I was in Yellowwood State Forest sixteen miles east of Bloomington, Indiana, to run my first half marathon after a six year hiatus. I was nervous. I hadn’t fully trained. The course was on a trail, and I wasn’t confident that I was prepared for the chilly weather and rain. My other races of that distance had been in the warm and dry climates of northern California, and the most recent one had been in the spring of 2013.
Some of us were camping the night before in a large meadow near the Start/Finish line. I spoke briefly to a man and his daughter who were registered for the 50k run, and immediately felt insecure that here I was, worried about a mere 13 miles. I set up my tent, acutely aware of the torn elastic between one of the support rods which had been slowly destabilizing since my cross-country camping road trip out of California in July 2018. Asking my tent to please survive one more night, I inflated my air mattress and prepared for rest.
Temperatures dropped quickly, and at around 3am, heavy rain pounded the roof of my tent. I accepted that until I crossed the finish line, I would be cold and wet. To add to the somewhat comic discomfort, my air mattress for the first time in its two-year-old lifespan, exercised its freewill and refused to hold air. I awoke at regular intervals, shivering, my hips and shoulders pressed against a very rocky and cold earth.
My motivation for completing this race was an act to reclaim my life. My identity is as wrapped in being a runner as it is in being a writer, and in recent years, I had not given attention to my own need to feel the freedom of running. Running is a connection to a primal and ancestral past. As a species, distance running secured our success in a hunt. We could not run at high speeds, but we could track animals over great distances and wear them down to catch them. It is our natural movement.
I laid wrapped in my sleeping bag until I heard the call to board the bus to the 50k starting line. Although the sunrise was buried far east beneath rain and a heavy sky, I knew it was around 8am. Reluctantly, I unzipped my tent to an icy and wet morning, and was already soaked after breaking down camp. I thought about warming up, stretching, or jogging along the barricades in the road until the race. Instead I decided to stay dry inside my car, and read a short story about a couple who had lost track of themselves while travelling through Germany after the fall of the Berlin wall.
The rain continued. Our race was the last to start at 10am. By that time, nearly 100 other runners had passed over the soggy course, and the trail was a river of slippery mud. Half a mile into the course was a steep nearly quarter mile long incline. The deep mud and cold puddles poured over my shoes and ankles, and my feet skidded at every step. Around me, many other runners slipped and fell face down into the mud. I progressed slowly, carefully maneuvering hidden roots, bright but slippery fallen autumn leaves, and the hazard of other runners sliding into me.
In preparation when I had trained, my runs were along a paved, flat bike trail. Seven miles of a smooth, even surface in the sunlight, is far different than 13 miles of muddy, hilly terrain, beneath a steady downpour of rain. On the second loop at the steep hill, I almost gave up. The mud was even deeper than it had been an hour earlier when we started the race, and any type of movement resembling a “run” was impossible. In most spots, the mud rose to my mid-calf, and when I raised my leg to take a step, the suction destabilized my balance. I gripped the nearby trees to keep from falling into the mud. A woman ahead of me stopped and turned, saying she was done, her knees couldn’t take it.
I thought to myself, “I can stop too. Nobody will care if I didn’t finish. It is rather miserable weather. I am rather cold and exhausted. I didn’t sleep well last night, and maybe this run is doing harm.” As I allowed these thoughts to drift into my head, I became aware of how much more difficult the hill had become. Suddenly, it felt impassible. I had to decide how I would speak to myself as I finished. I knew I would not quit, and I could make it easy or hard on myself depending on my inner-dialogue. The act of reclaiming a physical or energetic space is painful. It’s a reversal of entropy, which requires effort and force to alter the trajectory in motion. I would finish, and I had to channel the powerful energy of lingering heartache alongside my sincere desire to follow a flow that would lead me toward a life of inspiration, creativity, and adventure.
It was a difficult experience. When I finally drove away from the forest, I was wearing nearly every piece of clothing I had brought, and it was all soaked with rain and heavy with mud. Sometimes I wonder why I put myself into such uncomfortable positions. But then, feeling warm and dry are more deeply appreciated after being cold and wet, and the vegetarian chili cheese fries I ate later that afternoon might have been the most delicious meal my tongue has tasted.