We arrived in Death Valley and I knew I had three options for the weekend:
These were bleak choices that somehow also made sense with regard to running a Half Marathon in a place that has been described as "harsh and hellish," and "parched and inhospitable."
For those of you who aren't runners, my choices came to this:
Do Not Start: Just don't even do this to yourself. Cheer your brother in his race and save yourself the pain and torture, avoid the potential humiliation of the day. Do not start.
Do Not Finish: Go ahead and try, ya dummy. This race is going to likely kill you and in the end you could be in a situation where you're pulled from the race and you Do Not Finish.
Dead Fucking Last: Need a description of this one? I didn't think so. But I'll give you one anyway.
The story of Death Valley has been running around in my head for nearly three months now. It's still pretty much the only running that's been happening in my life lately.
But the slow death of my running happened long before the race. We moved out of DC at the beginning of August and I had plans in mind: to run in all the places we would travel during our cross country trip, and then to establish a new and amazing running routine in San Diego, a place exactly the opposite of Death Valley, one that allows for running at nearly any time of day, 365 days a year. There would be no extreme heat to deal with. No winter plan to make with months of running on snow or on the treadmill. It would be cool breezes and mild sunshine all the time. And I'd become faster and fitter and race my heart out. And on the way to San Diego I'd enjoy one of my favorite things to do in the world - run in exotic locations.
In anticipation of my new life in California, I registered for the Death Valley Trail Half Marathon in December. My brother would race the marathon (his second DV trail marathon) and I'd race the Half. I would have a solid 3+ months of training to crush this Life List race.
As we left DC I was filled with the exciting idea of adventures and a new world to explore. And our cross country trip was filled with amazing adventures. Except running was just not a part of it. I didn't run in Rehoboth Beach where we began the trip. I didn't run in Cape May, New Jersey. Not in Philly either. Didn't run a step in Pittsburgh. St. Louis was a blur of friends and fun and rain and I didn't even unpack my running shoes. Tulsa was a vast wasteland of weirdness and there was no running for me there. Tucumcari is not a place to run. And I mean, at that point...what was the point? And then we arrived in Tucson. I would run in Tucson.
We would stay in Tucson for several days and I would have some awesome desert runs. I did run in Tucson. The desert was awesome. My running was not. Temps were in the 100s, the air was dry and I had been driving a car cross country for days. Most disturbing of all was that my legs swelled. Like really swelled. Nothing else on my body was swollen. Fingers were fine. Everything felt fine. But I woke up one day and my legs were like tightly stuffed sausages about to burst. Why? I googled. Don't do that. Just do yourself a favor and don't google potential illnesses ever because you'll likely be running straight to the ER. Or, if you're like me, you'll quietly close the Internet and pretend like you're fine. You're just fine. And you're going to be fine. Except I wasn't fine. All of a sudden I didn't feel fine at all.
I ignored my legs and we had a blast in Tucson, with family and friends and swimming and exploring and then we were on our way to the final destination: San Diego. I'd figure it out there. Everything would settle down and my legs would be ok and I would run again and there was plenty of time to train for Death Valley. I had been traveling so much in the last months: Singapore to DC to Vegas to DC and then on the road for weeks. My body was probably just freaking out or something.
Without going into the horrific details of the symptoms that followed (that my family had to suffer with me as well, which I know was awful for them, especially my daily freak outs, and from time to time, complete mental break downs), I started to suffer from other ailments. I felt awful all. of. the. time. My doctor was back in Virginia. I tried to find a new one in San Diego, which took a few tries (if this wasn't a running centered blog I would tell you all about my insane visit with the first doctor I went to see). My symptoms did not allow for much running (or exercise) at all and I still didn't know what was happening to me. I felt horrible. I became a person who had a hobby of going to the doctor. Instead of running I'd visit what seemed like doctor after doctor trying to figure out what was happening.
And in the meantime, I tried to pretend like everything was ok. One day I was having a pedicure and I could tell that one of the other ladies in the salon was talking about me to Mindy, who was doing mine. I asked Mindy what they were talking about and she said, "Oh, she's saying that your legs are really really swollen." I sat there smiled and tried really hard to not cry.
Finally, at the end of October, I found the two doctors who would eventually get me healthy again. I had visits with each of them one day apart, and I remember the first one telling me right away that everything was going be ok. And the second one, who told me with confidence that not only was I going to be OK, but that I was going to run in a month, I was going to race in Death Valley. I had such a sense of relief that someone (2 someones) finally told me that I was going to be ok that I started to believe it again myself.
