It was dark and rainy as Laura and I drove the 45 minutes North toward the state park where the race would be held, a course that twisted, rose and fell through a wooded landscape just beginning to show signs of life after winter. My head was all over the place as I tried to shake off the psuedo-slumber the dark seemed to hold me within. It’s been two years since I’ve officially raced. Yeah, I did a couple races while on chemo, but they were more about passing the time and not bolstered by any focused training, so this, for me, was my OFFICIAL return to racing during the window of opportunity between surgeries, off chemo, and with full on training. So I did not know what to expect from this effort or where to place my nervous energy. It had been two years since legitimate race anxiety filled my stomach with butterflies, and admittedly, it felt awesome. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t freaking out though.
I tried to reel in my past expectations, where I knew it was highly likely I would win the race, that I would run strong and fast through all 9.3 miles, and that my pre-race intensity was legitimate and warranted. This time I had no idea if I would ever be in the lead, maybe in a front pack, or getting continuously rolled by other runners as the distance wore on and the fatigue built up. This was, definitely, a test race. It would determine where I was in my training, how I could psychologically handle a strong race effort, and how my body would respond. There were a lot of unknowns to answer, adding to my intense anxiety.
Above it all though…it was nice to be back. It felt great to feel the anxiety fill my body, to go through the pre-race motions of warmups, strides, and just trying to focus the mind on the struggle to come.
As I went through some of the motions, Laura said, “Well, you LOOK the fastest.” Which is amusing, because in trail running, it never matters what someone looks like, what they are wearing, or how serious they pretend to be. The most unexpected character in a field of runners can absolutely destroy you on the trails. Still, it does feel good to look fast, for my own psychology if nothing else. As the minutes ticked down, we were about to find out how the field would actually shake out, no matter what anyone looked like.
I bounced around the start line, as everyone gathered together, away from the pools of water that had saturated the ground and created ankle deep unpleasantries. The course, as I learned on my warm up, would be even worse.
With nothing more than a short countdown and screech from the megaphone, we were sent on our way. The group lurched forward into the grassy stretch ahead and I was somewhat surprised to be right out front, despite deliberately holding back my built up energy and easing into the effort by my coach’s orders. We rounded a small bunch of trees before running down the treeline and taking another 180 degree turn into the woods, down an access road periodically marked with unavoidable pools of mud and water that grabbed your feet and refused to let you push forward with strength.
I felt my heart rate spiking as it tends to at the beginning of any race before settling down into a manageable rhythm…but it didn’t settle down this time. Lately, this has always been the case and I’m struggling to understand what is happening, whether I’m pushing my thresholds too far or experiencing some internal damage from surgery, chemo, scar tissue, that may or may not be surmountable. I don’t know…but it’s just not the same and i’m trying to wait it out. So, instead of waiting for my heart rate to fall off, I was listening the footfalls behind me and seeing if the competition would fall off instead. Against wishful thinking, they didn’t.
We pushed through the first mile as I continued to wait for a leveling off of my effort, but the sound of feet behind me kept me pushing forward. I listened intently to count the line behind me. There were at least two, maybe three, and I hoped no more than 5 running behind me.
Coming up on one of the few wooden staircases that either drove us down to or up from the forest floor, I slowed to a near walk as I stepped onto the waterlogged boards that had turned as slick as ice. We all precariously picked our way down the stairs, regaining some lung power before turning back up and climbing to the top of the woods again. We pushed into the soft ground and slipped backwards as the muddy ground took away all forward momentum, sucking the life out of our quads and breaking apart any rhythmic breathing. Cresting the hill, the footfalls were still right with me…and then right past me. The first runner in the trailing group shot in front of me like I had slowed up to quit and second place followed in suit. Third hung on a little longer, but after a couple more drops and climbs, he too ran by.
And then it was just me and my thoughts, with a couple more runners a little further back as a continuous threat, motivator and energy creating fear inducer. For the time being though, it was me and the course, a great deal of building fatigue as my body never seemed to level out…and my thoughts about everything going on in the moment.
