It's been over a month and I think I had enough time off since I wrote a blog and recovered from a month long of races. For flashback Friday, what's better to write about than the Massachusetts' North Face Endurance Challenge experience with Mirna Valerio, infamously known as Fatgirlrunning, especially since I just wrote a review about her book coming out in October. Oh, so you haven't read my review: Book Review: A Beautiful Work in Progress...shame on you. You go read that RIGHT NOW!
Pre Race Day
"Fuck the gym. I have to get out of here on time."
Despite my efforts of packing early and attempting to get everything done in advance, I'm a stereotypical woman. There's never enough bags or clothing to take for a trip, even if it's only for the weekend. I promised myself a few weeks ago that I would have all of my items ready. Shit, I even made a timeline for my foolishness and fuckery. Seems like the only thing that went according to plan is actually making it out of NYC.
Two months prior, my running idol (and I think it's safe to say FRIEND) Mirna Valerio wrote the following on my Facebook page:
In turn, I binged between television and reading Jessamyn Stanley's Every Body Yoga: Let Go of Fear, Get On the Mat, Love Your Body, while being in my feelings about God knows what at this point. I chalk it up to being a rainbow coalition of emotions because I'm a Gemini. I looked over at my suitcase when I made it to bed around 12:30 and was so sure that I was going to get up in 4 hours. I'm thankful that I didn't because I truly didn't know what Saturday's slaughter house presentation had awaiting for me.
Friday morning, I headed over to my best friend to go to his doctor's appointment. After hearing some unfortunate news, I called Mirna from the Bronx and gave her my information. Thankfully, she was running late and it gave me a bit of time to get White Castle cheeseburgers and onion rings for breakfast. This is probably the time where you should side eye me, considering I downed around 6 burgers and I'm horrifically lactose intolerant. She picked me up some time closer to 1pm and after we all exchanged some jokes, Mirna and I headed on the traffic laced road to Massachusetts.
Despite the shit traffic conditions, a stop or two to allow my ass to play the sax and a coffee break, we made it to the Waschusett Mountain. It's such a beautiful site from afar and for some reason, I didn't respect how menacing this course would be. The Waschusett Mountain is Massachusetts highest state mountain with a top elevation over 2,000 feet. Perhaps it was a great idea that I didn't research as I typically do for all of my races. I was still recovering from the shit storm name Mountain Creek in Vernon, NJ from the Spartan Ultra Beast.
Mirna and I picked up our packets 30 minutes to closing but hung around for the seminar about Saturday's course. We had the pleasure of meeting Dean Karnazes, who happens to be this bad ass ultra-marathon runner here in the US and author of Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner. For a man who is a month away from pushing 55, I would be, could be and to the prude folks, should be lying if I didn't think that this man was my undocumented future ex-husband next to Gordon Ramsey obnoxiously incredible ass. Okay, enough of my drooling over strong men. He spoke eloquently about the adventures of being an ultra marathoner. While Mirna affectionally remembers his words about biting off more than he can chew on her Women's Running Magazine post, I remember him talking about the metaphorically "Coming to Jesus" moment. Perhaps, with better judgment, I should have known that this course would be a diva during income tax time with the two grand lace-front but I was too hype about doing my first trail marathon. After we snatched up a few selfies with him, I think we both went into our respective modes of race day nerves.
NOTE TO SELF: If anyone ever reference something in correlation to the Lord Jesus Christ and his sidekicks, take them seriously.
Defining all of the literary squabble of carb-loading to contradicting articles suggesting fat and protein, we opted for burgers and fries at Five Guys. To add insult to injury, I went for the milkshake because those damn things are life. Unfortunately, my anus reminded me of how much milkshakes don't bring all the boys to my yard about a hour later.
We unpacked, took a shower and did something that I no longer feel so alone about: Laid out our clothes and snapped a picture of our race day outfits to post onto social media. After talking some more, we finally decided to get some necessary shut eye.
As usual, my sleep was erratic. Initially, I was able to get a few hours of steady sleep. After the first few hours, I woke up every hour on the hour. Maybe the White Castle breakfast and Five Guys' milkshake was the blame. Despite my desire to point fingers onto the culprit, my nerves were literally in the shitter. Overwhelmed with anxiety, I spoke to one of my best friends around 3AM while he was at work. I wanted to ramble about any and everything via text and thankfully, he was up. Around 4am, I got a decent amount of shut eye that pushed me over the 6:30 mark from my alarm. Around 7, my husband called to give
Like most, I wished with all of my heart that my body would doing its routine purge from the unknown. Yes guys: I'm talking about dropping a deuce. Making love to the porcelain. Doing the Brown. When you're a long distance runner, the only thing worse than a port-a-potty on the course is the lack of one or shitting on yourself.
