Mile 26: “Miles To Go…”

“Things aren’t always as they seem.”

Take, for instance, Peak To Creek Marathon, as pictured in the advertised elevation chart that we all fell in love with.

“I’d run that!”, you might say (as we all did), not knowing that THIS is what we were really getting ourselves into:

Peak To Creek Marathon was a little more than one month ago and it has taken me this long to process it all. Things are not always as they seem…so while it certainly was not my best physical performance when looking at the overall time/pace, it was by far my best mental performance when you consider my attitude, effort, and thought process.

It was nice to get away. The drive to North Carolina was long but beautiful and surprisingly relaxing, considering we opted to take our 95 lb. greyhound along with us. (He notoriously does not travel well so I had to slip him a couple Trazadone with breakfast an hour before we left.)

This destination race fell over the one year anniversary of my parents fatal car crash. I was not sure how I was going to handle this, emotionally, but I know myself well enough to know that a sun rise long run through breathtaking mountain views along a beautiful river was exactly the thing I would need.

Unfortunately, Shep had to back out of this race at the last minute due to persistent injury/pain. My friend, Joe, who had placed himself on the wait list and hoped to get in, was away racing at another marathon when the email containing his invite was delivered, and he missed the window of opportunity. My friend, Harvey, still made the trip as did our friend, Jake. It would be the three of us from the group “Runderful” that would take on Jonas Ridge that weekend.

The cabin we stayed in was absolutely beautiful. The sound of the river raging behind/beneath us was so relaxing. The view off the back deck, breathtaking. Everywhere we walked was so secluded, peaceful, and pretty; untouched by the busyness and noise of the city/suburbs. The rains moved in, however, and continued to soak the area, day after day, leading up to the race. We received email updates on the course conditions and were warned to run with caution as the “trail that’s not a trail” was wet and muddy, with portions possibly washing away by race time.

“The soggiest Peak To Creek Marathon on record in 13 years.”

Just my luck.

My mind wandered back to October 2017 when we (Runderful) ran “The Steamiest Steamtown Marathon in 22 years”, and I wondered why my destination races have to be so EXTRA all the time?! But it is what it is and we will do what we always do: adapt and overcome. So I put on my raincoat, laced up my shoes, and did my shakeout run in the rain. It was cold, but exhilarating. Despite the conditions, I could hardly wait to run this race. We were 40 minutes away from the closest town. We had no T.V., no cell service, and very patchy wi-fi. Some people (like my husband 😂) would call this hell…personally, I loved it. There was so much time to simply BE.

When race day finally came, Harvey, Jake, and I hopped on the bus for the 45min drive to the start line. As always, we had planned for and found time to amuse ourselves and those around us.

I had read plenty about this race and each portion of the course prior to arriving. I knew that, despite the “predominantly downhill course”, this was going to be far from easy and there would be some serious repercussions if we ran it all out hard and fast in the first half. Despite my desire to run a PR marathon at this event, I made up my mind to ignore any specific pace plan and instead focus on running this race based on feel; exercising caution at the highest points of elevation, finding a smooth stride on the rapidly descending portions, then staying mentally strong on the “mundane middle” and most painful final miles. I was, also, very aware of how winding this particular course is; having watched the full 25+minute turn by turn video on YouTube. The last thing I wanted was to take all those turns too wide and end up running 27 miles instead of 26.2!

