The One That Haunted Me
"A life lived in fear is a life half lived."
I first ran the McDonaldForest 50k in 2011. Not only was I new to ultrarunning, I was new to running period. I had no business toeing that start line, but I had no idea at the time. The race was difficult, painful, and I almost quit twice. Somehow, I managed to finish, but I did so limping across the finish line with ITB issues (the quintessential injury of the inexperienced runner) and in a regrettable 8:03:53.
Last year, I vowed to return to McDonald Forest to face my demons, and I anxiously awaited my chance to run the course again, until I tore my left peroneal tendon and was relegated to a boot. Instead of running the long-anticipated race, I returned to McDonald Forest injured and as a volunteer. Disappointed and demoralized, I swore again that I'd return.
This year, I trained and I planned. I trained and I tapered. I ran hills and I ran for speed. Finally, last Saturday, I returned to McDonald Forest once again, this time with ample respect for the distance, terrain, and difficulty of the course and profound appreciation for every step I was about to take. I nervously toed the start line, shaking with anticipation and excitement and terrified to face the course that almost broke me.
The MAC course is a complicated one, so it’s difficult to recount. It consists of 31.4 miles of technical single-track trail, water crossings, and fire road and has an overall elevation gain of approximately 7,300 ft. It is a difficult course under any circumstances. This year, runners also had to contend with temperatures significantly hotter than what Oregonians are accustomed to this time of year. When I finished running, the temperature had reached 84 degrees.
The race begins with a short loop of approximately two miles
around a lake. In 2012, I was positioned at
this lake during the first portion of my volunteer assignment. It was less than
a mile from the start line, so I was able to hobble there without much
difficulty. I stood there for several hours, directing runners off of the fire
road and onto the trail that would lead them into the woods. Afterward, I stood at the finish line, calling numbers as runner after runner crossed. This year, as I
ran past that spot, I felt almost as though I was passing a ghost that only I
could see, one standing there in her black tights and tech shirt, teary-eyed as
she watched the runners pass, trying to look strong and uninjured. I waved goodbye to that person as I passed.
The next several miles were uneventful. It was already hot by midmorning, so I focused on hydrating and fueling and pushing through the exposed sections as fast as I could. I chose to run with two handheld bottles over running with a pack because I wanted to monitor my water and electrolyte consumption and balance vigilantly. By race end, I had consumed an unprecedented amount of liquid, well over 200oz
One of the more difficult climbs on this course is the climb to
Dimple Hill. The Dimple Hill aid station is well over halfway in (18 or so
miles), but I viewed this as the halfway point. When I reached this aid station
in 2011, I felt defeated. I was struggling with knee pain and I was overcome by
exhaustion. I knew that if I could make it to that aid station this year still
feeling strong, I would be positioned well (both mentally and physically) for
the remainder of the race. I spent the entire climb to that aid station
preparing myself for how I needed to feel. When I arrived, I was tired and
dripping with sweat, but I felt much stronger than I had hoped. I fueled
quickly and ran through the aid station, waving goodbye to the ghost me who
stood there beaten, contemplating quitting. I acknowledged that version of
myself long enough to bid it farewell. I barely recognized her. Excited to pick up some speed, I
descended Dimple Hill a little too quickly, resulting in stomach pains and some
minor vomiting, both of which I was able to run through, blissfully happy to have
met and overcome yet another demon from that past race.
As the temperature increased and I reached the more exposed areas of the course, my pace slowed, but I still felt strong. I began to check my watch a little more frequently, monitoring my elapsed time. I went into this race with the goal of finishing in under 7:00, which would have been a significant accomplishment on that course, in that heat, and given my previous finish time. At a certain point, I realized that even if I walked the remainder of the distance, I would still achieve my goal. Clearly I had not set my sights high enough. I ran faster. Soon, I realized that not only would I finish in sub-7:00, but I might actually finish in 6:45. Then, gasp! I was afraid to even think it. Was it possible for me to finish in under 6:40? Could I actually hit 6:30? That would be miraculous. No! I would not allow myself to think it. I got closer and closer and I was still running strong. I wasn’t hiking, hobbling, or shuffling. No, I was running. As I turned onto the final section of single-track trail that leads to the finish, I realized that not only was a 6:30 time feasible, but that I would finish well under 6:30. Astounded, I ran faster.
As I neared the finish, I passed several runners, as if riding
the non-existent wind. Fueled by excitement, I couldn’t believe how quickly I was moving. Then, I
encountered a hill. I had been climbing all day. I was running strong,
but I was exhausted and hot. I saw that hill coming and knew that I
couldn’t run it. I was going to have to hike. I stopped. A voice from behind me
said “You’re running strong. I don’t want to take your place from you, so what
do ya say we grind out a few more hills?” “It’s so much easier to give up,” I
said without looking back, and I started running again. I was not wearing my heart rate monitor, but
I didn’t need it to know that my heart started to race. The burst of exertion
coupled with excitement of nearing the finish was almost too much for my body
to take. My head throbbed. I ran the hill, only to descend and encounter another. I ran that one
too. No, I didn’t need to hike. I could run; I just needed someone to remind me. Run I did, faster and
faster and faster, crossing the finish line in 6:18:47 and 5
in my age group. More importantly, I out ran every single ghost and every fear that had haunted me from the course for the last two years.