Balancing a wooden bowl of avocados, a folded lawn chair and a Solo cup full of margarita in my arms, I followed my good friend Caity and her two kids toward the center of the campground, where folks were selling stuff and Luis Escobar was up on a bandstand announcing contenders for the next round of ball races. I stopped on the way to chat with Pat Sweeney. Little Guadajuko, the ghost dog of the Sierra Madres, walked by us behind his mistress, the one and only Maria Walton.
I remember wondering how this could even be real. The series of events in one’s life are often entwined and complicated, but my route to this place was so linear that it seems almost fictional. It was probably true for most of us here at this 2013 Born to Run Ultramarathons event. One day, for whatever personal reason, we all picked up this book written by a NY Times journalist, entitled Born to Run. We read it, we fell in love with the story of Micah True and his Raramuri, and then we fell in love with the idea of running an ultramarathon someday. Many of us actually ended up running them, too. For me, that book placed a pivot point in my life so deep and strong that in three years time I’d ended up finally following my longtime dream to live on the west coast, wearing a pair of Luna Sandals, running a 50K race with a tribe of wild, beautiful, like-minded human beings and creating friendships with my own personal superheroes. And I credit that book, most of which I read during vacation on a beach in Bermuda, for the entire succession of events that brought me to that very moment, and that bowl of avocados.
Before that moment, I hadn’t done anything that could be considered camping since I was probably fifteen years old. So, to make a 5-6 hour solo drive up the California coast and pitch my own tent on a ranch with no shower outbuildings or running water of any kind…well, that was kind of a stretch for me. And as this fact arose in full-color about a week prior to the event, I almost decided not to show up at all. A big part of me was intimidated by the “ick” factor caused by not showering for three days, and the knowledge that, as compared to the rest of the runners attending, I am totally a “city girl.”
And let’s talk about my training. Yeah, exactly: what training? A bunch of hill runs, a solo-ten miler here and there and a couple half marathons is probably not what most of these ultra runners would consider a good 50K training plan. But I went anyway, and I’m really freaking glad I did because I learned a shitload of important things about myself.
What did I learn? Well one of the things I learned is that I don’t need to train my head off to complete a 50K race, and in fact it’s probably a bad idea. I learned that finishing this kind of distance is 30% about adequate fueling, 10% about training and 60% about mental fortitude and a good attitude. Last year I spent 6 months running long in preparation for my first 50K. I suffered and toiled and even though I finished, I was mentally exhausted and totally over running even before I crossed the starting line. I didn’t eat enough all day, I indulged in negative thoughts, I whined, I cried, and I almost quit twice. And then afterward, I didn’t even feel like running again for a solid 8 months. All that training? It did jack shit for me on race day.
For this ultra I didn’t “train” at all. And that wasn’t even a strategic thing, really…I just didn’t feel up to it so I didn’t do it. Instead I joined a local hashing group and stopped taking running seriously. I ran gnarly technical trails on crazy steep hills with a bunch of insane beer drinkers, I ran several days in a row without fretting about it, skipped several days in a row if I felt I needed it, ran as slow as I wanted to and ran as fast as I could when the mood came over me. I signed up for a couple of half marathons for the hell of it, and really I just enjoyed myself. I even stopped wearing my Garmin watch because I didn’t care how fast I ran or whether the run was 4.0 or 4.2 miles long. That is the attitude I brought with me to the starting line of the Born to Run 50K, and it’s the attitude that carried me, with much fewer tears this time, down the finisher’s chute.
And speaking of the start, this was the most unique one I’ve ever been to.
* * *
Three gunshots pierced the quiet morning in quick succession, followed by the most exuberant mariachi music you’ll ever imagine wanting (or not wanting) to hear at 4:15am. In my damp tent on the hard, cow-pie spotted soil of the ranch, it barely felt I had slept a wink all night. I took a moment to release myself from my margarita-and-dancing-induced fog. By the time I managed to unfurl from the warm sleeping bag and meander over to the porta-johns, there was a line four people deep, all toting their own roll of toilet paper…you know, just in case. It was still dark and everyone moved like slow mutants, a strange contrast to the upbeat yipping of the mariachi singers.