This course begins atop Jonas Ridge at nearly 4,000 feet of elevation. With no way of knowing exactly how this would effect me (as I have a mild heart condition) I had decided to run the first 6 mi of this race intentionally slow. This would be my warmup period at a pace where I could simply BREATHE. Harvey and Jake were phenomenal at keeping us all in check through these miles. It was definitely harder for me to breathe while running up there. By the 5th mile, I felt as if a weight was pushing down on my chest and my Garmin clocked my heartrate at 189. I slowed to a walk, as I took in my first gel and sipped some water. Jake walked this minute with me and we watched my heartrate quickly return to normal as I caught my breath. We picked up the pace and headed for the turning point off the pavement and onto the trail that would begin our descent down the mountain. The change in terrain was a welcome at first. But the soft packed trail quickly became a muddy mess of gravel and sticks with some serious camber. The turns were sharp and the grade was steep. There were many areas where the road and hillside were falling away and we had to zigzag around these danger areas. I picked up the pace and tried to find a smooth stride; one where I was neither “braking” nor “pounding”. We witnessed several people accelerate too much, lose control, and pay the price. One girl snapped her ankle, another fell and cracked her face, there were countless bloody knees, and one sad female with an injured hip by the 7th mile. I did my best to run the tangents, plotting out the shortest and straightest line in my mind as I looked ahead in anticipation. Jake opted to back off at this point, but Harvey matched my stride. At certain points, we’d hear Jake catcalling us from above as we wound through the course below him and would catch glimpses of each other as the trail wound through several switchback portions along the descent. I zoned in on my pace and was feeling strong. My fueling and hydration were on point this day. (No vomiting, minimal stomach cramping, and only brief periods of nausea.) Somewhere near the 11th or 12th mile, Harvey stopped to get water as I continued to keep the pace. I looked back on the turns but did not see him catching up. As I crossed the halfway mark (13.1mi at around 2:08) Jake had moved up alongside me. I asked if he had seen Harvey and he said he was not far behind. We ran and talked for another mile before Jake fell back and I continued on alone. Around the 16th mile, we had reached the second left hand turn; this one on a paved road for a 1.50 mi out and back branch of the course. This section was painful and on a slow but steady incline. Upon reaching the turn around, I looked desperately for Jake and Harvey in hopes that we would all be able to run the final 10 miles together. When we finally crossed paths, I realized that I was about a mile ahead of them and, by the looks on their faces, they were both feeling the pain of this course, as well. I had made an hour long playlist in preparation for the final 10K of this race but needed the distraction now, as my entire body was beginning to feel the effects of this understatedly difficult terrain. The race website adamantly states that it is “NOT A TRAIL RACE”, however, I’m not really sure that’s much of a consolation when you get there and realized that it is actually an unpaved, GRAVEL road. In all the races I have run, I have never experienced such a physically painful course. While we did descend more than 3,000′ of elevation, most of it in the first half of the race, we also climbed more than 1,000′ as well, and most of THAT was in the second half of the race.

I made it to Mile 20, swallowed my final gel, and looked at my watch: 3:16:xx. My mind performed the calculation. If I could just keep going, a 10-minute per mile pace would yield me a nearly 10 minute marathon PR! I could still do this! Mentally, I was strong; my mind pushing me to just keep moving. Physically, however, the course had taken its toll. I simply could not get my legs to move any faster. Everything hurt. So I used my arms more. I pushed and pulled with all the upper body strength I had left in hopes of helping my legs turn over faster. The hard grading of the road forced many of us to walk at times and, in the narrowest sections, even stop and try not to fall off the moutainside as cars drove past us. (This race is small, only 400 runners at its max capacity, and the roads are not shut down for this event.) As my music playlist ended and began to cycle back through, I realized that I still had miles to go. I flashed my shirt (“Muck Farathons”) at the 25th mile waterstop and laughed with the volunteers who got the joke. Shortly thereafter, I heard a familiar voice calling out to me. Here comes Jake, running up beside me. We laughed at the fact that all the mile markers in this course had been posted way too early; but now the 25th mile was nearly 1.50 miles long. A cruel, sadistic joke, in our opinion, but we kept running, eyes searching for the 26th mile marker we knew had to be around here somewhere. My vision was blurry but, up ahead, I could make out a familiar figure; my husband standing at the final turn with our greyhound, Runner. And just then, we heard the announcer over the loudspeaker and the cheers from the small crowd at the finish line. We looked down the hillside to our right and saw the finish line. I looked at my watch: 4:25:xx and felt my first wave of panic. “I have ONE MINUTE to get from here to there if I’m going to PR this race!”. Jake responded immediately, tapping my shoulder as he picked up the pace, “Follow me, I will get you there.”. I started to cry as I approached my husband, “I’m not gonna make it.”, I said, and he called out, “You’re almost there! I’ll hand Runner off to you before the Finish Line.”

