Tuesday, May 13, 2014

"You are better than you think you are. You can do more than you think you can."

Ragnar Relay: Cape Cod with the NE Spahten Chicks 

Dear Blogland,

This weekend, I finished the single hardest race I've taken on, to date. Harder than the NJ Spartan Super, harder than the Vermont Beast.... harder than my first half marathon..... this weekend, I tackled my first (...and not last) Ragnar Relay, in Cape Cod.

Sometime last November, on a whim, I happened to mention out to Facebook that I thought the Ragnar Relay: Cape Code would be a cool race to do, someday.
Next thing I know, less than 2 weeks later, my home team the NE Spahtens, had run with the idea, formed teams (one chicks only, one guys only and one co-ed), registered..... and was holding me responsible.

Oh. Shit.

However, that was back in November, I was getting back into training and surely I'd be all set, by the time May rolled around, 6 months later. However, alas, Life happened and I was nowhere near where I should've been to start this race, wanted to be, or could've been. I was in a complete flat-out panic. As race day loomed, I reflected on all the training I had not done, all the weight I had not lost, and all the miles I had not logged. I was going to let down my 11 other teammates, I was not going to be able to finish, etc.... you can see where the negative spiral was going. Nonetheless, my team held me to it, and dragged me to the event.

Start Line: Hull, MA, 5am
After a full work-day on Thursday, I rounded up the Great White Rental Van, picked up my other Vermonters, Stacey and Shelley, and hit the road, bound for Massachusetts. Shortly after beginning our journey, while stopping for a Dunkin' fuel stop, my flip-flop (my only other pair of shoes, other than my race sneakers) died. I immediately assumed that this was not a good omen for the beginning of the journey...

Upon our Late Arrival in Massachusetts (thanks to a lack-luster dinner at Friday's and a quick stop at Target for some new flip flops!), we met up with another of our teammates, April, and crashed quickly to sleep. We hit the pillow just about midnight... expecting the rest of our teammates to arrive at the hotel to rendezvous at 3am. NOT our best plan ever.

Sunrise over the water at the start line!
Alarm clocks off at 3am, and we all groggily pulled on our spandex, before meeting the rest of our 12 person team. Hugs and greetings were exchanged, bags were shuffled, and we piled in to our two mini vans, to head to the start line.

The co-ed team was starting the earliest, at 5am with our team to follow at 6:15am. The energy at the starting line was intense, full of life and positivity, despite the pre-dawn hours.  Our first runner, Tora, took the starting line looking totally bad ass and ready to kill it. The announcer amped up the crowd and sent off the racers to start the clock on our event.... there was no turning back now. I will freely admit, I was a huge ball of nerves and there was absolutely nothing I wanted to do more at this point then run away. Far. Far. Away.

Van 2 Ladies (minus Amy our photographer!) at the crack of dawn.
Looking around at all the teams gathered to send their racers off at the start line, I was the heaviest person there. Although the population of OCR's and other obstacle races is flush with intense athletes, usually, there is a healthy population of weekend warriors, or people in the beginning stages of their fitness journey, who are working for a finish line - not an elite time. Looking around at the Ragnarians, this was NOT the case.... this was a compilation of established runners; I felt out of place, out classed and more unsure than ever, that I had made a good decision showing up.

Ready for my first leg!
None the less, the Van 2 ladies (Amy, Jess, April, Katie, Stacey and myself), piled into our van, to begin our "downtime" while Van 1 (Runners 1-6) ran their first legs. Despite the early morning hours, energy, anticipation and nerves were running high, so no one got any sleep. Instead, we found our first exchange point and got ready to rally.

Sending off Amy (our first runner of the 2nd van) early Friday afternoon, really began the journey for our half of the team. So far, our team was right on our predicted pace, running strong and doing well. I wanted to throw up more and more, as each minute ticked closer to the time I'd have to run. As we passed all the runners on the road, it became increasingly evident to me that I was WAY out of my league. These were not 12-13 minute miler's on the road. These were spandex clad running athletes.

I readied for my first leg, which was to directly follow Katie's epic 12.8 miler (so epic, she got a special medal for it being "wicked hahd"). The weather was overcast, cold and windy - but at least I wouldn't be too hot, right?

