A couple weeks ago, a running buddy from our old club tweeted that he had signed up for the Farmdale 30 mile trail race on October 13th. On a whim, I clicked the link in his tweet and discovered that the race was near where my family lives and that the course was described as "runner friendly."
The mere idea of running a trail race has always scared the be-jeebus out of me because I am as clumsy as all hell, but I realize I am not going to get very far in the world of ultra running unless I migrate from roads to trails. This is distressing.
I felt like I needed more information about Farmdale, so my aunt graciously went over there and checked it out for me. She took a few pictures and talked to some mountain bikers about what the trails there were like. In the end, the consensus from a bunch of people who are extremely hard core and not clumsy like me was that trails ranged from "not too bad" to "relatively easy." I felt like this meant I was likely to die or get trampled if I attempted to run this race.
I signed up for it anyway.
I mean, it's only 30 miles. What's the worst that could possibly happen?
Rob signed up for it too. It is a rare opportunity for us to do the same race, what with child care and all. My parents were thrilled that they would get to spend some quality time with William while Rob and I were out running.
As race day loomed closer, the weather forecast looked grim. Showers, followed by rain, followed by severe thunderstorms. I chose to ignore these reports. After all, I had my hands full with worrying about what it would be like to run on a narrow, rugged, single-track trail with ravines on both sides and how nervous I would feel when a faster runner came up behind me and clearly wanted to pass me but there was not a whole lot I could do except feel bad about myself for holding up the entire race.
I dealt with my nervousness by acting calm and nonchalant.
Race morning dawned drizzly and cool.
Rob and I met up with a couple of friends from our old running club and chatted before the start. It was so much more relaxed than the start of a marathon. I loved that. In our swag bag at packet pick-up, we got our race numbers, a long sleeve coolmax shirt, and a headlamp. Seriously, people, it doesn't get any better than that.
Before I knew it, we were off and running. I started in the way back. The way, way, way back. In a single track trail race, this means that you stay in the back because there isn't a good way to pass anybody. This means when the runners in front of you decide to walk a ridiculously easy uphill, you have to walk it too because you cannot pass them. It was frustrating because I wanted to be going faster than a snail's pace, but I told myself to just chill out on the first loop and stay alert for challenges or obstacles on the trail.
With every step I took, I became more confident. This wasn't too bad. I was handling it. I didn't like being so crowded by other runners, but I knew that most of them were only doing one 10-mile loop, and after they finished their race, I'd be able to go the pace I wanted.
In areas where the course opened up a bit, I was able to pass people, and eventually I caught up with our old friends from the Urbana running club.
"Melissa, I'd recognize your stride anywhere," J said to me as I ran up behind him. "So efficient."
I smiled. In 2004, I set my 10K PR running with him at the Christie Clinic race. For me, it was the middle leg of a 20 mile training run. Those were the days.
There was a aid station on the course at the 5 mile mark. I grabbed some pretzels as I continued to chat with J and C. I started running again and left the aid station a little bit ahead of them, but I turned around to say something to J. What I didn't realize was that beneath the leaf litter, the trail suddenly became very rocky. I landed just wrong and went down hard on my left knee. Several people rushed over to see if I was okay, and I tried to pop right back up like nothing was wrong.
"I'll be fine," I said, even as I noticed blood on my palms and wrists (where I had braced myself) and trickling down my leg. My knee hurt like hell. I could barely hobble. J and C walked with me for a while, across the remainder of the rocky section. Refusing to believe I was injured, I started running again. I realized I had dropped my pretzels during the fall. No big deal. It was only 5 miles until we were back at the start/finish area, where there would be another aid station.
The trail conditions on the back half of the course were more challenging. Lots of little, incredibly steep ravines to go up and down. The uphills didn't bother me (they never do), it was the descents that gave me trouble. I am horrible at descending. But as long as I slowed down and took it at my own pace-- not barreling down the ravines like real trail runners do-- it was totally manageable. Before I knew it, I'd finished the first 10 mile loop, and that meant I'd seen the entire course. I breathed a sigh of relief. Sure, there were a few sections that made me a little nervous, but even with a throbbing knee, I knew I could do this.
I stopped for a white bread peanut butter and jelly sandwich slices at the aid station (delicious! And that bread was totally vegan, I'm sure!) and headed back out just as the rain began in earnest. It had been drizzling all morning, but as I headed out for the second loop, it started pouring. I slipped and fell again (on my already injured knee) at the first entrance to the single track-- a steep, muddy, bank had suddenly become as slick as ice.
The course was less congested than before, now that the 10 mile runners were finished. But there were still a lot of 30 and 50 milers out there, and I was more nervous than ever because the trail conditions had deteriorated considerably. It was as slippery as all hell, and I had a really tough time keeping my footing. I kept constantly looking over my shoulder to see if there was a faster runner approaching and if I would need to get off the trail to let him or her pass.
