I signed up for this half marathon even before I ran my first 10K. It was, in fact, the very first race I’ve ever signed up for. I’m sure that back then, some eight months ago, it seemed like a good idea. It might have actually seemed like a great idea, heck, maybe even the best idea I’ve ever had. However, it felt much different on the day I was flying out to Montana, or on the day of the race expo, or at night before the race when I was laying in my tent, listening to the loud and heavy tap-tap-krunk-tap of rain and the roar of the swollen stream next to my campsite.
Still,it must have been a good idea for some reason, even if it were just my looking for something to tear me out of the ordinary once more. When I signed up for the race, I guess it must have been too long since I did something that my brain perceived as beneficial, while everyone else perceived it as stupid. Like going alone to Yosemite in the dead of winter to spend a couple nights in an old borrowed sleeping bag (which definitely wasn’t suitable for the temperatures) even though I’ve never camped in snow, or going to Hawaii with no place to stay and so sleeping where I happened to find a spot (under the stars on a beautiful black beach).
It was also at the time of my life when covering the distance of half marathon was completely out of question thanks to my chronically ill hips (let’s put it this way for the sake of keeping things more or less simple). I had spent years at that point slowly enlarging the distances I was able to cover on my own two legs from zero yards to about six miles, eight if I spread the journey over a much longer period of time than it would normally be traveled in (read “the whole day”). I was going to have to double that distance in only a couple of months.
I can’t say that I would train vigorously. I trained with the goal of being able to cover the distance under the cutoff time, not winning the race. I wanted to finish. That was my only goal. Well, also being able to start the race (read “not killing off my hips by training too much even before I had the chance to even attempt a half marathon”) was something I had to take into consideration. I ended up never running 13 miles during my training. The two last miles of the race were going to be a surprise.
Eight months, two 10K races (Chabot – Redtail Ridge Trail Run and Folsom Lake), two near-heat strokes, two really ugly patellar tendinitis in both knees, many and many shin splints, and 10 lost pounds (unplanned) later, I woke up from what could be called sleep only by a long stretch of imagination into a cold, dark, rainy morning. The race day morning.
I changed into the slightly (and annoyingly) damp running clothes I had ready right next to me, ran to the port-a-potties nearby and then drove about 30 minutes to Browning where the race shuttles (read “school buses”) were to pick runners up and deliver us to the starting line nearby Kiowa. On the bus, I chewed on a Clif bar for breakfast. Then I checked my excess clothes (a T-shirt, a flannel shirt, two hoodies, a rain jacket, and long pants) – it was really cold in the morning – downed a cup of hot chocolate and a banana and found my place; the end of the very last (ninth) corral. There were two people behind me, and almost two thousand people in front of me.
Blackfeet celebratory song filled the chilly morning. Then the national anthem. Then Dehn counting down for the first corral. Then sending out the second one. Then, finally, some fifteen minutes later, the very last one. I crossed the starting line. My shoes were covered in thick mud. My stomach wasn’t happy; I managed to have my period on this race, again. My legs started to move. And I didn’t look back.
I passed people. You’re running too fast, I kept telling to myself, but I couldn’t bring myself to slow down. Almost the entire first mile was almost flat, with only a very mild degree of elevation gain and loss. Then I made it to the junction of 89 and 49 and had five miles of steady climb ahead of me. I saw wild horses just chilling on the side of the road.
At mile two I shed my long-sleeved layer and kept going only in my Does Running late count as exercise? tee and shorts. (I later forgot to pick that long-sleeved shirt up at the finish line so now it is no longer in my possession.)
At mile three, first beautiful vistas appeared; in the west, distant peaks covered in fresh snow from the night’s storms, illuminated by the pink sky, the sun about to start making its way up on the sky from behind the smooth green rolling hills in the east.
At mile five I passed an ambulance and EMT guys.
At mile six I’ve made it to the top of the hill. What more, the flag telling me the I’ve just passed mile six came almost out of the blue. I was beyond surprised to be seeing it.
Mile six? How am I at mile six? What? How did I get here?
Mile six. The 10K mark. Whenever I ran a 10K race, I’d been praying for mile six – in that case the end of the race – for the last two or three miles. But in this case, it was suddenly here, and I felt as if the past six miles didn’t happen at all. How did I get here? What more… how have I passed a pacer (or two) already, during a climb, while the uphill part of the race was what I was the most worried about? Nothing but the flag suggested that I’ve already traveled 10 kilometers on my legs. I started to feel this excitement, this hope; maybe my body was going to work just fine, maybe I could even finish among the people from eight collar instead of ninth? Man, that would be something!
The downhill rolled in and for the first mile, it felt as awesome as it looked with its views of the deep valley and the sharp mountains.
