For several weeks now, I’ve had the following conversation with various people:
“When’s your next big race?”
“It’s in October, I’m running a trail marathon.”
“Oh really? Are you ready for that?”
This is a fair question, and I honestly appreciate it because it was something I had been avoiding asking myself. I haven’t been training for a marathon in October; I’ve been training for an ultramarathon in December. So the training miles don’t really add up as far as long runs. My ultra training plan, though it is a high-mileage plan, never has me running a marathon distance. Some of the back-to-back weekends (long run Saturday, mid-long run Sunday) have a combined score of 26 miles, but that doesn’t really equal running 26.2 in a single effort.
Nevertheless, when the registration opened for the Indian Celina Challenge, I was on top of it. According to the race director, I was one of the very first to sign up. That’s probably because I was sitting at my computer waiting for the specific hour registration opened, and I got my name is as quickly as possible. I’ve been waiting to do this race for as long as I’ve known trail running existed.
All week last week, I was discussing with Ashley and planning my strategy for running a marathon that I didn’t know if I was ready for. The ICC course goes around Indian and Celina Lakes in Hoosier National Forest, and boasts a daunting 5,000 feet of elevation gain on some pretty technical trails. This wouldn’t be easy. If I couldn’t do it, I had to be honest with myself. The course is two loops, so we decided that after the first loop before I headed out again, I had to decide whether I would be able to successfully run a second loop. If I decided I couldn’t, then I’d drop out, and that would be perfectly fine. I was at peace with this decision, which was a very important step to this marathon’s process.
Saturday morning, Eric, Kristen, Ashley, and I were driving out to the race while the sun was slowly rising ahead of us. Between the four of us, we had all the race experiences covered. Ashley was running the 8-mile race, Eric the half marathon, I was doing the full marathon, and Kristen was volunteering at the finish line and manning the aid station at the beginning of the second loop.
As we waited to run in the cold, the sun was coming up over the trees, lighting up the early fall leaves and deep blue lakes we would soon be running around. It was perfect weather for a really long run in the woods. When the race director yelled “go!” we took off around a little loop in the parking lot and then into the trees. With fewer than 150 total runners for all distances, it was a little easier to avoid the positioning bottlenecks that happen on the single track. Even so, once we got into the woods, I tried to stay to the side of the trail to allow for other runners to pass, and a good number of them did pass me up – which was okay. I was playing the long game this time. As I mentioned, the ICC course has some significant elevation gain. Along with big climbs come big descents, which can be just as difficult as the climbing. Saturday’s run was on some pretty technical trails. There were a lot of rocks hiding under nice fluffy piles of leaves, making rapid descents rather treacherous. You never know what’s going to happen when your foot lands, and if it lands poorly – well, you could break your face.
As the miles came along, my legs started to warm, and I picked it up a little bit. At around 2 and a half hours, I finished the first half marathon feeling great. Of course I was going to go out for more. Ashley had finished her 8 miles and helped me refill my Skratch bottle. Kristen was going to fill my hydration pack, but it was basically full. I hadn’t drank much water at all, which isn’t good. I made a mental note to get on top of that, and went back in the woods for loop number two.
Confronting the dark wall.
A few miles in, negative thoughts started to fill my mind. I started to doubt my ability to complete the marathon. I had just gone through the first aid station and was on my way to the second where I could drop out of the race and be shuttled back to the finish line, so I slowed to a walk and had a serious conversation with myself about what to do. I tried to recall the message from Doug Hay from his post about “When is it Acceptable to Quit?” Is finishing worth the pain? Is it better to have a decent 19-mile run, or a really crappy 26.2? Will this marathon screw up my training for the Bell Ringer?
Ultimately, I made the decision to drop out at the next aid station – and really, I felt fine about it. When I got there, I would be at 19 miles, which is quite a good distance. I haven’t been training for a marathon physically or mentally. My longest run so far in this training cycle had been 15 miles, which I ran last week on this same course. I felt glad, relieved even. I was also comforted to know that I had a support group at the finish line that would be there with food and encouragement. Kristen and Eric had brought Tofurky Brats, Ashley made an orzo salad, there were pineapples, and everyone would be understanding, supportive, and encouraging of my decision to drop. There were exactly zero reasons to feel bad about dropping out after a fantastic half marathon followed by a crummy 10k.
So that decision made, I decided that if I was going to drop out, I was going to give these last few miles a good effort and run to the aid station, rather than walk. So I started running again.
Instantly, I thought “What? You’re not dropping out. Let’s do this thing.”
And with that, all thoughts of quitting vanished. I don’t know where they went, but they were gone, and they never came back. My legs were tired and sore. I was drinking water like nobody’s business, trying to catch up from being dehydrated. My face was grimy with salt – but I was going to run my third marathon.
I pounded some Gatorade and oranges at the next aid station, then half a banana and some more oranges and Gatorade at the one after that. I was well over two hours ahead of the cutoff time and the guys at the aid station told me I was in fifth or sixth place for the marathon. The woods didn’t necessarily fly by. I didn’t negative split or have some kind of glorious running comeback after deciding to quit. It was kinda painful and slow, but I was in the zone. I did once come out of that zone when my foot caught a rock and I fell onto my hands and knees. My left leg almost cramped when I stood back up, and I would have to deal with that almost-cramping for the rest of the run (around 4 or 5 miles). Brush it off, check out the damage, get back into the zone.
I finished at 5:30:46; I think seventh place overall for the marathon.
While we were driving to the race that morning, someone asked, “Are you excited about running a marathon today?” I didn’t really know how to answer that question. For my first two marathons, there was a huge build up to the event. I thought about it for weeks leading up to the race with mounting anxiety.
That didn’t happen for the Indian Celina Challenge. For the most part, I avoided thinking about it at all. What if I decided I wasn’t ready and dropped back to the half marathon before even getting to race day? What if I decided it wasn’t smart to run a marathon? I didn’t want to give up before even starting – and I definitely didn’t want to think I’d failed before giving it a chance. Self-doubt, it seems, will always be a creep in the corner of my running party.
So, on Saturday morning when we were headed to the race, I couldn’t say I was excited about it. I was curious about it. Curious as to whether I had a marathon in me, and curious about what I would do when faced with the option to quit.
Turns out, I will decide to quit, but then shortly after that, I’ll decide not to quit after all.