Admittedly, I was still happy to be out there, to be pushing myself, to be making something of all the focused training I had been building since 5 months past…but it was still rough. I couldn’t help but think about all the doubts. Why can’t I breathe? Why are my legs so empty? Am I not rested? Do I have too many miles in my body? Do I need more speed work? Should I be running more hills? Are those guys behind me catching up? Can I hold onto 4th place, at least?
And then maybe some more pertinent thoughts followed. 5 months isn’t enough time to get back to where I want to be, right? Is this the ultimate effect of the surgery? Is this residual chemo?
And thoughts of fear. Shit, is cancer draining me of nutrients? Is cancer growing again and causing problems?
And then, maybe something with a little more perspective. Dude…you have cancer. It’s only been 5 months. You’re out here pushing hard. It sucks…but dude…you have cancer. Fuckin relax about it man.
To be honest, my last considerations are true, but I also don’t want to ever use cancer as an “excuse”. Yeah, it’s a thing, but it can be too easy to say just that, “Well…I have cancer, so..you know…” I don’t know how much of that is trying to keep perspective and how much of it is using cancer as a crutch to explain away my inability to run like I used to. I know the greater reality is that my body has been damaged from chemo and surgery more than anything else, and I can point to problematic digestion, the concerns with scar tissue impeding breathing and the numbness in my feet to make my point…but still…that only means so much.
But…but…I just don’t know where to place my thoughts. I don’t know what to think about any of it. I just want to be better. I want to run faster and I want to run stronger. I want to enjoy my efforts more…because I was struggling to enjoy the race.
The stairs and hills kept coming, as I knew they would, but my fatigue kept growing. When the ground leveled out, I only had moments of recovery where I could try to get going again, before the hills threatened me into a walking pace again. The mud insulted any motivation I tried to get going as I pushed into pockets of water and clay-like dirt, taking away any strength I put into my strides. My only consolation was the distance growing between myself and third place was about the same distance growing between myself and fifth place, meaning if I could just hold on, I wouldn’t lose anymore positions…which was something. But really, I just wanted to feel stronger.
We started into the second loop, where the pockets of mud and water would have only gotten worse from the 5k race and 15k runners that had followed us during the start. I had no more energy this second time around as i did the first and the fatigue and doubts continued. I was losing any focus, causing my thoughts to break up into broken sentences of concern, motivation and distraction. Snippets of songs bounced around my head as I tried to just push through the course and hopefully break down the distance in quicker and quicker increments. I was a mind full of literary glitches, broken into Jay Z lyrics, self-doubt, and desperate attempts at motivation.
“Who gon stop me. Who gon stop me huh?
Black strap you know what that’s fooooor.
Whoa, my quads feel empty!
Whatever…I have cancer.
Is third getting away or coming back?
That would be cool if I got third.
We gonna take it to the moon, take it to the stars!
Maybe I can hold onto fourth.
Man I hope fifth isn’t catching up.
Screw this hill..just don’t walk it.
Just get to the top without walking.
Make them work too.
Dude, you have cancer.
Black strap you know what that’s foooor.
Ok, get some strength back.
This mud is getting out of control!
How much strength am I losing trying to run through this?
Who gon stop me. Who gon stop me huh?
Ok, hold on this last stretch for fourth.”
Yeah…that’s my head during a race. Well, when I’m struggling anyways. If I’m doing well, it’s usually just repeating song lyrics in my head and walking a self-talk line of motivation and anger to keep pushing hard.
And for most of the race, that summarized what was happening…trying to maintain some semblance of pace while struggling through momentum sapping mud, quad killing hills, self-doubt and the fear of getting rolled by groups of runners behind me. Fortunately, I was holding on and towards the end of the second lap was able to hit the final flat stretch with just enough recovery left to run hard enough and stay away from anyone behind me trying to make a surge.
I ran to the finish, uncaring about my time, and just glad to have finally gotten back out there, into the race world, and push myself again. There were, of course, a lot of post-run considerations to sort out about my abilities, place in training, health issues, etc., but after a day of reflection…I’m excited. I’m excited to keep pushing, keep training, see where I can take my body (and unfortunately my cancer) and, maybe, see about making up some of that gap between me and first place. Because, honestly, I’d like to be up there again. But for now, wherever I am in the race, what counts most…is that I’m IN the race.
DINO 15k Trail Race
4th place overall