The Relay

I hope I don’t throw up.
I’m afraid I’m going to throw up.
I think I’m going to throw up.
I wish I could just throw up.

It’s hot, and I’m not used to hot runs yet in this spring, chilly and damp until today, and I can’t take off any more clothes. This road, this Goddamn dirt road, stretches straight off as far as I can see. No curves. No change. Except that hill that’s coming. It’s too early in the spring for leaves. The trees are bare, and the afternoon sun is unrelenting. My hip hurts. My shoulders and neck ache. My tongue is dry and thick in my mouth and my water is warm and running low. An angry self-pitying tear grudgingly escapes my burning eye and runs down my hot dusty cheek and joins the sweat that is already puddling in my ears. Why didn’t I train harder? I wish I had trained harder. I condemn my laziness, my busy job, myself, as if this is a moral failing. Mostly myself. I would give anything to just lay down in the grass and the soft fragrant pine needles beside this dirty road. But if I stop and sit down now, I know I won’t get up. For the first time ever I allow myself to think about not finishing a race. I’m a failure.
I still have 6 miles to go.

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We are 4 women; friends who have something to prove. Not to the world, but certainly to each other, and mostly to ourselves. We prove our determination. We prove our physical and mental toughness. We prove our resolve, individually and collectively. For the last two years, we have gathered along with our support crew – our partners – in upstate New York’s Hudson Valley to run the Rock the Ridge 50-Mile Endurance Challenge in the Shawangunk Mountains as a 4-woman relay. Each leg has its own challenges, some posed by the topography, some by our own limitations. We all have trained as well as we can around demanding jobs, full schedules, family commitments. One of us had a knee replaced just 10 months ago. I am hoping an old ankle injury doesn’t flare up, and that my determination will compensate for what I know is less than adequate training. Publicly, I say I just want to finish healthy. I privately want to go faster and harder and beat last year’s time as I run the third leg for the second year in a row.

We get up at 4:30 in the morning to see Carol off at the start of the first leg. The race starts at 6:30, and we all have committed to being present for the start and finish of each leg, to encourage our teammates. Something that women, at their finest, do very well. The hotel where we’re staying has said they will have coffee and snacks ready for us, but even though we are awake and up, the dour desk attendant is not, and we wait for our coffee, getting nervous. Any interruption in routine or planning means stress, and late coffee is serious. Most races begin at 7 or 8 AM. It’s easy to gauge when to eat and what to eat for breakfast. If you’ve run a couple of races you probably have a routine, of both food and timing, that becomes a good luck charm for your race’s favorable outcome. It’s less simple when your race, your leg, starts around 2:30 PM, as mine should. Eat too much, too close to your start, or eat the wrong things, and you’ll feel awful, ending up with digestive problems. Eat too early or too little, and your body will give out, lacking the fuel reserves needed to keep you from burning out as you ask your body to do more and more, leading to weakness and exhaustion as you push hard. I try to err on the side of caution and forego dairy, stoking my body instead with protein and some carbs. I eat hard-boiled eggs, bagels and peanut butter, some granola with dried cranberries and raisins. A banana or two. I drink a lot of water and some Gatorade. And a big cup of afternoon coffee. My caffeine addiction is an issue which requires some advance planning, and today is no day to cut back.

We leave the hotel to meet Carol as she comes in, and send Terri off on the second leg, and return to the hotel to await my turn. I start to lay out my clothes, and the supplies I’ll need during the race, checking and double checking, sure I’ve left something behind, even though I know I haven’t. Aid stations are few and far between, and while their placement makes sense for those runners taking on the full 50 miles, they are not always in the best places for the relay legs. There is also no guarantee they won’t run out of what I need, so I carry my own. Two hand-held water bottles that strap tight to my hand; one big, one small. I fill the big one with water and the smaller one with orange Gatorade. Always orange. I pack along a Clif bar and three GU gels. I’ll probably only need two, but I fear being caught with empty energy reserves and distance still to go. I pin these to the waistband of my running tights. I take three tissues and pack 4 Band Aids as a talisman against blisters. I pack one migraine pill. Dehydration sometimes triggers my migraines, and that is a very real possibility during a race. I jam it all, except the water bottles, in my Spi Belt, a super expandable waist pack that weighs nothing and actually stays put and doesn’t bounce at all. My race number, the timing chip that fits around my ankle that records my start, splits, and finish time, socks, running shoes, insoles. I debate whether to wear my ankle brace or not. Decide not, fearing it’s bad juju and asking for trouble.

