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The Highs and Lows

Early in the race. Photo by Bobby Gill.
This is what's in my brain at mile 23 of the Bull Run Run 50 Miler: All I have to do is make it through Fountainhead. Though it's only 28 miles into the race, with 6 miles before I'm even heading in the direction of the finish line, it's the point at which I know I'm going to succeed. 

A Slow Start. I started the race conservatively, running at a reasonable pace. In a trail race with 300 starters, that means getting stuck behind inevitable bottlenecks until the pack spreads out. And in spite of my grandiose plans to spend just seconds in the aid stations, I had to stop and make adjustments. To top it off, I had fallen twice -- in the first 15 miles. That's unusual for me and it was demoralizing. I hoped it wasn't a sign of a long day to come.

I tried to stay serene. My top priority was to avoid going out too fast, a mistake I couldn't afford to make. Most of all, I needed my mental game to get through this race.

Privilege and Gratitude. I really took notice of the beauty of the trail. I called out the names of wildflowers I saw: Bluebell. Spring Beauty. Star Chickweed. Sweet White Violet. Golden Cinquefoil. I marveled at how absolutely clear Bull Run was.
I could see every stone along the bottom. (For all you Yankees, "run" is Southern for stream and also why this race is called Bull Run Run). I felt grateful for this beautiful Spring day, a little warm for a race but manageable. I listened to my footfalls, the only sound but for the melodies of birds. I relished the quiet of running without conversation. The peacefulness of the woods enveloped me. 

Bull Run Run. The race runs alongside it for miles.

Run The Mile You're In. I focused on clicking off the miles, maintaining a strong march up the hills I had no hope of running, refusing to allow my pace to degrade to the shuffle of defeat. A few not-so-positive thoughts sneaked in: Why did I sign up for this race again? Why didn't I train harder? Why wasn't I more upfront about my lackluster training when my friends asked me to join the WUS Female team?  Running all day is pointless and stupid. I wonder if the Laurel Highlands 70 Mile race director will let me switch to the 50K race? After this I swear I'm just gonna train for short distances, like 10Ks.

The Lows. As the day grew warmer, a slight breeze kicked up. It was the greatest sensation in the world. My toughest miles were upon me now. Miles 22 through 28 or so (no matter how long I am running) always come with a down spell. This is where my body starts to fatigue and my muscles begin to hurt. Worse, my mind grows concerned with the perceived discomfort of the body and begins its tricks to convince me that the distance remaining is too far to be conquered. I descend into dark thoughts. It's like depression on steroids, causing the smallest things (catching a toe on a rock, for instance) to reduce me to despair.

I've been here before. I keep plugging along, telling myself I'll get through this spell. It sounds like the biggest lie ever. The Lows suck.

Arriving at Fountainhead (Mile 28) during a low spell. Photo by Bob Fabia.

The Do Loop. The worst and toughest section of Bull Run Run. It's the furthest point on the course from the finish, and the hills are steep and cambered. There's no breeze here. I use every mantra that had been offered to me by my Twitter, Facebook and Blog commenter friends. I Am Strong, You Are Strong! Demand It. I Love This! If You Can You Must. Fearless. Fatigue is a Choice. It Doesn't Always Get Worse. Take What the Day Gives. It's just a moment; it's not forever; this is temporary. The Weak Find Excuses, The Strong Find A Way. Gumption. Relentless Forward Progress. Run the flats, run the downhills, walk the uphills.

I arrive at Fountainhead for the second time, Mile 38. Hubz attends to me and lets me fall apart a little. Toni gives me a quick massage that made a huge improvement in my tight, sore shoulders and back from holding a water bottle for nearly 40 miles. I'm hiring her full time. 
 
Just 12 miles to go. Time to put my big girl pants on. For the first time all day I turn on my music, so my steps will have rhythm.

The Highs. The miles were clicking by steadily. The Highs start slowly, building from small cheerful observations to a crescendo of emotion akin to a manic episode. Seeing familiar faces, smiles and encouragement of friends along the trail, passing one more runner. I'm getting this done. I am strong. I can do this. I'm building amazing mental fortitude. I can do anything. I am worthy. I can conquer any fear, any doubt.

