If you're lucky enough to be in the mountains, you are lucky enough.

When something bad happens, you have three choices: let it define you, let it destroy you, or let it strengthen you.

The purpose of life is to discover and develop your gift. The meaning of life comes from sharing your gift with others. - David Viscott

Monday, February 24, 2014

Mt. Mitchell 40M Challenge - facing the truth.

I am standing in a check-out line at local grocery store last night, and the young man (who is friendly and I am, after all, a regular at this store) asks me how was my weekend.
- Not bad, I just came back from North Carolina
- Great! What did you do there?
- Ran a race.
- Cool! Which one?
- Mt. Mitchell 40 miler
- Wow! Did you pat yourself on the back?
- No. I really didn't impress myself...

And with this phrase, popping from my mouth before I gave it any thought, I realized this was actually how I felt: despite all the positive comments on the Facebook about "You can do it", and "You inspire me", "Way to be tough", etc. - I, myself, did not impress myself one bit. I totally get that my friends say it for the best reasons, and I appreciate every word of trying to lift me up - it actually helps a lot. I am my own worst judge though. "Body remembers"...it does, exactly does. And because it does, and struggles to re-create, and gets punished for trying, and also it remembers how it used to feel, and how it doesn't no more...I understand this post will sound quite negative from this standpoint, but I never lie to myself, and since this blog is mainly to document my own feelings and help me process them, I am going to be honest here as well.

Mt. Mitchell 40M Challenge appeared on my horizon sometime last summer, after finishing San Diego 100 and browsing for new races in new places, the idea Larry and I picked at the end of 2012. Frankly, I was certain I never ran in NC before and wanted to check off this state as I am making my way around the country, totally blocking my first 100 miler - Umstead - in April of 2004. This race (The Challenge) has a great follower's path, a lottery to get in, and very few reviews (and a pretty skimpy website). Very little information is available and not many reviews, but I applied, got in, and was excited - all prior my now infamous falling apart period.

As I got diagnosed with CMV and dealt with weakness and a complete absence of any exercise for pretty much full 4 months, I toyed with the idea of bagging the NC trip. As many of you know, I returned to semi-normal existence (where my physical training is concerned) at the end of January, and that gave me exactly 4 weeks to do something and decide whether or not I should attempt the 40 miler. I didn't get much fitter in this period, or lost any (?!) weight at all (of the 10 lbs I gained), but I was somewhat running (and squatting and lunging) and even made it through a 15 mile run (with panting breathing and screaming legs), and I had booked tickets for Larry and I (and they were free through some points and rewards), so, what the heck, lets make it a mini-get-away with my honey.

NC experienced one of their bigger snowstorm the week prior, but the day we arrived met us with blue skies and very mild temperatures. The drive to Asheville was beautiful with amazing mountain ridges as far as one can see. Yet again, we sniffed how great it is everywhere but where we live (no offense to Texans, but mountains is where our hearts belong, and that is that).

The pre-race briefing was, well, brief, and the few main point I got made me even more nervous than I was before: there is a single cut off, at "somewhere around 14-15 miles" (??) which we had to make in 3:15 (and we were generously given 15 extra minutes, usually it is 3 hrs sharp). Gasp. It took me all of 2:50 to run 15 miles on a nice Texas single track with 800 feet of gain total. The "14 or 15 miles" I am about to attempt was supposed to gain quadruple that (information, anyone?? the first 22 miles gains about 5,000 total). I began setting in panic...

That night Larry looked me in the eyes and said "I believe in you". I had nothing else to do but line up at the start. 2 minutes into the uphill, I was hot and stopped at the car taking off clothes - and with that having all pass including the police car, what meant I had to catch up and stick myself somewhere in the back-side of the mid-pack all over again. And we went up. Up on road for 3 miles, up on trails, up on ATV roads - those I dislike the most in my life, with random-size rocks and ditches, running water, and wide space (I love the purity of a narrow single track, I know, obnoxious). As someone who's running gait is a very low clearance as is, no energy made it even harder to overcome the obstacles, and so I turned my power-hike on and settled in, throwing some shuffles here and there. And all that time - boy, was I stressed...seeing the "pace", if one can call it that way, on my Garmin and doing math was NOT bringing me up to "14 or 15 miles" in 3:15 - and can somebody tell me for sure if it's 14 or 15, because where I stand right now, it's a huge difference, and why nobody around me seem to worry? I had my face down and redlined most of the way, only letting a breath out when folks bottle-neck on a steep stairs (yes, single track had those) or especially treacherous section.

