The rain is pelting down on my tent. It’s a first for me, hearing the pouring rain lashing out against my tent like an angry animal looking for food. I’m very proud that I have mastered the art of pitching it even in the dark by the faint light of a headlamp. My rain flap is keeping me perfectly dry but even while the rain is pouring like buckets from the sky, the heat is sweltering inside my tent. I’m stripped down to the bare necessities and still little rivers of sweat are forming in the many crevices of my skin and running down to form small puddles next to my deflated sleeping pad. God, it’s humid. I’m so hot. I’m so dreadfully tired. My feet are a total train wreck – raw, bleeding and throbbing to the touch. My foot bones feel like they have been slowly crushed between two heavy duty clamps. The effort to walk back from the dining tent to my simple shelter for the night was almost unbearable.
Our camp tonight once again is in the jungle and although next to a beach, there is no reprieve from the oppressive jungle heat. My Garmin is telling me it is 2am. I have been awake for hours unable to sleep as my sleeping pad sprung a leak earlier. As the novice camper I am, I didn’t pick my tent site well and am paying the price. I missed the memo that one should remove rocks and stones from underneath your tent seeing that you will be sleeping on said pointy and very sharp objects. Without a working pad, I’m in for many hours of misery. The rocks are digging into every inch of my aching body and I’m not succeeding to mold my form around their unyielding and hostile shapes.
Today was humbling. Not all miles are created equal and after Day 1 my blistered feet could attest that Costa Rica is not for the light weight, the wannabe and the unprepared. I switched on Day 2 to the shorter distance but still struggled to make it to the end. I found myself often collapsed on the dense jungle floor wishing that a snake or spider would rescue me from the misery of having to get up and keep moving. Which is worse, the desert or the jungle? In my opinion it depends in which one you find yourself. Both are relentless and push you to the border of your capacity, both physically and mentally. My collection of blisters grew and my respect for my environment increased tenfold, which brought us to today – Day 3. The majority of the damage to my feet occurred on Day 2 when we crossed several jungle streams and river estuaries and my feet remained wet and muddy far too long.
(Side note: Small attention to detail . . . You can wing your way through 26.2 miles on a road race but 140 miles through the roughest terrain possible in the thick of the jungle when it’s ungodly hot and humid … yeah, not so much. Henda, it’s time you show up fully prepared every time and quit bullshitting yourself about your readiness.)
February 1st, 2014 was a memorable day on many levels. It was the first time ever that I ran 10 miles in 10 minutes per mile without walking or stopping. But it was also the day I tore my ACL dancing in 4 inch boots to where I needed full ACL reconstruction in April, 2014. Bummer. Ok. . . It sucked. Ok, ok . . . It was devastating and it wrecked my athletic year. Digging out from the surgery/rehab was dreadful. I had the best surgeon possible and thanks to his guidance, I showed up at the Chicago Marathon in October. Untrained but determined to finish in the allotted time allowed and bring home some race bling, aka a finisher medal, I was unfazed by 26.2 miles in a single day race. Worst case I could walk the whole course in 6.5 hours.
Apart from finishing within the official time, I took away two very special memories from Chicago. Around mile 9 I ran into a blind man running the race with a guide. I paced with them for a few miles and was really humbled. How remarkable! Bloody Hell! I need to adjust my gratitude and training level significantly!
Then there was this fan that kept popping up along the course. She was big, bold, very blond and memorable. And … she was wearing this big neon T-Shirt with daring letters and had a humungous sign to match that said “DO EPIC SHIT!” Yeah, let’s do epic shit. What a great motto! I’m all in!
(Side note: You guessed it. My “Epic Shit” the week after the Chicago marathon was that I paid for my entry to run The Coastal Challenge in Costa Rica the end of January 2015. It’s one of the revered “tough” races in the genre – 140 miles, 6 days, rough terrain, rainforest, mountains, extreme heat, river crossings, extreme humidity, beaches . . . yeah, epic no doubt. But I needed something big to reassure me that my knee was just fine.)
Day 3 started with an eight mile stretch down a solitary beach, Playa Ballena. With no shade in sight, the sun was as much a predator seeking your weak spot as the rain and rocks just hours later in the friendless confinement of my tent. Until I can add speed to my racing repertoire, I will always find myself alone most of the time. Few crazy ones as slow as I am will show up to dare to attempt the ultra endurance stage races I am drawn to, that are my “epic shit”. My therapist and I often contemplate the attraction that these races hold for me, but that is another story . . .
Playa Ballena is not just an area where the humpback whales come during the winter, but the beach forms an actual gigantic whale’s tail visible from the air. It witnessed my physical struggle but also watched the demons inside my head fight for supremacy. The days leading up to the race, I read Eckhart Tolle’s “New Earth” and needless to say, it was a turning point on many levels. I fully embraced the concept to remove unhappiness from my life instead of seeking peace and happiness. I knew to achieve this goal means removing myself from situations and people that make me deeply unhappy. I had to be willing to let go and I had to realize that to yield is an expression of strength. The willingness of changing my happiness by removing me from an unhappy situation was not a sign of giving up or failure, but instead, the most powerful action I can take on my own behalf.
The waves were crushing around me in their never-ending ocean symphony, their foaming breakers sparkling white against the backdrop of deep blue and brilliant turquoise water. The ocean breeze was softly caressing my face and thru the tears that were streaming down my cheeks, I was watching the tiny sand crabs frantically bolting into their burrows. Their beautiful and intricate sand balls covered Ballena’s beach like hundreds of priceless pearl necklaces strewn upon the golden sand. And like the oyster that creates a stunning gem deep inside its soft tissue from a small grain of irritation, I know that I can also overcome my struggle. “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us” – Joseph Campbell.
After the night on the rocks in my tent, when dawn broke on Day 4, I knew that I won’t be starting. It was hard to let go of my desire to finish, but I knew my stubbornness needs to learn when to bow and exit left. I stayed with the group and supported my new friends in their quest to reach the finish line on Day 6. “Tuesdays with Morrie” was my company on Day 5 in the shade of a palm tree overlooking the Osa Peninsula. The book is a beautiful homage to a great man and I could not have picked a better moment or place to get to know Morrie and Mitch.
During the celebration dinner on the beach at Drake Bay, my blood chilling screams caused much commotion. I almost took out our entire table that I was sitting at when I flung the blend of flapping wings and countless feet that landed in my lap as far as I could. Much to my chagrin it was only a giant bush cricket (katydid). My new Costa Rican friend, Ligia, took my hand and explained that the local name is “Esperanza” meaning “hope” and that it is considered very good luck when one lands in your lap. The jungle had a very special message and a specific messenger to send me on my journey home. It was telling me that I will find the courage to do what I had to, the strength to do it with kindness and grace, and the wisdom to know that it was right for me.
The next morning, as we sped across Drake Bay by boat back to Sierpe, once again my tears were mixing with the wind and ocean spray, but this time it was with the knowledge and acceptance that although I left without a medal and a finisher shirt, I brought home something far more rare and extraordinary: the infinite understanding that if you cannot let go, you will be dragged.