The 26 mile trail training run had been staring me in the face for the past fourteen weeks. Every time I looked at the training plan, my eyes would sweep down to the first box that held the number 26. There were two boxes with that number, but the first one seemed the most daunting.
The day had arrived.
The day before, after a 10 mile run with the running group, everyone either laughed or gaped after they asked how far we were running the next day. There were no takers when I asked if they wanted to join us.
Hari wanted to try a new trail, one further out from the city. I was sick of Grapevine, so we agreed on Isle du Bois at Ray Roberts State Park, 57 miles northwest of Dallas. Happily, after fourteen weeks of hot, humid, long trail runs, we finally caught a break with the weather.
I picked up Susan at 5:10am and we headed north. Just before we got there, I realized I had forgotten to bring cash for the entry fee. Susan wanted to buy a state parks pass anyway, which would cover both of us, but we discovered when we got there that no one would be in the office until 8:00am and it was self-pay until then. We drove to the trail head without paying, but my guilty conscience got the better of me. Fearing either a ticket or my car getting towed, we drove back up to the gate and shoved Susan’s six one dollar bills and every coin we could find in my car into the envelope. I had two nickels, one dime, and a whole bunch of pennies.
By the time we paid and found the trail, it was already 7:00am, one hour later than we usually start our long runs. I decided to wear my water hydration vest, and it’s a good thing I did because it would be 16 miles of running before we made it back to the cars.
Half a mile into the run, Susan disappeared. She eventually came running up and said she had lost her sunglasses. Sunglasses are expensive. We ran back to the cars slowly, surveying the trail, but never found the missing sunglasses. I remembered losing my sunglasses at the start of the St George Marathon, which I later said had been my sacrifice to the Weather Gods, and took it as a good omen.
Right off the bat, we knew it was going to be a tough trail for a 26 mile training run. It was very rocky and hilly, and flat, smooth sections were almost nonexistent. The rocks were red and volcanic, and they were everywhere and every size.
On the plus side, there were not as many roots and stumps as we’ve been used to running on. But the loose rocks were challenging, as were the large, pointy boulders that had to be walked over. Other than Palo Duro Canyon, it was the prettiest trail we had been on so far.
Despite running 10 miles the day before, I felt great. I felt smooth and strong on the rocks, and was priding myself on having my third trail run in a row without falling. Being the slowest of the three runners, I stayed in the back and took my time, carefully placing my feet and avoiding any missteps on the trail. I could really tell all the weeks of running trails and the increased mileage had made me stronger and more agile.
Hari looking pensive on the trail
Within the first 10 miles, Susan went down, banging up her knee. She went to the back of the pack behind me, to force herself to slow down, and within ten minutes fell again. She looked up at us from the ground and said, “I might have to quit.” She thought it was low blood sugar and ate an energy gel.
We discussed the possibility that the trail might be too challenging for a 26 mile training run, and that we might not be able to run the full distance. At that point, I couldn’t imagine how we were going to manage to run another 16 miles or so on those rocks and hills. I found myself wishing we had decided to run at Grapevine after all.
Susan’s determination carried us through. She is one tough woman.
The trail was a series of loops, A through E, but we never really knew where we were until we came to Loop D. We just ran. When we weren’t running, it was to stop and watch the deer in the woods. We saw a total of 21, all does, and most with fawns. There were very few bikes on the trail, and no other runners, just a few hikers.
We kept running, on and on, and Hari kept us entertained with his stories of living overseas, what books he had read, what movies he had seen, and what foods he had eaten. I love running with people who do all the talking.
Hari eventually ran out of things to talk about, and then he ran out of water. Susan shared some of hers, and we ran back towards the cars, not really sure how to get back. I have to say, those middle miles were great. Everyone was running well, Susan wasn’t falling anymore, and it felt great to be running in the woods. Everything became so simple. Life was simple: just keep running.
We were coming up on 15 miles, and I suddenly realized: We can do this. We can go ahead and run the full 26 miles. But we were starting to get hungry and it was getting warm.
Me and Susan, not looking sweaty and red-faced like usual because it was only 60 something degrees!
Finally, after 16 miles of running, we made it back to the cars for a much needed food and water break. We’ve discovered that real food trumps energy gels on trail runs, though we’re still figuring out which foods work the best for each of us. For me, it’s dolmas and Gatorade. There’s something about stuffed grape leaves washed down with Blue Glacier Freeze G that my stomach likes.
