The Challenge: I registered for an ultrarun, the Music City Trail Ultra 25km to be exact, but told only a handful of people. The course description is below, taken from the website: WARNING – The Music City Trail Ultra is a hard course especially for the 50k. We are not saying this to impress you, read some of the reviews from last years runners on our site under the “News” link. If you’re willing to take this extreme challenge and still be humble, we welcome you. Also we request that all 50k runners be capable of finishing in 9 hours.
The course will start at our family farm in Pegram, TN that connects to the Cheatham Wildlife Games Reserve. This park offers 20,000 acres of beautiful steep trails and stunning ridge-line views. The course has a good mixture of rugged jeep trails and single track trails through technical terrain.
* 50k – Half the run on trail and other on jeep or gravel roads. This percentage might change as we will be adding new trail to the course this year
* 25k – 65% trail and and the rest on jeep and gravel roads
* 12k – 75% trail and the rest on jeep and gravel roads”
Background: I was intrigued. The details inspired and intimidated me. I started running about six years ago, one mile at first and adding them on little by little. Signed up for a 5K with a friend and went from there. I stopped running halfway through my second pregnancy about three years ago, and started again slowly when my baby was about a year old.
Preparation: My goal-oriented training began last year, but in the past three months, I pushed myself harder and into covering over 100 miles of trails a month. I sought motivation from Instagram, and receive daily doses of it from those trail runners and trainers I follow and who follow me.
What surprised me was the unwanted and unwarranted resistance from some strangers I encountered along the way. My family and friends were supportive and encouraging, but the haters found me…out there…on the trails. Discouragement in all its forms–envy, jealousy, dismissal, pessimism–used to debilitate me. I allowed the negativity to affect me, but this training created a change.
I was running about a month ago, running my favorite trail, straight up Big Mama. As I was beginning the trail, I met another runner, a woman who looked like she was sixty, coming from another trail. “Good morning,” we both said to each other. I went ahead of her, and in the distance heard a man say hello to a woman and she responded the same to him. Then, I met the same man running toward me down the hill. “Hello,” we both said. Just after we passed, I turned the corner and headed straight up. I then saw the woman who had spoken to the man. She walked up the hill. I ran by her and said, “Good morning.”
She shouted at me, “Show off!”
I shrugged, kept running, and said, “I have to do this for my head. And, it took years of practice before I could run it.”
“Whatever. You are a lot younger than me!” she shouted again.
I shrugged. Laughed. I knew the runner who was older than both of us was about to pass her as well.
“Hello,” they both said to one another from behind me.
A couple of weeks later, I was at the Greenway when I was uplifted by another runner during a slump. He had passed other runners, and they kept going without any acknowledgement, but I slapped the hand he had raised for support. He smiled, “good run.”
“You too,” I said. “Always.” I was bewildered by the dis, but I had seen it before, felt it plenty of times.
Later, I passed two men walking who decided to run after I passed them. They mocked one another about being able to keep up with me until they faded away. I passed another group, coming toward me, about five or six runners, said, “good morning.” No response. Glaring.
Told myself to focus on my run. Good practice on focus and discord.
The ultrarun approached. My husband and my best friend knew I was having second thoughts. In races years ago, I experienced almost debilitating social anxiety from the frenzied, competitive type of environment present during big races and half marathons. I feared that type of atmosphere at the ultra, even though the organizers had included the word “humble” in the description of how we runners should be.
Race week: I got sick the week before the race. Major sinus and chest congestion with sore lungs. I maintained a moderate running schedule and pushed ahead. Then, what every woman does not want during an important performance happened. Yes, yes, it did, the day before! Cramps, back pain, all of it, without taking it easy on me.
I voiced my concerns to my husband and best friend. I wasn’t close to 100%. I didn’t want to hurt my body, but I had trained for so long that I didn’t want to deny my spirit (my body) either. And yet, I knew that it would hurt more than usual, that I would struggle more to breathe as well. My lungs were tight and sore.
Day before: I followed through with the plan to pick up my race packet the night before, have dinner with my best friend, and see what happened the next morning. I went back and forth. I shouldn’t do it, I should. The trails love me, they love me not. I love the trail, it may make me not. It’ll be magical in the forest, but it could beat the shit out of me. Looked at Christy, “Ides of March tomorrow,” I said seriously.
“What does it mean anyway?” she asked.
