As a grand gesture gift, the kind of gift my William seems often to do, my husband planned a road trip for us to the Pacific Northwest. We had been as far as the Ashland, Oregon area for the Shakespeare Festival in 2007, and it has been a hope of mine to explore Oregon and Washington much more widely. As we began to plan this trip at Christmas, we mapped out a route to Seattle and other sites around Washington. A couple of months ago, though, we realized I would have the opportunity to race the annual Butte to Butte 10K in Eugene, Oregon on the 4th of July. We had tickets for two plays in Ashland that determined the start of our trip toward the end of June; entering Butte to Butte meant either hastening rapidly through Portland and up into Seattle and back, or slowing down to spend a couple of days in Portland and being leisurely in Eugene for a few days. We chose leisurely and savoring, over hustling and not having the full opportunity to grok the big cities.

Plus: Eugene is magical, Bill said, you’ll see. He was right. That place calls to me. I was happy to spend a few days there.

This was a running-centric vacation in that we paced ourselves so that I would not have to miss workouts and training sessions. I brought my weights for lifting, and we brought our scale, as well. It is difficult to imagine a vacation at this point in which I could not road run: kind of makes cruises iffy for my future! To be able to explore a new place on foot in a 5 or 6 mile training run is to have the ultimate freedom and to forge connections with new ground. There is such intimacy in running a new place. On this trip I ran in Sacramento, Ashland, Eugene (Pre’s trail, several times through U of O, Butte to Butte), Jantzen Beach (near Portland), and Brookings.

There would have been a time in my life when I would not have enjoyed this freedom: not only was I not a runner until two years ago, but also part of my journey has been working through real and irrational anxiety of driving/walking/being alone in big, strange places. At some point, I hope to write an entry about how that anxiety significantly impacted friendships (it was especially connected to driving for many years, by myself) and wrecked havoc on my independence and confidence for years…but in the meantime, it is worthwhile to note that part of this journey the past two years has been about facing everything that scares me and slaughtering the fear no matter what it takes, so that I can be truly independent and free and wild, so that I can live and explore fully… Running encapsulates that freedom fully; to move my legs and feel my heartbeat around a new place is, in every step, an act of utter defiance of the personality traits and brain chemicals that would work to keep my world small. Running, for me, is absolute rebellion. So many times, even today, when I have a run that isn’t going well, or I feel my mood out of sorts, I will ask out loud as I am running, “Aren’t you going to fight for yourself? You are worth fighting for. Get going. Get going.”

I could write pages and pages of paeans to running, and how it has changed my whole life. I am one of those runners who can never stop talking about it. Runner’s World Magazine routinely pokes good-natured fun at those of us who are like that. And those who write up 2000 word synopses of their races online… Ha ha.

The first race of the road trip was the Billy Mills 10K in Sacramento at 7:00 PM on June 26th. I fondly think of this race in retrospect as “The Race in Which a Runner Did Everything She Should Not Do.”

First of all. We left for Sacramento on the 25th, Bill’s birthday. He wanted to watch the Google conference that morning, so we left around lunch time. I had a 6.2 scheduled for that morning, which I did. I came home and was reading to the kiddos on the couch when Bill said the mighty words, “Guess what?” He had discovered that the USATF Outdoor Championships (the Nationals) were being held at Sacramento State in Hornet Stadium on the 26th. Moreover, he discovered that the Billy Mills 10K coincided with this event, held just outside of the track on the roads. Bill suggested I sign up to race it, that we stay an extra night in Sacramento, and that he would take the chance to watch some quality track events on the 26th while I took the kids around the capital.

Sounded like a plan!

I am not one for impromptu race sign-ups, but in a moment of excitement I thought, “Why not?” Coach Bill assured me that we were not exactly racing it but just to think of it as my workout for that day. I thought, “Okay, yeah, just a training sesh. Keep it mellow.”

Except, I am not that way. A race is a race. No matter what I told myself, I got competitive with myself as we were heading to it.

Except: I had done everything wrong. I was not tapered in the least (having run all week at high mileage and a 1oK the day before). Then I walked around the capital for hours with the kiddos. We went everywhere. (Blog to come). So even on race day, I spent all day walking around.

Then, the capper. I have never run an evening race. On the morning of a race, I eat a Superfood Slam, sip water, have a bit of caffeine. That’s it. I train daily on nothing in my stomach. In other words, I sure as heck don’t ever run full. But I was starving by 6:00 PM. And that’s when I made the decision to have the most ginormous falafel and pita wrap I have ever laid my eyes upon.

Big mistake. Big, big mistake. Don’t ever do this, folks. Not unless you want to torture yourself for the next 6.2 miles.

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So there I am at the Billy Mills 10K and feeling somewhat pumped but wondering about proper expectations of myself. The atmosphere is festive because Billy Mills himself is there—the only American EVER to win the Olympic gold medal in the 10K. This race celebrated the 50th anniversary of that race. His story is awesome, and all over YouTube if you want to know more about him. Totally an inspirational win.