Once the spikey tune of Voodoo Child started to ring through the camp, I was back in my tent dressing for the race. It was about 45 degrees and overcast so I chose capri pants, a long sleeve shirt and a handheld. Then I shoved as many calories as I could down my gullet: a banana, a pre-made protein smoothie, and some iced coffee to stave off the caffeine withdrawals. Krista Cavender, Jacobus Degroot, Caity McCardell and Tracey Longacre got themselves ready in their own camps all around me.
At 6:00 Luis gathered up the 400-person crew of 10-mile, 50K, 100K and 100-mile runners, went over the course markings, and made us repeat Caballo Blanco’s famous pre-race oath:
“If I get lost, hurt or die…it’s my own damn fault.”
With that done, another gunshot cracked through the air and we were off. Just like that. Excited runners whooped, hollered and yipped back and forth across the pack for the whole first mile. Unlike every road race I’ve ever participated in, where the runners are separated by race distance, lined up according to pace, and the fastest ones elbow each other for room behind a straight line drawn on the pavement, this was just a jumble of happy people all starting together as one, worrying not who was in front, running with dirt on their feet and huge fucking grins on their faces. The feeling of the crowd was wild, colorful and raw, and I felt completely at home in it. I was living inside my own poem that was written for Caballo. This was his world, and what a world it is!
Dust ascends on the horizon
A deep, rumbling thunder without rain
The sound of rampant hearts, a legion
Earthly, feral and unconstrained
* * *
The first ten mile loop flew by, and I finished it pretty quickly. I don’t even know what I can say about that first 1/3 of the course, except that it just felt great. I had to wait out the first four miles until my body warmed up and got with the program, typical for me, but after that I was fine. The chilly air kept me comfortable, the two dozen or so runners around kept me company, and all my months spent on the hills of SoCal made the inclines on this first loop barely noticeable.
The ranch was wide and hilly with gorgeous, leaning oak trees spotting the gold-colored fields. I chatted, laughed, heck I even sang: I ran by a chick who was singing a tune from the Muppet Show and I just had to join in. At this point I didn’t actually plan to finish the entire race, but I wasn’t worried about it yet. I just ran, and I smiled. When I finished the first loop I went back to my tent to change into lighter clothing, drink some Gatorade and eat something. And to my surprise I noticed I still had so much energy left that it was as if I hadn’t even been running yet. What a wonder proper fueling does! So when I was done changing into my INKnBURN skirt and cotton tank, I just got up and started the second loop. Easy-peasy.
By mile 12 the racers had spread out enough that I was running solo, and I found myself a little off course. I backtracked for a bit and then saw a girl running up the road toward me. In my relief I yelled out, “Oh good, I’m still on course!” right about the same time she was asking me, “is this the right way?” There were a dozen cows standing on the trail and blocking the markers, but when they heard us talking they shifted away. We found the markers and continued on together. I expected her to fly on past me but we were running at the same pace, so we started chatting. Turns out that she was the same girl singing the Muppet Show song back at loop one, and we didn’t know it yet but we were going to be each other’s motivation for the remainder of the 50K.
Her name is Crista Anna Scott, and she’s from Ventura California. She writes a blog called Run, Eat, Create, Repeat and she had just received her Master’s Degree the day before the race. She wrote her thesis on ultra running, and this was her first 50K. And, she didn’t really “train” for this race either. I mean, it couldn’t have been a more perfect match-up. We spent the entire second loop running, exchanging stories, laughing, missing turns (oops) and backtracking, being halted by cow stampedes, and pondering the invaluable glory of downing Coca-Cola during a long race. We didn’t really notice that we were tired, we didn’t care if we were slow (we totally were), and we didn’t even talk about the steepness of the hills we were climbing. If I believed in that sort of thing, I would say the universe sent me a buddy to reflect back to me all the positivity that I wanted to have about this race. Whatever it was, I couldn’t be more grateful, especially during the third and final loop.
