By now, most people are probably aware that, perhaps as a colossal cosmic joke, or perhaps as an occurrence entirely the product of very bad luck, I got into the legendary Barkley Marathons: a 120 mile trek and climbing event boasting of over 65,000 ft of elevation gain, and a list of finishers that is, after 20 years as a 100+ mile race (it was previously 55-60 miles), shorter than the list of finishers the typical 100 mile race has after one year. No woman has completed it. Or come close.
As my sub-par training unwinds down to the final threads, I put myself in an intentionally uncomfortable and precarious position. To test my climbing, endurance, and tenacity (amongst other less noble things like stupidity and recklessness), I slated a half marathon in Youngstown famed for its hills, and notorious for having shitty weather, at the beginning of my final training cycle, which, in the spirit of the Two Hells Barkley course, I'll call the Two Hells of training. During the week I'd subject myself to back to back 5 hour running and climbing workouts, roughly 22-25 miles each, sprint on Saturday morning (5k) followed by more miles later in the day, 4-5 hours on Sunday running harder trails in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park-- close to 100 miles for the week. The icing on the cake would be a 100k trail race in Hinckley six days later.
The Youngstown portion of my Two Hells greeted me with a thick blanket of snow, which I was admittedly not thrilled to see. The drive to the race took an eon and consisted primarily of my car fishtailing and ending up everywhere but the road. My 4-wheel drive wouldn't engage, and I actually got stuck not once but three times in the middle of a hill, giving my hazard lights a lot of practice. But, thanks to my having had the foresight to leave much earlier than I'd normally fathom leaving for a more local event, I still arrived nearly a half hour before the race. At the starting line, it looked like a lot of people stayed home, including a couple of running friends I'd expected to see.
The course, a series of winding roads through Youngstown's Mill Creek Park, was almost entirely unplowed. The few stretches that did appear to be dragged were still packed with snow and ice, making them slick and difficult to gain traction. I'd worn my Inov8 X-talon 190 trail shoes, hoping they'd be more course appropriate, but they helped very little. Yak Trax would have been ideal, if I had any. I'd raced this course twice before: in 2010 when I finished the half marathon in 1:53:47 under much better conditions, and this past September when I couldn't have hoped for more ideal racing conditions. I finished in 1:50:09 that time. I anticipated finishing between 1:59 and 2:05 given the course conditions, but as the race progressed, I realized I was really handling the snow and slick road poorly. It felt like a lot of people were passing me, which meant I'd started much too fast. Ultra running friend George Themelis caught up to me around the 6 mile mark, looking strong and prepared to tackle the second half of the race. Within a mile, he was completely out of sight. I managed to catch another friend, Joe Jurczyk, around mile 9.5, but I knew at that point it was going to be a slow finish.
Nineteen hills make the Mill Creek half marathon the challenge it's known to be, but those nineteen hills don't typically phase me the way they did this time. I wasn't devastated, but I probably looked like I was running on a treadmill at times. The last three miles are possibly the most challenging, and I spent them largely hunched over, pumping my arms to the tune of what were probably three consecutive 11:00+ miles. I crossed the finish line in 2:12, over twenty minutes slower than I'd done in September. I was humbled, and profoundly embarrassed. It was difficult to gauge how fast I'd have covered the course in better conditions. Perhaps 1:55? We'll never know.
I typically finish in the top 5-8% of female runners at this distance, but this race has always messed with that average. I was 22nd out of 65 women. I'm glad I got it done, even if my finish time and placement were less than stellar. Sometimes "getting it done" is what it's all about, I've found, like at my first 100 mile race when I spent hours in last place. Life is full of challenges, sometimes challenges so overwhelming that few are willing to even bear them. I thrive on those things. Tenacity. Tackling the impossible. Surviving to see what exists on the other side of that. It's possibility.