Party Rock is in the House Tonight: To the Finish.
I’m running again before the loop is halfway through, chugging my coffee and communing with bats.
I get to the “unmanned” aid station, a plot point that had greatly concerned me earlier in the week. One of the volunteers jokes “nothing for you, Star!” before filling my bottle with half ginger ale, half water. I know what works.
Trying to keep my calories up, I grab a single pretzel rod to consume on the uphill. This was a clear and unmitigated disaster. I had no idea I could mix cement in my mouth until Saturday night.
I fly down the hills on borrowed legs.
This is my favorite part of the course. This is where I do my best work.
I reach O’Neil Woods. The trail ahead is no small task. I lost my pace chart somewhere along the way. I know it’s going to take a miracle for the sub-19, but honestly, I was riding a bit behind it from Happy Days on. I know what’s most important. What’s most important is that I run. That I run hard. That from this moment on, I run each step as hard as my body will allow. Whatever my time, I will earn it. It will not be “soft.” I will know there was not a second or a step more that I could have given.
I’m at the parking lot. Suzanne is there again, and though I’m no longer on the verge of hallucination, I put a halo above her head because I can. I am overwhelmed by how happy she is to see me. I know I’m happier to see her, but she’s grabbing my bottle and I’m seeing a girl in blue shorts at the table.
This time, she’s not watching me and I’m not watching her. By now, what will be will be. So I grab a chocolate chip cookie and run.
My bottle ends up being some terrible mix of ginger ale and Gatorade. It’s my fault, I forgot to dump it. It’s terrible. My stomach is not enthused. I ignore it, because I need to talk to Melanie.
I’m passing her again, and I’m realizing she can’t go downhill. I don’t know if it’s her quads, an ankle, or simple exhaustion, but one thing is for sure: she can’t go downhill.
“Hey. No matter how this thing shakes out, I just want you to know – you ran an incredible race today.”
“Yeah. You too.”
“I still might see you again,” I call back. And then I pound the downhills.
I don’t have her road speed, but she can’t go downhill. As my stomach continues to go haywire, I override it with this simple thought.
She can’t go downhill.
I pound the downhills all the way to the towpath, and the lights fade until she’s gone.
But I still don’t have her speed, which means I’ve got five towpath miles coming that I have got to run.
I get to the waste treatment plant. It pushes my stomach over the edge. It’s ten minutes, I know this. Ten minutes until the smell is completely gone. I am running, but I can’t get away from the smell. It’s all over me, the cloying stench of burning waste. My legs are burning again, I don’t understand how they can still be moving. How can my legs run like this when every cell in my body is screaming at me to walk?
Hold on, I say, and it fades into a trance like chant. Hold on hold on hold on hold on hold on hold on. All those nights in spinning, all those sprints during those midweek runs, this is where you are, this is what you’ve thought of, this is where you’re holding on. Hold on hold on hold on hold on there are blacklights now and this is just another stupid sprint and Sara is next to you rolling her eyes so just stay in that room and hold on hold on hold on hold ON.
They’re going to be so proud of me, I think, with my thoughts turning all mushy and liquidy but still I smell like that compost plant. Why am I not drinking anymore I have to drink something now and that’s where those little bridges change so I think I’m getting close. I ran on your legs I think, Robin and Darris and Skinny and Salty and Rachel and Courtney and everyone that’s been watching me today, I ran on your legs, I didn’t do this, no, these miles from the Covered Bridge are on your legs, you’re like angels, it’s as if …
I’m at the hill. I walk up the hill. I turn onto the city street and run. The creeps are out catcalling but that’s nothing new. There’s volunteers. It’s close. My people are close. I was so mad at them thirteen miles ago and now I just want to hug them but there’s no time.
Jinger (our Ginger) is there and runs over and hugs me. They can tell I’m okay, they’re proud of me, I love them. I get a cup of Ramen, I chug a Coke. I have to go.
I walk long enough to finish the Ramen, just a minute or two. I switch to plain water, it’s all I can handle after the ginger-Gatorade swill.
It’s a three mile run. I start by listening to “Party Rock” on my imaginary iPod and thinking of Catra, just because it’s fun. God, I want to walk.
I play the alphabet game. I figure it’ll buy me five minutes, half a mile. I can’t think straight so I just do people I know. Halfway through I’m already making crap up like my new imaginary friend “Inez.” I listen to the frogs. Run over the bridges. Try “Party Rock” again. I see the sign. One mile to Memorial. One mile. Ten minutes, Star, it’s ten minutes. You’re on junior, it’s just a little five mile run before spinning. No big deal. Run, Star. Run. Party rock is in the … run, Star, just run … how long … no math … the hill … Chuckery … NO. Stop, no thinking ahead, stay here, stay with me. Run, Star. Just run just run just run just get to the glowsticks and whatever you do just keep running.
Robin and DB are there.
“Geez, Star, ten minute miles!” DB exclaims.
“Mountain Dew,” I reply.
