It’s been so long since I’ve written one of these, I don’t even know where to begin. Perhaps we’ll start back in November. Sick of my own 2020 shit, and/or finally finished with taking the time off I needed, I found my way to the first event registration I’d laid eyes on in over a year. And I registered for a race.
Three races, to be exact.
First came a 48 hour race I didn’t think twice about, thanks to the race director offering a $20 registration fee. You can’t really can’t turn that down, even if you never knew you had intentions to attempt 48 hours before that very moment. But you’ll figure out the details later, $20 is a steal.
Second was an adventure race my husband has not stopped talking about since we reached the finish line last year. Then, with the endorphins flowing from spending money and hitting that registration button so freely, I started thinking “what else”?
Immediately I remembered Retreat Repeat.
Back in 2019, local ultra legend and wonderful human being Nathan Dewey wanted to put on a running event for the community. Something where everyone could come out, hang out, and enjoy some trail running – whether it was for one mile or nearly 50 miles. The first year was a wild success, and it has only grown as an event since.
The first year, I had a great time not only running 31(ish) miles at Retreat Repeat, but watching my then 12 year old knock out his first 15 miler. (Read that recap HERE)
The second year, coming off of a gnarly 6 week respiratory mystery illness (which in retrospect doesn’t seem so mysterious, thanks 2020, but I digress), and freshly diagnosed with some unexpected medical issues, I sat on the sidelines. I cheered, I drank a lot of beer, I pretended that everything was just fine. But the truth was, I was at the start of what would be a very tumultuous year long journey of much needed rest, physical and emotional turmoil, self discovery, and NOT racing. (You can read that…uhh, recap? HERE)
Now I’ve been on a slow and steady upward return to “me” since late October of 2020. I’ve been following a training plan. I’ve been working with my nutrition coach. And I’ve been fiercely protecting my mental health. Starting the new year off with an event I knew would be fun, and zero pressure, felt like a great decision. So I closed out my registration spree by adding my name to the Retreat Repeat roster.
Fast forward to January 3rd, 2021. To say that I was excited for this race would be an understatement. I hadn’t run a real trail/ultra race since in over a year. And as the prospect of actually toeing a real, live, start line got closer, the reality of how much I missed racing became glaringly obvious. As I started digging out rungoo and calculating how many SIS gels I’d need to bring, the walls I had built to convince myself I didn’t need this part of my life began to crumble. And I was GIDDY. Not even Geoff blindsiding me with the a last minute decision to not go to the race threw me off of my happiness train.
(Blindsiding sounds dramatic. It wasn’t dramatic. Just unexpected.)
Race day. I show up at 7 am, masked, carrying a folding chair and a 20 gallon tote full of my stuff. I check in, get my bib and all of the other race swag. Despite the fact that I know at least a dozen other people here, I park myself in a solo spot for a few quiet minutes before the friends I’m sharing a pop-up-tent with arrive. I lube up my feet, and laugh at how familiar and unfamiliar this all feels.
Gordon Lightfoot is playing over the loudspeaker, and I smile. Dad’s here with a “what sort of ridiculousness are you up to this time, Heather Jean?” sarcastic comment, I just know it.
Dinah and Kevin show up, and we barely have enough time to put the tent up before the start of the race. As is typical with this event, you don’t HAVE to start at 8 am, and in fact, many people don’t. But the clock runs from 8 am to 4 pm, so if you want the maximum amount of time to log the most amount of miles, you start at 8 am. My friends weren’t in a rush, but I had a few secret goals.
Of course I did.
So when Nathan started counting down the seconds until the official start, I was lined up and ready to go.
Secret goal #1 was to run 40 miles in 8 hours. Sitting at home doing the math, this seemed easy. A 12:00/mile average pace is something I can easily hold for many hours – on a runnable course. What I forgot about the Retreat Repeat course is that it’s only entirely runnable for maybe the first lap or two. But after that, this 1.7 mile loop becomes a trashed mud pit, that only gets worse with each hour that passes. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s a FUN course. But large sections also start to feel like an ice skating rink, making consistent running nearly impossible.
I say nearly, because some people did it. I, on the other hand, am really enjoying this return to running, and don’t feel like sidelining myself already with an ankle injury.
So, secret goal #2 is to finish 20 laps. This will put me at a race PR for this course.
The first three laps fly by quickly. I chose to run/walk right from the get go because this will be my longest running effort – by far – in 13 months. And that 48 hour race I signed up for on a whim has taken precedence, so I don’t wan to do anything too stupid. I need to pace myself, and save my legs.