Other than that - march on forward, holding tears back. I did enjoy the side-views of the ridges and a gorgeous sunrise, but was too focused to truly let myself be happy. With about a mile to go (which I did not know at the time how much is left) I finally realized why noone seem to care much - they were in a marathon distance, and there was no cut off for marathoners, only for challengers of 40M distance, who in case of missing said cut off were turned around back and downgraded to a marathon distance. Ouch! I gave all the energy I had more effort, and we entered some icy patches - fantastic - but then, thank God, the AS came into view, and I almost burst into crying. I made it in 3:07, and I needed all that extra time for sure! I smiled weakly and thought: now what? Turning around would feel like a failure, and I wouldn't see the best sections, but if I am that dog-tired and slow, what's next for me?

But that "clearing the cut off" was a relief like no other, and I exhaled, finally, and allowed myself to breathe. I hooked up with a girl Leigh for quite a while, as we continued to climb very mellow grade on the ridge, some snow, lots of running water, some ice, and took a lot of photos here. The day was gorgeous, totally worth the climb, and I was extremely happy - my "happy middle third" as I called it later, life was awesome, I was an "ultrarunner" (or, rather, an ultra-distance something), but I was able to make quite a few slow jogs in quite a lot of places, which surprised me.

  We reached the AS "under the top" and asked how much to the very top - and got (another vague) response "about a mile" - just as a side note, my Garmin clicked off 1.9M, which at that point was quite an important piece of information I wished I knew, because the single track was steep, rocky, rooty - and in a few minutes fully covered in ice, what made us go around on the banks of the trail hugging trees, walk across ice, make to another bank, repeat. But, regardless, I do love hiking, indeed, and I think I was the one in the best mood there.

We finally popped out of the woods (and passed an injured runner being carried by 2 park rangers), made a short road assault up to the top, absorbed amazing vast 360 degrees views, and dashed down.
Mile 22, highest peak East of Mississippi, I cleared in 5 hr 11 min.

The next 5 miles were quite good grade downhill on the road - and I let it "rip" if that applies. I could finally not worry about tripping and falling OR using energy and just let myself run - thinking, wow, I am 20+ miles in, and I am running! May be I AM an ultrarunner after all? May be I can still come back? All that positive emotions concentrated in this section, and I didn't mind the hard asphalt or shaky quads, the views around were helping as well, and the park rangers lined up at each intersection - it really IS a local community event with all involved, and they smiled and clapped and I ran...
Around mile 27 I was back at that point where in the morning I was fighting cut offs, and ready to bring it home...and as soon as I entered the ATV tracks with its rocks and streams and uneven surface, all wheels came off. My energy sunk deep, despite being on cue with fueling - my body simply didn't remember how to process it all into moving power, my mood wasn't enjoying neither the clunky road nor absence of views and slow downgrade, I was shuffling at best if not walking, and counting miles to trying the forward progress to continue.
Eventually, the dirt became smoother, and I opened up a little, came to an AS, went on a steep (but much more runnable) downhill with huge smile, same plunge donw on the road for another mile, and last AS - I didn't even stop. 5 k to go, someone yelled! Man, I am actually kind of running, and I actually may (!?) break 8:30?? I ran, the markers took me on a single track behind some houses, I kept waiting to be spitted out on that slightly down road we came up - but it wasn't happening, instead I found myself wandering around some project housing and trailer park with all the, well, stuff you know exists but really don't want to see at the end of a beautiful mountain run, and one you suffered so much to complete. That lasted a long time...way over 5k, by the way, and I just lost it. My shuffle was ridiculous, I took walk breaks from time to time, finally saw that lake we were to run around, Larry, whom I dropped the pack to, and had a face like I just came from the war - I didn't even care to pretend to smile, or that Leigh passed me with 100 yards to go and I had nothing to respond with (but it did make me more negative if it's possible at all), and as soon as I crossed a finish line (in 8:34), I picked up my North Face fleece as a goody (that was a nice touch!) and we left.

My Garmin recorded 39.2M and 9,045 feet of gain, what I think was more like 7,500 feet of gain.

And that was it. Thankfully, the race was "short enough" and I was "soon enough" to have half a day still open to spend with my husband, and since I was so out of shape to give it a real run, I wasn't much sore - so I cleaned up, and we went walking around town, sight-seeing, eating good food, talking, and digging into deep emotions.

