Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Running 50 miles while in a Cocoon of Self-Preservation

Sunrise on the river the morning of my first 50 mile run

Back in February I had just finished running with a friend and told him I was thinking of running the marathon distance of an upcoming trail marathon/50 mile race. Without hesitation, my friend said I should just run the 50. This is a friend who has no problem telling me when I am doing something really dumb. Do you have a friend like that? If you do, you’re so lucky. If you have a friend who’s not afraid to tell you that you’re about to do something really stupid then you know you can trust them when they tell you there is something you are absolutely ready to do. Even if it feels huge.

So I did it, I signed up for the 50 mile race that was scheduled to happen on May 16th, 2020. I was training and not really feeling strong, but I was getting some long runs done.

Then enters COVID-19. On March 15th St. Louis County shut down. We were on a mini vacation in Branson, MO and decided to avoid the large crowded areas but to continue our trip. It was a nice and relaxing trip and when we returned home, the whole city was sheltering in place. While we navigated through the next few weeks, all events were cancelling, one after another. Including my 50 mile race.

I continued to run, not really with a plan but more with just a lighthearted sense of doing something I really love. As we all began to define what social distancing meant for us, I made the decision to run alone and to not run with anyone at all. Deciding whether to run alone or with a group put many people in the running community at odds with one another. Friendships ended over this. It was sad to watch. I genuinely believe all of us were and are doing the best we can to cope with the situation in which we find ourselves.

What was best for me was running alone. And before I knew it, I was hammering out more miles than ever before.

Another part of this is that I was and still am spending more time with my beloved little family than I ever have. Being home with my family, and seeing them all day everyday allows me the flexibility to be guilt free about spending more time than usual on the weekend on the trails. So that’s exactly what I did.

I spent most of my time training on the trails in Weldon Spring, MO. They are some of my favorite trails and hold thousands of memories of races we put on, of hikes I’ve done with my little family, peaceful sunrises along the river and nighttime miles with friends. Those of us with a special connection with this group of trails say there is magic out there, and I truly believe there is.

I had been running about 35-40 miles each week, with back to back runs on the weekend of 13-16 miles each. One day it was extra crowded when I finished my first of two 8-mile loops, so I decided to cross over to the other side of the highway to add on some miles where there were fewer people. I got to a split where I could either turn right and land at a 20 mile run, or turn left and land around 15. I stood there for a minute, and decided to do the 20.

I had only run 20 miles alone once, and it was nearly two years ago. I’ve done that distance many times in races or with friends, but only once on my own. Finishing that 20 mile day feeling strong, knowing that it was me and me alone who set out to run it, left me feeling so incredibly strong.

That run was a game changer. With my 50 mile race cancelled I am not really sure what I was planning, all I knew was that I was feeling stronger than ever before in my running, and I was doing it for me and for me alone.

The same friend who encouraged me to sign up for the 50 reached out and complimented my solo 20 miler, as did many other friends on social media. I’m telling you, there is something about 20 miles solo. A couple of weeks later, a week before what would have been my first 50 mile race, I hit 50 miles in one week for the first time. I told the same friend that I felt great and wondered what I should do with all of these miles and this fitness. He said:

“I think you should run 50 miles”

Then he gave me probably the best advice possible. He told me I should hammer out two weekends worth of back to back 20 mile runs before I try to do the 50. This would give me more strength and more confidence rather than rushing to run the 50 mile run just a week after my first 50 mile week. This put 50 mile run day on May 30th. The date and training was set.

So the next two weekends I ran back to back 20 mile runs. My friend joined me for some of the miles but I did most of the miles alone. I spent the first year of my running life running alone. Slowly over time I opened up and started running with groups. Then I started hosting group runs. Then I ran with a group of the same friends nearly every weekend. While all of that was certainly enjoyable, running alone has proven to be what I need at this point in my life to reach my goals.

I want to talk about that for a minute. I am an empath and spend my life deeply feeling and understanding the feelings of others, particularly their pain. It is not something I have chosen, and I truly cannot help absorbing the feelings of those around me. When COVID-19 first hit our community, many people around me were drastically divided in their approaches to group running, social distancing, mask wearing, media believing, etc. I worked hard to try and keep friendships strong and to keep harmony amongst everyone.  

Eventually, this completely wore me down. I retreated into what I have been referring to as a cocoon of self-preservation. I retreated from anything or anyone that would need anything from me besides my little family. I said no to any run invitations. I declined facetime calls. I silenced social media accounts that I didn’t want to see. I retreated so far into myself that I began to be able to be exactly what I needed to be to myself and to my family. My cocoon of self-preservation allows me to truly care for myself and deny giving anything more than the bare minimum to anyone else. This might be the first time in my life that I have ever protected myself in this way. It is the biggest boundary wall I have ever built. And it is strong.

So in this place, where my relationship with my husband and my boys has grown so incredible strong, so has my running. I just run. I don’t think about pace, I don’t think about anyone else. It is me and the trail and my goal to run 50 miles. On one long run my knee began to hurt, so I practiced power hiking and didn’t stress over it. The next day my knee was fine. All the signs were pointing to the fact that I was ready to run 50 miles.

The two weekends of back to back 20 mile runs were nearly perfect. There was sunshine, rain and mud, perfect weather, cold weather, insane heat and humidity too. I was trained for whatever came on 50 mile run day.

The week leading up to the run wasn’t too stressful. Keeping in my cocoon of self-preservation, only my little family, my friend who had been coaching me along who would be pacing me, and 1-2 random friends knew I was going to do this. I didn’t want to tell anyone. This was about me vs. me vs. the trail. I wanted to keep it private and know that if I really needed to, I could stop and do the run another day. Anyone who knows me knows how damn stubborn I am and knows that I would have walked all night long to finish what I started, but having the option to quit if I wanted was some pressure relief one doesn’t find at a race.

The run was as perfect as I could have expected. The weather was gorgeous, my first loop alone was a little faster than I intended and the second loop running with my friend was smooth and fun. At one point, as I talked about how much I was enjoying myself, he said something that basically gave me permission to complain if I wanted to. But I had nothing to complain about.

I am so grateful for the fact that life has put me here in this place where I can and want to run 50 miles on beautiful trails. So many people do not do this. They either don’t want to, don’t believe they can, or maybe want to but their health or circumstances don’t allow for it. Here I am in this place and time where everything has come together for me to spend 12 hours on my favorite trails, with a really good friend with me and my beloved husband and boys waiting for me to finish. I cannot think of anything that would make this situation anything but beautiful. I am so grateful.

The route I took ended with a 5-mile loop from my car, so I grabbed my handheld and took off down the trail I have probably run a thousand times. That’s when it hit me that I was actually going to run 50 miles. I texted Nate to let him know the timeline and we managed to run a lot of that last loop. My legs felt strong and were it not for a nasty blister on the bottom of my foot, I would have been nearly pain free. Tired yes, but certainly not miserable. Absolutely grateful.

So 50 miles is done and I feel amazing. I’m not sure what is next, but I do know I am not interested in slowing down. 

“Man often becomes what he believes himself to be. If I keep on saying to myself that I cannot do a certain thing, it is possible that I may end by really becoming incapable of doing it. On the contrary, if I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning.”

~Mahatma Gandhi