As I’m finishing my 3rd lap, I have the conscious realization that I’m running alone, without any friends. This is no big deal of course, but unnatural for a race like this. I’m usually with someone – or many someone’s – for the start of a race before checking out and doing my own thing. I decide to grab my aftershokz headphones and listen to music.
And so I go for the next hour. Around loop 5 my feet start to feel the tell tale hot spots of a muddy, gnarly, course. I decide to change my socks and lube up my feet once I hit ten miles (6 loops). I do, and quickly get back on the course. But the hot spots do not disappear. And speaking of hot – it’s about 75 degrees and what feels like 100% humidity out. I wouldn’t say this is rare for this time of year in the South, but after a long streak of 40-50 degree days, this was indeed a sudden change. My body is feeling it .
I run one more loop in my Merrell’s and decide I should give Hoka’s a try. I’ve shied away from the big marshmallow shoes this year for a few reasons (one of them being that I obviously haven’t been running ultras), and was hoping to avoid them for this race. But my feet are clearly beginning to blister, so I need to figure something out. As soon as my feet sink into the Hokas – outfitted with a trusty and worn in pair of superfeet insoles – I can almost feel my feet smile. Yeah, the Hokas make me feel significantly slower, but I’ll be damned if they don’t keep me JUST ABOVE the water level on course, keeping my feet dry. A fair trade, I suppose.
Fast forward to mile 16. I’m coming into the start/finish area, and need to use the bathroom. As I start to turn off the course and towards the port-a-potties (which are at least 100 yards away in the parking lot) my stomach turns. And not just “I’ve been running in humidity and living on liquid calories for the last 3 hours” turns, it’s that immediate “watch out, I’m going to barf everywhere” type of turn. Which has actually never happened to me in a race before.
I’m now hauling ass to the toilets. I’m within FEET of tossing my cookies, when my friend Crystal pops out of a port-a-potty. “HEATHER!” she exclaims happily “How are you FEELING?!” Of course, she means “how are you feeling, finally being back at a race, you must be so excited”. But in reality, I’m about to vomit on her shoes. I believe I gave her a thumbs up, and then threw myself into the bathroom to let my body do what it had to do. And it wasn’t pretty.
And then I’m fine.
I head back to the aid station tent, where a lovely masked woman offers me a grilled cheese. I’ve never turned down a mid race grilled cheese, and today will not be the first time. I accept, and immediately take a bite. And despite the fact that mere minutes earlier my entire gastrointestinal system was revolting, this sandwich was the best thing I had ever tasted.
I have no idea what the hell any of that was about. Despite my stomach feeling better, my heart rate is high, and won’t come back down. I sit down with my friends who try and convince me to just take it easy. But I’m frustrated. I NEVER have stomach issues to this extent in a race, and only 16 miles in? “But you’ve run more miles than the rest of us!” Dinah says, trying to make me feel better. To which I immediately reply “I know I am.” They all laugh, and I realize that my response came off incredibly arrogant. I try to explain myself away, but stop. Everyone came here to do whatever it was they wanted or needed to do.
And I came here to run some big miles, because I missed it. I needed it.
I’m looking at my heart rate, still well in the Z2 area even though I’m SITTING. I’m rambling out loud about how none of this makes sense, when all of a sudden it hits me: I donated a pint of blood less than two weeks ago. I literally jump out of my chair with a smile on my face and declare “I DONATED BLOOD! THAT’S WHY MY BODY HATES ME, I DONATED BLOOD! HAHA!” I hear Dave yell “didn’t you JUST write a blog post about this Heather?” as I skip off to do another lap, now completely satisfied at having an explanation as to why my body is underperforming.
I walk an entire loop, just to make sure my stomach has calmed down. It has, and so I resume my run/walking. Mile 20 ticks by, eventually followed by 25. These are the increments in which I’m texting Geoff updates, even though there is zero cell service on the property. It still brings me a little satisfaction. Somewhere around mile – maybe 28? – I’m cruising along, when all of a sudden my stomach turns again. Immediately and without warning, my mouth is watering and I’m retching. I pull over way off the trail as to not gross out and/or alarm anyone else, and let my body revolt. Once again, I have zero explanation for this, and I’m kind of dumbfounded. I walk the rest of the loop.
When I return to the start/finish, I decide I’m not telling anyone about the second stomach revolt, at least not yet. I’m having a great time, despite all of these random puke occurrences, and I don’t want to be dissuaded from finishing by well meaning friends. Besides, I’m hydrating like I should. I’m eating like I should. My heart rate and breathing are fine (though I’m in a steady Z3 whether I like it or not). And I’m almost to the 50K mark.
I’ll stop once I get a 50K, I tell myself. An official ultramarathon is a great way to start the new year, even if it wasn’t your A or B goal.
Except after walking the remainder of the last loop – I feel good again. And so I start running.
We’re closing in on the 8 hour time limit. I’m constantly calculating how much time I have left and how many loops I can successfully complete. I finish loop #17 at about 6 hours and 50 minutes into the race. I’m moving at around 22 ish minutes per 1.7 mile loop, so I figure I have time for two more loops. And I’m happy with that.
All this time I’ve been cruising along as the 5th place female. As I finish loop 16 and start loop 17, Nathan and friend Chad look at the timing screen and yell “4th place, GO!” Wait, what? Somewhere along the last loop I either passed the previous 4th place, or she stopped running. Either way, I have not felt competitive with anyone else this entire race, and I don’t intend to start now.
Until halfway through this loop, when I catch and pass a woman I was certain had been ahead of me this entire race.
Suddenly, that competitive voice in my head, the one I haven’t heard in nearly a year, is screaming at me. “Go. Do NOT let her catch you. She may not have been 3rd place. She may very well be multiple laps ahead of you, so passing her this once actually means nothing. But still, do not let her catch you, do you hear me?”
I kick it into another gear that I didn’t even realize I had left. It’s hot. I’m a little dizzy. But I’m suffering, and I LOVE it. Oh, how I missed this exact feeling, right here.
As I round the loop back to the start finish, I have no idea what place I’m in. I have no idea how much time is left. And my Garmin has conveniently died. But seemingly everyone is shouting at me “GO, GO! YOU HAVE TIME FOR ONE MORE LOOP, GO!!!!” So I put my head down, and I go.
I run when I can. I walk briskly – bent over at the waist like a tired old man – through the muddiest sections. I run hard on the single track. I take walk breaks and count out 10 steps when I feel like my heart is going to beat out of my chest. I push with absolutely everything I have left in me.
As I round the field towards the finish line, still a good tenth of a mile or so away, I hear Tim Waz, the race timer, yell over the microphone “THREE MINUTES! YOU BETTER HURRY UP!” And I push.
As I approach the finish line, a bunch of my running friends are standing there cheering. I smile and high five them as I run through their mini gauntlet, completely forgetting we are in the middle of a pandemic. I cross the finish line, with about a minute and thirty seconds to spare.
And then I sit down and cry. Right there in the finishing chute. Nathan kneels down to give me my finishing award, and tells me he’s so happy for me. All I could verbally spit out in that moment was that I needed that so fucking bad. Not a podium place, no, as it turns out I would tie with 2nd and 3rd female for distance at 35.7 miles / 20 loops, but would come in after them, holding on to 4th place. And that was totally fine by me.
What I needed – and what I got – was to remember what it feels like when my body says “this is my physical limit”, but experiencing what happens when I ask it to push just a bit further anyway.
I needed to once again feel the joy that I find in pushing through physically difficult conditions. Dean Karnazes is credited with saying “there is magic in misery, just ask any runner”, and I consider myself one of those lucky ones who truly is able to find and experience that magic.
I needed to suffer. For a million reasons that some of will relate to, and others will never understand.
And most of all I needed to remember that I was – I am – capable of doing physically and mentally hard shit.
Post race I changed and hung around long enough for the always amazing post Retreat Repeat raffle (seriously, it seems like almost everyone wins something), and then packed myself, my garbage bag of muddy socks and shoes, my 20 gallon tote, and my chair up and headed home.
As cheesy and unhinged as this sounds, I’ll admit to you that I spent the first 20 minutes of my car ride home crying. I was happy as hell, but the tears wouldn’t stop flowing, so I didn’t try to stop them. This sport is such an important piece of my life that I missed more than I had realized, and now after what felt like the longest, toughest year ever: it was back. I was back. And the relief of that alone brought me to tears.
A million thank you’s to everyone who helped make the event happen. Thank you to those who cheered for me not only on race day, but who never gave up on me this past year. Your steadfast support means more to me than I’ll ever be able to express. This race was exactly what I needed, when I needed it, and I’ll forever be grateful to the amazing endurance community for being such an integral part of my life.
And on that note, I’ll leave you with some sage wisdom from Nathan’s dad, found inside the port-a-potty: