It’s been over a week since I ran, scampered, and power hiked my way through 85km of the Peneda-Geres National Park in Northern Portugal with a collection of ridiculously fast people. The bruises have finally started to fade, my legs fit back in “normal” pants, and my right knee is back its regular shape and size. I’m physically exhausted from the whirlwind trip in addition to coming home to a towering stack of midterms and assignments that were part of my “in November” collection of growing work. The combination of physical and mental work over the past month has been adding up and after volunteering all day in the rain on Saturday I finally was able to get over the jet lag and sleep for 12 hours straight. All hail falling back into a bonus hour of sleep!
The race was a lot of things. People have described it as punishing, astounding, sadistic, inhuman, a vision-quest… and it was all of that, but it was also a lot of fun. A mental, giggle inducing, sheer force of ridiculousness.
My favorite part of the entire race came right before the start. Mario gathered us together into a huddle. Our small, but strong American crew, united, like a little life raft in the sea of runners under dark skies. He reminded us that it was a honor to race for our country and that at the end of the day, we race for team. In that moment I felt calm.
The starting-pen was tight. Akin to being at a concert, but without the crowd surfers. I had to keep my elbows (recently sharpened) about 6 inches away from my body just to maintain the tiniest of bubbles and keep both my feet on the ground. With a count down and a little fanfare we were off. Into the dark, hundreds of headlamps bobbing their way out of town. I can’t remember the last time I got pushed around so much in a race start. Elbows were flying, hands were out, and all I could think is, do we have 10 hours of this ahead? Calm down people! “Tranquilo! Tranquilo!”
I finally settled into a little group of three with a Swiss woman and a French woman. They both looked older than me and I thought to myself, “They must know what they are doing.” We climbed up and up a dirt road out of town, our little train of runners spreading in both directions. Considering we gained nearly 3,000 feet in the first 4 miles I felt calm and controlled. We had a rhythm, a silent agreement to keep running. Somewhere on the first steep down hill I reconnected with my American team mate Yiou. I think the women around us thought we were nuts as we audibly laughed and whooped as the course sent us down what in daylight might have been a drainage ditch. I scampered along behind Yiou through the 15km aid station and then when the road took a turn back towards 18+% she lead the group out as I returned to a more internal uphill running pace.
We ran through the dark for nearly 3 hours. We felt helplessly remote and then suddenly you would drop onto a cobblestone street and run through someone’s backyard. We traversed moonscapes with boulders the size of school buses and houses, and lush river basins, rocky sandstone, and granite speckled high open cattle range hill sides. Through old burns and new burns to the cry of “YEAH AMERICANO!” and occasionally “HEYA POLAND!” as we all seemed to run in red shorts and white singlets.
I ran out of fluid between the water station at 15km and the first team aid station at 30km despite carrying a liter, and suddenly it became apparent my swollen travel feet didn’t quite fit in my shoes. A steep down hill at a little over 15 miles in with 2,000+ feet of descent disconnected four of my toe nails all the way to the nail bed. I’m used to barreling downhill and suddenly I was brought to a complete halt. And just like that I let around 6 women go. As I said, “Go go go!” my feet said, “Yeah right!”, and I would go on to struggle in a jarring, braking fashion on every descent for the rest of the race. As we did our best to keep ourselves upright I met back up with two other women. As I came up behind them I figured I would just tuck in and travel the last mile into the 30km aid station together. They had other ideas and without saying anything, came to dead stop, grabbed me, moved me in front of them and gave me a little push. I let out a cat call, and led the three of us down into the aid station below.
I left the aid station around 20th place, happy to have fluids again as we headed into the two biggest climbs of the day. There was roughly 15km and 4,000+ feet of climbing between us and the next water station. Little did we know then but much of the women’s field would run out of water with about 5 miles of exposed climbing to go.
I settled into the climb with a women from the British team, as we hiked up hill we joked about forgetting it was a running race. Quickly I proceeded to nearly take her out as I leveled myself over a rock slamming my right knee and hip in the process. Laughing she and a Ukrainian guy rushed to pick me up, make sure I was okay, and then we continued to make our way upwards. Suddenly we came to a flowing downhill and I joined a Finnish gal and Icelandic guy as they ran by until the terrain got to steep for my toes to follow. At this point the day was warming up rapidly and with little shade on course I constantly looked for places to take a little lie down in some water. I snow-angeled in shin deep creeks, sat and splashed in river run off, and nearly broke into someones yard to lay down in a cow tub. Right as I ran out of water for the second time of the day I got a flyby hug from my Mom and Scott who had made the journey over to Portugal to chase me around. They cheered and told me I was about 5 minutes behind Yiou. With a little surge of energy I headed into the exposed climb that would claim many of the drop-outs of the day. Taking a moment to look up at the climb expanding in front of me I could see the long train of runners speckling the hillside.