Finally, it’s time to get dressed. And tying my shoes seems like the most important task of the day, and I’m having trouble getting it right. I tie and re-tie. Re-tie again. Too loose. Too tight. One too tight, the other not tight enough. Realize I’m being ridiculous, but can’t seem to help it. Jesus Christ Andrea, how many times have you done this? I’m way too conscious that for the next 4 hours or so, my feet are the most important variable in my life. I charge my iPhone. It has my running playlist on it and that is my biggest motivator when I’m out alone and calling on energy I might not feel. It also has an app on it that we have all downloaded. It allows us to communicate with each other, and track each other’s progress, and notifies us of our pace and distance since not all miles are marked with signage. This is how we know when to get to the finish and start lines for our individual legs. I check my headphones and re-tie my shoes one more time. I start my lengthy stretching and foam rolling routine, working out the tension and the kinks with the familiarity of rote movement. My leg is 13 miles or so. To my Running Self, now, at this moment, it seems impossible, and I’m not just nervous, I’m scared and nauseous. And I have to pee. Again.

IMG_0863Even though I know we’ll be in plenty of time, we finally start out for the third leg starting line and Running Self is sure we’ll be late, that there will be a lag in time because of me. I know there’s no way we will be, but still I worry, tense and silent. Rational Self recognizes this feeling and knows what’s going on. This is the way I’ve felt in the waiting period before all 3 of my marathons and my half marathon. When there is nothing left to do but wait, until I can finally hit “start” on my watch, and head out to do what I’ve been training for, planning for, saving for, traveling for, anxiously dreaming about for months. And it’s a huge relief to see Terri finally coming in to finish up the second leg and I cheer for her and wait for her to cross the timing mat. We hug each other, and then finally I’m off, crossing back over the mat to start my part of this race. Up a hill, across the road, David there to cheer me out, and onto the trail and up into the woods. Finally draining off this pent-up nervousness is a relief, and I consciously slow myself down, knowing I tend to go out way too fast at a pace I can’t hope to sustain. And the first 6 miles of this race are tough.

Early in my leg, after a relaxed, gentle uphill run past a nice waterfall, it abruptly changes to a steep climb. 400 vertical feet gained in the space of one mile, on a trail that winds with switchbacks and feels, in places, more like a ladder or stairs than a trail. There’s a little bit of a downward dip, I run down again briefly, breathing hard, and know for sure that I’ve overdressed. I take off my top layer and tie it around my waist, and turn my attention to the next 4 miles where I gain another 500 feet in elevation. The voice in my ear dims my music and tells me my pace is 19 minutes and 24 seconds per mile. Just this side of standing still and perilously close to sliding backwards. I feel out of breath and discouraged. Give myself a mental shake and remind myself that this is the worst part of the leg and damn-it-you-can-do-this-you’ve-done-it-before. I turn up my music. I switch to a different song. Do the body inventory: unclench my jaw, drop my shoulders, relax my arms, shake out my hands, roll my head, relax my back, push from my glutes, ankle feels good, and look at the scenery around me. It’s good this leg is beautiful. I’m anticipating getting to the top of this awful climb because the vista is spectacular. So spectacular it truly makes this pain worthwhile.

