On Sunday July 13, I ran The North Face Endurance Challenge in Blue Mountain and crossed the finish line feeling heartbroken and disappointed in my performance. It wasn’t about the time.
After my experience at Bear Mountain in New York, I came into this race with no expectations – or so I thought. The entire week leading up to the race, I didn’t even really think much of it. I knew that it wouldn’t be a “fast” effort, and so I didn’t bother tapering or doing anything differently to prepare for it.
So, yeah. The course elevation for this thing looked like this.
The night before, Mike and I looked at the course map and he advised me to take the uphill hard, the flat even harder, and the downhill nice and slow (because who am I kidding, I suck at descents).
Unlike last time at the last The North Face Challenge at Bear Mountain, I positioned myself at the back of the pack from the start. I knew the field was small, and with the single track trails we encountered last time, I wanted to avoid getting in people’s way as much as possible. Just before the race, Dean Karnazes warned us about the conditions being really bad today due to the previous night’s rainfall, but I didn’t really pay attention. I knew that this was going to be hard even in “ideal” weather, so I just braced myself for a slog.
I started out conservatively. I wasn’t sprinting up the hill, and instead held a slow and steady pace that I thought I could maintain until I hit the top. I was wrong. The uphill was relentless and I thought it was never going to end. Every time we hit what I thought was the top, we’d turn a corner and have to begin climbing again. Everyone around me started walking, and I tried my best to keep jogging up the hill, but eventually gave in myself. That’s when disappointment and self-doubt first reared its ugly head.
After what felt like forever, we hit a very short flat part that snaked around a gorgeous wooded area. I wished I had my camera with me, because this short break was gorgeous. It was really quite beautiful. For the first time, I could look up and enjoy the scenery around me. Scenery like this is what keeps me pulling me back to the trails. Shortly after I started the flat section, I arrived at the water aid station and turned to the right to begin the descent. “BE CAREFUL”, the volunteers called out to us…
Time to face my fears.
When I first saw the makeshift stairs, I breathed a sigh of relief. By comparison, the descents at Bear Mountain were littered with rocks so by comparison, I actually thought the stairs were quite “civilized”. From now on, I’ll remember these as the stairs where trail races go to die. (Actual experienced trail runners would probably call those fun). I gingerly made my way down the stairs, praying for a relatively short descent and trying to jump to the side whenever people came flying down past me. Not going to lie – it wasn’t fun. The only thing I learned during that part of the course is that pretty much everyone is more fearless than I am. HOW these people flew down the stairs is beyond me. I was grabbing onto everything I could find like my life depended on it. (It kind of felt that way).
During this time, frustration and fear built up to the point where I found myself holding back tears. Never once during a road race have I had to hold back tears. Not even when I ran a marathon and could barely move my legs due to an unknown (at the time) stress fracture. This descent broke my spirit. I felt scared, defeated and I wanted OUT.
At one point, a girl saw me struggling and told me that we were almost at the bottom. I knew she was just trying to help, but all I could manage was, “Oh God. I really hate this…” in response. She didn’t know what to say. I knew I was being dramatic, but I didn’t care anymore.
Eventually, I emerged out of the woods and onto the wide, flat trail that led us back to the Start/Finish area. As soon as I hit this part, I felt like screaming, but instead I channeled my frustration by running as hard as I could…. you know, for about 500 meters or so. It was over before I really got to hit my stride. I crossed the finish line with a familiar feeling of annoyance at myself, and extreme disappointment. I finished the race immediately asking what the hell happened out there.
The interesting thing about the 5K is that while it’s (mercifully) shorter in distance, this also means that the entire course revolved around one major hill — and that’s it. The course basically consisted of one LONG uphill and downhill…. and hardly anything in between to help a road runner out. I never really had any chance to get into a rhythm and make up for lost time with some flat running. From what I hear though, I don’t think any of the distances really had many flat sections, so maybe it’s just what I need to expect with these endurance runs. Ironically, I always find myself afraid to let my legs go fast on the road. I’m always worried about running out of energy, and I’m always holding myself back. Well, on Sunday, I was desperate to expend some energy by the time I exited the woods. If there’s any positive that I can take from this race, it’s that it ignited a desire to go all out the next time I was running a race on the flat road. At that moment, anyway.
Immediately after the race, I continued to beat myself up on my performance. It had nothing to do with my 52:26 finish time. I gave up so many times, and that’s real the source of my disappointment. I hate giving up.
But a few hours later, I began to forgive myself. The truth is, I love running out there. It’s completely different from anything I’ve experienced on the roads and it would be such a shame to give up on these types of races all together because it’s “too hard”. That’s just crazy! I love the trails. I love the beauty, the low impact, the fact that they’re always unpredictable and always changing to keep things interesting. I love the fact that I can get lost in my thoughts and feel like I’m in a completely different world even if I’m actually still in the city. I also want to travel the world and explore what different cities have hiding in their forests. But I can’t do that if I’m too scared to run and explore them. I can’t spend the rest of my life shying away from certain trails if they aren’t perfect for me. I can’t always pick the trails to suit me, I have to change my attitude to suit the trails.
And so, by the end of the day, I decided that I’m not ready to throw in the towel on trail races just yet. I’m not ready to admit defeat and stick to running day in and day out on concrete because it’s easier. Instead of once a week, I’m going to increase my frequency of off-road runs. I’m going to ignore this thing called pace and let my body and the trail’s condition dictate how fast and far I run.
I’m going to stop shying away from “uneven” terrain and tiptoeing around scary sections. I’m going to learn how to attack them, and face every fear I have. And at the end of the year, I’m putting myself to the test again to celebrate how far I’ve come. I’m going to run my third Northface Endurance Challenge of 2014 in San Francisco in December. And it’s going to be awesome.