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Focus. Focus. Focus. Breath. Run.

After months of day dreaming & training, The North Face Endurance Challenge – Bear Mountain event was finally here.  The week leading up to my flight to New York I was anxious and hurried, but arriving at the event early Saturday morning (4AM to be exact) I felt a calm happiness as I walked to the big red arch illuminated by the surrounding festival spotlights.

It was here.  Whatever was going to happen, would happen.  And after my mental demise at Zumbro, I allowed myself the pre-race worry Get-Out-Off-Jail-Free card.  I wasn’t going to mull over how fast I would run.  I would just run & let the race happen.

I said my quick hellos to The North Face crew and took my place among the crowd of brave 50-mile runners ready to hit the trails.  With a fresh warning from the RD, Nick Moore, I reminded myself to take the first miles easy.  With a 5AM start, it was still dark, and a rainfall the day prior left the rocks slick & muddy.  One wrong step early on could mean the end of the whole run.

The MC beaconed us to the start line with a count down, and some runners gave out cheers and claps as we headed under the arch and into the woods.  Just as easy as that the 50-mile race through the woods of Bear Mountain had begun.

Like a good little ultra runner who learns a hard lesson, I took at easy pace through the first quarter of the race. Though I knew the race would thin out eventually, the congestion in the first 13 miles was a bit much for my liking…I couldn’t wait for the final 30 miles, when I would find myself alone, in the woods, breathing the mountain air while dancing across the rocks.  Moments like those are true happiness and freedom.

Once the first 15 miles were behind me, it was time to really get running.  I picked up the pace cautiously but steadily.  I let my heart rate be my guide as I started to pass runners one by one.  Up and over rocks and bounders, down steep mountain descents, I made my way through adventurous course set before me.  The technical terrain was not something I could have functionally trained for in WI, but it didn’t take long for me to adjust to the footing.  Again and again I refocused my eyes and kept my gaze 3-5 feet ahead of me.  I told myself not to think about the dangerous downhill speed I found myself in at times.  One tiny toe-touch on a jagged rock and I was going head first into a field of sharp stone.  Instead, when this thought creep in, I refocused my eyes.  Like a mantra, I told myself again and again…Focus. Focus. Focus. Breath. Run.

Placement wise I had no idea where I was in the race.  I was passing other women, but for all I knew I could have been moving up from 20th place.  And honestly, though placing in a race is always a blast, I reminded myself to have fun and run well.  If there were other women out there kicking my ass, more power to them.  As I entered the 27-mile Aid Station, I got my update…4th place Female.  And with that I thought to myself, “Alright, Ash, you’re in this thing…let’s get it done!”

I took a quick break to get off my feet, change my socks, and to drink the most awesome meal replacement shake ever created.  I realized I was famished, likely causing the fatigue I felt coming into the AS.  It’s a miracle what some protein, carbohydrates, and electrolytes can do for the body and mind as I left the AS feeling like a million bucks.  I bounced down the trail and I pulled out my music; it was time to give these trails some tunes.

It wasn’t a few more miles when I passed the 3rd place female.  She stepped aside on the trail as I gave her a genuine smile, and she returned to me a sincere wave and “Good Luck” as I headed down the trail.

Somewhere between miles 35-45 I lost my steam, and unknowingly, my place.  For 10-miles I was running just trying to hold on, but as I entered the second to last AS at mile 45, the brightly dressed crew called out that I was the 4th female to enter the station.  “What?” I said, “I was told I was 3rd?”  The guy double-checked his clip board, “Uuuuh, nope, I have you as 4th”.  I gave a smile as I left but I was frustrated with myself.  Once I pass a female, I’d like to keep it that way no matter where I am in the race.  My sulking didn’t last long as I entered a switchback and saw another female just a half mile behind me.  “NO WAY I am getting re-passed twice!”, I thought to myself, so I took off with everything I had.  I ran the hills and cruised down the descents.  With one more AS just 2.8 miles to the finish I pre-decided to give my number to the crew as check-in and head on to the finish without stopping.  If I were going to get passed again, she would have to earn it.

As I ran through the AS, I saw two females getting some refreshments.  One of them could have been a 50-mile runner, or not…at this point all three races taking place on the course had converged, so they could have easily been 50k or marathon runners.

Either way I kept hauling it to the finish.  For the last 20-miles, everything hurt.  My arms and shoulders hurt.  My legs and gluts hurt.  My abs hurt.  At this point, I had even concluded that my fat cells hurt.  I could run fast and hurt, or I could run slow and hurt.  The only relief I would find would be the finish, so it was easy to reason that I suck it up and get there as fast as possible.

As I emerged from the woods and down the finishing chute, I did the one thing I had been aching to do for practically three hours; I dropped to the ground and let my legs rest.  Striped of everything but my clothes, I crawled to the nearby water cooler, opened the spout, and stuck my whole head underneath.  I let the cool water rush over my head, as I tasted the salty sweat of my face flush past my lips.

Much later, after some technical equipment difficulties were sorted out, I found out that I finished 2nd Place Female Overall & 1st Place Female in my Age Group with a finishing time of 10 hours & 29 minutes.  What I didn’t know is that I wasn’t done running yet.  As I drifted off to sleep that night, preparing to run another 13.1 miles through the same treacherous terrain, the sudden movement of my legs pulled me from my sleep.  In the light haze of my dreams, I realized what woke me.  Though I was lying safely in bed, I was still running through the trails of Bear Mountain, up and over rocky mountain peaks and down steep trail descents, repeating my mantra: Focus. Focus. Focus. Breath. Run.

  • by ashleyk
  • posted at 5:48 PM
  • May 7, 2012