Then, at mile seven, it all fell apart, without warning.
It wasn’t that I’d be out of breath or the strength or the willpower to keep going.
It was my hips what fell apart.
Between mile eight and nine, my stride came to a sudden stop and I had to tap and stretch my left hip to keep it going. While I waked, I had to keep pushing it into its place. If I let go, the pain was insufferable. For running, I had to let go.
I didn’t stop though. At aid stations, I paused only as long as to have a cup of electrolytes, a cup of water as I walked and drank for the next couple yards, and then I’d keep pushing through. I didn’t go and have a bathroom break (I went in the woods; there was no line to wait, no time wasted). I didn’t chat with others; I didn’t know anyone there, anyway.
Nearing mile ten, a middle-aged couple noticed my very apparent limp and asked me if I was alright or needed them to call someone to come pick me up. I told them I’d be alright.
At mile ten, it was only by the strength of my will that I was alright.
At mile eleven I approached the last hill of the race. I “power hiked” it, even though that might be kind of a stretch to say that. I limped/ran a little my way up, not losing too much distance on the people I’ve been running around since mile seven or so; the guy with BIG curly hair and the young couple who we’ve been passing each other for the last two or three miles. They were not my corral, not at all. They weren’t even the eighth corral. At that point, I’ve left my corral far behind.
At mile twelve, I felt my body crumble big time. My hip hurt so badly I would just tumble to the ground had I not willed my body to stay more or less (well, less is much more accurate) upright. I was hunching over to the front, to the left, and everywhere in between to be able to keep moving forward on my own two legs (or a leg and a half).
I will never be able to do a hundred, I’ve been thinking since mile nine but now it really kicked in. I might have dropped a tear or two coming to that realization, hadn’t I had my teeth gritted since the top of the first hill.
One last mile to go. One last. You can do it. You can. You know you can. Don’t you drop at this last aid station. Don’t even look at it. Don’t drink. Don’t stop here. Just go, go past.
I smiled at the volunteers there shouting, “You’ve got this! Only mile left! You’ve got this!”
This last mile was on grass and gravel and a path and a service road. Different surfaces. More difficult to navigate, requiring more focus on where I put my feet but…
~warning: expletives included~
At the same time, they were so much more easier than the last five miles. Maybe I gave up trying to keep it together. Maybe my body gave up trying to tell me to stop, for fuck’s sake, stop moving. Maybe my hip decided to stop being an asshole. I don’t know what happened. It still hurt like fucking hell. But somehow, it hurt less.
I passed few more people. I heard the music and the cheers of the finish line. Then I saw it. I ran. I limped. I limped but ran my best.
“You’re almost there!”
“You made it!”
“Oh my god, keep pushing! You’re there!”
I heard as the finish arch with the big digital clock suddenly passed over my head.
I could stop.
But somehow, I couldn’t. It was a little to unreal.
Somebody handed me a medal. Someone else a space foil sheet to wrap around myself and get warm.
My hip gave up. I almost fell, my leg just giving way. As so many times before, I caught myself, trying to make it under the trees and just sit down.
I ate some recovery food. Even before I looked at my medal. There go the priorities.
Then I hopped on the school bus/shuttle, got back to Browning, and drove back to my campsite. Then I drove to East Glacier Park Village and had a chocolate ice-cream.
And later that day, I hiked about 7 miles. Here we go. Fuck you, pain. But also, thank you. You know, made me stronger and all that jazz.
A huge thank you goes to all the volunteers who worked that race. I did not say thank you enough – did not manage to say thank you to everyone. Thank you for giving us water, space sheets to keep warm, preparing the food, directing the traffic, checking on us if we were okay, and everything in between.
Another big thank you goes to the Blackfeet tribe. They let us camp and run on their beautiful land, offered their hospitality and shared their culture. They were checking on the runners as we struggled up and down the hills of The Looking Glass and sang celebratory song for us. They offered us a glance at what the land meant to them and I am forever grateful that they gave us the opportunity to learn and share who they are.
There are many more thank yous I would like to say – to my physiotherapist who got me walking again a couple years ago, to my host family thanks to whom I can live this life, to my body, to my legs, for letting me finish this, to everyone at Inside Trail – those guys have been the biggest encouragement to me sine I first volunteered at their races, exactly one year before I ran this half – and whenever I ran with them. Thank you to Vacation Races for putting on this race in this beautiful location, too.
And thank you for reading this, for going on the journey with me.
( And if you feel like it, you can follow this blog so you won’t miss any future posts, or share your thoughts and experiences with me via email or in the comments below, it’s greatly appreciated!)
And have a day full of pushing beyond your limits – because they don’t exist! 🙂