I am glad I went. Am I proud I "finished" but I guess I didn't expect any less of myself. In a real life, nobody but ourselves can figure out what is tough and what is not, and what anything in life means to us. Finishing this run actually didn't mean much, but it was great to have it done. First of, I am thrilled to have cleared that cut off and see the Mt Mitchell itself, not being stuck in the woods for half a day on ATV roads. Secondly, I proved once again, I do have a hard case of mental toughness, although I am not sure it's a good thing anymore. As I always say, once a person is healthy and more or less physically fit, one can finish an ultra. NOT to disrespect folks in the 2nd part of the race crowds, what I found out, being unfit (not just not able to do better, but able to do better in theory AND being unfit) SUCKS. It HURT! I finished 100 milers in better moving conditions. I had things happen to me during ultras, where I would fall apart and hardly make to the finish, but never had I entered a race predicting - knowing damn well - this is exactly what will happen. Training is not overrated. I sign up for races to do my best, not to "make it to the end". For some, just finishing an ultra is all that they dream of, it's their best (or at least best at the time and enough for then). For me, "just finishing" is not inspiring anymore, I had done it, more than 100 times, it's not new, not crazy, not super-awesome...It's a part of normal.

I love to run - but RUN, not shuffle and walk (and again, nothing is wrong with "shuffle" if that is somebody's best, but it ain't mine). I love mountain hikes - but I don't need to pay a race entry fee to do that with a bunch of strangers, who don't even talk much to you. What brings me to yet another point: I used to say I do ultras for the community feeling. Well, either the community is changing, or I, but as many times as I tried to strike a conversation, it was ending shortly, and seems that those who are from the local area were finding much more to talk about. I think ultrarunning had expanded so much - we used to know each other (or about each other) all over the country, and we all traveled a lot because there were not many races right where each of us lived. But now the LOCAL communities grew hugely, and outsiders are, well, outsiders. So, that said, I can always fulfill my community feel while volunteering at a local race - I can fulfill my running desire once (help me God) I get back in a shape that what I do I can call "running" in a shorter race, and I can fulfill my love for the mountains and execute my awesome hiking skills while backpacking and hiking with Larry in spare time.

It could be the case of being out of shape - worst I had ever experienced before - and the thing is, where I am in life, I don't see myself getting back into ultrarunning shape I know I am capable of, and being anything below my best is kind of sad and a waste of my personal life. I thrive on being best. My focus these days is shifted to being best at my bunch of jobs I have (and survive the crazy hours I work and rarely seeing life outside work), and on my husband, our relationship and our future together.

Will I ever run an ultra? Totally yes! But, my perspective changed on many things, ultras including, and not to burst anybody's bubble, lets just say I am not satisfied with where I am today, and this, obviously, comes up in this post. But it does fuel me to continue being my best in what I do choose to be best at in any particular moment.

And that is what I wish for everybody. Not to be mediocre. Be your best.

As for me - I will loose those 10 lbs, get a little stronger, a little leaner, a tad faster - and will continue to help others to reach THEIR best at their "right moment in life".

Thanks for all involved in the Mt Mitchell challenge, they do a great job (what can be seeing through their runners coming back year after year and the lottery to handle all the people wanting to participate), the local town's folks are awesome and supportive, the mountains are breathtaking (shoot I am struggling in Texas so much!!!), I was blessed with the weather and conditions, and highly recommend this run, or the are, to all who love new places.

All photos


Julie said...

Although you may not be happy with yourself, I'm AMAZED that you were able to run a 40-mile mountain race while still recovering from CMV! Sometimes having these low points where you feel out of shape is needed because it spurs us on to being better. I'm in the same boat as you right now health wise, recovering and 10 pounds up, but am determined to get stronger and leaner and reading this was good inspiration for me. :) I'm proud of you and think you are headed in the right direction and that you're not as out of shape as you think you are!


Anonymous said...

I love honest blog posts, thanks for writing. I think knowing when to be dissatisfied with something as not-your-best is a good 50% of the battle of getting better. It's a huge improvement to think that than to think "oh yay, I finished" without thinking about whether you really did your best. You're so determined that I know you'll be back to your normal ultrarunning self soon enough if you decide you want to be.


ultrarunnergirl said...

Enjoyed the report, even if it was pain and gore. The way we feel during an ultra is, I believe, truly where we are in life and all we can do is start with where we are, on a journey to where we want to be. You are on that journey, and you'll get there -- though it might be a longer journey than you wish with your many other obligations.
Someone once said running an ultra (well, a 100 miler) is like living a whole life in a day. Ups, downs, joy, despair ... sounds right to me.

Olga King said...

Thanks, Julie! We all draw inspirations from someone else, I know I do, so I am thrilled you find my adventures as giving you hope!

Olga King said...

Getting slapped on a face is always better than getting covered in honey. By the way, I hate sweet stuff:) Now, I know of some girl who had just given her best and then some in a thing even adventurous folks consider nuts...

Olga King said...

"Start at where we are on a journey we where we want to be" - that was perfect. Thanks.

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