What Happens When the High Goes MIA?

The Runner’s High. It’s tattooed on my thigh, reminding me with each stride that this is why I run; for that elusive, giddy and euphoric feeling that only running long (long) distances seems to bring me. I thought I had the formula figured out for how to tap into it: sign up for races longer than 100km, and insert feelings of utter bliss and gleeful romping.

It’s been two years since my last long race (Fat Dog 120), and Cascade Crest 100m was to be my big return. I signed on with rockstar coach David Roche in April, and all summer we worked towards getting me healthy and ready for a long day of romping through the Cascade Mountains. A 50k race/practice run, Bucking Hell 50k, landed me on the podium with a nice little “you are ready” confidence boost, and I approached my big race feeling fit and ready to have the best day (and night) ever. 

The day before the race dawned, and with it some real-life stress. My faithful old doggie, Odin, had had a stroke overnight. He’s come to all my big races for years, been my constant companion every day while I work from home, and I was devastated to see him in such pain. While Odin headed to the vet ER with my boyfriend, I left to drive down to Washington state for my race in tears, hoping that he’d make it to my finish line and everything would somehow be all right. 

Toeing the start line the next morning was an oddly surreal experience. Most of my family had driven down to support me and watch me crush my race, and yet Odin’s absence seemed looming. The unexpected arrival of my period the night before the race further added to my emotional state. As the race started, I found myself thinking: “let’s just get this thing over with.” Not an awesome attitude to go into a 100 mile race with, but it seemed like the only one I could muster given my mood.

Heading up the first climb, my legs felt heavy; oddly so, and slightly crampy — “Just great”, I thought to myself. Only 5 miles into a 100 mile race, and I felt like I’d run 30. I would normally nip these thoughts in the bud and try to focus on how beautiful the ridge was that we were running along, and how lucky I was to be there, but on this day I just didn’t wanna cheer up. So I didn’t. My friends Sawna and Ely were running close to me at that point, and they admitted that they were also feeling fairly crappy for so early on in the race. “Perfect,” I announced. “Misery loves company, so let’s all stick together.” We did, and I proceeded to break one of my cardinal rules of ultrarunning — never ever acknowledge the pain out loud. 

They are a funny thing, our brains. They often require a visual to associate with pain, in the same way that we won’t feel anything from a small cut until we look down and see it bleeding. I’ve always believed that it’s better not to give voice to the struggles for fear of validating them. And yet here I was, 20 miles into a 100 mile day, announcing that everything hurt, I wasn’t having any fun, and I didn’t really want to be there. And you know what? It felt kind of good to say, at least for a few minutes, until I realized it hadn’t actually made me feel any better. It had only served to add fuel to my grumpy.

Coming into Tacoma Pass at mile 25 with Sawna and Ely.  I swear that smile, however convincing, was fake.

Coming into Tacoma Pass at mile 25 with Sawna and Ely.  I swear that smile, however convincing, was fake.

I’d love to tell you that I didn’t allow myself to death march through some of the prettiest single track that I’ve ever seen, choking down food and mostly preoccupied with scanning my body for pains strong enough to give me a reason to DNF. I was frustrated that I wasn’t enjoying myself and “having fun”, as if that was some sort of guaranteed outcome that I was entitled to. Things that wouldn’t be quite as devastating on a good day (such as my crew missing me by 2 minutes at the second big aid station) sent me further down the rabbit hole, even though some very nice strangers and friends offered me headlamps, food, jackets, and acted as my honourary crew. My friend Kim was at this aid station sending updates to our coach David about how I was doing, and all I could muster was: “Tell him I’m hanging in there.” “That’s it?” She asked with her eyebrows raised. “Yep”, I replied grimly as I marched onwards. 

Mile 48. My family (who missed me by a mere 2 minutes at Stampede Pass (mile 36 AS), drove like maniacs up forest service roads to catch up to me at one of the smaller AS, just to make sure I had enough food and gear to make it to my next big stop. What a gang. <3

Mile 48. My family (who missed me by a mere 2 minutes at Stampede Pass (mile 36 AS), drove like maniacs up forest service roads to catch up to me at one of the smaller AS, just to make sure I had enough food and gear to make it to my next big stop. What a gang. <3

From mile 36 to 54 I trucked along mostly in silence, with Sawna and Ely as my companions in suffering, trying to figure out if there was a way to salvage my race and turn my day around. I’ve been reading Deena Kastor’s excellent book Let the Mind Run Free lately, and her words kept cycling through my head. One thought in particular stuck out: “Our happiness depends on the habit of mind we cultivate.” The thought of spending another 12 hours in my current cycle of negativity seemed intolerable, so I decided to try to change that.

First, I asked myself: Why was I being so negative? Was it because I didn’t feel very well and everything seemed like more work than it should be? Or the fact that I was moving slower than I wanted to/expected to? Or was it that I was used to always being happy during races even when I was suffering, and I didn’t know how to deal with a day that was just plain ol’ tough? 

