Since the Olympic Marathon Trials in 2016, in which I finished 4th and one spot out of going to Rio, I’ve been on a bit of a hamster wheel. I was determined to get out there and show the fitness I wasn’t able to show at the trials because of the extreme weather conditions. The repetitive cycle went something like this- start building up to decent mileage, start pushing to run paces I did back in 2015/2016, get injured, rest and heal up, repeat. It seemed as if I would never get out of this cycle until the fall of 2018 where I accepted that I wasn’t as fast as I used to be, trained with what my body was giving me, and had a full and healthy marathon buildup. Unfortunately an old hamstring injury came out of nowhere during the marathon, but I had finally stayed healthy in a training cycle, and that was the important part.
After dropping out of the Houston Marathon I wondered what came next. My coaches wanted me to sleep on it, give it a few weeks before making a decision. They really wanted me to get out there and run 2:35. But I was craving something different. I was tired of comparing myself to the past, I wanted a new challenge that was totally fresh.
So, like most crazy runners, I decided to run the Leadville Trail Marathon. This was my first time hitting the trails in 20 years. After being successful on the track while still being injury prone, I swore off trails decades ago. It wasn’t worth the risk of injury. Smooth bike paths, roads, or nicely groomed gravel roads were my life. So just deciding to do this race was scary. I felt really vulnerable and quite frankly terrified. Yet, I wanted to see if I was capable of this. Could I train for something that terrified me, could I complete a race that starts at 10,100 ft of elevation?
My training partner, Marcus Hille, and I devised a plan. We were going to start at 10:30 mile pace. The new revised course started with the first 6 miles uphill. I had to be smart, I had to hold back if I was going to feel strong the whole way. I knew that 9:30-10:30 pace traditionally lands you on the podium. I also knew that with the new course times would be faster, so I decided I would shoot for 9:00-10:00 minute average mile pace. I thought that would put me in a good place finish wise, and leave some room for me to improve without going over the edge in my first trail race. Instead I ran like a total rookie. After an opening mile of 7:50, I ignored Marcus’s warning and charged ahead. I knew I was running fast, but so was everyone else. Either I was going to blow up, or do something epic. When I hit the 10k I wanted to see something between 62-65 minutes on my watch. I saw 51. I knew I was out way too hard, but I kept going. We had a steep incline a few miles later and I charged up it even though the men around me were walking. Again, I should have taken cues from the people around me. I was digging a deeper hole the further I went. Suddenly I started to feel terrible. My whole body was screaming. I felt a deep fatigue that I have never felt before in my life, like I had gone over an edge of no return. I looked down at my GPS, it only said 11.6 miles. I knew the race was over for me.
I continued on, but my mind was planing an exit strategy. I was so exhausted, there was no way I was going to be able to finish. Around 15 miles we turned down a very steep and rocky trail. I started to see spots. I was so light headed and had no control over my body. How I didn’t fall I’ll never know. I started to throw up. There was no way I was going to be able to continue on. As I came out of the trail back on to the roads, I was as low as I’ve ever been. I began to walk, I would have cried if I hadn’t felt so sick. People started passing me, but unlike in my past races, they would give me words of encouragement. “Keep fighting”, they would tell me, “This will pass. You can do it. Embrace the Suck. You are not alone.” Every time someone talked to me I’d try to run a bit. But there was nothing left. I started to wonder why I signed up for this. I started to think about how I’d never run again. I knew I wasn’t going to finish and I knew I’d never enter a race again. Then I saw Todd Straka. He talked me off the ledge. “Walking is allowed, no one cares where you finish, just that you do. You can do this, you are stronger than you think.” Todd saved my race. Although I couldn’t move any faster, he planted the seed in my mind that I could, actually, do this. At my lowest moment, he was there. After I turned around just before 19 miles to head home, random men would run with me. Some for a few strides, some for a mile, but all encouraging me. People yelled at me from the sidelines or as they were running the opposite direction. Their words carried me on down the mountain. I took in their encouragement like it was air and each cheer got me a little further along. People waited for me while I puked and then ran another half mile with me. People showed me acts of kindness like I have never, in my 40 years of life, been shown before. At 21 miles I saw my husband and he was concerned. He asked if I should be continuing on. But at that point, I knew I had to finish. Even if I had to walk the next 5 miles I was going to get to that finish. I had been given the strength to get there from strangers, and I was going to get there if it was the last thing I did.
Crossing that finish line was the most satisfactory of my career. I have been on two Olympic Teams, won a medal at the world championships, but nothing was more rewarding than that finish line in Leadville. I have never worked so hard to complete something in my life. It was the most challenging experience mentally, emotionally, and physically that I have ever been through. I’d be lying if I said that I had fun, but I am so glad that I did it. I pushed myself to new limits. I dug deeper than I knew I was capable of. I am proud of myself.
I want to thank everyone in Leadville for helping me to get to that finish line. Your support and kindness was overwhelming. I apologize if I didn’t act like I liked it at the time, I was in a personal hell and you helped me get through it. I also want to thank everyone one at the Leadville Trail Marathon. Thank you for welcoming me into your community with open arms and excitement. Ken Chlouber and Merilee Maupin have created something really special. In fact, the energy was so infectious that at the awards I started second guessing my decision to give up my coin into the Leadville 100. I am no where ready to attempt something like that, but you all made me want to continue to be a part of the magic!!!
I spent the last few days letting my knee settle down and recovering from the debt I put my body through. But today I got up and ran. And all I could do was think about my next adventure. The thing is, even though it was a dark and painful experience, I came out of it stronger and more resilient than I knew. It makes me want to try again, push that envelope out a little further. What will the next adventure be? I’m currently taking suggestions! So get out there and challenge yourselves, you never know just how far you can go until you try!