Five weeks. That’s how long it took me before I could wash the Kalahari sand out. For five weeks my gear bag and I had a silent stare off each time I entered my bathroom. “Unpack me” …. “No, I’m not ready, leave me alone!” … “Unpack me … ignoring me won’t make me go away!” … “Dammit, I’m not ready!” Inside the bag hid the memories that I was not yet prepared for. I didn’t want to look at the T-Shirt I didn’t earn the right to wear. I didn’t want to put away my bib number and checkpoint card with all the unmarked time slots. I was not ready to wash my sweat from my racing pack. Much of my hesitation was born from my own insecurity and doubt about my endurance racing future. As long as that bag was sitting on the floor, I didn’t have to decide.
It also took a while to write about the day in the Kalahari when I changed from a racer to a crew member. After I completed the Himalayan 100 in 2010, I stared at myself in the mirror in my hotel in Delhi and asked myself who I was? I wanted to run down the streets and shout to people about what I just did. I felt such elation and accomplishment for completing my first ever race, let alone a 100 mile ultra stage race in the Himalayas just a year after having received a breast cancer diagnosis. I was so proud of myself. I felt unstoppable, on top of my world, where I could reach out and touch each star within my dreams.
After I finished the Trans Rockies 120 last year, I was again overwhelmed with the warmth of victory. I basked in the glory of my medal, the T-Shirt, endless memories, and the company of my many new friends. I have pictures with bouquets of flowers in my arms and big, happy smiles.
This time after the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme another very silent, one way mirror conversation happened at 32,000 feet across the Atlantic 10 hours into a 17 hour flight. I looked into my haunted eyes in the tiny toilet and wondered if I had what it takes. Could I really ever complete a self-supported race? Am I strong enough? Am I tough enough? Self doubt doesn’t eat you up; instead, it slowly gnaws away at you until you are left with the scraps of your once grand ambitions.
I often revisit 1:25p on day 2 when I decided to withdraw from the race. Such a nice word – withdraw – so much kinder than loser, quitter, failure . . . Sigh. I know. Please. I have heard it all. Showing up at the start already made me a winner. Only 45 people out of more than 1.7 billion signed up. I didn’t quit, I was injured. Yeah. I know. But that does not make it any easier looking into my own eyes, because when I am 100% honest . . . I wasn’t prepared properly. Period. No excuses. No bullshit. I was not. And I knew it long before 1:25p on day 2, when it was 122F under a thorn tree in the Kalahari Desert . . . when I quit.
I started doubting myself the weeks leading up to the race when I hurt a tendon in my foot. It was an ice cream injury, simply missing the step at my daughter’s favorite store, Yumi-licious. I doubted myself even more on the endless bus ride to the Kalahari when one of my new race friends commented that my pack was too heavy compared to my body weight. And self-doubt raged inside me when I encountered my first sandy river beds on day 1. I have never walked in sand like that, let alone run! I knew then that, regardless of the heat, the chance of me finishing was slowly dimming.
But I just wanted to finish. How hard could that be? It’s only 155 miles over 6 stages. Long, yes, but not much longer than the Rockies. Just to finish? Certainly I’m capable? I have finished two other races, haven’t I? I live and train in Dallas, hot as hell in the summer. Certainly I can handle heat? I’m mentally tough, I don’t quit, and I’m a survivor. I was racing for a cause. I have to be almost dead to quit, don’t I?
(Side note: Self-supported races change the playing field for wannabe runners like me. When you have to strap on a pack in the desert and carry all your supplies for 7 days, you just entered the endurance race version of “The Hunger Games”. You can be taken out by so many variables. Your margin for error shrinks from small, to very slim, to none.)
Only seven women entered the race and how proud was I of those six girls at the finish line! I was in great company. Bakiya gave the boys a stiff run for their money and finished in the top. Sanet made the Afrikaans girl in me proud with a very strong finish. Bridget ran the Himalayan 100 with me and is a true non-quitter with the best cleavage around. Annie, with the gorgeous curls, just kept walking like the wonderful Jonny Walker commercial. Laura was the veteran of the Kalahari and could hear the sand whisper as she passed. And finally Pam from Singapore showed that a tough girl can have the sweetest smile.
