Friendship and Determination

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Mugging before the race in front of Blue Marsh Lake

Sometimes a race is about more than the time on the finish clock, or the place you end up in.  Sometimes friendship is what matters.  Determination.  Persisting through the challenges.  That was our experience at yesterday’s Naked Bavarian 20-Miler.

Uberendurance puts on such wonderful local trail races that when I saw Naked Bavarian was back for a second year, I couldn’t resist a return trip.  With my first 50-miler on the schedule for August, I’m trying to slowly build my mileage this spring, so this race fit into my training schedule perfectly.  It was easy to convince several friends to join me, and after months of training in our beloved Wissahickon, we were looking forward to a long run in a new location.

As the days ticked down to Saturday, our enthusiasm began to wane slightly.  On the Sunday before the race, on a standard “easy” long run in the Wissahickon, I caught my toe on a root right before the end of my run.  Falls are a common occurrence from time to time when you run trails, but this was a hard one.  I landed on my right side, knocking the wind out of myself.  At the time, I was just concerned with getting my breath back and finishing the run.  A few steps back into it, though, and I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to brush this fall off as easily as some others.

By Monday morning, just taking a full breath hurt, and after slogging through a miserable day at work, I took myself to a walk-in care center just to double check that everything was in working order.  The official diagnosis?  Bruised or broken ribs which would most likely take 4 weeks to fully heal.  (Not so fun fact – only 50% of rib fractures actually show up on an x-ray)  At that point, I was 5 days away from the race.

I ran a total of 5 miles throughout the week.  All of the miles were slow, and none of them felt good.  It seemed ridiculous to attempt 20 when 3 miles were hard and painful.  As we got closer to Saturday, the forecast began to get worse, making me question my decision to start even more.  Running in cold is never my favorite thing and the forecast for the start was temps in the 20s with winds up to 20mph.

My friends were having their own challenges.  The constantly changing temperatures were reeking havoc with Jen’s fibro, and on Thursday, she could barely walk around her house.  Nicole’s leg, which has been nagging her off and on throughout the past year, was also sore.  All of us considered the forecast and strongly thought about backing out.

Fortunately, none of us seriously voiced our doubts to one another until the car ride home, and so we all ended up showing up at Whole Foods early Saturday morning to carpool out to the race.  The drive out was a blast.  I think one of the reasons that I love running in the woods so much is that it gives me a weekly excuse to spend time with these awesome women.  We talked about everything and nothing, my ribs got a great warm-up from all of the laughter, and the 75-minute drive flew by.  We arrived at the start with about 45 minutes to go.  We bundled up, collected our bibs, and tried to convince one another that the cold wasn’t that bad.  After taking refuge back in the car for a little longer, we trudged up to the starting line with less than 5 minutes to go.  Have I mentioned before how much I love the low-key feel of a trail race start?

With almost no fanfare, we were off.  I was just thrilled to discover that I could get through the first few steps without noticeable pain.  It didn’t feel easy, but it didn’t hurt.  So far, so good.  We ran across the grass, up the road, and then onto the trail.  Nicole and Michelle took off ahead as expected, and Jen and I settled into a comfortable pace in the conga line behind many others.

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The sky was gorgeous throughout the entire race.

I don’t think I’ve ever gone into a race feeling less confident.  I completed three 20+ miles runs in February, so it was unsettling to think that I might not be able to make it through all 20 miles here, especially since both the distance and the course should have felt familiar.  I just didn’t know if I could trust my ribs to hold up.

Fortunately, the cold was not as bad as we had expected.  That’s not to say that it wasn’t cold.  It’s just that I had imagined slogging through nonstop headwinds, and we didn’t have that experience.  The winds were pretty noticeable when we were running through the open fields, but much less so when we were in the woods.  The rolling hills, while not always pleasant, did a good job of keeping us warm.  I tried to forget about the miles and just take it one section at a time.

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All smiles early in the race.  Notice how covered we were to combat the cold.

I’m so fortunate that I had Jen with me for this race.  After 12 years of running together, we know one another so well that our race dynamic is just easy.  My ribs were better than I had hoped, but I found that I wasn’t really able to talk the way I usually could, as I had to focus all my energy on just breathing.  Jen kept up a constant stream of chatter that I could contribute to with just an occasional phrase here and there.  Her positive energy was the best medicine I could have asked for.

After surviving a few of the larger hills, I finally checked my watch and realized that we had passed the 11-mile mark.  I knew we were good from there.  It wouldn’t be easy, but I knew at that point that I was going to finish, even if I had to walk the rest of the race.  We took advantage of the flatter stretches, trying to maintain a good running pace.  At 13 miles, I hit my dreaded “bite-me” zone.  Jen, of course, knew to expect that, and she continued to push us forward in her upbeat way.  I just focused on checking off the miles, one at a time.

We were a couple of miles away from the finish when I noticed a sudden shift in energy.  Having run these exact trails in two races last year, I knew to expect the larger hills in the last few miles, and while they weren’t fun, I knew that the best way to get through them was to just power up and over as quickly as we could.  Jen didn’t have the same advantage, or maybe she’d just used up all her emotional energy on me, and as we came upon a particularly nasty hill, the unexpected slope combined with her fibro to tax the last of her reserves.  I knew that she was hurting before she even said a word.  Jen gets quiet when she’s in a lot of pain, and I’ve often found that it works best if we just move silently forward.  I did for several more minutes, but when I noticed that she had dropped a bit further back, I slowed to meet up with her, where I realized that she was going through her own battle.

This past week was a reality check for me.  Through good genetics and hard work, I’ve gotten into such good health over the past few years that I rarely have to put up with pain.  Soreness is a frequent occurrence for me after a hard workout, but true pain is rare.  Jen’s reality is the exact opposite.  She’s always in pain, just of varying levels.  I have known that conceptually, but I think it took this experience for me to start to realize what that might actually be like.  And even now, as Jen reminded me during the race, I have the luxury of knowing that my injury is going to heal and my pain will fade.  She doesn’t have that benefit.  At 18 miles into the race, she had gotten a sharp reminder that fibro can rear it’s ugly head at any moment.  She had been my sunshine and support for the majority of the race.  It was my turn to support her.

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It’s ironic that we were running through one of the most beautiful parts of the course when the wheels came off.  

It’s awful to witness pain in someone you love.  I knew Jen felt horrible, but she just kept moving forward.  We both knew that the quickest way to the finish was to just keep plodding ahead.  Running long distances has a way of stripping everything away, and sooner or later in a long race, you see the core of who a person is.  Yesterday I was reminded that my tough-as-nails friend has a vulnerable side, but that she also has a will that is stronger than just about anyone I know.

It was such a relief when we crested the top of the final hill.  It was a nice bonus when we were able to pass two runners on the road down to the finish, along with another on the final grassy stretch.  We could care less about our place or our time at that point, but when you are feeling down emotionally, it can be a tremendous boost to pass even one other person.

We collected our awesome finisher awards, hung around just long enough to snag a little food and thank the volunteers, and then retreated to the car to find our friends and warm, dry clothes.  Nicole and Michelle had experienced their own challenges on the trail, battling through GI issues, and we were surprised to learn that they had crossed the finish just 20 minutes ahead of us.

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Isn’t this the coolest finisher award you’ve ever seen?  Even if it was empty…

Our ride back home was another wonderful one.  None of us ran a great race or finished in a strong time, but our four finisher growlers were a testament to our ability to persevere, even in tough conditions.  Even more important, we were reminded that time spent with good friends can make any day feel like a success.  As Dave Matthews says, “turns out not where, but who you’re with that really matters.”

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Enjoying our post-race coffees and time spent with one another

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