“The person whose calls you always take? That’s the relationship you’re in. I hope you two are very happy together.” –Nate, The Devil Wears Prada.
My relationship with running has outlasted almost every personal relationship in my life, certainly every romantic one, and has proven infinitely more complicated. I shut people out on a regular basis, but I will always answer to the call of running.
When I went to a competitive university, everyone joked that studies left no time for a personal life. After, when I worked in emergency medicine, coworkers joked that the stress would make you cynical, callous, erratic, and severely un-dateable. When I started running ultras, they said the obsession would wedge you away from your loved ones.
All three were true, for me. Or I made those outcomes happen by believing they would. Continuously choosing solitude to focus on “more important things” is an easy, natural decision for me. When I ended a relationship halfway though last year (the day before States) I looked forward to freedom and high mile weeks and going where I wanted at whatever time of day or night. I did not look back.
These things are difficult, and there were a lot of other factors, and I know I look like a jerk, but I was fine with that, and fine with being alone. Youth, dramatic tendencies, and catastrophic thinking made me view my choice as final and exclusive of possible happiness with another person. I was wrong; I never thought about how rich and plentiful the non-romantic relationships in life could be.
Running the Canyons 100K, I learned how to find joy in company, rather than feeling like I was wasting energy on giving up my attention, and my focus. Before that day, the longest I’d ever run talking with someone else was 17 miles, and only twice that I can remember. I decided not to bring music. It wasn’t my intention to chat my way through 63 miles, but forgoing the distraction of electric guitar solos seemed like the tougher, high-road thing to do, and I’m obsessed with the challenge.
In the beginning, it wasn’t raining, and the running was easy, and I let a ton of people zip past me on the downhills, which, for anyone who isn’t familiar with my running style, took an incredible amount of restraint.
I love the first 50k, from Foresthill to the Swinging Bridge and back. It feels like the chaos of running trails is simplified. There’s just this one single-track trail to run, and it either decisively climbs or descends, turning into descents and climbs running back. You always know what is expected of you. I failed running the first 50K in 2015 by running outside of my ability level and wrecking an already sick body. I should have been able to run another 31 miles that day, but spent that energy to cut a few minutes off my DNF.
The hardest part of that first half is the climb back up to Michigan Bluff from El Dorado Creek. This is the last big climb before getting back to Foresthill, and the vertical gain and descent weighs on the legs, and the motivation.
I latched on to a train of runners hiking at a focused clip, and the pain commenced. Running uphill isn’t a natural strength for me, and deeper into longer distances I start to lose control of my race. I feel it slipping away like all of my failed relationships. I settle into a dark headspace where I have legs that are too thick for running, where my ulcerative colitis makes me weaker than everyone else, where I chose to wear the wrong shoes, or socks, or shirt, or pack, or blah, blah, blah.
People can change. Half a mile into the climb I decided to stop helplessly grasping for a hand like Jack in Titanic, and climb the hill strong with the train of runners. I focused on keeping that pace instead of walking slower by myself, wondering when I would be good enough, in my life, to climb faster.
The climb was pretty silent, we were all working pretty hard. The unspoken determination was tangible, and we fed off each other to get up, and out of the canyon. Running into Michigan Bluff, the release of pain was euphoric, and I felt physically and mentally restored, completely breezing through the aid station.
One of the runners I climbed up with, Deanna, left with me, and we started running back to Foresthill with purpose. We started to talk about surface things, like future race plans, and hometowns. Slowly, the content got pretty personal, and by the time we hit Bath Road, a little over a mile from Foresthill Elementary, she knew the gory details of my disease, my anxieties, and all of the things that made me mad about my ex-boyfriend. And I knew quite a few things personal to her. This stretch of running felt like it lasted ten minutes, but I experienced the paradox of feeling I’d known her for years. Running into the halfway aid station, I finally understood the appeal of running with other people.
It wasn’t just that I enjoyed talking to someone, and usually it’s quite the opposite for me. I had to let go of my fear of not being good enough to accept and believe that someone wanted to run with me. I had to start believing that I was a good runner, and fast enough to not hold her back.
We set off down Cal Street, and an old hip injury started to nag at me, causing intermittent, but manageable pain. I couldn’t run with Deanna anymore, but I could still run, and chose to be happy about that.