I wasn’t sure, but I decided that didn’t actually matter. The point was that I still had +50 miles to go, and those miles were an opportunity to do things differently...starting with no more whining. I rolled into Hyak AS at 54 miles looking like shit (as my family told me later, they were placing bets on how long it would be before I dropped) — but for the first time I felt like I actually wanted to try to finish. To my absolute delight, Odin and my boyfriend were also waiting here, as they had driven down to catch me as soon as they got the go-ahead from the vet. I changed my socks and shoes for a slightly bigger version to accommodate my swelling feet, swapped my soaking wet shirt and windbreaker out for some dry layers, and headed into the dark night with my super pacer Tom.

Let’s talk about Tom for a minute. Tom coaches Olympic-level swimmers as his day job, and thinks running 50 miles with near-strangers through the night is “super fun”. Turns out, Tom was the perfect person to help me turn my day around. He knew I had been struggling — it was written all over my face every time he’d seen me — but he refused to acknowledge it. He cheerfully suggested we run the hills (say what?!), helpfully pointed out that the 3rd place woman was only 13 minutes ahead of me leaving the last AS, and politely insisted we try to catch her. I allowed myself to get swept up into the fun of the chase, and each section of the two hour climb we were presently on became a unique challenge. How much of it could I shuffle run? How many cardboard calories could I choke down while I power hiked? And most importantly: how could I better reframe this story? 

Every hill is an opportunity. Every hill is a fucking opportunity. I repeated this to myself ad nauseum, until I actually believed it. I forced my dormant facial muscles to smile just because, and as we hit each AS I thanked each volunteer, as I had done all race...but this time, I really meant it. “Thank you for being out here all night in the cold and rain,” I said loudly and as often as I could. It reminded me as much as them how grateful I was for the people that were making this race — my race — possible. We passed the 3rd place woman along this section, but it strangely didn’t even give me a boost of adrenaline or speed. I had decided by then that my race would be a successful one, regardless of my results, and all I had to do was execute that goal. 

I knew the switch was officially flipped when we hit the 75 mile mark and I sang a rousing, slightly off-tune rendition of Happy Birthday to one of the older gentlemen who was kindly volunteering there. The funny thing about exuding positivity is that it comes back to you like a boomerang, and the fact that I’d successfully broken the negative cycle only made me feel better and better as I went. I was still struggling, I still didn’t feel great and my legs still weren’t working as well as I wanted them to, but I was choosing to not let those things define my day — so they weren’t. We powered through the last 25 miles, with me setting the pace and pushing as hard as I could. We were gaining ground on the 2nd place woman, Jennifer, and with every AS we drew a little closer. 45 minutes, then 30, then 25, then 18, then finally she was only 10 minutes ahead with 4 miles left to go. It gave me something to focus on as we tried to close the gap, and yet I truly felt like I’d already won just by being able to turn my day around and dig myself out of my giant hole of wallowing. Just finishing was my gold medal, and I was going to get it.

Coming into the homestretch with Tom, who shared 46 awesome miles (and almost no views) with me.&nbsp;

Coming into the homestretch with Tom, who shared 46 awesome miles (and almost no views) with me. 

I crossed the finish line in third place with a time of 23:39:45, 6 minutes behind 2nd place, with Odin, my boyfriend, and my family at the finish line to cheer me in. I felt like I’d won the whole freaking race. I beat me, in a battle that lasted almost twenty-four hours and required more mental strength than physical. They say we need the bad days to appreciate the good ones, and I think I finally understand what they meant by that. I’ve always said that I run to feel most alive. What I realized while I was out there slogging away, however, is that not every day can be the best day ever — but that doesn’t mean it has to automatically be a bad one. This race yielded no runner’s high — no frolicking, no moments of pure joy or easy bliss. What it did yield, however, were opportunities: for growth, for changing my narrative, and for learning how to flex and challenge my mental tenacity. 

Oh my heart. Odin rallied post-stroke to fill his usual role as head cheerleader and salt-licker.

Oh my heart. Odin rallied post-stroke to fill his usual role as head cheerleader and salt-licker.

I would like to congratulate both Sawna and Ely, who also rallied to pull off awesome races and finish strong. So grateful to have shared those miles with you, friends. I'd also like to thank Tom for the role he played in my journey and all of his encouragement through the long night... I'm very much looking forward to more adventures with you. I would also like to thank Sean Causier from Twist Conditioning for getting me strong and keeping me from turning into a "noodle" runner, and my coach, David, for believing in me and challenging me to be my best...and for always supporting me even when I take detours along the way.

But wait, there's more! I'd further like to thank Rich, Adam, and the entire cast and crew of volunteers that make Cascade Crest 100m such a wonderful race and trail family experience. Congratulations on hitting your 20!! year anniversary this year, and thank you for letting experience the magic. And finally, I'd like to thank my family and partner Jer for driving down to the race with me, taking on crew responsibilities so enthusiastically despite not knowing what they were signing up for, and my talented sister Claire for capturing my day so beautifully.

It takes a village for one person to finish one of these damn long races, and I've very thankful to have such an amazing team in my corner. 

Hilary Matheson4 Comments