By Sarah Graham
“DON’T WORRY DEAR, THIS IS THE HARDEST TIME FOR EVERYONE,” a volunteer consoled me. “It is?” I fought back tears. The same delicious hot food I’d devoured earlier at Red Wolf aid station now turned my stomach 25 miles later. “Oh yeah, 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. is the worst for everybody. Don’t worry, it’ll be better soon.” I expressed my heartfelt appreciation. They began chanting “Sa-RAH! Sa-RAH!” as we made our way out of the warm tent and back into the cold night during my first 100-mile endurance run at Mountain Lakes 100.
Conditions were glorious for running on race morning – temps in the 50s and light rain with an unearthly mist blanketing the lush forest. Why do my eyeballs feel hot? My throat kills. Glands hurt. I bet I have a fever. It was a resurgence of cold symptoms that had been dogging me for weeks. Must stop these negative thoughts.
I FOCUSED ON THE LANDSCAPE, a psychedelic tableau of fall foliage. I imagined inhaling positive energy from the surrounding beauty and exhaling negative thoughts. It actually worked and pulled me out of my own head. My cold symptoms waned, and I climbed with ease, hopped over rocks and chatted with fellow runners. Sorry germs, I win.
At mile 26 where I saw my crew for the first time, I learned that 1) changing out of wet layers into warm, dry clothing is totally worth the extra five minutes and made me feel like a goddess (I did it three times during the race) and 2) having an experienced crew that loves you is a game-changer. Doing these silly races may be a solo effort in terms of actual forward movement, but seeing your favorite faces during the race is your own personal jet fuel.
With the most technical part of the course behind me, I bounced out of the aid station excited for the next 30 miles on smooth single track. More gorgeous scenery! So many lakes! Hey, look, a bunny! If you don’t count getting stung by an angry insect with your pants down (can’t blame him, I think I peed on his house) or clocking myself in the face with a bridge handrail after my foot slipped off the tread in the dark, these 30 miles were mostly uneventful and enjoyable.
A civil war played out inside my own head – my logical brain wanted to run so badly vs. my central governor trying to shut it all down.
Then it happened. I’d been beating the [GI] system for 55 miles but now the jig was up. My husband, Rob, and second pacer, Colton, doggedly waged the battle of getting calories into me all night. Running was so hard. Walking was seductive. I felt taunted by the gorgeous, totally runnable single track. A civil war played out inside my own head – my logical brain wanted to run so badly vs. my central governor trying to shut it all down. It’s a strange phenomenon that fascinates me, if I’m being honest.
Even in those dark hours, my fellow racers at Mountain Lakes were remarkably friendly. Cordial encouragement and jovial conversation permeated the race field from front to back. I wondered if this could be explained by a trickle-down effect of sorts. Incredible race directors, Todd and Renee Janssen of Go Beyond Racing, truly care about every runner’s experience and it shows in the thoughtful, organized, detailed execution of their races. They seem to attract the same type of volunteers. When runners are well-cared for and experience a positive energy beaming from each aid station, it radiates and bounces among the field like atoms.
Buoyed by a dazzling crimson sunrise and crepes at mile 88, we arrived back at my favorite spot from the previous day: an expansive grove of vine maples that were a blaze with some of the most brilliant fall color I’d ever seen. I stopped and cried. “They’re just so pretty,” I squeezed out between sobs. This is what happens when a nature nerd bonks hard.
Before we knew it (read: the longest four miles of my life), the finish line was in sight. I ran and ugly-cried the last few hundred yards straight into the arms of Todd, Renee and my crew.
I couldn’t have picked a better race for my first 100-miler. Butterfly effect, paying it forward, trickle-down… call it what you will but the end result is that juju matters, and Mountain Lakes 100 is full of the good kind.