This race was more than a running event. The second of the two 15.6 mile laps was my hardest run ever. . And yielded the most profound insights I’ve ever gained from running.
If you are interested in race details, there are some very good summaries out there, including these from Meggie, Mary and Bri.
For me, the race was much more than a race, however. It was a truly profound moment which I’ll try to explain. This is a long, somewhat philosophical musing. Thanks for reading.
The HUFF 50K has been around for 17 years and holds a special place in my running heart. It was the first trail race I had ever run in December 2004 when I took their 10 mile single loop option. The race that day was the farthest I had run at that point, my first time ever to run on trails and was central in cementing my enjoyment of running. Funny to reread my blog post from the 2004 event...what did I know then about running??!! I ran a portion of it again in 2005 (blog post here).
State park funding circumstances forced this race to move to a new locale this year, however. The race organizers did a nice job creating a new course at the Chain O’ Lakes State Park; a 15.6 mile loop which 50K runners would run twice.
The one uncontrollable bugaboo for Race Directors struck, however. We had 3+ inches of rain mid week which swelled the 8 lakes and connecting marshes at the aforementioned Chain O Lakes Park. This meant mud. This meant high water. And when the temps dropped on Friday into the mid 20s, it all turned into frozen mud and icy water.
Fellow Marathon Maniac and local club member Brian and I made the 3 hour drive to NE Indiana after work on Friday. Saturday morning dawned with light snow falling. The HUFF has become a big event, with nearly 900 total runners in the 50K, 50K relay and single loop runs. The cannon sounded at 8:15am and off we went. With temps around 28F and snow continuing to fall, the first lap went reasonably well. We got a tour of the park, saw where the really high water was and an early glimpse of the mud to come. I even found folks with whom to chat; that's me on the right.
I finished the first lap in 3:20:24, a 12:51/mile pace which I was quite pleased with in the circumstances. A friend of my sister-in-law captured this photo of me at the halfway mark...still feeling good
And then came lap two.
The temperature was now in the mid 30s, just above freezing. The 800 pairs of feet ahead of me had churned the turf and dirt into a slippery, sloppy mess. Little did I expect what awaited.
Three specific events during lap two changed the tenor of the day, of the race for me
The Flop. In the 21st mile, we descended a deceptively short hill of about 80m. The churned up mud and left-to-right tilt of the trail turned the descent into an ungainly combination of running, surfing, skiing and snowboarding. There was no traction and no control. I made it ¾ of the way down when I lost my balance and went splat in the mud. I fell onto my right side, rolled onto my back, slid and ended with my head pointed downhill, my feet above my shoulders. Adding to the awkwardness, my right calf spasmed when I went down. Flopping helplessly in the mud with a locked-up right leg was not in the plan.
Wonderfully, a runner who was right behind me immediately came to my aid. Her quick thinking led her to grab a perfectly-placed tree trunk with her left hand as an anchor, reaching to me with her right hand, pulling me to my feet and letting me immediately stretch the balky calf. She stopped to talk with me, as did another runner. I was not hurt at all. But I was muddy all up my right side and back, clogging my water bottles, covering my watch and making a general mess. Plus, I needed to get to the bottom of the hill with 10+ miles still to go. The fall knocked the wind from my sails for a good while.
The Slog. During the first lap, a 2+ mile section of the loop along the western side of the park was mushy. 800 runners and 8 degrees later, this section (miles 23-25) was cold, black, churny, ankle-deep muck.
The Thorns. Miles 27-29 were low-lying sections around one of the park’s lakes. While this trail might be a scenic, even romantic, walk during a mild spring afternoon, it was substantially overflowed Saturday.
I had waded through some of these knee-deep water holes on lap one, including one nearly 40m long. Half-way through that traverse, my calves and feet felt nearly frozen. On lap two, I chose not to wade again, so discouraged was I from the Slog. The alternative, while less freezing, was more painful. Many of us bushwhacked around the 8-10 water-filled areas. I termed this part of the race the “Multiflora Rose 50K” in honor of the thorny, pernicious weed-plant which has invaded of our state’s woodlands. It scraped my legs and ankles as I scrambled to make progress.
The last two miles of the race were relatively clean, with the course moving to higher ground and then park roads heading back to the start/finish line. I had to walk all of mile 30...running just wasn’t going to happen. However, I was able to run most of the last mile, hitting the finish line in 7:33:44. But lap two was nearly a full hour slower than the lap one, with a pace of 16:14/mile. Not even a modest walking pace on average, such was the impact of my fall, the muck and the water circumvention.
When I finish a race, I’m usually euphoric, thrilled with what just happened. While my body felt fine this time, my spirit felt broken. I was deeply discouraged and I didn’t know why. It took me three days of reflection to grasp what happened.
I realized this race, lap two in particular, was a metaphor of something much more profound, something far larger than distance running.
Lap two was chemotherapy. Lap two was long-term unemployment. Lap two was raising a difficult teenager. Lap two was not what I signed up for.
Let me explain.
I entered this race wanting to run. To run a trail race. I was prepared and psyched to do a 50K trail race in cold weather.
I didn’t enter a Warrior Dash or Tough Mudder or any of the adventure races designed to put physical obstacles in the way. Not my style. Not interesting to me. Others may enjoy them but I don’t.
I signed up for a 50K trail run. And I couldn’t run. The trail was unrunnable over significant stretches. It was not the trail conditions themselves which broke me down, I came to realize, however. It was the complete and utter denial of doing what I had hoped and planned to do.
From this stems the metaphor.
I want to be healthy, we say. I want to live fully And then I’m racked with cancer. And the treatment is worse than the disease at times.
I want to work, we say. I want to support myself, my family. And then I’m unemployed. Have been for 18 months. No one even wants to interview me.
I want to love my teenager, we say. I want to communicate, appreciate, encourage, guide. And she rejects me. Turns her back. Yells at me. And worse. And has been for five years now.
These disappointments are examples of the many ways our lives become difficult, deeply discouraging. So much of discouragement stems from the dashed dreams, the hopes we feel have been unjustly taken from us. These dashed dreams can break our spirit. We didn’t sign up for the tough times.
You see, when I got done with lap two, I was fed up with that race. As runners, we are often full of bravado and enthusiasm, welcoming the pain, the difficulty of a race as a challenge, as a badge of honor.
I had none of that on Saturday. I hated lap two. If the Race Director were to call me today, offering me free entry into the race next year yet saying the conditions would be the same, I’d turn him down. I don’t want to do that again. I just want to run.
No one I’ve ever known would choose to go through cancer and treatment again. No one I’ve ever known would choose long-term unemployment. No one I’ve ever known would relish having another angry teenager around.
But we find ourselves in those situations. We don’t like them. We wouldn’t want to do them again. But in the moment, we have to do them. We have to keep moving. One step at a time, whether through freezing water or thorn-filled clambers on a non-trail. We flop and are so grateful for someone to extend a hand at the right moment.
The metaphor helps me have empathy for those with far more serious issues than mud and cold water that resolve in seven hours. Lap Two taught me all this and more, afresh. I hope it’s been helpful for you to read. It’s been helpful to me to write.