I stood behind a sea of colorful athletic wear, fighting the anxiety building in my stomach and in my thoughts “Everyone is thinner and more fit than me” I thought. “They’re all wearing running vests and I don’t have one” I worried. “I don’t belong here, I’m not ready for this” I fretted.
It’d been 6 months since I had surgery to reattach my torn hamstring, and only 3 months since I’d been able to start walking more than a mile at a time. Yet there I was standing at the starting line of a 14 mile trail race in the Canadian mountains. My strategy was simple – just get to the first aid station at mile 7, then see how I feel and decide if I can go on from there. But standing in the brisk morning air at the starting line, my strategy suddenly seemed ridiculous and I started to wonder if I was being terribly foolish.
The starting horn went off and runners surged forward. I moved along with them, shuffling through the starting gate and down the first hill. As the trail started moving upwards I could see the long line of runners ahead of me. Only a few were behind me. We moved through switchbacks, walking more than running on the steep, rocky terrain, moving higher and higher up the trail. Smoke from area wildfires obscured the view of mountain peaks around us and a musty gray haze hovered over the forest.
Slowly, the first mile stretched behind me. The second mile faded away, and soon I was making my way through the third mile. I saw the aid station up ahead, and as I got nearer a cheerful volunteer rushed towards me saying “What do you need? What can I get you?”. “I don’t know!” I exclaimed. “I don’t even know what I’m doing here!”. But I was smiling, and she took the water bottle from my dusty, sweaty hand and filled it up. I scooped up a handful of gummy bears from the table of snacks and off I went, into mile 4, down a gentle slope, through a forest of huge ferns and moss covered trees that loomed above me. Mile 5 was a steep, dry, dusty downhill. Twice my feet slid out from under me on the loose dirt and I landed SMACK on my rear end. “Ouch!” I cried, looking around sheepishly from my sprawled position on the ground, grateful that no one was nearby to see my tumble. My hands were filthy, my bum throbbed, but as I got up my feet kept moving forward.
Mile six slipped underneath my pounding feet, then mile seven came and went. The next aid station must be close, I thought. I was eager to see Daniel (who’d run 50 miles the day before! No, that’s not a typo – he ran FIFTY miles) and take a few moments to stop moving. There was Daniel, smiling at me. I paused for a kiss and some advice. “Dump out that water and get some Coke, you need the sugar if you aren’t going to eat anything” he said. So I did (did I mention he’d just run 50 miles?! I figured he knew best.) My stomach hadn’t felt right and I had no appetite, despite moving through 7 miles of mountain terrain non-stop for 2.5 hours. But there were 7 miles to go before the finish line, and I didn’t want to quit. “I’m halfway there”, I thought, “I can keep going…”
I gave Daniel a hopeful smile and turned toward the trail and the challenge ahead. Each step from here would be further than I’d gone in a year. Each step would be an accomplishment, a victory, a reminder that I was not a quitter. The eighth mile moved slowly under my tired feet. The woods were thick with tones of green and brown. The trail got steeper and my legs got heavier. The ninth mile passed slowly. Five steps forward, pause, catch my breath, take five more steps. Moving in starts and stops I continued up, down, and along the trail. Mile ten, mile 11, mile 12 started to pass under my aching feet. "One more big hill" said another runner "and then it's all downhill". "I don't know if I can take one more big hill" I doubted. In the distance I could hear voices cheering and shouting. Thinking they were at the top of the hill I pressed on, eager to be done with the climb. But when I saw the 2 women enthusiastically cheering runners up the hill I realized we weren't yet at the summit. "It's a bugger" one woman consoled, "but you're almost there!".
Finally, when I thought my legs wouldn't carry me another step, I reached the top and a small concrete platform. "Don't stop, don't stop, don't stop" I told myself, as I moved to sit down. Despite my best argument, I sat down for a minute or two to catch my breath. Slowly I rose and continued on, moving down the other side of the climb, quad muscles shaking and knees wobbling.
I pushed myself onward, stumbling down a long flight of wooden stairs, through a a parking lot, and onto pavement. As I passed a group of children cheering on the runners I shouted in my delirium "Let this be a lesson that you can do anything you set your mind to, kids!" The sound of their laughter faded as I grudgingly ran/jogged/stumbled forward, down the seemingly endless bike trail that led into downtown Squamish. "I will not stop running, I will not stop running" I assured myself, determined to get across the finish line with some semblance of athleticism.
I could see the finish line, hear the spectators cheering. I was the only runner coming through the gates at the time, and with every cheer I felt like Rocky Balboa, leaping to the top of the Philadelphia Art Museum steps, victorious and elated.
The race organizer, a well-known ultra runner, hugs every runner that crosses the finish line. He's kind of a big deal in ultra running circles, and a hug from Gary Robbins was like being inducted into some secret club after passing a very difficult initiation. "Thank you! Thank you!" I repeated, not sure if I was thanking Gary for such a fabulously organized event or if I was thanking the heavens I had just survived running 14 miles through the Canadian Rockies.
Another grand adventure was behind me. A new one looms ahead. And always I move forward, towards the challenge, towards the uncertainty, towards discovering what I can accomplish. Because it's true, you really don't know what you can do until you try.