It began to thunder and lightening. It was cold, and I was drenched to the bone. Rain came down in angry sheets. It got dark and very hard to see the trail. I slowed down a lot. Creek crossings became like river crossings-- water up past my ankles. What had been easy on the first loop was now treacherous. I realized it was inevitable until I fell and broke my leg or worse. It was hard but in a completely different way than a marathon or shorter race. I wasn't limited by energy or ability to turn over my legs. I was limited by the constant slipping and sliding with every muddy footstep on the trail. This felt like an entirely different race than the leisurely first loop had. It was, in fact, how I always imagined trail races would be, and why I had always been afraid of doing one. This was, by all accounts, my own personal hell.
At last I made it to the 5 mile aid station. Now 15 miles into the race. I refueled with orange slices and presumed-to-be-vegan PBJ's. I chatted with the very nice guy who was working the aid station, and that helped cheer me up. I tried to make my mind a blank slate and not become paralyzed by fear at the thought of running the more difficult back half in these conditions.
More thunder, more lightening. Ravines that had been a little scary but do-able for me on the last loop were now impassable. I was pretty sure I was going to die out there. I didn't know how I was going to make myself go out for a third loop if I managed to get back to the start/finish area alive. I had never DNF'd in a race before but I was pretty sure this was going to be my first. It would be better to DNF than die or lose a limb. I tried not to dwell on what was going to happen when and if I finished this lap. I just took it one agonizing step at a time.
At last I crossed back into the start/finish area again. 4 hours and 27 minutes for 20 miles. It had taken me more than a 1/2 hour longer than the first lap to do the second lap.
Before I had time to process my next move, another runner came thundering into the chute.
It was Rob!
He was finished with the race. He'd done 30 miles in the time it had taken me to do 20.
And more than that, he had won!
As lame and "stand-by-your-man"-ish as this may sound, it was totally freaking awesome to get to see him win the race and congratulate him at the finish line. Even though I was bedraggled from running 20 miles in a thunderstorm, I suddenly felt like I was walking on sunshine.
But now I was faced with the decision of whether or not I was going to go back out for another 10 miles. Knowing what the trail conditions were like made the prospect very overwhelming. Rob looked at me and I could tell he was kind of amazed that I'd made it this far. Even he thought the trail was treacherous.
I will never forget the thing he said to me.
"This is the worst it's ever going to get. If you can go back out there and finish this, you can do anything."
So I grabbed another peanut butter and jelly sandwich and left.
The course was very sparse now, which was how I preferred it. Some people were running in small groups or with pacers, but for this I needed to be totally and completely alone.
The rain stopped. This was a good omen. But I soon found out that the course was even worse than it had been on the previous lap. Pools of standing water had been one thing. Now the entire trail was a slick of soul-sucking (and sole-sucking) ankle deep mud. It took every bit of concentration and muscle control that I had just to stay upright. I tried to just keep calm and carry on, but I was terrified of the back section of the loop, the one with all the ravines.
While the downhills were terrifyingly dangerous, the uphills were the hardest part. There were several times when I felt like I was trying to climb up a vertical mudslide. I'd manage a few steps and then slide back down to the bottom of the ravine. I had to crawl on my hands and knees in the mud to get up a couple of them, or grab onto vegetation. Before too long, my arms hurt worse than even my throbbing knee, just from having to expend so much effort to pull myself up the ravines.
At last I passed a point on the course where I knew I'd left the most difficult parts behind. With only two or three miles left, I finally knew I was going to make it.
It was still tough to get to the end. With no more ravines to worry about, I suddenly noticed how bad my knee hurt. Not exactly in the place where I'd fallen, but instead, behind my knee cap. I couldn't really bend my knee at all. I had to use kind of a weird gate--never heel-striking, just landing on the ball of my foot. I wondered how long I'd been running like that.
Finally, I emerged from the trail and onto the grassy straight-away with the finish line in sight. Volunteers and runners who had already finished saw me come out of the woods and began to cheer. Somebody even rang a cowbell. I heard Rob yell, "You're an animal!" as I crossed the finish line. Everybody made me feel like a million bucks, even though it had just taken me 7 hours and 19 minutes to run 30 miles.
I didn't even eat anything when I finished; I just collapsed in the tent and tried to process the magnitude of what I had done.
My knee was killing me. I looked down and saw how scratched up it was, how swollen it was, not just around the point of impact, but behind my patella as well. I almost couldn't believe that I'd run 25 miles on it like that. I hoped I didn't cause permanent damage.
While I was still kind of in a daze, Rob loaded me up and took me back to my parents' house, where I put ice on my knee, took an ibuprofen, ate a ridiculously large quantity of BBQ Fritos, and got lots of hugs and kisses from Will. Thankfully I didn't have The Nausea like I've experienced in most marathons and my other ultra, I just felt completely emotionally drained. Kind of like I couldn't really do anything but sit there and cry, except I had no idea what I was crying about. I started feeling better after a hot shower, but my knee still hurt. In fact, it hurt so bad that I had a lot of trouble sleeping that night.
Finishing Farmdale wasn't quite as hard as giving birth or going through whatever it was we went through right after Will was born. But it ranks right up there at the top of the list of challenging things I've done.
I'm definitely going to cherish this.
Thanks for reading.