But my body had completely fallen apart. I had worked so so hard over the last several years to become fit and healthy and now I was a mess. Not only had I not been able to run or do much of any other exercise on a regular basis (yes, I had been running and hiking and biking a bit but not far, not fast, not much), the illness itself also had fucked my body up so badly. It had caused a ton of weight gain in a short period of time, which now posed a compounding problem. With the help of some magic medicine from these two amazing doctors I was ready to run again, but I was so out of shape that I didn't even know where to begin. And I had one month until Death Valley.
I had 4 weekends to figure out how to race Death Valley. The race itself is completely daunting. The Half Marathon course goes straight up through Titus Canyon for 6.5 miles to a turn around and then 6.5 miles straight down. Optimally a runner needs the cardio fitness to get herself up the mountain and the quad strength to get herself down. I had neither and I was carrying around a sack of potatoes' worth of extra weight. A rather large sack. During the week I'd run around the flat areas in my beach town and on weekends my husband, brother and I, sometimes accompanied by my nephews, would head out to the mountains for long runs. These were hikes for me. I could run down but hauling the potatoes up the mountains was so hard. I loved being out in the gorgeous mountains of Southern California but I wondered more and more with each passing weekend if Death Valley was going to kill me.
Training run on Cowles Mountain in San Diego, with an amazing pay off at sunrise.
On the negative side, I was out of shape, overweight and scared. What had become of me? I was a runner who could not run. Who hadn't been running. I have three awesome companies who support me mentally and financially who I was afraid of letting down. Medi-Dyne gives me their products to use because I'm a runner. Honey Stinger gives me an insane discount because I'm a runner, and I sport a Oiselle team singlet because I am a runner. In fact it would be the first time I was going to wear my Oiselle singlet in competition. Not only was I terrified of letting my team down, I wasn't even sure if the singlet still fit.
On the positive side, I've wanted to see Death Valley for as long as I can remember. My brother had told me stories of racing the marathon before. It's a tiny race, with only 250 people in both the Half Marathon and Marathon combined. It runs through one of the most spectacularly wild National Parks in the US. My entire family would be there to support me no matter what happened. And I'd raced 5 Half Marathons before. I'd climbed mountains before. I was out of shape and overweight and scared but I had muscle memory and I wanted so badly to have the experience of running in Death Valley. With my brother.
So DNS wasn't an option. I was left with DNF and DFL and I needed a new plan. My shake it out run in Death Valley through the beautiful Natural Bridge Canyon revealed what I had feared, among other things, that my cardio fitness was gone and there was no way I was going to be running uphill. At. all.
Looking back down through Natural Bridge Canyon at the top of a shake it out run that took my breath away. Literally.
The weather forecast leading into the race was for cool temps. Contrary to popular belief, it's not always hot in Death Valley, especially when you're running up mountains through shady canyons. In fact, in the 25 years of this race, it's been rerouted 5 times and completely cancelled once, all due to extreme winter weather conditions.
I layered my Oiselle singlet (I was seriously relieved that it still fit me) over a long sleeved shirt and capris. I slathered 2Toms Sports Shield all over my body and tossed a couple of Honey Stinger energy gels into my race pack. My race pack is from Mountain Hardware and it's perfect. You can put a couple of gels and some water in it, and it's light weight, or load it down for a fast pack overnight. At the last second I switched from my awesome New Balance Leadville trail shoes back into Altra Superiors. I didn't have enough mileage in the Leadvilles to feel confident in them just yet. (See above: She really has not been running - really not hardly at all. Not in months).
I just want to take a second and say, I know you know, I'm an ambassador for 2Toms (Medi-Dyne) and I run with the Honey Stinger Hive and on the amazing Oiselle Volée team, but I wouldn't mention any of them just because I felt I had to because they support me. I genuinely love their products just as I love my Mountain Hardware pack, NB Leadville and Altra Superior trail shoes. On the contrary, if I didn't use and love HS, 2Toms & Oiselle products I wouldn't be a part of their organizations. But that's a topic for another blog entry. One that will be obnoxious and mention product names a lot more. Haha!
My strategy was to hike up and run down. I knew that strategy would put me squarely DFL but I took a deep breath and glanced up toward a small opening in the mountain that was letting light into a dark trail leading up into the beautiful Titus Canyon and I told myself to try to enjoy the pain. The gun went off and I headed into the pain with a smile on my face. I was trying very hard to not cry.
I'm pretty sure the smile on the way up was a grimace. It was tough by any standards. It was humbling. I've never walked a step of any of the Half Marathons I have run. I was exhausted. But I kept looking around at the gorgeous canyon walls that kept me on course and tried to remember this was the best I could do. Hiking up was the best my battered body would allow. And I would just keep it up the best I could until I got to the turnaround.