After the break, we looked at the trail head map and Hari asked if we wanted to finish the run on our own at home, or continue on. Susan had said from the beginning that she wanted to get the miles in on the trail, and I knew it would be hard to muster up the energy to run another 10 miles, solo, in the evening. We all agreed to power through to the end.
In my head, I split the remaining mileage in half and concentrated on running only the next five miles. Five miles was nothing, completely do-able. I was fatigued, but my legs still felt pretty good. Or so I thought. After the first mile or so, I started slipping on rocks and almost rolled both ankles, numerous times. My ankles were starting to show signs of weakness.
Every mile was a small victory. When we reached mile 17, we had only single digits left. Hari and Susan pulled ahead, I dragged behind. There was little talk. At one intersection, because we never really figured out where we were on the trail, and because we had inadvertently run in circles–literally–several times during the day, we made a huge rock cairn so we wouldn’t miss the turn-off back to the cars.
The rock cairn
Mile 20 to 21 seemed like forever, and when I caught up to Susan and Hari I discovered they hadn’t stopped until 21.24 miles. Might as well run a little farther than 26.2 and say we had run our longest distance ever.
I had started walking all the uphills by this time, trying to save energy, but I still felt good. Tired, but good. Susan remarked that we had less than a 10K to go. Time to hunker down and put the brain on auto-pilot.
Half a mile later I fell.
I had taken pains to always walk over the largest rocks on the trail, having paid the price several summers ago when I fell on a flat rock on a trail run in the Tetons and cracked a few ribs. This time, knowing my ankles were tired and weak, I ran up onto a large rock and had the thought, “I should have walked over this.” Before I knew what was happening I was headed for the rock, chin first. I landed on the side of my chin, flipped over onto my back, and landed in the leaves.
My chin had a big knot and was bleeding, my palms were scraped up, and my head hurt. For some reason I had only the slightest scrape on one knee, so my chin took most of the force of the fall.
After sympathy from my friends, we continued on. I felt so pitiful and sorry for myself, and frustrated at falling yet again on a trail run. I hung in the back and had a little cry. I put on my sunglasses so Hari and Susan wouldn’t know. They eventually stopped to let me catch up, asked how I was, and I burst into full blown sobs. I couldn’t catch my breath and I couldn’t stop crying. I felt like such a baby!
It didn’t hurt that bad, and I knew it was the fatigue that was making the tears flow so easily.
Those last five miles were some of the toughest I’ve ever run. Getting hurt meant I was mentally washed out, which only compounded the physical fatigue. Nothing was going to stop me from making it back to the car on my own two feet, but it meant a lot of walking. I was scared of falling again on the rocks, I was exhausted, and I hadn’t eaten anything when we stopped at mile 21. Big mistake.
Hari and Susan were strong to the end, running up most of the hills and staying focused on finishing. My left ankle hurt worse since the fall, and running became painful. Not wanting it to turn into another week of foam rolling and icing, I walked all the uphills and a lot of the downhills, carefully making my way through the rocks.
See all those rocks scattered around? We ran on those ALL DAY LONG!
Susan eventually said we had only a 5K left to run, and reminded us when she had said we still had a a 10K to go. Things began to look familiar. We were getting close to the end. I told Susan and Hari not to wait on me, gave Susan the key to the car, and told them I’d see them at the end.
Just like a few weeks ago when I had the stomach virus, I walked in all alone the last mile back to the car. It seems to take forever when you’re so close to the end.
Even though I didn’t finish as strong as I wanted to, I did it. It might have been my toughest run ever. Not only did I complete a 26.4 mile trail training run, it was also my longest training run ever,my longest run of any kind ever, and my highest mileage week ever (56.7 miles).
It was so good to be done! We celebrated with cold beers in coffee mugs, cold Gatorade, tabbouleh, sandwiches, and shade.
One of the few flat, smooth sections of the trail
Other than the 57 mile drive home, there was still one thing left to be done: I had to stop at the park entrance to pay my fee, fess up to the envelope full of pennies, and pay the balance. The state park ranger laughed when I explained how we had had to scrounge around in the car for all my loose change at 6:00 that morning, and she said they were wondering what the deal was with the 65 cents in change. Everyone had a good laugh at our story, didn’t make me pay the 35 cent balance, and I felt good about being honest.
I didn’t get home until almost 4:00pm. We were on our feet for seven or eight hours. None of us is really sure. Trail running is exhausting.
For that one day it was our job.
Michael took pity that night and cooked steak and baked potatoes for dinner. I was asleep by 8:30 on the couch. I’ve never slept better.