The Longest Shortest Mile
I was already four hours into the race when the GPS on my watch flatlined. “No service,” the watch face blinked at me as I frantically turned in a circle and extended my wrist skyward, hoping that I’d somehow miraculously become a human wireless receiver.
Normally, I’d feel pretty okay about being in the middle of an unmarked forest trail without a cell phone or satellite service. Despite spending most of my youth in sanitized, organized suburban developments, over the last few years I’ve explored our national parks system quite a bit. I’m outdoorsy now, guys.
But this was different. Maybe one mile — or maybe 10 miles — away from the finish line of an ultramarathon, I found myself lost and totally alone.
A few hours earlier, I walked up to the starting line of the Mt. Hood 50k trail race (that’s 32.1 miles, in case you’re not fluent in metric system), and was greeted by a hoard of nearly 200 other ultramarathon runners. We stood together in a clearing just outside of a dense, evergreen forest. The pre-dawn air was crisp and cool, despite the fact that it was a midsummer morning in Oregon; the earth was soft and muddy beneath our bulky, multi-colored trail sneakers.
The crowd was full of skinny twenty-to-thirty-something white guys with beards, dressed in short-shorts and Patagonia hats — the “typical” trail runner uniform. Dudes like that made up about 70 percent of the field. Beyond them, there’s a smattering of tanned and fit-looking women who are around my age — there are maybe 20 of us here, in total. And the rest of the crew is rounded out by men and women who look about as old as my parents. Everyone has tanned skin, muscular legs, and well-worn trail shoes — nonverbal indicators that they’ve probably run at least one ultramarathon before.
“If you go at least three miles without seeing another person, you’re probably lost,” the race director yells from the front of the group. “Just keep running — someone will find you, eventually.” With that caveat, the gun goes off. We start the race together as one massive clump moving shoulder-to-shoulder through the flimsy PVC pipe starting line.
Eventually, we’re reduced to a single-file line in order to stay on the unmarked trail. Slowly, runners begin to fall back. Gaps between bodies widen. By the second water station — 17 miles in — I find myself running with just one other woman. Even though we’re not leading the race, we’re definitely outpacing some people — including many of the dudes I found myself intimidated by at the outset of the race.
This is why I love running long distances — it’s not that I’m particularly fast or good at running. It’s this fact: women are built for endurance.
At the elite level, male runners will probably always be faster than their female counterparts, especially in the shorter distance sprinting races. But the longer the mileage, the smaller the discrepancy between female and male times become. Men thrive in the sprint distances — but women, we excel in situations that require endurance. Perhaps it’s just a side effect of evolution, but maybe it’s because we can push through enormous amounts of physical and mental pain for long periods of time. (Childbirth, anyone?)
When I run marathon and ultramarathon races I feel like, as a woman, my body was made for the physical challenge. During the most painful moments, like when I think my legs are going to spontaneously combust and the bones in my feet feel like they’re breaking with every step I take, I think to myself, “You and your sisters are strong enough to suffer through this pain and make it to the finish line.”
In fact, I was probably thinking something like this (and feeling really, really terrible) when I noticed that I’d left behind my running buddy somewhere back on the trail. There was nothing to see in front of me, and no sign of human life behind me. My broken watch wasn’t helping my morale, because as soon as it lost a signal it stopped tracking my mileage. Plus, there was no telling how long the GPS had been compromised — I had no idea if I’d already run 20 miles, or if I was closer to 30.
It seemed likely that I had closer to 5 miles left, meaning I’d need to keep running (let’s be honest — limping) for probably another 45 minutes. But I was so tired and in so much pain that I considered just lying down and waiting for a search party to find me. “Maybe I can’t do this,” I thought. “I’m not as strong as I thought I was.” Bartering with myself, I made a deal: “Just run for 10 more minutes. After that, give up.” Crying a little out of pain, fatigue and frustration, I hobbled around the next bend in the trail.
And there it was. The finish line was in front of me. During the toughest, grittiest moments, I’d been in the final stretch.
There is something beautiful about not knowing how far you’ve come until you can look back and see it. There is something magical about running towards a finish line, without understanding where that finish line is. There is something wholly feminine in working through the pain until it becomes joy and gratitude. Suddenly realizing you’re in the last mile — the final stretch — is a gift because your mind oscillates between “Can I even do this?” and “I can’t believe I did this.”
It’s a wonderful metaphor, the ultramarathon. Women, when we continue to forge ahead and endure, come out ahead. We are always, always stronger than we give ourselves credit for — and maybe, even when it seems like there’s no end in sight, it’s really just around the corner.