A Tale of Two Races: Hell and Heaven

We spent last weekend racing because why not. That’s what Jack said to me when I asked him if he wanted to run the (short) version of the Run Thru Hell. My Dad emailed me last week about the Camino St. James run + pancake breakfast and we signed up, and then my Mom decided she wanted to do the Run Thru Hell. The hilarity of the combo didn’t strike me until we were done with the first race, but oh! So funny.

The Run Thru Hell

Saturday we got up at 5:30 a.m. to do the Run Thru Hell.

When we got to the course and met up with Mom and Dad it was raining, an annoying, spitting rain. The line for packet pickup stretched on and on. Luckily my parents got in a quick line and got our packets for us so we could retreat to their minivan and get out of the freezing (60 degree) weather.

The race went off 10 minutes late, so we stood in the spitting rain waiting. I felt stupid for ever complaining about the heat this summer. Luckily Mom told some funny stories.

The race began. Was there a starting gun? I have no idea. What I do know is that instead of going forward we took several steps to the right. We hadn’t even been in the chute! Ha.

Oh, and here’s some appropriate background music, if you want to set the mood while you read:

The course went up a slight hill and took a left onto a dirt road. The entire course, save some precious, precious paved parts, was 10 miles of nothing but dirt. That had been rained on.

During the first mile I couldn’t settle into a pace because when we got to the top of one hill there was another hill waiting and my lightweight shirt suddenly felt like a furnace and so I had to wrestle myself out of it whilst running, which is always a process.

We could hardly stop making jokes about how hellish the situation was! The rain. The mud puddles. The hills. Oh, the hills.

Still I finally managed to settle in. We were clipping along at a decent pace, for all those hills. I felt good. Except for my chafing armpit, I felt good.

Somewhere during mile four the course split so the 4.8-milers could be finished and we could continue running for five more miles. A guy dressed as the devil pointed us across the highway to another dirt road, where soon we came upon The Hill.

All the other hills were dwarfed in comparison. We went up forever. By the time I reached the top I was barely moving, but it turns out you can be barely moving and still running.

We came down the other side. The entire race I thought that at any moment I’d slip and go tumbling down a hill in the rain, but it didn’t happen. After that we climbed another steep, long hill. As we went down, down, down the other side I saw that we’d have to come right back up after a turnaround.

It seemed like there were hundreds of women ahead of us. I was very zen about the situation. I wanted to bust out at the second race on Sunday and it was a VERY hilly course, but I was sure I was watching any chance of a top-seven-in-my-age-group finish glide past us. Oh, well, I thought. The main thing is to make it over these hills.

Oddly? After a while the hills ceased to irritate me. I became an equal match for the hill. They had no power over me. Well, some power. But not much. I never let them see me in a moment of weakness. I also realized that the rain and cool weather was…not bad. The dirt roads were damp rather than muddy, except in the potholes. On a dry 80-degree day, the race would have been hell indeed.

After the turnaround we reascended that long hill. Thanks, course. The road giveth and the road taketh away.

The final four miles rolled by. There were, of course, more hills. And more hills. Just when you’d think there wouldn’t be any more, there was another one. Finally we came to the last mile. It was still sprinkling, but not much. More of a mist. We were running on pavement.

“Where is the end of this godforsaken course?” Mom said.

At last, we were there, at just over 1:27. I felt buoyant. Yes, hills are hard, but they had not defeated me.

What nearly defeated me then was the infinitely long wait until the awards ceremony. It was raining, still, and the very occasional announcement said only that they were “resolving things” with the results. OMG.

Finally, the papers were stapled to the side of the barn and people gathered to look. Dad won fourth in his age group in the 4.8-mile race. I felt so happy for him! Jack finished respectably although he did not place in the top seven. After another interminable wait the 10-mile results went up.

I’ve stopped going to look at my own results as of late, unless I’m at a race by myself, which is rare. Why? Because even though I convince myself that I do not care about the results, the burst of hope when those papers go up is so gigantic my heart can barely contain it. I expected nothing. I expected eighth. Or ninth. Something close-but-no-cigar.

Instead Mom won her age group and I got third in mine!

However, it was another long, rainy wait for the awards to be read. Dad bought me a six-dollar sweatshirt in a size large to wear around. It felt wonderful to wear a sweatshirt.

They gave out some hilarious—and creepy—trophies for sixth and seventh place; sixth is the horse’s ass trophy and it is actually a trophy with half a horse: 

And the seventh-place weenie trophy was the creepiest bobblehead you’ll ever see in your life: 

Never have I been so glad that none of us won seventh!

I collected my dad’s fourth-place trophy and stood in the crowd, which gradually thinned. The 4.8-mile results ended. But wait! A man came up and began to make a speech.

