My First Marathon Trail Experience

I don’t know how everyone else feels before an event, but I know how I felt this time.  I was training for the 50/50 up Peavine Mountain in Reno, NV. It’s a 50-mile course, a 50K course (just over 31 miles), and this year they added a half marathon.  It’s a brutal course with a lot of elevation gain and loss on a half single track, half dirt roads. I was only training for the ½ marathon. My second of the year (and my life) with a 10K thrown in for good measure.  I felt I had trained fairly well. Two months since my last ½, no problems with the 10K, and even though I had injured my left IT band, I had done everything to heal and rebuild it.

We all seem to have patterns in running.  Some people like the distance, others intervals, some struggle at the end of mileage but enjoy the beginning.  I am the runner that dislikes the first 2-3 miles of pretty much every run. I go more slowly, I warm up to my run like an old friend reminiscing of times past, of runs done well - of finishing strong.  I feel out my run each time to find our perfect blend of harmony. One of my coaches had encouraged me to enter the 50K next year. Even though I always seem to be middle of the pack, she says sees in me a natural talent and wants me to set my goals a bit higher each time.  Although normally I think she’s crazy, in my excitement, enthusiasm, and anxiety I begin to feel it’s a good idea to set higher goals. I should do the 50K next year. I love to run the mountain.

The evening before the race, I checked and rechecked everything from Gu to water, socks to a sports bra, glide to ibuprofen.  I had meticulously set everything on the kitchen table silently beckoning the run to come. My diet was great, my training was good, my water intake was substantial.  I got my required minimum of 8 hours of sleep this time, not even sleeping poorly with confused dreams of missing the start or getting lost at the end. Breakfast of oatmeal was exceptionally good, my bowels were well cleaned out, I was dressed, lubed, ponytailed, and decked out for the event.  

As always I dragged one of my daughters with me to take the requisite commemorative photos, hold my extra gear (in a couple of hours those flip flops will feel wonderful!), and be my obnoxious and very welcome support crew.  I haven’t been running for long – maybe just over a year off and on, 8 months steadily, since college when running became the cardio I chose for getting in cardio. It’s been difficult to break into the groups and get to know people, but this morning for the first time I’ve recognized a few faces of days past.  We talked and visited sharing our thoughts, hopes, and fears. It felt good to be here alone but for the first time to feel part of the whole. Today I feel like one of them.


We all got ready for the start and before long we were off across a large, grassy field, through a fence, across another field, and through a tunnel to the single track that would bring us up Evans Canyon and up the mountain.  I had run and hiked this trail before in preparation. I knew the first 7 ½ miles would be uphill, to slow down on the steeper sections to conserve precious energy and run the flatter parts. I had run 10 of the 13.1 miles in 1hr 45min and hiked further than the ½ marathon in 3hr 19min.  The weather had been cooler though and my conditioning was better, so I planned on coming in between 2 ½ to 3 hours. I felt confidant and knew no matter what, finishing was the most important thing to me, not my time.

The adrenaline from the group spurred me on, but the pace was slower because we were all converging from the fields to a single track creating somewhat of a bottleneck.  Then the adrenaline wore off and I realized I was in my first couple miles. The part of my run I dislike the most. The temperature was rapidly creeping up to the 96* it would be by the end of the race.  Feelings of self-doubt started creeping into my thoughts, rearing their ugly heads. Why was I doing this? Was I certifiable? What made me think for a second that I can finish 13.1 miles when I want to die in the first 2?  Is it possible that anyone else is as miserable as I am right now? Would it really be so bad to just turn around and go back home to my warm, comfortable bed? How important is it to be a good example of perseverance and good health for my kids?  Is my coach insane to even think I could do the 31 miles in the 50K? Is another person actually passing me?

But then my sane mind perked up. I’m doing this because I can because it feels amazing to finish. Yes, I am absolutely completely certifiable and this is one of the reasons I’m sane at all.  This is mine! My time alone, my time to push myself to be better than I am. I can finish 13.1 miles even if I walk it and it’s still better than sitting on the couch complaining about my life. Everyone is as miserable as I am. Maybe not now, but we’re all in this together and at some point in this race, we’ll probably all have a moment when we struggle.  My bed will be waiting with open arms in a few hours for me. Unless the aid station is carting me out on a stretcher, turning around is not an option. I love being a positive, healthy example for my kids. If someone is passing me, I may pass them later because I’m trying to run this race smart and right for me. I will push through this and feel good, then euphoric, then exhausted and then I will finish.

I have often been warned to watch for snakes and at mile 3, I let one have right the of way.  Only about 18” but in this country, it’s better to give respect where it’s due. I went to the inaugural first aid station quickly, downing water cooler than my own.  On longer runs, I often live in “should have” land. I should have put ice in my camelback, I should have put more glide on my shoulders where the straps are…. I chalk these moments up to doing a better job the next time around.  My heartburn has kicked into high gear. Seven pregnancies and ten surgeries and the only time in my life I’ve ever had heartburn is when I run. Go figure.