I spotted her neon outfit (she's hard to miss...), received the hand-off slap bracelet, and off I went down the road. I knew I could run for at least 6 minutes straight, if I took an easy pace, and I just hoped this was enough to take me out of the eye of most of the crowd gathered at the exchange point.

A scenic Exchange point!
I trotted along, getting honked and screamed at by other passing team vans (it's how you show your support at a Ragnar!), and tried to stay positive. I wasn't running fast, but I was running. Other gazelle-like runners floated by me, passing words of encouragement as they went by. I pushed.... until the effing hills. Isn't Massachusetts supposed to be FLAT? I assure you, it most certainly, is not. My body was saying it was just about time for a walk break, and I didn't want to kill myself on the first couple of hills, will the majority of my 4.5 mile run still ahead of me. Strategy: Walk up the hills, run down them.  Taking a peek at my GPS watch, I was still doing okay, for what I predicted... 13 min mile or under - which seemed reasonable with walk breaks.

4.5 miles wore on and I did my best. Trudge up hill, run down it. Try and run the flat as much as possible. In the last couple of miles, my calves started feeling tight (never a good sign for me), so I did a little extra walking.... and felt pretty crappy about it, watching the gazelle-runners continue to breeze by. Forcing myself into my run intervals, a new complication arose.... my right foot... then also my left foot, went completely numb. Like, you-sat-on-your-foot-too-long numb. Couldn't feel them at all. Could still feel the calf cramps, but the feet were just numb stumps on the end of my legs. I had a little panic about that, walked, rotated my ankles, and returned the feeling to my feet. Started to run again and within a minute, both feet were gone.

Having not experienced this before, I was unsure as how to proceed. My logical brain was telling me that my calf cramps, coupled with foot swelling from running and a chronic ankle injury, and sitting in the car, etc. was just pinching a nerve. However, my emotional brain was freaking out. This was only my first leg, and I wasn't done yet.

Thankfully, I was able to run through the numb feet a bit and saw the "One Mile To Go" sign (a blessing that Ragnar puts on every leg!!), and decided to get the job done. I was rewarded with my leg opening out onto a nice FLAT run on the bike path next to the canal, under the Bourne Bridge. Flat surfaces are much easier to run with numb feet. LOL. I finished under an hour, averaging a 13 min pace, and considered that a success. Surely the other legs would be better?

Nutella and Bagels: Race Fuel!
Van 2 finished up their legs that evening, passing the baton back to Van 1 to take their second round. In the meantime, we were HUNGRY. We located an IHOP, ate our weight in eggs and hashbrowns, and restored ourselves to somewhat human to prep for the rest of the event. We tried to get a bit of napping in, but still, everyone was running on a very small amount of sleep. Here's where our endurance would start to kick in.

Van 1 finished up their second runs around midnight and handed back the baton to us, as our runners set forth into the night, headlamps and blinking tail lights ablaze. I have to say, Ragnar did a great job at marking the course, having police present all night long to help with crossings, and generally, make you feel safe and not alone, as you ran through the wee hours.

As my second run approached, I wasn't feeling too nervous. Even though I was still feeling like the Fat Kid on the block, my next run was a short 2.3 miles, that I was sure I could bang out at the same, consistent pace. 5:30 dawned, and my teammates chucked my groggy self out of the van and set me off of on my supposedly flat, scenic run.

It was a quarter mile in, when my calves locked up, that time. I don't mean "my calves felt tight" or "they were a little crampy".... I mean, they locked up solid, felt like rubber bands pulled to tight... and shortly thereafter, the foot numbness followed. Less than a half a mile in, I was walking, couldn't feel my feet and faced the longest 2 more miles I could think of. Taking a minute to stop and evaluate, I noted that my feet/ankles were super puffy - presumably from sitting in the van so much.  Coupled with the calf cramps (that I'm prone to anyway).... that seemed like a recipe for the foot numbness. Having a reasonable explanation helped my mental state a bit..... but did not help the task at hand.

I looked forward to the scenic route that I would be running through the marshes at dawn, and noted the uneven dirt road, lots of loose gravel, and other obstacles. that running with numb feet didn't seem like a good idea, on. I could just picture me trying to run along, stepping wrong on a rock because I couldn't feel my feet, and rolling an ankle. I had zero idea what to do at this point.... so, I just kept moving. Run where I could, until my feet went numb, walk a bunch. Run again, walk again. My frustration was at an all-time high, as I watched my pace sink slower and slower. The negative self talk started spinning, reminding me that I was in no way ready for this event.