During the descent to Cal 2, I ran with a few guys off and on, who were intensely funny, which helped to numb the pain. At Rucky Chucky, the four of us left separately, and I figured I’d be running alone for the last 15 miles. At the end of Sandy Bottoms, a flat stretch next to the river, one of the guys, Mark, caught up to me. Once the climbing started, I felt possessed to keep running, and in a daze, just kept moving forward.
“Are we really running this?” he asked me as we shuffled out of the riverbank weeds.
I don’t remember much more between this stretch and the Cal 2 aid station, which is about half way up the climb back into Foresthill. Mark and I stuck together, and finally slowed to more consistent hiking once we hit the switchbacks just before Cal 2. This is when I broke out of the trance.
Turning a sharp switchback I finally looked at Mark below me, and noticed that he was wearing a ridiculous cut-off shirt. He told me that he weighed a lot more when he first started running, and got the cruel nickname “Muffin-top Mark.” Eventually he started finishing all of his races in a cutoff shirt in (celebration of?) (defiance of?) that nickname. The absurdity of the cutoff shirt, as well as running with someone called “Muffin-top Mark,” really took all the weight out of the rest of the afternoon.
We got into Cal 2, and I was really happy to see some friends from DPMR, and feel the love. I remember Mark saying something about how I made him run up there and up the Canyon. Bill Hunter, the aid station captain, gave a simple response, but for some reason it really touched me.
“Yeah, she does that.”
After a few minutes, we took off for the home stretch together, and it would be Mark’s turn to pull me up.
There was a lot less chatting for the final miles, most of it was about the present moment, when we were going to run, and how far away we were. All reservation kind of went out the window; I was cussing like a sailor, and he wasn’t afraid to tell me when I was being lazy, and I when I could run. Instead of shutting down, I chose to believe him, I ran when he said it was time, and we never stopped moving forward.
We filled up water at Cal 1, and with less then 4 miles to go, I still barely believed an end existed. At this point, we saw we were cutting close to running under 14 hours, and I told Mark that he should go ahead since he was moving stronger. He refused. We laughed about how ridiculous it was to have gone over 50 miles, and still be having fun. On this stretch, I got passed by a few women, which brought my spirits down. It must have been pretty apparent, because Mark never lost a beat in motivating me and helping me keep some positive focus. I joked with him that I felt like I had a pacer.
Once we were on the road, I thought I would feel pretty happy and relived that it would be over, but I didn’t. As we ran the first bend in the pavement, I looked and saw we were past 14 hours, and even though that ship sailed, and we were less than a mile away from the finish, we were still playing games with silly goals.
There was an orange safety cone outside of the coffee shop on Main Street.
“Run to the cone?”
We walked a little uphill to the school while Mark said hi to his exuberant family, and I told him to run it in with me.
“You start,” he said.
I did run the last few steps, and right up until the point I crossed under the arch I didn’t feel anything overwhelming or special. As soon as I stopped, and saw the clock at 14:12:XX I finally let myself realize what went down: I had run 63 miles, still running at the end, in a decent time, shaving over four hours off of my previous 100K time.
I qualified for States.
I broke down into tears, the only time in my life I have cried because I was happy.
Mark said a quick goodbye and left to celebrate with his family.
The performance overhauled the way I see myself as a runner—I no longer see myself as an unworthy running partner, and I know I can ask a lot more of myself by continuing to work hard, instead of speculating about when I’ll get better. That self worth made me feel okay making friends on the trail, and having the courage to be vulnerable and willing to work together to work harder.
It doesn’t have to come with baggage or commitment, it was fun to be able to laugh about being fat, or being sick, because otherwise you’re just alone and it’s not quite so funny. Being with another person doesn’t have to sap your energy. The self-deprecation you project is what saps your energy. At peace with myself, I’m at peace with others. Maybe I don’t have time for much of a personal life, and maybe I run too much, but running and I are very happy together, more so now because I learned how to let the right ones in.
Most people learn how to make friends in Kindergarten; I guess I’m a slow learner.
Thank you so much to Chaz, Pete, and Chris for putting on a great race.
Thank you to Fain for the awesome Tuesday workouts, and for being a great tough-love motivator.
Thank you to Sean F. for BEING SO STOKED!
Thank you Vespa for being magical (sue me).
Thank you Anna and Sarah banana chips for not f***ing up my day.