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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...

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Find A Way

Near the end of the finish for the McKenzie River Trail Run (MRTR) my watch told me I was over 32 miles.  I was delirious, 40 minutes over my target time, and the heat was seeping into me. The verb to describe my current action could not be 'running;' the action was more of a 'stumble.'  However, I was gaining on a pair of backpackers with full packs that towered up and over their heads.  They looked like something from a Jim Henson movie.  Maybe I imagined them, but spoke to them anyway.

"Have you seen any other runners?" I panted, convinced that I was on the wrong path having passed the needed mileage on my watch, far beyond 31 miles.

"Yeah, we've been seeing other runners," one of them responded.  "Fellow racers I assume--hey are you okay?"

"Yeah, I thought I was on the wrong trail." The sunlight stabbed through the canopy at me as I started to 'stumble' on again.

"Seriously, are you okay?"

I don't remember how I responded.

I had been running sideways for a long portion of the last five miles.  By that I mean that my body had slowly started to tip to the left and I could not correct it.  I would stop to walk and force myself upright but as soon as I started running (or whatever the verb would be for that motion that was not running) I would tip right back over to the side. At least it kept me moving.

Here's what I remember thinking: find a way.  That's a Diana Nyad mantra.  It helped her swim from Cuba to Florida in her 60s.  It would help me finish this 50K, even if I collapsed and died at the end.

I remember I suddenly hated the trees.  I've never hated trees, not even invasive trees which don't belong in an ecosystem and can sometimes reek havoc on a habitat.  But these trees--these sentinels of doom--spelled out one thing to me: This is not a clearing.  I had run the trail enough times to know that the finish line would be near a clearing but all I saw then were trees.  More trees. Somehow I would have to find a way to keep going.

I deeply loved this trail.  I knew the first time I heard of this run that I would eventually try doing this crazy thing.  31 miles along jagged lava beds, up and down roaring waterfalls, a tangle of roots and rocks at every turn.  But the peace that I had found in the beauty of this place, this McKenzie River, one of the last stretches of wild river in the Pacific Northwest, told me that I would pay my homage in this way, by running the length of its wild section.  I had biked nearly the entire length with my husband, Dave, at one time or another (never all at once).  I had trained along various sections and with different groups of people (again, only now doing it all at once).  I knew some places intimately--the spot where I tripped on a root and slid along the path, my eye stopping short of a shard of lava protruding from the earth.  Another spot where I had hiked just a few weeks ago with my dad, the sun dappling the beautiful blue-green water with gems of light. I thought back to that moment when I had learned of this run.  At the time, I had not even finished a half marathon, my longest run was 9 miles, but somehow I knew I would do this.  I thought to myself, as long as I can still run, as long as my legs will still go, I will find a way. Years later, I was very close to finishing . . . if I could only find that damned finish line!

This is me at Carmen Reservoir, still pretty early in the run.  You can see my splits on my arm.  I had started out WAY too fast.

I trotted along, my body tipping sideways, cursing the trees that I loved so much.  I breathed in the dust of the trail and wiped my hand along my forehead hoping this gesture would bring some relief.  None came.  Then, as if from a far away dream, I heard faint cheering.  Or was I hallucinating?  After all, I had been running for over seven and a half hours, the temperature had reached toward the 90s as the day waxed.  But was I just hearing things? Frankly I was surprised I hadn't seen dancing bears by that point.  But wait.  Yes, there it was again.  Cheering?  Clapping?  Growing louder and more distinct until at once I was surrounded by the sound.  I lifted my head from my steady downward preventative gaze, careful of roots and rocks for so very long by then, and I saw two girls through the brush, young and full of life and yelling for their mom--me! 

Veronica ran out to join me and she ran me in (the finish is uphill, by the way).  I was met at the finish line by many friends and my family.  They were all cheering and hugging me, but the race director (shown in the picture below) high-fived me then gently guided me to the medical tent.  He was squeezing my arm and letting go looking for water retention.  Dave was there telling the medics that I needed to be checked; he seemed concerned.  What a frightening thing for him, I thought.  He had to stand there and wait to see if I would come out of those woods on my own or if they might have had to send someone in after me.  There are so few things that are clear about that moment except for this.   I let the aides check me over, mostly for Dave because I was not in my right mind then to think I needed help.  Thinking back, I certainly needed it.

Michael Lebowitz was there and snapped that picture for the Long Run Picture Company.   Ron Stone was there and talking about the heat.  Jeff and Tonya McKay were there.  I heard reports of how Cindy had done and how Jeanette had done; they might have been there too, but so much of the finish is a blur now.  I do remember hearing that Jeff had struggled at the end, too.  I heard that Coach Keith McConnell had done well, after having a bad spill around mile 13 (I think).  The only thing that I wanted to do was to sit down and take off my shoes, but we still had a ways to walk across the street and to the car so the shoes would have to stay a bit longer.

That was a terribly difficult thing to do, running the MRTR.  Would I do it again if I could? I'm not sure.  But I did find a way that day and all summer as I trained for it.  Something that really stands out for me now, as I reflect on that effort, the thing that is cemented into me is that miracles are real.  Yes, I said it and I have no snake oil to peddle.  The thing is, miracles don't just fall into our hands; we have to reach and stretch, grasping for them with everything we have.  Maybe it's because I did something I thought I couldn't do.  Maybe it's because other people thought I couldn't do it and I did it anyway, regardless of what they thought.  Maybe it's more that I still can run and so I do.  As long as my legs can still go, I will find a way to chase those miracles.

Friday, September 11, 2015

That Which Does Not Kill Me...

Only makes me stronger? I am about to get pretty strong then.

Tomorrow, I will attempt the McKenzie River Trail Run 50K.  This will be the longest I have ever ran ...on any surface, though it just happens to be traversing volcanic rocks, thrushes filled with bees and wasps, and the sides of cascading waterfalls with rooty, winding trails concealed by dappled sunlight.

I remember that I wanted to do this.  I remember that I signed up for this voluntarily.  I also remember that I have a lot of people cheering for me and hoping for me and encouraging me.  This brings me great strength and comfort.  It will get me through the brushy reeds where the wasps stir on the backside of Clearlake.  It will steady my footfalls across the craggy lava rocks by Blue Pool. It will give me focus along those uneven paths, compelling me to take one more step and than one more still.

Thank you so much to everyone who has helped me along this path.  There are too many to name.  But I would like to single out my coach.

Coach Joe Henderson, who never once doubted that I could do this, thank you so much.  Coach said from the beginning that I had this.  He said it would be fine.  He unfalteringly believed in me, even when others didn't.  And he continues to tell me that I can and will get this done.  Plus, Coach has never treated me any different because I have MS, or because I am a woman, or because I am a mom, or older, or any of the things that my head tells me make me an exception.  He has always been enthusiastic and supportive and encouraging.  I have many cheerleaders but I only have one Coach.  Thanks Joe. Thank you so much.

With Coach Joe Henderson at the finish of the Eugene Marathon, May 10, 2015
Photo courtesy of Michael Leowitz, Long Run Picture Co.