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When I’m out there for hours, my mind wanders. I plan home projects. I outline blog pieces. I think about people I love. When my legs are hurting and I’m breathing at capacity and it’s still not enough, I think of my daughter and her gritty determination. Her coming back from knee surgery. Working hard at therapy, excusing herself to throw up from the pain, and then going back to finish the session. I think of all the times my husband has told me that it’s fine I go out to run, and no, he doesn’t mind oatmeal for dinner at all. I think of all the times he’s rubbed my feet after a long run, and tells me it’s no trouble. He’s given up his weekend to do this thing that is all about waiting for me and not at all about him and what he wants to do. I think of the magic of finding out that I’m on the same trails my best friend hiked years ago, before I knew him, when he lived just a few miles from here with his 2-yr old son. The son who now loves my daughter. We have shared our mutual awe at the view from the top, unchanged decades apart, and that unexpected, unknowing sharing has given me a tingling energy that is hard to explain. I think of my middle child, my son, veteran of long-distance races himself, and a devoted runner, who generously ran a half-marathon with me at my pace, and coached me through it to a personal best time. I take his wise words then, and apply them now: “This is it, Mom. There’s no reason to hold anything back – this is what all the work was for. Give it all now.” I hear that my other son has posted a comment to me via my running app. The mechanical voice reads it to me, and I feel invigorated at the encouragement and I feel less alone in my effort. And I push ahead.

I finally crest that hill, and my body aches with the change in mechanics required as I descend the other side. Finally I can run again and I feel like I’m flying and the cooling breeze is wonderful. I’m conscious of trying not to go too fast. I’m tired, and know I need to be cautious not to slip and fall with fatigue on the loose stones, but damn, this release of sudden speed and momentum feels so good. I’m surprised to see Carol, who ran the first leg, and her husband waving to me from beside the trail. They’ve hiked up to meet me at the aid station I’m approaching. They help me fill my water bottles as I’m too breathless, hands trembling and weak, to be very efficient myself. They tell me I’m doing great. They say I look strong. it’s enough to fool me into thinking it’s true, and so, I can pretend it’s so. Carol takes the shirt I’ve tied around my waist for me so I don’t have to carry it. She says, “I’ll run with you a while.” I’m so grateful. I usually like to run by myself, for me it’s absolutely a solitary meditation, but I welcome this distraction from my pain and the sound of my gasping breath roaring in my ears. We chat, and she paces me so I’m not going too fast out of the gate of the aid station. The brief rest has done me good. After two miles, I tell her I’ll be fine now. I recognize this part of the trail from last year, and know that I will shortly be coming out on the top of the mountain, and from there, it’s mostly level, and then downhill. There is a detour somewhere ahead, where they’re working on the trail, but how bad can it be? I’m still circling around to the same line I started from (my leg is a circular route) and downhill is downhill, right? Carol tells me goodbye and good luck and tells me once again I’m doing great and I look strong. I like hearing that, but right now I feel like I’m home free. Vista views and downhill all the way to my finish line. Bring it on!

I reach the top, working hard, head down, arms driving my body ahead, even though my legs don’t want to follow. It’s worth it. I stop, breathing hard, and just look…and look. I use my phone and take some pictures. I’ve promised photos of the vista to my fundraising contributors. And it lets me rest. It’s hot. I drink the last of my Gatorade and a little of my water. I squeeze out a GU into my mouth. Thick, gluey gel. Like eating icing, but it sticks in my throat more. It has a pretty good mocha flavor though, and it’s the caffeine I’m after. I chase it down with more water. It makes me shiver a little. It makes me feel a little sick. I know from experience though, that I’ll feel a burst of energy in about 15 minutes when those carbs hit my bloodstream, and I need it. I jog on for another mile or so of gentle ups and downs, now mostly downs, and forgetting about the detour, think that soon I’ll be hitting the steeper downhill portion of the race and I can run most of the way and make up valuable time. I’m confident I’ll be finishing strong. The worst is over.

I take a minute to rest. I sit down on the edge of the cliff, my tired legs dangling over the edge. I should be making up time, but instead, I swing my feet. I sit, quiet, my music paused and silent, and just look, scanning left to right. It’s a nearly cloudless day, with bright sun and a brilliant bluebird sky. I’m looking at three states from my aerie. I feel privileged to have the strength to see this for myself, and to bring a piece of it to others. The universe laid out before me at my feet. I like being alone on this trail, at this moment. It’s all for me and my pounding heart and my aching body and my effort. My own grit. Perhaps my daughter has gotten a small part of her strong self from me after all, and that makes me proud. I think about that for a minute or two and close my eyes and feel the breeze and the yawning drop beneath me. So much nothing below me, and yet it’s everything.

