Fear. I’ve spent the better part of the past year advocating embracing fear – running towards fear, instead of running away from it. That (to butcher the words of Cheryl Strayed) an overwhelming sense of fear shows that you are doing exactly what you need to be doing.
It has been almost two months since I received the ok to cast the crutches to the curb.Two months since I re-entered the world of bipedalism after three long months with the sticks. And two months since the first person asked me “so, you’ll be racing [x] next weekend?”
I had gone from three months of no weight-bearing of any type, and I was constantly asked if I would be running [x] race the following weekend. I’m no doctor, but I’m fairly certain that’s not how rehab works.
Believe me – I wish it did. Life would be so much easier if the body and mind were in sync. Unfortunately, as any athlete who has ever gone through a major injury knows, that’s not how the game works.
I’ve had minor injuries in the past, but nothing like this that has knocked me out for such a long period of time, and certainly nothing that caused me to be non-weight bearing for this long. And what has become perfectly clear to me in all of this is that being laid up with injury is easy. It’s the rehab and the comeback that’s the hard part.
It’s been 6 weeks since that fateful run where lightning bolts shot down my leg.
When the initial MRI was taken, and my sentence was given (12 weeks until running, etc.), a part of me held out hope in the back of my mind that the doctors were just being conservative. C’mon – I’m the girl who returned from knee surgery to win World’s Toughest Mudder exactly 8 weeks post-op. Surely, by 6 weeks out, I’d be close to running again. I’m superhuman, or so people tell me.
Instead, after 5 days of testing walking about, I’m back on crutches. 4 weeks of non-weight bearing, they initially told me. Never would I imagine it could possibly be…more. (c’mon…I’M SUPPOSED TO HEAL LIKE JOHN CENA, PEOPLE)
Yesterday, I decided to clean out the trunk of my car. It’s long overdue. As I surveyed the contents, I took notes (and yes, I realize this is disgusting): 9 pairs of trail shoes. 3 pairs of road shoes. 3 headlamps. 4 pairs of Injinjis, and one random mateless sock. 4 long sleeve running tops. 2 tanks. 2 buffs. One running visor. 2 rolls of RockTape. A bag of emergency gels and bloks. Scattered packets of BeetElite. A crumbly pack of Maple Bacon Pop-Tarts. And 3 handheld water bottles.
I took a step (or, crutched a step) back. I stared at the contents.
I found myself asking that question several times throughout 2015. Ok, maybe on an (almost) daily basis. (And then it’d be followed by hours of trying to get “Bohemian Rhapsody” out of my head)
But, no, seriously – 2015 was a trip. Tumultuous at times, but so incredibly, freaking awesome at others. I constantly have to remind myself to take a look back at the last few years and really take in and embrace the sideways turn my life took back in 2011, and where it’s brought me to today – the highs, the lows, and sometimes, the utter ridiculousness.
But as the sport continues to grow and evolve (and actually be defined as “a sport”), I’d like to think I continue to grow and evolve with it. And I do so, in part, by taking stock of what has happened, and letting that help shape my future.
Before I begin, let me preface that I am not a medical professional and hold no qualifications or certifications (even meaningless ones where you pay one thousand bucks for a t-shirt), and the last anatomy class I took was a 3 week unit in 9th grade biology. I am, however, a lawyer, so I know I need to cover my ass because inevitably someone may rely on this shit. So what I’m saying here is solely based on my own personal experiences, observations, and the ever trust-worthy interwebs. Follow at your own risk.
Injury is an inevitable part of being an athlete. It feels kind of weird to say that, for two reasons: (1) I’ve never really considered myself “an athlete”, and (2) up until about a year ago, aside from a few broken bones growing up, I’ve never really been injured. Hurt, yes – but never a diagnosable injury that has taken me out of training for more than a week or two at a time.
If there is one thing I learned from the Reebok Spartan Race World Championships this past weekend, it’s that you can EASILY get rope burn through clothing.
Ok, I might have learned more. But that was, by far, the most painful lesson. Tegaderm is now my friend.
It’s been a year since the first Spartan Championships, and it was undeniable how things have changed. It was evident not only from the caliber of athletes that showed up this year, but even the feel and mood surrounding the race with the cameras and press and hoopla. While I laughed and joked with other racers and tried to appear calm, I’m pretty awful at hiding my nerves.
If there is anything that is calming, however, it is being back in Pittsfield. Ironically, the home of the Death Race and days and days of suffering tends to have a calming affect on me – go figure. Pretty sure I told several people I’d rather being doing the Team Death Race with my DR family. (Note – I probably would have recanted that come Sunday night after the TDR’s finished up the Ultrabeast at the end of their three days of misery).
