I’m having that dream again.
It’s the dream where the race is starting and I’m still in bed. I hate that dream. I roll over to resume sleeping. And then I notice I’m in a sleeping bag. Huh?
Emerging from the fog, it all comes back to me. I had been in a motel 45 miles away from the race. The forecast said the weather was turning ugly and it might be impossible to drive in the early morning. So I checked out of the motel at 10 p.m. after a two-hour stay, getting the “yes, I know what you were doing” look from the disapproving clerk, and drove to the start line.
After 12 years of scoffing at Mo’s “just in case” arsenal she always packs for trips like this, I had slept in her sled-dog certified sleeping bag and jacket. Toasty, even with temps that dropped below freezing. I had set the phone alarm for 6:30 and nodded off.
And then. I’m awakened by a roar. I know that sound. It’s the crowd cheering for runners taking off. I look at my phone. It’s dead. Phones freeze? Who knew? I flip on the car to see the clock there. It’s exactly 7:30. The time the race starts. Yikes.
I jump out of the bag. Luckily, I had worn my running clothes from the motel so I wouldn’t have to run around naked in the wee hours trying to get dressed. I put on my shoes, grab the ankle chip, decide not even to bother pinning on my number, and head for the race. I realize my ears are cold. WHERE’S MY HAT?
I was sleeping in it, and now it has vanished. I look inside the bag. Inside the coat. Inside the car. Inside my shorts. Nowhere. It’s really cold. I don’t want to leave without it. The clock is running. damn damn damn. I give up, stash my keys, lock the car, gaze downward dejected. And there’s the hat, lying in the grass next to the car. My ears cheer.
I trot toward the start, trying to get my pajamas adjusted. I can’t get my jacket zipped. Note to self, forget all that running stuff. For specificity of training, wake up in the middle of the night and try to work a zipper with gloves on now and then. I spot Joe, who’s still standing near the start line, and ask him where the 25k start is. He points me in the right direction, and I’m off.
I run through the checklist as I hit the single track. My shoes are on, but they’re barely tied. I don’t want to mess with them because I have gloves on and it will take too much time. They’re loose, but playable, although loose shoes on rocks aren’t that much fun. Socks, ick. but yes. Shorts, maybe, but I’m not going to look. Pants, yes. I forgot my bandana, but I have two layers of shirts which will double as a handkerchief. I pull up the hood on the jacket. No phone, which is dead anyhow, so no pictures. At least I remembered my handheld bottle. But no water. And no Tailwind.
I was going to load it before the race, back in the days when I thought I would be lounging leisurely with the peeps as we waited for the start. Maybe a breakfast taco and a hot cup of coffee. A visit to the portapots, a little stretching. Then the traditional Joe countdown and we’re off.
Instead, I’m stumbling along half asleep, heading into the first climb with a fuzzy head, an empty bottle, and a hope that I’ll be waking up soon, thinking, “Oh, man. Not THAT dream again.”
The first mile is hard. A long uphill gives way to another long uphill. I’m about a mile in when I take my first fall, which isn’t too bad because it’s on a steep climb and my chin is only a few inches from the trail anyhow. I am pretty much terrified because I’m running with a bad rib and can’t afford a hard crash. Should have brought the bubble wrap.
And then, after about 3 miles, I wake up and find myself in a trail run.
I settle in. It’s obvious from the start that this is going to be a Thoreau walk in the woods rather than any sort of pretend race. The course is a mud bog from a week of rain. The uphills are slippery because the rocks are coated with the mud of the peeps in front of me. The downhills are terrifying because they’re slick and steep. And the flat stretches are the worst.
Shoe-stealing mud. That deep stuff that causes your heel to slip and turns your lightweight flats into all-terrain buggies. Slog slog slog. But the trail is beautiful. Trees and cactus and the beloved sotol and views that go on forever. The rain never really rained; just an occasional mist so that Mother Nature could remind us who’s REALLY the race director.
I slip into the usual mind games. 4 miles! That’s more than a quarter of the way. 5!!! a third through!!! After what seems like forever, I get to an aid station that’s stocked. I look at the buffet laid out and can’t decide, so I have a single Oreo. Not a great choice, but it makes me laugh for the next couple of miles. And I need a laugh. The climbs are relentless Joe is famous for his “never take the flat trail when you can climb instead,” and Bandera is his favorite. Joe is a Fun Guy. I grind on.
