The marvel of feeling normal
Beat's knee injury didn't improve in time to run the Quadrock trail race, so I woke up at 4:45 a.m. and headed north alone. Saturday morning was intensely beautiful, with a pomegranate-seed sunrise sprinkled across the periwinkle sky. Streets were eerily empty and farm fields shimmered with green and gold glitter. The hillsides were saturated with this exuberant light.
"This race could be a disaster and getting up early for this drive would still be worth it," I thought. "Still, I hope it's not a disaster."
I used to run trail races on the regular in California, but I hadn't put a foot across a starting line since January 2016. At the time, these 50-kilometer trail races were my fitness gauge to see whether I'd recovered enough from the Tour Divide Plague to reliably breathe my way through the Iditarod. Seventeen months later, I was no longer curious about whether dizziness and desperation would hit. I'd mostly accepted this as my default for any remotely hard effort; the curiosity lied in more distant memories of "normal."
The impressively fit pack of 250 runners shot off the starting line, while I loped at 10-minute-miles amid the sparsely populated rear. Geez these Coloradoans don't mess around. I had no idea what might happen, and I didn't want to burn all of my matches before we even hit the first steep and seemingly endless climb. Quadrock has three such climbs, countless punchy rollers, and so many rocks that I was lusting for my trekking poles before the first mile of singletrack was done. My proprioception becomes scrambled on chunky terrain, causing disorientation and increasingly more frequent, eventually injurious mistakes. I've become too reliant on "running crutches" to manage my balance and stability, but mechanical aids were not allowed in this race.
"My watch says it's 93 degrees," one guy complained.
"It's probably the direct sunlight," I replied. It was easily in the mid-80s, though. My friend Wendy filled up my neck bandana with chunks of ice.
"That feels amazing," I thanked her, and started at a loping 10-minute-mile up the second endless climb. My heart and head told me I could run fast, but my quad muscles were already quivering. A winter full of dizziness and desperation didn't leave any top-end fitness to work with. But a more comfortable pace? I could do this all day.
"Feet up, drink water," I reminded myself constantly. My quad muscles frequently spasmed. "Quadrock is a good name for this race," I thought. I watched other runners double over beside the trail with cramps and vomiting, or both. I offered help and sympathy, neither of which meant much. I thrashed my head because "Baby One More Time" was running a deafening loop through my mind, and it WOULD NOT LEAVE. This wasn't even the Britney Spears version; it was sung in an unfamiliar male voice, a high falsetto. It seemed highly unlikely this version even existed, but there it was. Finally I gave in, and matched my steps to the rhythm, "Feet up, drink water, oh baby baby, the reason I breathe is you."
The miles unravelled, and I felt better as I went. The final aid station had bakery peanut butter cookies, and I stood under the thin canopy shade and savored one while watching another runner double over nearby. A volunteer gave me ice for my now-empty bladder, and I was free. Nothing could stop me. There was a third endless climb to mile 20, stumbling along a narrow sideslope amid a crowd. At the top, the trail opened up beneath a cooling canopy of pine. My heart continued to beat strong and there wasn't a hint of desperation in my steady breaths. I couldn't believe how well this race was going, and it was almost over. Should I pound the final descent? Na, don't want to bloody my face now. Should I have run harder? Na — it's so much more fun to travel 25 miles over rugged terrain in an oppressive heat, and feel as revved up as a mullet at a Mötley Crüe reunion.
I strode into the 25-mile finish after six hours and 25 minutes, which is pretty slow even for me (in the good old days of effortless trail running, my 50K finishes were usually faster than this) ... but I wasn't last. I was actually in the top half of my group. 52 out of 117 women. Everything really is more difficult here in Colorado; it's not just me and my running crutches.
For Monday morning, my friend Cheryl invited me to check out Trail Ridge Road, the main road through Rocky Mountain National Park. It was closed until recently. We weren't sure of the conditions or how much snow, mud and gravel we'd encounter, so we brought our mountain bikes. (Plus, Cheryl is a kindred spirit who would rather just ride her comfy mountain bike all of the time, no matter how much slower it may be on pavement.)
I still don't feel "normal" every day, and still can't say when that will happen, if ever. But these normal days, right now, are a gift that I never truly appreciated until they were gone. From now on, I will be grateful for every one.