Mirna was a lot more contained than me but I think I think that was either good practice from loads of trail races or her years of experience of working with erratic children that didn't belong to her. We grabbed coffee and our essentials, then hit the road. After 20 minutes on the road, we were at the Waschusett Mountain, conveniently parked next to an infectious group of people from The November Project.
In my mind, we were two plus size divas getting ready to make this course our bitch or at least, make it learn some manners. Okay, perhaps I'm fabricating this just a bit. I was scared shitless but I covered it in smiles, doing two drive-bys on the toilet within ten minutes and admiring the unsolicited cheer section that Mirna accrued from people who knew of her story. We stood in the back of the starting line and before we knew it, we were off at 9:02 with Wave 2 of trail marathoners awaiting their fate.
Slow and steady was the mantra for the first few miles. For a Brooklyn girl who's used to road running, I felt pretty damn strong. Mirna and I matched each other's steps, sometimes with her leading the way as I took mental notes on how to read the markers on the trail. Unlike road races, there's not a huge cheer section throughout the course with people peddling booze and candy shots. You learn how to respect the terrain to some degree. As a newbie, I was in complete awe for the first few miles and my nerves shifted onto the soles of my feet. This is familiar territory for me. I listened to my breath, speaking to Mirna here and there when the mood struck me but I loved that neither one of us took it personal when we grew silent. As an extrovert, I'm always vocal about things in my everyday life but when I'm on the pavement, it is the one time that I embrace silence. My mind is actively still, slightly drifting off into a serene state and my breath dictated my every movement.
As I have been warned trail marathons can delude you in such a manner. Around mile 2 or 3, we did a bit of rock scrambling, which is pretty new to me but not Mirna. She coached me through the process including foot placement. Four years ago, I would have sat my prissy ass down in the woods and told nature to kiss my ass, blaring the Purple Rain soundtrack. I'm a much stronger person than then, not so much from the weight loss but the journey that running has afforded me.
Around mile 4 or 5, the Waschusett Mountains reminded me of stories that I had with a few close male friends; hell, maybe even aspects of my own marriage. In the beginning of the marathon, it was smooth with a few luscious curves to touch. I was emotionally invested into this relationship called a marathon. Around mile 3, I thought we were going to have a fairy tale wedding but mile 4 and 5 was when the honeymoon was over. The terrain was probably the most disrespectful technical courses that the North Face Challenge could have possibly thrown our way. Still, refusing to budge or panic, I thought to myself: All I need a little bit of marriage counseling between me and the course. We were graced with an aid station loaded with potatoes, candy, soda and products from Skratch. The course has a charming element to it when there's an aid section. You start to see people and like most people do in marriages, we showcase our spouse and play chummy with the other married folks, knowing that we're awaiting the nagging and bitching on the way home.
Everything started to get better until we met mile 6:
"Oh, WTF is this shit here?! They really want US to scale this fucking mountain?!"
Perhaps this was the "Coming to Jesus" moment that Dean talked about? Honestly, although time consuming and it looked intimidating, it really wasn't too terrible once you made your way up. Once you get up this section of the mountain, you cannot help but be in awe of your progress. Here we were...two plus size black women from Brooklyn running a trail marathon. This had to be an anomoly to many, as we stuck out like sore thumbs on this course.
Forgive me new readers but I am uncensored about everything but welcome... boom. There goes your only disclaimer on this post.
I thought I was hitting the home run when we reached Mile 7.2, which in essence thought was mile 9 despite being told that we were HOURS behind the lead runner. We both heard this before: "Pick up your pace or else we will have to pull you off the course." Oh fuck that. You kidding? After hiking it out of my convenient area of Brooklyn? No. Absolutely not, sir. Although he was super friendly, to hell if you thought we were leaving this course. By this point, I could see the exhaustion on Mirna's face, one that I was now masking pretty well from an unspoken 220 lb. ego that I was toting along on the course. When she made her way up, I asked her if we could make it through this course. She agreed that we still had time. With her blessing, I picked up the pace.
Losing My 'Black Card'
Almost leaving out of mile 8, I heard a military cadence in my head, keeping me at a good rhythm. Going against my good training, I picked up the pace going downhill and then, my rocky marriage was met with a home wrecker who was brown, striped and blended in with the woods:
"Gesu Cristo...that's a fucking snake! MIRRRRRNNAAAAAAA!"
