Friday, April 26, 2013

Full on the Trail for the Red Mountain Half

Shortly before Jason left for New York, I registered for the Red Mountain Half Marathon. Even though I knew I would be especially busy in the coming weeks, I also knew that having a race to train for would be particularly beneficial. As a mother, I spend most of my time taking care of the needs of others, now more so than ever before. While racing blesses my entire family in the long run (excuse the pun), it is also a very individual endeavor. When I run, I am taking care of myself. Even though races are a bit of a luxury, they provide extra motivation to work a little harder. No matter what our circumstances in life, it's helpful to have a goal to stretch oneself. For me, this dream consisted of 13 rocky miles along the dirt trails of the Red Butte between Pine Valley Junction and the hairpin turn just below Veyo.

Coming into the race, I felt fairly confident that I could handle the distance. Even though my running is limited to Tuesday and Thursday mornings while Eli is at preschool, Annika enjoys the jogging stroller and we've logged some good miles along the Virgin river trails. On other days of the week, I often cross-train at the gym or slog through a few miles on the treadmill. During visits from my Mom and Callie, I squeezed in a few extra long runs, including a couple eleven milers. And so even though my training wasn't perfect, I figured that I could manage two additional miles on race day.

A couple days before the race, my confidence plummeted when I took a close look at an elevation map of the course. At first glimpse, the schematic reminded me of a heart rate reading--full of sharp peaks and dramatic declines, repeated over and over and again. Too chicken to chicken out of the race completely, I reminded myself that once upon a time I managed an entire marathon--surely I had the willpower to plow through half the distance, difficult course or not.

The course did not disappoint. The lengthy repeated climbs were just as grueling as I'd envisioned. The descents were wild with feet skidding and arms flailing as I struggled to keep my balance on the loose, rocky terrain. I thanked the good Lord for my good knees and prayed that they might stay that way.

Challenging as the run was, it was also very rewarding. Long climbs lead to magnificent vistas painted pink by the breaking dawn. While forcing myself to power through several of these lengthy ascents, I pushed the envelope of what I thought possible for my body to handle. Slogging on with a jog so slow that it barely surpassed the pace of those walking around me, I kept on running, even when my legs were on fire.

And then, faced with yet another climb so long and steep that I couldn't even see the end, I had another breakthrough. It's okay to walk. Everybody (human) does it. In fact, it's a perfectly acceptable strategy for long distance trail running. Conserve energy and save your legs by walking up the hill, then feel the wind blow through your hair as you blaze down the other side.

This breakthrough changed my entire outlook on the race. By giving up any focus on time, I gave myself permission to more fully experience the beauty of the course. Some runners thrive on the energy of cheering crowds in big city races; I find the solitude and tranquility of a trail much more invigorating. I'm propelled forward by curiosity--eager to discover what lies just around the next bend or over the next peak.

And so, when my iPod ran out of battery at mile 7, I was so high on the beauty of nature that I didn't care. At mile 8 I felt so good that I wished I'd registered for a longer distance. Come mile 11, however, and I'd had enough nature and enough hills. An older gentleman (60 something?) passed me as I was trekking up another major incline and asked if I'd ever done this race before. I quickly asserted my rookie status, then watched wistfully as he pulled ahead. Another quarter mile down the trail, however, and this same man starts heaving. Alarmed, I ask if there's anything I can do to help. He pulls himself up, smiles graciously and says, "No, thank you I'm fine," then doubles over to vomit again.

I thought about sticking around to help, but my own stomach troubles caught up with me right then and I headed into the bushes to find a private place. (No port-a-potties at the aid stations--not that I could have waited.) Good thing I wasn't racing for time, since that pit stop must have held me back a full ten minutes. Why do runners do this to themselves?

Well, my question was answered in the last half mile of the race. Out of nowhere, a fifty-something year-old man who's probably carrying an extra fifty pounds of weight comes blazing by as a blue streak. Realizing that he's almost made it to the end of his race, he grins widely and tells me how there are just a few sloping curves left. Looking at his watch with pride, he talks about how he may even beat his wife to the finish line. I smile as I ponder how running touches such a diverse group--the young, the old, the heavy, the thin, the athletes, the musicians--all pounding out their own rhythm on the trail. I sigh and wish that I had the energy to pick up the pace with him and bound to the finish line, but alas, I am nothing if not consistent.

Before I know it, I round one final corner and see my family. Oh, such sweet hugs! All too soon, the race that was oh-so-long is finished. A snazzy medal and a few peanut M&Ms later, and I've recovered enough to consider registering for another.

As for the vomiting older gentleman, we passed him several miles up the road during our drive back home. He (and many other 50Kers) were still running, having signed up for an extra 18 pavement miles on top of the strenuous 13 trail miles we'd just completed. I'm not quite sure what to make of these ultra-marathoners. Two of the runners had just gotten back from Boston. I really can't grasp what it would be like to run the Boston marathon on Monday as your taper for Saturday's race. Is it inspiring or insanity? I felt totally out of my league browsing through the "TrailRunner" magazine included in our race packet. Consider this advertisement: "In 2009 I was considering giving up on 100 Milers due to stomach issues. Then I gave Vespa a try." Gee, I'll keep that in mind.

As incredible as these ultra-marathoners may be with their 100 mile stints through Death Valley, I'm perfectly content with my "little" half marathons. I'm glad to be balancing many things (especially people) that are more important than racing. Even with potty breaks and walking spells, I was still done with my race by 8:30. Rewarding as the race may have been, the time afterward with my husband and children was by far the best part of my day.


Jason said...

Why do we run, after all? It's hard on knees; it's sweaty, sticky business; it can result in dehydration, exhaustion, and all sorts of stomach pains... But, at the same time, it is strangely soothing to the soul.

At times while walking to the subway station, I'll randomly break into a jog and not even realize it until a few blocks later - dress shoes, slacks, button-up shirt, tie and all. As you also stated, the simple excitement for being alive makes me want to see what is waiting around the next corner, and walking there is just too painfully slow! And at other times, running provides much needed solitude and rhythmic time for my mind to connect with my heart.

I'm glad you run, Kara. It somehow helps me feel close to you. We're thousands of miles apart, but can somehow feel a commonality of experience as our feet carry us over the road we are on, over asphalt and over red rock.

Susie said...

Congratulations, Kara! I may have heard you were running that, but if so, totally forgot with everything else that was going on. You are an awesome example of setting goals and working towards them, even if it seems difficult. Way to go!

Ben said...

Way to get out there and endure! I just signed up for a half in June with some hills, and wish I'd been able to race more in the last months.