Picture Company)

The next loop was painful. I was well-fueled, but tired. I was just over 17 miles in and I was worn out. I cursed my body for being weak and getting sick. I cursed myself for thinking I could actually run the time I had hoped. I cursed myself for not getting another massage and for not seeing my chiropractor. I had the proverbial devil on one shoulder telling me I was worthless and that I should turn around. I pushed forward, despite my inclination to stop for fear that my race was already over. I knew I could cover the distance; I’d done that many times over and on many different courses. I didn’t care about finishing; I cared about finishing in a certain amount of time.

In the next four miles, I started to experience a reoccurrence of dizziness and nausea resulting from the vestibular neuritis. I was having trouble seeing straight and I was sick to my stomach. Whenever the sun peered from behind the clouds, I felt like I was going to vomit. I pushed through the nausea and reached the next aid station, moving slowly, but still moving. I watched as my average pace increased, first from ahead of pace to being within range, then to being right on track, and then, finally, to being behind pace. I ignored the devil on my shoulder that continued to tell me that I was better than this pathetic performance and I continued to push.

By the time I reached the next aid station (about 26 miles in), the nausea and dizziness had subsided and I was ready to finish and make up the time that I had lost (my goal was still attainable). “Isn’t it amazing how tiring 26 miles can be?” said a volunteer. “What’s amazing,” I said, “is how 4.3 final miles can feel like 26 more.” I grabbed a Gu and I left the aid station, determined to blaze through the final 4.3 miles as quickly as I could, powerhiking if I had to, but never stopping.

My watch was set to alert me to fuel every 45 minutes. As the race progressed, I stopped watching my average pace -- knowing that the mileage my watch had lost over the course of the race had skewed the pace that my watch read -- and started counting the number of alerts (4, 5, 6, 7). As I neared the end of my second loop, I knew that, even given the most favorable margin of error with my watch, I was getting dangerously close to my time goal. I pushed as hard as I could on legs that had the dead feeling that only comes from racing as hard as you physically can. I got closer and closer to the finish, first surfacing from the trees onto a short stretch of pavement, and then back down onto single-track and through a parking lot. I hit the parking lot and ran past two volunteers: “Half mile?” I asked. As soon as I heard myself ask the question I wondered why I had asked it. I knew how far I had to go. I had run the race three times previously and had already completed the first loop. I knew how far I had to go, but, for some reason, I needed to hear someone confirm the distance. “Not even,” said one of the volunteers. “Maybe a quarter mile.” The clock was ticking and I was moving slowly. Just as I started to think that I might actually make my goal, my watch sounded for the eighth time. That was it. Six hours and I still had a quarter mile to go. Disappointment and anger set in.

A disappointing finish (photo by Long Run Picture Company)

A disappointing finish (photo by Long Run Picture Company)

I dipped back down onto single-track, catching glimpses of the finish line through the trees and hearing the crowd of friends, volunteers, and fellow runners cheer. I got closer and heard friends yelling my name. I wishfully glanced up at the clock, hoping my watch was wrong. 6:02:36, it read as I crossed the finish line. As I crossed the finish, I grabbed onto the metal frame holding the race chute to keep myself from collapsing. I felt the comforting arms of friends around my shoulders as I hunched over, one hand grasping the race chute and one on my knee. “Dammit!” I yelled. “How do you feel?” asked my friend Sarah D. “Dammit!” I yelled again. “I was so close!” How did I feel? Horrible. Disappointed. Angry. Like I left every ounce of what I had on the course and it still wasn't enough, like I had absolutely nothing left to give.

In the two weeks that have elapsed since the race, I have gained the inevitable perspective that comes with time. My legs are slowly starting to recover and I'm less and less nauseous with each passing day. I'm still disappointed and I have no doubt that I am better than that race performance. Still, I find solace in my more than 22-minute PR and I look forward to next year.