“Anything else you need?” they ask.
“Yeah. To finish.”
The cop meets me on the road. I tell him I recognize him from last year, ask how he gets this plum assignment every year. It’s a steep hill out, so I have to walk anyway. We banter a little. I tell him I know I’m dressed entirely inappropriately for the neighborhood we’re in. He asks what did happen to my clothes and I say it got hot. He says I look a little better than most people he sees at that stage, so he’ll drive me all the way up the street. Honestly, he wasn’t creepy at all. It was all tongue in cheek.
But I had to run, so we parted ways after I handed him my empty Mountain Dew cup.
I turned onto Uhler and I had to choke down one last gel. I hadn’t had calories in a couple of hours, and I had an hour and some stairs yet to go.
Even as I unzipped the pocket to get the gel, I knew I should run on fumes. But I also “knew” I needed calories. So I pinched off about half the gel and aimed for the back of my throat so I could avoid the whole “tasting” mechanism and just get it down.
Not so much.
There’s a first time for everything, and up it came in a theatrical gush of Ramen and Mountain Dew. Three consecutive gushes, to be exact, and how good they felt.
DB and Robin were driving by, of course. I gave them the gel packet, which I later found out amused them to no end, and went back to my side of the street to finish the performance with one final tidal wave of puke.
“Star?” DB called out. Rather grave concern in his voice.
I wiped my mouth, flashed him the international symbol of the trail gangster and took off like a bat out of hell.
It sucked and I wanted to walk, but it was beautiful. Melanie was not coming, but I probably wasn’t catching Deanna. I was getting in as far under 20 hours as I could and I was damn proud.
There are days you know you put it all out there. As the river babbled beside me, I already knew I’d never have a single doubt about this race. Lessons from it? Yes. Doubts? No.
But of course it was ugly, and my stomach was in knots, and my thoughts were torn between walking and my pajama pants. God how I wanted to walk. No, I wanted my pajama pants.
“ENOUGH WITH THE PAJAMAS!” I shouted aloud. “RUN, Star.”
Legs are jello. Jello. I remember in sixth grade when I found out gelatin was made of ground up horse hooves.
Stop that. No food. You may NOT think about food.
They’re so cruel, always so cruel.
Last set. Now you run, Star, you run, you run, you run, you run.
Electric towers. There’s more this year. I don’t remember it taking so long. Why is it taking so long, I’m going to walk, just a couple steps, haven’t I earned just a couple of steps?
“YOU DON’T QUIT AT THE END!” I hear her scream at me.
And I don’t, and like Umstead, I ask myself what I’m afraid of. Oh, that’s right – here, now, this night? Pain? No, if there’s one thing I’m not afraid of, it’s this exquisite suffering on a cool summer night.
I take a sip of Gatorade, feel my stomach turn, spit it out.
My stomach growls like a rebellious child and I hear my voice tell it to simmer down already.
I see the lights. I get to the road and make the left hand turn. I walk the one hill I must and use my last shreds of brain power to keep my stomach out of my throat.
I sprint past the Sheraton and it’s done. There are so many people there, even Robin’s parents. Yet again, I’m overwhelmed by the love I feel.
Joe gives me my medals, tells me I was third overall and third in the national championship. As I suspected, I don’t even care. But now, something’s different.
I don’t care that I don’t care.
As I struggled not to puke and pass out in bed that long night, Meb Keflezghi tweeted something: “Faith is having a positive attitude about what you can do, and not worrying at all about what you can’t do.”
I used to be worried that I “needed” to run a certain something for others. I can honestly say that I’ve moved beyond that. I went into Burning River wanting to break 19 hours and wanting to place higher than I had last year. But I didn’t feel like I had to. And I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that that knowledge helped me stay positive and focused throughout the race. Even during difficult sections, even when my splits began to slip, I was able to stay focused on running the best race I could, instead of worrying about the race I thought someone expected. As long as I was running as hard as I could, I felt focused, strong and positive.
And I thought my blog was going to end there, with some pretty lesson about something that was going to make me an even better runner next time.
But something’s happened over the past few days. Something that started during the race, and kept happening after. It’s this overwhelming amount of love I’ve felt. It’s these things that have been posted on my Facebook page and emailed to me. All this stuff about my personality. About how I’m inspiring, and upbeat and caring. About how the defining thing about me is that I’m running up front but my energy and attitude on the course still makes other people happy.
I’ve written several times in this piece how overwhelmed I was by the care and support I felt out there; the sheer number of people who took a dedicated interest in my silly little hobby and took a day of their lives to make it important to them.
Surely, I must be doing something right.
Well, Meb tweeted something else early that morning. I would say it brought tears to my eyes, but that might have been the acid reflux, or the shredded hamstrings, or that leftover duct tape still rotting on my back.
“Your talent is God’s gift to you. What you do with it is your gift back to God.”
I had the best awards ceremony ever on Saturday, and it lasted all day long.
And all this time I’ve thought running was my talent.