May 14, 2011. Caroline Furnace, Virginia
Have you ever been merrily working toward a sure goal only to feel the world was increasingly against you? That it wasn’t meant to be? That the Universe was sending you clear messages to cease and desist even thinking about it?
That was this year’s Massanutten 100. I had a lot at stake since it was going to be magic finish #10. Lots of people, probably hundreds, have run this race but only six people (all men) had ten or more finishes. Ten finishes in any race, especially a 100-mile race, is a big deal.
But it should have been pretty easy. I’ve run the course so many times, the trail and I have a mutual understanding if not affection for one another. It’s like my home course. Yes, I should avoid making stupid mistakes and anything can happen over the course of 100 miles, but finishing was essentially a foregone conclusion. The 35-hour cutoff gave me plenty of time and even if something happened, I could finish without being close to the top of my game.
So I took a chance by running Miwok 100k in California the weekend before Massanutten. Flying cross-country and back to run 62 miles is hardly the ideal taper for a 100-mile race but I didn’t want to pass up a chance to run Miwok and I’ve done back-to-back 100s so this was well within my capability. Unfortunately I didn’t gamble on picking up a respiratory infection on the way home. In spite of bombarding it with a handful of medicines, it lingered all week and would likely descend as usual into my lungs sometime…oh, say…during Massanutten. Okay, so that wasn’t ideal either and my time wouldn’t be fast, but so what – I could still finish.
All the same, it was hard to imagine coughing and hacking my way through those relentless mountain climbs, so I bought some Mucinex Maximum Strengthto keep my lungs as clear as possible. All the other medicines either didn’t seem to help or caused drowsiness. I’d never taken Mucinex before and made a note to drink extra fluids, since it would probably dehydrate me a little. Luckily, the forecast was cool temperatures.
Rob and I joined everyone at 4:00 am for the start and as usual, we started before I was mentally centered. The start is an hour earlier this year, so we would be covering the first road section and rocky Short Mountain mostly in the dark. No problem. Rob drifted back for an easy run while I chugged along the road section and watched everyone around me leave me behind, which isn’t in itself unusual.
What was unusual is that instead of warming up, my body was grinding to a halt. We turned off the road onto the trail climb up Short Mountain, which I usually relished, but I could only plod. Dawn arrived, the headlamp came off, but I didn’t get the usual daylight perk. The ridge along the top demands rock-hopping, which I love, but my feet strangely wouldn’t go where my brain told them to and I eventually fell and hurt my left bicep. I switched my bottle to right hand and kept at it, but things got worse. My brain instinctively picked out the sweet spots my feet needed to go but my body didn’t respond and I stumbled along, increasingly frustrated. It was like running in someone else’s body.
And it only got worse. My brain started to fog up like my body. This was way beyond tiredness from Miwok. It was now like thinking through someone else’s mind too. A drunk person’s mind. I wanted to cry. What was wrong?!?
The tough climbs I love to crank out and favorite ridge line running sections came and went and I slowed like a car coasting out of gas. At this rate, Rob would catch me soon and (I couldn’t believe I had to think this) so would cutoff. At Woodstock Tower (19.9 miles), Gary Knipling felt so sorry for me he offered some soup. At Powell’s Fort (25.1 miles), former race director (RD) Stan Duobinis greeted me by saying said I looked tired. From what I could tell, I’d been pacing and hydrating well, but to no avail and there was nothing else to fix. The only option was to hold on, so I promised myself I’d do my best and run until they cut me at an intermediate cutoff.
Then, exactly nine hours into the race, a few clouds cleared from my head and I could almost think. It was so sudden and such a noticeable relief, that I started wondering. The Mucinex was supposed to last 12 hours. What if…?
I rolled into the Indian Grave aid station (49.7 miles), staffed by Vicki Kendall, Jean Heishman, and Barb Isom. Vicki said I looked tired and while sitting to eat soup, I explained my frustration. She was so shocked I took Mucinex, that she gave me a lecture. Well, yes, it sounded embarrassingly stupid to take a new medicine right before the race but I didn’t know (I avoid medicine when I can), and at least there was hope things would clear up more by the 12-hour mark.
At the Habron Gap Aid Station (53.6 miles) I spent a short time with my drop bag because the next section was my favorite and I wanted to be prepared so I could enjoy it. It was late afternoon and if this fog continued to clear, I might be able to make up some time before dark.
The climb out of Habron was a little easier and running along the narrow ridge up top easier too, so I started estimating from the sun’s height how far I was off from last year’s time. Last year, I made it past the next aid station at Camp Roosevelt before turning on my headlamp and though it didn’t look like I’d make that this year, I might not be as far off as I feared.
I was jumping down a some big rocks on the narrow ridge just before the right turn that starts the descent toward Camp Roosevelt when the next freaky thing occurred. My bottle hand came up toward eye level to balance the jump down, and the loose end of the hand strap on my bottle snapped toward my face faster than my eyelashes could react and flicked my contact lens neatly out of my eye. I didn’t even feel a thing but I sure noticed it and froze. I couldn’t feel the lens on my face or see it on the strap. I even asked a lone runner who caught up with me if he could see it on my face. Nope. It was somewhere in the surrounding leaves in the growing dusk.
