The alarm clock rings. What an ungodly hour. I've never been good at rising early, but this time my eyes fly open. It seems like I went to bed only a few minutes ago, but really it's been six and a half hours, minus the hour I lost when I woke up at 12:30am and had trouble going back to sleep. The sound of the dog snoring while snuggled next to my hip finally lulled me back to sleep, but it wasn't enough. I feel tired. The race starts in two hours and fifteen minutes. I want more sleep, but I need to leave the house in a little more than an hour to get there in plenty of time. I roll over, peek out the window and see what appears to be about three inches of snow. Not too bad, I think, but then I see the wind wildly flapping our neighbor's flag and feel a little tug at my stomach. I refuse to check the temperature. I don't really want to know. It's obviously cold, so I stick with my original clothing plan, three layers on top, two on the bottom, hats and gloves. I try to eat some oatmeal but it sticks in my throat. Am I really ready for this? I decide to stop second guessing myself and just do it. I tug on my body hugging Under Armor shirt and pants, place a dry wicking shirt on top of that and cover it all up with a wind resistant jacket and pants. Later I'll add the sock cap, ear band and gloves and smear Vaseline on my face. One pair of thin, wicking socks goes on first, then a layer of plastic garbage bag (to keep water away from my feet), then a pair of thick socks and finally my shoes. I've wrapped them in duct tape to keep out snow and water. I double check my fanny pack and my after run bag, and we hit the door.
The roads aren't as slick as I thought they would be. They aren't great, but they don't slow us down. By 5:40am we arrive at the race site, a small town nestled between two large lakes. This is a popular tourist destination in the summer, and we will begin our run near a large group of sailboat slips. It is dark, but the first few slivers of light are peeking through the trees. The snow glistens on the road where I will soon be running, and the wind is wicked. The crowd is small, nothing like the 400 who registered to run. I estimate 100 have shown up. The weather has kept many people home. The runners I see milling around look like the die-hard, adventurous kind. I feel like I don't belong. I am out of my league this morning I think, but again, I refuse to think about what lies ahead. Just stick to the plan, Hula. Stick to the plan. Do the best you can and be happy that you tried your best. The world will not end if you don't make the fourteen, I tell myself over and over while I'm hopping up and down to keep from freezing. Runners are dressed in all kinds of garb. I see three people in shorts. Crazy yahoos. There are caps, face masks, colorful shoes and a lot of spandex. I am glad I'm not a man. I'd be worried about more than my fingers and toes. I don't see anyone I know. The locals have stayed home. Various accents swirl around me as people talk about different races they've run across the country and in Canada. They seem very nice but intimidate me. I slide to the very back of the pack. You're supposed to line up according to how fast you are. I know I will be one of the slowest. Besides, I want some folks to knock the snow off the roads before me. I'm afraid of falling, and so are the really strong runners from the way they are talking. My stomach is turning flip flops, and I just want to get started. We start eight minutes late because people are having trouble getting to the site.
We're off. The warriors start fast. Everyone else takes it slow with short shuffling paces, looking for breaks in the ice and snow. The crowd surges ahead and starts to separate as people find a comfortable pace. I keep my eyes on the pavement, hoping not to slide and fall. Before I know it, one mile is past me. Seven tenths of a mile more, and we will hit the trails that will cover 11.7 miles of this race course. 11.7 very hard miles. We near the first steep hill, a bridge over the canal with a beautiful view of the lakes. It's mostly daylight now and the snow is spectacular. It occurs to me that God has given me a beautiful gift in the snow. It is untouched and absolutely beautiful. I decide to be grateful and enjoy my surroundings. It's an opportunity to see this area as I've never seen it. As I top the hill, I can see the hot shots already rounding the first curve of the trail. They are shouting and moving fast as they travel along the banks of the lake. The water looks cold. I realize I have to pee. Geez, one mile into the race and I already have to pee. I hit the porta potty at the aid station near the trail entrance. The floor is slick, and I can hardly stand. When I'm finished, I take a deep breath and hit the ground running. It's time to tackle the trail. The trail is narrow and forces runners to run single file. Most of them are already ahead of me, but I don't think about that. I keep my eyes on the ground. The first runners have already pounded down the snow which is deeper here than it was at home. Some of the drifts are about six inches deep. The trail is snow covered and slick. I will need to be very careful if I don't want to go home with a broken bone. Surprisingly, I quickly find a rhythm and start to get more comfortable with the snow. I'm not cold. My body has warmed up, and my layers are working. However, every now and then the wind blows off the lake and smacks me in the face. I keep thinking about how good it will feel to finish..if I finish. Before I know it, I've hit the second mile marker.
The hills are getting steeper. I know what to expect though, since I ran this part of the trail last weekend (when it was 65 degrees), and I pace myself well. I'm feeling a little winded by the third mile marker but still doing okay. I feel a little stitch in my side, but I ignore it. I'm moving well, and my muscles feel okay. I glance around every now and then to enjoy the view. It really is beautiful. The lake glistens in the early morning daylight and laps loudly against the shore. All I can hear is the waves, my footsteps and my breathing. I'm feeling very alive and very spiritual. The snow has softly blanketed the trees and ground, and I feel lucky to be a part of such an exclusive group of folks traveling through this isolated area. I am surprised I don't long for warmer weather.
