On the Run: Right, Left, Right, Left
By Alexis Mercer
5.95 miles showed remaining on my Coros watch face. I had been forced to stop as my left hamstring and inner thigh cramped up and I had to just stand and watch it painfully contract. I had covered 25.25 of the 31.2 miles and even if it took crawling, I was going to finish.
This wasn’t one of those “I felt amazing. Everything clicked. I was perfectly ready.” kind of race days. Instead it was a “Pull out of yourself every last drop of effort and be proud you finished” race day.
And I am. Very proud.
So few challenges in life are epically difficult AND chosen. This was both of those things.
I made the conscious decision to push ‘Register’ last fall on the North Country Trail Run website. From the very beginning of this, I knew I was choosing to suffer. Most of the hardest things in life have come without that conscious decision: loss, health issues, and intensely undesired change. Not a 50K. This was on me.
As for a level of epically difficult? I knew without question it would be hard. A 50K distance (31.2 miles for those of you who refuse to accept the metric system as the superior way of measurement) is challenging on its own, but not impossibly more so than a marathon. 5 miles, when compared to 26.2 previous miles just isn’t that many more.
The fact that this 50K was a trail run (think 1-2 minutes per mile slower training pace automatically) and the race website boasted 4000 feet elevation gain over that distance? Epically challenging category in my brain. To finish would truly be a feat.
I still wonder why I decided that 50K would be the distance for my first ever trail run as an adult. Cross country in high school at 1/10th the distance per race doesn’t really seem to be in the same category.
What I do know with certainty is that once I was registered, I was excited. Plus I was back in training with my friends from high school, David and Megan. Even if the miles would be run alone getting ready, I would have them to commiserate with via group text. My mind was ready for a challenge that would push me past any limits I had previously conquered.
May 1 marked the first official day of training.
Building up really went well. I had enough miles on my left from previous consistent daily running that nothing felt too hard. Fitting miles in after teaching a full day, coaching track and getting our three kids to all their sporting events, was no small feat. May is definitely one of the busiest months for educators each year - but I was determined, so I prioritized the miles.
Two training runs stand out in my mind from the summer running.
The first was a relatively “easy” weekend where I would only need to run 8 miles on Saturday followed by 8 on Sunday. Both easy pace, just getting miles on the legs. This was about a month before the race. Which means it was early August. The humidity? I’m not sure I wasn’t swimming rather than running.
Saturday I slogged through the mileage, knowing I would have to rehydrate if I was going to make it through the next day. I tried. But apparently not enough.
Sunday’s run rolled around and I bravely set out, going as early as I could while it was still light for safety. I had water, electrolyte drink and some energy gummies. None of which could get me through the 8 miles with enough liquids in my body. With 3 miles left to go, I ran (ok, fine, I slowly trudged) into Hilltop Convenience Store, and got a Coke and a package of pickles. The cashier took one look at me and asked if I needed ice with a concerned face. Yes, that.
After a long pause to down the pop, I took off running again with my half eaten pickle in hand, and shuffled my way to the end. I knew if the humidity was that intense on race day, I would be in big, big trouble.
The second stand-out training run was when David was passing through and we were able to run together. We were scheduled for a 20 miler, so we hit the North Country Trail. The plan was to go 10 out and just turn back around. We laughed, talked, took it easy and enjoyed the rare chance to run with someone. We got to mile 8 and all the laughter stopped, as did we in our tracks.
There were people shooting guns right next to the trail. We didn’t stick around to find out what, exactly, they were shooting at, or why they were adjacent to the trail. Plan changed. We would do 16 out and back then 4 out and back again just to avoid certain death. Despite the mid-run scare, it was the confidence we needed that we would be able to handle race day under the 9 hour cutoff time. We hoped.
Race weekend was upon us. (Did I mention the race was the day before school started? Whyyyyy)
We found a great campground a few miles from The Big M, where the race would start and finish, called Twin Oaks Campground. We headed up Friday night to give ourselves some time in the area before we would be running. We made spaghetti and meatballs over the campfire and laughed so hard about so many things our cheeks hurt. Friday night we spent well over an hour just enjoying the magnificently starry sky.
It was dark when we crossed the start line. We were off (no, we didn’t bring headlamps…rookies say what).
Quickly, though, we were in the light and settled in to the even pace we planned on. Slow and steady would hopefully get us across the line. Mostly we were worried about the mile long hill that previous finishers kept warning us to walk up. When would that be there?
We found it. And then kept finding it….the whole mile as promised.
The course was beautiful. The hills were as advertised. Lots of them. But it was relaxing to see the sunlight shining through the trees for miles and miles. We found a rhythm and hoped it would be enough.
One of the best parts of the race - not surprising to those of you who might know us - was the food stations. Ahead of time we studied which stations would have what kind of food as if our lives depended on it (they kind of did, actually). Then running up to them, we were so excited. The options! Grilled cheese, chips, cookies, burritos! How to decide. Nearly every station I took pickle juice. I wasn’t interested in a training run redo.
The volunteers throughout the whole course were rock star status. They smiled, encouraged and totally made the experience for every runner (and the one man who gave me his last two sodium pills at the last aide station - I’ll never forget you).
We made it to 20 miles without any trouble. Things were going as planned. It was at mile 24 I started to enter the pain cave. Badly. Which I expected, so I was ready. But what I didn’t anticipate was the guilt I would feel for slowing David down. I told him to go ahead since he was feeling fine. But we were in this together, so he would run ahead and then wait or slow down for me.
The moment at mile 25.25 mentioned at the beginning of the article was the lowest point of the race. I was at the bottom of another hill wondering how I could convince my body to keep going. But somehow I managed and we made it all the way.
Our families were waiting for us at the finish line. I know I smiled. I also cried. I was so happy to have finished.
Without question, this was the hardest thing I have ever put my body through. That includes birthing my children. My oldest son was 72 hours of labor that ended in emergency c-section after hours upon hours of pushing. I still feel this way months after being done.
Yes, still harder than that.
It wasn’t the finishing. After the first few hours of running we knew we would make the cut-off. Instead it was the battle with my brain to continue to run rather than walk (even though my pace was snail-like).
Refusing to give in to the desire to take the easy way and just walk.
Right. Left. Right. Left.
It may have taken 7 hours, 20 minutes. But the pride of finishing this race came from the mental side of it. I moved my body for 31.2 miles. As quickly as I could that day.
The next morning I got out of bed: slowly. I got myself to school. I managed to stand up most of the day. Walking wasn’t really easy, but I did it. I found myself explaining to the freshmen who knew nothing about me that I promise I wasn’t always this slow.
Months later, there are some memories that stand out. They don’t really have much to do with the running, but instead the memories with my dear friends.
In no particular order, I cherish:
Thinking back to our high school days… Though I did foresee us still being friends in our 40s, I never could have predicted this friendship full of adventures that include a 50K trail race in the hills of Northern Michigan.
I will choose another adventure with my friends. I’m still not ready for another 50K trail run with that much vert. Maybe I won’t ever be ready for that particular challenge again.
But I will choose a challenge that pushes me to the edge of my limits so I can enjoy the process of pushing myself in the buildup to a level I haven’t before. And I’ll certainly choose to do it with friends who are just crazy enough to want to choose the same for themselves.
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