Another weekend has come and gone, much like the fleeing of those two days of rest often seems to disappear like the fog in the early morning. Typically, my weekends are filled with the activities of your run-of-the-mill parents: sports activities of the children, errands necessary to maintain a household, and some type of relaxation activities if there are not upteen birthday parties or family parties to tend to.
This past weekend, I chose to spend the bulk of my “down” time with eleven other adults, five of which were crammed in the same tight quarters of a twelve-passenger Ford Transit van for over 36 hours. Trust me when I say I’m not quite sure how TWELVE passengers would fit in this vehicle as it was just barely doable with five other adults and our belongings for the 36 hours.
What were we doing that required the rental of a large van and our belongings for 36 hours? Oh, right. I signed up for another Ragnar Relay race. What….on….earth…is…wrong…with…me?
A couple of years ago, I was conned persuaded to join a 12-person relay team to run a 200 mile road race in 24 hours. I enjoyed the experience tremendously; it was unlike any other race experience and I knew I would do another one someday. Twelve people sign up to run three times in 24 hours; six people in van 1 and six people in van two covering 36 legs of the relay route by foot passing a wrist bracelet “baton” to one another at pre-arranged transition areas continuously until the entire team crosses the finish line.
Flash forward to May 2016, I completed the Ragnar Relay Cape Cod with some Crossfit and running friends of mine. As hard as it is to run multiple miles in 24 hours, the adventure afforded by the Ragnar event leaves you feeling an enormous sense of accomplishment, but also, the memories of doing something outside of your comfort zone and an escape from your everyday burdens life.
At the time, I recall saying repeatedly that I would *never* do Ragnar-Reach the Beach New Hampshire. No way. No how. That race is full of MOUNTAINS. You know…never ending inclines, hills, and did I say MOUNTAINS – as in the WHITE FREAKING MOUNTAINS? Yes. No way am I ever doing that! NEVER.
In the immediate after-glow of Ragnar Cape Cod, in my delirious and over-tired endorphin laced stupor…..I somehow agreed (it still makes me wince) to do Ragnar-Reach The Beach New Hampshire. Yes. Remember I said never?
I was duped.
I was conned.
Two of my Ragnar Cape Cod teammates/friends must have batted their eyelashes at me and wooed me while I was inebriated on serotonin. What kind of friends ARE those; I ask?
Fast forward again to this past weekend, somehow, suddenly a mere four months had vaporized into the time machine and here I was again, sitting in a large white passenger van en route to the deep, dark woods of New Hampshire’s lake region on a Thursday after work.
Why a Thursday you ask? Because the team I was on was assigned a race start time of 6:45 am on Friday. We decided it would not be in our best interest to leave at 2 am on Friday to make a three-plus hour trek up to the starting line located at Bretton Woods when we would then have to be awake for however many hours it took us to complete 200 miles to Hampton Beach at the finish. Fortunately, one teammate in van one and one teammate in van two had homes in the lakes region so we could stay and sleep for a little while before continuing onward North and to higher altitude (aka MOUNTAINS).
Instead of that dreaded 2 am wake-up call from home, we woke at 4:40 am to get the final hour drive up to our race starting point for the safety meeting and check-in of our team. My nerves began to intensify and my belly reminded me multiple times over that my brain was indeed on crack, or something far crazier than serotonin. My Gremlin came out and started with her negative banter:
“You are too old for this!”
“You are not in shape for this!”
“What WERE you thinking?”
“You are way too fat for this!”
“You are so slow, you will hold the entire team back!”
“What on EARTH (or any other planet) were you thinking?”
“You are going to fail.”
“You won’t be able to complete your legs, someone else will have to pick up YOUR slack.”
On and on and on this terrible self-torture went on. ENOUGH! I would shout to myself once in a while. That sneaky slimeball Gremlin would weasel back in:
“You think Crossfit training is enough for you to run all these miles? HA!”
“Maybe you should have focused on more training runs and not lifting weights!”
“Seriously? 400 meter runs at Crossfit, a few longer runs around town and you think you can do this?”
It was too little, too late; I was committed to a team and fidgeting nervously, anxiously, at the base of Bretton Woods waiting for Runner #1 to go off and wonder if I could start my race with a decent enough run to shake off the demoralizing Gremlin.
