The half-eaten package of citrus Clif Bloks in the bottom of my purse; the muddy trail runners sitting forlorn in the doorway; the trekking poles left collapsed in the hatch of my car…
It has been over two weeks, and yet I continue to stumble across objects from my pre-Cloudsplitter days with a sigh of nostalgia and slight tug to the heart. Like a vapour trail left behind a plane as it splits the blue sky, those objects exist as evidence of a journey taken, and of a journey left behind.
What I notice most strikingly, however, is the empty space the Cloudsplitter has created. Training days, phone calls, logistics planning. For eight months, every run, every adventure, and every thought was carefully planned to carry me closer to race day. And then what?
In the two days leading up to the ultra, I was reduced to nothing but one big network of nerves. Despite knowing that sleep would be my most critical contribution to success, those nights were fitful at best. Sleep deprived and stressed, my crew and I began the long drive down to Virginia and I crossed my fingers that upon arriving in Appalachia, the pit in my stomach would be replaced with awe and inspiration.
As we drove closer, the rolling hills grew longer, wider, and a lot taller. My eyes grew wide with intimidation as I observed the transformation from the passenger window. The thought was inevitable. Tomorrow, I will have to run to the top of one of those.
We reached the AirBnB in the woods of Kentucky and our little race team was reunited, made up of us two participants and our two dear support crew. Together, we ran through different logistics for the following day: them for the 100 km, us for the 50.
On the floor of our room, my kit was laid out and ready to go: hydration pack, multiple pairs of running shoes (which pair to wear?), Clif Bloks and Nuun tabs, three running outfits (one for each weather scenario), first aid supplies, trekking poles, post-race snacks. Check, check, check check check.
On the morning of October 7, 2017 the alarm went off promptly at 4:45 am. Despite its cheerful tone, my stomach sank as the realization set in. The day was here and each passing minute was bringing me closer to the start corral.
I tried to pinpoint what was making me so nervous but my mind flurried with a million different thoughts:
I haven’t trained enough.
I haven’t even run half of 7,700 vertical feet.
What if my hamstrings haven’t recovered?
What if my Achilles ruptures again?
What if my fuelling plan fails me? I’ve never run this far before.
The drive from our AirBnB to Norton was along winding mountain roads in darkness. I looked out the window in near silence at the moonlight against the mountains. Among all the others, there was one thought that haunted me the most: I’ve never stepped up to something I don’t know I can finish.
We arrived at the event and, amongst the mass of other participants, suited up in darkness. And then, as soon as we placed ourselves in the corral, it seemed, the gun went off and we were waving goodbye to our crew.
Only seconds into the race, we approached the base of our first ascent and almost all the participants ground their speed down to a walk. It was then that I realized the nature of an ultra is fundamentally different than any other race I’d run before: The name of the game isn’t speed, it’s energy conservation. To win is to reach the finish line.
The ascent continued (for 13 kilometers, was anyone counting?), but the early morning sun soon began to cut through the trees and invigorate my spirit. I took in my surroundings, absorbed the energy from my fellow trail runners, and realized how unique an opportunity this was. Catching glimpses of the green peaks of Appalachia reinforced the reasons why I trail run: quite simply, to explore.
At kilometer 16, I came into the second aid station to find my crew waiting for me and, against all of his assumptions, greeted him with wide eyes and a bright smile. I knew we were over the first (and largest) peak of the course. Since it was an out-and-back, I also knew that the last leg of the race would be manageable – and all downhill.
More than anything, however, I was energized to be on the trails and eager for more.
Shortly after heading back out, I ran into a group of fellow participants. There were about ten of them and only one of me, and soon enough I was absorbed into the queue. There were runners from Ohio, Wisconsin, and everywhere in between; there were runners completing the 50 kilometer, 100 kilometer, and 100 mile distances. Despite the differences, however, there was a common thread of welcoming friendliness and encouragement from each person in the group.
Hitting the next aid station, then, was bittersweet: us 50K participants were moments away from our halfway point, but we were also being forced to part ways with our newfound trail friends. Those completing the longer distances continued onward to tackle the rest of their course as we turned to head back the way we came, and our little team shrunk considerably in size.
As I was getting ready to undertake the second half of the race, I also unexpectedly got to say a passing hello to my friend, race partner, and the woman who’d spent hours coaching me on gear, nutrition, and steps for success. Today was our day, the day that put all of our planning and Adirondacks training to the test. All of those moments on the fast and light summit of Marcy; those gruelling hours on the Great Range Traverse.
We hugged as I turned to head back the way we both came, and she to continue on conquering her remaining 75 km.
I was little more than halfway down, but knew the challenge would be getting through those that still lay ahead.
The leg back to the aid station where my crew awaited me was accompanied by three other 50k participants, and the time flew by in their company. Before I knew it, we had reached the 34 kilometer mark, and my crew was waiting with everything I’d anticipated at that point in the race: more food, more water, an extra pair of shoes.
In reality, however, I knew I already had everything I needed: rejuvenation from the smiling face that greeted me and camaraderie on the trails, knowledge of what the remainder of the course would be like, and, perhaps most importantly, the confidence within me to finish it.
As we left the aid station and made our way up the final ascent, I hit my inevitable energy wall. I was all of a sudden struggling to keep up, in particular while carrying conversation. Hitting the peak, the girls broke off to see the lookout while I continued onward. I was in the last 13 kilometer descent and with it came confidence of being in the home stretch. Spurts of energy, however, were now fewer and farther between. Even downhill, upon gaining any speed, my stride would be quickly replaced with a tired shuffle forward.
I crossed the finish line 8 hours and 34 minutes after leaving the start corral, and received the medal with a flood of emotions: Accomplishment for having finished my first ultramarathon; happiness upon seeing the face of my support crew; and gratitude toward my fellow Cloudsplittees for their encouragement along the way.
And, just like that, almost a year’s worth of training culminated in one bright moment.
In the days and weeks that followed, a thought seemed to echo in the space that was once filled with training plans and logistics: “What now?”
I missed the hustle of ultra training, the need to find answers to questions I didn’t know I’d ever have to ask, and the excuse to FaceTime my race partner. There was a palpable absence that I just couldn’t shake. I longed for that race beacon that, for eight months, had glimmered in the distance.
In some ways, the aftermath of the Cloudsplitter left a void; in others, a blank white slate.
And so I began the search, replacing the 2017 training plan with shapes of a bigger one for the following year.
DC. Mount Washington. Squamish.
Maybe vapour trails aren’t evidence of a journey left behind, but instead of one that’s just begun.
*Banner photo courtesy of Tiffany Arcand.
*Visit Steph’s blog at https://stephaniegranlundblog.wordpress.com/.