I’ve been training semi-seriously so I thought I would be faster, but the course tells me otherwise. I fall back on the old Michael Murphey Mantra: “Success is survival, and you toughed it out.” I wish i was a desert rat right now.
Finally at around mile 8 or so, I sit down on a rock and tie my shoes. It seems to take an additional 10 minutes to get my gloves back on. Where DO the fingers of gloves go when you take them off?
The trail goes on forever. I think about my peeps running 31 and 62 miles rather than my humble 15. I’m in awe. This is a tough trail. Constant ups and downs, crawl and slide, repeat as necessary. I tip my hat to them. I’m glad I have my hat. I might have mentioned that already.
At around 11 miles, my will is gone. It’s one of those races where you’ve just had enough. I’m wet, I’m cold. I don’t want to play. But what else can you do? Home is still 4 miles away. You keep trudging.
I thank the running gods. This is so hard. I am so miserable. I hate this run. And I couldn’t be happier. Suffering is an odd thing. We endure, we learn, we get stronger, we cherish the memory. I ran a road pikermi last week that I’ve already forgotten. I’m running a trail today that will be in my dreams forever.
The Big Kids start passing me. The courses converge, so I have the joy of watching the competition for the U.S. Trail 100k National Championship unfold. They’re the perfect combination of mountain goat and gazelle, these runners. So fast, so graceful. Barreling fearlessly down the same hills on which I’m clinging to branches as I tiptoe down. It’s like having a seat on the field in the Super Bowl. You have no idea how amazing these people are till you see them come by you.
And still, as I step off the trail constantly to let them by, they always say hello, good job, you’re looking great. Even though I look like death. It’s such an honor. Again and again, they reach over and give me a pat. Sometimes I suspect it’s to keep their balance, sometimes to wipe off mud stuck on their hand, maybe. But mostly I think it’s because they know suffering. These guys hurt at a level I can’t imagine. And still they know we’re all in it together. A little pat on the back for an unspoken “hang in there. You’ll make it.” I am skeptical, but touched. Literally and figuratively.
And then, after another mile or so, I finally hear it in the distance. The music.
The thing I love most about Joe races is that he seems to short-course them a lot. So it’s no surprise to me that I’m right at 14 when I hear the noise in the distance. And then I see the tents. I have survived. I shift into my finishing sprint, hitting maybe a rocket-like 18-min pace, and storm toward the finish. I whip in between the flags and find …
… it’s an aid station.
A quite elaborate aid station, set up as a drop-bag point for the 100k kids. I am devastated. What to do? I have another Oreo. And set out again on the course.
Which turns out to contain the worst mud of all. I’m guessing Joe was out all week with a garden hose to create this stretch. It’s like running with velcro shoes on a crazy glue course. He’ll probably add the velcro feature next year if he happens across my blog.
But at least it’s flat. I plod along, fighting for my shoes.
And then, of course, another crazy steep climb, followed by a slip-n-slide descent. And finally, a jeep road.
I recognize this part, having run it last year, so I know I’m home. The road is a big mud bog, but that’s OK. And then, finally, just like it’s all a dream, it’s over.
The volunteer pulls off my velcro timing chip, and I head to the car. I know Mo is going to be crazy worried because the race took so much longer than I had predicted. I drive for a half hour while my phone thaws out. The convenience store has a potato and egg burrito that is the best thing I have eaten in my entire life. The phone finally comes back to life, and I’m greeted by a series of texts from Mo that begin with “worried” and end with “if you think you’re in great pain now just wait till i get through with you for making me worry like this.” Mo is a very patient person to put up with my running.
Two convenience stores and a McDonald’s later, I look at myself in the mirror. My face is still covered in mud. I decide it’s a good look for me, and I just leave it on.
I get home. We have beer and pie, but not mud pie. Four hours later, I take a shower. I’m standing naked in the bathroom when Mo walks by. “You’re in such trouble,” she says. Huh? She points down.
There on my ankle is my timing chip. In my sleep, I had put it on the same ankle as my Road ID. The frostbitten volunteer had pulled off my velcro Road ID, which looks similar, and thrown it in the bucket without me noticing.
I shrug. Perfect race souvenir. Lucky I always enter under an alias.
Last week, I averaged 12-minute miles on the roads. This week, a nudge over 20. Which race am I happier with? Not even close.
I go to bed and for hours do that thing where you trip over rocks as you’re falling to sleep and wake with a jolt, till I finally fall asleep.
I wake up the next day. No starting line, no dream. My legs won’t work. I hobble to the computer to look up what day Nueces is this year.
I love that dream …