Putting my head down I dug into my favorite grinding power shuffle and slowly picked my way up the chain of runners. We gasped as we passed spectators and volunteers, occasionally asking about water and more often then not they would say “Yes, yes!” and point into the distance where you could make out radio towers. I fell into marching pace with an Argentinian and a Norwegian girl. We were all desperate to get to the next aid station and communicated in gasps and sounds of distress, the mutual language of suffering. There was a little water run off but we were traversing high open range cattle land and any and all water was surrounded by the same cow poop we had been dodging for a mile. I watched the Argentinian dip the sketchiest bit of water and we forged on. We laughed on the verge of tears reaching the tented aid station. Several runners sat down right there and pulled out cell-phones to call their teams, they were done. I drank nearly a liter, filled my flasks, grabbed as many oranges as I could carry and started to descend the long 8km to where I would get to see our team support system around the 55km mark.
We left the dirt road and headed down a steep, grassy off trail section. The Argentinian women and a Spanish gal leading us down the grade. I let them go as I babied my feet and when I got to the bottom I could hear a cow bell coming down the dirt road we were about to intersect. It took me a moment to realize it belonged to a large, long-horned cow (not a adoring trail running fan) and as it ran towards us the Argentinian women appeared from the bushes to my right, pulling me in with her and out of the way of the charging cow. We all gave a sigh of relief and thanks as we headed down the creek bottom towards our crews.
I was thrilled to see our team US crew at the 54km aid station. At this point it dawned on me that I had a spare pair of shoes, I just hadn’t planned on using them. I asked if our crew could bring them and my spare timing chip to the next aid (12km from the finish), it truly was better late than never… and a total rookie mistake! I picked up a new watch, as mine had long since died, and shuffled my way out to my darkest moments of the race. The next 10km was both good and bad. There wasn’t any sustained climbing or descending but the rock we were hitting was incredibly slick and my quads were pissed from the unnatural running gait I had adopted to get me down the descents for the previous 7 hours. This truly was going to be a race of attrition…
I do remember a moment of panic that came over me when I couldn’t remember if we got aid at 64km or if I had to make it all the way to the 74km mark. It was getting really really warm and my water was once again running out. Suddenly I saw people coming down the trail towards me and they informed me that the water station wasn’t far ahead. I nearly bounded up the hill with joy. Running up the cobblestone street the people cheered me on and I was elated to arrive at the aid station with a group of volunteers waiting to pour water on us. I drank coke from a cut in half water bottle, and forged on alone. For the next 6km I played the run to the flag-hike to the flag game with myself. We started to run through the Sunday afternoon agriculture burns (read: What???) and headed up the final big climb of the day. Once again I suddenly realized I was coming up on a train of runners and slowly and steadily power hiked my way back up through the field, if only this race had ended on an uphill!
At the top we moved much more cautiously past a number of other large cows and directly to the worlds best placed water spigot. After soaking our heads and backs we headed down to our final aid station of the day. We were on the homeward push! I had caught up to a Polish girl as Vitor appeared on the other side of the hill to give us some cheers and help to guide us down to our waiting teams. I was thrilled to be greeted by a little flat footing, my Mom and Scott cheering and unfortunately a growing number of American team mates the race had chewed up in various ways. Our team managers got me to sit down as they helped me change my shoes. Richard was less than impressed by how much dirt was in my shoes, but all I could think about was potato chips… as I had eaten one too many gels that day with way too little fluid.
I left the aid station with two handfuls of potato chips only to run directly into equipment control. I asked if it was okay if I put my potato chips on the bench as I proved to them I had the headlamp and jacket we were required to carry for the entirety of a race despite the fact it was 80F and we would be done long before dark. I tried to most efficiently shovel the potato chips off the bench and back into my fat hands as I was ushered back out onto course.
The longest 12km was now the only thing standing between me an a excuse to stop moving. I ran surprisingly well for the next 6 or 7km. Moving forwards through the field. Then we hit a series of punchy climbs and steep descents, and despite the shoe change my feet were painfully thrashed and useless when the grade got too steep in the downward direction. I stubbed my toe on a rock and was brought to tears for the first time all day. I hobbled, and got passed by the women I had passed climbing into the last aid station.. and for the first time in a long time I couldn’t fight my way back. It wasn’t from fatigue, or that I couldn’t work harder physiologically… I had fallen apart biomechanically early on in the race, and I was paying the price.
I’m pretty certain we were told we had 4km to go atleast 3 times and when we finally hit the cobblestone I knew we had to be almost home. I cursed unintentionally and audibly when we hit a section of -40% cobblestone with less than a km to go, but when I saw Richard waiting for me at the bottom of the hill I knew we had to be there. I could hear the finish line and I’m pretty sure when I saw Richard I let out a loud, “I’m going to make it!”
Running into the finishing shoot alongside the announcer, through a group of traditional dancers, and towards a waving and smiling Mom and Scott I couldn’t think of a better way to end a long day out on the trail.
A lot of people keep telling me, “Oh well Americans don’t usually do well at this type of racing in Europe…” but I can’t just simply brush it off like that. After all, they put their pants on the same way we do in the morning (post race it involves sitting on the ground for minimal bending). I truly loved the course, I made a couple of crucial rookie mistakes that cost me a good day, and although it was physical battle, mentally I was rock solid.
I learned a lot on my first adventure over to Europe to race, and although I’m not 100% satisfied with how the day went, I am hungry for so much more! Until then I’ll just keep practicing walking down stairs…
Special thanks to our fearless team managers Nancy Hobbs and Richard Bolt, with assistance from Vitor Rodrigues, and all of the family members and loved ones that traveled to Portugal to help support us!