Spiderman was the sweeper behind the last runner. Can I just say one thing? I never want to be swept again. Ever. It screwed with my head space. I knew he was waiting for me. Sitting under a tree watching me struggle thru the endless sand. I would listen to his quad bike engine, needing him to speed up to come say hi, simultaneously wanting him to go away and let me fight thru my demons alone. He became a lifeline on day 2 when I was limping from tree to tree. He was my insurance policy that I was not lost. I’m grateful for his kindness when I needed it most, but I wish I was not swept. I wish I did not have someone who agreed with me at 1:25p on day 2 that it was perhaps not a good idea to continue.
After Doc Jann and I agreed that my patella tendon took a lot of stain from the steep climb out of a gorge, and that continuing may cause a more serious long-term injury, I was taken to the crew camp with several other racers that were the other casualties of day 2. No words were necessary to express the agony we felt. Our eyes told the story of the intense disappointment of a “dnf – did not finish – after many months of training and thousands of miles travelled to be at the race start. We all came to finish, but that day the Kalahari Desert had other plans for us as my fellow fallen comrades also suffered a combination of injuries, dehydration and illness.
I have struggled with my decision to quit endlessly and have second guessed myself over and over. Could I have gone on even with my knee injury? What if I just went to the next checkpoint? What if, what if, what if. .. Ugh!! I met a seasoned racer recently who gave me sound advice: Never doubt the decision you made in the heat of battle. Trust that you knew best then. Looking back the picture always looks different. Ok. As I breathe . . . I did the right thing. I withdrew because it was the right decision under that thorn tree that day when it was hotter than hell, when I was limping with 125 miles and 5 days left, and with a pack that was 10 pounds too heavy. I accept my decision. Just breathe.
I have questioned my racing motives every day for five weeks while fighting with my gear bag. What do I want to achieve with ultra endurance racing? Is it really just about a T-Shirt and medal? To just finish? A race notch on my headboard? Proving to myself that I’m alive post cancer, because I’m afraid of dying? NO!! I now know that it is my sport. It is what I love doing and I want to do it better. I want to give it my best shot and “just finish” is no longer enough. I love the places that the toughest races on earth take me. But above all else, I love the people I meet and the friends I make. I don’t want any more to be the wannabe pretend runner that tries to wing it. I want to show up at the start line prepared and ready to race. For real, for me, with no excuses.
(Side note: I’m fortunate to live near a state of the art performance center, Playtri, which is an official USA Triathlon Certified Performance Center, the highest honor USA Triathlon can bestow on a training facility. I needed some serious coaching and training as I obviously don’t have a clue how to train myself, and as of Dec 1st, I’m one of their new members. I have delegated my training regime to my coach Mo. Although stubborn, I do follow direction well, especially when I need plenty expert advice, guidance and help. After a month of hard work I just ran a personal best on Dec 30: 6 miles in an hour, 10min a mile! Wow! I can actually run!)
Failure never tastes good but I learned more about myself and what I want and need than had I finished this race and came back to Dallas wrapped in a T-Shirt with a trophy. The Kalahari Desert knew that I was not ready to graduate from its rocks, sand and hot terrain. It wanted me to come back when I was worthy and prepared to take on its sandy riverbeds, gorges, cliffs and heat. Thank you for a priceless gift.
I washed my gear bag and its contents on Dec 1st when I started training for my next race that I’m registered for: The Grand to Grand Ultra, September 2013. Running from the north rim of the Grand Canyon to the Grand Staircase in Utah. 167 miles over 7 days, 6 stages and again fully self-supported. Take note: I’m not showing up to “just finish”! I will be back to complete the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon in 2014 – the 15th anniversary of this great race, in an enchanted land, amongst strangers that became friends and family.