Overcoming Obstacles

"There is no greater source of discipline than the effort demanded in overcoming obstacles." -- Simone Weil

Three and a half weeks ago, a medical provider told me that it was unlikely I would ever run more than five miles again, and even doing that would take me several months. Two weeks prior, I hyperextended my left kneecap while sweeping a race course. My knee made a loud popping sound, one of those soul-crushing sounds that you know deep down means something bad, and I was barely able to walk. Despite rest, a steroid injection, aggressive physical therapy, and heavy doses of every anti-inflammatory treatment one could think of, I saw only minimal improvement. I saw medical provider after medical provider, but no one had a definitive diagnosis. In all likelihood, it was a severe sprain, probably to the ACL. Rehabilitation was going to be slow and only time would tell whether I would recover fully. I sat out my next race, the White River 50, which I had planned on being my Western States qualifier this year. Sad though I was, I knew it was the responsible decision. I accepted that I was going to lose my entry in the WS lottery and that I would need to start over next year. There would be other races, as everyone assured me, though it didn't feel that way. "All of that training," I would tell my friends, "all of the speed work and the doubles, the stairs and the hills, all of those long days in the Gorge. It was all for nothing."

To say that I was terrified to toe the starting line of the Waldo 100k  last weekend would be an understatement. I ran the race in 2012. I knew the difficult climbs and technical descents that awaited me. I knew that it would only take one fall to snap my knee and put an end to my ability to run for good. The night before the race, I quietly sat in the car outside our cabin, staring down at my knee. I asked my friend Dana for reassurance: "It's going to be okay, right?" "Don't give that any space in your head," she said. I tried to push my anxiety aside, but it was hard. The next morning as I waited for the race to start, I paced back and forth in the Willamette Pass lodge, thinking about the course ahead and what I was willing to do to finish. My goal was realistic: I wanted to finish uninjured. Ideally, I wanted to finish before the 18-hour cutoff to get a hat. In my perfect world, I wanted to finish in 16 hours, though I knew that was incredibly unlikely. That was an ambitious goal for me under even the best circumstances, I thought. I gave my friends split times for a 16:30 finish and I opted for the early start, hoping that that would give me enough time to finish and still get a hat. I toed the start line at 3:00 a.m.

In the dark of the night I ran. I couldn't think about the altitude or my stomach, whether I ate enough that morning or whether I should have stretched the night before. I couldn't focus on the little things that preoccupy our minds as we start races. All I could focus on was my knee. "Yep, there it is," I thought. I had covered less than a mile and I could feel my knee and that it wasn't tracking properly. I had no idea how it was going to hold up, but I pushed forward. By the time I reached the first aid station at about 7.4 miles in, I felt continued discomfort, but it had not worsened. I knew then that a finish was at least possible.

As the sun started to rise, I made the first climb up Mt. Fuji. I reached the top where a volunteer told me that I was the second person to summit the mountain that morning. I stood at the top, taking in the breathtaking beauty that surrounded me and trying to wrap my mind around how it was possible that I reached the summit so quickly. "Are you okay?" a volunteer asked as I stood there. "I'm fantastic!" I said, taking in one last view. I was so elated to have made it that far. I couldn't help but smile.

Shortly after descending Mt. Fuji, my right calf started to spasm and then to cramp, despite fueling more than adequately. I was able to push through it until my calf seized all of a sudden and I collapsed on the trail. "No way!" I thought. "This is not going to be how this day ends." I couldn't move for a few moments, but I was eventually able to get up and walk. Thankfully, I was able to get it to stabilize within the next couple of miles and I was able to refuel and recover at the Mt. Ray aid station.

The meadow just before Mt. Ray (Photo by Long Run Pictures)

The meadow just before Mt. Ray (Photo by Long Run Pictures)

As I reached the Mt. Ray aid station at mile 20.5, I was greeted by cheers and my friend Dana who, though there to crew another runner, offered to support me as much as she could. As I refueled, a volunteer took out her phone and said "I need to take a picture of the first woman!" "No, no," I said. "I'm an early starter. I don't count." "You are the first woman to reach this aid station," she said. "You count." That is the tenor of the Waldo 100k: every single person, front runner or back of the pack, matters. Every single person receives the same support and encouragement.

