Thursday, April 23, 2015

Escape from Prison Hill Half Marathon: An Unexpected Victory

It's taken me a while to digest this past weekend and the fact that I won a half-marathon.  I didn't sign up for this race thinking I could win or, really, take any of the spots on the podium. Granted, I'm not sure how many people wake up and say to themselves: Ah man, I really want to run up and down and around and up and up and up this random hill which sits over the prison in Carson City, Nevada which can be really sandy and hot because, you know, deep down I love pain. I really, really love it. Almost as much as I love running with sand in my shoes.

Instead, I signed up because running a really hard 13.1 miles right now is just as good as an "easy" 16. I'm not injured yet (knock on wood) and have had a really solid base of running miles. The last thing I want to do is to go out too hard or too long and end up with tendonitis.  So, a trail race that would force me to go "hard" (but still "slow") seemed like the perfect solution.

Plus, I miss having fun. Which makes me wonder about myself-- maybe I am the person who says: Ah man, I really want to run up and down and around and up and up and up this random hill which sits over the prison in Carson City, Nevada which can be really sandy and hot because, you know, deep down I love pain. I really, really love it. Almost as much as I love running with sand in my shoes.

Nevada, for me, is a place with layers (like sedimentary rock.)  I'm starting to realize every place I go is a place I've been before and I'm constantly comparing who I was to who I am. Sometimes I'm proud of who I've become. But, there are other times when a specific spot is a landmark in my life, a crossroads, and coming back again forces me to question the choices I've made and the person I've become.

The Escape from Prison Hill Half Marathon is no exception.  This was the first half marathon I ever ran, back when I didn't think of myself as a runner or an athlete at all. It was my second semester as an MA Candidate in the French department and I was 25 years old an I'd lost my "real" job, my house and in a desperate attempt to patch my life back together, I pursued an MA in French. Not because I wanted one, really, but because what they paid me to teach was more than what they paid me at the ski shop where I worked and that would allow me to leave the basement of the professors where I lived because they were kind, and had let me stay with them without charging rent.

So I was an MA Candidate in the French Department who lived in a 250 square foot "shit hole" near the railroad tracks and I'd signed up for this race because running was the one thing I had, then, to console me that life really was going to work itself out, that I was going to become a writer, that I would not always eke through life.  I wanted to know that I was strong, that I could have a goal and reach it.

I still remember that my mom had driven me to the race and had waited for me from start to finish. My dad and stepmom came to see me finish, too. My mom had spotted me first, pointing to the hill, saying, "that's her. I know it's her." My dad and stepmom hadn't believed I would do so well-- but they watched me win my age group and I think we all cried that day.  Looking back, it was evidence that (come what may) I was going to survive.

So, it's funny coming back to the big, sandy hill almost ten years later. I'm still here, surviving. I'm still an athlete and still a writer. I don't have the M.A. program to hang onto (or any academic program); now I'm a writer who does technical writing and who writes essays in her spare time and I manage a reading series-- an unexpected blessing. I am also an athlete. No matter how many times I have been told I will never be a runner, here I am at the starting line of another race.

The world narrows and there is really only a few things-- and people--which matter. One stands before me, just slightly to the left. As the race begins, knowing he is there makes all the difference as I match the pace of the lead runner.


This is a brutal race. Aside from the first 75 meters, the first three miles are uphill on a single track and sandy (although there will be gradations of "sandy" throughout this race. This is not "super sandy"-- the sand that sucks you down to the Earth's core. This is merely "annoying sandy" but still, it sucks.) I'm out in front and wondering how I can be so slow, but I am pulling away from the pack behind me. There are a handful of men, running, in front of me and I watch them to know what to expect from the terrain. I haven't seen another woman yet, but I wait for them to pass me. They are all leaner than I am-- most taller, too-- and I have been conservative with my running miles leading up to this race. (Again, I don't expect to win.)

For that first three-mile climb through "Old Truck Canyon" I think of the running coach I'd had who stopped  believing in me and I imagine he wants me to fail. I think of the tough things, because that is where my mind goes, at first, when I first encounter race-pain. It takes a minute or so to settle in, and I repeat to myself that this isn't a sprint, that I have to find a pace, a rhythm and let what happens, happen.  I do, and I crest the first climb with a nuclear fire in my calves, but still no woman has passes me.

I nearly trip on rocks which dot the single-track and I tell myself that if I eat shit, the race is over. This is another mantra I pick up which seems to help. Don't eat shit. Don't eat shit.  I pick up my feet higher than I normally would and cruise the downhills, not gaining as much speed as I'd like, but I definitely do not eat shit. 


