(Continued from yesterday)
What the hell was I thinking? It is 1:30 in the morning, and I am running. I have covered over 90 miles on foot. Every bone in my body aches as if I am being crushed between two sheets of steel. My spine feels like a rod of rebar is being rammed into it. My feet are on fire. I have thrown up twice. I need to be running faster, but for now, not stopping is my only goal. One foot in front of the other, I keep repeating to myself. One foot in front of the other.
I am seeing things, little flickers of light, like birthday candles in front of my exhausted eyes. I can’t decide if they are pretty, or ominous. Maybe I am hallucinating and don’t know it. It wouldn’t be the first time, like in Minnesota, the night I saw the Indian lady in the pretty blue sari, pointing me towards the right path when I had become disoriented after a hundred miles.
Now, though, I realize the flickering lights are shooting stars, hundreds of them falling from the pitch black Texas sky. I relax a little, my breathing easing. Closing my eyes for a second, I say a quick thank you. I know I could be in a much different place right now, so I take the shower of stars as a good omen. I have to, frankly, because at this point, I have no choice. I have given up too much to be here to think of it any other way.
I know I can never go back to the country club life – days filled with tennis, long lunches, gossip, full-time help – and pointlessness. It almost killed me the first time. Like a prisoner who is given a pardon, I know that I have to make this second chance mean something.
And that is why I am running at night, wondering if I am hallucinating with all the sparkly lights around me, in the middle of the grandest of skies in central Texas. I am sixteen and a half hours into the 24 Hour National Championships. Only the top three women will make the US National Team, and I desperately want to be one of them. But things are not looking good for me. Five of the six existing team members are here at this race and this is only my second time to attempt to run for 24 hours straight. All of the top competitors are national pros, with years of experience. What the hell is she thinking? I imagine them whispering when I lined up on the starting line with them.
But I can’t think about that now. All I can think about is not stopping. And not crying. So, I think about the falling stars and how they have kept me company during so many of the nights when my life changed. And this one is no exception.
* * * * *
Once I decided I wanted to make the team, I only had a year to do it. I wasn’t getting any younger. I was 39 years old, and would be 40 by the time of the National Championships. I increased my mileage to 20-24 miles per day, added serious weightlifting and my own version of Pilates, and became really focused. I don’t know if I had ever wanted a personal goal more badly in my life. I dreamt about it. I followed elite runners to see how they trained. I would talk about it to anyone was willing to listen. I ignored the people who criticized and the naysayers who said it couldn’t be done.
Finally, on November 17th, 2007, the National 24 Hour Championships had arrived. I was incredibly excited, but also incredibly scared. What if the naysayers had been right? What if this was an impossible goal? Who was I to think that I could earn a place on the US National Team? I was a housewife from El Paso.
My husband and my family were right behind me.
“There is no shame in trying. Just do the best that you can. We’re proud of you for doing it at all.”
And there it was. What I had been searching for. The feeling that it was okay to try things in life even if they were a bit risky. Even if they didn’t make sense to most people. The people who loved me understood my need to try something different, my need to feel brave. And at the end of the race, whether I ran 25 miles or 125 miles, I knew that they would love me no matter what.
After the traditional race briefing, the Race Director rang the bell signifying the start of the national championships. We were all outfitted with electronic microchips which recorded our distance every time we crossed over the chip mats at the halfway point and the start/finish point. The course consisted of a 2 mile, out-and-back loop, along the banks of Lake Grapevine in Grapevine, Texas. For 24 Hours, we ran as hard as we could back and forth, sometimes talking to other runners, sometimes alone in our thoughts, trying to ignore the nausea, blisters, and pain we were all feeling. The goal was the same: accumulate as much mileage as possible. Although there are no huge physical barriers in a looped course event, the mental barriers can be the undoing of many a runner. Trying to keep your mind focused for 24 Hours without losing your marbles, and keep your body fully-functioning at its highest level while continuing to race, is the indescribable challenge the runners face.
My husband, Tim, served as my crew, with my 11 year-old twins on hand to help when they weren’t busy playing football down by the lake or cards with other “crew members.” Tim kept me fed, weighed me every three hours to make sure I was staying properly hydrated, and reminded me of where I was in the standings. We had an agreement that he wouldn’t tell me my place in the pack until after 70 miles. For some reason this had become the magic cut-off point for me. The first 70 miles are all about getting through it; you have to put the distance in. After 70, it is all about keeping it together. And the difference between winning and losing. After 70 miles, I was surprised to find out I was in fifth place. Five of the six returning US National Team members were present, plus some very promising up-and-comers, so I was hoping to place top 10. Making the National Team was an “in my wildest dreams,” kind of thing. So fifth place was both a wonderful surprise and kind of scary. Did I go out too fast? Was my race strategy wrong. I still had over half the race to go. How in the world was I going to keep it together for another 12 hours?
At mile 100, Tim informed me I had moved into third place. What!? Are you kidding me? How could I have moved up? I had intentionally quit focusing on my splits because I was afraid I was going to crash and burn. I was just trying to focus on my body, making sure that I was going to be able to finish regardless of my placing. I was stunned, and excited, that I had moved up. Now the question became, could I run 25 more miles?
In order to make the US National Team, I knew I needed to place in the top 3 AND run over 125 miles. The problem was, I was giving it all I had, and there was nothing else I could do but keep going. That became my mantra: Just keep going. Don’t worry about mileage or placing. Just do the best you can. I told Tim to quit updating me, that I just had to do what I could do. He agreed, and he spent the next hours just encouraging me and telling me how strong I looked (whether this was true or not, I will never know).
Finally, after 23:15, the Race Director informed us that it was time to move to the small loop section of the course. The purpose of this is to keep all of the runners on a quarter-mile loop section of the course where we were passing over the chip mat every quarter mile. At the end of 24 Hours, when the gun was sounded, each runner sat down (or collapsed) where they were, and the individual distances were marked off to give an exact count. This was important, because several people were trying for world- and American- records, and because several runners were within tenths of a mile from one another.
When the gun sounded, I dropped to the ground as instructed and waited for the official to wheel off my distance. During this time, I had an opportunity to talk to some of the other runners. We were all exhausted, both physically and emotionally, but everyone seemed elated by what they had accomplished. Each had slain a dragon: be it of a physical nature or a mental nature. But for 24 hours, each runner had gotten out on the course and pushed the limits of what they thought was possible.
In the end, I ran 126.99 miles, placing 3rd female overall, garnering a place on the 2008 US National 24 Hour Team. I was heading to the World Championships in Seoul, South Korea. But most importantly, I felt like I had looked fear in the eye and decided to keep moving forward.
I’m really enjoying everyone’s stories about why they run! Keep sending them!