I’ve done some pretty dumb stuff in my life. I jumped out of an airplane. I had three children in three and a half years. I once voted Republican. (My GOP friends, you know I love you.) But the race I did this past Saturday takes the cake.
My friend and I are training to run a sub 3:55 marathon in order to qualify for Boston. We’re not certain which race we’ll run to be eligible (probably Los Angeles next March) but she suggested we participate in a 25K (15.5 mile) trail run in Malibu Canyon as an early test of our mettle. I’m immediately suspicious of any race that takes place in August, but she assured me she’d done it years ago and the breezes that move through the pass from the ocean made it “doable” during the hottest month of the year.
Let me just say this: I hold no ill will toward my friend.
The temperature in Malibu Canyon reached 104º on Saturday.
I am not a trail runner.
I arrived before 7am to pick up my bib number for a 7:30 start. The 50K crazies (31 miles) had already started running an hour earlier. My friend and I stretched, hid our race T-shirts under a tree so we wouldn’t have to walk back to our cars, and wondered if the relatively cool temperatures, in the low 70s, would last.
We were required to carry at least one water bottle even though there would be aid stations along the course. I made fun of my own polka dot, plastic Girl Scout number and threatened to get rid of it early on, since I wasn’t used to carrying anything when I run, particularly not in a race for which I’d paid $75. Looking around at serious trail runners, with their CamelBak Hydration Packs and their Amphipod Airstretch Water Belts, I scoffed at the inanity of it all. I told you, I’m not a trail runner. I don’t carry Gummi Bears in a pouch when I’m doing ten miles, anywhere.
Being a mother, first and foremost, I had a plan for finishing in time to get to the second half of Bun Bun’s first soccer game of the fall season. Currently, my friend and I run at a different pace and so she gave me her blessing to take off at the start and finish and call her later in the day.
The race director, using a megaphone, gave pre-race instructions, warned us against the terrible heat, and insisted she didn’t want to see any course records broken, lest any of us needed to be medevac-ed out of there.
At two miles, we formed a single file to navigate through a dry creek bed. Half a mile later, we went by the old M*A*S*H set. After that, I was looking forward to the first water and aid station as I’d already gone through half of what I was carrying with me. There, a mere four miles into the run, I gobbled a piece of banana, drank water and a shot of cola, and re-filled the polka dot bottle. I’d decided to keep it with me.
Shortly afterward, we started hitting one hill after another. On Saturday, panting in the blazing sun – it had reached 90º in no time – I noticed that I was the only one doing the run-shuffle and walkers were passing me left and right. I trudged probably another quarter mile before I realized I was being an ass and, looking at the steep (and I mean steep) terrain in front of me for what looked like another two miles, I stopped to stroll.
The further you get in a 25K deep into a canyon, the less opportunity you have to say “f**k this” and turn around. I was committed. Thankfully, with age comes wisdom (sometimes) and I realized that Bun Bun’s soccer game was out of the question. There was no shade, dirt paths as steep as Everest to climb, it was nearing 100º, and I was screwed. I was certain my daughter would rather I live to see the next soccer game.
By the time the next aid station turned up at 7.5 miles, I was wrecked, as was everyone around me. Ice-cold sponges were squeezed over our heads, water bottles were filled, Gatorade and Goo was consumed. It was a party no one seemed eager to leave, but the longer we stayed, the longer our ordeal would last. On we went, hiking up giant boulders, down the other side, trying not to slip, trying not to break down and cry at every additional hill that came before us. “Dammit, do we ever go down?!” I shouted and a woman next to me tried to explain the next few miles. The Pacific Ocean in the near distance taunted us but provided no breeze. The dozen or so runners I ended up pacing with throughout the race suddenly became the most important people in my life. It was another three miles before the third and last aid station at Mile 13, I’d run out of water, and I realized these were the kind of conditions in which people die.
Obviously, I didn’t die. But I’ve never before feared for my health in a race before Saturday. Does anyone have an extra kidney they can give me? I charged downhill toward Aid Station #3 with a will I’m not sure I’ll see again anytime soon. So what if I wouldn’t be able to walk down stairs for a week? I needed help and I needed it fast. After stumbling over rocks to cross a creek – the woman in front of me shouted profanely in frustration – I made it to the refreshments (canapés, anyone?) and downed so many liquids, I felt nauseous. Onward the final 2.5 miles, which included one last steep mile climb on a path about 18” wide. I pulled over at least half a dozen times to catch my breath – none of us had run in miles – assured those who asked that I was okay, and then did my best impression of Quasimodo heading to the finish line.
The trashcans full of iced fruit drinks weren’t meant for dunking, but I dunked my head in anyway. The volunteers standing nearby didn’t dare stop me as I poured handfuls of ice down my shirt front and back. Like Jack our dog, I ravenously consumed whatever I was handed, which included two bottles of water, some electrolytes, and a slice of pizza. I sat in the shade of an oleander bush to recover and take in what we’d all just put ourselves through. After borrowing someone’s phone to call the husband, I let him know I was alive and told him I was hanging around to make sure my friend was, too. As fire engines and ambulances arrived to aid 50K runners in distress on the trail, I told him to tell Bun Bun that I was happy she’d won her game and happier still that I’d live to see her next one.
As I said, I’ve done some really dumb things in my life. For the sake of my children, I hope I’m finished.