March 8, 8:14am
I head into the trail for the second leg of the race. The quick visit with my family has buoyed my spirits and given me the confidence to go on. I don't realize yet how fragile my confidence is, though. My bathroom stop almost wasn't necessary making me worry a little about dehydration. Running in cold weather is tricky. You don't always realize how quickly you are losing fluids because you don't feel sweaty and hot like you do when you run in the heat. You can get into trouble fast. I make a mental note to force down more sports drink at each aid stop and to listen to my body if I start getting light headed.
Immediately the trail takes a steep rise, reminding my legs that I've been running two hours. I didn't make it to this part of the trail during my practice run the week before, so I don't know that the next three miles will be the toughest on the course. The path winds higher and higher, sucking the air out of my lungs and forcing me to slow to a crawl. The path is slick, and the wind off the lake is sharper and colder here. It pelts me in the face, making me wince. It blows snow from the tree branches onto my head, surprising me. It has blown over the tracks of the previous runners, making the trail less obvious. The lake is beautiful though. I try to take it in, but can't make myself care about its beauty. I am distracted by the slope of this hill. I am walking again. I just don't have the energy to move any faster. I stretch each leg higher and higher with every step, thinking the trail will drop any minute. It does not. I am reminded of the time we walked up hill to Clingman's Dome in Gatlinburg. My side starts to hurt. I try to ignore it. The sun is bright now. When did the clouds go away? I am bothered that I didn't realize this sooner. I take a step with my right foot and it slides out from under me. I grab a young tree next to the trail and hang on. I don't go down, but it startles me, and I realize how tired I am and how unprepared I am for twelve miles of trail. I have gone only a half mile since the welcome station pit stop, and I simply can't go on. I stand there holding onto the tree, trying desperately not to be frustrated. Just keep moving, Hula. Just keep moving. I cannot force myself to move. I am stuck to the tree, unsure of my next move. I want to go home. I think about how warm my bed is at home and how the world won't end if I bail. But bailing isn't easy. Going back down the trail to the welcome station is not a good option. It's too steep and too dangerous. I have to move forward, but the next aid station is a good three miles away. I just don't think I have the strength to take another step. I wonder how I got so low so fast. My confidence is gone. I feel completely out of my league. I realize I should have trained more. Up ahead I see Phil moving on slowly but surely. Joe is right behind him. I stand in my spot, glued to the tree. I decide to have a little chat with God...again.
All I ask for is strength and wisdom. I want to get out of this dadgum forest. I want to MOVE. I am mad at myself...and frustrated. Then it hits me. I finally realize just how much of a role mental focus plays in doing something like this. I thought I knew before now, but I really didn't. I get it now. I know I have lost focus and need to get it together. I make a plan. Just will yourself to get to the top of this hill, Hula, then focus on the next section. Break it down into tiny pieces and chew up each piece slowly. I focus my eyes on the top of the hill, point to the spot I want to be and force myself to turn loose of the tree. I take a step...and then another. It's as if my feet have become unglued. Ha! I am moving again, slowly. I have to pause next to another tree a couple of minutes later but pause only briefly. I press on and somehow, I am at the top of the hill. This forest may kick my butt but not without a fight from me. I see Phil in the distance. Joe is much closer to me. He is holding onto a tree and catching his breath. He moves again, and so do I, grateful for the small downhill slope ahead. It doesn't last long. Another big hill is in front of me, but I have just passed the nine mile marker. I feel a little better. I am a little closer to the aid station.
Mile Marker 10
I have trudged through another mile, stopping to catch my breath in several places but never stopping long. The last mile has been a struggle. I know it will take every ounce of energy and mental strength I have to scratch out the next couple of miles. I am trying to keep my mind focused on anything but the amount of miles left between me and the edge of these woods. I am walking the whole time. I cannot run. My left thigh is throbbing, and I'm hungry. I need an energy gel. I regret giving my fanny pack to Teen Angel back at the welcome station because it was weighing me down. I want to sit down. I think about sitting down. I think about those old movies where people wander around in the dessert or the frozen tundra and die because they sit down and can't get up. I laugh at how dramatic I'm feeling. I want to go home and sit down in my comfy recliner. I reach the top of another hill and smile because a big drop is ahead. Knowing I can make up some time I start running again. Hmm, not so bad. It feels okay. Not good, just okay. I am right behind Joe and he steps aside to let me pass. I can tell he is still struggling. I glance at my watch, realize I'm farther behind than I had hoped and decide not to check the time anymore. A little farther down the trail I suddenly hear pounding behind me and someone shouting, "Passing on the left." I jump off the trail as another runner flies by me. He is obviously on his second lap through the trails. I have just been lapped by a full marathoner. I am in awe. In the next ten minutes, two more runners pass me. One is wearing shorts and moving so fast he is sweating. I think he's the runner from China. He must be doing eight minute miles through these woods on snow and ice. Wow. Again, I feel out of my league, but before I can dwell on it I see the next aid station right in front of me. Please let them have an energy gel.