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Time is ticking away and I know I have to get going. I roll back from the edge of the cliff and stand up. Go through the physical inventory again. I counsel myself to relax now and stay loose. Downhill feels easier, but in some ways is harder on your body than uphill. I know I have to be careful if I’m to finish running. I’m feeling good, but it’s deceptive. I’m more tired than I realize and those 1,000 vertical feet have taken a lot out of me. I just don’t know it yet. And it’s hot up here where trees are small and there are only scrubby bushes and dried grass. The limestone rock I’m running on is hard on tired legs. I’m trying to save my water. My Gatorade is gone. I’m hoping the next aid station comes up soon and I’ve lost track of where I am in the mileage. I drink some more. In a mile or two I suck down another GU gel and feel a little bit sicker. I take another sip of water. My bottle’s half full. I refuse to think of it as half empty. That awakens an anxiety uncomfortably close to panic. Soon the trail angles away from the cliff’s edge and I’m really heading downhill. A true decline that feels so good, so optimistic, I can’t help but cheer up and think that yeah, I’ve got this. I don’t know yet how tenuous my grasp is.

Soon, I think, I should get to the steepest downhill where it’s so steep you can’t run it, but you sort of hop down the mountain. It kills any strength you have left in your quads, but I’m looking forward to it. It will at least be different pain. But then the trail turns left, and I’m running through a construction area that is decidedly not beautiful, and I remember the detour. Now I’m in unfamiliar territory, and it throws off my concentration and I’m lost in the mileage. My confidence evaporates and I start to doubt myself. The road levels out, and stretches on and I’m not feeling well. I’m so tired. I know I still have a long way to go. I hope I don’t throw up….

I will myself forward. But I’m feeling like I don’t have much will left. I think again about my kids, about my friend, I wait for that push of magic, but it’s gone. I just want them to be proud of me. I want to be proud of myself. I feel the sweat soaking my shirt and the crust of dried salt on my face when I wipe sweat away from my stinging eyes, and I wish I had on a sleeveless shirt. Cursing my stupidity for not believing the weather reports I examined over and over the week prior to the race. It didn’t seem possible that the temperature could climb to the mid-70s when it was in the 40s at home. Now it’s closer to 80º and I’m woefully unprepared for it. I know now that it’s a while to the next aid station – I judge at least 3.5 miles – and I’m struggling. I trudge on. Walking. Occasionally making myself run, but soon slowing again. I just can’t. I feel like I’ve got nothing left. Nausea overwhelms me and I really don’t want to throw up. Then walking along, my vision starts to weirdly distort, to sparkle and shimmer, the trail undulating, and this worries me. I realize I haven’t eaten anything at all since my hard-boiled egg at the hotel. GU doesn’t bring lasting nutrition, just bursts of quick energy. I’ve made a mistake here that might be pretty costly. Even though the thought of eating anything makes my skin crawl and my stomach roll I fumble my Clif bar out of my waist pack and make myself eat half of. It has some protein in it. I know I need that, but I sure don’t want it. I chew and chew and try to concentrate on my music to give me a cadence to walk to, but it just irritates me. I ache to sit down. To lay down. To stop. I swallow and take another bite, and the road just goes on and on. People are passing me. They look fresh and are talking and laughing and I feel humiliated. I feel like they’re taunting me and I hate them. I’ve always motivated myself during races by picking someone out and pursuing them and then passing them, then picking out someone else, notching myself along with a hunter’s mentality. Instead, I can barely keep myself going. I take another bite of my bar and chew and chew and I wish it tasted better to me. I swallow some water and then make myself drink some more. I know I’m dehydrated. But what if it runs out? Feeling this bad I don’t see how I can finish.

My Rational Self is striding along beside me saying Use this to learn something. Next time you’ll wear a hydration pack.

I tell Rational Self, Next time? I’m never doing this again.