One of the gazelle runners ran by me, while I was walking, and turned to me and said, "c'mon girl! You got this!!"... and I tried to muster a smile, but I was too busy feeling ragingly ashamed. I'd undertrained, over committed and saddled myself with a race that I couldn't handle.

As I rounded the 2 mile mark, with a small .3 to go, I had pretty solidly reached the conclusion that I would not be able to complete my last leg. I was facing another 4.5 mile leg... which, after this epic disaster of a 2.3 mile one, I couldn't find any way in my head to complete. I felt like I was beaten, I'd let everyone and myself down, and I'd have to DNF for the first time in my life.

Last .3 miles, and I rallied as best as I could, trotting into the exchange point, trying to cover up the pain face. I was a solid 10 minutes or more behind my projected finish time, but my teammates were there, cheering and waiting for me, regardless. I passed off my snap-bracelet, barely acknowledging Jess, as I did so, and tried to walk off the cramps and flood of emotion that was suddenly hitting me. Katie asked me how it went, and the best I could do was shake my head, muster a "not good" and try and suck back the tears welling up in my eyes. I choked down a few ibuprofen, stretched a bit, and climbed into the van to deal with my thoughts. Thankfully, my teammates seemed to sense the space I needed, and left me to myself to process for a bit.

At this point, I felt that the only thing I could do was bail out of my last leg, and hope one of my teammates could pick it up for me. I even texted my GT (Guru Trainer), saying that I could not finish, and I was cramping, etc. The situation was bleak, in my head. I'd failed. Yet, not one of my other teammates ever started talking about taking over my leg, or what the plan would be if I could not run. "Not finishing" was simply not an option. We were in this together, we would all finish, one way or another.

I sat in the van reserved, unhappy and lost in my own tangle of thoughts. I'd been in tough spots before, at races, but never really got to the point where I really felt I couldn't do it. This was the time, this was the wall. my last leg was slated to be 4.5 miles of "moderate". That was not an encouraging thought. However, I looked around, and despite tired faces, there were smiles. My team, after being up a solid 24 hours at this point, was still joking, cheering for runners and "tagging" vans with #NES at every opportunity. They were all putting solid efforts into their runs and coming out on top, despite the adversity presented at them.
I could not quit now, I wasn't that person.

Right about that same time, Katie announced that she was feeling pretty good and happy to pace my last leg with me, to help me get through it. I had two legs and some support and a team that didn't care about time. It seems I had no excuses left.

I broke out the Tiger Tail and started rolling my legs. Time to STFU.

For the next 6-7 hours, while 10 other runners ran before me, I stretched, I rolled, I massaged, I walked.... I did everything I could possibly think of to loosen up the legs and get the swelling to go down. Sitting at our last major exchange, waiting for our Van 1 to finish, I stuck on my KT tape, with a little prayer to the running gods, to just get me through this.

While catching a luke-warm shower for the first time in 36 sweaty hours, I adjusted my wardrobe choice, even. Although I was planning on a hot-pink tech tee, I elected to sport a STFU t-shirt, with a spartan helment and "Spartan the *&^* UP!" on the back. It seemed like the right sentiment to be going into this last trial with.

The day was 70, sunny and beautiful, down the far reaches of the Cape, as my last leg drew nearer. I reminded myself that there were a lot of lessons to be learned here, and a lot of things to be thankful for. It was a perfect day, I was with some of my favorite people, I had all the support I could ask for and it was JUST another 4.5 miles for me. (In comparison, some of my teammates had 6 or 9 miles facing them to finish!)
The T-Rex Run, as I started my last leg

Around 3:30 that afternoon, it was Go time. Katie, our neon-clad mileage beast, passed me the baton, and promised to catch up as soon as she had caught her breath, and I set off at a hopeful slow, steady pace.

