When I check in at the last aid station, I have seven miles to go. Let me make this unmistakably clear: I hate every single one of them.
I feel muscle pain basically everywhere. My lower back, my haunches, my hamstrings, even my face. My feet are tired and waterlogged. I am filthy. How I’ve managed to avoid blisters and keep all my toenails is one of life’s great mysteries.
My quads suffer most of all. They are the unwilling participants in some cruel sci-fi torture experiment. When I amble downhill, it feels like someone poured battery acid into my veins. They are completely shredded.
My muscles beg me to stop, but I am the evil stepsister forcing them to clean the cellar. I am a tyrant. I am a dictator. I am in control. I am finishing this race.
And then I see it.
A small, humble sign on the path ahead of me. An 8.5×11” sheet of laminated white paper on a stick. It reads “Aid Station this way” and has the most beautiful arrow I’ve ever seen pointing me home.
I have been walking for miles because I didn’t have the strength to keep running. But I hear a cow bell, which means the race directors and volunteers are calling me home.
They can see me. I’m so close.
I finish the race the way I started it: running. A smile on my face. Optimistic. The darkest miles, the mud, and all 100.38 miles are behind me.
I am a finisher.
It took me 28 hours, 43 minutes of guts and stamina and quesadillas. The race director hands me a belt buckle and congratulates me. I am only the second woman to finish the Lake Martin 100, and I’ll soon learn that there are no other women out there.
Sixteen women started the race and only two finished.
There is a very ugly side of me that wants to start pounding my chest talking about how tough I am. How mentally, physically, and emotionally strong I am. How I’m built for this. How I’m the meanest and the baddest. How King Kong ain’t got SHIT on me. But I’m also good at math, so let me choke down this monster slice of humble pie:
Second place is also last place.
I am more humbled than I am proud to accept this distinction.
Anastasia, who took first place – crushing me by an hour and forty minutes – literally passed out after the race. KO. She rests on the floor of the stables, taking in calories, trying to sleep, and elevating her feet. I’m literally the last woman standing, so at least I have that going for me. For now.
Cut back to me, on the verge of extinction, at Wendy’s after the race.
I am face-deep in my chicken sandwich and feel like I might die. I had expected to drive to the airport, but my body has other plans. Specifically, dying. I expect the cashier to read me my last rites over these french fries. Goodbye cruel world!
But Anastasia shouts over to me from an adjacent table.
“Hey, you ran Lake Martin?” I nod.
“Yeah, I can tell by the way you’re walking. Did you finish?” I nod again.
“Oh my God!” she says, full of so much life and excitement it’s hard to believe that just two hours ago she was passed out. “You’re the other finisher! We’re the only two females!”
She’s as bright and vibrant and as the streaks of pink in her platinum blonde hair. She tells me about how difficult the course was, about passing out, and about how this is her thirteenth 100-miler.
Anastasia is a bad ass. She is immeasurably cooler than I am.
I keep nodding, enthralled, and so happy that she fills the quiet spaces with joy. I finish half my meal and suddenly feel better. It might be the calories, but it might also be sharing the experience with someone who understands what it feels like to come back from the dead.
As I drive to the airport, I ask myself a thousand questions. Did I even enjoy that experience? Why do I love putting my body through such agony? What is it about pushing myself to the limit that makes me love this sport?
Simply put, why do I run ultras?
The answer was with me all day, all night, and all morning.
Because it’s easier to keep going than to explain why you didn’t.