This post is the last installment of my trail diary, and I’ve earned the right to bring this four-part series to a close. On Saturday, I toed the starting line of the SRT 30-Mile Race, and just over seven hours later, I reached the finish.
When I originally pictured myself running in this race and then writing about it afterwards, I imagined a grand narrative about the Shawangunks, a time capsule on the growing popularity of trail running in the US, an elegy to the technical trails and canopied passageways of the Northeast. But those stories are for other days and other races; my thirty miles on trail became too deeply personal to make this entry about anything other than my experience.
If I had to summarize the race in one word, I would describe it as a slog. But casting a blanket over my tens of thousands of footsteps is neither possible nor necessary. Saturday represented much more than the mere completion of a fixed distance on a trail — it was the culmination of a multitude of personal goals and aspirations. I wanted to surpass previously held beliefs about my own physical limits, expand my definition of competition, prove mental fortitude in a challenge well beyond my comfort zone, and unlock future experiences through the knowledge that a full day of trail running is not only possible but at times enjoyable.
I achieved these goals, but not in the way I had expected. My fear going into the race was bottoming out — reaching a moment on trail when I believed continuing on and/or finishing the race was not possible. And yet, as I hauled myself up a steep embankment fifteen miles into the race, having just paused to refill my water flasks and attempt to cool my overheating body, I began to question my abilities and motives. A week ago, I’d run fifteen pain-free miles in the Adirondacks at a faster pace than I thought possible, but the combination of heat, humidity, technical trails, navigation challenges, and a tumble four miles into the run caused suffering that I was not prepared to endure — at least not with fifteen more miles to go. My feeling of bottoming out was not a desire to quit; rather, it was the first time I’d put myself in a position athletically where quitting would’ve been an acceptable option. You don’t quit in a soccer game until the final whistle blows, and while I’ve been forced to slow down in shorter races, it’s always been possible to endure a few tough miles knowing that the pain would dissipate the moment I finished. It’s never been a question of not finishing. But an unsupported ultra-marathon is a different test: alone and lacking the energy to run for more than a few steps, I was forced to grapple with the possibility of not finishing the race.
Well before I hit my low point of the day, I realized that my participation in the SRT Race was really a self-inflicted psychological experiment — a test/game that I willingly chose to play with myself, both in terms of the suffering endured and elation enjoyed during the race and in regard to the physical and mental preparation in the months beforehand. Training runs took me to new places and amounted to some of the most enjoyable miles I’ve ever spent on trail, and writing about the process turned the experience into a metaphysical one: my previous blog posts helped me to mentally prepare for the race, but they also allowed me to smooth over my more nuanced emotions and fears for the sake of precision and clarity. I learned on Saturday that there is no hiding from emotions, especially the most complex and troublesome doubts, when you are alone for seven hours on trail.
Several factors propelled me forward after I’d reached a point of thorough exhaustion. As I moved beyond the halfway point, the decreasing number miles remaining and my ever growing number of miles completed provided a spark. Thirteen miles must be possible when you’ve already run seventeen; ten is only a third of the race; eight feels trivial. Compressing the remaining miles into reasonable segments made each seem bearable on its own, and the closer I got to the finish, the more pathetic I would’ve felt for quitting with a relatively few miles remaining.
I also took inspiration from other racers on trail. At mile eighteen, a man in running sandals caught up to me just as I was making a wrong turn. I thanked him for catching my error and commented that it was hard to stay hydrated, despite my multiple stops to refill my hydration pack. “Or you can just not drink at all, like me!” he said with a goofy grin. I later learned that he’d completed the Leadville 100 just three weeks ago; thirty miles must’ve felt like a fun run to him. Later on, after I’d slowed my pace enough to properly rehydrate and refuel, which prompted a second wind, I used my navigational skills in multiple instances to redirect several confused (and potentially delirious) fellow racers. Though they all ended up beating me, the brief stops to assess the trail maps gave my legs a respite from the pain, and upon starting off again I was able to run with these guys for longer stretches than I thought possible. Looking back, it’s not surprising that my low point came after at least an hour-and-a-half of not seeing anyone on trail and that I gritted out some of my proudest miles at the end of the race when I was running alongside fellow competitors.
The last carrot dangling in front of me that inspired me onward was the knowledge that I had people thinking of me, both near and far. Sure, the finishing tent in a grassy parking lot in Rosendale was a world removed from the hoopla of the Lake Placid Ironman 70.3 scene that I’d witnessed a week earlier, but having Maddie there to run beside my for the last quarter mile meant everything to me. The calls and texts I received before and after were equally uplifting.
I am pleasantly surprised with my top-ten finish, although of any race I’ve ever attempted, this one was certainly not about results. I have no plans to race at any distance beyond a half-marathon in the foreseeable future, but the fact that I’m not feigning to put the next ultra on my race calendar should not reflect negatively on the SRT Race. I loved the novelty of the challenge and its ability to ask questions of me, athletically and psychologically, that I’d never been forced to consider before. Though the last eight miles were no less painful than the eight before, I was able to enjoy the scenery, assist and inspire other racers, and quell my suffering instead of letting it consume me. A wave of gratitude came over me as I approached the finish line. I was too tired for triumph or euphoria, but the weight of the final steps was much greater and more important than the heaviness in my legs: it was proof of mind over matter and affirmation of why I love all things athletic.