It's a strange thing to look forward to a race.
I doubt if you asked an evil king's prisoners if they were looking forward to the day, you'd rarely get a yes, even on Fried Rat Day. No one looks forward to, say, the torture rack, do they?
And yet, despite me being a tiny bit facetious, racing really CAN be torture.
Now, sure, you could be one of those 5K runners who enjoys a nice jog through the crisp morning air during your city's annual Turkey Trot (and yes, I'm pretty sure your city has one of those). Hey, I love the Turkey Trot too. But that's not racing, and I'm not a casual joggers. I train too hard for that, and besides, I'm anal and competitive and kind of a jerk. Those qualities aren't the kind that fit with runners who like to high-five spectators.
It's funny, too, because I'm not out to win. I would be, if I had better lungs, legs and 15 years off my body. But I am out to beat my own time. I compete with myself, and I'm not happy when I leave a race unless I've given myself a good fight.
Even so, despite all that, I looked forward to the Blue Sky Half Marathon, even when I knew I would suffer.
This race, even if you do want to just jog it, demands suffering. It's not a turkey trot. In some ways, it's hell.
It's a half marathon (or a full, if you're really a sick fuck) on a dirt, somewhat rocky trail that climbs over a few giant hills and many small ones. If the big hills sap most of your energy, the smaller ones greedily snap up what's left. There's one aid station, about halfway through the course, so you carry your own fluid. It's dusty and there's always another hill to climb or dash down, even when it's almost over.
It's also beautiful, gorgeous, even, run by a small crew of volunteers who want others to love trail running as much as they do. They yell your name when they see you - they have to check your name off a list so they know you're not out there, lost or dying of a rattlesnake bite - and their personalized encouragement is nice to hear as you're trying to bust through the seventh circle of runner's hell. I did the race last year on a lark, just another half to do before the more "important" races, like the Denver Half, and I loved it so much that I swore I would do it again and take it more seriously.
After a couple months of long runs, the Pikes Peak Ascent, a few climbs and some trail running, I did, indeed, believe I was ready for it.
And as I started the race, it felt like I was right. I didn't feel great. Finding the magic on race day this year just doesn't seem to be in the cards. But I didn't feel horrible, either, and after the first two miles over somewhat flat terrain, I felt good about my pace, my stomach and my legs. I felt ready to fly even as I took it carefully, trying to reserve my mojo for the hills that were coming.
I didn't have any music with me - it's not allowed on a single-track trail marathon - so I would have to rely on my spirit, and not a screaming metal god, to get me going.
When the hills hit, I attacked them a bit at a time, telling myself that I would walk if I had to, but also that I would try to avoid walking as much as I possibly could. It's a tough balance. Walk too much and you lose your rhythm. Walk too little, and you go into oxygen deprivation, and then you're walking whether you want to or not.
I was thrilled, then, when I topped out around 6 miles, without walking at all and facing down the first big challenge and heading for the aid station.
And then the sun came out.
The temperature threatened to creep up beyond 80 degrees even before the sun hid for a while behind the clouds. The clouds did their best, but they could not hold off the sun's punishing rays forever, and sure enough, just as I began the toughest climb of the day, they came out and started baking my shoulders.
This is when I made my biggest mistake, my only real mistake, actually. I romped up those hills as best I could, crashed down the back side of the hills and even passed a few people as I charged up the road that led me back to the trail home. But I finished off my bottles, and then, when they asked me if I needed more drink, I said no.
As I made my way back over the big hill and headed for home, I had three miles left to go. Three miles seems like such a short way to me. It's a lark, a 25-minute run, and that's if I take it easy. I was still on pace to run two hours, or at least break last year's time by at least five minutes, and I didn't want to take the time to get fluid, even with someone right there with her pitcher.
Around mile 11, I knew I had made a big mistake. Around mile 12, I started shivering, even though I was hot, not cold. I'm no medical expert, but shivering, I knew, could not be good.
This was the time to dig deep and keep running, even if it wasn't as fast as I had hoped. Last year I finished off the race running 8-minute miles, but last year was cool, almost cold, and I didn't sweat much. By the time I reached mile 12, my hat was soaked and my brow was salty.
But the difference between this race, and others, was my attitude. I've worked on my attitude a lot this year. They tell you to think of a word to say, over and over, during the tough moments, a word you can draw on when you need to push past the pain and go to work. My word, not surprisingly, is "fight."
Fight against the trolls in your head telling you to quit. Fight against the doubts in your head. Fight against your mistakes, even if they are stupid ones, like not drinking enough on a hot day. Fight against that heat. Fight against my own past, when I was picked on others for not being athletic and believing them even when I was.
Fight against all that. And when you go out with the intent of crossing a finish line, go kill it.