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The Hardest Thing I have Ever Done

It is quiet.  The air is still. I hear a soft pounding in my chest and my feet on the asphalt.  My heart reminds me of the task at hand: kee...

Monday, August 10, 2015

Haulin Aspen 26.2 Mile Trail

Despite finishing in the 90 degree temperature range and without a lick of shade, the day started at a crisp 38 degrees. I sat in my car eating a Lara bar and contemplating the task ahead.  26 miles. Oh, 26 POINT two miles (the two-tenths of a mile is often the hardest but should always be included).  I tucked everything in, dawned my pack and headed to the start. 
I met up with fellow teammate Cindy Smith.  Cindy is the type of runner that I have long admired.  She has an effortless looking pace, gliding along at a consistent speed regardless of terrain.  She is also authentically encouraging, without being overly enthusiastic.  Plus, she is a nurse, and although she is not an MS nurse, I have always been comforted by having a nurse nearby just in case.  Maybe it is because my grandmother was a nurse and I have always had a profound respect for the profession.  Okay, back on track.
Cindy was talking with a guy (Taylor or Trevor, something like that) who was talking about this being one of his favorite runs.  He described the course in cool language as if he were all about to go out for a quick stroll through the woods.  I envied his confidence.  Then he said something that I already knew; he said "Save some for the hill."
The hill.  So simple a reference for such a daunting wall in my near future.  But I would not know that just yet.  I had looked at the elevation gain of the hill and knew what was coming.  I knew that it was about an 800 foot climb.  I knew that it was situated just after mile 21 and so I had better save some juice.  I also knew that I had practiced hills.  I figured it would be tough but that I would be fine.  More on this later.
So, the gun fired and off we went into the woods.
The first little bit was up a fire road along power lines.  It was rutty and dusty, that pumice soil that stirs up into the air and hangs in a thick cloud just at lung-level.  We were running toward the rising sun and so the shadows of the runners in front of me cast eerie shadows through the dust-filled fog. 
I paced with Cindy for a bit before I finally realized I should not have worn my jacket.  Even though I was cold at the start line, a few minutes into the run, at 5,800 feet elevation, had me heaving for air and hot! So I slowed to a walk and stripped the jacket off.  Here I realized I should have practiced running while removing my backpack and putting it back on.  I struggled.  One strap was endlessly twisted and I was ever more frustrated trying to correct it.  At one point, I decided to run with the twist.  After half a mile, still climbing the fire road, I decided I needed to fix the strap or I would pay later in severe chafing.  I did and I was once again underway.
Now, the running pack had thinned.  Soon, we were headed downhill and I had to watch my footing for the tricky ruts and gullies carved along the descent.  I was just starting to hope that we would not end up running fire roads the entire 26.2 miles when the trail turned into some piƱon pines and we started snaking our way through the dense and shady forest.  This was by far my favorite part.  The foot hills of Mt Bachelor are such a beautiful part of our state, it was difficult to not look around and to keep my eyes on the trail.  At around mile four I tripped.  The ground was soft though and I was grateful this hadn't occurred over the lava I had seen (and would alter traverse). Instead, I landed in a puff of pumice soot, sliding to a stop and cursing under my breath.  The lady behind asked if I was okay and I told her only my pride was hurt.  A mile or so later, I caught up to her taking pictures of an incredible valley.  She offered to take my picture with my phone so I handed her my phone and posed.  She told me to tag #HaulinAspen later on Instagram so that we could share photos (I have since, and we now share photos).  Here's the one she took of me:
I was starting to get chaffed under my arms a little so I stopped at an aid station and got some tape.  I find this is much better than Vaseline anyway, and it was.  I should mention here that I had also started listening to a podcast.  It was This American Life and was on integration in public schools in Missouri.  It was a very emotional piece.  I found myself fighting the urge to cry as I listened to a young girl, 12 years old, describe the ways in which some of the parents at her new school regarded her just because she was black.  I like to listen to podcasts while I run, especially on long runs.  I find that it really breaks up the monotony of the task.  Still, this was just a little too emotional for me.  I couldn't breathe.  Eventually, I shut it off and started listening only to nature.  I could heard the wind in the trees and an occasional bird.  It was just a lovely run.  I even thought about the sun and the heat and didn't so much mind it...
Then I came to the hill.
So, from the bottom, this hill goes on and on and on...and up and up.  It didn't help that there was an emergency 4x4 vehicle slowly making the crawl down just waiting for someone to drop with exhaustion.  I mean, sure I was glad he was there but I was also terrified he was there, his ominous presence reminding me of how very real my challenge had always been. To top this off, there was not a lick of shade.  Not on the sides, no branches over-hanging.  None. And the climb was steep.  Here are the numbers:  
From mile 21.4 to mile 23.9 I climbed from 4,677 feet to 5,390 feet.  This was an 8% grade! and it came in three sections; so remember how I said it went on and on and on?  Yea, well, once I got to the top of that section, the road turned in a new direction and went on and on and on again.  Then, it did that same evil thing for a third time.  This was no hill.  This was purgatory.  The temperature was near 90 and I was depleted.  It took me nearly 45 minutes to climb this section and  ruined my ability to run much for the last 2 miles to finish the race.
Still, I finished.  I finished at 6:03:40something.  And despite their warnings on the website about a 6 hour cutoff, the hung a medal around my neck and congratulated me.  There wasn't a photographer at the end, but I was totally okay with that.  This would be the first race ever that I would finish without an emotional response.  I walked to the refreshments table, drank a glass of water, and then headed to my car.
I learned a lot that day. First and foremost is that I can go amazing distances in the dirt.  Next, it is important to eat something solid.  I had only consumed gu and electrolytes.  Also, while it is fine to listen to podcasts to break up the run, I should stick to material that wont make me cry.  I can save that for roadtrips when Dave is the driver.  And third, do not take the hill for granted, but also take the hill in stride (even walking stride).
Would I run the Haulin Aspen again?  Sure.  Am I glad I did it? You bet!  This was a training run for the bigger goal which is just around the corner and presents its own challenges: The McKenzie River Trail Run, a 50K that might be the most challenging yet.  We'll see.
If you made it this far, thanks for reading.  Remember, I still have MS and I am still not taking it lying down!

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