Aid Station 4
Phil is at the aid station. The volunteer manning the station tells us we're at mile marker eleven. It dawns on me I have to grind out only three more miles in order to finish this thing. Surely, I can handle three more miles, even if I have to walk the entire thing. I want to finish. It does matter if I bail....to me. It really does. I decide not to ask for a ride back to the finish line and watch Phil run down the trail. He seems strong.
I discover that one of the pitfalls of being in the back of the pack is that all of the good snacks are picked over by the time you get to the aid stations. The only flavor of energy gels is raspberry. It doesn't taste anything like raspberry. I suck it down anyway. I drink some water and sports drink but don't take advantage of the porta potty. I worry that I don't have to pee. I take off again. I don't see Joe anywhere behind me. The sun has started to melt a little of the snow on the trail, leaving slushy muddy spots on the course. Mud splashes over the tops of my shoes with every other step, and I am grateful for the duct tape wrapped around my shoes. My feet are dry. I just couldn't take a blister at this point in the game. The trail is easing out now. The hills are smaller and fewer. I start to speed up. Three more runners pass me. They are moving fast. I want to move with their fluidity and speed. I feel clumsy compared to them. Oh well. It doesn't matter. All that matters is finishing, even if I have to drag myself over that finish line. I will do this. I WILL do this.
Mile Marker 12
The gel is starting to kick in, or maybe it's just my confidence coming back. I feel better now. I am running all of the time, even leaping over a small fallen tree. I am almost giddy. I try to focus on the beauty around me but can't. I don't care about the scenery. I quit caring about the scenery some three miles back. I try to sing songs in my head. I write a blog in my head. I make a list of people I need to call. I look for Phil and can barely see him up ahead. I don't see Joe anywhere. I pass the twelve mile marker and shout for joy...out loud. Two more miles. I can do this. I know now that I can do this. In less than a half mile I will be out of the trails and back onto pavement. Sweet, glorious, even pavement. I reach a clearing and realize I'm not far from the trail head. I am moving at an even clip and feel good. I hear someone shouting my number and up ahead I see Hubby standing at the end of the trail. He is waiting for me, shouting me in. God, I love that man. I move even faster. Before I know it I am at the end of the trail. I grab a kiss from Hubby. He offers me water, and I turn it down. A race director asks to see my number. He has to record my lap. I pull up my jacket and show him the #94 pinned to my chest and shout "94". He points to the aid station on my left and tells me I can head right toward the highway and the finish line when I'm ready. I ignore the aid station. Go home, Hula, I think. Go home. Take it on home and finish what you came to do. One point seven miles of running left. That's all. It seems like nothing compared to what I've just done. I start running again.
The Last Mile
As I near the highway I see Phil to my left. He is walking. He has lost his steam. As I near him I tell him I can't imagine doing three more laps like the 50 milers. He laughs and talks about how he's lost his wind. I tell him this was my first half marathon. He says I'm doing great. "You're moving well and you're still smiling," he says. "The first time I ran a half marathon I cried," he tells me. I am grateful for his honesty. I don't feel so bad about my mental breakdown on mile nine. I wave bye and move on. I'm anxious to go home. I hit the highway and start up the hill over the canal. It doesn't seem as tall as it did when I came over it four hours earlier. Hubby drives by me in the van, rolls down the window and whistles at me. I laugh. I have snot running out of both nostrils. The sun has melted most of the ice and snow off the highway. I have a clear path. I start to lose steam about a half mile from the finish line and have to walk for a few yards. Up ahead I see the race volunteer waving me to the right onto the road that will lead me into the tiny town that hosts the finish line. I start to run again. I want to finish running. I no longer feel the throb in my thighs or the dryness in my mouth. I am tired, but I don't feel tired. At this moment I feel like I could run forever. I AM going to finish. I really am. I see my family standing near the finish line with their signs and grass skirts. They start shouting, beckoning me toward the end. I pound away the last steps, waving to them as I pass them and breeze into the path marked by orange cones that takes me across the finish line.
I...am...done. I did it. I shout for joy and immediately ask for my time. I can't resist. Four hours, ten minutes and 47 seconds. An eternity. When the results are posted, I will be near the bottom of my division. I had hoped to come in under four hours, but I am disappointed only for a moment. Teen Angel showers me with balloons and a gift, a white tank top covered in flamingos. I tell them I want a Coke, the real thing, not diet and with lots of ice. Hubby says we'll stop and get one on the way home. "Let's go home," I tell him, smiling. We start across the street when I look up and see Phil coming down the hill. He is headed toward the finish line. "Wait," I say. I start shouting at Phil, telling him to bring it home, telling him what a good job he did. He smiles gratefully as he passes me, and says thank you, thank you. Our eyes connect for a second, and a flicker of understanding passes over his face. He knows what this day means to me. I know what it means to him. I watch him cross the line. I wonder what happened to Joe. I hope he finishes, too. My exhaustion suddenly hits me, and I realize I need to sit down. "Okay, let's go home now," I say. "Let's go home".
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