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FOLLOW YOUR HEART

FOLLOW YOUR HEART

Carrie Mack / Sep 02, 2020

Haute Volée marathoner Carrie Mack has had to continually re-adjust to what 2020 has thrown at her. From a broken toe just weeks before the marathon Olympic Trials, to an empty race calendar after a great training block, she's been game to just "be in the moment." Which is how she landed in a new adventure: a 32-mile trail test.

Follow your heart

This is something my dear friend, Emily, likes to say when we’re outwardly processing WTF to do: for the day, for dinner, for the foreseeable future - whatever. I’ve come to think of it as an invitation to rebel without cause as needed, and just be in the moment with focus on what makes you feel the most alive.
 
2020 has proven to be one hell of a year for practicing this mentality:
 
                    • Your toe is broken and you’ll only have about 6 weeks of land running before the Olympic Trials race in Atlanta. Follow your heart.
 
    • The Olympics and the USATF Trials are postponed. Which means every single track and road race is canceled for the summer, but no one knows for sure what fall marathon season will look like so if you want let’s keep training as if that’s the plan. Follow your heart.
 
    • Just kidding, all fall races are now canceled, but we could put together some time trial options and work on building speed and power on the track this summer as a focus. Follow your heart.
 
    • There’s a small super controlled track race series popping up in Oregon. Even though the 3K is starting to stray outside the bounds of what you’re capable or interested in, it’s an option if you want. Follow your heart.
 
    • You have some friends planning to circumnavigate the Loowit trail around the base of Mt. St. Helen’s which is farther than you’ve ever gone and far more technical/challenging than the speed work you’ve been doing, but holy shit your heart started beating fast when they were talking about it and this is the most excited you’ve been about something in a very long time. Follow your heart.
 
So here we are. It’s the end of the summer. I’m perhaps fitter than I’ve ever been with no real race opportunities to test as much. Sure, it’s a bummer, but this is also the first late summer/fall season when I’m not headed into the depths of a marathon training cycle. I am very good at practicing the discipline and following the regimen required to prepare for a marathon. Stacking weeks of fitness and focus gives me purpose and confidence going into a race. However, it also means I might have to opt out of some spontaneous trail adventures, etc. that are ripe for the picking here in the PNW this time of year. I plan on remedying that starting now.
 
How does a road marathoner pivot from a short track race one weekend to an extended mountain trail adventure the next? Good question. I think I’m still figuring that out myself.
It was probably a month or so ago when my friends, Hannah and Jess, brought up the idea of me joining them on their circumnavigation of Mt. St. Helens. It's something they had on the calendar for quite a while and were interested in having me join but not without reservations. I think we were all nervous about it for different reasons. They didn’t want to be responsible for me getting hurt or it negatively impacting my training. I didn’t want to hold them back or have them realize I had no idea what I was doing. But just the mention of it - the idea of being up in the mountains, testing the limits of what I was capable of in a totally different way - ignited something in me that hasn’t been tended to in a while. I knew I wanted to make it work.
 
We drove up the night before and camped near the trailhead. After organizing our snacks, filling our hydration packs and going over the map, I laid in the tent with excitement and nerves not unlike the night before a big race. With about 32 miles ahead of us, we were all anxious to get going the next morning. Alarms went off at 5am so we could have time to drink our coffee, fuel up and be sure to get in a final trip back in the woods so all our bathroom needs were dealt with. Morning poops are non-negotiable. The first few miles of trail were fairly wide, soft and tree covered. The quiet calm of the early morning allowed for a gentle start to the day ahead. We started climbing after we passed June Lake and I reminded my friends I had no idea what I was doing and to please point out if I was attempting to run a section that was clearly a hiking situation. I compared myself to an amateur race horse that would just keep running until it drops dead if no one instructed otherwise.
For better or worse, it wasn’t too long until we hit a huge lava field and were bouldering across from cairn to cairn. It became very clear very quickly that this trail was way more technical than I could have imagined and running wasn’t going to be an option for large parts of it. I slowly made my way across these challenging sections with my timid road racing legs. We each had our respective super powers and took turns leading various sections. Hannah was a rock scampering badass and powered through each lava field we crossed. Jess’s through hiking experience let her fly on the downhills, disappearing ahead of me. It was incredibly humbling and I marveled at how it wasn’t so much my fitness that got me through these parts, it was a mix of courage and curiosity in testing my own limits that kept me going.
 
