On Saturday morning as the sun started to peek over the dusty, desert-like slopes of the Marin Headlands, I gave one last hug to each of my three shivering friends, Dani, Sarah, and Shasta before they joined a small crowd of mismatched, backpack-toting trail runners lining up for the North Face Endurance Challenge 50K. As the race got on its way, I watched the runners wind their way up and up around a bend and into the unknown.
I quickly hopped on a shuttle and made it just in time to see the runners come flying down a hill toward the first aid station just past the fourth mile mark. My friends were each just a few minutes apart. Dani gave me the thumbs up. Shasta seemed uncertain about the whole situation and told me the course was extremely hilly. Sarah smiled and waved and asked how far ahead Shasta was (a few minutes). And then they were gone. There were no other accessible points for me to see them, I had zero cellular reception, and it would be hours until they came through the same aid station again en route to the finish. Now what?
It was about 45 degrees out and I could no longer feel my feet, so I decided then was as good a time as any to get a run in. I begrudgingly stripped down from my triple layer of clothing to tights and a long sleeve and set off along the 50K course. I ran by a few 50K runners and offered some words of encouragement until I veered off past a sign pointing toward the coast. The new path took me to a small, deserted cove with a stunning ocean view. The sun rose higher and higher into the sky, and the temperature jumped up maybe 15 degrees. I thought of the runners who were making their way up a steep, exposed hillside not even a 1/3 of the way into their run.
After returning to the aid station, I bundled back up and was overcome by hunger. One thing I hadn’t thought of going into spectating a 50 kilometer race was how long I would be going without provisions! Luckily I had stashed some Honey Stinger waffles and a banana in my bag, plus just before the race Dani told me I could have her huge bottle of water. Life saver! I wolfed down my snacks at a picnic table, doing my best to ignore the glorious smell of cheeseburgers and fries that the group next to me had wisely brought for themselves.
The crowd at the aid station began to grow as more people drove in and I heard someone shout that the first 50 miler was coming through. You see, a 50 mile championship had already been underway for hours and the top runner, Zach Miller, was approaching the 46th mile of the race. I was struck by how unbelievably fresh and peppy he looked. And how FAST he was running. No one should look like that after 46 miles! As the next top 50 mile racers came through, men and women, it was the same thing over and over again: lean, mean, running machines bounding up the hill in the most effortless fashion. The spectators and I would just look at each other and gasp each time one of them came by. It was not logical. I was in awe.
When the 50K runners began to come through, I began to get antsy and wondered how my friends were doing. I started counting the women that had come through and made it to 11 before I spotted in the distance some familiar coral shorts and long ponytail whipping back and forth. It was Dani! I screamed then cheered her on as she charged by. I gave her space as she navigated the large table of food and sports drinks set out for the runners. For as strong as she looked out on the course, her face was full of doubt and worry. She told me she was having trouble keeping food down, that at one point she had gone off course, her leg was cramping, and that she wasn’t sure she would finish. I wanted to tell her she was almost there, but that’s probably the worst thing you can tell a runner unless there is a finish line literally right in front of them. And you shouldn’t even say it then. Just don’t do it. I told her she had another big climb ahead but that she was getting there and that she could do it. I’m not entirely sure she believed me, but onward she went.
I ran back to my spot on the sidelines to look for Sarah and Shasta. I panicked, thinking perhaps I had missed them as I’d followed Dani through the aid station. As I scanned the runners emerging around the far off bend almost a quarter mile away, I spotted a brunette in a hot pink shirt with a hydration pack which could only be Sarah.. and wait, next to her in neon yellow shorts and a Oiselle singlet was Shasta! They were running strong and working together. I threw my hands in the air and hollered then ran toward them. They smiled and waved but as they got closer I could see they were hurting. I asked what they needed. Pretzels. Pretzels! I sprinted up ahead them toward the aid station and located the pretzels. I didn’t really know the appropriate etiquette, but I figured the organizers probably didn’t want spectators digging around in the food so I settled for pointing and saying “pretzels right here!”. After that I had no idea what to do or say. What do you say to someone who has over 4 miles left to run in a 31 mile race? I waited with them in line for the port-a-potty and listened to what they had to say about the race. They were so tired. They told me how they’d found each other and how this one certain downhill portion of the course was a bitch. Their eyes were kind of glazing over. Sarah’s leg was in pain. Shasta said she would not run up the next hill. I’m not sure they felt they could go on, but they went on!
Once they were out of sight, I hightailed it to the shuttle to make it back to the finish line. I knew I would be missing Dani’s finish, plus the cellular reception was terrible. After getting dropped off, I ran toward the mob of people in the finish area to look for her. It was like trying to find a needle in a haystack. All around people were taking photos, hugging, laying in the grass… but no Dani. After circling around a few times I finally spotted a weary petite runner in pink shorts, sitting and hugging her knees in the grass. Dani!! I called out her name and she looked up, calm and smiling. I bent down and gave her a hug. She said she was doing alright… but maybe needed to puke. Minutes later, Shasta came tearing down the final stretch followed moments later by Sarah running strong and determined to the finish line. I snapped this photo of them right after they had reunited.
I’ve never felt so proud of or more inspired by friends. They showed so much strength and grit even through their lowest moments. They went on without the certainty of knowing they could finish. They ran farther than they ever had in their lives. The next morning I would be following in their footsteps as I was entered to run the half marathon distance. It wouldn’t even be half of what they ran, but after hearing tales from the course I was slightly terrified. More on my race next time!