The volunteers. My crew (Hubz). Friends. All
helping me in some way, with a smile, encouragement, a popsicle, an ice cold cloth, when the smallest kindness means everything and nearly reduces me to tears. I forgot how important the people are. They make ultras great. They're what brings me back to this crazy sport every time. 

I'm passing runners. I'm gaining strength and heart as I encourage them, joke with them, commiserate with them. I'm envisioning the glory of the finish line.
 
At this point, the pain is real, but I'm deliriously happy. I don't want the race to end, except to finish strong for my team.

In the final three miles, my legs just keep turning over. I can scarcely believe I'm clipping along at this pace. I pass a group of four on the rocky section. I reach a sign declaring the final mile and gleefully tackle the last big hill. 

The last hill.

I pass another runner. At the top, the grassy meadow appears. There is no better sight in the world.

The grassy field. Under a half mile to go.

I choke back emotion and run for all I'm worth. I pass another woman. I see Bob Anderson just ahead. His wife Kari sees me and yells "go get Bob!" I run. I pull even. He looks at me and grins. We sprint. The crowd at the finish notices and the roar builds. We find another gear, and then another. Arms and legs are flying. He stays with me. I have never felt so alive. We finish neck and neck.

(Bob officially beat me, though I thought I'd edged him at the time.)

Everyone is congratulating me and I am hyperventilating from the sprint, from joy and emotion and utter exhaustion. 


This is why I run ultras.

The Glory of Finishing - photo by Stefan Fedyschyn

If one could run without getting tired I don't think one would often want to do anything else. ~ C.S. Lewis


38 comments:

robinbb said...

I love that picture of you at the end. Amazing job, I can't even imagine doing that or how you felt at the end. CONGRATS!!!

Anonymous said...

You really captured the lows: why am I out here, why didn't I train harder, after this I am only going to run 10ks, etc. Great job!

Cyberpenguin said...

Great post! Felt like I was right there along with you, experiencing it all. :)

wheezy said...

Great post. Well done.

Ann said...

I love this. You completely shared what it means. Even if your words had not captured it though, that final photo is priceless. Everything you said is right there.

Karla said...

Great Job! this race might go on my bucket list!! looks fun! well fun in crazy runner terms!

amy said...

I love the progression photos throughout the race! Congrats again!

Victoria (The District Chocoholic) said...

You are so mentally tough - I'm impressed. Also, I find it amazing that there was basically a sprint finish in a 50 miler.

Blue Eyed Warrior said...

You are so amazing Kirsten! You rock!! Hey, I love the arm sleeves!!! Where did you get them? --Eva

Scott said...

What a great post! Thanks for sharing, and congratulations!!!

ultrarunnergirl said...

Eva, they're Primal arm warmers. http://www.primalwear.com/p-53-primal-tattoo-arm-warmers.aspx

mar26_2 said...

love how you describe how your mind plays games with you and tries to convince you to give up, but disagree with it and overcome, because ultimately that is the real test to finish.

Linda said...

I am strong! You are strong! MAN! What a great race report. SO proud of you and hoping to take you with me a bit this weekend!! HUGS!

Anonymous said...

Great piece of writing. I usually hate the do loop, but Saturday, the do loop picked up my spirit. It is usually just leaves with no real sign of a trail and you have to work mentally very hard to figure when you should be going to stay on course. The mental work takes it out of me and is depressing, but Saturday there was a very distinct trail the entire way. It looked like someone had taken a gas powered leaf blower on cleared the trail. That was a pick up for me. The last couple miles are never a high for me and I am not passing people. I envy you folks with all that energy at the end. A guy passed me just as we made the right at Pope's creek toward the hill and he SPRINTED up the hill. I was impressed with your race to the tape at the end. Nice run. Frank P

Kara said...

I loved this recap! You explained so much better than I could ever why I'm drawn to ultras...for the HIGH high points and even the LOW low points. It makes the experience so vivid and worth it.

Roxanne said...

You are amazing! I love reading your race reports but this one really got to me. I swear I felt your ups and downs as I read along. You can't imagine how helpful and motivating it is to me! I love your picture at the finish!
Roxanne

Jen said...