I followed Jake as we made “the final turn”…only to find out that we still had to make another turn and run through the muddy, flooded pathway of the campsite where all the participants and volunteers had been instructed to park their vehicles. The mud was ankle deep in some areas and the cold water soaked through my shoes and splashed in my face. But, as promised, as I ascended the final incline up and out of the mud, my husband was there and handed off our retired racing greyhound to help power me across that Finish Line. I could barely stand up straight. I crossed the line with a time of 4:33:24.

I was spent.

Jake had sprinted across the Finish Line about a minute ahead of me, looking like a pro. Harvey crossed a few minutes later, suffering through some serious muscle cramping.

“Never again.”, I swore, as usual after a marathon. “Why do we do this to ourselves? This is stupid.”, and we all laughed. Sort of.

It wasn’t long till we went our seperate ways and, after getting a little bit of food in my belly and TWO cans of Coke, me & my most trusted friend took a much needed nap.

I tried not to think about much in the hours and days that followed, but my mind rarely shuts off. I did not PR this race. But, looking back, I can not find a single point where I could have, should have, or would have run any better under the same conditions. My pace had slowed significantly between the miles of 16-20, at which point, I hit my “wall”. But, mentally, I did not break. I never reached that point where I said, “I can’t do this anymore.”. In fact, despite the physical struggles of Mile 20, I continued to tell myself that “I CAN do this.”, and while I never returned to my previous 9-10 minute per mile pace, I did run each of the final 6+miles faster than the mile before. (With the exception of the quarter mile of mud puddles at the end.)

I do wish I could have PR’d this race but, I can honestly say, I have no regrets. My mind wanders back to when I was a child and had to come home from school and show my mom a test score with a “D” grade percentage. I had always excelled at school; a steady “A and B+ student”. So this “D” had me shook. My mom didn’t even bat an eye. She looked it over and said “Is this the absolute best that you could do?”, and I swore to her that it was, as I tried hard not to cry. She put the paper down and gave me the biggest hug. “Then I am so proud of you.”, she said. And that was the end of it. No punishment, no shaming, no regrets. I had done my best, my mom was proud, and it was time to move on. Keep moving forward. This is how I have handled this race. It is not my best time, but it is the best that I could do on that particular course and under those particular conditions and, more importantly, I NEVER BROKE DOWN MENTALLY. Physically, I struggled. Mentally, I was strong.

I think my mom would have been so proud of that.

So, as I struggled just to stand up, bear my own weight, and walk over the next week after the race, I never once had to suffer any of the “pains” that come with regret.

That being said, I have taken my time this past month, recovering physically, mentally, and emotionally from this race and the entire past year. I have not yet decided what the future holds for me in terms of my running. I have no desire to run another full marathon anytime soon, although I will never say “never again”.

I’m currently taking a step back from “racing” so much and am simply focusing on balancing out my training while suffering my struggles in private; OFF “the clock”.

Part of me feels that “Boston” may forever be out of my reach – and not just by “a little bit”. (I currently would need to shave 47 minutes off my best marathon time in order to qualify…and an additional 5 minutes on top of that to ensure that I would get in!) But the other part of me knows that the half marathon will never get me to Boston.

So, in true runner fashion, I simply say, “It is what it is. It will be what it will be.”, and so long as I keep running, I know that I will be happy…and the possibility (no matter how unlikely) is still there.

#MilesToGo🏃🏽‍♀️ #ChasingBoston #ForTheLoveOfTheRun

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