I started to look around me and I shivered; but it was only 39 degrees at the base of this particular mountain. Thank goodness it’s not hot and humid, I gently reminded myself. Look at that sky! Look….at….that…sky! The crisp sky was such a brilliant shade of blue contrasted by the dark green of the mountains around me. There were hardly any clouds except for a wisp here or there. As I took in a deep, cleansing and calming breath, I knew it would be okay.
Once the baton was handed to me, I reminded myself to start off comfortably as I tend to want to bolt out – partially in anxiety and anticipation, but partially because the old running star still thinks it resides in my brain and has yet to meet this 42 year old body.
Brain, meet body (again, for the thousandth time).
Body, meet brain (again, also for the thousandth time).
Not only am I 42 years of age now, but my body still suffers from the collateral damage of breast cancer treatment and the never-ending gifts that delivers. Three different types of chemotherapy have left life-long residual effects such as neuropathy and a post-cancer diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis. Have you ever tried to run several miles on numb feet and with massive joint pain? For some reason, I do – and for fun!
My first leg of the Ragnar was simply a four and a half mile excursion from Bretton Woods to the Grand Washington Hotel and back to the base of Bretton Woods. As I took off from the base of the ski lift and the grassy knoll it calls home, I headed into a trail that consisted of a sandy, uneven and rocky bed. Deep cleansing breaths ensued as I kept my feet steady on the shifting and moving foundation underfoot and I chuckled as I read the “Beware of bears” sign I wobbled past. Because it was cold, my muscles started to threaten to cramp (damn, why didn’t I warm up more?) and I shook off the pending fear that tried to take over. Before I knew it, I was out on pavement on Route 302 distracted by the glorious peak of Mount Washington before me. I continued on and met the Nordic cross country ski trails to run on; again, somewhat of a nightmare for feet impacted by the nerve damage of Taxol. I found myself chuckling again as I remember what a disaster my one and only cross-country skiing excursion went two years ago at my work retreat on these very same trails. Why would someone try cross-country skiing when they have severe neuropathy? Oh, why the heck not?
Distracted by my own laughter, I suddenly found myself at the base of the rear of the Grand Washington Hotel. It was majestic in its white and red glory against that radiant blue sky.
The trail evened out and was sure-footed as I wrapped around to the other side of the hotel and around the Nordic Ski Center itself where the front of the Grand Washington caught my breath again.
Knowing my teammates were waiting, I scaled the uphill driveway to find myself following several other runners scattered along the exit and back out onto Route 302. As I blasted into the transition area, my team was eagerly and happily waiting for me and I was so pleased to learn I had finished that leg of my race a little faster than I had anticipated. *THIS* is why I do this, I said to myself. I *CAN* do this.
My teammates in Van 1 plowed along through majestic mountains and scenery until about 11:30 am where we handed off to the rest of our teammates in Van 2 for them to start their adventures. We had a few hours to eat, rest and regroup before starting up again for leg two later that afternoon.
By 5 pm or so, the temperature had soared to around 73 degrees and sweat was coming off everybody coming into the transition area for runner #12 to pass off again to runner #1. My Gremlin started to undermine me and cause me uncertainty for my next leg; the same of which was 6.8 miles. While runner #1 was out completing his mileage, I worried about what I had gotten into once again. The pesky questions of self-doubt started to rise and my stomach flip-flopped making me question my lunch choices. The angel on one shoulder was reminding me of my efforts ten hours earlier and giving me words of confidence. The devil on the other shoulder was chastising me, berating me, and trying to convince me that I would be unable to do it for a myriad of reasons.
A little after 6 pm approximately, I trotted out of a sandy pit and onto a winding, country road to start my longest leg of the race. The sun was starting to set with brilliant pinks, reds, and oranges disbursing through the green leaves of the trees. The farm animals lent their smells to the warm mountain air. I practiced breathing as I found myself withholding from the anxiety that still remained in the early mile and I tried to shake out the stiffness from sitting in the van for so long coupled with the remnants of rheumatoid flare the week before.
The rolling hills started to turn into much larger rolling hills; with me trying to make up time on the downhill with my friend gravity as I slowly and steadily plowed my way up, up, up the seemingly never-ending and growing hills. Panic set in as I realized I was only about three miles in; I questioned how I would get through more. Slow and steady. Slow and steady. I recited this to the different beats and tunes surging through my earbuds.
The hills got longer, steeper, and much harder. I wanted to cry. I wanted to call my van and plead mercy. I give up.
Keep going. You have more. Slow and steady. Slow and steady.
I can’t do this. I can’t. My feet hurt. My joints scream.
You have beaten cancer. You have more. Keep going. Slow and steady.
The conflicting dialog continued on in my brain as my body detested the motions I pushed it through. Suddenly, I hit town and more vans were approaching. I must be near the transition area. I can do this. As I turned the last incline, I saw the crowd of people waiting for their teammates to approach and I knew my very own team would be there waiting. I did it.
My van-mates were done around 12:15 am before passing the baton off to van two again. We had the luxury of getting a shower, a meal, and about two and a half hours of sleep at a family member’s house nearby. Another 4:40 am wake-up call and we were en route to the final and third-leg runs for our van.
The long and short of it is my body was by now, very sore and achy from the 11.3 miles it completed in the hours before. Getting in and out of the van was now a challenge, my knees and hips telling me they were not a fan of my activity and my muscles stiffening. I modified by getting out of the van backwards each time. Thanks to a wildcard leg for runner #1 and runner #2 in these legs, the mileage was to be determined by both of us. Runner #1 felt good enough and was a trooper enough to accomplish over 6.4 miles, leaving me with the remaining 4.5 miles to track down for the transition to runner #3. My van-mates reminded me it looked to be mostly downhill, as words of reassurance and confidence. Early on, I knew my final leg was going to be a challenge simply because we had lack of sleep, we had too many miles thus far, and my stomach would not tolerate enough fuel for these last miles.
As I tried to maneuver the downhill grades with a faster clip, my quads started screaming at me. I may have told them to “STFU” and used that momentum for the continuing hills I ensued on this last leg. Are we not getting closer to the freaking ocean? Why are there still so many hills I pondered? My piriformis muscle really let me know it was angry; angrier than my nerve-damaged feet and with more intensity that my quads tried to bail out with. I walked. “Just to that telephone pole and then you get your ass moving again, Rebecca!” I said. I would run until near tears. I walked. “Just to that telephone pole and then you get your ass moving again, Rebecca!” I said yet again. Over and over and over until the final hill of the leg was standing before me. At this point in time, it looked as if it were Mount Everest before me and I nearly burst into a full on girl cry. One more massive hill. I had no choice. Quitting was not an option. I walked the entire last hill. I felt shame. I felt guilt. It took me a long time. I apologized to my teammates who were just so glad I was there. I started to chide myself again for my lack of performance as I nauseously stepped my sweaty mess of a body into the van.
As we drove to the next transition area, I made a decision. I had completed 15.8 miles over three legs in 24 hours. Does it *really * matter how fast or slow I went? Does it *really* matter if my legs were hilly or not? Does it *really* matter that I walked some of those big hills? Really? No. It does not.
I said I would never do Ragnar-Reach The Beach New Hampshire. Yet, here I sat……sore, broken, exhausted, but yet, done. My never had turned into a reality. My never had delivered forty-eight hours of memories and adventures with good friends and new friends.
My never had once again reaffirmed that despite the negative Gremlin that lives in my head, I have the power to overrule the nasty words she spews. My never had also reinforced the belief that despite my sadness that I will never have a “normal” like I had before cancer, my current state of “normal” is okay. My never allows me to be alive and live…truly live by doing things that are not only a test of my physical body, but my mental ability to overcome.
Putting myself aside, I saw friends of mine take on this endeavor and crush every mile Friends of mine who are not “runners” as they label themselves, are now the owners of bragging rights for completing distances equal tonor greater than a half-marathon! What a sight to see! What pleasure I gained from seeing their smiles and sense of accomplishment!
Life is always full of challenges for all of us, that will not change. Instead of saying never in the future, I will look at challenges with an open-mind and I will know that I am responsible for whether I choose to accomplish or overcome those challenges as I see fit. Instead of saying I will *never* do an ultra Ragnar (only six runners for 200 miles, instead of twelve); I now firmly, confidently, and emphatically say, “I choose NOT to do an ultra. I have zero desire to consider that challenge. I will look elsewhere for a different challenge.”
Anyone in for Ragnar Cape Cod 2017?