Somewhere in the next 15 miles, my mood falters. Maybe it’s the seemingly never-ending part of the run where I see nobody and tell myself I am off trail even though I continue to pass the pink ribbons marking the course. Maybe it’s my toes, which are starting to hurt from all the rocks I’ve stubbed them on. When my feet get wet crossing a stream, I am irrationally irritated; damp socks, bruised toes, huge blister. I see now who’s in charge here: my feet. They aren’t happy. And while Lake Kelly is maybe the most beautiful vista on the whole course, I ignore it like a child giving a playmate the silent treatment. I carefully pick my way across a damp boulder field, wondering who will save me if I fall and break an ankle.
Luckily, I make a new friend and start conversing with someone on the run for the first time all day. It’s a welcome distraction. Rosalie is my age and lives in Chicago and I am dumbfounded how anyone could train for a trail race like this in a midwestern city. I immediately respect this woman. We run together to mile 41, the next aid station. After shoving handfuls of chips in my mouth and feeling determined to keep moving, I abandon Rosalie and continue running.
The next 6 miles are the hardest of the race. The Clear Lake segment is an out and back with merciless climbing. I am not amused. I get passed by a good number of runners on their way back from the lake. My moral drops. I finally arrive at the top and don’t even bother snapping a photo of the lake. Unfortunately, running down turns out to be no better than the ascent, as my toes are so banged up at this point and the trail is so chock-full of rocks that it simply hurts too much to run. I hobble back to the aid station noticing more people seemed to have passed me on my way to the lake than I am now passing running back. Poor shits, I think to those I do pass who have yet to climb to the lake, they don’t even know what’s coming to them. I wonder where Rosalie is and think that perhaps she was just a figment of my imagination.
Finally back at the aid station and somewhere between mile 44 and 46 I am considerably less cheery. I almost snap at another runner who has cut me in line for soup and coke. A gracious volunteer asks how I am doing. That depends on your definition of good I respond. I’m tired and sarcastic and a considerably less pleasant version of my already sarcastic self. I only have about three miles until the next aid station where Gess can finally begin running with me. Though the next few miles are on a smooth dirt road, I move slow. I make it to the aid station and find Maddie and Gess. Last time they saw me I was Jekyll, but now I am Hyde. Maddie wears the same shoes as me one size up and we decide to trade as my feet have swelled considerably. We exchange insoles, I bust out a lei from my drop bag and Gess and I are off.
As we slog on, I keep waiting for my second wind….which never comes. Initially I do my best to pull myself together, and as the sun sets, I am happy enough. But my mood vanishes with the daylight. During the last few hours of the race, I am mostly feeling sorry for myself, and being reminded that I actually paid money to put myself in this position and therefore no one else probably feels sorry for me, only makes me feel sorrier for myself. I feel sorry for Gess that she has to be with me feeling so sorry for myself. I am sorry for being so sorry. Lei swinging from my neck, I cry…about everything, and nothing, at the same time.
We make it to the last aid station, a site for sore eyes, both a blessing and a curse. Warm clothes, coffee, food: blessing. The ability to simply remain in my car, to drive home and say fuck it to this race: a curse. This aid station is like quick sand: I know we have to get out of here, and soon, or I will simply stop moving. As we trudge on, I tell Gess I am glad to have left the aid station. Because the next gathering place we will come to is the finishing line, and leaving it means that I have affirmatively decided I am going to finish the race. We hike. We walk. Gess asks if I am able to move any faster—the late stage ultra-shuffle, as she calls it. I pick up my speed, and actually believe I am sprinting, but my pace is a solid 18-minute mile. During these last few miles, we are continuously being passed. Where these individuals find the energy to run mystifies me. More than that, it angers me. Assholes! I tell Gess. All of them; everyone here is an asshole. These runners, this course, this race, the race director, assholes!
Gess tells me a story, which involves an old saloon dancer’s disappearance during Colorado’s gold rush, and though she’s telling me this to explain how another trail race acquired its name, I’m fatigued enough to be scared by the story. In the dark, the trail is macabre, and the woods spook me. I ask Gess how many miles we have left every five minutes. And then finally, we make it to a road, which means we have less than two miles to go. More runners pass us. Assholes! We continue walking. I don’t care. Finally I can make out the distant glow of Christmas lights strung across the finish line. From here, it looks like a music festival lit up at night, minus the music. Or a traveling circus. Maybe a mirage. What if this race never ends, I ask Gess. But it does. I cross the finish line, accept my finishers plaque, and sit. It is anticlimactic. What else could I expect at 2:00 a.m.? I stagger to a porta-pottie and sigh in relief. Sitting in this porta-pottie is….pure euphoria! I will myself to get up. Maddie drives us back to the cabin; we go to bed. The deed is done, it’s over.
Nothing to do now but sleep.