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The Highs and Lows

Early in the race. Photo by Bobby Gill.
This is what's in my brain at mile 23 of the Bull Run Run 50 Miler: All I have to do is make it through Fountainhead. Though it's only 28 miles into the race, with 6 miles before I'm even heading in the direction of the finish line, it's the point at which I know I'm going to succeed. 

A Slow Start. I started the race conservatively, running at a reasonable pace. In a trail race with 300 starters, that means getting stuck behind inevitable bottlenecks until the pack spreads out. And in spite of my grandiose plans to spend just seconds in the aid stations, I had to stop and make adjustments. To top it off, I had fallen twice -- in the first 15 miles. That's unusual for me and it was demoralizing. I hoped it wasn't a sign of a long day to come.

I tried to stay serene. My top priority was to avoid going out too fast, a mistake I couldn't afford to make. Most of all, I needed my mental game to get through this race.

Privilege and Gratitude. I really took notice of the beauty of the trail. I called out the names of wildflowers I saw: Bluebell. Spring Beauty. Star Chickweed. Sweet White Violet. Golden Cinquefoil. I marveled at how absolutely clear Bull Run was.
I could see every stone along the bottom. (For all you Yankees, "run" is Southern for stream and also why this race is called Bull Run Run). I felt grateful for this beautiful Spring day, a little warm for a race but manageable. I listened to my footfalls, the only sound but for the melodies of birds. I relished the quiet of running without conversation. The peacefulness of the woods enveloped me. 

Bull Run Run. The race runs alongside it for miles.

Run The Mile You're In. I focused on clicking off the miles, maintaining a strong march up the hills I had no hope of running, refusing to allow my pace to degrade to the shuffle of defeat. A few not-so-positive thoughts sneaked in: Why did I sign up for this race again? Why didn't I train harder? Why wasn't I more upfront about my lackluster training when my friends asked me to join the WUS Female team?  Running all day is pointless and stupid. I wonder if the Laurel Highlands 70 Mile race director will let me switch to the 50K race? After this I swear I'm just gonna train for short distances, like 10Ks.

The Lows. As the day grew warmer, a slight breeze kicked up. It was the greatest sensation in the world. My toughest miles were upon me now. Miles 22 through 28 or so (no matter how long I am running) always come with a down spell. This is where my body starts to fatigue and my muscles begin to hurt. Worse, my mind grows concerned with the perceived discomfort of the body and begins its tricks to convince me that the distance remaining is too far to be conquered. I descend into dark thoughts. It's like depression on steroids, causing the smallest things (catching a toe on a rock, for instance) to reduce me to despair.

I've been here before. I keep plugging along, telling myself I'll get through this spell. It sounds like the biggest lie ever. The Lows suck.

Arriving at Fountainhead (Mile 28) during a low spell. Photo by Bob Fabia.

The Do Loop. The worst and toughest section of Bull Run Run. It's the furthest point on the course from the finish, and the hills are steep and cambered. There's no breeze here. I use every mantra that had been offered to me by my Twitter, Facebook and Blog commenter friends. I Am Strong, You Are Strong! Demand It. I Love This! If You Can You Must. Fearless. Fatigue is a Choice. It Doesn't Always Get Worse. Take What the Day Gives. It's just a moment; it's not forever; this is temporary. The Weak Find Excuses, The Strong Find A Way. Gumption. Relentless Forward Progress. Run the flats, run the downhills, walk the uphills.

I arrive at Fountainhead for the second time, Mile 38. Hubz attends to me and lets me fall apart a little. Toni gives me a quick massage that made a huge improvement in my tight, sore shoulders and back from holding a water bottle for nearly 40 miles. I'm hiring her full time. 
Just 12 miles to go. Time to put my big girl pants on. For the first time all day I turn on my music, so my steps will have rhythm.

The Highs. The miles were clicking by steadily. The Highs start slowly, building from small cheerful observations to a crescendo of emotion akin to a manic episode. Seeing familiar faces, smiles and encouragement of friends along the trail, passing one more runner. I'm getting this done. I am strong. I can do this. I'm building amazing mental fortitude. I can do anything. I am worthy. I can conquer any fear, any doubt.

The volunteers. My crew (Hubz). Friends. All
helping me in some way, with a smile, encouragement, a popsicle, an ice cold cloth, when the smallest kindness means everything and nearly reduces me to tears. I forgot how important the people are. They make ultras great. They're what brings me back to this crazy sport every time. 

I'm passing runners. I'm gaining strength and heart as I encourage them, joke with them, commiserate with them. I'm envisioning the glory of the finish line.
At this point, the pain is real, but I'm deliriously happy. I don't want the race to end, except to finish strong for my team.

In the final three miles, my legs just keep turning over. I can scarcely believe I'm clipping along at this pace. I pass a group of four on the rocky section. I reach a sign declaring the final mile and gleefully tackle the last big hill. 

The last hill.

I pass another runner. At the top, the grassy meadow appears. There is no better sight in the world.

The grassy field. Under a half mile to go.

I choke back emotion and run for all I'm worth. I pass another woman. I see Bob Anderson just ahead. His wife Kari sees me and yells "go get Bob!" I run. I pull even. He looks at me and grins. We sprint. The crowd at the finish notices and the roar builds. We find another gear, and then another. Arms and legs are flying. He stays with me. I have never felt so alive. We finish neck and neck.

(Bob officially beat me, though I thought I'd edged him at the time.)

Everyone is congratulating me and I am hyperventilating from the sprint, from joy and emotion and utter exhaustion. 

This is why I run ultras.

The Glory of Finishing - photo by Stefan Fedyschyn

If one could run without getting tired I don't think one would often want to do anything else. ~ C.S. Lewis

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