Mile Marker 4
It's getting tougher. The trail twists and turns along the lake and rises at steep angles. I'm getting tired. Crap. I have a long way to go. It's too early to feel tired. Try not to thing about it Hula. Just keep moving. As I skip over the third small creek of the morning the trail takes me along a clearing where I picture deer crossing. Sure enough, a few yards farther down the path I see fresh deer tracks. Ahead of me are two men. They appear to be in their late fifties or early sixties. They are like me, obviously not worried about time, just trying to make the miles. The first is wearing an orange sock cap. The second is wearing old green sweat clothes and and moves with a slightly lopsided gait. I wonder if he's had hip surgery. I don't know it yet, but I will travel with these men for most of the race. I see the second man slip and it scares me, but he doesn't go down. He keeps moving....and so do I. We hit the first aid station at mile marker five.
Mile marker 5
It takes me by surprise because it sits at the top of a hill. Me, orange sock cap man and green sweats stop for some sports drink and water. I feel my energy ebbing, so I take an energy gel out of my fanny pack and squeeze it down. Blech. It's nasty and kind of gags me, but I keep eating it. I need the sustenance. I have a long way to go. I overhear a conversation and realize the woman sitting in the nearby pickup truck has broken her ankle. Her running buddy is waiting with her for the ATV that will cart her out of the woods. She seems to be in incredible pain and is trying not to cry. I am reminded of how easy it is to get hurt today. Some of my ease with the slick trail disappears. I take off again, right after orange sock cap man. I decide to call him Phil in the conversations that play throughout my head as I slug through the woods. I nickname sweat suit man, Joe. We move on, slowly, more slowly than I anticipated. I expected to hit the seven mile marker in an hour and a half, but I realize I'm not going to make it. The trail is getting steeper and steeper and I'm getting tired. I slow down a little. So do Phil and Joe. My family is planning to be at the halfway point to give me some encouragement, and I know I won't be there by 7:30am when they are expecting me. I trudge on. I finally hit mile six and hit a wall in my head. I am very tired, and I know there is another particularly bad hill before I hit the aid station at mile seven. It is a breath taker, and I'm not sure how I will stand it. I am way more tired than I expected to be at this point, and I start to lose confidence. For the first time I start to doubt if I can do this. I hate it when that happens. I know my mental strength is important if I'm to finish all fourteen miles, and I don't need to let the doubts seep in. They will undermine my determination. Phil starts to pull away from me somewhat as I slow down even more. I cross a road and realize I'm at the foot of the big hill. I stop for a few seconds, pace around a little and try to get my mind right. "Just do it, *$#@ it," I tell myself and take off, but not as fast as I'd like. In fact, I have to begin walking just a few yards into the hill. It's a booger. It is kicking my butt, and I begin to feel emotional. I cry when I'm mad. Do not cry, Hula. Do NOT cry. This is no time for tears. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Remember, time doesn't matter. I shuffle along, sometimes walking, sometimes jogging. I cross a small creek and say a quick prayer that my feet don't get wet. Wet feet would be a disaster. I decide to start praying. I list every sick person, cancer patient, bereaved soul, senior citizen and coworker I can think of. I can't escape the fact that my left thigh is throbbing. I walk. I jog. The hills goes on. I hit the seven mile marker and realize I have misjudged the distance of the welcome station where my family will be waiting. I look at my watch. I am going to be even later than I thought. I know they will worry. God, this is harder than I thought it would be. I really am not sure I can do this. I debate whether I should quit when I hit the welcome station. Phil pulls farther ahead. Joe slows down, and I pass him. I hear his heavy breathing and realize he is struggling, too. Who's he talking to in his head, I wonder. My thigh throbs more. I realize I should have logged longer runs before I tried this. Oh well. Too late now. Just keep moving.
I have now been at this for almost two hours. I pass the eight mile marker and wonder when I will see the welcome station. I am walking now, not jogging. I'm so very tired...and frustrated. I keep putting one foot in front of the other, trying to scale the slippery slope ahead of me. My breathing is labored. This is not good. I know I have started to lose focus, but I can't seem to get it back. I am trudging along when I look toward the top of the hill and see a few people. I look away, not wanting to take my eyes off the trail, which is riddled with roots. I just want to get to the top so I can stop. I glance up again and realize my family is standing at the top, waiting for me. It's just them. They have stood in the freezing cold for an hour waiting on me. When I see them I start to get emotional again. I am so lucky to have people who love me enough to get up at the butt crack of dawn and stand in the snow drifts and bone chilling wind to cheer me on. They see me and start yelling. I start running. I am so glad to see them, Hubby, Teen Angel and Sissy, all bundled up in their winter garb. They seem awfully colorful though. Oh my God! What do they have on? As I get closer, I realize they are dressed in grass skirts and leis and are waving signs with a Hula Girl theme.
I can't believe it. What a beautiful sight! I am overcome with emotion. I realize how much they love me and support me in every wacky endeavor I do. I am so lucky. I want to cry. I almost cry, but I choke back the tears. I get closer and read their "Team Parrothead" signs and start to laugh. They are hilarious, penned the night before with supplies bought by Mama J., my first sponsor. Before I know it I'm at the top of the hill. I grab Teen Angel and kiss her head. Hubby and Sissy gets hugs and kisses, too. I am at the welcome station, and I relax. We laugh and chat for a minute. I learn that Teen Angel is the instigator of this welcome party. I also learn that I'm the only one with that kind of welcome party. They tell me other runners seemed jealous and asked if they could be on "Team Parrothead", too. My family has been cheering on dozens of grateful runners before I staggered into sight. Normally, well wishers would line the roadways. Not today. The weather scared them off. All of them...except my family. I get another round of kisses and head to the aid station for a pee stop and some sports drink. I am rejuvenated and decide to go on. I don't tell my family that I thought about quitting. I enter the trail again, motivated to move on. Their colorful love fest has raised my spirits, but the feeling won't last. Within a half mile, I will be in trouble.
To be continued.......