The North Face Endurance Challenge 2011

The motto that I have assigned to these pages is “learning to travel fast + far with a full belly + soul,” and I do intend to do just that – to see the all of corners of the world in this short lifetime with eyes wide open, to push the limits of my own endurance and strength and come back in one healthy piece, and to live a balanced life that is as delicious as it is emotionally satisfying. This is kind of a tall order, I guess. And some may say a trite one as well. But it is mine, and so far it is going well and this season of racing was no exception — now, 48 hours into a well-deserved (if short) off-season, I can safely say that this 2011 season was a revolutionary one, and one very much in line with this fast/far/full goal. This year, new heights have been reached, new boundaries pushed, redefined and discovered, and new goals set. And best of all, this belly is full and heart is bursting. And The North Face Endurance Challenge Trail Series in the Marin Headlands was the capstone of it all.

It was here that I was going to run 50 miles for the first time. It was here that I would close an epic season of Iron-feats. It was here that I would prove to myself that I was just as much a beast of a runner as I was a triathlete – to end 2011 with a bang, to enter the winter all charged up and ready to race in 2012 with even loftier goals, and even more speed and efficiency than before. And I would do all of this with a healthy body, operating in a balanced sphere of life.

It didn’t take long for all of this big talk to rub off on my husband – a fellow endurance trail runner. He likes to “go long” too — and increasingly, he’s coming to love running the trails. Not for the sake of setting race goals and meeting them, but for the sake of running and “tuning in” — to himself, and the world around. He was interested in going this distance so that we could do it together — but not to race it. He had nothing to prove, and I didn’t either….really. Right?

So, we signed up. And we started training — little bits at first, but not in earnest until after Vineman. We did our long runs together on the weekends; me always a few steps ahead and trotting back to see how he was going. Derek played football for the University of California and still holds quite a few weight-lifting records at our high school in Boulder….needless to say that we don’t share a body type, and only rarely, a running pace.

But during the week, I was on my own to fly on the streets and in the dirt at my pace. Growing stronger by the day as we inched towards the Nike Women’s 1/2 Marathon and the New York Marathon, I was confident and excited. Until, one morning, I was injured. When I announced with great dismay to Derek that I had to kiss my goal of racing 50 miles (not just running them) goodbye, he didn’t sound very disappointed.

I kept on moving and healed slowly and completely, to the point that we arrived in the Headlands last Saturday morning, I was ready  to run with all that I had, and pour sweat over the course — a shorter course than what I had planned, but a course is a course, is a test. And I was ready to pass with flying colors. Perhaps needless to say, though neither of us was there to enter 50-mile trail race glory, Derek was right there with me, beaming and maybe even a bit nervous.

The sun was high and bright, the sky clear as can be, and perfect racing conditions revealed themselves. Our fellow marathon and 50k runners stood at the starting line, (so much more laid back than their road running counterparts by the way)  telling jokes and anecdotes as their brightly colored compression gear quivered with the shivers of their bare, muscular legs.

The gun went off and we all trotted out of the glen, the chill of the morning at Fort Baker quickly wearing off, to disclose a hot and uncanny December day. Out and away from the city we weaved, climbing and descending over the hills and towards the sea. Eventually reaching a point so high above the Pacific that we could see San Francisco and the Golden Gate bridge from beyond the golden hills to the south, and only vast big blue to the west.

Derek and I were having a great time and we were moving FAST. At record pace, actually. And, much more surprisingly, we were moving almost together — or within a few minutes of each other. We had never planned to run a shorter distance together, but we found ourselves nearly doing just that with strong legs. I was bounding over the rocks and picking my way down the ravines and he was right behind me.

Winding down Panoramic Trail and to Stinson Beach, we met up with all of the runners racing the marathon, 50k and 50 mile races. Everyone was showing their true colors here – the aid stations were nestled right between two tremendous climbs – inclines that were bringing each and every racer to a walking pace for miles at a time. We were all a bit salty, a bit parched, and starting to feel the effects of the first 17, 20, or 30 miles we had covered thus far. There was nowhere I would have rather been, and no state I would have rather been in. And I think my compatriots, for the most part, felt the same.

