Birthday-Wedding WUS

Quadruple Birthday-Wedding WUS

Wednesday, April 27th, 11:30pm: 30 minutes before registration closes for Promise Land.  Aaron had long ago passed out in bed.  He was exhausted.  He’d been exhausted for months.  My fingers hovered over the keyboard in indecision.

Reasons for running the Promise Land 50k:

(a) I need to get some quality mountains training in during the next couple weeks if I want a prayer of finishing the Laurel Highland 70 mile race in June.

(b) Our friend PJ had kindly offered to give me a ride to Promise Land.  Easy peasy.

(c) Aaron had declined my initial suggestion to head out to Canaan Valley this weekend.  I was tempted to whine my way to West Virginia.  I’m a good whiner.  After all, we hadn’t been to Canaan since February.  And Thursday was my 35th birthday.  Usually this would be all the extra ammunition I’d need.  But Aaron saying no to a trip to his beloved Canaan Valley only means one thing: Aaron is about a 9.5 on a 10-point work stress richter scale.  Whining under such circumstances is only likely to backfire.  When Aaron is in work stress mode, the best thing is to back off and give him space.

Reasons for not running the Promise Land 50k:

(a) The closest I’ve gotten to doing any kind of climbing in the mountains the last few months was riding the chairlift in Colorado last week.  Promise Land is one of the most mountainous 50ks around.  When Keith K. raves about a race, you know you’ d better have your hill legs.

(b) There weren’t many people I knew running PL this year.  No Wussies.  No Andrish clan.  The main point of running these races is getting to hang out with friends.

(c) Do I really need any other reasons than being utterly ill-prepared and having no friends?

(d) Okay, there were a few more bonus reasons to skip out.  I came to realize that PJ was driving down to the race with his girlfriend.  Being third-wheel is no-win.  Either the couple is having a grand ole time and you feel even worse that your boyfriend chose work over you on your birthday weekend.  Or, even worse, the couple is fighting the whole time and you wish you could shrivel to pea-size and disappear.

(e) One more bonus reason: PJ’s plan was to camp in the parking lot, something that is very popular among PL runners but which Aaron and I have never done.  We have a strong preference for dry shelter.

As all these competing reasons spun in my head, I could see Aaron’s white feet sticking out beneath the blankets.  And I knew that tomorrow, my 35th birthday, was going to be a gloom-fest.  And that come Saturday I’d better be out there in the mountains.  I whipped out my credit card and sealed the deal.

In fairness, I’d already had a full ‘birth-month’ of celebrations.  First there was the Race for the Birds and LobsterFest in early April, followed by our ski trip to Colorado (, then my brother’s family visiting from Vermont, and culminating with Tuesday’s boisterous Birthday-Wedding WUS.  For bloody sake, I’d already had THREE birthday cakes.  So by the time my actual birth date rolled around on April 28th, even my cat was ready to be done with the overkill of birth-month.  But I was unprepared for the extent of Aaron’s commitment to ‘non-birthday’.  I went to work in a dark hoodie and refused to crack a smile until intern Bobby face-planted into a mud puddle (Bobby also face-planted at the donut run; apparently for Bobby this is a thing).

As Aaron and I pulled the tent down from the closet, I realized I hadn’t been camping since the pre-Aaron era, at Holy Cowan’s Gap, a time when I was single, in my 20s, and did a a lot of things solo.  With Aaron’s work life kicking into high gear, it was time for me to re-discover that 20-something who can decide to do a race on a Wednesday, learn how to put the tent together on Thursday, and climb into the back of a friend’s car on Friday, and just enjoy the thrill of getting out of the house.

~                      ~                       ~

‘I bet if I try to hang with you, it will push me into running at least 10 minutes faster.’

I liked the idea of having PJ to run with, he’s easy to talk with, but I didn’t want there to be any misconceptions about the nature of the run.  ‘PJ, I’m probably going to run in 6 hours or so.  This is just my kick-off training run for Laurel.  I haven’t been running mountains.  I’m not in race mode.  And Promise Land is the kind of race to soak it all in — it’s beautiful — and there’s plenty of opportunity to wipe yourself out on Apple Orchard Falls at the end if you’re feeling good. ‘

PJ was unconvinced.  ‘I couldn’t even hang with you guys at WUS.’

‘Seven miles ain’t 30 miles.’

~                      ~                       ~

It was impossible to find PJ at the start line in the pitch dark, but we connected on the first long climb up the road.  For about 10 minutes, when PJ realized that all my chatter about taking it easy was entirely for real, he found my pace to be lacking and ran sections I walked.  I’d come across him many miles later just before the big Falls climb, and I’d finish only a couple minutes ahead of him.  I couldn’t help but feel that if he’d have been a little patient and just stuck with me, we could have had a jolly good time running together the whole way and he would have had the same net result.  But PJ did his first 50k just last fall and is in full-on ultra trail running honeymoon stage.  They can’t help themselves.

I had gagged/force-fed my bit of breakfast, and while my legs were surprisingly fine, my stomach was bad early on.  I vomited during the second major climb, before even getting to mile 10.  I’ve devoted plenty of blog-space in the past to my endlessly frustrating stomach issues in ultras, and I’m not going to discuss them any further here.  Frankly, stomach, I’m just tired of you.