The landscape is stark, but beautiful. Life is not always what we expect it will be, or how. This race is not what I expected it to be. I expected to be last because I am all things I have told myself for years. I was injured, so I'm not a runner anymore. I was injured, so I'm slow. I am not thin, which means I'm fat which means, again, I'm slow. I could parse all of these for you and trace each back to its origin but at this point, it's neither interesting nor useful. Let's just say I started this race thinking I was fat and slow and washed up and somewhat embarrassed that a person I love is watching me race-- or, is watching me start and will watch me finish.

But, even as soon as 75 meters in, I surprise myself. I am not fat, I am not slow, I am not injured. I'm sticking with the lead pack and I haven't heard or seen another woman.

Rich catches us before the single track turns up the canyon and I can see he's taking a picture of me, running. And how strange-- but wonderful-- it is that someone is taking a picture of me, running, in a race. Fat me, discarded me. Old me. Me who didn't qualify for the Olympic Trials after all. Me whose book didn't sell. Me who was unworthy of love, a year ago.

I could cry, really, but I don't. I keep climbing. I run my own race. Oh, but how I want to finish first because I know what waits for me at the finish line.


Up and down; I can't find a pace, but must adjust to the terrain. I don't run trails like this often; I can't, in fact, because of my work schedule. I run at lunch, which means sidewalk and this race is the opposite of concrete curbing. Up a canyon, across a ridge, down a narrow arroyo onto a playa and I see a hawk circling high above.

There are times I hardly see the trail and I feel as though I'm wandering through the desert, alone. I reach a steep incline, so steep I'm on my hands and knees, my feet not quite catching traction up the scree.

I remember the thing someone told me once, that he couldn't stand to wait for me to become. I am clawing at the desert floor, my knee is bleeding and I know I am becoming. You're not worth waiting for and I know so many of my coaches have thought the same thing.

I might cry, but I can't. Anymore.

Now, in this race, I can only say to myself, again and again: I am worth it, I am worth it, I am, I am-- that's me, panting, grappling and grabbing the earth by handfuls. I'm not ready to fail or fall back. Especially not now. I have to keep going.


There is a mile-long climb around mile 8 or so. I can't run it this year because the sand is so deep. I run and then, every now and then, I have to walk. So do the men in front of me.  We keep an equal distance from each other as we climb and climb and climb.

The aid station at the top of the hill is populated by men and women from a local running club and they all tell me I am the first female, that I am strong, that I have to keep going.

There are two men who leave the aid station with me and they, too, want me to finish strong. We run down a long, sandy hill and then the true test begins.

Up and down: steep in both respects. I handle the first of these extreme undulations the best I can: not eating shit on the downhill, digging deep up the ascent. I out-pace the men for the downhill efforts, but on the second steep ascent, I lose my balance and I fall into the earth. I try to crawl my way back up, but the sand gives way to the granite beneath it.

One of the men puts both hands on my butt and pushes me up, saying "Go, go, go!"

Without a word, I feel hands on my backside and the nearest runner gives me a tough shove. It's enough to get me up and I crest the hill.  I leave the two of them behind on the downhill and I don't see him until the end of the race. When I do, he smiles sheepishly and apologies for the "push."

"Don't," I reply. "I wouldn't have made it without it."


I met Rich over a year ago. His CompuTrainer classes saved my life because there was, literally, nothing else I had to look forward to. My partner of seven years left me for another person and the university (where I taught) did not renew my contract. While I scrambled for jobs-- and while I scrambled for myself-- I always had Rich's classes where I could ride my bike and my efforts matched my results. It was not like writing, where I could receive countless rejections for my work with really no justification. It was also not like love-- (which, too, can end instantly.)

Instead, riding was a constant, a guarantee. I could put hours in and see a tangible result.  Rich quickly became my friend. We rode together. He transformed an unsure rider into an endurance cyclist. It was the thing that got me through those hard months of learning to live on my own, of learning to trust myself. I'm not sure I'll ever repay that.

But I think of those months, last year, and how lonely I was. I think of that when I climb another sandy hill I don't think I can but do.


There's one final hill at about mile 12 in the sand that I really don't think I can run, but I do.  I keep thinking of Rich, at the finish line and my mom who said she'd be there, too. It isn't a big race or anything I can really point to in terms of accolades, but since this was my first half marathon it holds a special meaning for me. I love that I am in first and even though my legs are fatigues and I'm dirty and I just want to be done, I pick up the pace and float across the finish line. My mom stands to the right and I reach out to give her a high-five.

She hugs me when I've caught my breath and one runner I passed miles before stops to say: "You are a runner."

A part of me wants to hold onto that an all it could mean. Another marathon, maybe? Another shot at being, truly "fast"?

The feeling fades, though, and it's more important to me that I had the courage to come back and run this race, that I had the courage to finish and that I was able to share that moment with two people who mean so much to me.

No comments: