By Jenny Neyman
The irregular pop and crack of car doors opening and closing through the dewy darkness matched the stuttering rhythm in my chest.
Rainbow-hued streaks ghosted through the slowly lightening gloom of the Cooper Landing parking lot around 5 a.m. Saturday, the wearers stooping to triple check the contents of their packs, twisting in warm-up/wake-up stretches or turning to accept a good-luck hug or high five. A headlamp bobbed at the far end of the gravel lot, marking the trailhead where the assembled would soon depart, filing up the narrow chute into the forest and Kenai Mountains beyond in the 2013 Resurrection Pass Ultramarathon.
The other end of the trail lay in Hope, 38 miles away, but it would take these runners 50 miles — owing to a 12-mile side trip out and back much of the connecting Devil’s Pass Trail — and about 3,000 feet of elevation gain and loss to get there.
And the 50-milers were the debutantes that day. Another crew of runners started in Hope the previous afternoon, doing the course backward to Cooper Landing, then turning around and returning to Hope in the 100-mile event.
Once massed for the 6 a.m. start, the group overpowered the background bouquet of damp underbrush with a nasal stew of menthol muscle balm, technical fabrics retaining the stamp of sweat repeatedly soaked up and wicked away, and running shoes in various states of decomposition — having collectively seen more miles than some late-model cars.
The murmur of conversation quieted for the safety spiel: This is a self-supported race so carry everything you might need, be wary of wild critters and those looking to shoot them (as Saturday was opening day of hunting season), don’t get lost and don’t get hurt, since you’ll be as much as 18 miles from the nearest road or trailhead. (As this isn’t an “official” race, there were no waivers to sign, but no regular aid stations or trail sweepers, either.)
Oh, and have fun.
Following the word, “Go!” all else was drowned out by a racket of footfalls, bear bells, the rustle and squeak of nylon packs, and water sloshing in various sizes and configurations of containers.
As I lurched into the trail train, I concentrated with maniacal intensity on these other-focused senses, determined, in so doing, to ignore any registration of the sense of touch. Particularly, of being in touch with myself, as I did not want to acknowledge what I suspected I was feeling:
- Stiffness and soreness in my right knee, owing to a hiking twist in early June and a spectacular kneecap crack against a rock in early July.
- Hot spots on my feet, from my not-quite-healed, latest round of blisters.
- Every fiber of my being screaming: “IDIOT! What are you DOING?!?”
The short answer: I was attempting to run an ultramarathon, come hell, hobbling or high water. Given the rainy forecast, I was expecting all three.
As tends to be my thickheaded approach to decision-making, a primordial, nearly subconscious portion of my brain had earlier in the summer latched onto the idea of running the 50-mile Res Pass ultra and would not be reasoned out of it.
Even though there were plenty of good reasons:
A) I’d never done an ultramarathon. My longest previous run had been the mostly flat, aid-station-every-couple-of-miles Kenai River Marathon.
B) I did not think I was ready for it. I’d been running, sure, spending more time this summer circumnavigating Tsalteshi Trails in Soldotna and traipsing out and back Swanson River Road in Sterling than I had sleeping (or so it felt), but was it “enough?” My longest one-day training run had been 38 miles, from Cooper Landing up to the top of Resurrection Pass and back, followed the next day with another couple hours on my feet. But still, racking up 50 miles in consecutive days of long runs is as similar to covering that distance in one shot as a goldfish is to a salmon shark.
C) The knee, the feet, a tricky hip, a kinked back, gummed-up ankles, perennial shin splints, a busy schedule making it hard to find time for long training runs — a veritable smorgasbord of perfectly legitimate reasons to wuss out of anything that might test my coordination, heart rate or respiration. And those are just the meat-and-potatoes excuses. Anytime I felt exotic I could have sprinkled in a lingering stiff neck from a car wreck this winter, or my habitually off-kilter, ear-drumless equilibrium (not fun for hopping roots and rocks).
So why do it? Oh, er, well… (Stares blankly. Blinks. Shrugs. Stares blankly some more.)
It feels as though I should have a ready answer. Fifty miles is an awfully long way to go on a whim. But even under the most rational of circumstances, my reasoning for doing things often makes little logical sense — even to me, much less anyone else. Picture asking someone the time and them answering, “Jellybean.”
But here goes:
A) Previous inexperience is an invalid excuse. I hadn’t done a marathon before my first, either, nor a half marathon, nor a 10 mile, nor a five mile, nor a five kilometer. There’s a first time for everything. (And, logically, a last time for everything. But to that I say, “Jellybean.”)
B) If feeling like I was “ready” were the requirement for attempting something, I’d never have gotten my driver’s license, taken my first job out of college, started a business or so much as gotten out of bed most mornings of my adult life. I figured that an ultra would be like writing. Training would be “done” when race day arrived, just like a story is only “ready” when its deadline is nigh. You give it what you can with the time you’ve got and hope the outcome isn’t too terrible.
C) I used to loooove bellying up to that buffet. Oh, how I’d relish the comfort of the bottomless spread of excuses I could dish up whenever I desired. These days I get more sick and tired of not trying than I’ve ever been from trying and failing, no matter how spectacularly lousy the results. Except, perhaps, that time I tried dinner from a questionable salad bar the night before a 50-kilometer Tour of Anchorage. That ski was pretty damn sick and pretty damn tired, with nothing pretty about the results. But onto every success some setbacks must fall. And fall. And fall. And throw up. And fall some more.
Thus, being able to invalidate my reasons not to do the run tipped the balance to my one remaining reason to do it: My well of personal torture was running dry.
Yeah, I know. Jellybean.
It goes like this: If I were to test my DNA, I suspect it would approximate a marmot more closely than any mammal with more brazen tendencies. My knee-jerk is toward hidey holes, to shriek, shrink and retreat. To counteract that, every so often I like to aim not just for the strenuous, but the ridiculous. If I make it, I have inarguable proof that I am, in fact, capable of things that I may not at first have thought possible. When I find myself shrinking, as I have this year, it’s time to stretch again.
Still, this was a helluva stretch, and not one I’d recommend lightly. Or at all, really, since I believe everyone should choose his or her own challenges. I couldn’t have been talked into this race any more than I could have been talked out of it. This was a jellybean entirely of my own choosing.
So, was it sour or sweet? As with any experience worth savoring, it was both. And the lessons learned will stick with me — oh please, oh please — much longer than the resultant aches and exhaustion.
1. If you’re going to try something truly challenging, simply trying isn’t enough. Because it’ll get uncomfortable, it’ll get inconvenient, it could get downright miserable. Trying gets you to the start line. Maybe 100 yards, or even 10 miles, up the trail. But it doesn’t get you to the finish. Experienced ultramarathoners have a mantra — “relentless forward motion.” If you want to finish you’ve got to keep going. Walk if you have to. Crawl if that’s all you’ve got. If you’re determined to achieve your goal you can’t just try, you’ve got to try to keep trying.
2. Enjoy what you can, when you can. It rained and I got soaked. I took a wrong turn that resulted in a couple extra miles. My feet cramped so bad it took about eight minutes to change into dry socks. My water pack rubbed my back into hamburger. And when it ran dry I got so dehydrated I lost at least a pants size, as evidenced by my once-fitting shorts sliding south to the point where a couple of guys I passed probably thought I was a plumber, ifyaknowwhatImean.
But I also got to trot the length of the unfailingly beautiful Juneau Lake, floor it downhill through a moss-cushioned forest and meander alongside the silky Resurrection River. And eventually the clouds wrung out and lifted, gifting me a solid hour of vast, fireweed-studded alpine views, well worth at least three of the four hours of torture yet to come.
3. To lessen an intimidation factor, try something even harder. When I started trying to be active 10 years ago, running five kilometers seemed unattainable, then became a warm-up when I started aiming for five miles. Running 10 miles was ludicrous until my first half marathon. A half marathon remained crazy until I tried a full marathon. This summer the once-terrifying marathon became a mid-distance training run.
4. Set yourself a challenge, but give yourself a way to win. I went into this knowing it would be hard. Hell, wanting it to be hard (jellybean!). But I wanted a sense of accomplishment to be attainable. So my goal wasn’t to finish in a certain time or placement, it was just to finish — be it in 12 hours, 14 or the cutoff of 17, in the middle of the pack or dead last of it, just as long as I wasn’t dead, period.
So it barely registered when the timer at the finish line told me I was third of the women, having finished in 9 hours, 54 minutes. It didn’t surpass my elation that I. Was. Done. At that point he could have told me I was the Walrus King and I’d have responded the same way:
“Oh… uh… OK. Thanks? But it’s over, right? I don’t have to move anymore? Ever again?”
Ever again, at least, being for the immediately foreseeable future, giving my knee a chance to de-swell and skin time to regenerate. One good thing about biting off this big a jellybean is it takes a good long while to digest. I’ll be chewing on this one an ultra long time.
Jenny Neyman is a reporter and editor for the Redoubt Reporter.