my first ultramarathon and five stages of grief
Run for the Toad 50k, Paris, Ontario.
Four 12.5km loops, and my first ultra marathon.
Other distances offered: 25k and 50k relay.
A female racer catches up with me few kilometres into the second loop, and conspiratorially nods for me to lean in. I turn my ear to her, trying to maintain my pace. “I just wanted to tell you, girl to girl”, she whispers, almost bursting with excitement, “your pants are see-through!”.
I register the intel, and slowly raise my wrist to my eyes to check the distance I covered so far. “What kind of underwear are you wearing?”, my brain whispers in a panicked tone. “Are you even wearing underwear?”, the brain sounds almost hysterical.
A silk G-string. Bright red. I recall fumbling around in the dark this morning, unable to find black booty shorts I’d normally wear, and finally pulling out whatever came first. A red G-string came first.
The woman is still smiling. It’s an accomplished self-satisfied smile of someone who just committed an admirable act. “Well”, I say slowly, still running. “I have about 37km to go. So this is a fantastic time in a race for me to learn that particular bit of information. What would you like me to do with it?”. Her smile disappears, as she mumbles an apology, and sprints off into the distance. I sigh, and continue along. “Bitch”, my brain concludes. I am not sure if it is talking about me or about the woman. This is not going well.
In the last hour, I went from acceptance to deep depression. I am going through the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.
I am going through the stages backwards.
This is not at all how this weekend was supposed to turn out. I was supposed to be camping at race site with friends the night before. Italian was supposed to be waiting at the finish line. Instead, I drive to the start line the morning of the race, feeling somewhat abandoned and mopey. [Never an easy race.]
My body catches on to the fact that I am already feeling sorry for myself. My body is a bit of a drama queen.
“You are an idiot”, says my left hamstring as I sit in the backseat of my car, and start peeling off layers.
I ignore the insult.
“Hello?”, the hamstring seems almost offended at not being acknowledged.
“Yes, I heard you”, I say through gritted teeth, continuing to tighten the SmartLaces on my bright red pair of Salomon racing shoes.
“You are an idiot”, the hamstring repeats, clearly expecting a response.
“If I stopped doing whatever I was doing, just because someone thought I was an idiot at the time, I would have walked away from most of my undertakings”, I clarify.
The hamstring gets offended, and shuts up for the time being. I walk towards the start.
STAGE 1: ACCEPTANCE
Soundtrack: The Prodigy – Breathe
Breathe with me
Breathe the pressure
Come play my game
I’ll test ya
Ok, I guess I am running 50k. Man, that’s a lot of “k’. But, hey, it’s on the bucket list – “to run an ultra marathon”, so here I am. It will be over before I know it.
How bad can it be, really? It’s such a nice trail.
People seem nice too.
The gun goes off, and I set out slower than I want, intentionally trying to slow myself down. This is a long haul. Legs are fresh, however, and I cover the first loop fairly quickly, even running up all baby hills. So far, so good.
STAGE 2: DEPRESSION
Soundtrack: Radiohead – Karma Police
I’ve given all I can
It’s not enough
I’ve given all I can
Runners go through the actual finish time four times during the 50k. I only realize how much this is going to mess with my head after I pass the finish the first time around. Those finishing their only 12.5km loop pass off the timing chip to the teammates. Meanwhile, I keep running.
Depression sets in as soon as the cheering from the finish line dies down. All the excitement is now behind me, and I still have to cross that damn finish line three times.
I pull out my iPod Shuffle. If my predictions are correct, bargaining is next. Followed by anger, and denial. During the bargaining stage, I will be too busy having a conversation with myself. Anger stage will provide energy to run. And I won’t remember much from the denial stage anyway. If music is going to be of any help, it will be now.
Why am I here?
At the last race, this question made me stumble. I could not come up with the answer right away. Today, the answer is right here at the tip of my tongue. “It’s on the bucket list!”. Ok, good enough.
I am not yet tired, but I am starting to get bored. I tear up a little. Boredom is my Achilles heel. I forgot how flat this trail is. I might as well be running on pavement. Mountains of Vermont take up my longing thoughts for few moments.
Each 12.5km loop has about 2km of pavement, and each time, it’s 2km too long. Where is brutal technical terrain when you need it? For the remainder of the race, the periods of depression coincide with the stretches of pavement on course.
As I cross the finish line the second time, the 25k runners are finishing. Medals to the left, cheering to the left, no more running to the left. I keep to the right. Starting my third loop, my mood darkens further.
I don’t know if I can make it.