The run plugs along, up the switchbacks of the canyon, around the rock formations, across an open area, around more rock formations and more open areas.  On dirt roads, to single track and back again. It was a long ascent measuring approximately a 2400 foot climb in altitude. All small in comparison to the 50K and 50 milers, but still a feat in its own right.  I was checking my Garmin to see what my mileage was, speed, elevation. It was a countdown to the 7 ½ mile mark and the beginning of the descent.

At about mile 5 there was another aid station.  It’s the only time it feels good as a woman to be whistled and catcalled at.  I’m so happy to see them there welcoming and encouraging us. “You’re over ½ way to the ½ way point!” they shout.  “The bathroom is the ground behind the building” (not very obscured). “We built it just for you!” one volunteer tells me.  “Thank you. I appreciate the thoughtfulness” I say cheerfully. More water after the pit stop and I’m off and running again.  Wow, I appreciate them being there so much. For whatever reason, they are not running so that I have support. Often in my runs, I hit a state of being tired and self-reflective.  I’m a bit choked up that they’re giving all of us their time today.

I know the path somewhat and I’ve hit the place I previously felt would be the most difficult for me.  The 6 to 7 ½ mile section of the run. It’s not initially as bad as I had anticipated. I caught up to a dad and daughter running together and we’re chatting a bit.  That always makes a run more enjoyable and less focused on the difficulty. A common bond with those around you. I liked hearing about them, telling a little about myself.  At mile 7, right before the single most vertical climb, we came to another aid station. I sat in a lawn chair and dumped my shoes while a woman named Jasmine refilled my camelback and offered me watermelon.  I had never tasted anything so delicious in my life! I told Jasmine that I loved her. She laughed at me, gave me more watermelon, and told me I was doing great. The father-daughter team asked if I could take their picture and I was happy to enable them to have another memory of their time together.   

We all hike up the vertical ascent and upon reaching the top utterly exhausted, I feel euphoria start to hit.  Tears well up in my eyes, I feel so accomplished. I’m overwhelmed by how much I love my friends and my kids. I’m so pleased to have made it to the part of my run that I was aiming for.  I am so completely grateful for all the blessings in my life. I am literally at a loss for words in my gratitude.

A short distance and I see the last aid station. I tell them they are angels. I try to thank every volunteer on my journey that I can. Without them holding vigil, I don’t know how I’d complete this.  It’s the last stop and I’m ready to finish. Runners high is kicking in and the descent is going well. My time isn’t quite as good as I had hoped, but it isn’t far off and I feel overall that I’ve done my best.

Coming down is faster and very rocky.  We are all warned to lift our feet so we don’t trip.  At about mile 10 ½ my euphoria is wearing off. My body and mind feel great, but my feet are feeling the agony of the trek.  I can feel blisters on my blisters, but on my toes mostly. I tied my shoes tightly, but apparently not enough to keep my feet from slipping just enough to cause damage.  I am a bit tired, I do miss the aid stations but if my feet would just cooperate I’d finish strong. I had taken ibuprofen at mile 9 and it was a help but my feet needed more.  I checked my watch with two miles to go. Mountain bikers were combing the mountain trails offering extra water they carried, moral support, and telling us our time and distance left.  I had 25 minutes to finish at my 3-hour goal. No problem!! I pushed myself but that last mile my legs went to lead, my feet hurt, tears were threatening to fall. I knew my daughter was there waiting to take pictures of me crossing the finish line and I looked forward to seeing her again, but I didn’t care if it took me another hour.  I just wanted to finish and my time didn’t seem to matter anymore.

I finally made it to the tunnel.  Was it this far from the tunnel to the field??  Then I saw it. There were volunteers waiting at the fence.  I knew one of them – one of my coaches. He called my number and name over the walky-talky.  “Am I done?” I asked him. “Almost! Just across the last field and you’re there!” he replied.  The last field. It seemed an intolerable distance. I pushed myself a little more for the end. I recalled training runs when someone would ask, “What do you have left, Jenn?  Show me how you finish strong. You can do it!”. My daughter was snapping pictures wildly! She hugged my sweat-drenched body and told me how proud she was that I finished my race.  Not nearly as proud as I was that we shared this moment. We looked at my time together. 3hr 01 min 08 sec. “I’m so sorry, Mom. You didn’t take your time” she said deflated. “It’s OK,” I told her.  “I did my best today. I feel good at what I’ve accomplished. I’m not disappointed at all.”. My coach hugged me and gave me an enthusiastic congratulations. “Next time you should do the 50K!” She said. “I can’t imagine going that much further,” I told her, but I do appreciate the encouragement.

I want to eat, drink, and get my flip flops on.  The massage therapy school has volunteered time and beds to give us massages.  I filled out my paperwork and waited. I wouldn’t want to touch me right now. I’m dirty and covered in sweat.  I tell my massage therapist this. She tells me it’s good that she’s the one touching me then. I plant myself face down and let them work on me.  I feel amazingly fantastic. No knots, nothing hurting except the blisters on my feet. She gently tells me that with all the endorphins pulsing through my body I won’t feel it until tomorrow, so I’m glad she’s working on me now.  

I eat, drink, visit with people, chat with my daughter, sit on the grass. It was a pretty good race overall.  I feel great. Maybe, just maybe the 50K wouldn’t be so bad. After all 31 miles is just 13 backward! So, there it first marathon trail experience. 


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