As I left the aid station and headed out into mile 17, feeling great, ready to push into the second half of the race and to attempt a negative split for the second half,  Derek ran up on me at the corner of an out and back. He reported that his feet felt like soup, and that he was DONE. He had chosen to run in Vibram Five Fingers — his all-around running shoes of choice– but the terrain had proved to be a bit too much like a ball peen hammer tapping away at his feet than he had hoped. He instructed me to go on without him, and his demeanor indicated that if I were to stay and hang about, it would be nothing short of patronizing and annoying.

And so, I did with a bit of a spring in my step. Whether it was his head, or his feet, that were holding him back now, there was little I could do, I figured. And, I was quite sure, knowing that I hadn’t done my best because he felt worse for wear was something that he didn’t want to swallow.

I cruised into mile 18 kicking up dust, tuning out the runners that were walking past me and trying to find a pace that I could hold. Soon, I was  cruising – blowing past those that had been keeping our pace for miles. I had new legs, a new energy. But the further I got from my pissed off, ailing husband, the worse that this burst of energy felt and the less that I could focus on the matter at hand.

True that I am the racer in the family, and the one that cares about the race and the goal.

True that both Derek and I know that these goals, and my career in this sport, is important to me.

But, without his support to attempt these feats, I would never be able to achieve any one of them. Just as he would never have dreamt of running this crazy, crushing course if I hadn’t egged him on.

For moments, I tossed between chasing my goal of placing in the top 5 women and turning back for my husband. If I went back, I knew that none of my suggestions would be helpful, that there would be cursing both at me and at the course, and that this race that I had been waiting to run all year would quickly become all about…something else…and no longer about my achievement. It may sound shallow to say that this was a challenging choice. But the challenge itself was revealing – the same way that someone perched at the door of a plane says “JUMP” in their heads, and can’t. “STOP!” my brain was saying. Was I really running with a full belly and soul when I was running selfishly, only for myself?

In that moment, I decided a few things. I am a running beast. I know now I can crush 50k courses in less than 5 hours, and marathons in less than 3:15. I am a strong woman, a champion. I have a whole lot of goals ahead of me, and I know that I will meet them fiercely and with perseverance each and every time. The one thing that I wasn’t so sure I could do would be to give up on what I wanted, and forgive myself for it.

I slowed my gait, turned, and started running back the way I came. My competitors staring at me with befuddled looks – “she’s adding miles?” I trotted against the grain of runners until I saw my husband’s familar gait appear out of the dust. He smiled, and we proceeded towards the finish.

I was right. Those last 10 miles or so that we ran together were quite miserable. I couldn’t seem to say the right things to cheer him up, or take his mind off of running. Even my jokes, evidently, were unappreciated. And sometimes, I would run a little bit ahead, running back to be next to Derek and continuing in silence. We climbed over 5000 ft above sea level, one step at a time. And we took on each step of that rather formidable course (especially in bare feeties,) together.

As we crossed the finish line, I think we both uttered a sigh of relief. And then we collapsed into the others arms, silently. It wasn’t the principle of keeping the same pace and “running” together; it was about being on the same page, and understanding what the other was going through — factoring it into the experience of the day.

With all this racing — all these hours spent on my own, pursuing personal satisfaction on the race course, I think Derek needed to know that he meant more to me than the glory of it all. And I needed him to know that racing wasn’t a substitute for him, or for our life, but a complement to it — pushing my own boundaries allows us to push OUR boundaries, a process which I am sure can only make us stronger together, and apart.

So, onward and upward we go. The 2011 racing season, at last, draws to a close. And the new year (which is right around the corner – a 50k in January!?) holds many more opportunities to crush self, expectations and perhaps even competition for top-of-field finishes. Which means that, increasingly, there are little accomplishments to be achieved that could never be put on a calendar — little bits and pieces of life that we never even knew we wanted. I cannot wait to get started for if the season holds even in inkling of the glory that this year did, there will be much traveling — fast and far, full and content……