Rational Self isn’t listening. Rational Self says, This is like transition in childbirth when you’re so far gone you really do think you can just quit and get up and leave and finish this all on another day. A cooler day. A cloudy day. A rainy day. You think you can’t go on. But you can. And every time you reach this point in a race you know what it is, but you don’t know what it is and you struggle all over again.

I tell Rational Self,  Fuck You! You don’t know what you’re talking about. I think I might die out here.

I start to think that if I could throw up I would probably feel a lot better. But I can’t. And I’m actually disappointed. That’s a cruel kind of turnabout. But no crueller than the hill I see ahead of me. And then here’s where the grit kicks in. My mother says to me in her no-nonsense way, Stop complaining and do it. I put my head down, I make myself move my arms, I tell myself I’ve come this far, I’m finishing this damn thing and I think of David waiting for me at the finish line. And I force myself along. As I crest that last dusty gravelly hill I see a wonderful long downhill spread out ahead of me and the angle of the sun has made real shade over the trail. Best of all is the sign that tells me that the next aid station is in a mile. I’ve come farther than I thought, and suddenly it all seems doable. I can do a mile. I can crawl a mile if I have to, and knowing that ensures I won’t have to. I start to run again. It’s a long way from feeling good, and every muscle in my body hurts, but it’s a run, and it does a lot for my self-respect that I can muster that resolve. And I know now that I will finish.

I fill my water bottles with clumsy hands, and sympathetic volunteers see I’m having trouble and take over for me. They offer me a handful of pretzels and knowing I need the salt, I gratefully accept them. I’m in awe of those runners doing the whole 50 miles. Serious awe. And I am honored to be in their company. I’ve missed the last several updates from my running app. Just so much white noise in the midst of my distracted misery. I have no idea where I am, so I just go forward. I realize how elemental this has become for me. Water is everything. I take another long swallow and then another. I can afford it now and it’s what I’ve needed all along. Rational Self merges with Running Self and I’m so relieved to feel mentally ok again. I cross a parking lot and go down into the trees where thousands of branches arc over the trail, filtering the sun. I cross a road, trusting that cars will just stop for me because if I stop to wait for them I may never get started again, and suddenly I realize where I am with tremendous relief. I’m only a few miles from my finish line.

I push on, and the gravel disappears and now I’m running on a bed of soft pine needles, and that small cushion feels so good. My steps are quiet and my breathing quiets, and I can hear my music again. I see people out for a short walk now and know that means that I am close to the access road where everyone is waiting for me. I run on and now I’m thinking about after the finish when I can take a long hot shower and lay down on my back on the floor with my eyes closed, blessedly still, just floating in the good ache of a great effort with nothing more required of me than to smoke a cigar and drink champagne around an outdoor fire. I see a white tent through the trees even sooner than I expected. My breath catches in my throat in a little sob of gratitude and release. I see David and my friends clapping, and yelling encouragement and I gather myself for the last half mile. I’ve done it. I’ve done it. AndIMG_0871 I can’t believe it, even while I think I should never have doubted myself. I wave to them with both arms to say I’m here and I’m done and I’m so glad you’re here to call me in. I push up the little hill to the road and volunteers are clapping and encouraging me. I see my friend Kendra waiting to pick up the relay to walk the last leg and I run over that mat and finally, finally can legitimately stop and rest. Carol brings me water. Terri hugs me with tears in her eyes. David grabs me in a hug and holds me tight and he knows how much this has taken out of me for months, and finally I unclench my teeth and cry with relief and happiness and bone deep tiredness. And he’s crying too.

I look around at this group of women I love. It’s so much more than a race and a weekend away. It’s affirmation. It’s pride in meeting a challenge and besting it. It’s about the considerable strength of committed women. It’s shared history. It’s collective work toward a goal. It’s for that cheap medal we all wear at the end of this long day. We all have had our moments. We all know how deep we’ve had to dig to get to this finish line; to get to all the finish lines we face every day of our lives in everything we do. And one weekend a year we gather to cheer each other on to a common goal that tests us and drains us dry, celebrating, valuing and honoring that in each other. We are a team. And I’ll do it again in a minute.

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