I've heard it said that ignorance is bliss, and in many cases I think it is true. In the case of my 50 miler, however, ignorance was the pleasant unawareness of the trails and trials that were to come. As I look at my pre-race planning and pictures, I chuckle to myself. I look at the girl standing next to the Franklin D. Roosevelt State Park sign the day before the race, smiling for the camera and think, "she has no idea what she is about to experience."
I wish there was a way, dear reader, to explain it all adequately with words. I did, in fact, complete the North Face Endurance Challenge Gore-Tex 50 Mile Trail Run. I experienced the entire gambit of emotions and physical exertion within this 50 mile adventure, and it is hard to believe they all occurred within one race! I ran in darkness, I ran in the light. I climbed, I hiked, I crossed creeks and scaled cliff-side rocks. I fell hard, I bled, I cried, I laughed, I loved, I questioned, I doubted... It was amazing and wonderful and terrible and hard and empowering all at the same time.
So let's begin at the beginning, shall we?
The alarm clock went off at 3:00 a.m. which was 2:00 a.m. on my personal clock. I opened my sleepy eyes and thought, "it is time." After months of training, planning, thinking, hoping, and praying, race day had arrived and I would see if I had what it took to go the distance.
As Jason and I got dressed and checked our gear drop bags one last time, I downed some hotel room coffee and munched a granola bar. I knew I needed to eat, but the adrenaline was pumping and my nervousness made it difficult to do so. At 3:50 we drove to the parking lot where the shuttle buses would take us to the start. Once we arrived at the race site, we gave our gear bags to the volunteers and stood around the heating towers, shivering in the morning cold as we waited for the race to start.
A few minutes before 5:00 a.m. the announcer called us to the start line and Dean Karnazes gave us a few words of encouragement/warning before we started our race. I turned on my headlamp, kissed Jason 3 times for luck and prepared myself to begin my 50 mile journey.
We ran around a field and then bottle necked at the trail head. Once on the trail, our way was guided by the occasional glow stick, for which I was very grateful. My headlamp was not very bright compared to what the more seasoned trail runners around me were wearing, and many times I ran off of the light of others. Until they passed me, that is.
Despite never having run in the dark on trails before, I enjoyed myself for a time. It was almost like some sort of midnight vigil as I looked down the hill to see the line of head lamps leading the way. It reminded me of the evening nature hikes at summer camp when we guided ourselves with flashlights through the woods to the bonfire. I had no idea how much time had passed or what my surroundings looked like. All I could see was the small patch of trail in front of me and the light of the runners ahead or behind me. The beeping of my watch to signal another mile completed was my only measurement of time or distance.
I did not mind running slowly in the darkness because I knew I had a long way to go. I took my time and tried to be careful as I crossed creeks and watched for sharp bends in the trail. A few times I got off course, but a glow stick would guide me quickly back.
The first glitch came shortly after mile 3 when I rolled my right ankle, falling hard on my left knee. The guy behind me said "You okay, hon?" and I replied that I was as I jumped up and continued running. I limped for a few steps willing my ankle to be okay and eventually it obeyed. I worried it would cause me trouble and had a brief moment of panic, but the pain subsided after a few more miles and did not make itself known again.
It wasn't too long after that first fall that I took another, with my right leg slipping down the side of the hill we were running along. This was getting embarrassing. I was not hurt by this second fall so I hopped up once again and kept moving. At this point I began to long for the light so that I could run more confidently.
After 5 miles we reached the first aid station. I did not stop for long there, but showed my race number to a volunteer and kept moving. Since most of the other runners did stop, I found myself alone for a while. At first I liked it because it meant I was not holding up other runners behind me. The trails were very narrow and passing was tricky. But then being alone in the woods became slightly...eerie. The only things I could see were the glow sticks directing my way. Like floating strings of light in the blackness, they hung from tree limbs and trunks. I occasionally heard other runners ahead or behind me, but I could not see them.
There was nothing for it, however, but to keep running. I felt myself losing confidence and I tried to talk myself out of it. Because the darkness of the trails reminded me of camp, a song from my summer camp days also came to mind, and it became my mantra for much of the race. An oldie, but a goody, it goes like this:
"I've got confidence, uh huh
My Lord is gonna see me through.
No matter what the case may be,
My Lord, my Lord is gonna fix it for me."
It was a song I sang in elementary school and beyond, and I have no idea why that song of so many I know came to mind, but the words were somehow perfect. I repeated them over and over and over again until I believed what I sang in my mind.
Around mile 8 I glanced up and thought the sky had grown a bit lighter. I followed the trail to a rocky ledge where a volunteer stood with a flashlight to warn runners that it was very narrow there. As I continued running along the edge of the mountain, I saw a bright red line across the horizon and realized the sun was finally making its appearance. My heart rejoiced and I stood there for a moment watching the sun come up over the mountains surrounding me. It seemed to me I was at the perfect spot at the perfect time.
As the light continued to grow in brightness, I took my headlamp in my hand and picked up my pace. I felt energized by the sunlight and ready to make up any time I had lost in the darkness. I could finally see and I was ready to run.