By Fawn Hernandez
At 4:30 in the morning on Saturday, February 4, my husband and I crawl out of our tent in the Kisatchie National Forest located in Central Louisiana in anticipation of my first 100k race. My pre-race anxiety was flushed out with a hike the afternoon before. This leaves me feeling only excitement and gratitude as the clock ticks closer to the 6 a.m. start time. After training for seven months it’s finally time to complete two 31-mile loops of the Sandstone Trail. With the glow of headlamps, myself and 70 other race participants start our pre-dawn journey to run 31, 62 or 100 miles. The inaugural Red Dirt Ultra is underway on a perfectly dry, cool day.
The race begins on a sandy, hilly section so I hop in the back of the pack to ensure I don’t start out too fast and to avoid having other participants accidentally kick sand in my shoes. Immediately, I come upon my friend Tara Breaux who is running the 50k but going slower than her usual pace due to a foot injury. Hours later, after sharing 26 laughter-filled miles, it was time for us to separate due to her foot pain increasing. I leave Tara with a sense of awe at her toughness. As I approach the start/finish area to begin my second loop, a surge of peace and strength washes over me. I am energized to step into the unknown world of miles 31-62.
My crew outfits me with my hydration and nutrition and Don Schoolmaster, my pacer for the next 16 miles, sets us in motion. Don is the kind of friend and runner who knows what you are capable of and will casually and quietly demand your best. My plan is simple: trust Don and trust my abilities. The first half of the Sandstone Trail is peppered with challenging hills and lots of deep sand. During this section, self-doubt and fear of the unknown slowly creep in, but I gently remind myself, “Don’t ask to slow down. You’ve got this and Don’s got you.” Before I know it we are at The Mud N Guts Trail Runners aid station to meet up with my next pacer, Jeremy Howard. The aid station volunteers, who happen to be my “tribe,” eagerly feed me cheese quesadillas and potato soup. Nothing ever tasted so amazingly delicious in my entire life.
After my feast, Jeremy and I take off for the remainder of my race. Jeremy, a Rhode Island transplant, is in awe of the terrain and flora. Though the Sandstone Trail is a part of Kisatchie National Forest, it is strikingly different than some of the more popular pine-tree-filled destinations in Kisatchie. With the mixture of stones, expansive overlooks, stream crossings and sand, it’s as if you are transported to another region altogether. This made Jeremy giddy and that’s exactly what I needed after running 47 miles. He reminds me “why” I am doing this.
So, why am I doing this? Growth doesn’t happen in comfort zones and I love trail running. Ultramarathon running provides a connection between the mind, body and spirit. As dusk turns to nightfall I’m thinking these existential thoughts when suddenly I find myself face-first in sand after tripping over a root. I laugh at myself while Jeremy berates himself for not doing “his one job.” This makes me giggle more. We make it to the last sandy hill of the course, which means I’m finishing my first 62-mile trail race. As my friends and the event staff start cheering me to the finish the tears begin flowing down my face. I collapse into my husband’s arms consumed with joy.
I feel immeasurably grateful to all who helped me reach my goal, to those who put on a flawless race, and to myself for listening to that little voice that whispered, “You can do hard things.” The most profound part of my experience is that in doing something I first thought impossible, I see the true potential in others around me to push their own capabilities.