It was a beautiful day in the Pacific Northwest! The sun was shining, the skies were blue, the otherwise nonexistent wind was a gentle whisper when you needed it, and the temperatures were in the 70s. It was summer perfection at the end of spring. A perfect day!
In my world any day is a great day for running, but a flawless day, like this one, demanded I put on a running skirt, match it with a wicking shirt, lace up my bright and vibrant Saucony’s and hit the road for a run. As luck would have it this particular day on my calendar was already booked with a marathon!
When compared to other, more prevalent marathons, the Timberline Marathon is very small. While the Portland Marathon draws 12,000 to 15,000 runners, (and I don’t doubt Timberline could draw that many too), due to its location Timberline has a cap of 300 combined for all of their events (a marathon and two halfs). This year there were 104 marathoners and I couldn’t have been more excited to be one of them.
The event location was Timothy Lake. It’s one of many dazzling lakes in the Mt. Hood National Forest, which sits approximately 50 miles southeast of Portland, Oregon. Timothy Lake is a popular camping destination for Oregonians, offering campers an ideal setting to boat, horseback ride, bike, hike or run with spectacular views of Mt. Hood in the backdrop. As excited as I was to get up there and run, I never imagined the day would be so packed with lessons I needed to learn.
The marathon started at 8:30 that morning. Since it was a two hour drive from my house to Timothy Lake I was up at 4:30 preparing for my day; eating my pre-race meal, drinking water, filling up my hydration pack, packing my Garmin, iPod, mosquito repellant, etc. I managed to get out of the house by 5:30! Since I’m naturally slow (thanks to genes passed down, with love, by my mother) 5:30 was a victory! Lesson learned: not hitting snooze is the way to roll. When I pulled out onto the street, I had to stop at the corner and take a picture. It seemed novel, and worth documenting, that I could see the mountain I was headed to from my driveway. But then again it is the highest peak in Oregon! Lesson learned: beauty is all around me.
The drive up was uneventful but pleasant and only required I stop twice to use the bathroom. Lesson learned: I may not EAT McDonalds food, but they are ideal for quick bathroom stops. I arrived at the Ranger Station, where the run started, shortly before 7:30. It gave me time to pick up my bib and t-shirt, hook up with my two running chick friends and use the porta-potty before the 8:30 start. The mosquitos were fat and relentless, diving in pairs at uncovered skin and being outright annoying. Apparently, as part of a mosquito’s buffet, I am a delicacy and never fail to be bitten to the extreme. I hurried back to my car and silently thanked my mother for giving me a stack of Off! Deep Woods Repellent Towelettes! I ripped a couple open and took great care to wipe down my legs, arms, neck, back and face! Instantly the mosquitos became a non-factor, nothing more than dive bombing acrobats on the stage of someone else’s skin! They left me alone and I was grateful. Lesson learned: never enter mosquito territory without the Off!
As the Race Director made random announcements and told us how long before the start, the group of runners waiting to begin their day’s journey of 26.2 miles gave off an electric energy. It’s an energy I love, an energy that keeps my passion for running strong and consistent because I’m reminded I’m not alone, I’m not crazy, and I’m part of a mighty group of people who find peace, solace and joy in pushing their bodies to an extreme any other person would likely reject outright. Lesson learned: runner’s rock! Amidst the power-driven energy the chicks and I talked, laughed, stood in line for our last nervous pee, and took “before” pictures.
Then it was time to get in line. To ensure our timing chips registered on the computer we were directed to run, one at a time, across the starting mats. Given there were only 104 of us it didn’t take as long as it could have taken and I was over the mat and on my way within the first ten minutes.
Tranquility is found when I run on wooded trails. The hum of machinery, din of traffic, and vibration of people talking is replaced with the hush of trees, songs of birds and the often melodic sound of insects. It’s an opportunity to breathe deeply, release what weighs me down and see, with clear eyes, the beauty that surrounds me with gratefulness in my heart. While I was anxious to see Timothy Lake I enjoyed the peacefulness of the trail as it made its way away from the Ranger Station, down quite a hill and then up to a ridge that offered, after quite a steep climb, the first view of Timothy Lake. I was so happy to be there. Lesson learned: a magnificent view is worth the wait.
The natural avenue of trees and thick mossy foliage was tight, shady and cool at times but yet the sun, where the trees allowed, kissed the earth with gentle warmth to remind me it was truly a beautiful day. Down, around, through the trees I ran towards the lake. Periodically I passed, or was passed by other runners, but for the most part I was alone in the woods and enjoying it. Lesson learned: time alone is a gift.
The first of three aid stations was at the 5 mile mark and after running for an hour I was sure I had to be getting close. I might have known with more certainty, or possibly cared less, if I had remembered to pull my Garmin and iPod out of my bag in the car, but I hadn’t and all I could think about was my dire need to pee and how it was far too early to be squatting in the woods. Lesson learned: maybe a little less water before the race starts.
Finally I entered the clearing where Aid Station 1 sat, rushed into the porta-potty and after that, grabbed a cup of Gatorade. I thanked the volunteer and headed back out into the woods, hoping I wouldn’t need another porta-potty for at least 5 miles since that’s when the next opportunity would present itself.
It was about this time when I realized my hydration backpack was much too heavy. It was a new item that I had run with once before, on a 24 mile trail run, but it hadn’t been as cumbersome as it seemed now. Friends familiar with the Timberline Marathon had stressed the importance of being self-sufficient with respect to food since the aid stations only provided water and Gatorade. On reflection I’m sure I took this suggestion too far because it felt as if I had packed enough food to survive in the wild, with no human contact, for at least five days. It was uncomfortable and distracting. Lesson learned: don’t pack as if it’s the end of days. 26.2 miles is not that far.
As I continued on I came upon another runner and we started to talk. Since I like to talk (understatement), and love to meet new runners, I was grateful for the distraction. She was from Florida, in town for a conference and had made the decision to come a day early so she could run the marathon. She was a strong runner, with many marathons under her belt, but being from flat Florida she was having more trouble with the elevation gains than she had expected. She had set her Garmin to allow her to run five minutes and walk one and asked me if I wanted to run that sequence with her for a while. The conversation was enjoyable and the distraction seemed necessary so I jumped at the opportunity. Lesson learned: friends can be made anywhere.
By the next aid station, at mile 10, we had begun to run through the campgrounds that surround the lake and had crossed over the dam. People were everywhere, playing in water, laying in the shade, fishing. They were more welcome distractions. I ate a Lara Bar, which did nothing to lighten my load, and continued on with the run.
By the third aid station, at approximately mile 11.5, I was struggling. My quads felt tight, I was getting tinges of pain in my back and my ankles were cramping. My ankles had rolled a few times while running and were really sore, but the cramping was a new and weird sensation. It hurt. Lesson learned: cramping can happen in the oddest locations.
The pain and discomfort I felt was slowing me down and in turn slowing my running partner down so I told her to go on without me. At that point I knew I was coming up on the intersection where I would be offered the choice of turning left to start my second loop around the lake, or turning right toward the finish line. For at least half a mile I considered turning right and calling it good with the half. I rationalized a half was better than none. When I saw the trees with the markers a few yards ahead my mind was saying “alright I’m out of here, right it is.” But when I actually got there, without hesitation, I went left. Lesson learned: the mind is no match for the will of a runner.
The left turn had me climbing up onto a really cool log bridge. It was my favorite bridge the first time around the lake, but the climb up onto it the second time was painful. Ironically, I had forgotten that shortly after crossing the log bridge you had to climb up the steep hill (that seemed more extreme on the second loop) to the initial glimpse of the lake. My legs screamed at me but they kept going.
Once I reached the top the running was better and the ankles seemed to work out their issues. My legs still hurt but they were able to keep moving along the path that fluctuated with rolling hills, and flat spots. There were multiple trees down across the path that you had to climb over. The first time around I jumped over most of them as I continued to run, this time, to avoid falling, I slowly climbed over them. While I didn’t fall, I got a couple of good scrapes climbing over the trees. Lesson learned: when you’re tired, fallen trees can be dangerous.
I realized I hadn’t seen another runner for quite some time. This small realization was an open invitation for my mind to start its attempt to defeat me. Lesson learned: the mind is powerful.
I knew without doubt I was the last runner and it was a first for me. I’m the queen of encouragement. Novice runners can count on me to help them drink the runner’s kool-aid as I assure them that where they finish in a race doesn’t matter. What matters is that they run, that they move, that they keep going with relentless, forward progress. But as I trudged along, in a little pain, with a heavy pack on my back, alone, so very far from the finish and without a doubt last, I lost my composure and I cried. Lesson learned: sometimes crying is necessary.
When I stopped crying I tried to figure out where I was. I guessed I was about 2 miles from the first aid station, which would mean when I reached it I would have approximately 8.5 miles to the finish. There was a time limit on the marathon of 6.5 hours. I looked at my phone, saw it was twenty minutes before 1 and worked out a “plan.” If I could get to the aid station by 1 p.m., I would have two hours to get to the finish. I knew the average person could walk 4 miles an hour, so even if I walked I could likely make it by 3, and I didn’t expect to just walk. This realization calmed me a little as I said out loud “doesn’t matter when you finish, it just matters THAT you finish.” Lesson learned: having a plan is important.
By the time I reached the aid station my phone battery was dead, so I didn’t know what time it was. It was probably a blessing since knowing the time could have sent me into a tailspin and heightened my stress about finishing. Lesson learned: sometimes electronic devices can be detrimental to your spirit.
I headed back into the woods towards the next aid station. My legs were heavy, my ankles were sore, my feet were tired. I could feel pebbles, twigs and the like in my shoes. One particular pebble in my right shoe was under my heel and every time I stepped down on it sharp pains would shoot up my leg. Had I been of sound mind I would have stopped, took off the shoe, got rid of the pebble and other debris and continued on. I was emotionally unstable, however, and my thought process didn’t work like that. Instead I thought “if I stop to take out the pebble I will waste time that I don’t have, better to continue on and live with the pain.” Lesson learned: stupidity knows no bounds.
During one of my walking breaks (which truly wasn’t that much faster than my running pace) a man approached me from the other direction. At first I thought he was a mirage because it had been so long since I had seen anyone other than the volunteer at the aid station. He smiled at me and said “are you okay to finish?” It took a second for me to figure out he was part of the race support.
I said “yep, I’m okay. I’ll finish. Pretty sure I’m last though.” Then I asked him if he knew what time it was.
Instead of telling me the time he said “you’re about 15 minutes from the dam, and it’s about 5 miles after that.” With that he turned and continued his walk the other way. I was irritated with him for not answering my question. But after a little more walking I figured he had done me a favor. The time would not have been as helpful as the 15 minutes and 5 miles. Instead of sending me into a panic, his information gave me hope. Lesson learned: what we think we want is not always what we need.
Fifteen minutes sounded so close, but as I continued the pebble in my shoe began to feel like a boulder and when I ran my ankles hurt so deeply I imagined my legs would snap right off. So I walked.
I was dejected, disappointed, frustrated and felt incredibly alone. I cried again. Sobbed. Questioned my ability as a runner, wondered why I thought this was something I could do. Laughed, through the tears, at the mere idea of me running and completing a 50 mile event. Decided I would hang up my shoes and try something else. Swimming sounded good. With that decision made I wiped my face, sat on a stump, took off my shoes and shook out a pile of crap that had accumulated. When I put the shoes back on the difference was astounding. My rational brain yelled loudly: “DUH!”
Within five minutes I came upon a clearing where an older man sat in his chair. I’d guess he was in his late 60s or early 70s. Because I hadn’t reached the dam, which is where the campgrounds began, it was odd to see him out there. He hadn’t been there the first time around. He saw me and reached for his noise maker. He cheered at me, told me I was doing great and then said “this here is 21+ miles.”
I said, “really? Then I’m closer than I thought I was.”
He said “yep, you’ve made it! Congratulations, you’re doing great.”
As I continued on, doing the math in my head, I realized he was way wrong. There was absolutely no way I could be at 21+ miles since I hadn’t reached the dam. And while I was at it, I realized the first guy I met had lied to me as well. I had certainly been moving for longer than 15 minutes and yet I still hadn’t reached the dam! I cursed at them both and considered going back to the old man and pushing him out of his chair, but I knew that was silly. Lesson learned: see encouragement for what it is, encouragement.