But I think it’s safe to say that, while many of us had run the Championship the year before, none of us knew what to expect from either the course, the competition, or the mountain. While I knew I had come far in a year – last year’s Ultrabeast was actually the first Spartan Race I ever ran – between an iffy calf, nerves, and stiff competition, I wasn’t sure if I had come far enough.
But aside from learning the painful way about rope burn, there’s something that became abundantly clear to me this weekend:
Obstacle racing may be the perfect combination of strength, endurance, and speed.
I’ve said this before, but in the back of my mind, always felt like speed in running could compensate
for inability to do obstacles. In fact, I’ve never considered myself “good” at obstacles compared to some women. Coming into the weekend, there was quite a bit of chatter over whether the “obstacles” in obstacle racing were negligible, and instead, would be dominated by elite runners even if they failed numerous obstacles.
I think this course, and the results, proved otherwise.
The mountain. I love this mountain. And it probably shouldn’t be that way, considering I live in a city where the biggest hill is the overpass at mile 25 of the Chicago Marathon. However, as soon as we crossed the starting line, we started to ascend straight up to the summit. Calves went numb almost immediately, and Morgan Arritola, the Olympian nordic skiier turned professional mountain runner, left us all in the dust. I held second, but quickly lost sight of her. As we caught up to the men’s Elite heat, guys started telling me just HOW far ahead she was: 15 mins, 11 mins, 20 mins (obviously, they all had different ideas). But aside from trying to run that mountain (which is a feat in itself), we hadn’t hit any real obstacles.
The obstacles. And then we hit the tire drag. And the 60#(ish?) mile-long sandbag carry. And the rope climbs. And walls. And other heavy things. And this was where, without strength, you would die. Here, I hit my stride. By mile 7, the time we came down to the water, I had caught up, and never felt better. I ran my race, and had a blast doing it: smiles all the way home.
To me, this course showed that obstacle racing is a unique discipline, and one that can’t be dismissed. Obstacle racers must train to find that perfect balance between speed and strength, and skill and expertise come with practices (hence why I’m still marginal at the spear throw – something I don’t have the ability to practice in my downtown Chicago high-rise). But throughout the race, and in the days following, I realized that I’ve been blessed and fortunate to ride this obstacle racing waive to the top. Whether it’s a lucky streak, or something more, remains to be seen. For the time being…
Thank you, stairs. You are the closest thing I have to hill training around here. And you are much more forgiving on the body than running dozens of miles on the pavement on a weekly basis.
Thank you, CrossFit. Yes, I drink the Kool-Aid. But as a training tool for obstacle racing, I’ve found nothing better. That sandbag carry? We work with sandbags regularly at my box, The Foundry. Rope climbs? Monkey bars? Check and check. Grip strength? Honed by pullups, farmer’s carries, and barbell work.
Thank you, Death Race. In Summer 2012, I carried a 60# concrete bag 3 miles to the top of Joe’s mountain. In Summer 2013, we carried massive paving stones. Having survived both of those, I repeated to myself through the mile-long sandbag carry “this is nothing.” I believed it…kind of. Further, in every Death Race, we always seem to carry buckets (mostly handle-less), mostly filled with gravel (in the words of Andy Weinberg, “who comes to a Death Race without a bucket?”). So the Bucket Brigade obstacle felt like…home? At least I hadn’t been up for 72 hours.
Thank you, Pop-Tarts. Mid-Tyrolean Traverse, race director Mike Morris got on the megaphone and yelled out to me “Amelia, what’d you have for breakfast this morning?” I replied, “Pop-Tarts.” I wasn’t joking. But I should have added “Pedialyte.”
Thank you, friends. I’ve said time and time again that it’s largely the people that keep me coming back. When I arrive in Killington/Pittsfield, I arrive “home” to a dysfunctional family of misfits, but one that has great love and respect for each other. So while winning a race is awesome, spending time catching up with my “race” friends, and meeting and bonding with new friends, is a special kind of awesome. From seeing the Team Death Racers get their skulls after three days to introducing newbs to the treasure that is the Pittsfield General Store to sharing post-race beers with good friends, there is nothing more magical than a race weekend.
I most recently blogged about the challenges that obstacle racing faces in its struggle for legitimacy as a sport. The Spartan Championships were another step towards that, and one that gives me hope (says the girl who won – I know, I know). I’m grateful to be a part of this growing sport, one that now, more than ever, is here to stay. And while it’s tough to get to the top, I know it’s tougher to stay there (cue groans over that cliche). So I’ll enjoy the time here, thank those that have supported me, and keep on doing what I love: racing.
