That’s right, I signed up for a marathon. And not just any marathon, mind you, but The North Face Endurance Challenge; in other words, a trail race. I registered to participate in this event back in 2008, but that year there was a tropical storm the weekend of the race, and so the emergency personnel who man the aid stations were not available to check on runners as they passed through the checkpoints, so they cancelled the race. I’ve been training for this event, getting in lots of long runs, but I was still nervous about it. Knowing that trail races are generally slower than road races, I was mentally prepared to be out there for about five hours, but if anyone asked, my goal was simply to finish on both feet.
So early in the morning I drove up to Sterling where I parked my car and rode the shuttle to Algonkian State Park, where the race began. The course started at the soccer fields in the park, then skirted the golf course before heading into the woods along the Potomac Heritage Trail. From there it followed the Potomac River (hence the name of the trail…) down to Great Falls Park, and then turned around and went back up to Algonkian. The sky was clear and blue, the temperature was in the low 60s; it was an absolutely gorgeous day to be out running the woods.
Oh, but there was a wicked little twist. See, all afternoon and into the evening on Friday we had some amazing thunderstorms. I'm talking heavy, heavy rain. Like Thailand monsoon heavy at times. Yeah, and those bad boys ensured that this race would be memorable for all involved. “Muddy” almost seems insufficient to describe the condition of significant portions of the course. Any hopes of keeping relatively dry feet went out the window within the first 400 meters of the race—the grass of the soccer field was absolutely saturated, and that was before we even got close to the trails. And the sound of the mud sucking at runners’ shoes will probably haunt my dreams for years. Between the mud and the already narrow trails, there were long sections where even if I had been inclined to pass the pack of runners I had linked up with, it would have been impossible. As we were slogging through the muck, somewhere in the first five miles, someone said, “This isn’t about winning, this is about survival.” I was having ‘Nam flashbacks—well, if I had actually been in ‘Nam I would totally have been having ‘Nam flashbacks.
All that said, I actually did pretty well through the first half of the race. The turnaround point at Great Falls Park came at the 12.4 mile point of the race, and I reached that point in 2:34, with an average minutes-per-mile pace of 12:21—pretty good, considering it was a trail race and the conditions were really difficult. At that point I figured my pace would get me to the finish line in about five-and-a-half hours, which I considered pretty respectable.
Oh, how wrong I was.
The second half of the race was physically and mentally the single most difficult thing I’ve done. While I felt pretty good about that first half, the price I paid was heavy legs, laden with copious amounts of viscous Virginia mud, which made the latter half very, very difficult. There was a lot of walking involved in that second half—I take some solace knowing that I was not the only one who was suffering in like manner. Everyone I could see would invariably walk the uphill sections, some of which were steep enough that even without the weariness from slogging through mire, probably would have necessitated walking at that point. Well, except for the amazingly fit people who were passing me going the opposite direction before I even hit the turnaround—that included people not just from the marathon, but the 50K and 50 mile events, too. Those folks probably at least jogged up the hills—I did that for the first half, but these were people on the back end of their runs. I aspire to such amazing endurance and ability.
Part of what made the second half so mentally daunting was knowing the condition of the trail on the return leg. The worst parts of the trail were in the first 5-7 miles, which meant they were also in the last 19-20 miles. I did a lot of walking for a couple of minutes, then jogging a couple of minutes, doing what I could just to finish the race. And finish it, I did. Six hours and fifteen minutes after starting, I made it across the finish line. I was muddy, sore, and positively determined that I would never run another marathon. Ever. The suffering was too great, it wasn’t worth it, and I wasn’t having very much fun.
Somewhere during that second half of the race, when I was contemplating my own mortality, my ‘Nam flashbacks returned as the song “Camouflage” by Stan Ridgeway started running through my brain. It was probably a semi-conscious nod to my friend Blake who had early on Saturday posted to Facebook the famous poem by the Native American chief Tecumsah:
Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the Great Divide…When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death Song and die like a Hero going Home.
I really didn’t feel like a hero going home, but I was pretty sure I was dying, and I found it slightly sad that the last song going through my mind was Stan Ridgeway. I mean seriously, why couldn’t I get something poignant like “Blaze of Glory” (the version by The Alarm, not Bon Jovi), or something more rockin’ like “Where The Streets Have No Name” by U2? At least it wasn’t something sappy like One Direction or Justin Bieber.
Anyway, I pushed through the mental and physical anguish, and much to my delight Mali was waiting for me at the finish line. After I crossed the finish line and the nice young man had given me my finisher’s medal, I stood there with my hands on my knees, and I felt like crying. I’m not sure if it was because of the dull, throbbing pain throughout my lower body, or if I was just relieved it was over. Sarah, Benjamin, and Jane had also come, but they didn’t see me finish because they were at the face-painting booth getting artwork done. I took some time to stretch my sore muscles, we got some water and some other stuff to eat, took some pictures, and then got in line to catch the bus back to the parking area. I was honestly a little worried that my legs might cramp while I was driving home, or that I might actually pass out from exhaustion. Fortunately, neither happened.
After I got all cleaned up, we loaded up the family van and headed to Five Guys for dinner. Even though I had been trying to drink water to rehydrate (I lost 10 pounds during the race, and that’s even with drinking about five liters of water during the event and another two liters in the first hour or so after), when we walked into Five Guys I felt like I might fall over at any minute. The obvious sign that I was running on fumes was that I asked Mali to drive there—I rarely ask her to drive, but I was feeling pretty beat up and thought it would be safer for the whole Soderborg clan if she took the wheel. After a delicious Five Guys burger and fries, however, I was feeling much, much better and everything was right in the world, which meant I drove home.
Last night I slept like a teenager. I’m not sure why anyone after they’ve had a good night’s sleep would say they “slept like a baby.” Babies wake up every couple of hours because they’re hungry or they pooped in their pants. Teenagers, on the other hand, teenagers sleep like rocks. Or maybe hibernating bears, depending on how much noise they make. But you get the point—I slept very soundly. When I woke up I was hesitant to move, worried about the impending pain. To my pleasant surprise, after a quick systems check while lying on my back, I threw my legs over the edge of the bed and I was only marginally more sore than the morning after any other long run I’ve done, which probably means I didn’t push myself hard enough during the race…I knew I was a slacker!
Out on the trail, when I was going through my moments of self-examination, those times when I was promising myself I would never again volunteer to do this to myself, there was a nagging little thought in the back of my mind. It came from being with Mali in the delivery room, where she would occasionally curse me for what I had done to her, promising that I would never again touch her, and that this was absolutely the last child we would have together. And yet, miraculously, less than an hour after giving birth, she would say, “I can’t wait to have another baby!” or something like that. I was worried I would have a similar experience.
So of course something like that did happen to me. By this afternoon I was convincing myself that it wasn’t actually that bad of an experience and that I might like to do it again. If fact, I told myself, with a better training program and preparation, I might even sign up for the 50 kilometer event next year…yeah, that pretty much proves that I’m insane. But just in case there was any doubt, there’s this picture to remind me: