Posing for Mike Tennent’s camera, before I knew what I was in for.
I ran the toughest course of my life on Saturday and I’m not even sure I’m prepared to talk about it but if I don’t dump it all onto this keyboard right now, I may never find the ability to talk about it again so, stand back, here goes whatever’s about to come out of me.
The 21km trail I was supposed to run that morning ended up being a 28km trail with brutal elevation (who knew some parts of Rotorua were so close to the sky?) and some of the toughest terrain I’d ever run in my life. When I think of parts of it – and I still do, like some sort of weird PTSD – I just want to use swear words. I’m going to try to choose others and spare you from those but, frankly, I’m so out of energy that I can’t promise much. This will probably be a long one so get a cup of tea or something (and bring me a stiff drink while you’re at it). If you don’t feel like reading this whole thing (why would you?) and you just want to know whether I finished or not, I did. You can leave now.
For myself and whoever poor bored soul has decided to keep on reading, here’s a recap.
I signed up for the Big O on Tuesday after Leah told me she’d be running it in a fairy costume. I thought of my poor tutu abandoned at home and decided that putting some extra miles on it wouldn’t hurt.
Hahaha. “Wouldn’t hurt”. Anyway.
That same week, I got shin splints and a weird 24h bug forced me to work from home the day before the run. Feeling better by Friday evening, I felt too guilty to skip the NZ anniversary drinks of a really close friend, so decided to stop by those anyway (with the race in T minus just a few hours). “Stopping by” turned into cocktails and dancing (because my mind is that weak) and, at midnight, I was standing up in the kitchen separating jelly beans into tiny ziplock bags and hoping for a miracle. I finally fell asleep at 1am, with the alarm set for 5am.
Just a few hours later, in pain, sleepy and with a slight hangover, I got picked up by Stacey, a vision from heaven who picked me up with a hot coffee and a muffin. Three hours later (with an intense few minutes trying to follow the America’s Cup because apparently I’m now one of those people who follows boat races), we arrived at the event base in Rotorua. I immediately spotted Mike (who took the tutu photos) and a few other familiar faces and, as the excitement kicked in, I managed to forget about how crappy I felt and how there was absolutely not a single good reason for me to be attempting that run after such a shitty week. Whatever, I was wearing a giant tutu and it was going to be an amazing day out!
Except, not so much.
You see, I wanted to prove to myself that, even under such miserable conditions, I could run a half marathon. The problem is that, even if you ignore the shin splints, the sickness and the hangover, I’m still at the lowest level of fitness I’ve been in the last year. Finishing a half, at this stage, is like a personal Everest. I’d done it the week before on road and I wanted to do it this week on the trail, even though I was feeling even worse.
I know it might sometimes sound like I’m taking the piss when I tell you about how unfit I am and then write recaps of runs a lot of people can’t – or don’t – run. I’m not, though. If you know me, you know I have the eating habits of a stray dog living behind a McDonald’s drive-thru, I stay awake thanks to litres of coffee every day and sleep an average of four or five hours a night. Also, I don’t run nearly as much as some people think I run, just because I keep a running blog. But I have this theory that running is mostly a mental exercise and so, as long as your mind is strong, it doesn’t matter that the rest of you is falling apart.
Just a couple of little issues with that theory: a) it’s mostly bullshit and b) this run wasn’t actually a half.
I had company the entire way – Ruby the dog joined me about 4km into the run and never left me again so we had the chance to bond for a whole 24km of running, walking, sliding down mud, jumping over fences (so many goddamn fences!), getting lost and crying. Yep, crying. Not even embarrassed to admit it. I cried and told Ruby how much of a stupid idea this whole thing was. She listened patiently even though, by then, I had already yelled at her to “stop fucking judging me!” as she stood at the top of hills watching me drag myself up.
I spent hours and hours and hours and then some more hours climbing up hills, negotiating roots and vines, getting my legs cut by gorse. I fought not to let the mud swallow my shoes and tried my best to block out the constant rain that kept pouring for hours. Partly because of how shitty I was already feeling before I started running, partly because it really was that tough a run, I ended up sinking to a level of low I didn’t even know I could get to, a little basement hidden under the basement of the most negative shit I’ve got in me.
Running often does that to me and I don’t complain because it’s part of what I chase when I run: high degrees of emotions, whether they’re happy or sad. Some of the most unadulterated happiness I’ve felt in life has happened during a runner’s high. Some of the deepest sadness has happened during a runner’s low (is that even a thing? I get it a lot so it should be a thing).
The point is, and this is especially true for trail running, I experience feelings at a much higher frequency when I’m out running and that is a big part of the reason I do it. On Saturday, proving that it wasn’t all bad, I rode quite a good runner’s high between kilometres 5 and 9 (when I slipped and hurt my knee). For those 4km, I took close notice to the fact that I was wearing a giant tutu and running alone through a stunning piece of Earth in New Zealand. And fucking hell, I felt lucky. Luckier than you and anyone else around. I had one earphone on and didn’t bother with my usual BPM-influenced running music. Instead, I put on Yann Tiersen’s Amelie OST, which sounded strangely fitting, and spent a good half an hour smiling to myself in the middle of nowhere, genuinely happy. I don’t get that stupidly happy doing anything else that I do in life. Even if I’d not finished the run, it would all have been worth it for that half an hour alone.
But just like that, I also experienced what I now remember as the absolute lowest of the lows, a sort of feeling I find much harder to translate into words. When I got lost, cold, in pain and didn’t know how much longer I had to go, I wanted to give up. I wanted to sit there and cry. I didn’t sit (mostly because stopping would only have made me colder) but I cried and hated running and hated that I’d put myself in that situation.