The race starts. Mile one was not so bad… And then it was waves of nausea from there on out. Ever burped up pita and hummus for 5.2 miles? And struggled to breathe against your own mucus? No?

I wanted to die. If that sounds like hyperbole, then let’s at least agree that I wanted to pull over, walk, and BAWL MY EYES OUT IT HURT SO BAD.

I have never hurt so much in a race before. I had pulled off a 6:27 in the first mile which had a bit of a climb and then flat, but it was not race pace from about there. It was survival. I had to dig DEEP. I even went to the last line of defense: if you can have two natural labors, you can get through the pain of this race. Yes, the labor comparison. It’s bad when it gets there… Since labor hurts far, far more than any amount of running, by the way.

I thought about pulling over and just vomiting, but then I thought someone might feel the need to stop and help me, and I didn’t want to ruin the race for anybody.

By the 4th mile, life felt dire. I actually thought, “I could slow down, but then I am out here longer, and do I really want that? Wouldn’t it be better just to race it in and vomit in the trash can when I get there?”

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I also found myself calculating at some point: “You can’t have more than 20 minutes at most to go here if you just keep on pace. You can endure any pain for 20 minutes.” Just getting down the finishing chute was a struggle. I never did vomit, though.

When I came in, at 44:27, I just sat down and cried:

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I was disappointed with myself for not preparing better and for making the decision to consume too much food mass beforehand. On the other hand, there was no way to taper properly with an impromptu sign-up. I felt frustrated, though, because the course was SUH-WEET, a.k.a. fairly level with some minor hills—the kind of course on which a person could easily PR. And here I was, running a 44:27, which is a 10K time  I routinely beat even while just on a normal training run. I felt pretty unhappy with myself and my pre-race decisions, I have to say. I felt like I had wasted a course that should have been amazing.

But life and experience are good, depending on what we choose to make of them. I could wallow, or I could learn. I could choose to look at the bright side. I thought, “If this is how it feels at my worst, then Butte to Butte, when I am properly honed and ready, should be especially good!”

Unexpectedly, I also managed to medal, even with the 44:27. I was the first place woman in my division. Surprise! The medal is a super nice one, even engraved on the back. I am happy to have it, since only placers received them—it is a nice souvenir from the trip!

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And Billy Mills signed my race bib!

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And now, in retrospect, the race is one of my favorite memories of the trip. Some moments that seem like we’re in the clutch turn out to be the good stories and the moments at which we have the chance to define ourselves, see what we’re made of, and learn. I am a big believer in looking at the silver linings, always.

A week and two days later, on July 4th at 8:00 in Eugene, Oregon, I raced the Butte to Butte 10K.

In this, my first year of racing, I have raced eight races and a Spartan Sprint. All of them are special to me, for various reasons. My first—the Long Beach Half, with my dad—will always have an extra special place in my heart. The Hot Chocolate 15K became part of an amazing weekend. The Strawberry Festival 10K was a PR and placement victory. Other races have also gone extremely well, with most ending in medal placement either in division or across my gender, or both. It has been a crazy first year. But Butte to Butte may be my favorite.

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Eugene is a magical place for runners. It is a magical place, period. I felt completely absorbed and part of the culture there. It’s got the beautiful U of O right there, Hayward Field, and Pre is still palpably a legend. The energy of race morning took my breath away. I ran with runners who compete on the national field. The women were led by Alexi Pappas, who broke the course women’s record that day. She is world class, ran for U of O, and is getting ready to be a professional and Olympic level runner. To be at the starting line with this group was insane.

Butte to Butte is a point-to-point race. It starts at Spencer’s Butte, goes through town, and ends at the base of Skinner’s Butte. Because it is point-to-point, I boarded a bus near Skinner’s Butte at 6:45 AM and went on my own way while my family waited for me at the finish line. This was the first race, therefore, that I have started all alone without my family there. Usually, I have them with me to talk out nerves, remind me to do my strides, and keep me calm. This time, I was left to my own devices, and some really special growth happened in me during that period.

When I got to Spencer’s Butte, I went to the bathroom (I always go twice before a race), and then I found the tallest pine tree that was slightly away from the starting line. I sat down on his roots, wrapped up in my blanket, and watched the runners. I meditated and breathed. I looked up at the tree line on top of Spencer’s Butte. I visualized ascending the infamous Donald Street hill that begins the first mile of the race. It has the potential to be so bad, that there is prize money for being the first to the top of it. If a runner ruins her race by going too fast or too slow up that hill, she is done for. It is all about pacing and keeping mental control. When I drove the course the day before, it made the Temecula hills look like pancakes. It scared me. But then, that’s why I run: to be scared and to conquer that fear so often that few things scare me anymore.

