Strung out in the Sand

Just after sunset on Friday night, we found ourselves in the northernmost section of a 45-acre cow pasture, searching for trees, a sturdy fencepost, literally anything that could support the weight of two gingers in a few barely-used camping hammocks.

After trolling the fence line, my sister, Rachael, and I, settled for a dusty patch of grass that bore the early, still-fluffy seedlings of the sticker-burs that would become one with my shins and shoes in a few short hours. Far from the aired-up starting gate now checkered with lights and thumping music, we set up camp.

Wait, I should rewind.

Exactly one year prior, on a similar Friday night, you would have found me high atop my regular seat at the bar, sucking down shitty whiskey and dark beer as I funneled toxic nicotine into my lungs, courtesy of a never-ending string of Marlboro Blended No. 27s.

Just a pack a day. Sometimes more. Rarely less.

But on this Friday night, just 11 months removed from officially taking those nails out of my tar-stained coffin, I was preparing to run my first 50k ultra-marathon and Rachael was on the tail end of her first week off cigarettes, too.

Perfect fucking timing.

It was here that we rallied. Around the dim light of headlamps and lanterns that watched us throwing clouds of vegetable glycerin into the sky in place of tobacco smoke, we sat in a cow pasture and stared at the sky.

We spoke of the unending brain fog, those full-body cravings and how the sweet smell of your favorite brand will never fade. And somehow this all worked to calm my unending nerves.

No amount of training will ever quell my self-doubt before a race. I’ve learned this.

I could wake up the day before and interpretively dance the distance without breaking a sweat, but I’d still be nervous and unprepared at the starting line when the gun goes off.

Despite the doubt, I had it planned out.

Super-planned, over-planned, I even had a well-planned plan on how to execute the race-day plan. Down to the calorie, down to the minute I’d finish each loop and what I’d be wearing while I was thinking about finishing that loop, I had it thought through.

None of those plans would have worked without Rachael. None.

Every six miles I had someone to bounce off. Every six miles, someone to answer a winded phone call or a text.
“Do you need anything”
“Are you eating”
“Got your Hammer Heed in a bottle and a gel too. You’re kicking ass!”
“Doing ok on battery power?”
“DUDE YOU BUMPED UP 10 RANKS!! From 39 to 29 overall 50k!”

I don’t remember many of the miles, but I do remember plodding along and counting down the turns until I’d get back to the starting line for a quick high-five and a refuel. Having her there was a Godsend.

She jumped on for a few miles as a pacer on mile 15, and I proceeded to run a negative split for the next 10 miles. The numbers don’t lie and neither did the motivation she brought me.

The course was equal parts beautiful and brutal. Jutting horse-trail switchbacks gave way to wide open prairie and hardly-trodden fence lines. Gnarly pits of sand packed my shoes with extra ounces, while sticker-burs attempted to find and penetrate the crevices in my shoes that even Asics reps wouldn’t know about.

I fell to the back of the pack at the start like I had planned. I figured I could keep the peloton in sight and stay fresh for the first 25k.

I was dead wrong.

The race began and by the second mile I was in dead last. There was no pack group in sight, and by all accounts, I had already assumed they had finished and were chugging beer at the finish line without me.
At the first aid station, a gentleman right ahead of me told the crew he had fallen and lost his bottle. I gave him mine and he high-fived me, memorizing my bib number as I left and promising it’s safe return. His significant other was waiting for me at the finish line with it as I crossed. Those are now the two greatest high-fives I’ve ever received in my life.

I’ve read countless race reports where runners say that everything clicked. I never knew what they meant until this day.

It all worked. Everything.

I fueled properly. I paced myself. I hydrated properly. I had a playlist so chock full of trap music and steaming fresh indie that even God himself would chunk the deuce while riding by.
My running form felt elegant, slow and methodical, like that older gentleman at your golf club who’s been playing the course for so long that they named 19th hole after him.

I felt that fucking good.

That is — and I know this is the legitimate cliché of every endurance race — until everything fell apart in the last three miles.

I had run 26.2 only a few months prior, but man, those extra few are where your body really starts to get sassy with you. It’s like at a certain point, your legs start conversing with the rest of your body to form an alliance.

“His ass is crazy, we ain’t gotta do this. That log is super comfy and they’ve got golf carts to come get us. Fuck a medal, we want a chair. Did you see that sand?”

I feel like the majority of training has so much more to do with your mental fortitude than it does with your physical strength.
Those last few miles show you what you’re made of, why you trained, and what you’re worth as a runner.

On the first 25k, at the 14th mile, I ran next to a woman who was as ready for the finish as I was. She asked me what mile we were on and I guessed, from my shoddy GPS, that we were at about 14, about a mile from her finish and our collective camp. She noted, with a big laugh, that the last four runners she’d asked had said the same thing over the past three miles.
As we chuckled and parted ways, her friend came into view and screamed, “This is it, you’re almost to the finish line its right around the corner!”