By Janessa Wells
“I don’t know why anyone would want to do that for that long – that’s what a horse or a bike is for,” said my mother. Why indeed did I want to run a 53-mile race with 11,000 ft elevation gain and 12,000 ft elevation loss?
While attending a “Women in Ultras” speaker panel at a local running store, I raised my hand and won entry into the Elkhorn Crest 50. The manager of the store was pulling raffle tickets for eight different local races. Not a single person had put their ticket in for this beast. When she discovered it empty, there was a silent pause. Perhaps it was the energy of the community around me that made me shoot my hand up and say, “I’ll do it!” Perhaps it’s because I like big challenges.
The next day I received a welcome email from the race director. As this would be my first race over 13.1 miles she wanted me to know that I could “just do the marathon.” But to be honest – each time I thought of choosing the marathon instead of the ultra I lost a bit of lust for the race. I respect the marathon, but I wanted to take on a challenge that makes it hard to sleep at night. If I’m going to run an ultra, let me run an ultra. (I am 99.9% sure I will be eating these words by mile 35.) Let me take on a challenge that makes me question my commitment, a challenge that shines light into all the dark places of my self doubt.
Although a novice ultra runner, I am not a novice on my own two feet. Having grown up crawling around the peaks of the High Sierras in California, I know I could force myself to finish 26 miles. But could I entice myself to finish 53 when all is dark, literally and figuratively? When my whole being has gone further than ever before? Being a student of resilience, do I trust my training from the classroom and the tools I cultivated to recover from PTSD? Do I really have what it takes? I don’t know. And this is why I must do it.
Big challenges – they may be intimidating for their external appearances but are daunting because of the internal turmoil (and thus discovery) they cause. They are conduits with which we get to ask ourselves: do I trust myself? Do I trust myself to do the training, to put in the hours required? Do I trust myself to show up for myself, even if that means pulling the plug when my ego really doesn’t want to? Do I trust myself to honor my ego and not listen to the brain when it says “Stop,” when it is only pain, and not actually debilitating? Do I trust myself to know the difference?
I chose this race not to prove myself to others but to jump on the opportunity (and the privilege) to prove to myself that I can trust me. That I can trust me to grow, to rise to the challenge, to birth new muscle fibers and new mental resilience, that I can tackle whatever the path might throw at me. Because it might not always be the challenges on the trail that I’ll need this resilience for and I cannot choose what life will have waiting.
At mile 48, I sobbed. The evening sky was turning from a light pink to striking crimson; darkness was rapidly approaching. For a moment, I wasn’t sure why I was crying – perhaps it was because the last five miles to the finish line seemed longer than the other 48? Perhaps it was because I couldn’t find my last two GUs I knew I had stashed away at the last aid station? I stopped “running” and bent over to put my hands on my thighs. The tightness in my throat rolled out onto my cheeks and in that dusty moment of deepening dusk, I experienced a cathartic healing of all self doubt. I was not crying for the finish line or the lost GUs. I wept from the emergence of a profound new self image and a never-before-known appreciation, love and respect for my community. In those few minutes, 33 years of “self knowledge” was forever changed.
“Pull your sh!t together Janessa, you can’t run and cry – and you’ve got to keep running.” Back to reality. Thank you feet for the reminder. I finished in 14:41:31, 27th (of 50) to cross the finish line. As I ran through the finish, my boyfriend captured a photo and asked if I’d do it again. My response, without hesitation, was “Hell yes, but maybe not today.”
Now is where I could mention all the technical things that went right, all the things that went wrong (e.g.: don’t store your water purifying pills with your acetomenphin…unless you really like chlorine burps) and what I learned from them, but that day became about so much more than my ability to put one foot in front of the other. That was of course the task at hand, but immense gratitude and love, both for my community and myself, were the overwhelming feelings I walked away with.
Just two years ago, when I returned from Ebola response in Liberia, I felt shattered. Emotionally and mentally broken. My confidence to achieve much of anything was zero. Anxiety haunted me in the night, and bouts depression stole my days. Yet, there were people who held me up – continued to believe in me: my father who gave me hugs that at first felt undeserved, later warranted and finally, comforting. There was my boyfriend who never stopped challenging me to see the best in myself, even when I didn’t want to. A community of older women at the senior center who didn’t just show up to my classes but took a keen interest in my life. I was also supported by an amazing coach who in just three months prepared me for this race – even through my two injuries and multiple bouts of the flu. And there were so many others who had helped me out that to name them would fill the page.
In the looming dark, in my tears, I was desperate for signs of life. “If only I could see at least one runner, just not the ones I’ve already passed! Where is this f***** town and finish line?” The faster group had finished, and although I couldn’t see them, I could hear the cheers. The slower group had fallen behind or DNF’d. I felt utterly alone. But an image of the card the senior center ladies had given me the day before popped into my head. Its pink sparkly words said “You Da Bomb.” And for some reason, in that moment, I chose to believe it. I chose to believe the uplifting words of my boyfriend, my father, and my friends who had all cheered me on before I left for the start line. I had come this far – I was going to finish…but I was not doing it alone. I would never be alone, even when I couldn’t see another runner in front or behind me. I was part a community.
For the past two years I had been on a mission of healing, and had felt confidence return, sleep return (oh sweet wonderful sleep), but this moment of connection to community changed everything. I do not say this to take away from the life-consuming work all runners put into race preparation or to defer light away from the load of discomfort training had brought into my life, rather my finishing was a direct result of those who had willingly been my scaffolding. How could I ever doubt them? Five miles later, as I crossed the finish line I smiled, fought off more tears, and hugged my partner. I had left my personal insecurities in the darkness of the trail behind me. I had discovered through the connection with my community, their love, and my two hard working feet, I could make it to any finish line.