Twenty miles in, I was getting tired. But it was really only a half-marathon kind of tired, so I was still a bit bouncy. Back at the tent I refilled my water bottle, grabbed a Luna bar and stuffed a bunch of gels into the pockets of my skirt. I met up with Crista and her friend Alexis (who decided to join us for the last lap) and we continued on together. We ran for probably two miles but then slowed to a comfortable, speedy walk. I had been ignoring it successfully for the last few miles, but my IT band was now starting to give me some real pain. And I knew exactly what it was: too much slouching early on in the race (likely during the aforementioned first four mile shuffle) had me over-striding for long enough to cause inflammation that was slowly getting worse as I continued on. It was too late to fix it with a form change, so my only choice was to walk for a large portion of the last loop and hopefully finish without causing any lasting injury. I was a little peeved because I had fixed my IT band issues over a year ago and I should have known better than to cause it to come back again – but for the most part I didn’t let the disappointment bring me down.
It was tough to walk. Every other body party was still on board to run. My feet were tired but okay. My hips were sore, but they liked running better than walking. However my knee only had a little left in her so I decided to save it for the last push at the end. I think Crista wanted to run more, too. But she refused to go on without me so we resorted to speed-walking through the fields as the sun grew hot in the clear, cerulean-colored sky. We avoided the subject of our physical struggles and instead passed the time by singing. Rather loudly and badly, too. We covered Disney tunes, The Beatles, Tom Petty, Michael Jackson and the Steve Miller Band, and the wind passed our noise to the racers walking behind us, who laughed amiably whenever a voice cracked or we all forgot the words at the same time. Eventually we arrived back at the Muppet Show song (“mahna-mahna”), and by then we’d been dancing around on the trail like fools and had forgotten all about our sore feet for nearly an hour. And now we only had about four miles left to go.
The power of music, indeed. Someone should write a master’s thesis on that.
The last four miles were long, and my knee was starting to hurt significantly, but at this point I only remember the pain intellectually. Emotionally, I was all-in. Before, I had all but planned to drop out of this race, but while it was happening I didn’t spend a minute considering it. Each time I came back from a loop my mind was on fueling for the next one, instead of stopping or taking a nap. During the moments when I was the most tired, I was thinking about what I’ll do differently for my next 50k, instead of swearing off ultras for the remainder of my life. Rather than worrying over how exhausted I felt in the moment, I remembered one of my favorite things that my friend Vanessa wrote a while back in her blog, about ultra running: “One foot in front of the other, forever.”
* * *
So the final thing I learned about myself during this race is that I’m stronger than I usually give myself credit for, and I’m more beautiful than my eyes let me believe. Sure, today I may be looking at photos of myself during the race and lamenting my recent failures at weight loss – the one thing that, if successful, would have helped me finish the race much faster – but my body, at its current weight and training level, still took me across the 50K finish line. And has done it twice. However much I complain about my round tummy or my flabby arms, my body is strong, and my will is even stronger. It’s unfortunate that my eyes have trouble seeing the beauty that my heart feels for these chunky legs that carried me for 31 miles, and it’s a dichotomy that troubles me every day – and possibly it even hinders my weight loss goals. But I sincerely hope that my motivation to run this race again (and do it better next time) will naturally help to reconcile this conflicting double-vision body image that I struggle with, and that next year I’ll come back with both kinder eyes and a lighter body. It’s probably about time those two made up, anyway.
Taken with Crista and “Skirt Dude” (who handed out all the medals) right after finishing the race.
Photo by Michelle Amber Evans.
Thank you to Luis Escobar for putting on a race that to me is the ultrarunning adventure Mecca: I can’t wait to do it all over again next year. Thank you to Crista for your companionship: you were like my North Star! Thank you to Guadajuke for letting me pet you: your presence alone imploded my symbolism-loving mind. Thank you to my friends who made it to the race, new and otherwise: you continue to inspire me in ways I never see coming. Thank you to those who believe in me and especially to those who don’t: you give me strength beyond your understanding. Mahalo nui lo!