“This is going to be SO MUCH FUN!” I said out loud, after watching yet another Catamount 50K race report video on YouTube.
The stoke was at an all time high. I was running my first trail race- the Catamount 25K in gorgeous Stowe, Vermont. I packed my Team Trail Sisters tank top and trucker hat and stuck my Team Trail Sisters sticker onto the back of my car. I loaded up my cooler with my “victory” non-alcoholic beer, packed my recovery powder for after the race, and remembered to bring my flip flops to switch into after a hard day’s work. I started mentally drafting a race report I could submit once I finished. I was sheepish about the audacity of submitting a race report from my first trail race, but hoped someone would find it useful.
As a girl mom who makes her home in the foothills of the Adirondacks, the fact that my first trail race was Trail Sisters approved meant so much to me. The convergence of equal rights for womxn athletes, the glory of Mother Nature and the community of runners brings me so much joy. This was my “A race” of the spring season. So far this year, I had run a road half marathon, marathon, and hiked 3 High Peaks. I regularly sought out the biggest hills around my house, running as much elevation as I could find. I felt ready, prepared, strong.
Watching the forecast that week, I knew it would be unseasonably hot, with highs reaching the mid-80s. This concerned me, as I absolutely melt in heat. But I kept reminding myself that I would be in the shade of the trail for much of the race, and if I could keep a good pace, I would be done before the weather really heated up.
So, I toed the line with a conservative confidence and determination to have an amazing day.
The race starts on an incline, so I power hiked my way up. I knew I had to be smart during the first third of the race, which was mostly uphill. I moved across the trail, genuinely enjoying the splendor of the woods. The energy around me was one of happiness and gratitude. The first aid station came pretty quickly and I chatted with the volunteers, soaking in the experience. I knew after that, there was a sharp loss of elevation for a few miles. I found childlike joy in barreling down the declines, skipping over rocks and moving across the trail, left and right. The speed was exhilarating after the slow hiking.
As the miles continued, I started noticing the heat. Each incline became progressively more challenging. I could feel my body staggering a bit. I slowed my pace, promising myself that I could walk it in; there’s no shame in that.
But around mile 13, “walking it in” started to feel impossible. I pulled off to the side of the trail and pretended to stretch. Every runner who passed asked if I was ok. “Oh yeah, totally fine, just stretching my back” I lied. I didn’t want anyone to be concerned. But the truth was- I was concerned. Very concerned. I couldn’t catch my breath. I couldn’t regain my energy. Every step was a struggle. My chest burned. My hands tingled. I could feel that my lips were white. I ate a gel, and drank my water. I tried slow walking again. I was dizzy and moving at a snail’s pace.
It took me 35 minutes to walk one mile. I just couldn’t move one foot in front of another. More people passed and checked on me. I kept lying, smiling and saying I was “just catching my breath, because we are almost there -yayyy!”
Finally, at mile 14.2, I thought I was witnessing a mirage – was that… my car? I was surprised to find I was back at the parking lot! I checked my map – the trail went left, down into the woods, came back up an incline and right up to the finish. I was so close.
But my car, with its siren song air conditioning, was less than 100 feet to the right. After a few minutes of agonizing contemplation, I knew I just couldn’t press on like this. So, with just over a mile left in my race, I walked off the course and chose to DNF for the first time in my life.
I started my car, turned on the AC, and took off my pack. I put my head in my hands, and held back tears. WTF just happened?
My brain flooded with negative self talk. I was a poser. Imposter. So cool with my Trail Sisters tank top and hat and sticker. Those womxn were at Western States, running 100 miles in 97 degree heat with 10x the elevation gain. They were crushing life and goals. They are REAL runners and badasses. I’m walking off a 25K with a mile left. Because I’m undertrained, naturally bad at running and not tough enough. I should cancel all races I have for the rest of year because clearly I’m not made to run….
After cooling off for a few minutes, my rational self returned. What WOULD my Trail Sisters say, if they were with me at that moment? The answer immediately bubbled into the my mind. “You made the right choice. There will be other races. You worked hard to get here. It wasn’t safe to continue. There’s no shame in running 14 miles and gaining 2,200 feet of elevation. You do this because you love it, not for the finish. The best of us DNF; it’s part of the sport. If it wasn’t 85 degrees, you would have finished.” And then I felt a virtual hug from all the Trail Sisters who have ever battled with their own self doubts. It’s ok. We are with you.
Two days after my DNF, I put on my pack and walked out my front door. It was 70 degrees, breezy and sunny. I ran a glorious 5 miles. My mind felt uncluttered and grateful to take in the sights and sounds of the woods and birdsong. I felt the peace that overcomes my soul when I am able to log miles in the mountains. Rather than focus on the pain and frustration and disappointment of the DNF, I chose to channel the positivity of the Community.
The value we assign ourselves during races is a construct. That cannot define us. But the joy we find in the sport and the kindness we share in the Community- that is who we really are.