I did not have my phone with me (I race with just my Garmin now, no music), so I had no distractions, but I also could take no pictures. If I could, I would have taken a picture of my tree. I know this sounds all Avatar-esque, but I felt myself becoming one with that tree. Its roots were like my legs, I thought, and I imagined my legs solidly hitting the ground, strong and rooted and powerful. And its limbs and needles were like the rest of me, about to defy gravity and to move against the pulling-down forces. I watched the birds soaring high in the air, and I pictured myself soaring, held down by almost nothing on that Donald Street hill. It was a moment of complete oneness with the nature around me, and forty-five minutes had passed in the blink of an eye.

At 7:30 AM, I touched the trunk of my tree and whispered, “Thank you.” I checked my blanket in to bag check. I went to the bathroom again. Then I did my strides. Some other runners were striding, and oh my word…some of them had the most gorgeous strides I have ever, ever seen. It made me choke up, that testament to the evolution of the human body.

On the line, I choked up again as the hosts talked about freedom and independence.

And then we were off. I was up Donald Street a little faster than I thought I would be, and the Eugene residents who came out to watch or who played band music at the top were such a joy. Then we went downhill a ways, and then it was flat. There was a dad with a stroller who kicked major butt. He passed me twice, and to this day I smile when I think about him. I have never seen anyone run that fast with a stroller with a baby in it. At one point, I thought, “I am being beaten by a guy pushing a stroller!!! For heaven’s sake!!!” But it made me laugh with mirth too much…I often feel mirth when I see someone accomplishing something rad. Everything I love best about human nature seems to emerge from the runner population, especially during races. Lining up, I looked around and thought, “We must be CRAZY people to sign up to go get this much pain so early in the morning.” I laughed: How do we explain to someone why we like to push our bodies to the absolute limits? How do we explain self-improvement for the sake of self-improvement to someone who doesn’t live under those principles? How do we explain the joy and value that comes from going out to get some pain and feel our bodies and minds working as hard as they can to sustain us?

The race was a fast one. I was aware at mile 5 of a percussion band that had set up, and was playing a cadence that helped us run faster. I jockeyed for position constantly with a middle school girl who is going to go on to be an accomplished runner, I am sure of it. She lives in Eugene, and is long-legged, and gifted. And sweet. I congratulated her after the race (she took me down the chute and put on kick like I have never seen), and she was even a bit shy. When we were racing, I assumed she was in high school, but she was young, and I felt such a motherly-sisterly connection to her as we were speaking. Again, she made me miss teaching!

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Butte to Butte ended up being everything I hoped and expected (based on my training) that it could be. I PR’d at 41:31. I came in third place in my division (they are sending the medal, after accidentally counting a 5K straggler ahead of me—it got resolved). I had a 5:57 mile, a PR for a mile. I also PR’d my 5K time: 19:36. So it was PR day, and I managed to place in Eugene—which was the major hope my coach and I had going into this.

Afterwards, we enjoyed more of the park (we would end up spending quite a bit of time there that day, but I will write about our July 4th celebration in a coming post), and we savored being with the other runners. Track Town Pizza, which I wanted to try, happened to be there serving free pizza, and so we ate our pizza on the big green field and sipped chocolate milk. The festive mood began our July 4th perfectly.

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After lunch, we hiked Skinner’s Butte to the top. Seems like a crazy thing to do after a 1oK, but running often generates energy for me, and I really wanted to look out over Eugene and see the “Butte to Butte” view!

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It was a happy forest hike.

 

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Oregon is so, so very beautiful and lush. I love the aesthetic.

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That’s Spencer’s Butte behind my head. What a glorious view of Eugene! By the time I did this, I could actually look below and point to where places were. That town laid itself out quickly on my heart and mind. I did quite a bit of solo exploration on my runs and then with our children, taking them scootering. The adventures of their scooters will be another post!

I am so grateful to my William for planning this trip. When he thought about it, he chose the events and places that would feed my mind and my runner’s body. He got tickets for two plays at the Shakespeare festival in Ashland (Into the Woods, The Tempest), and he scheduled races. I can think of no husband that could do a better job of celebrating his wife’s mind and freedom and her potential. Beyond the trip, beyond seeing all of these beautiful places and exploring, he gave me the gift of nourishing my mind, my body, my hobbies—everything that makes me, me. Whether he orchestrated it so that I could go wandering for hours on my own in Portland and have some writing and reading and adventure time, or so that we could spend the night in Bodega Bay (I am intellectually obsessed with Hitchcock and have an ongoing personal project with his work), Bill’s gift was not just the trip itself but a full knowledge of what makes me feel whole as a person. He knows me completely, believes in my potential, wants me to find that potential and myself fully, and encourages me to evolve toward my best self. So thank you, Bill, not only for these two races, but for finding ways for me to spread my wings and to be who I am meant to be in my 30s. You understand me, in the way I hope I understand you. I love you.

The next race will be the Disneyland 10K. It’s flat… so we’ll see where I can get in my training in seven weeks!

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