We took breaks about once an hour to make sure we ate something, had some water and got to rest for a moment. I naively only packed bars, gels, chews, etc. thinking that would be the best for my stomach but quickly realized I wanted food. REAL food. This wouldn’t be the only way that Hannah and Jess’s experience and expertise came to my rescue. Jess packed pickles and quesadillas. Hannah brought smashed up potato chips and at mile 25 surprised us with a salami and brie baguette sandwich she’d schlepped around that mountain. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Bless them both for their generous and thoughtful ways they guided me through the trail that day. This particularly came into play when at around mile 12 I discovered I started my period, because of course I would, and Hannah miraculously dug out a tampon from her bag (note to self: add tampons to any and all future packing lists).
 
Water access was somewhat limited throughout the trail, and we only refilled our packs twice over the course of the day. Each of us carried 2L of water and made sure to fully restock and drink as much as possible when refilling. My best guess is that I probably drank between 7-8L total for the day. I probably drink around 2L in a marathon race (I think?), so this was quite a bit more. However, I was also out there for over 11 hours vs under 3 hours for a road race. To get to one of the water spots, there was a somewhat sketchy looking rope to assist in getting down the ledge into the creek bed crossing. I death gripped the slightly frayed rope and cautiously lowered myself down, repeating out loud “I am brave, I am brave, I am brave.” In a matter of seconds, I was a few feet from the bottom and was ready to let go.
 
About midway through the trail, we found ourselves on the north side of the volcano. This is where you can really appreciate the magnitude of the blast. Looking up to where the peak used to be, it is almost unimaginable to think about how tall she once stood. This is also where you climb down and out of huge chasms of scree, sand and rock for 7 miles of the blast zone. Somewhere in here there was this incredible meadow, bursting with wildflowers and I was utterly blissed out while we scampered through, taking turns pointing out how incredible the view was and how happy we all were in this moment. Pure joy on a mountain.
As the afternoon progressed, my lower back started talking to me and my stomach was a little meh. I knew that sitting down could be just as harmful as helpful and it was probably best to just keep going. At around the 20-22 mile mark, we stopped at a trail junction aptly named Windy Pass. We were engulfed with huge expansive views in each direction and just aired ourselves out. We literally bent over our hiking poles with our asses in the wind - ha! Again, I would rely on my friends to guide me. Hannah busted out her speaker and we jammed out to Lizzo through another field of Lupine before heading back into the forest as we continued on the trail. About 3-4 miles from the finish, Hannah’s IT band started talking to her. We adjusted our pace, took more frequent stops, attempted to tape her knee, and forged ahead determined and committed to finishing together. And finish we did! I honestly don’t know how long it took us because my GPS watch died around the 24 mile mark, but it was somewhere between 11-12 hours. What I do know is that the beer waiting for me at the car is the best damn beer I’ve ever had, and I live #inbend.
 
Here is what else I know.
 
I am so grateful for the two incredible women I get to call my friends who asked me on this trip. Their enthusiasm and appreciation for the outdoors is contagious. We connected in such a deep way out there on that mountain: we laughed, we danced, we dreamed and we talked about all the silly and serious parts of our lives. We reckoned with the multiple privileges we jointly share that made it relatively easy for us to make this trip happen. We thought about the land we were on, and the story it has to tell (Indigenous Peoples nearby variously called Mount St. Helens "Louwala-Clough" or "Loowit," which meant "smoking mountain").
 
I also know that there is a very specific type of freedom I feel out in the wilderness like this. It is wild and untamed. Not knowing what is waiting past the next ridge or creek crossing makes each section of trail all the more wondrous. It gives me the ability to redefine the boundaries I’ve set for myself as a woman in this sport. It requires me to trust the rope and then trust I can let it go. It forces me to be present and exposed in ways that make my heart beat fast in a totally different way. For the last 2.5 years I’ve stayed relatively focused on a specific goal and training schedule and holding onto that rope has served me well. But I’m ready for a break. I’ve deemed the next month or so as my “say yes to adventure” training cycle and I plan to follow my heart, explore what I can, rest when I want to, and recharge in all the ways so I can be ready for whatever opportunities await me on the other side.
 
I hope you know that whatever rope you’ve been hanging on to, you’re doing a fucking great job. And when it’s time to let it go, you’ll crush that too.

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