When I worked in one of my positions at San Diego State University, I hired several student assistants to work on various projects. One of those students was a young lady from Chicago named Kristine. She was one of those people that you knew would do great things. And among the many great things she did, Kristine went on to become a very talented runner. She ran marathons and ultra distances that left me in awe long before I started my own running journey.
Two years ago, Kristine was hit by a car and embarked on a road to recovery that kept her from running for quite some time. A few weeks ago, Kristine posted about that experience on Facebook. I reached out to tell her that I appreciated her story and she’s been an inspiration to me. I also shared with her my plan to run a 100K. Among her encouraging words, Kristine said this:
“Be grateful for the ability to enjoy each step.”
Those words stayed in my head from the minute I read them, throughout the day of my race, and the days since.
On October 12, I embarked on the most physically and mentally challenging thing I’ve ever done — the Indiana Trail 100K race. I started training for this run back in June, and continued through the hot and humid summer months. I hit my training peak about three weeks before the race, when I ran a marathon (26.2 miles) on Friday and then achieved a personal record (PR) time completing a half marathon the next day. I felt strong and ready.
The 100K consisted of 62 miles on trails at Chain O’Lakes State Park in Albion, Indiana. At 5:55 a.m. – on the coldest morning of the season thus far – I started my run in the dark with a headlamp for vision. I ran as the sun rose and would later witness an overwhelmingly beautiful orange full moon rise. I ran alongside water, through grass, and among tress and brightly-colored fall leaves. The course was beautiful; I was privileged to move on it. I had everything I needed for a successful race: a strong training foundation, hydration and food supplies, the right clothes and shoes, an awesome crew, pacer and wonderful friends offering support, and confidence to finish the race. And I had a crystal clear vision of myself finishing that race. I saw it in my head, how I expected it to play out.
As with many things in life, the race didn’t go according to my plan. At around mile 42, I started to feel very nauseous. I chose to continue on my third and final loop of 20 miles with my pacer, assuming the nausea would eventually pass. Well, it didn’t. It actually got worse and the stomach pain intensified to the point where I couldn’t run at all, and had a hard time even walking. We tried everything to make it pass, but nothing helped. At one point, I felt very weak and thought I may pass out. And it was at that point that I made the decision walk to the next aid station, which would put me at 51 miles completed, and then drop from the race.
I knew I would experience pain on this run. I knew my legs and feet would ache something fierce. I did not, however, expect stomach issues would take me out of finishing the 100K. I was emotional and very disappointed I couldn’t accomplish my goal.
Eventually and after I dropped from the race, my stomach started to feel better. I ate and rested at the start/finish tent, and found some renewed energy to cheer on my friend, John, who broke a record finishing his 100-mile race in 20 hours. I was cold and felt broken inside, but elated and proud as I stood with a good friend and saw John and our close friend (my pacer/his pacer) cross the finish line. I yelled and cheered with these people surrounding me; and for a few moments, there was no pain at all. Just pure happiness and immense gratitude.
The disappointment of not finishing lingered a bit, but it started to be replaced with the realization that I finished 51 miles. At the beginning of 2019, my longest distance run was a mere seven miles. This was a major accomplishment in a weekend that was full of friendship and happiness. A friend asked me if I ever imagined I’d be surrounded with these friends and their support. I cry every time I think of that because the answer is, no, and I don’t know how I ever got so lucky. But I’m forever thankful for these people that have become my family.
That vision I so clearly had of crossing the finish line didn’t come to fruition. Instead, it was replaced with something else entirely. It was a bit more painful, but just as special in its own way.
One of the lessons I think I needed to learn from my IT100K experience is that these races, just like life, don’t always go according to plan. You can train perfectly and be extremely prepared. But in reality, you can only plan so much and the rest is up to fate or something bigger than you. And I have to surrender to that and embrace what the universe wants for me.
Many people already subscribe to this philosophy. But for me, someone who plans things and sets out to accomplish a goal, it’s a hard lesson to learn. But it’s a necessary one, and one that will make the rest of my journey on this earth a little easier and much richer.
Runs and races don’t go according to what you expect them to be; and neither does life. But it doesn’t mean you’ve failed or the experience is any less beautiful. It means you’re meant to find a different path and discover something new.
I’ve had a lot of people ask me if I will attempt a race of that magnitude again. Do I want to put myself through months of strict training? Is running ultra races worth the physical and mental pain that comes with it?
Here’s the best way I can answer those questions: People always say there’s so much pain that comes with childbirth. But once the baby arrives, you forget the pain and that helps you want to have more kids. That statement never quite rang true for me with respect to having children. But it’s the perfect description for how I feel post-race. Yes, I was sore and totally exhausted (I still am). But I’ve almost forgotten how physically painful the day was. All I can think about is wanting to go back out there and do more of that.
That weekend was life-affirming and one of the best experiences of my entire life. It reminded me why I love running, and solidified for me who I am, who I want to be, and I felt completely at home among my friends, nature and movement through the trails and life. I couldn’t have asked for a more rewarding experience. And I’m extremely grateful that I have the ability to enjoy each step I took out there and the ones still to come.