I’m blind as a bat without my contacts and wouldn’t have the depth perception to survive all the upcoming rocks with one lens in, so this was now the first time in decades of racing to pull out the spare contact lens I carried for just such an emergency. I sat down in the leaves and popped it in. It’s one prescription behind my current lenses so I’d still have to be careful judging depth among the rocks, but I could make it.
It was now almost dark as I started the descent to Camp Roosevelt. My eyes gradually adjusted to the different lens and I postponed turning on my headlamp. Normally, I love this descent because it’s fun, it’s where I first ran with good friend Nattu Natraj, and it’s where Aaron Schwartzbard took my Ultrarunning cover photo. Lots of good stuff. But by now I was starting to suspect I wasn’t meant to finish. With the sunset, I could tell I was far behind last year’s time, I was still suffering from the medicine and I mean, what are the odds of losing a contact lens in a race? Especially that way???
My thoughts wandered into gloominess and I knew it, but it seemed realistic. What if I didn’t finish? What did the trail have against me this year? All answers seemed as dark as the woods around me. The twilight started to give way to night and I was about to turn on my headlamp when something flew through the trail in front of me. A nighthawk or bat, not uncommon, but then it came back into view in front of me on the trail, flying just a little ahead at my speed and in my direction far, far longer than normal…almost as if it was keeping me company. I got the clear sense it was telling me everything would be okay. It disappeared as thick cluster of tree branches came overhead but reappeared flying next to me for a long way through the open woods in the same way. Everything would be okay.
Wow, if I was taking signs, that was a unmistakably good one. I trotted into Camp Roosevelt, and Jeff Reed said I looked good. I felt like smiling for the first time all day. After that, the rocks of Jawbone passed without incident. Gap Creek Aid Station (68.7 miles), where I caught up with John Taylor, and Visitor’s Center (77.1 miles) came and went, both with incredibly welcome vegan food that helped perk me up even more. The Mucinex must have cycled all the way out by that time because the tough climb up Bird Knob felt about the same as usual. It began raining while I was up high on Bird Knob, good incentive to run. It’s cold enough up there in a rain to add a jacket and I all but ran through that aid station (80.5 miles) just to keep moving and get down the hill to warmer temps.
But my race almost ended for real not far from the Picnic Shelter Aid Station. It was still dark as I was crossed a tiny creek that a runner ahead and his pacer had just crossed. I stepped where one of their shoes had left a slip mark on a large flat-ish rock when I fell backwards onto the rock with my hip and elbow. The pacer heard me fall and came back to see if I needed help. I hauled myself up by the tree I’d fallen next to and insisted I was okay so he went on, but after a few careful steps something was still wrong with my shoulder. I switched my bottle back to my left hand to compensate. I could make it but again, it wouldn’t be fast and this might affect upcoming races.
It was dawn when I arrived at Picnic Shelter (86.9 miles) and a good surprise to see former RD Ed Demoney but my shoulder hurt and I wanted to finish before it had a chance to swell up and prevent me from running. A few years ago at this race, I chipped a knuckle in the first four miles and though I could have, should have, finished, it swelled enough to make running that 50+ miles very uncomfortable. I also wanted to finish before any more drama had a chance to occur. If not for the nighthawk and the fact that I was so close, it would have been easy to slip into the “woe is me” mindset.
Thankfully, that was the last of the real drama and thinking back on what I’d already survived, there was no question I could make it. I worked the gnarly climb over to Gap Creek II (95.4 miles) and along the trail to the road that takes us to the new finish at Caroline Furnace (101.7 miles).
So, I finished and earned my gold ten-year buckle. On the practical side, the Mucinex got tossed, the respiratory infection required the usual antibiotics, and the shoulder status is still TBD. However, I also:
- Became the first female in the select group of only 8 runners with 10 or more finishes
- Won the female solo division
Not bad for the Universe conspiring against me.
So here’s my new takeaway – there’s a difference between “it wasn’t meant to be” and the failure cycle that leads ultimately to success. We’ve all read the inspiring stories of Thomas Edison’s thousands of failures on the way to inventing the filament for the incandescent light bulb, or of writers like Stephen King and J. K. Rowling who endure rejection after rejection before getting published, so why do we assume that same principle doesn’t operate in our own lives?
I mean, this is the weirdest collection of things gone wrong in any of my 134-some ultras, and even marathons, 10ks, 5ks, etc., I can remember. Of the two equally possible ways to interpret it all – “I’m doomed” v. “I’m bound for success!” – I forgot the second even existed.
And I should know better because I’ve been in this territory before. I’ve dropped out of a few 100 milers, firmly convinced of impending failure…only to see later that I could have, without a doubt, finished if I’d kept going. Believe me, that’s a very bad feeling.
I always thought the lesson from those DNFs was not to quit at the first little sign of failure but maybe that needs to be refined to “don’t give up at the first sign of failure, or even the third or fourth or umpteenth, if it’s something your says heart is worth doing.”
So the next time things seem to be conspiring against you and you’re tempted to take it as a signal from the Universe that your dream isn’t meant to be and you should quit, take an honest look at the situation. If it’s something that juices you up and makes your heart sing, chances it’s just a worthy challenge to get there.
The fortune cookie I got the other day says it best: “There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.”