In the early morning over coffee, my brother had said, "Well, my goal today is going be to beat you." I was laughing. "You're going to gloat about beating your sister who has had an illness for nearly 4 months?" He was laughing too, "Well, yeah, it's not every day that you get to lap your sister running a Half Marathon when you're running a Marathon!" He had a point. "You are a total jerk!" I shouted at him (or something more vulgar but our Mother reads this blog). "I love you and I'll see you on the course, Clythie!" And he was off toward the marathon start which was a point to point that began on the other side of the mountain.
And I would see him on the course. But when I got to the turnaround, I hadn't seen him yet, and I was thrilled about it. I knew I was DFL and a lot of the marathoners (now at their half way point as well) were taking breaks at the aid station that were timed more like mid-pack ultra runners, so I gave myself a break too and caught my breath. This was another first. I've never stopped at an aid station during a Half Marathon before. I always carry my own water and 2 gels, so that I won't have to stop at all. Today, I practically camped out. My body needed that.
Eventually I started down the mountain. 6.5 miles to the finish line. Gravity would take me there. For the first time all day, I was running. God it felt SO GOOD. I can run down hill. My quads and knees felt amazing and despite the rocky terrain I could fly down the mountain. I was running alongside marathoners so I wasn't ever alone. I knew all the other Half Marathoners were ahead of me but it no longer mattered. I had crawled to the top and now I just had to fly back down. I heard footsteps behind me and instantaneously knew it was my brother. "You got your wish Mike! Looking good brother!" "You look good too!" he shouted in return. "Keep it up and I'll see you at the finish!" I thought I would be horrified to see him. To have him pass me after running 22 miles when I had merely gone 9. But it didn't matter anymore. I was thrilled to see my brother. Happy to get that energy burst from seeing someone you love on the course. Happy to be alive and not dying of some strange illness. Happy to be headed down through Death Valley to the finish line.
At the last aid station the Ranger there shouted to me, "So glad to see you! We've been rooting for you!" I had become famous for being so slow. In some ways I wanted to crawl into a hole. This is who I am now? DFL? I stopped to explain myself. In a race. I just stopped running, walked to the aid station table and talked to the Ranger for a couple of minutes. "I've been really sick. I just feel lucky to be alive and out here." The Ranger nodded and handed me some water. "We know. We're so glad you're out here too. We've all been rooting for you. Now get going - the finish is just down there!" I had this overwhelming sense that not only was my family routing for me, but that all 249 other racers and every aid station volunteer was as well. I owed it to myself and all of them to finish. DNF was not an option. I might be DFL but I was going to run those last miles as hard as I could and keep a smile on my face.
DFL in a Half Marathon within a Marathon is not a bad way to finish. There are a lot of (marathon) runners coming in with you so you still look kind of cool even though inside you know you're DFL. For my first DFL, it was still a pretty awesome finish. It was downhill so I was trucking, there were others crossing the finish with me, there was music and lots of cheering and cow bell. My nephews ran me in and my family stood at the finish line cheering along with everyone.
Second Brother Sister Epic Race Weekend in the books! What's next? First I have to learn to run again.
Later that night when we were all at the Awards Presentation at the Corkscrew Saloon, the Race Director, an animated man who made a hilarious speech before the race and then drove the course up and down and up and down shouting words of encouragement from the sweeper car, came up to me. "I just wanted to tell you that it was a pleasure to see you out there racing today. All day long I was driving that sweeper car up and down and up and down the mountain and I kept seeing you and thinking, that girl has had a smile on her face all day long. She's going to make it just fine. She's going to finish this race with that smile on her face. We're all so happy you did."
I'm happy too.
Postscript: This story was really hard for me to write. It took months for me to even want to write it all down and when I finally began to write, my lips and tongue and jaw hurt from trying to hold back tears. Admitting shortcomings, failure, even that something is hard, is tough for me to do. Admitting I was sick is something I struggled with mentally and physically, and coming back from that is still really hard. I didn't want anyone to know I had been sick. I didn't want anyone to know that I was DFL. But there's a lesson in this story somewhere. In Death Valley I found life again, or something like that - but that feels trite, so I'll just say that I'm really happy that I had this race, this experience, this trip, with my brother and my family and I'm really glad that I'll never have to worry about getting my first DFL again. And I'm getting well and I don't know if I'm going to run again for awhile but I have some other plans and I'm thinking these might work out a little better than the last ones I made. But if they don't, maybe I'll find happiness in whatever my next experiences are, regardless. I bet I will.