I was barely around the corner and out of site of the exchange, before my calves went angry. I gritted my teeth and kept going. Shortly after my feet going numb, Katie appeared with a smile and a cheerful outlook, to help me trudge up a few hills. We trekked on, chatting, running whenever I could manage it, walking as needed and generally pushing through. When, out of nowhere, Van 1 (done with their runs for the day) appeared, screaming and yelling and blasting some tunes. After dragging a smile out of me, they drove on a little ways, to greet me with the Rocky theme song. Later, I got an 80's dance break, to Pour some Sugar on Me. LOL. Van 1 ladies, your antics certainly broke up the monotony that could've been the walk-trudge of death. (and we know the other runners loved it!!).

Last leg, trying to rally!
Miraculously, the miles went by. They certainly weren't pretty, nor did they feel good... but they were a means to an end. That "one mile to go" sign was so welcome, as we turned into a small "trail" section, where we found ourselves walking through loose sand. My calves were having NONE of running in loose sand, but we kept plowing forward.

Sprint Beginnings... 
Emerging on the other side of the sand-trail, there was a volunteer with a flag, that loudly proclaimed, "You're almost there! 500 yards to go!" and pointed us around the corner. I have never been so insanely relieved in all my life. I could do anything for that long. Katie and I picked up a jog and rounded the corner. As soon as I could see my team in the distance, something clicked over in my head. We were getting this done, and we'd do it Spartan style - Leave EVERYTHING out on the course. I didn't want to simply trot to the finish and know that there might've been an ounce more that I could've done.... there was a little more in my legs, so it was time to use it.

Cue The Sprint.
Leaving it all on the course, and getting lift-off!

Katie and I picked up into a dead sprint, each of us pushing the other to go just a little faster. I saw Jess, amid the pack of cheering and clapping Spahtens, waiting for the hand off, and charged right at her. Skidding to a stop I snapped the bracelet to her, and paced around, trying to catch my breath. I felt awesome. THAT was how you finish a race, no matter how crappy the rest of it went.

I'd done it. I'd covered the miles, and didn't have to run anymore. All I had to do was cheer my ass off for the 9.6 miler that Jess was going to pull off and bring us to the finish. With no doubt that she could do it, I smiled in satisfaction. We were almost. there.

We rallied our vans and made our way over to the Finish area. I inhaled my free burrito from Boloco and remarked about the cruelty of Ragnar to put the food area UP three small flights of stairs and a small hill. However, the food was pretty tasty and the energy at the finish was awesome.

It wasn't too long when we heard that Jess was a couple miles off. It was time to gather the troops and wait to bring her in. The Chicks were all smiles as we waiting a few hundred yards from the finish, trying to spot our runner off in the distance.

Before long, we spotted her, cresting the last hill and headed towards us. Our cheers - both for Jess's feat and our own personal wins - drowned out the surrounding sounds of Provincetown. She barely slowed as she rounded the last corner and stormed the finish line.... flanked by 11 of the coolest teammates anyone could ever ask for.

Charging the Finish!
After crossing the finish line, tears welled up for some, smiles and hugs spread like wildfire, and medals were handed to us. I think the epicness of what we had just completed as a team, really started to settle on us.

I was slow, fat, undertrained and not ready for this.... but, my team dragged me through. For that, I'll always be grateful. For me, getting this "success" under my belt was the final push to get back to where I was, with training and running and racing. I LOVE the competitiveness of a race, the camaraderie of your team and even the people you don't know, and the irreplaceable experiences that come out of these situations. This race, really hitting bottom and crashing through that dark space in my head reminded me why I chose to get out of it the first time around.
NE Spahten Chicks: 2014

Thanks to the Greatest Team (including the support, hugs and cheering from the Men's and Co-ed team!) ever, I'm motivated and pushing to a goal again.

As for Ragnar.... well... we're going to have to have a rematch. I finished, but in no way near the way I'd like. Next time, I will run more than I walk, I'll feel strong going into it, and I'll run that race the way it's meant to be run. I hear there is the Adirondack version in late September... which sounds like a good goal to train to. Plus, from finishing this Cape Code Ragnar, we'd be eligible for a special double medal (the Docks and Daks medal!). And really, who doesn't love bling?

Again, I'll say, this was the toughest event I've tackled, to date; however, probably one of the most gratifying as well. Sometimes, it is in your darkest places, that you see the light to go on. :-)

Our Van, post race-tagging. Next time, we're all over this!