Monday, April 26, 2010

"Just a Marathon"

Rick & me before the start of the Free State Trail Marathon
Photo by Gary Henry
My name is Kristi, and I am a SOUR: Spouse of Ultra Runner.

I have spent countless hours watching my husband, Rick, suffer, bitch, smile, and cry his way through five years of training and running ultra marathons.

The prospect of running my first marathon-distance race this April paled in comparison to his accomplishments. There would be nothing "ultra" about my marathon. Just 26.2 miles through the woods. The kind of distance that he covers on training runs. It's nothing - right?

The mileage seems so common in our household that I just couldn't get my head around the fact that 26.2 miles is a long distance for my own body to run. Part of me knew better: While standing in the port-a-potty line before the race, I commented to experienced ultrarunner Gary Henry, "I think I will be respecting the distance a lot more in about five or six hours."

Strangely enough, my biggest concern going into the race was getting through the first three miles. Rick, who has run and/or paced at this race every year since the inaugural edition, reported that the opening section of the marathon course went cross country, over swaths of grass—exactly the kind of running that I like the least. I also knew that by the end of those three miles, I would know whether all of my little nagging pains were going to stay away or come along with me for the remainder of the race. Once I got over the first three miles, I told myself, then I'd be on the single track trails that I really enjoy and everything else would take care of itself.

At the starting line, I hugged my mom and my daughter, Adrian; kissed my husband and wished him luck (he was also running the marathon); and started running when race co-director Ben Holmes said "go". As the pack of runners strung itself out over the grass, I had that lovely lack of sensation that adrenaline brings. Up ahead I saw Rick being pulled to the front and found myself assessing his competition—a spectator even while running my own race.

I did a quick system check: no pain in the ankles, feet felt good—none of the nagging pains were with me yet. I checked my Garmin and saw I was running about a 9 minute pace. Breathing was OK and my stride relaxed, so I decided to just roll with it. The course took a lolly-pop loop around a water-treatment lagoon and Rick swung by me on his way out of the loop, in the lead. "...need to slow down," he gasped as we slapped hands in passing. "He does, or I do?" I asked myself.

Adrian had a big smile on her face and was clapping when I ran past her again before heading into the woods to pick up the single-track. The first three miles were done, and all was well.
Heading onto the single-track after 3 miles
Photo by Dick Ross,

What mud?

Being a SOUR also carries some big advantages. One perk is having a personal shoe tester. I give Rick a hard time about his "shoe fetish". It's not uncommon for me to walk in on him shopping for shoes on the Internet—and it feels like something I shouldn't interrupt. The Kearney UPS delivery lady knows us well and sometimes gives me his shoes when she stops at my office, just to save herself the stop at our house later in her route. It seems excessive, but the more I run the more I understand. Luckily, I can usually take his recommendations and follow his expert advice. He rarely leads me in the wrong direction.

Inov-8 X-Talons after 26 miles
Photo by Rick Mayo
So the shoes that Rick bought for me for Christmas—Inov-8 X-Talons—were firmly laced to my feet the morning of the race, because he assured me they would be the best at handling the mud. These shoes have a very minimal upper, with mean, nasty lugs on the bottom. The only trick is to make sure they stay laced snugly, as the laces have a tendency to loosen up when the shoes get wet. (Rick tried to swap out the Inov-8 laces in my shoes for laces that would stay put, but I didn't let him. As it was, I only needed to tighten the laces once, about 10 miles in.)

Two inches of rain had fallen on the course in the days preceding the race, so there was a good quantity of wet, black mud pits on the trail. Most of the pits also had standing water in them, so it was a splishy-splashy kind of mud. I quickly learned that the mud pits were no place for a heel strike. When I planted my heel, I felt the earth gripping and sucking my shoe into its sticky embrace. From that point forward, I took short, quick, tippy-toe strides straight through the center of the pits and eluded the mud's appetite for shoes.

"What mud?" I loved these shoes.

A little help from my friends

On a training run with the Lawrence Trail Hawks a few months ago, Nick, Gary, and Coleen led me onto the fabled Red Trail to help me prepare for that section of the Free State course. "This is a place where you can really make up some time if you know what you're doing," Coleen told me.

Her words were in my mind as I danced over the fractured slabs of rock along the shoreline of Clinton Lake. Barely recognizable as such, this was the Red Trail. Other runners trotted the short sandy sections and slowed to teeter over the slippery rocks. I kept my head down and moved as fast as I could, trusting my shoes to keep me upright and being thankful that the Hawks had taken me this way before.

You have a lovely aid station, but...

At the KUS aid station
Photo by Gary Henry
Another thing I have learned from five years as a SOUR is the power of aid stations to eat a runner's time. So my objective was to say "thank you" to the wonderful volunteers, but use their services as little as possible. Rick encouraged me to obtain my own Nathan hydration pack, so equipped with 70 ounces of water on my back I was able to bypass most water stops and aid stations without a refill.