Told her the story of Julius Caesar. Thought, I will have no frenemies there.
Sleep, then toss and turn in the early morning. Crows cawing. Can’t sleep. Wheezing chest. Sleep. Crows cawing. Awake. Awake. Dressed. Coffee. Eggs. Water. I resolved to try. To complete the course. “I don’t want them to have to pick me up,” I said. “I want to be strong enough to make it to the end.” Move in that direction. Go, go, go.
Time for adventure: The drive down highway 70, listening to bluegrass, I stopped in the middle of the highway to take this photo. The trail from two planes crossed. I told myself, “X marks the spot.” I knew the X was over the race location. Listened to “Moves like Jagger”, dancing in the car. Trombone Shorty reminding me to be “For True” as I pulled up to the farm.
I was just on time with five minutes to spare. Jumped in the portajohn. Called my husband, texted my best friend, took an Instagram of the horse’s ass cause that’s what I felt like (and it’s the Year of the Horse). Noticed the X still in the sky.
Called my Dad & they announced “30 seconds” while I talked and ran, “good luck,” he said, “call me when you get done. You got this. How long you think it’ll take?”
I ran between the flags, “Several hours. Love you, Dad.”
First obstacle: Field full of horse shit. Dry creek bed crossing to an uphill into the forest. Climb that ridge line in a line, and dive with the rolling hills.
Sideways trotting, switch sides, switch sides, trot, trot. The pitch of the hill became so steep, people were gasping, cussing, hesitating. I paused on top of a chipping, limestone piece embedded with mud. Below it were the muddy slips of previous runners into leaves and grass and pieces of slate. Just then, I heard a man behind me imitating the sound of a galloping horse. “Yes,” I said. “Thank you. I needed that.” I jumped on my own imaginary horse and trotted on down. Pthpththpthpthpthpth
That’s when the music began to play in my head. I don’t listen to music when I run, but for this race it played for me automatically. Not the whole time, but randomly, my brain chose songs and played them. It began with the massive uphill, the insane hill–ZZ Top “Have Mercy, been waiting for the bus all day. Have mercy!” Repeated “Have Mercy!” ZZ Top style all the way up. And closer to the top, “Right on! That bus done got me back! Right on!” Taking the photo at the top. “Jesus just left Chicago and he’s bound for New Orleans. Oh! Take me with you, Jesus!” Tweeting while I run. Texting best friend. Facebooking the same pic. Keep trotting. Last easy time for that. There would be no more texting or tweeting…pay attention…
Briar patches, muddy downhills, stuffing my phone into my bra, holding onto the bank as I run, grasping trees, using them as leverage, jumping creeks, hauling myself up the roots by the roots. Flat jeep path, looking around at the beauty. Airborne. Don’t know how. I fall and bounce, scoot in the gravel and leaves. Two male runners stop and gasp, “you okay?” I get up and keep running, “yeah, just when I thought it was safe to look around, that’s when it gets me. Thanks for stopping.”
“We wouldn’t leave you,” they say.
We continue on. Constant obstacles. Trees, limbs, mud, briars, slippery leaves, invisible trails. The birds sing. They call out. I listen. Just absorb the cool morning mist, the sunlight in stripes through the trees. The gray sycamore. The pines shadowing the trail, leaving their cones, limbs, fringe for a cushion. Soft padding under the feet–can’t even see a trail from other feet so swiftly and lightly they did tread. Birds calling. Dropping down into the hollow and grateful for the cold. Hearing laughter. Hearing rhythmic breaths of other runners. Imagining pixies. Bird music I don’t even recognize anymore, something from long ago.
We pass runners retuning from the out-and-back portion of the 25km, they encourage us all along the way. “Good run!” “Looking good!” “Stay strong!” “Doin great!” “Keep it up!” “One of the only women!” “Not many women, you’re awesome!” “Keep going!” And that’s how the encouragement from runners during the race continued until the end. I never felt more supported. “Indian War Whoop” by John Hartford yodeling in my brain all the way down the hill and through the next creek turns. Pulling up the hill with the “woooooo-hoooooooo-hoooooooo!” at the top. Meditation while running. Saying thank you to my body, thank you to my family & friends, thank you to the forest, thank you to the trail, thank you to the organizers, thank you to the spirit.
