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Elinor Fish Friday, 17 May 2013 10:33 TWEET COMMENTS 0

Race Across the Sky - Page 5

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The author receives a hug from her husband, Rob, at the finish line. Photo courtesy of Rob O'Dea.

At 4 a.m., I limp into May Queen, plunk into a chair and press my icy hands into a heater’s stream of hot air. Rob and Sari, who had been catching some well-deserved sleep in the car, burst inside, surprised to see us already here. By now my feet are so swollen that running is impossible. I shake my head at the thought of walking another a half marathon, likely to take four and a half hours.

I begin to cry—again. Running 100 miles has peeled off the layers and exposed weaknesses and raw emotions I’m unprepared to share even with my husband and close friends. “I won’t be able to run across the finish line,” I say, ashamed.

“So what. All that matters is that you finish, and, sure, it’s going to hurt, but you can do this. I know how strong you are,” says Rob, using the same firm but encouraging tone he used to coach me through my especially difficult labor with Reed.

Then, Henry Schloss, 36, a friend I see only at trail races, bounds into the aid station exuding his usual cheeriness with his warm, dark eyes sparkling. “How can you be so happy right now?” I ask him.

“We’re out running on a beautiful night!” says Henry. Only once, two years ago at a 50K in Leadville, did I ever see Henry express an iota of self doubt. “I really shouldn’t be here,” he’d said before the race. “I’ve hardly run all summer. This is going to hurt a lot.” A few hours later, however, he lumbered across the finish line with arms raised and a bright smile. “This is awesome! Now, I gotta run the Leadville 100!”

True to his word, Henry attempted Leadville last year, making it 70 miles. So he returned this year, ready to finish no matter what. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the distance or the urge to sleep, but Henry is immersed in relishing the experience of this historic race with people, who, like himself, would rather run through the woods in the middle of the night than sit in front of a T.V.

I stand up and exit the tent, determined to claim my finisher’s belt buckle. Todd follows me out, and we witness the sun rise over the mountains as we slowly tick off the miles.

At the Tabor Boat Ramp, Rob and Sari watch a parade of zombie-like runners—with blank stares and limp arms—emerge from the woods and step onto the paved ramp. Occasionally one would stop and swing his head from side to side in confusion. “Hey, man, the trail’s that way,” Rob would say, pointing to the cluster of bright pink ribbons tied to the trees directly ahead.

When we arrive, Rob takes over pacing duty for the final 6.7 miles, which culminate with an interminable dirt road called “The Boulevard.” From the crest of a hill on 6th Street, we see the finish several blocks away and hear the crowd roar every time someone reaches the red carpet. Eventually the announcer calls my name. My eyes well with tears. Do I really deserve such adulation? I walk up the red carpet, break the tape when the clock says 28:40:34, and fall into Merilee’s arms. She’d hugged 235 finishers before hugging me, but her embrace is every bit as heartfelt as the hug she had awarded the winner.

At that afternoon’s awards ceremony, Ken asks those who didn’t finish to stand up. Wild applause fills the old gym for hundreds who had not made it. “You all have different reasons for not finishing,” says Ken. “But what matters is that you had the courage to do as much as you could today. You’ll just have to come back and try again next year.”

My heart bursts with gratitude and relief to have finished this race. I had committed myself to finishing and was lucky to have avoided serious health issues that could have led to a DNF. While proud of my accomplishment, I dwell on what I may have done wrong (Too much salt? Too fast in the first 40 miles? Not enough solid food?). There’s no such thing as a “perfect” 100-miler.

It struck me that running hundreds is not only a solo journey into the one’s “inexhaustible well of grit, guts and determination,” as Ken had said at the pre-race meeting. Rather, a race of such magnitude creates a spontaneous community of runners, volunteers and support crews unified by a fervid demonstration of human spirit.

 

This article appeared in our November 2010 issue.



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