By Kate Bennett, PsyD
This past Sunday morning, we lined up for “epic fun” and a “challenging backcountry experience” on Steamboat Spring’s “finest singletrack.” The race promoters promised to deliver a one-of-a-kind marathon experience and they did. Standing at the start line, I should have known that the small race group (75 marathoners total) was an indicator of just how painfully brutal this race would quickly become. Naïve to marathon running (actually, any foot race over 5k) and always up for an adventure, my husband, myself, and our friend signed up for the Steamboat Stinger as a fun challenge for three cyclists-turned-runners.
I stood at that start line feeling confident in my race preparation. I knew that we completed our training and believed in my mental strength. Little did I know that I would employ every sport psychology skill known to man several times over during the course of the next six and a half hours. Yes, we ran up and down and around a mountain for over six hours.
The first half of the race was pleasant. Sure, we started by running up Howelson Hill and continued to run uphill for the better part of four miles but we were in a groove. We ran through mountain meadows and aspen-lined forests. Half-way up that climb, an aid station blared MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This.” I was pumped. Energy flowed throughout my body as we continued to climb up a pitch so steep that it was faster to hike. I simply focused on the moment, putting one foot in front of the other and controlling my breathing.
As we rolled into the next aid station, I felt relaxed and eager to check out the Honey Stinger products. My husband joked that I was the only runner to mindfully choose what food I wanted to consume. Knowing that we were not racing to win, I carefully selected interesting chew flavors, filled my bottle with water, and continued on. We crossed onto the other side of the mountain and I delighted in the views. Yellow and purple wildflowers flowed around us as we discussed how great we felt. I grounded myself in the moment by enjoying in the natural beauty of the mountain ranges to our left, the rolling pastures below us, and the peacefulness of the trail right in front of us.
Somewhere along that ridge, I tripped on a rock and hit the ground hard. Fortunately, I landed on the bottle in my hand so the “road rash” was minimal. My husband commented that I would be the only runner to finish the race missing skin. Come to find out, several racers hit the ground at least once. While it was beautiful, the trail itself required constant focus and careful foot placement to ensure staying upright.
We ran down and around, eventually coming to the bottom of the other side of the mountain. Again, I mindfully selected food at the aid station and then we started running up a dirt road. We continued to feel strong and stayed within our pace. At that point, we were on track for a five hour marathon.
As we turned left back onto the single track, the course marshal said to head on up the “hill.” That hill happened to be a mountain. The backside of Emerald Mountain to be exact. Little did we know that it would be the least supported part of the race. The climb started with joy as I saw a man riding his bike wearing an IU basketball jersey. Very few things could bring me as much instant gratification as seeing an IU jersey on the middle of the mountain halfway through a trail marathon. I exchanged pleasantries with the IU man as I climbed past him. That would be the last time that I smiled on course.
Thinking back, I experienced nearly every human emotion during the second half of our run. From peace, contentment, and joy, I moved on to experience frustration, anger, desperation, confusion, hope, disappointment, and utter depletion. That next aid station was at the very top of the climb (read: top of the mountain). As I realized that we would not come upon water again soon, I started to ration what I had left. We happened to be on the hottest part of the course, exposed to the sun as we traversed among the sage brush. I walked more to conserve my energy and avoid dehydration. I fell again. I ate and worried about my husband who is sensitive to the heat. Ironically, he faired that stretch much better than I did. By the time we made it to the next aid station, I was dehydrated and incredibly sore after hitting the ground for a second time. Hope and focus carried me through.
Following the desperation of refueling at the aid station, I was depleted. Our next trail segment was named “Root Canal.” The technical nature of that trail was an unwelcome surprise when putting one foot in front of the other seemed like a nearly impossible task. Let alone running this part of the course. We had eight more miles to run and I could barely walk. I focused on positive self-talk (“I can do this”) and repeated it with every step all the way down that trail.
At points, I nearly cried. Not because I was sad or frustrated but because I simply had nothing more to exert. In those moments, I took a deep breath and moved on. Quitting was never an option. Nor did I doubt my ability to finish. It was simply a matter of maintaining my mental strength so that I could get my body across the finish line.
As we transitioned onto the next trail, I was so sore that running downhill was physically painful. My hips ached and I had barely enough energy to keep moving. My husband supported me with each step as I worked through my mental skills list: Focus on things outside of myself to manage physical pain, practice positive self-talk, reframe negative thoughts, accept my emotions and problem-solve, recall my confidence that I am tough enough to complete the task, focus on little goals, practice mindfulness and accept my experience just as it is…on and on they went. When one skill stopped working, I selected another.
The race finish taunted us from below as we meandered up and down and around the front side of Emerald Mountain. I looked over to see the town of Steamboat quietly sitting there and the enticing coolness of the Yampa River lazily running below us.
Eventually, out of sheer determination and willpower, I stumbled across the finish line. It took us (me) so long that there were barely any people at the finish line. There are no pictures because the photographers already left. Thankfully, our friends waited it out and stood there to cheer for us. My husband and I crossed at the same exact time hand-in-hand. We were in the race as partners and he never left me behind despite my tripping, hobbling, stumbling, walking, and occasional jogging during those last few miles. I never experienced the “runner’s high” nor did I have a sense of satisfaction upon completion of the race. Being physically depleted, emotionally exhausted, and extremely sore, all I could think about was sitting in the shade. Sitting down brought the relief that I sought for the better part of two hours.
Looking back, I am grateful for the experience: The race offered incredible views and peaceful trails, I completed one of the hardest physical tasks of my life with my husband, my number one fan, right by my side, and our friends sat there until the end waiting for us. At the end of the day, while it was an insanely arduous first marathon, that race reflected the core of who I am and embraced my values until the very end.
And, for those of you wondering, no I will not run another marathon. Perhaps a half, that distance suits me much better. I may have the physical ability and mental willpower but ‘epic’ is not my idea of ‘fun.’