Listen, I'm going to sound like a stereotype for a half minute: I dodge gunshots, not snakes. While my Rabun Gap transplant embraced nature, I didn't reach this point of my life where snakes were identified as friendly and all spiders are viewed as genital warts in my mind.
"Is it coiled?" she yelled off from a distance in a very calm tone. To hell if I know.
Okay...Give me a break guys. I know what a coiled snake look like but as a person with exceptionally terrible anxiety, I think I completely bypassed Dean Karnazes' coming to Jesus moment. My beautiful spouse of a mountain introduced me to the devil. Like a kid who soiled their pants and awaiting for mom to fix it, I waited for Mirna to catch up. She chuckled a little bit and told me to go around it. With no fear, she recorded this encounter of Diablo the Snake onto her Instagram account, in which her thousand of followers probably heard me losing my shit. Thankfully, I'm not easily embarrassed, as I knew when I'd type this blog, I'd be laughing about this thought. Too bad it wasn't funny at that point of time.
I was a lover scorned from Diablo putting its nasty hands on my spouse, a place that it was familiar with. After all, Diablo the snake and its counterparts come out heavily in the heat. A little bit of earth science would have taught me this. Unfortunately, logic was in the wind and I was overwhelmed with anxiety and paranoia. What if I saw another one of these venomous bastards? I knew I needed to keep moving and it took two miles to shake off my fear.
By mile 11, I think the snake was the last of my worries. The course started to work on me. My nerves were shifting its way into my fingertips. Another meltdown was on its way and before I knew it, I was crying on the course silently. I didn't want anyone to notice much, especially since I don't do well with folks harboring around me as I'm a blubbering hot mess. All of the negative thoughts showered my brain as if I was in year 6 of a verbally abusive marriage:
- Fat Bitch! Potential doesn't mean shit!
The last thought was enough. Keep going. The tears started to reduce and although I tripped hard, almost donating my face to Mother Nature, I kept going. Mile 13, I was met with another snake but this time, a 50 miler noticed my worry. Without saying much, he gestured for me to move along the side. No more running this time; just speed walking.
Being in my thoughts made me realize that I left Mirna behind somewhere around mile 11. I worried about what condition that she was in but I assured myself to keep moving per our discussion in mile 1. I knew at some point, I would be met by a course sweeper once again and at this point, I could mention her name and description, which would be fairly easy. Not being funny, but we really did stick out like sore thumbs and in turn, I realized how much I really entered her world.
Race isn't something that resonates heavily on my brain but I would be lying if I told you that I didn't think about it on this course. It's hard to ignore the glances that are shot in your direction. As an African American woman, I learned that not all smiles come from a genuine place. Most people were super encouraging but there were a few glances that made me feel a bit off. The problem with analyzing these things for too long is that I questioned whether these looks were over a concern about my weight, my race, a mixture of several factors or pure imagination. If allowed, my mind would have traveled down the rabbit hole of questioning and assuming things but this wasn't necessary in my mind. Why does it truly matter at this moment? Am I out here trying to show others that black people do trail runs too or am I out here for an experience? With my very light experience of being in the public eye, I do question my intentions a lot more than I care to admit but I actually know why I hit the trails on that Saturday morning. I wanted an adventure and it may or may not include a medal.
Cookies away from mile 17 and I was greeted with what others would ultimately call "losing my black card". Receiving a warning from an ultra marathoner heading back from her 50K, a woman warned me of a narrow area of the course with slippery rocks.
"Don't worry about where it's at. You'll notice it when you see it. I'm not trying to discourage you but you won't make it to the cutoff time." Sure, I knew I wouldn't make it either but it was rough hearing that out loud from someone on the course other than a course marshal. The red headed runner made me exceptionally concerned that the aide station wouldn't be available at mile 18.5 by the time I'd make it there at my pace. With her advice, I hauled ass until I was had the figurative 'Coming to Jesus' moment.
"There's no way they want me cross that?"
This was something that I verbalized loud enough for a few fatigued runners to overhear. By this point, I played How to Be a Millionaire in my head, wondering if I could dial a friend in the dead space of the woods, perhaps take a 50/50 chance or just stop right now. Realistically, I was stagnant for five minutes, which is an endurance runner nightmare because cramping is real when you stop but my heart was drowned in fear. The trail runner was absolutely right about being cautious, as I had to cross wet, slippery rocks and if I looked down, the fall would surely kill me. No exaggeration, I imagined taking a plunge from the 18th floor of a skyscraper and shallow, rocky waters would be waiting for me to say hello.