Fortunately, I didn’t feel like my stomach was totally tearing down my run.  I’d walked a little, and maybe my prophylactic immodium helped.  But my mood started to sour when after the third aid station we set out on what should have been, had it not been for my stomach, a glorious downhill stretch, which I remember vividly from when I ran PL in 2013 as the kind of section that makes you fall in love with running again.

‘How are you doing?’ a young guy asked as he passed me.

I made no effort to sugar-coat my mood or my stomach problems.

‘What’s your name?’


‘Okay, Martha, I’m going to say a prayer to Jesus for you.’

That wasn’t exactly a direction I’d been prepared for the conversation to go.  ‘Oh, no, that’s not really necessary.’  I was certain that even if Jesus could hear us, he had orphans to feed and plagues to offset and my little stomach couldn’t plausibly crack even the top million of worthy pleas around the world.  But even if the Liberty University culture feels as distant from my DC life as Calcutta, I recognized that the gesture was genuine and from a place of kindness.  And at least it got Parker Millsap’s killer tune ‘Truck Stop Gospel’ stuck in my head for a couple miles.  And as I rolled along down the switchbacks, I started to find my downhill groove.  By the middle of the descent I was having to ask a lot of guys if they could please let me by.  Finding your downhill running groove makes my top-5 list of The Ultimate Best Things in the World, nudging out both Belgian chocolate and farts.  So this was no small matter.  A handful of synapses began to consider whether Jesus had actually heard the prayer.

Horton was at the aid station at the bottom of the climb.  Seeing Horton always gives me a twinge of guilt.  I know that, above all else, Horton wants to see folks ripping up the trails.  When I first started running with WUS, Keith and Sean prophesied that I’d be a great ultra runner.  Every race we talked about, whether it was Bull Run or Holiday Lake, the common refrain was, ‘You’ll totally set a course record there.’  Eight years later, you have to wonder what they got wrong.  It’s not just my stomach.  It’s more fundamental.  They both made a (really rather reasonable) assumption that a woman running sub-3 marathons knows how to train.  How to structure training weeks that combine long runs and intensity with proper rest periods, etc. etc.  I don’t think it ever occurred to them that I didn’t own a watch, and that my marathon preparation consisted solely of haphazard 4-7 trots on dirt paths looking for birds and gossiping, with some kind of long-ish run over 12 miles tossed in just to say I’d ‘trained’.  But I’ve found that while genetics and sheer will power are enough to gut it out on the roads, not being trained is punishing in tough mountainous ultra races like Promise Land or Manitou’s.  You don’t train, you don’t win.

I am not a naturally structured person.  I don’t write outlines before I write my manuscripts.  I’m not very tidy.  Okay, at Aaron’s insistence I will correct that sentence: I am not tidy at all.  I entirely lack the compulsiveness and propensity for structure and record-keeping that is required for training.  I tried to wear a watch.  That failed.  I probably shouldn’t feel guilty when I see Horton.  It’s not like I’m a quitter or a litterer or violator of some code of the trail.  I’m a perfectly nice little trail runner and he probably just feels bad for me that I get sick at all his races, with no inkling of the gap between my actual and theoretical performance.

I ended up finishing the race with my new Jesus friend, Weston.  Around mile 25ish I caught up to a large peloton of dudes all running in a line that included he and PJ.  Karma comes around, and I ditched PJ and stuck with Weston.  He and I made it together through the rough, never-ending finish of the Apple Orchard Falls climb.  And stuck together down the final road descent.  My quads were absolutely trashed.  But running slower didn’t make them feel any better, and he clocked us at 6:15 pace down the last miles.  He was trying to calculate whether we could finish in under 6 hours, which was his goal.  So I thought I was doing him a favor pushing him a little.  When I realized he was hurting more than I, and got clarification that there wasn’t actually any chance of breaking 6, we eased up a bit.  I was just hoping to be top-ten to get the awesome Horton swag.  And I thought there was something very fitting about finishing with the guy who’d prayed for my belly at mile 10.  My stomach was by no means perfect, but it never took the run-destroying nosedive.  A coincidence or not, that I didn’t puke once post-prayer?

The swag was, as predicted, awesome.  I will probably live in my new Patagonia hoodie sweatshirt, at least until DC summer temps hit.  PJ finished a little bit later.  I gave him a little bit of shit for ditching me.  It’s okay, though, he’s still finding that fine line between running comfortably and racing.  But he was jetting off for what sounded like an impossibly awesome boys rafting trip in Southern Utah.  How come no one ever invites me on boys rafting trips in Southern Utah?  I ended up hitching a ride with a guy named Luke, who was heading back to Vienna.

‘You know, I didn’t really achieve either of my goals today,’ I admitted to PJ after the race as we tried to smush the muddy, wet tent gear into bags that now seemed way too small.  ‘I didn’t run fast and I didn’t spare my legs.’

PJ laughed.

‘But I sure did boot and rally.’  I paused.  ‘Boot and rally — isn’t that something from college where you drink so much you puke, and then keep drinking?’  I strained to imagine what could possess a girl to keep drinking after barfing. ‘I never did that.  But hey, at this ole age of 35, I guess it’s never to late to learn.  Thanks, Jesus.’



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