The beautiful thing about traveling a decent distance to a race is the decompression time to process while getting back home.
This weekend was momentous. So I needed a good moment to unwind.
A Oiselle masters relay was the brainchild of Allie Bigelow, who reached out in January or February when the other Ragnar #podiumproject teams were getting ramped up. “Wouldn’t it be awesome to do an all-masters bird relay?” I was still injured then, but the idea was impossible to resist. We’ve got this killer squad of masters runners on the team. Kind of an unbelievable abundance. Being masters, our roster went through so many scratches and additions over the ensuing 9 months. “I’m injured.” “I’m back.” (repeat X many) Our final roster was set 7 days before the relay. And miraculously, Allie, who had scratched about a month after we registered as a team, was cleared to run.
The team: [Van 1]: Maria Elena, Meredith, Allie, me, Dara, Sally+ Erin T. driving; [Van 2]: Shelley, Jackie, Kristina, Catherine, Christy, Jungle Chicken+ Tasya driving. I mean, what a squad, right? Amongst us: Olympian (Maria Elena), 2:40 marathoner at Berlin 3 weeks ago (Catherine), 5th Ave. Mile winner (Christy), and a bucket load of fierce and fast racers, smart cookies, and compassionate souls. But you can never quantify for the unknown element of magic.
Before this I’d only done one other relay (HTC with EMC in 2013 when I was 44—which was a dream, and a very positive running experience for me). But I’ve been in a fierce battle with my body for the last 2 years: on and off 3-6+ month injuries, elusive fitness, inconsistent workouts, and intermittent decimating fatigue. Sally and Fleshman have had to put up with a lot. I got an MRI to rule out a sacral stress fracture 3 weeks ago (talk about pain in the butt). And those fast and free feelings while running have been elusive. I think the last workout I felt normal-ish was in mid-July when Fleshman came up for a photoshoot and we did mile, 4x800, 4x400, mile. So I was thankful to be cleared to run, but also super nervous about if and how well my body would perform. That rolling the dice feeling as a runner never sits well with me. I like to have some swagger. I’m a worrier, not a warrior.
When Sally and I landed in Louisville, we immediately were taken under the wings of our team, especially our leaders Allie, Meredith, and Dara. We could behave like children (and we often did) and they would just take care of us. What an absolute blessing for us to be shepherded around and not have to plan a single thing. Just show up.
The pre-relay prep was smooth, with Sally leading van decoration design and dropping a bunch of matching #flystyle on the team. I mean, just add #flystyle to make any situation awesome. Our local-ish teammates Tasya, Erin, Kristina, and Shelley did the heavy logistics lifting, including bringing us pillows and blankets. And then it was time to go to the start!
Bourbon Chase takes a twisty-turny roundabout route from Louisville to Lexington, hitting the major Bourbon distilleries along the way. (The Bourbon tourist set must be a little perplexed by the smelly scantily clad deluge over this weekend). As we did some poppin and lockin at the start line, it was clear that these masters were going to show up big-time. All-in for every minute.
The entire race is already a blur. We started late (4pm), with only 4 teams which quickly separated, meaning 2 pretty-much-solo nighttime legs for most of us. As fierce, autonomous women who do scary shit, it was humbling to feel vulnerable and lost in the middle of who knows where. Many of us independently had the thought of “I could be abducted and killed here and no one would ever know what happened.”
My first leg (5.2 miles) was a nightmare of hills. Crazy hills where I looked at my watch once and saw 10+ minute pace while full throat gasp breathing like I was a frog charging Mt. Everest. I passed a guy (who was walking) and the only thing I could think of to say is “this hill sucks balls.” Channeling Fleshman. (He grunted back at me.) I was desperate to not let the team down. I averaged 7:08’s on that first leg. And it completely decimated me.
Reality hit for me during my second leg. It was the middle of the night (like 1:30am). It was raining. It started up a big hill. While waiting for the slap bracelet from Allie, my body felt destroyed from my first run, my legs were throbbing and my lungs were aching like I’d just raced an indoor 1,000m. My gas tank was empty, and I had over 6 miles waiting for me. I prayed for something magical…one of those (for me) mid-40’s pleasant surprises of “wow, I didn’t know I could still do that!” So…that didn’t happen.