Finally, after what seemed like forever I came out of the woods into the lot that approaches the dam. The sun felt amazing on my skin and seeing people enjoying the laziness of camping made me happy and lightened my heart. I ran a little and it didn’t hurt like it had, so I ran some more. As I ran across the dam, towards the second aid station I decided possibly I’d give running one more chance. Lesson learned: decisions should not be made in the middle of a crisis.
At the aid station I realized the same two men that had been at the first aid station were now at the second aid station. The older gentleman smiled at me and asked me how I was doing. I assured him that while I was hurting, I was fine. He asked if there was anyone behind me and I said, “nope, pretty positive I’m the last one.”
He said “alrighty then we’ll see you at the next aid station!” I laughed.
Hearing myself say out loud, for the second time, that I was the last one to finish was cathartic in a way. It didn’t seem as bad as thinking about it in my head. I felt less like a failure and became more in tune with humble gratefulness for my ability to actually finish 26.2 miles. Lesson learned: humility is powerful.
I made my way along the trail that travels through the countless camp grounds. As I passed people they cheered me on, told me l was doing great, that I was almost there, that I should be so proud. Every time someone said anything to me, I smiled and said “thank you” and then as soon as I was out of their line of vision the tears would stream down my face. The tears were for mixed reasons: I truly was almost there, and kind words are uplifting. Lesson learned: don’t miss an opportunity to say a kind word to someone. It might help more than you’ll ever know.
I got to the final aid station and the same two men were waiting. The older man smiled again at me and said “are you still last?” I laughed at him. To you as a reader, his question may seem rude, but he really said it in the kindest way possible. There was no malice behind his words and I took it the way he intended.
I said “yep, still last.”
He said “the girl in front of you is less than a minute ahead of you!” The excitement in his voice was incredible. He continued “I swear, she just came through here, if you hurry I’m SURE you can pass her!”
It made me laugh again. A lot. I thanked him for the information and for just being out there and then I made my way back into the woods. I was surprised and oddly grateful that there was someone else in front of me. So close. I hadn’t seen another runner in hours and the idea that there was one relatively close made me feel not so alone. Of course, I immediately doubted the validity of his statement, thinking once again someone was simply trying to make me feel better, but as I rounded a corner I saw another runner ahead of me. As she approached a switchback on the trail I was able to see it wasn’t just any runner, it was one of my girlfriends! She waved at me and I yelled “hey!” with a smile in my voice. It was the first real smile I’d felt in at least 10 miles. I had no need, or desire, to catch up to her, no need, or desire, to pass her. Merely seeing her and knowing that she was out there gave me comfort. Lesson learned: a familiar friendly face is worth a million bucks at times.
Finally I arrived at that intersection I’d come to before and with a heavy sigh of relief I turned right and put my momentum into the 1.5 miles to the finish. It was a brutal mile long climb up a mountain and I felt every stinking inch of it in every part of my body and then I was on even ground and headed for the real finish.
For multiple reasons I started crying again. I was exhausted, my whole body ached, my feet were on fire, my fingers were big fat sausages that screamed in pain when I tried to make a fist, and I felt dizzy. I didn’t know what time it was, but I was fairly certain it was beyond the 6 ½ hour time limit. I wondered if the finish line would still be there. I wondered if I’d get a medal. I wondered if I’d come around to find nothing. I wondered what that would feel like and how I would handle it.
I reached the clearing, wiped my face, put one foot in front of the other in a flat out run and made my way around the final corner to see both of my girlfriends, their husbands, the finish line and the timing clock still ticking. After everything it was finally over and as bad as I felt, and geez did I feel bad, I was elated that I had finished.
As I caught my breath the cutest little girl walked up to me and handed me a medal. As I put it around my neck I felt, without an ounce of doubt, it was the most well deserved marathon medal I had ever received.
I’m not sure why this marathon was so difficult for me. There are endless possibilities: I hadn’t trained enough, my nutrition was off, I didn’t get enough sleep, I didn’t wear the right shoes, or something else in the grand scheme wasn’t right. The other possibility is that I simply had a bad run.
I know bad runs happen. While it would be ideal for them to happen at times other than while I’m running a marathon, I can’t deny that this particular bad run taught and reminded me of some great life lessons.
Life is not a cake walk;
Through challenge comes triumph;
Anything is possible; and
I am stronger than I think I am!
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