It was Harrison’s birthday. Harrison is apparently a living legend. He is also the grumpiest of old men, and I’m fairly sure we heard him utter an f-bomb as he stalked through the crowd at one point. But before we could finish the results, we needed to sing Happy Birthday to Harrison a second time. And then wait for a cake to be brought out.

I’m usually an advocate of cake in any circumstance but I’d been standing in the rain for over an hour and I wanted to get the trophies and peace out.

Next, I collected Mom’s big first-place trophy.

After hell froze over I finally got to collect my third-place trophy. My heart welled up with joy. I am such a sucker for trophies. It was lovely.

That part, of course, was not hellish at all.

Camino St. James 8k and Pancake Breakfast

Sunday I rose at 6:00. If you want to sleep in on the weekend a good tip is to not do two races, but whatever. I can sleep when I’m dead. Or during the afternoon.

The sky outside looked weird. Instead of the usual rain, it was…a sunrise. A beautiful sunrise.

Shortly thereafter we got in the car and drove over to Mason to run in a small race put on by one of the Catholic churches there. I still though the combination of races was funny.

In the light of the morning sun we stood at the start and were blessed by the priest. You could almost hear the beginning of “Belle” from Beauty and the Beast, I’m not even kidding you. Here, play this, and just picture it: You’re standing at the start line of the race on a well-maintained paved road on a cool summer morning.

(Of course, then I started playing a song by DJ Khaled on my iPod and the moment was forever changed.)

The race started. I was right in front of the starting mat and unlike the usual surge and stop it was like we all just leapt forward. From nothing to a very, very brisk run in one second. Leaping. The sun shone down.

I went out at a 7:40 pace, which is a far cry from my usual 8:50 or so. I wanted another prize. I wanted to win pure maple syrup, which would be given to the top three in each age group. I don’t even like pure maple syrup very much but I wanted to win it nonetheless.

I rolled through the first mile like I was weightless. My legs did not even protest from the 10 miles of hills the day before and I thanked my endless running this summer.

At mile two, after dropping the pace to a 7:30 or below, I thought, “Oh, I’ve made a mistake.” It’s been a long time since I’ve run that pace. There were still three miles to go.

I ate a Gu. I ran a little faster.

My third mile was a 7:11.

There comes a point in a race, when you’re running just about as fast as you can with the training you’ve done (no speedwork all summer), that it becomes a matter of effort. No matter what you do it will be effort. You’re pressing up against your top speed without losing total control, and it will be hard to run slower and it will be hard to maintain.

I decided to just keep running. My pace slowed to a 7:20 or so.

We came back through a picturesque cemetery (I’ve actually written about the very one before, long ago) and I rounded a corner to reach the final mile. The 8k runners were coming up on the 5k walkers, and a group of three women scattered out of my way more dramatically than was strictly necessary and as I skirted them one looked at me and said, “I can’t imagine…” Her voice trailed away. No, I thought, you can’t imagine.

When you are running with such a high percentage of your effort time slows down. At least it does for me. Even though I’m going faster than I normally ever go, my Garmin records my distance at a glacial pace. I have to look at it only once per song otherwise I may never reach the finish.

I felt a pressure near my eyes. I could see the finish up ahead. I increased my pace just slightly because you never know if there’s someone about to catch you. I could not accelerate for a “finishing sprint” because I was already going as fast as I could go, which is ideal, but I also felt a certain desperation creeping in.

As soon as I hit the finish line, it evaporated. I felt totally comfortable. I even trotted around for a few extra seconds to get to exactly five miles on my Garmin. The sunlight made dappled patterns on the sidewalk. More “Belle.”

Mom came in, busting it as usual, and then we cheered for Dad, who looked awesome. Soon Jack was running that last quarter mile. His form looked good. “He looks taller,” my Dad said. It’s amazing what a summer of running every day will do for you.

We walked over dewy grass to the results. Again I did not look. There had been a woman ahead of me that I couldn’t catch and I was sure she was in my age group. I watched Mom’s face as she scanned the pages. Then she held up two fingers.

We’d won our age groups.

And Jack placed second in his!

We joined the line at the entrance of a large white tent and got pancakes, included in our registration fee. There was orange juice. There were chairs.

There was a prompt awards ceremony; Jack won a tiny bottle of maple syrup and Mom and I won bigger bottles, all with stickers noting our age groups and places.

We drove home in the sun and, a little later, went out for lunch.


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I'm not a health or fitness professional. I'm just a writer who runs a lot. Don't follow any of the advice found herein without consulting an actual professional first; it's not my fault if you hurt yourselves.