At four o’clock Saturday morning my alarm sounded and I hopped out of bed. Friday night I’d set the coffee maker to start brewing the moment I awoke so that by the time I stumbled down the stairs, my java would be waiting for me. This was the day I would run my first 50 Kilometer race (31 miles). It was called the Pigtails Run, and it was a low-cost ultra-marathon about two hours south of Bellingham being put on by one of the members of the Marathon Maniac’s club, Van Phan, in Renton, Washington. The route consisted of three 9.6-mile laps around Lake Youngs and then a 2.2-mile out-and-back stretch after the third loop to get us to an even 50 kilometers.
I was nervous. Twenty-four days earlier, I had run Mary’s Last Chance Marathon on New Year’s Eve and then lazily tapered over the past few weeks. I’m in the process of trying to qualify for the Marathon Maniacs, so I have to get three marathons completed within 90 days. I was looking for local options that wouldn’t require much travel time. Bill discovered the Pigtails Run online and suggested I use it as my second race. This made sense to me because of its low cost and close proximity to home, but it terrified me to think of running five miles beyond the marathon distance. I’d tossed the idea around for more than two weeks before deciding to give it a try and registering for the race.
Bill drove me down to Maple Valley Saturday morning. I got out of the car and felt the rain pelting my head and shoulders. I was disheartened because I would have to start the race already wet and cold, but there was nothing that could be done. I’d have to suck it up and try to keep a good attitude. At 7:30, Van said, “Go,” and off we went. I’d read that there were about 80 people registered for the 50K. Many other runners came out for just one or two loops. Bill hung around the starting line while I made my first loop around Lake Youngs. When I came through that first time, he asked me, “Are you going to keep going?” It hadn’t occurred to me (yet) to bail out of my commitment and cut the race short because of the weather, but apparently he’d been standing under the tent with the volunteers watching runners do just that. I just shook my head, took a handful of potato chips and a licorice rope from the aid station and turned to head back out for my second loop.
On the second loop, the rain continued. I’ve heard that in Northern languages there are dozens of words for “snow.” As I puttered around on this second loop, I enumerated in my mind the different words we had for water coming down from the sky in the Northwest. There is “mist,” “drizzle,” “sprinkle,” “showers,” “downpour,” and my favorite (because it sounds so scientific, but is really a catch-all for the meteorologist to predict what we already know is inevitable), “precipitation.” This day, the precipitation came in the form of light but steady run-of-the-mill raindrops.
The already damp trail became muddier with every passing hour. For long stretches there was no way around the muck. We runners had to plod through it, and my shoes became soaked. The back of my running tights were splattered with brown mud, too. Everyone who passed me wore the same streaks. Near the end of the second loop, I saw Bill coming toward me. He had agreed to support me by running the full third loop with me. By the time we met, I’d been running for nearly four hours. He took one look at me and insisted that when we got back to the aid station, I should change my socks and shoes and put on a dry set. He was sure I would be getting blisters with all the water and dirt saturating through. After four hours on my feet, however, my back and legs were getting tender and when the time came, Bill had to unlace my shoes and take them off for me.
A little short of three miles into the third loop I looked at my Garmin and saw that I’d traveled 22 miles. Usually, in a marathon, I’m sore and ready to be done at 22 miles in. That’s exactly how I felt now, but I still had nine miles remaining. Suddenly, a knot formed in my throat and I felt tears come into my eyes. A sob escaped me and I had to stop running and gingerly bend my head over between my knees (no easy feat) to avoid panic. Bill turned to look at me. “What’s wrong? Did you hurt yourself?” he asked.
I hadn’t hurt myself, but I did feel completely overwhelmed. “I don’t think I can go another nine miles,” I said. “I can’t do it. I can’t.” But I just needed to say it out loud and give myself a moment to adjust to the reality that I would be out on the trail for at least another two and a half hours. My body hurt, but I know a little something about running by now: If you put one foot in front of the other, you move closer to the finish line. I did want to turn back and quit, but even that would require almost three miles of running, so there was no easy way out of what I’d gotten myself into. I breathed for a couple of minutes and tried to collect my wits. Then I got up and shuffled on.
By now, my pace had slowed to 14-plus minutes per mile. As I jogged, Bill did a brisk speed-walk beside me, which felt demoralizing. I asked him to run ahead because it was too psychologically painful to watch him walk while I was struggling so hard. He took up a routine of running ahead and then waiting for me and cheering wildly when I came by, which helped. I felt encouraged by his applause and relieved of the feeling that I was holding him back from getting a decent run in.
Near the end of the third loop I told Bill, “I want to do the last 2.2 miles by myself.” The truth was that I wanted to walk the whole distance, and I didn’t want Bill to know or to try to encourage me to keep running. I thought I might blow up at anyone who encouraged me to go any faster than I felt I could pull off at this point. He begrudgingly agreed to let me finish on my own. As I refilled my water bottle and started back out onto the muddy trail for the last stretch, I saw three women coming toward the aid station. One looked bedraggled and exhausted as I did, but the other two, who ran together, looked happy and fresh. I only knew that they’d gone the whole distance because of the mud that streamed up and down their legs. I waved at all of them, grateful not to be the very last soul on the course and then continued toward our turn-around point. I mostly walked, jogging only on the flattest section of the trail. Eventually the other three women and I were clustered together as we hiked the final hill and rounded the last corner within sight of our finish line. All together, we whooped and cheered when we saw Van waiting for us with her clipboard to write down our times. Done. Seven hours and 17 minutes.
I don’t know if I’ll ever try another 50 K race. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done and I cannot imagine repeating it. Bill reminds me that I said the same thing after my first marathon. He predicts I’ll be running a 50-mile race before the year is out. I say he’s crazy. We’ll see who’s right.
Yee-ha! Well done, pal. It’s always fun to read about your latest marathon accomplishment. Your writing is so evocative that I ALMOST feel like I’m out there with you, but minus the searing lower back pain. Keep running and keep writing, and I’ll keep reading. Deal?