Sometimes you do everything right, but it’s just not your day. And sometimes what feels like inevitable failure ultimately transforms into a great success. This is the story of the 2018 North Face Endurance Challenge in Washington, D.C.
Logically, this year’s race should have felt better than 2017 (when Tyler and I completed the North Face 50K race for the first time). In 2018 we trained harder, ate healthier, and we were mentally prepared. With so many cards in our favor, I was confident that this year’s race would be a joy ride.
My ego was about to learn a very valuable lesson. But this story isn’t about the perils of overconfidence. It’s about buckling down and getting the job done, even when you think it might be impossible.
It’s 7:00am, and a dense fog lies between hundreds of jittery runners and the 31 miles of trail that we’re eager to conquer.
“Are you ready to suffer?” Tyler and I laugh as Dean Karnazes – ultrarunning legend and MC for the race – poses this question to the runners. He asked the same question last year. At the time it sent a shiver of fear down my spine. This year is different, though. This year we’re calm and collected. We’ve done this race before and we’re going to crush it.
Miles 0-4: The temperature is perfect, and we’re feeling awesome. Our pace is exactly where we want it to be, and our energy levels are solid. The only slight hiccup is the mud. At first we try to dance around it to keep our feet dry, but after a while we realize that it’s futile. I swear the mud must be 6 inches deep in places.
Dean describes this as “a special kind of mud.” I immediately know what he’s talking about. It’s so sticky that I find myself wrenching my sneakers up and out of it with every step.
Mile 5: Disaster. I’ve woken up in the middle of the night with a Charley Horse in my leg, but I’ve never, ever gotten one during a run. We’re heading down the first big hill at a nice, quick clip, and my quadriceps seize up as if a tiny monster has decided to reach through my skin and grab my muscles, squeezing and twisting them as hard as he can.
“I can’t believe this…I just can’t believe this.” This was supposed to be our big moment. We were going to beat our previous time and cruise through the entire course, enjoying the scenery and feeling amazing the entire time. Our biggest worry was supposed to be what we wanted to have for lunch after the race! I wasn’t supposed to be cramping up to a near-incapacitated state, especially not with an entire marathon distance left to go.
The next 26 miles were a blur of pain, self-pity, and sheer grit (and maybe a few tears and four-letter words). It occurred to me that this is probably what it would feel like if the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz did a trail run.
The pain would start to subside, and my stiff walk would transform first into a shuffle, then gradually something closer to a run. Then we’d hit another hill and my thighs would hurl into another set of spasms. Pain, shuffling, running, pain, shuffling, running…it was an endless cycle. It crushed me that I was slowing us down when I knew Tyler could go so much faster.
At no point did the pain go away. What did happen was this: I just kept going anyway. Along the way, endless runners asked if I was okay and if I needed help. They offered electrolytes and shared words of encouragement. One runner even stuck with us for a few miles, sharing his best tips for alleviating cramps.
At one point we heard a familiar voice coming up behind us. “Hey guys! It’s Dean!” It was the always-in-motion figure of Dean Karnazes, who had decided to run the 50K course to cheer on the runners and work at a few aid stations along the way (because it’s Dean!).
“Pickle juice. You need pickle juice,” Dean said enthusiastically. (Apparently many runners swear by pickle juice as an effective remedy for leg cramps.) He even asked the volunteers at the next aid station if they had any.
There was no pickle juice in sight, but I’ll never forget how kind and helpful Dean and the other runners were throughout the race. It didn’t matter that we were technically competing against one another. We were all there to do our best, and to encourage others to do the same.
Amazingly, we still improved our race time and final ranking over the previous year’s race despite the unexpected challenges. I also came away from the race knowing that just about any obstacle can be overcome by putting one foot in front of the other. This gives me hope for future races where the going might be harder and the pain might even be worse. Next time I might have 50 miles left to go when this happens instead of 26, but I’ll be better prepared to let it hurt and keep going anyway.
During our 6 hours and 11 minutes on the race course, here are a few key lessons I learned:
Sometimes even the best laid plans don’t turn out the way you hope. If things go south, don’t beat yourself up about it. Accept the challenge and keep chugging along.
People can be really awesome. Who knows if I would have made it to the finish line without the encouragement of Tyler, Dean, and so many others? If you’re ever down, lean on friends and loved ones to bring you back up. And don’t forget to return the favor!
We’re all capable of a lot; more, in fact, than many of us will ever realize. Your mind and your heart are stronger than your body, so if your body ever fails you, dig deep and let the strength of your spirit finish the job for you.