Out the out-and-back to the Jeep road. More fox trotting on an invisible trail plunge. I heard the dirt bike and recalled my childhood when my brother rode dirt bikes through the forest–and it was real–the dirt bike came straight up the hollow at me! I moved aside and followed his tire track where my feet fit perfectly in a single line. “Thanks, brother.”
Reaching the last check in, relief. Stop finally. Drink two gulps of water. Tell the volunteers, “legs are complaining, but it’s beautiful.” They bolster me, “almost there. Go. Your legs will be so happy after they cross the finish line. You’re doing awesome!”
Turn and go. Just go. Climb, climb. Lose the trail. Climb. Climb. Climb. Get out of there. Gotta get out of this hollow. Entanglement in briars and limbs. Errrr! Think of bears and move, move, heavy big steps.
I hit my wall just three miles short of the finish. The forest began to play tricks on me. I couldn’t find the flags. No one was around. I stopped, thought about the map before I opened it and saw the flag from the corner of my eye. Continued. Finally found a field with a rugged, rough cut…hit that stubble and ugh, realized, this is not going to become a smooth field. Song interrupted my thoughts, “crawling back to you,” the Arctic Monkeys sang over and over. No! I didn’t want that song. Certainly, for a moment, I felt like crawling, but I needed another song. Told myself to think of one, and Karen Dalton’s “Katie Cruel” began. No, no, no. That made me tired…and thirsty…like I needed to sit on the bank of the creek and find a fiddle. Big opposite, Cypress Hill jumped in with “Insane in the membrane! Insane in the brain!” jerking me around for a minute.
I heard a strange bird call from the creek. The steep banks along the creek commanded my attention, lured me…I wanted to get a drink of water, but when looked up and I faced this big insane hill just when I thought the trail was taking me to the farm, I dug in after a quiet cussing. Thoughts of my childhood and being lost in the woods. Missing my grandma. Lungs hurt when I thought about watching her die of cancer. Momentary tears for her. Felt her calling me like I was a child. Remembered how I felt exhausted as a child after I roamed the forest and pastures all day. Reminded me of the landscape. Began to mourn for my family farm. Heard Mick Jagger come to my “emotional rescue” with some dancing music after I reached the top. “Whew, steadfast and true.”
But, when the trail obstacles carried on, “Crawling back to you” fought its way back into my head. That made me angry. “I’m shakin” by Jack White interrupted. Told the trail “you got me sweatin’ you got me shakin'”. Trash talkin myself was going to get me back to the beginning. I was moving again. “Jumpin’, sweatin’, shakin'”–the trail snaked on and on.
Met up with some other runners, lagged behind them. We all lost the path in the leaves. Five of us, “where?” Arms up. “There’s the flag!” I pointed.
Going, “I’m Bo Diddley,” dancing and sidestep running downhill, switch sides, switch sides, “voodoo child, baby.” I was waiting for Jimi, and finally within site of the farmhouse where we began, his guitar wailed. I trotted across that horse shit-filled field and got 3rd place female. Amazed! Then, I leaned against the pasture fence and vomited a few times.
Altered state. Said, “not again” to my best friend. An hour later said, “will train even better.” Slept. Refueled with water, bread, potatoes, Kerrygold butter, broccoli, cabbage, bread & butter pudding, and apple crisp made by Irish Rita. Next day, big pot of chicken noodle soup made with my man.
When I danced with my family and friends to a Celtic band that night in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, I knew that challenging myself was the correct decision. I experienced more than I can capture in this blog. Many meditative moments. Remembrances of people who have crossed over to the other side. Recollections of childhood adventures. Old friends. I worked out some issues with my next book and told myself, finish it! And, I finally know that I’m strong enough to do that.
Update: my official time was 3:30:54 so I’ve got to improve on timing my timer, but makes sense with the 30 seconds or so I talked to my Dad at the start of the race.
My brain’s playlist:
For True by Trombone Shorty
Moves Like Jagger by Maroon 5
Waitin for the Bus by ZZ Top
Jesus Just Left Chicago by ZZ Top
Indian War Whoop by John Hartford
Katie Cruel by Karen Dalton
Do I Wanna Know? by Arctic Monkeys
Insane in the Brain by Cypress Hill
Emotional Rescue by the Rolling Stones
Voodoo Child by Jimi Hendrix
Trash Tongue Talker by Jack White
I’m Shakin’ by Jack white