I found my inside thoughts escaping my brain like verbal diarrhea.
"I'mma lose my black card! I'mma lose my black card! Who the hell does this? Is this even a thought? I'mma lose my black card!"
Pardon my justifiable melodrama but this was a real fear. As if I wasn't already crippled by the thought of swimming, I could possibly fall into something that I wouldn't be able to swim from. My side show commentary was heard by a couple who came to terms with DNFing the course. They nervously watched me cross the area and going into a full meltdown after making it over.
While some of you readers who stuck with me thus far might be chuckling at this dialogue, my anxiety is exceptionally amped up from environmental factors or layers of stress that I'm not able to process quick enough. Although I'm very contained and fairly thick skinned in my everyday life, there was one too many fear factor scenarios thrown at me at TNF Endurance Challenge.
"Miss, did you say you lost my credit card?"
I gulped hard, trying to contain myself but still overwhelmed, "No ma'am...I lost my BLACK CARD. I don't do shit like this!"
I could tell she wanted to chuckle after realizing what my metaphorical term meant but she and her husband saw how disheveled I looked. The tall, dark haired Massachusetts native explained to me that he is from the area, specifically trained at the mountain for the course and told me what was up ahead. He respected my tenacity but found a respectable way to talk me into DNFing from the course. At this moment, I opted to turn around, taking along two buddies for a mile back. At Mile 17, I was done.
When my sense of humor started to pick back up, they felt comfortable to move forward without me. I shifted my gears, hoping that I'd meet up with Mirna. Around mile 15, we linked up. We gave each other a look and we knew we were both done. At this point, we both announced on our respective Instagram stories that the mountain won today.
Despite coming to terms with it, we were hit hard with the idea of DNFing the course. I pride myself on pushing through but one of my readers warned me about the endurance races with North Face long before race day and how DNFing comes with the territory at times with trail races. For a moment, I couldn't understand how I could push through insane Spartan races, sometimes pulling a weekend warrior effort but not a 'simple' trail race.
Humility became my friend. I relearned how to respect Mother Nature, her temperament and to take this 'loss' in stride. Almost two miles away from the start line, Mirna and I saw an aide station that was dismantling. We grabbed goodies, hydrated and was ready to make the detour off the course. Something that newbie trail runners should keep in mind is if you decide to leave a race, please let the staff know. Nothing like having a search team look for you in the woods, worrying if you was devoured by a family of hungry bears.
As soon as we were going to cut to the finisher's area, a staffer who's name slips my mind, talked me into running the last 1.5 miles. We made a deal that if he ran with me, I'd cross. My coming to Jesus moment quickly shifted into "Embrace the Crazy." And so, I did a light run downhill while talking with my new stranger-friend about what drove me to run in general, up onto leading me here at this race. Mirna gave me the motherly side eyed glance and quickly gave me a friendly Jazzy Jeff nod of approval as she assured me that she'd meet me at the finisher's area.
In many ways, I think running the last 1.5 miles was my way of coming to terms that I gave it all that I had. The Waschusett Mountain forced me to eat a second helping of humble pie and taught me that I entered a different realm of crazy. I made my way across the finish line and for some odd reason, they still gave me a finisher's medal despite me telling them that I didn't earn it; they insisted.
I scrambled over to the food court, grabbing beer and doing what I did best: Talk shit.
- "So...how was the race?"
- "Absolutely disrespectful!"
A passerby spit out her beer laughing at my commentary. The course took parts of my dignity but I still retained my humor. After the race, I even talked off the heads of a few race coordinators about those "disrespectful ass mountains," channeling my inner Samuel L. Jackson. Mirna and I did a respectful zombie shuffle back to the parking lot after we stuffed our faces with everything possible and headed back to the hotel. This race was done.
Every person has their own thing, especially distance runners. Some celebrate with a beer; Mirna had a glass of wine. I showered off the wilderness and did a routine inspection. Personally, I purge my brain after every race, despite how 'successful' or disappointed I may be with the outcome. Unwinding is necessary for me. I breathed deeply into the two pillows, picked up my yoga book, found a few asanas and tried to push my stiff muscles through them.
This was not my 'best race' by any means but certainly one of the most memorable. Isn't this why I do these things anyway? Who knew this Brooklyn woman with several disabilities and enough ailments to put me into a retirement home could push through. Five years ago, I thought I'd lose my mobility by now. In 2017, I stopped surviving and learned how to live.
Before crashing, Mirna and I vowed to return to this course, stronger and with an overkill of hill/stair training for next year's race. This was a great way to kick start my 32 years of being on earth. I'm thankful.