I ran out of the Mt. Ray aid station, waiting for my knee to slow me down, but, to my surprise, it didn't. I told myself from the first step, though, that my race did not begin until the Rd. 4290 aid station (mile 37.2), which is where I started to break down last year. I would not allow myself to think about how I felt until that point. I continued to run, thinking of Dana's words: "Don't give that [negativity and self doubt] any space in your head." I thought of nothing but all of the positive things and wonderful people in my life, sometimes listing them out loud. There are so many; it was easy. I left no room for negativity.

When I reached the Rd. 4290 aid station, I was greeted by my friend Jason, who quickly refilled my pack. I asked him about the trail ahead. While I'd run the race before, the course last year was a bit different because it was rerouted due to fires, so I couldn't envision the next several miles completely. He pulled out his chart, and talked me through the next couple of aid stations. That was enough to keep me going.

After climbing back up The Twins, I made a quick descent, surprising myself how well I was able to traverse the terrain and how well my knee did running downhill. It was during this descent that it occurred to me: the training wasn't for nothing; it was for Waldo. I ran faster.

The summit of Maiden Peak (approx. 8,000 ft).

The summit of Maiden Peak (approx. 8,000 ft).

As I began the climb up Maiden Peak, I thought about how miserable that climb was last year and how it almost broke me. I swore that I would not let it break me this year. I had 12.5 miles left and I was not going to let negativity take up any space in my head. I thought again about all of the positive things in my life and about all of the amazing support I had received throughout the day. Then, midway through the climb, I saw in the distance my friends Bret and Gail, sitting on a log, waiting for me. "We couldn't catch you at the aid stations," Bret said, "so we asked ourselves where you would need encouragement the most." I was overwhelmed with gratitude. "If I tell you how thankful I am, I'm going to cry," I said. "Don't waste your energy on tears," Gail replied. The two of them hiked the remainder of the climb and summited Maiden Peak with me, all the while encouraging me.  Afterward, Bret and Gail remained on the summit of Maiden to enjoy the view as I began to scramble down Leap of Faith to the final aid station.

The descent took longer than I had hoped; I was getting hot and my knee was getting sore. When I finally reached the Maiden Lake aid station (mile 55), I was greeted by my friend Laura, who gave me a hug and some words of encouragement before I started running the final 7.5 miles to the finish. At some point within the next couple of minutes, I realized, to my disbelief, that I was going to make my 16:00 goal. I breathed a sigh of relief, realizing that I could take it easy for the final stretch. It soon occurred to me that there was no reason to take it easy and I decided to do something that terrifies me: I decided to run as hard as I could. I knew I wouldn't finish within 15:00 hours (the necessary finish time to qualify for States), but I thought I might be able to finish in 15:30 if I pushed really hard. As I ran, I started calculating my pace in my head. Those who have run with me know that doing math period, much less while I'm running, is a challenge like no other. I cannot be trusted to calculate anything with accuracy, so I was positive that I was miscalculating my finish time. I calculated my pace again and again. Again in disbelief, I realized that I could walk the remainder of the way and still finish within 15:00 hours. I then decided to run as hard as I possibly could, to see just how far and how fast I could push myself. Hearing the words of a friend echo in my head, I decided to see just how much pain I could tolerate. I pushed my pace for every single step of the final 10k.

When I reached the finish line, I was greeted by Craig Thornley, the race director, who gave me a hug, though I'm pretty sure I really just collapsed and he caught me. "I qualified," I said. "Yeah, you did!" he replied. "And now I'm going to vomit," I said as I caught my breath. I looked at my watch: 14:36.

It has now been nearly a week since I crossed that finish line and I still can't believe that I finished without exacerbating my knee injury, let alone qualified for States on that course, and ran a PR. Each morning since, I have awakened with renewed energy, knowing that not only am I still able to run, but I am able to push myself further and faster than I ever thought possible. Three and a half weeks ago, a medical provider broke my heart with the most discouraging prognosis I ever thought I'd hear in my 30s. Five days ago, I achieved something I never thought possible.