At my grandma’s 90th birthday party following the Pacific Northwest Spartan Sprint, I found myself
in a conversation with a family friend, who I hadn’t seen in years, trying to explain the race I had just run that morning. Granted, I’m not known for being able to express coherently when speaking (yes yes, and I’m an attorney…bla bla bla), but I found myself saying things like this:
“So it’s a trail race, typically pretty hilly, and you have a few dozen obstacles on the way – climbing over walls, crawling under barb wire, dragging tires, etc.”
As I passed a group of guys at the sandbag carry during the Indiana Spartan Sprint this past weekend, I heard “Are you kidding? She’s passing us. A girl. Fuuuuuuuuuck.”
Yay me, right? Woo women! Go chicks! How empowering and badass and wonderful!
So why did it feel so horrible? And why did it bother me throughout the race, and still bothers me, almost a week later?
Because “chicking” shouldn’t be a big deal.
I don’t know the origin of the term “chicked,” but if you are in any type of runners circle, the term gets thrown around. It’s the idea of a woman passing a man, beating a man. It was created, I believe, as a term of empowerment, and I think serves that purpose well – you can see this in groups like the ever-expanding “Spartan Chicked,” which is an incredible forum for female obstacle racers to provide advice, tips, encouragement, and support for each other.
In the eyes of men, however, the term turns ugly. It’s a blow to the ego to get “chicked,” and it’s used by men in a derogatory manner. I get it, doods, that it hurts your ego that you got “beat by a girl,” but get over it. Your chest hair isn’t going to fall out, your biceps have not atrophied, and the size of…things…are still the same (I think).
The Elite heats at Spartan Races lead to a particularly interesting phenomenon surrounding chicking. The male heat goes off at 8am, and the females 15 minutes later. Since this has been the case, the top females have started catching up with the back of the male pack, sometimes a matter of miles into the race. In Indiana this past weekend, I caught up with the first guy on the barbed wire crawl, which was less than a mile in.
As a result, I passed close to 100 guys during the race. In Vegas, it was likely more due to the sheer number of runners (and the top two females passed even more). This requires a breathless “excuse me,” or “can I get through” or “on your left!” every few minutes.
For the most part, the guys were supportive and courteous. There were shouts of “you go girl!” or “killing it!” and those that would step aside to make way for you. But a smaller number were NOT so happy, failing to get out of the way on a single track portion, or murmuring less-than-kind things. (I suppose this is further exacerbated because they realized they got a 15 minute headstart, and the women were catching up to them).
It brings me back to my World Toughest Mudder experience this past year, when people realized I was mere minutes behind Junyong Pak. TMHQ was flabbergasted, people were besides themselves trying to understand: HOW did a female manage to get within minutes of Pak?? That’s impossible!
And the entire time, while people were running along side me to run faster, to catch up to him, I thought to myself “what’s the big deal? And more importantly, WHY are we making a big deal out of this?”
I guess it’s a reverse feminism-type of thing: while it’s empowering for a woman to beat, or be on par with, a man, the more attention we draw to it by declaring it “unreal” or “amazing,” the more we reinforce the stereotype that females aren’t, and can’t be, equal to males.
[Yikes. That’s the most feminist thing I’ve ever said. And that’s a lot of phrases in a sentence. I’ll stop now.]
Don’t get me wrong – I’m beyond proud of my finish at WTM, and at races like Indiana. But, in a way, it saddens me to think that people still believe that it’s “abnormal” when a woman can beat the vast majority of the men at an event like this. And it’s frustrating that men are affronted by the fact that a woman could possibly best them.
So let’s change the conversation. While running with the “lead” girls at the Kids Race, I noticed that none of the little boys were saying similar things as the girls flew by. So here’s to hoping we can take the negative out of “chicking,” and just realize that some girls kick ass.
The winners have been declared, the legs have become mobil-ish again, and the bruises and scrapes have begun to heal.
And all I can think is “Woo, let’s do it again!”
That was fun. No, seriously: SO much fun. Let’s run up and down mountains every weekend.
Depending on who you ask or whose Garmin you go by, the Ultrabeast ranged from 28-32 miles, and somewhere between 15,000-20,000 feet of elevation change. My chip time read 8 hours, 35 minutes: 2nd place female for both the Beast and Ultrabeast.* A little under 4 hours for the first lap, and a bit slower on the second (ha–go figure. Negative splits here would be damn near impossible). Here are some interesting stats on the course, btw.
And for the entire 8.5 hours, I couldn’t have been happier–I’m fairly certain the smile never left my face. And it’s not because I did well in the race. Hell, I didn’t even know that I had come in 2nd in women until after I crossed the finish line in the first lap. When Carrie and Todd told me, I must have looked at them like they had 4 heads. This race was, from start to finish, just EVERYTHING I loved.
