July 22, 2011

Unreal - The Story Of My First Ultra Marathon

Read the full story here : Part I - Part II - Part III

- Part IV -

Some seconds passed slowly as I was leaning against that tree, trying to recompose. No runner was in sight, and I was thinking I could've used a couple encouraging words. I took a long, slow breath.

"Anyway", I thought, "You've gotta come back down to the finish line". My mind couldn't get my body to move. Then it downed on me; I'd hit The Wall (it's capitalized out of hard-learned respect). At only about 20km into the race, I'd ran face-first into the bottomless pit of despair and physical exertion. It made no sense. I've ran marathons without going through such hard times!

The sudden realization made me ever so grateful I had the least bit of distance running experience. The Wall is a state of being, essentially, and has to be muscled through out of sheer mental resolve. You have to forget everything, forget you're even running, get inside you own head and force your body at the most elemental of levels. "Lift your foot and put it forward." "Again." "Again."

And then, like magic, along the beating drum of whatever mantra you can muster, your legs start to shuffle on their own. Your breath stabilizes and you slowly recompose. It's not pretty, but at last you're going again.

More twists, more turns. Water station. I'm starting to be afraid it's a mirage. But no, here it is, complete with smiling people, fresh fruit, ice and jugs of water. "That's probably how you feel when you're in the desert and find an oasis", I told the guy standing at the table. He smiled politely, and I could read on his face that he thought I looked like shit. Suddenly remembering the words and the menace from the doctor, I tried to look as normal and casual as I could, refilled my hydration pack and headed off.

By the time I had reached the first downhills, all my energy had evaded me. I was beyond The Wall, in the last territory I had ever visited while running; the last kilometers of a marathon. I struggled really hard with my brain to not focus on the fact that I was only about to finish a 28k. The thought was devastating.

My shoes filled with dirt and debris, my socks rolled down under my arches, my posture deconstructed and my feet dragging, I tried to gain some speed and change the rhythm of my running, but couldn't. I stumbled on rocks, stubs and roots many times, each fumble taking its share of what was left of my confidence.

By the time I reached the clearing to the open road leading to the finish line, tears were streaming down my face. I was panting and crying, exhausted, terrified. I could barely shuffle, even on the flat surface. I felt an imminent collapse.

As I took the last turn to the gate, onlookers started to cheer me in. Little smily kids, runners who'd finished shorter distances, everyone. It didn't even send a wave of energy down my spine, like it always does. I felt like shouting "don't cheer, I'm not even half way done!".

I crossed the finish, went straight for the food table, grabbed two fistfuls of ice and went under our support tent to get shade. I saw Julie on my way in, looking at me with the pity of a mother, her hands already full with water and food and things. I said nothing. I crashed on the chair, my face buried in my hands, ice cubes dripping on me. I couldn't talk.

Everything became still. I looked up, and what I saw sent chills from the top of my head to my sorry feet. Yves. The Coach. Not in sweat. It took me a couple seconds to compute, then, like an electric shock, I understood. He DNF'ed. When it got clear without words what had just happened, I tried to keep it together and say something, but my mind collapsed. He pulled a chair and sat beside me, his hand on my shoulder.

I sighed like an infant and put my face as deep inside my hands as I could, but couldn't hold it and started crying uncontrollably.

Continue to Part V

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