Running 50 Miles: Failure, Courage and the Beauty of Pain

I limped across the finish line, crusted in salty sweat, caked in dirt and depleted of morale. I see my boyfriend Curtis waiting for me by my drop bag, and the moment I collapse in his arms, I burst into uncontrollable tears. He holds me tight for a long moment before helping me to into a chair. “Water? Gatorade? What do you need?”, he asks. I just sit quietly, hunched over, face in my hands, trembling, and the tears continuing to flow. I’m vaguely aware that there are people around me, staring, wondering if I’m all right, but my fuzzy mind isn’t quite taking it all in, and I’m too exhausted to care. I can’t believe that I just endured that much pain. I can’t believe that after months of hard training and sacrifice, that I’m finally here. I can’t believe that I’m nowhere near finished.

The Bear Chase Trail Race takes place in Lakewood, Colorado and consists of 12.5-mile loops, which participants can run for a total of 10K, a half marathon, 50K, 50 miles or 100K. I had been training for the better part of 2015 for what would have been my first 100K. For months, many of which took place during the hot and humid DC summer, I had been waking up during the week before the sun to get in my workouts, spending my lunch hours training, running after long days at work, and I had spent most of my weekends training and running marathons and 50K races. I had spent most of this year to get to this very moment — to run farther than I ever had before. The training was done, and now was my moment to prove to myself exactly what I was made of.

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At 5 am on race day, I boarded the shuttle at Bandimere Speedway that was going to take us to the start line. As we headed over, runners bundled in layers spoke in hushed tones, and we admired the brilliant stars blanketing the mountains’ silhouettes that were slowly being illuminated by the warmth of the sun. It was beautiful and peaceful and the epitome of a calm before the storm.

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Bear Creek Lake before the start of the race

Toeing the line on race morning always fills me with nerves. Particularly with long distances, you never know what to expect. Prepare all you want, but with this type of running, anything can happen. My nerves began to settle as I put the first loop behind me. Having tapered the previous week, my legs felt fresh. Having soaked in the beauty of Rocky Mountain National Park via trail running a couple days prior, my spirit was energized. I was exactly where I needed to be, and I felt wonderful. The course winded around a serene lake, disappeared into the woods, emerged at the foot of a mountain which we ascended to receive spectacular views and then descended to return to the woods. It was everything a trail should be — rocky, smooth, hilly, flat, frightening, peaceful, wet, dry, unexpected, enlightening. It was, to put it simply, truly beautiful.

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One of three consecutive stream crossings in the course loop
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Each loop takes runners up and down this mountain
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View of the lake from one of the climbs

I didn’t have a goal time for the 100K, but in order to finish, I needed to start my fifth and final loop by 6 pm. I knew I was in trouble when I started to slow down in just the second loop. I really knew I was in trouble when I started the third loop. My shoulders hunched as the sun beat down heavy and weighed me down especially during the climbs. My eyes gazed downward as even lifting my head took more energy than it seemed I had. My left knee had nearly given out, so what had started out as running turned into something of a limp-shuffle. Runners passed me and asked that good-hearted question received wrongly: “Are you all right?” I fought tears as I limp-shuffled to the end of the third loop. I didn’t come all this way to fail. And yet, I felt like I was doing just that. I felt like no matter how hard I tried, I was never going to be like those runners I admire, who sprint up and down mountains with ease and insatiable energy and are always ready for more. I felt like I had wasted most of this year training for a goal that wasn’t going to come to fruition. I looked at my watch and realized I wasn’t going to make the 100K time cutoff. That was it. I had failed.

I was three loops and 37.5 miles in. As I sat in that chair next to Curtis and my drop bag, head between my knees, I didn’t want to go on. What was the point? I came here to run the 100K race, and it wasn’t going to happen. All I could think about was how much pain I was in, how I had missed my goal, how much I let myself down, how shitty of a runner I was. But one thing I didn’t ever think about was quitting. In the midst of my tears and pain, I knew I was going back on that course and was going to keep giving it my all until that damn race clock stopped. Fine. Fuck the 100K. If the next best thing was to drop to the 50-miler, you better believe the 50-miler is what I was going to run. I changed my socks, grabbed my headlamp, stuffed a few mushy PB & J triangles in my mouth, and got my crying ass back out there. Why? The answer’s simple: Because despite how little I had left in me, I knew myself, and I knew I had something left in me. And if there’s anything left in you at all, you should always see how far it can take you.

Miles 38 to 50 were not any less easy than any of the previous miles. The last three consecutive stream crossings left my feet freezing cold, as the sun had begun to set. My wet shoes sloshed around rocks and leaves, between which my eyes could no longer tell the difference. Climbs forced my hands to my knees, as I slowed to a near crawl. Not able to bend my left leg, hills were shuffled down sideways. But what surprised me the most about the last loop was the sense of peace I had in my mind. While my body was writhing in pain, my mind was at peace knowing that I was truly giving this race my all and leaving all of me out on the course, regardless of what distance I’d end up running.

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Those last few miles were not easy. Each mile seemed longer than the previous mile. I told myself to run as fast as I could, even if it in reality looked like a zombie shuffle. I asked myself who I wanted to be that day; what story I wanted to walk away with; how bad I wanted this; and I pushed myself, and pushed myself. I looked at my watch. I was going to be cutting it close, but I was going to make the 50-mile time cutoff.

When I finally emerged from the woods, I limped across the finish line, crusted in salty sweat, caked in dirt and full of pride. I see Curtis waiting for me, and the moment I collapse in his arms, I burst into uncontrollable tears. He hugged me tight for a long moment before helping me into the car. One of the volunteers who had witnessed my struggle all day embraced me in a gesture of love and pride. A medal was placed around my neck, and gentle pats on the back were awarded. I was fourth-to-last to finish, but I was surrounded by praise as if I had won fourth place. I had done it. I had given the race my all. I had pushed my limits until I couldn’t push them anymore. My physical and mental training had paid off, and I ran 50 miles in Colorado with all of my legs, heart and soul. I shot for something great and landed somewhere equally as great, if not greater. Regardless of the outcome, you should never be ashamed of something that you gave your absolute all. I hadn’t failed. I had run the course, and I had won.

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