I have a friend in Nashville. Have not seen her in 20 years or so, but we email once in a blue moon. So in October, a couple of weeks before the ultra, I did that and asked he if she wants to be at the finish line with the kids, estimated time of arrival 7 pm.
She said sure. A few days later she emailed again. She has an Ironman friend who offered to pace me.
My first reaction was I can do this on my own. Then a little voice made itself audible in my head: the gods are sending you an Ironman pacer - what do you say?
I said, yes, thank you. Then I emailed the man, with all the disclaimers. Save for the transitory two-mile companion in a race here and there, I never ran with anybody. I was undertrained. I was slow.
Speed is overrated, he said, and he would see me somehwere in the second half of the race.
The course consisted of two out-and-back loops on mostly paved greenways or streets. I planned to finish in under 12 hours.
A small crowd assembled at the start line at dawn. The morning was chilly, the attitude casual. The first loop ran along Stones River, and the sheer beauty of it - misty water, damp fields, autumn foliage, wistful skies - made for enchanted running. Or maybe it was the exuberance of the race, the extravagance of engaging in something as unnecessary as 50 miles. I found a few of those ephemeral companions, and talked much more than I usually do. For many this was the first ultra. I also heard repeatedly "I am just doing the 50K." It became poignant I was in a different kind of race - a 50K, which had always been "longer than a marathon" had somehow become "just the 50K."
Engaged in good conversation, I ran for a while faster than I had intended, fooled by that heady feeling that I could go on for as long as it took. I also worked on fueling, without much enthusiasm, but with steady intake. The morning flew by, the day became hot. I must have done something halfway good in my haphazard training; there is a picture of me taken at the halfway point, and I look fresh and clean, as if I had just stepped out of the shower.
Well, that did not last long. A few miles later the temperature reached the record level of a heatwave, and I was starting to wilt. Fueling had become a disagreeable business and I felt I had run... well, enough. I didn't get to dwell on this - at mile 30, the Ironman pacer was waiting next to my boyfriend, and a few minutes later my friend arrived, with her kids and his kids. We had a brief reunion, the epitome of short and sweet, and I set out with the Ironman.
He was wearing sunglasses, so I could not read his expression, he was not big on smiling, he had been in the war, and he had run a 200-miler. Tough guy. I wasn't sure why he wasn't spending his afternoon somewhere with air conditioning. We got along though (we even laughed a couple of times). My right leg hurt (the old thing from Provo), and I felt nauseated, but we advanced.
At the mile-40 aid station the nausea turned into some kind of monster that was chasing me from inside, yet I was unable to throw up. The temperature dropped - all of a sudden I started shivering. Then I heard a big swishing sound somewhere in my head and the connection I had with the world, the feeling of being in synch, tuned-in, aligned with reality, faded. I almost fainted.
It took me some time to process all this. According to my new crew I rocked, and I didn't want to disappoint. Only the kids stirred with relief when I admitted I was miserable - they could see the truth in my face. So did the Ironman. He took one look at me and declared I was hypothermic.
"Your face is blue," he said.
There was a sort of finality in his tone, as if the game was over. The brutal marathon in British Columbia flashed through my mind. "I have run like this before," I said.
"This is different," he said.
"I have dry clothes." The car was right there. I had to convince him I could go on.
I could see it in his eyes, this meant something good. While I changed, my friend and her husband went to get hot tea. My boyfriend took all the kids in his car. We were getting organized. The mood changed. It felt as if the battle was just about to begin. It felt as if only now I would start running.
I put on two running shirts and a wind jacket. The Ironman said this was not enough, so my friend's husband took off his woolen sweater and I pulled that on too. I felt like a mummy on a British afternoon - chilled to the bone, swaddled in layers, slurping hot tea.
Now, the Ironman explained, I had to run, some way, any way, he didn't care how, I had to run until I would break out in a sweat.
So I ran until I did. I knew the gods wouldn't send me an Ironman pacer for nothing.
The stretch to the next aid station was the shortest of the race - only 3.5 miles. All this time I was thinking that was all I had to run. A 5K, I was telling myself. Okay, so I am sick, but I can do a 5K any day, and this day is no different.
By the time we reached the last aid station it had started raining. I had another 6.5 miles to the finish. This was a bit longer, and it went through the woods, and it was dark, and we had a thunderstorm, and the path being unpaved we would slosh-slosh through the mud. But it was the last stretch, and I had the Ironman with me, and we had gotten rid of the hypothermia.
We took off into the night. I wore the little headlamp we had bought with much pleasure for this precise moment. The pain in my right leg had gotten worse, but I didn't pay attention - everything hurt. The muscles had reached a whole new level of pain. They felt like metal clumps attached to my legs, some sort of alien insertion grafted unto my bones. That didn't bother me either. I barely remembered it from time to time.
What was really bad was the queasiness, not simply a stricture in my throat, but a violent rebellion of the body against the current state of affairs. I had to fuel, of course, but the idea of ingesting anything was associated with sheer terror. The Ironman taught me to take Coke in my mouth and hold it, letting the sugar absorb for a while before spitting it out. The hot tea at mile 40 was the last thing I swallowed in this race.
All this time I was preoccupied by time. As a general rule, I had stopped timing my marathons years ago, and here I was in a 50-miler, frantic about the minutes passing, obsessing over the clock, concerned I would not make it in under 12 hours. I wasn't thinking that I was sick or how good it would be to have this over with. I was thinking can I please stretch out the time between now and 7 pm so I can cram all these miles into it?
In hindsight this proabably is what helped me finish.
Mile 48 was the longest mile I ever ran. It wouldn't end, no matter how far I was running, it stretched itself into further distance the more I ran, it become longer and longer with each step I took. It was the most elastic and perverse mile I ever experienced.
When it was done we stepped out of the woods and had only two more very normal miles to go. A couple of times I had to stop, I felt as if I didn't get enough oxygen, although there seemed to be plenty of that around. I bent over, letting the blood come to my head. I started to recognize the road, the lights leading up to the finish. I had to push just a little further. And then I was there.
12 hours 15 minutes.
My crew cheered, I got my cheap finisher's mug, we posed for pictures. I was happy and quiet. Putting words together wasn't my strength at the moment, so when I shook my Ironman's hand it was was pretty wordless scene. Someone liked it though and had us re-enact it for the sake of photos, as if we were heads-of-state.
My boyfriend, even more happy than I, took me and stowed me in the passenger's seat, the way one does with a precious package that has been safely retrieved. He was about to turn the key in the ignition when I told him to wait a minute. I opened my door and threw up in the parking lot.
An hour or so later, showered, clean, merry, and ensconced in a mound of pillows in the hotel bed, I threw up again.
So I didn't have barbecue after the race. But I sent my boyfriend out to get take-out for himself.