Maybe it was because I didn’t train enough. Not enough uphills, not enough down. Not enough two-a-days. Not enough long runs.
Or maybe it is simply that I showered between my second and my third runs, something I’ve never done before. Maybe the salty crust of sweat made by two runs twelve hours apart is something sacred, a protection against exhaustion during the third.
Maybe I am just getting old.
But when I started my third Ragnar leg, I felt something I rarely do: very nearly completely spent.
This is the fourth time I’ve run the beginning of this route (the first two years it was the same, but the end part changed both last year and this), so I know what it feels like: a rough mile of steep rolling hills, just enough on tired legs to make the long downhill (sometimes six miles, sometimes seven, sometimes nine) feel like relief. Like flying.
I managed the first mile, even though I was tired, because I knew what was coming, the way it feels when you get to the crest of a hill, and then start down: still tired, but then invigorated.
Except this time, the invigoration didn’t come.
There was no flying.
But it’s just downhill, I kept telling my legs. Let’s go!
“Just” downhill or not—my legs just didn’t have anything left. I started to get an image in my mind of my muscles being like honeycomb, and nearly every ounce of golden honey I had left was drained in the first uphill mile. Now the empty cells started filling up with pain, which is the color of vodka in a clear glass.
I have never, ever felt this. My muscles were getting sore while I was running. I know some of the chemistry behind it, the glycogen depletion and the burning of fat instead of sugars and the conversion of glucose to lactic acid. But to actually feel it happening? I can’t explain how it felt. My quads and hamstrings quivered with every step I took, my iliotibial bands were a chemical fire, my soleus burned. But it was more than just the depleted muscles; down to my innermost self I was awash in exhaustion.
I wish I could say I pushed through it and stayed strong.
I did everything in my power to keep running. I got water from the water stations and ate a Blok at each one. I sang out loud. I talked to the very few other runners I could find (although for most of the leg there was almost no one around me). I didn’t let any negative self-talk enter my mind; I encouraged myself gently, and then firmly, and then maybe it slid into cajoling.
I didn’t want to stop running. But when I hit the steep uphill at nearly four miles, my body overrode my mind. Much as I encouraged my legs to keep running, they refused. There was no more amber energy left and I, I confess: walked the hill. I started running again at the top, but there was something in that walk that broke me, and the last five miles? They are their own story.
Today I am sore. I was already sore yesterday so I knew today would be bad. But what is bothering me the most isn’t my twingy thighs and achy shoulders (I still haven’t figured out why my shoulders hurt from running). It is that thing in me that broke when I stopped running, which is like a note I can’t read because it was written by bees. I don’t know how to answer when people have asked me, “Oh! How did Ragnar go?” Because there isn’t a word for those last ten miles, for the way I discovered that “hitting the wall” isn’t like an impact. It is a shove, and then a slide, into a place that isn’t benign but is still deeply, painfully human. I don’t want that feeling to be my strongest memory of Ragnar (which I’m not certain I’ll run again); I also don’t want to forget. Because while I didn’t run my entire last 9.8 miles, I did move through them, sometimes singing, sometimes cursing, sometimes nearly weeping, and while I didn’t do it with grace, I still did it: traversed the interior landscape without honey.