I couldn’t remember the happy moments anymore and went into a strange dark place in my head where the finish line didn’t actually exist anymore and I was just going to have to accept I was going to be there forever. I stopped the music and went into a weird auto-pilot mode where I kept putting my feet one in front of the other without really hoping to get anywhere. I didn’t care about the cold. I didn’t care about the screaming knee. I didn’t even care about finishing. I was just empty of whatever it was I was supposed to think or feel and, instead, there was just nothing.
Now that it’s been a couple of days, even though nothing will change the fact that I felt absolute hatred for those moments, in those moments, I can see that they’re just part of what I seek anyway. Who wouldn’t want to feel things in such extreme ways?
The problem, you see, is that life is too comfortable. Way too comfortable. We take the elevator and get takeaways, pay extra for same-day delivery, have remote controls, heated car seats and apps for everything. If we plan things right, we can go whole days without even having to move anymore. We do whatever we can to make life as easy and comfortable as we can because we think that’s what we’re supposed to do. We even measure people’s success by how comfortable their life is. And we sort of stop feeling things. It all becomes average. Not quite freezing, not quite boiling, just an in-between temperature that fits no purpose and that is no good but also not bad for anything. We think that suits us just fine but we’re just crippling ourselves and getting through life missing out on actually feeling things.
In long-distance trail running, there’s no room for that in-between. Everything is heightened, enhanced and technicolor. Happy only means happiest and sad only means saddest. Average is a concept that only exists out of the trail, in the weekdays at work when people ask how we’re doing and we say “okay”, the hours we spend commuting, the time we numb ourselves in front of screens and forget to feel things because feeling things is hard work and drains you out.
A long-distance trail run never goes “okay”. That trail on Saturday left me empty, which was exactly what I wanted it to do (whether I realised it on that day or not is an entirely different matter).
Just about every non-runner I know has asked me at least once why the hell I get out and do these things (especially since the next few days are spent barely moving and bitching about it). I find it such a transcendent thing that I have no skills to explain. I can only hope they assume there must be a really good reason I willingly put myself through the pain I talk about. Because that pain is just the result of a major rush of happiness and genuine feelings are supposed to leave you exhausted. Other runners know. We’re not as stupid as we look. We wouldn’t spend all this money, travel this far, abuse our bodies this much for something average. For that, we have PlayStations.
I’ve written so many words already I’m going to spare you a step-by-step account of Saturday. Let me just leave it here, for posterity, that this 28km trail was way, way tougher than my road marathon (and it took me longer too!) and tougher than any other event I’ve ever run. And I know you’re thinking “well, duh” after I gave you the laundry list of all the things that were wrong with me before I even started but I assure you it would have been one of the hardest regardless.
One of the absolute worst moments came at the 20km mark, when I caught up with another runner as we both slowly made our way up another god forsaken hill, trying to avoid all the gorse (he was smart and wore long pants, I’m currently sporting some really hot scratches all over my legs). I told him “not long to go now!” and he looked at his Garmin and said “yeah, maybe 5 or 6km to go, maybe a bit more” and, around about that time, my heart sank all the way down to the bottom of the Earth.
“NO! We’ve got 1km to go,” I told him (and I’m pretty sure he could feel the panic in my voice). He explained that the aid station at 13km was the halfway mark (is this stuff in the emails the event directors send out? I need to start reading those) and that we were at least 5km away from the finish. He also said something about elevation and how he thought we should be heading down soon but we were weirdly still going up quite a lot. I don’t know, I stopped listening. I was still trying to process the whole “I wasn’t even ready for a trail half and now you’re telling me it’s more than a half” deal. So I took off and left him, obviously (actually, nothing to do with that, he was lovely, but I was freezing and running was the way to stay warm).
What happened next was proof that maybe freezing but staying near someone else would have been the thing to do. Being the self-proclaimed worst trail runner in the world (a title I embrace with more pride than I should), of course I got lost. We were high up in some crazy ass massive piece of farmland, fog so thick you couldn’t see anything in front of you, one wrong turn and I was panicking in the middle of nowhere and blowing my emergency whistle hoping someone would find me. Turns out the whistle did a bucket load of nothing and no one came to my rescue. I managed to backtrack all the way to the last marker I’d seen and found my way back to the track. Not long after, I spotted the same runner again – who had passed me while I was busy getting lost. Having gone through my little panic attack (of which we shall never speak of again), I decided to stick with him. We had a couple of kilometres to go by then and finally started making our way down. My watch marked just over 28km when I crossed the finish line. It took me over 5 hours to cover those – longer than it took me to run a full marathon on the road.
I wasn’t even close to prepared for what the day would eventually bring me. I know some training, less injuries and some better decisions (like, you know, not drinking and dancing the night before) would have made a difference but I’m glad the difference wasn’t between finishing or not finishing. I sort of still managed to prove my point, I guess. I’m more proud of those 28km than any of the longer distances I’ve ever done before and I’m still stupidly excited for everyone who braved that course that day, especially those legends who set out on a 35km and ended up having to accidentally run an ultra (and I’m super glad I ran the Big O 35km last year, when it was actually 35km).
With Ruby finally asleep in the car, Stacey and I took my bottle of wine spot prize to an Indian restaurant (we made sure it was BYO), ordered the banquet (all you can eat out of pretty much all of their curries, plus entrees), spent nearly $50 in lollies at the supermarket and drove back to Auckland singing our hearts out to keep ourselves awake.
The trail that marked the official start of my training for Tarawera ended up being so bad that it had the upside of making me confident that I can run that ultramarathon next year. If I survived Saturday, the way I was feeling, I can survive whatever gets thrown my way.
Settle down, universe, that wasn’t a challenge.