I was awake well before the 5:30 am alarm. I'd dreamed that I missed the race start, and in the dream I was inconsolable, frustrated that so much work had been for nothing. So I lay awake, letting the minutes slip by, before getting up to make a small pot of coffee in the hotel room. The Cades Cove Loop Lope, a 10 mile race I'd spent the last few months training for, was finally only hours away.
I was too anxious to sit still. I'd laid out all my clothes and race gear the night before in a neat little pile: compression sleeves, clothes, snacks. Each item had been mulled over, considered thoroughly based on it's merit and usefulness, and experimented with. They say you should never try something new on race day - you should test out your nutrition, your gear, your routine. But what about that I'd never actually run 10 miles before? That would certainly be something new.
At 6:30 am Daniel and I were on the shuttle into Cades Cove. Set deep into the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee there is just one road in and out of the Cove. The race organizers had shuttles waiting to take runners and spectators into the park from the nearby town of Townsend to minimize the number of cars going in and out. It was still dark out. I was quiet. I'd done everything I could to be ready, yet, I felt far from ready. We hopped off the bus near the starting line and I began the pre-race ritual most runners know well - get in line for the porta-potty, stretch and warm up, strip down to race clothes, and in my case, cross your fingers.
Suddenly the gun went off. Runners all around were shuffling forward. I took one last look at Daniel, who I knew would be waiting for me near the finish line, and started to run.
Through the first mile runners were settling into their pace, dodging those in front that were slower and getting passed by those who were sprinting off into the distance. I watched a few of those ambitious runners dart past me, making a mental note of what they were wearing to see if I could catch up with them later when their adrenaline wore out and they inevitably slowed down. This is a game I play with myself in races - I take note of people that I think are starting out too fast, and then look for them later to see if I was right. It's hard in races not to go out too fast. You're caught up in the energy of the crowd, eager to get going, trying to get into a rhythm. But there was 10 miles of running ahead and I knew if I went out too fast I'd burn out before the end. So I slowed down. I sometimes think I have only one speed - s l o w - but all it takes is a little crowd mojo to put extra spring in your step.
The first hill came in mile 2. It was a doozy. It was such a steep hill that the road had to wind up it like a snake, curving first to the right, then the left, then to the right again. Most runners ahead of me started to walk up the steep incline. I was feeling strong, wasn't ready to walk yet, so made the decision to run very slowly up the hill, passing a few of the walkers on my way. By the time I got to the top of the hill I was wondering if I'd made a terrible mistake. My legs were wobbly and tired. But a few more tentative strides and then the trees opened up and I instantly forgot any discomfort I'd experienced on the hill. Stretched out before me was Cades Cove, basked in early morning sun, orange, red, and yellow tones of autumn glowing in the soft light. It was beautiful.
Soon I came upon the first water station. I watched as a few of the runners I'd passed on the way up the big hill passed me again as I slowed to drink water and have a snack. I knew I'd see some of them again.
The road curved around towards the mountains in the distance, rolling up and down more hills. There we so many times I wanted to just stop, bask in the sun, soak up the incredible beauty of this quiet place. But it was a race, after all. I wasn't in it to win it, but I had a goal, and I wasn't going to reach it by gazing at the clouds. So off I went, one heavy foot in front of the other.
Something big and brown was moving in the bushes around the next bend. I hesitated, slowed, stopped to peer into the shadows. Three wild turkeys were enjoying their morning meal. I smiled, grateful to share such a lovely place with them.
I had been worried about the mental aspect of the race. What would happen when my usual aches and pains became too burdensome? How would I manage when I hit mile 5 and realized I was only halfway finished? What would I do if I ran out of steam? What I didn't account for, what I couldn't have planned for, was how intoxicating it would feel to run amidst so much splendor. It was as if the Cove had burst into color just that morning, as a gift to those of us lucky enough to be there to experience it. I never thought I'd run with so much joy. I've always loved the Great Smoky Mountains, but on this morning, on this run, my love felt explosive. I knew I was in the midst of an experience that was special and wondrous, and for the first time since I'd started running in January, I didn't mind how hard it was to run. I just wanted to keep running. So I did.
But then.... more hills. Around mile 7 I started to feel tired. Every incline felt like Mt. Everest. My legs were heavy. My energy was draining. I tried to tell myself there were only 3 miles left. But... there were still 3 miles left!
Up ahead I saw a figure waving at me. It was Daniel. He'd come along the course to look for me, to cheer for me. To encourage me. He fell in next to me and together we ran towards the finish line. At mile 8 I paused. The farthest I'd ever run was one 8 mile training run. Every step from there was a new accomplishment. I kept running.
I knew the finish line was close. I started seeing runners who'd already completed the course walking back to meet their partners who were still running. Maybe it's just around this bend... maybe it's just over this last hill... finally... there it is. Daniel rushed off ahead to cheer for me as I took my last few strides. I crossed the finish, I slowed, I stopped. I smiled. I just ran 10 miles.
In January I started a Couch to 5k training plan. I remember the first time it had me do a 20 minute run - I was so nervous about it. "Run for 20 minutes without stopping?!" I thought. That seemed so hard at the time. But here I was, across the finish line of a 10 mile race, once again proving to myself that with the right amount of motivation, determination, and a healthy dose of stubbornness, I can achieve so much more than my fears would allow me to believe. I am more than my fears. I am more than my doubts. I am my goals and my dreams and my ambitions.
And I am so very lucky.