Once again, the body catches on to self-doubt, and immediately starts to manifest physical symptoms. The left hamstring is singing loudly: “Are we there yet? Are we there yet? What about now? How much longer?”. I turn up the volume of my iPod.
The second bout of tears finds me.
I know I can’t make it.
This is hopeless.
It’s too far.
The sounds of laughter are coming from another dimension. As a little trio of self-identified “bat-shit crazy” women in their 40s (50s?) bounces by, I am bent over the 9km marker, trying to multitask- hyperventilating and hysterically crying simultaneously.
The women stop in their tracks. One pats me on the back, the other asks my name.
“Is this your first 50k?”, one of the bouncy women asks. “It’s your first 50k, isn’t it?”. She is now asserting the fact. I nod weakly, still staring at the ground.
The woman smiles broadly, and checks her watch for mileage.
“Well, you are a wee early, but otherwise right on track!”, she finally announces. I later learn her name is Rhonda.
Karen, the other “bat-shit crazy” woman, takes me by the elbow as we start walking. “It was Rhonda’s first 50k in the spring. She bawled her eyes out for the last ten miles”, she explains.
I think I am adopted.
STAGE 3: BARGAINING
Soundtrack: Radiohead – Paranoid Android
Please could you stop the noise, I’m trying to get some rest
From all the unborn chicken voices in my head
Karen does not leave me alone, so I have trouble answering the barrage of questions and feeling sorry for myself at the same time.
“Have you run the Toad before?”, she chirps.
“You are doing so well!”.
“Today, you are becoming an ultra runner!”.
“What’s your name?”.
“Oh, you are Russian! Great! Russians are strong! I could tell right away that you are strong. Look at those arms!”
“What do you do for a living?”.
I pause before answering this one. “I’m a health coach”, I sigh.
Karen stops running, and looks at me. Then bursts in hysterical laughter. Indeed, I am a pathetic sight right about now.
“Ok”, she is still giggling. “How about we keep that one between ourselves?”.
If I just make it to the finish, I can walk the entire last loop.
“Right, Karen?”, I ask hopefully, trying not to wince – every step hurts now. My hamstring has checked out completely, which means the rest of my left side has to pick up the slack.
“Right”, she nods. “You can walk the entire thing!”.
Crossing the finish line for the third time, I feel the anticipated wrath. Finally. I can use some anger right about now.
My adoptive mothers shove some food down my throat at the aid station, and make sure I do not sit down.
I have no more running left in me. But I will finish. Karen and Rhonda are as bouncy as ever, and I am secretly relieved when they make me promise to keep moving, and then take off. If I am going to be the weakest link, I’d rather be that link alone.
STAGE 4: ANGER
Soundtrack: Rob Bailey – Hungry
This is all I got, this is all I got
I ignore the pain ’cause the pain will never stop
I’m better than this
I’m bigger than this
I hate loops.
What kind of morons run in circles? I mean it really does take a special kind of idiot.
Did I mention that I hate loops?
This is a ridiculously stupid hobby.
I have been reduced to walking. Never in a race have I been reduced to walking. Oh, I walked plenty of times. Walked up the hill. Walked while eating a gel. Walked because I was bored. But always walked by choice. At this moment in time, I walk because this is the only method of moving still available to me, apart from crawling. And with my newly found fury, I will crawl if I have to.
I come dangerously close to a crawl too, pausing to stretch out the hamstrings. Palms down in downward dog, I am about to drop my knees to the ground, as I realize that if I do that, I may not be able to get up.
My earlier answer to “Why are you here?” does not seem to cut it any more. Who cares if this is on some stupid list? Why do I need a list any way? There are plenty of perfectly normal and perfectly happy people in this world without a list. Why can’t I just drive to the forest, and sit under a tree?
Why am I doing this to myself?
STAGE 5: DENIAL
Soundtrack: Linkin Park – Papercut
It’s like I’m paranoid lookin’ over my back
It’s like a whirlwind inside of my head
It’s like I can’t stop what I’m hearing within
It’s like the face inside is right beneath my skin
Delirium arrives two kilometres from the finish. I decide that I am not actually doing this. I can’t possibly be here in the forest. Can I?
But… if I am not in the forest, then where am I?
I start running. Or, rather, this consciousness of mine starts running. My physical body is too beat up to run. Do I keep moving towards the light?
Is this a tunnel or simply a finish line?
Feet move across the black mat. Medal around my neck.
What? A medal? For what?
You are an ultra runner.
I just ran an ultra marathon.
I am not an ultra runner.
Ultra runners are crazy.
Am I crazy?
Who am I?
Not quite an ultrarunner (yet?),
The medal they decided to give me…
And my adoptive “bat-shit crazy” mothers…