At the first stop by the Land's End aid station, I grabbed a fistful of cantaloupe and a fistful of pretzels and ran off into the woods. It felt so good to have something to munch on other than the Gu I carried in my pack. I also left that aid station feeling energized, but a glance at my Garmin told me that I was close to leaping off into the great unknown: I was nearing the mileage of my longest training run this year (about 12 miles), and I could already feel my body anticipating a cessation of movement. "Not yet," I told my bones and muscles, and forged on.

Surviving the lows
Near the KUS aid station
Photo by Kyle Gerstner
"Living through your lows will definitely prepare you for your first 50k," ultrarunner Larry Long wrote to me earlier today, after learning through social media of the low point I experienced during this race.

That sounds like a wise, reassuring statement to me now, in the comfortable glow 48 hours after the finish line. But when the Low hit me somewhere between miles 17 and 20, the thoughts going through my mind sounded something like this: "F--- ultras. A marathon is enough. No, this is too much. I'm going to death-march my way out of here and be very supportive and understanding of Rick from now on. Let him run these f---ers. He can have 'em."

Shortly after leaving the Kansas Ultrarunners' Society aid station—where Stacy Sheridan, Laurie Euler, and others gave me warm smiles and pumped up my disbelieving ego by telling me how "great" I looked—I started getting stomach cramps that I just couldn't figure out. Was it my abs? Maybe from my hydration pack? Was it my gut? Did I need salt? Was I dehydrated?

Reduced to a fairly miserable walk/jog, I wandered through the deep, dark woods and wished Rick was there to help me figure out what was wrong.

Then I switched gears from SOUR... to Mommy. In the week leading up to the race, I was plagued with dreams that involved childbirth. This, I suspect, is because I have always told myself that if I got through a med-free labor, I could get through anything. My pregnancy was the turning point when I decided I never wanted to be slow and rotund ever again, and I started running consistently 6 weeks after delivery. When faced with the prospect of giving birth, I did a lot of reading and research, and one quote stood out in my mind: "When you get to the point where you don't think you can handle the pain any more—that's probably as bad as it's going to get."

Hiking up a hill, cursing myself for running this race, that phrase came back to me. Of course, the famous ultrarunning quote, "It doesn't always get worse" also went through my mind, but I liked the childbirth quote better. My body won't give me any pain I can't handle.

About that time, David Wakefield—on his way to win the 40-mile race—power walked his way up the hill to me and gave me some much-appreciated, kind words of encouragement. He broke into a smooth stride away from me and I did my best to follow. Before long, I came up to the Land's End aid station (3 miles from the finish), swallowed some of the best-tasting Coke I have ever had, and jogged out of there with a mind that was much more well adjusted.

The finish

Photo by Rick Mayo
It occurred to me, as I turned off of the single-track and onto the gravel hill that leads to the finish line, that with all my visualization of running this race, I never visualized myself finishing. Then my eyes locked onto a three-foot-tall person smiling and clapping at the top of the hill. Adrian ran toward me, wheeled around, and ran me in to the finish. I crossed the mats at the finish line, turned, and gathered Adrian into my arms. Rick, long-ago finished and already in street clothes, dutifully snapped pictures. My mom informed me that he had won the race, which thrilled me because I never stopped thinking about him and wondering how he'd fared.

After resting in the grass for a few minutes, I looked up at my husband and once again sought his advice. "What do I do now?"
Photo by Rick Mayo


Ben aka "Good Ben" said...

Congratulations Kristi. Awesome feeling isn't it? So what was Rick's answer?

Anonymous said...

That'a awesome!

I'm glad to hear you had the feeling of "what mud?"

If you do it right, the mud isn't as bad as everyone claims it to be.

So, what 50k are you gonna do? ;)

Anonymous said...

A few things... first, SOUR, that's great! Karen will love that. Thanks! Second... Rick bitch? Really? Wow! Who knew? Third, excellent writing. Fourth (related to third), brilliant "unending" feature conclusion. You don't see those too often. Fifth, congratulations on a tremendous achievement. You rock! Oh, and sixth -- Talons are the perfect shoe for a Writebird! Thanks for sharing your great story.

laurie said...

Great report Kristi! I knew you'd rock it! Can't wait to run a race with (behind) you some day!

Cynical Dirt Doll said...

Awesome race and report Kristi!! You have such a great way with words.. I was right there with you. So... the 50 miler at Heartland next?? Laurie and I are running it, we need a third amazing chick to round things out!

Darin said...

Kristi wow what a great report I love reading your blogs. You are a great writer and runner. Congratulations! I'm not sure what you have planned next but I am sure it will be amazing.

Kristi said...

Thank you for all of the positive comments!