I got the slap from Allie with a nice fresh dude, who had just told his buddies he felt like he could average 5-lows. Yeah the 1stplace men’s team had just caught us. He disappeared in about 60 seconds. And then it was just me, with a head lamp illuminating the raindrops in a mesmerizing/disorienting way, a weird shadow from the brim of my hat, and a road that I couldn’t determine the slope of by vision. I wanted to push, but my gasping/grunting breath from the first leg was back after the first 1.5miles. My “keep it respectable” mantra gave way to some dark thoughts. Yes, I felt fear and vulnerability. I narrowly missed stepping on a big dead road-kill possum and shrieked. But mostly, I was disappointed in myself and just wanted to be faster. “Maybe I should just stop.” “Why can’t I breathe right?” “Where is my strength?” “I can never run a marathon.” I played a highlight reel of every miserable running experience in my life. And then I thought back to my senior year in high school, when I was just learning how to do tempos (we called them Lydiards), and my coach Steve McChesney paced me through 4 miles. We were aiming for my first tempo sub-6. Mentally, I was completely done at 2.5 miles. I was gasping/grunting breathing. But, I kept going. It was awful, but I did it, averaging 5:58’s. (And yep, he still gives me shit about how noisy I was.)
When I remembered this HS run, my mantra changed to “just keep going.” I didn’t look at my splits. I would try to quiet my breathing as a few more fast men’s teams passed me, to preserve a modicum of dignity. I peed my shorts (pocket joggers in big blue). I cried a little bit but it made my breathing a lot worse. And then I came up with a diversion tactic (knowing that the brain interprets the taste of sugar as energy). I had 2 shot blocks in a leftover picky bar wrapper in my pocket, in case of emergencies. I bit off a third of a block and put it in my cheek, to absorb into my gums like a little wad of chewing tobacco. There was no way I could actually chew and swallow it while gasping/grunting breathing. The flavor was gross. I kept the other 2/3 of the block in my right hand, all gooey and sticky. When one side of my mouth tasted too nasty for me to handle, I would transfer the mess to the other side and a fresh gum. And thus passed over 6 miles of running survival. It may sound unlikely, but I think that was the hardest running I have ever done. Ever. Running 7:38 average pace. I shouted Dara’s name when I saw the handoff area. I was so relieved to hand off to her. Relieved, disappointed in myself and my body, sad, but knowing that I actually had given 100%.
It took me a good chunk of time to collect myself after that leg. By the time I settled my shock and awe feelings, Sally had finished her second leg and all 7 of us Van 1-ers were snuggling in a hotel room with 1 king bed and 2 couches, pre-warmed by our Van 2 teamies and their little love note to us. My resting pulse was in the 90’s. Sally and I shared a fold-out coach and spooned. And my attitude adjusted. My body was allowing me to participate in this amazing experience. And I should be grateful. And I was grateful. What a gift.
We’d started a MastersBirdstrike text string (with the exception of Iphone-less Kristina), which became our source of life for the weekend. As we updated after each leg, a few things became clear:
- These women did not mess around. Every single bee-yatch was throwing down a ridiculous performance, for every leg. These women are GRITTY!
- Grace and humor abounded. Yep, we made mistakes. Missed some turns. Messed up meeting points. But only affection and support were communicated. Love is powerful, my sisters!
- Masters women get shit done. Apparently, once a woman reaches her 40’s she can pretty much do anything.* Hotel room with key transition plan for each team to get 2-3 hours horizontal time? Check. Personal laminated direction cards for each runner, each leg? Check. Work conference calls DURING THE RELAY? Check. Manage kid pickup from sports to social activity, 1,000 miles away? Check. Prepare for deposition? Check. Change a tampon in the van? Check. Make infinite chicken jokes? Check.
And then it was time for my final leg. A shorty, just 3 miles, with only mild elevation changes. I started my creaky shuffle warmup and my pulse immediately bounced to 160. HA! My body was tired, but functioned. I squeaked in under sub-7 pace. Did my third dry-heave handoff moment. And remarkably, felt emotionally recharged. I belonged here. These were my women. And I would do anything for them.
The crazy thing is, every single one of my teammates has their individual narrative about this weekend, their runs, paranoid middle of the night thoughts, crazy driving episodes, their doubts, their throw-down moments. And each one of those 14 chapters came together like puzzle pieces to form a magical story. We averaged 7 minute pace as a team for the 200 hilly miles (Christy Peterson’s 6:11 44thbirthday celebration leg was one highlight!). We finished a narrow 2ndoverall women’s team time, with an average team age of 44 ½. Most importantly, we loved each other up, made each other laugh, and grew in appreciation and respect for ourselves and our teammates. Turns out, women are good at doing hard shit. I love you MastersBirdstrike women! Thank you, thank you, thank you, for the honor and privilege. I’ll relay with you any day.
*Dara was so pumped after crushing her final 7+ mile leg averaging 6:30’s, spouting encouragement to every runner she passed, that she kept running uphill to the van to get her wallet so she could buy some bourbon. We told her we didn’t have time. Moral: a masters runner also can buy bourbon in 45 seconds.