Running With the Ultramarathon Man
My heart raced as we crested the final hill and descended into the small town of Buena Vista, Colorado. It was August 22, 2010, the day I would run 21 miles alongside one of the world’s most recognized runners, Dean Karnazes. Living outside of my comfort zone was one thing, but this was ridiculous. After all, Dean had run up to 350 miles at one time, had completed 50 marathons in 50 days, and was a best selling author. I, on the other hand, was a 43-year-old mom who had less than two years of running under her belt. Did I even deserve to be here?
We parked the car and revived the kids who had been passed out in the backseat since leaving home at 4:00 a.m. I thought about how I had gotten to this point. Three weeks prior, Outside PR, a marketing company for Gore-Tex, asked if I would run a stage of the TransRockies Run with Dean Karnazes. I had started a running blog, Shut Up and Run, a year and a half before, and had been “discovered” through my writing. I hastily replied, Yes! — knowing I could not pass up the opportunity; then began the business of properly freaking out.
Despite living in Colorado, I had never heard of the TransRockies Run. With Google’s help, I learned that it was a six-day trail run across tough terrain and mountain passes. Not for the faint of heart. And, not for beginners. The race, run in teams of two, requires partners to remain together at all times. Dean and I would be partners for the first stage of the run – 21 miles. I knew this was going to be an intense physical and mental challenge. The temperature was projected into the nineties, I had never run a trail race before, and I was not accustomed to the course’s arduous and technical climbing (almost 3,000 feet). A true newbie, I had no trail shoes and would be using my CamelBak hydration pack for the first time during this run. You could say I was out of my league, and you would be right. However, you could also say that I was never one to give in or give up.
As the announcer paged Dean Karnazes to meet me at the start, things got very surreal. I hoped I wouldn’t throw up or have a porta potty emergency. Dean, looking extraordinarily god-like and sculpted, introduced himself and pinned my racing bib to my shirt. Cameras came out of nowhere as Dean and I posed for several photo ops. The gun sounded, and we started out, side by side, for what would be a four hour and 37 minute trek.
At mile five, Dean opened my Shot Bloks for me and handed me one. Wait! Does an athlete of his caliber really do ordinary things like open packages and hand stuff to people? It was then I had an epiphany. Dean would be putting one foot in front of another for the 21 miles just like me. Running is the great equalizer. It is one of the only sports where the everyday athletes get to run in the footsteps of the great elites.
As we settled in for the long haul, we talked of our kids and running. I said I had run the Hood to Coast Relay with a team of 12 people. Dean said he did all 197 miles solo. I told him I had run two marathons. He reported he ran 50 marathons in 50 days. Despite his grandiose stories, he remained humble, approachable and authentic. When I became visibly tired, Dean distracted me with tales of hundred mile runs through the four great deserts of the world and climbs up and down 102 flights of stairs at the Empire State Building. He treated me as an equal and his encouragement was unwavering.
I could lie and say I floated through the long miles effortlessly. But, in fact, those miles were the hardest steps I had ever run. At certain points, I knew it was difficult for Dean to slow to my pace or to walk up a steep hill. The guy does not fatigue. At the final aid station (17 miles), euphoria set in and I let myself believe I could finish. I complained of being overheated and Dean suggested stuffing my sport’s bra with ice cubes. I did the stuffing, not him. We ran the last four miles with those cubes clinking and melting. By that time, we were friends. Just two people out for a long run on a hot day. The separation I had felt back at the start line had been replaced by connectedness. My fears of being unworthy or incapable had also disappeared.
As we made the final approach to the finish line, I could see my husband and two kids screaming and jumping, cameras in hand. They knew how much this meant to me, and being Dean fans themselves, they remained star struck. For all of the times I had been proud of my children at sporting events and piano recitals, it was my turn for them to be proud of me.
At the end of the run, Dean had asked me to define the day in one word. I chose, invigorating.
Post-run, as I sat in the icy Arkansas River, I thought about the lessons of the day. In order to live fully, you have to take chances and to be uncomfortable. One of my favorite quotes, “Believe deep down in your heart you are destined to do great things” (Joe Paterno) came to mind. Doing great things is subjective. To one person it might mean running a marathon, to another jogging a mile. What matters is that the battle is won. Something is accomplished that one did not think possible. I also realized that despite what we do, how we are labeled or how much money we have, we are more alike than we are different. Separation is a state of mind, not a true reality. I was truly invigorated.