So great to share the trails with you Saturday. Such a great day to be out there. I had plenty of ups and downs as well, but the beauty of the trail, support of the volunteers, and mental fortitude helped me get through. Hope to run with you again.

BTW - have you ever considered taking up crocheting?

CherryDeGrassi said...

Excellent! Congratulations on a strong run and getting through the lows. Thanks for sharing your stories and energy during the first section of the course; it was great to finally meet you.

Amy Reinink said...

I love every bit of this, but especially your mental chatter during the "Lows" (which sounds so much like mine!), and the look of complete exhaustion and satisfaction on your face at the finish. Thanks for sharing the experience!

Casseday said...

Awesome!!! Congrats on a great run.

PavementRunner said...

What a wonderful recap. The "run the mile you are in" is a fantastic way to approach the race. Photos look wonderful. Congrats on another strong finish!

Gombu said...

Way to go K!

BC

Allison said...

Congratulations! I can't even imagine tackling 50 miles. Maybe someday. This recap does such a great job sharing the whole experience.

Katie said...

LOVE this recap, you sound so happy!! and the first picture of you is wonderful!

Anonymous said...

Done! I love getting hired on a blog. The report was fascinating. I felt like I was totally with you on the home sprint. Of course, in my story, I trip Bob. Someday I need to listen to your magic playlist...the one that makes you run wicked fast the last few miles of every ultra. Love the report. Love the Blog. Love you. Mwah! ~Toni

Sarah said...

Congrats! That was a wonderful read and you ran a wonderful race.

Wendy said...

So glad to see you out there one last time where (for me) it all began... though this time you looked a little different than the "hussie in a bikini" who stole the wedding. :-)

Congrats on a day to be cherished!

Many happy runs to you...and if you ever decide to do Wasatch, shout! The hub, the wee one, and I are heading out there so hub can do his Master's.

Chuck said...

Great post! Great run! I love the quote "depression on steroids". It's exactly how I feel on long events. Super job!

Neal Gorman said...

I loved watching you racing at the finish. You definitely gave it all you had right at the very end. Good stuff.

Sophie Speidel said...

KIR! This is so awesome. Nothing like a goal (team blankey) to set up a smart race plan and keep you smart and motivated through the highs and lows. You are so ready for a Laurel PR! Congrats on a fine run and we hope to see you and Hubz at the Harry Landers Special, if not before at MMT. HUGS

iseetrails said...

Loved your race report! It brought back every mile of that 50 for me. I am amazed at how similar our experiences were. And glad I'm not the only one who teared up with tears of pure joy/accomplishment/disbelief/passion when I got to the meadow at the top of the final climb. :) I am definitely hooked. Can't wait for the next one! Thanks for sharing your experience so vividly - you're a wonderfully talented writer.

Hai Nguyen said...

Great report Kirstin. If you don't mind I am gonna burrow your C.S. Lewis quote.

Bill said...

Loved the write up, congrats on a fine finish at Bull stream stream or is it Bull Run Stream or Bull Stream Run, Whatever you Southers want to call it, I look forward to you banging out Laurel. Kudos, nicely done.

Yankee boy Billybob

Ken Swab said...

Enjoyed meeting our on the BRR trail. I particularly liked your response to my comment that as a WUS, you should be fast and not be back with a slow guy like me. You said that you were "The Lone WUS." And you did get your team a championship blanket.

Seth said...

Great race report, Kir. I swear you look better at the end of your 50 milers than most people (certainly I) do at the start. Nice job keeping the spirit and guns up the entire time. (And good job Tom keeping that engine stoked!)

Looking forward to seeing you guys this summer.
--Seth

ultrarunnergirl said...

Nice meeting you too Ken. I was proud to bring up the rear on Team WUS.

Kate said...

wow! this is such a beautiful post! and you end it so perfectly - "this is why i run ultra's"! i felt your passion in this, fully. loved the quote at the end too! it's one of my faves. :) i'm hoping to run my first 50K end of june in southern va. kind of nervous but way excited!

Lauren Rabideau said...

Wow, so inspiring!