Cut to me at mile 50. It’s 7:02 P.M. The sun has already put on its pajamas and gone to bed. It’s dark and getting darker, and the course is getting lonelier by the minute.
Already, more than half the runners have dropped from the race, but I’m still feeling strong. I apply Vaseline basically everywhere. Arms, inner thighs, inner butt cheeks, and the classic chafe zone under the sports bra. If it’s gross, I don’t notice. I don’t need to carry your judgment with me for the next 50 miles, but thanks for offering. I strap on my headlamp, put on a long sleeve shirt, and prepare for a long night.
Not to get too Robert Frosty, but I’ve got miles to go before I sleep.
To replenish electrolytes and stay warm, I choke down some ramen soup, obviously burning my tongue in the process. To treat it, I eat an Oatmeal Cream Pie and a banana. (For those of you who have never run an ultra, this is completely normal eating behavior.)
The race organizers tell me I look fresh, like I just started. They commend me on my attitude. I can’t tell if they mean it or if it’s something they say to all the gals at this dance. Because I’m vain and at this point both vulnerable and impressionable, I assume they’re being forthright. It really doesn’t matter. The positive reinforcement works. I’m refreshed, if only temporarily.
I hit the trail again.
Cut to me at mile 75, sitting in a horse stable next to my drop bag filled with sweaty socks and spare batteries for my headlamp. It’s 3:44 A.M., and I’ve been running for over 21 hours. I still have 25 miles to go.
At this point, my plucky personality starts to wither. I’m tired of mud. I’m tired of running. I’m just plain tired. There’s a small (and very logical) part of me begging to stop. But there’s an overbearing superego – in both the Freudian and narcissistic sense – telling that nay-saying loser to pipe down.
I’ve already run out of clean underwear, so I’m flying commando for the rest of the race. It feels kind of liberating and marks the exact point where I stop being polite and start getting real.
“I’m doing this,” I tell myself. Over and over and over and over and over.
I become obsessed with finishing this goddamn race. Singularly focused. In a way, I lose consciousness of anything but the finish line. I am in a trance-like state of momentum where my legs keep moving because my brain gives them no other choice. I press on, living the mantra of my favorite ultrarunner, “Perpetual forward motion.”
This suspended reality lasts for several hours, where miles pass without my even noticing. I am alone. Beyond the glow of my headlamp, the woods are dark and eerie. The only sounds are the wind and my footsteps, which sound like your aunt who chews with her mouth open. It’s so muddy, so wet, so relentless out here. I keep my head down, eyes focused on only the steps immediately in front of me.
In these dark hours, I learn a lot about myself.
I learn that a mixture of Coca-Cola and water is my new signature sports drink and that quesadillas are my favorite aid station delight. I learn that muscle pain is like whining: if you ignore it, it will stop.
I also learn that I’m a selfish and solitary runner.
In my real life, I’m a hammy, enthusiastic extravert. I make fast friends with anything that smiles and have meaningful conversations with bags of brussel sprouts. But as a runner, I’m a lone wolf. I spend all year training by myself. Why should today be any different?
Unlike most, I don’t have a crew or a pacer with me here. I do have one friend who entered the race with me, but I haven’t seen him since I took off at mile five. When he drops from the race at mile 50, I feel guilty but not guilty enough. If I were a better person, might we both have finished?
I barely give it a second thought. I don’t run for charity and I don’t run for camaraderie. I run for myself.
This is Part 2 of a four-part story. Please click to read Part 1 or onward to parts 3 and 4. I try not to write with exclamation points because they feel girly and disingenuous, but if I used them more liberally, it would be to say thanks for reading (!).