The awesome things
(1) The terrain: Alright, let’s talk about those hills. I live in Chicago. I hate how flat it is (see here). But I grew up in Oregon, and climbing mountains is my first love. So while it’s been 2+ years since I’ve had any type of hill to run up, I get no greater joy than hauling my ass up really steep inclines. Call it muscle memory. Or something (aka, “thank you giant stepmill of death at the gym”)
(2) Seeing old friends: Running, literally, into familiar faces on the course. The starting line area where hugs and laughs were exchanged. Trading jokes with Mr. Norm Koch at the tyrolean traverse. Hugging WTM winner Juliana. High-fiving Andy and giving Joe shit for not having his 100lb sandbag at the top of the mountain. These races are like demented family reunions, and there’s no other place where I feel more at home.
(3) Making new friends: Towards the end of lap one and throughout lap two, you start to realize that you are pacing with similar people around you. And especially during that third and final climb, you have a lot of time to bullshit with your fellow racers as you stare up that hill of death. Here, I met, among others Chris G. from Boston, who helped push me (though he kicked my ass on the second lap) to keep pace with the female leader, and many others whose names I never got or have lost in the haze.
(4) The Death Racers: awww, guys!!! With the inaugural Team Death Race taking place at the same time as the Ultrabeast, I had to choose. The Death Racers had the fun of completing our same course at one point, but with fully loaded packs, shovels, and, of course–axes. Seeing Johnny Waite on top of the mountain with a huge smile on top of the mountain, or shouting “Yeah Death Racers” as I flew by–it’s the family feeling that just never goes away. Congrats, guys. I’ll see you all this Winter.
(5) The obstacles: As I’ve said before, I’ve never run a Spartan Race, so I had NO idea what to expect in terms of the obstacles. This caused me quite a bit of consternation prior to the race, but once I got moving, I realized how fantastic these things were. Rope climbs? Atlas stones? Traverse walls? I’m like a kid in gym class! Sans spear throw. Apparently I need to work on that. My softball background proves to be no help there.
(6) The beauty: No, not me silly (ha). Did you racers stop to take a look around at the top of the mountain in Killington? The fall in Vermont is absolutely breathtaking. I may have fallen in love.
(7) The courtesy of other racers: As I sat in the pit area changing socks and Gold Bonding it up, the one big question in my mind was how the second lap was going to go given that all the other Beast runners were now up on the mountain. I was apprehensive about long lines, single-track trails, and the general condition of the course. What I couldn’t imagine was how awesome all the other racers were out there: graciously letting me past, and giving us Ultra runners huge cheers and kudos as we came by. You guys were the best out there.
(8) The volunteers: Now, I know there is some controversy about a group going off-course, getting lost, and saying a volunteer led them astray. That sucks, but I have nothing but fantastic things to say about the volunteers out there. They were cheerful, encouraging, and really just the coolest.
(8) My roomies: Alyssa and Carrie are two of my favorite people on the planet. I love you girls.
(9) Penguin duct tape: My bin was so easy to find in the pit area.
Wow. That’s certainly a cheeriness overload coming from me. I’m not a gusher, so I feel like I should be a bit negative just to temper that “rainbows and ponies and life is wonderful” bullshit.
So some obligatory not-so-awesome things:
(1) The effin downhills: I am not a mountain goat. If you’ve read at all about my other races, I fall. A lot. Sometimes down mountains to the point where I get lost and wandering around in the snow for hours. (see, e.g., Winter Death Race). So while I loved the ascents, that final descent nearly killed me. Multiple times. I’m slow down the hills so I don’t break myself, and that’s where people make up time against me. Next goal: channel the inner mountain goat.
(2) Scrubbing the wounds free of dirt the next day: So. much. pain. And I have a wedding tomorrow. Sorry guys for the knees.
(3) The tibialis anterior sheath inflammation I’ve developed post-race: According to the interwebs, caused by “running up lots of hills and on uneven terrain.” Got it. No running for a bit. So the Chicago marathon next weekend looks like a no-go. Eh, road races blow goats anyway.
(4) The fact that I can’t do the Ultrabeast and the Team Death Race at the same time: wah-wah-wah.
(5) Packing muddy and wet clothes in a suitcase on a plane: The stank never leaves. And I almost went over the weight limit on my suitcase due to the water and mud.
(5) Post-race blues: sigh. I want to do it again.
And finally, will someone PLEASE tell me next time to wash my face and fix my hair before I cross the finish line. This is just embarrassing. Yikes.
*NB: I seem to excel at getting second place. World’s Toughest Mudder, the Death Race, now the Beast and Ultrabeast. I’ve been told second place is the first loser. Meh, I’ll take it.
"The timorous may stay at home." ~ Murphy v. Steeplechase Amusement Co., 250 N.Y. 479, 483 (N.Y. 1929)