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.
There are times in life when you feel like everything is FINALLY coming together, like life is finally making sense. And you are happy. Really, truly happy and excited for what’s to come.
Unfortunately, it always seems like life has other plans for you. Maybe a reminder that “heeeey there, Amelia – you’re flying a bit too high – don’t be going all Icarus on me now. Remember that time you accidentally stepped on a newt while running? Well karma wants to come back and kick you in the nuts right now.”
In November, I made a really bonehead move. After securing a Western States lottery ball with my Georgia Death Race (and first ultra) finish last spring, I completely failed to submit my qualifying time in the window provided. I could give excuses – it was the week before World’s Toughest Mudder, I had just moved to California and started a new job, etc. But in reality, I just blew it. I was angry at myself for a hot minute (though, the chances of making it in the lottery to the prestigious Western States was like……zero). But I quickly got over it, and moved on. Besides, I wasn’t READY for Western States, I told myself. Plenty of time for that, Amelia.
But when OCR season wound down in November, I was looking for a late-winter, early spring ultra – something to fill my “offseason.” Lo and behold, Sean O’Brien 100k appeared on ultra sign-up. And lo and behold, it was a Golden Ticket race (top two male and female finishers get an automatic entry into Western States). So in a state of irrationality, I thought “hell, if I’m such an idiot that I can’t even properly get into the lottery for Western States, maybe, just MAYBE, I’ll just run my way in.”
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.
But last fall (fresh off of knee surgery), I was looking for something different. A new challenge, a new venture. Having made a brief foray into competitive CrossFit at Regionals last year, I realized that lifting heavy things for just a few minutes at a time probably wasn’t my wheelhouse. So when I sat down to think about what I love the MOST about OCR, I realized it’s running up and down mountains (or the Death Race, where all I wanted to do was hike up and down Bloodroot endlessly).
So why not try something where I’m doing just that? Let’s write a new chapter, a new book. And call it The Book of Ultra.
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.
There are times in life when things just feel right. When you know you are where you are supposed to be.
And as soon as I pulled up to the site of World’s Toughest Mudder 2014 in Lake Las Vegas last Friday, I knew it was one of those times.
Hugging old friends, meeting new ones, we all anxiously set up our pits areas, commenting on how the Vegas desert was the FURTHEST thing from Raceway Park in Jersey that we had all grown accustomed to over the past few years. Excitement ran high. We were ready to begin.
But 8 weeks ago, I didn’t think I would be there in Vegas, preparing to race. 8 weeks ago, I was mourning the loss of running the Spartan World Championship, and undergoing surgery on a bum knee. I had mentioned to my surgeon that I would love to make it back in time for a “24 hour race,” and he rolled his eyes.
The typical interview question will go something like this: “So why do you think you are successful in obstacle racing?”
It’s a question that has given me pause, and has stumped me for as long as I’ve been hurdling over walls and throwing myself under barbed wire. I typically will stumble through it with some answer about a mixture of speed and strength, and how you need both in obstacle racing.
However, it took me a 2014 CrossFit Open workout for me to finally realize the answer to the question that’s been there all along:
I’m not the fastest, and I’m not the strongest, but I’m REALLY good at suffering.
Perhaps almost too good.*
By way of illustration, let’s take CrossFit. Putting aside all the arguments for and against it (NOT going there…just…not…step off that Rogue soapbox), it constitutes the bulk of my training for obstacle racing. And for the past two years, I’ve competed in the CrossFit Open (which, by the way, there is nothing that will make you feel like a more mediocre athlete than to measure yourself by a score against the world’s top CrossFitters…but I digress).
Anyway, just like with races, I shine at long, high rep, panic-inducing WODs. Give me short and heavy and I die. My Olympic lifting form is wonky, I have a unsteady right shoulder from years of softball and rotator cuff abuse that refuses to lock out in heavy overhead lifts, and I blame my puny squat numbers on extremely awkward and long femurs.
I am, by all measurements, an extremely mediocre Crossfitter (sorry – “CrossFit athlete”). But with two workouts in this year’s CrossFit Open – the first and the last, I excelled, even with a max snatch and a max thruster 50-75% of the most women CrossFit athletes out there. So what was it about those two?
In announcing 14.5 (an absolutely awful combo of thrusters and burpees), one of the CrossFit talking heads said something about the workout being about a willingness to go to a dark place: a willingness to suffer.
What we do in obstacle racing is so much more than being fleet of foot, or having raw strength. It’s enduring the bumps and the bruises, the utter fatigue of a mountainous sandbag carry, or raw and bloody appendages, sometimes on an almost-weekly basis. It’s facing the unexpected and the unknown, and it’s confronting a new course every time you race with different terrain and different obstacles. It’s the mental game that comes into play in longer races, the ability to push yourself into that dark place, and to come out on the other side. It’s about testing your limits, and mentally blocking out the chatter. And it’s the willingness to go back out there, again and again, even when your body is thrashed and exhausted.
Of course, this is all fine and dandy and good to tuck away as an “a-ha”, but listing “suffering” as a strength on an application isn’t going to win you any awards. Unfortunately, being good at suffering is not going to make me that much faster. I’ve got some former road-racing speedsters I need to chase down nowadays. But I suppose if I excel at suffering in CrossFit, I can learn to suffer through speedwork? (heh…heh…)
Likewise being willing to suffer is not going to save me as I fall magnificently on my face competing at the North Central CrossFit Regionals this week (Go Team Foundry!).** But for a girl without much of a stellar athletic past, I think I’ve been surprised how much the ability to suffer can make up for the lack of other, more marketable, skills (at least for the time being).
And yes, it totally explains the Death Races. And World’s Toughest Mudder.
I’ve heard people ask: “how do I get better at obstacle racing?” Or Death Racing, whatevs. Sure, you can give answers about training and nutrition, but from my perspective – it’s the mental side that everyone should hone. It’s the setting aside of boundaries, the mental grit to not just survive, but to compete.
So here’s to suffering: I think all obstacle racers, to some degree, excel in it. Some of us may even thrive in it.*** And it explains why I never feel those damned bloody knees.
*One could argue, for example, an ability to suffer led to ignoring injuries until too late…hence, my recent months on the DL.
** And I LITERALLY will be falling my face, epically, during the max handstand walk event. And the strict HSPUs. Oh dear. Humans were not made to walk on their hands – God gave us feet for a reason. Epic dismounts for everyone! Side note – damn you, gymnasts *shakes fists*
***Now, let me be clear – I’m not advocating that being good at suffering is a GOOD thing, or a “normal” thing. It’s probably not the wisest move in terms of the whole Darwinian natural selection thing. It’d behoove most people to stay away from disease infested waters and carrying axes for 72-hrs. There are plenty of us oddballs out there to take this masochistic abuse – someone smarter than myself should probably be responsible for the fate of the human race.
It’s been a hibernation kind of winter here in Chicago.
And for most of it, I’ve buried my head in the sand. Thrown myself into work (lawyering like a BOSS), rehab (so many Jane Fondas…), and recovery (which means rest. Which blows). And football, of course (Thanks Seahawks for salvaging an otherwise miserable winter. #LOB baby).
It’s a humbling experience to watch your friends compete and race, knowing that you’d give anything to be out there. It was with much fear and trepidation that I still traveled out to World’s Toughest Mudder in November, worried about how awful it would be to have to watch from the sidelines.
The odd part? It really wasn’t that bad. If anything, it was extremely rewarding and eye-opening. I cherished the opportunity to sit back and watch the race from the other side. And to put aside my own sadness at not being able to compete and share in the joy, pain, and raw emotion of the competitors. To see old friends and to meet others. And to really take a step back and marvel at the outright ridiculousness of it all.
Surprisingly, as time ticked by while I sat on the sidelines, it got easier, not harder. I learned to build a life outside of racing (oddly, and perhaps pitifully, hard), I learned to listen to my body (even harder, and it’s still a struggle), and I learned how to readjust my goals and priorities surrounding OCR.
There were points where I was sure I’d never recover (and to be fair, I’m still not quite sure “pain-free” will ever be a familiar concept again). Where I had to be driven to work because even walking to the ‘L’ stop brought me to tears from pain. All while seeing specialist after specialist, all with different diagnoses but no real clear recovery/rehab plan or explanation of what was going on with the ever shifting leg pain, back pain, numbness and weakness.
And here we are 4+ months later and with no clear label (and dear God, do people, including myself, always feel the need to have a label). But slowly, I began to recover. And feel better. I managed a few 400’s. And then a half-mile. And then one mile. And then 3. Nothing feels FANTASTIC, but I’ve been getting there. Some days I feel great, others I’m hobbling around. And it’s difficult to tell sometimes what sets it off.
But I finally got to the point where I can’t wait any longer. The need to get back out there is strong. And so I am. Smartest decision ever? Probably not, but no one has ever accused me of being wise.
Am I nervous? Extremely. Do I feel ready? Not exactly. Am I back in “race shape”? Definitely not. So we’ll give this a go and see how it feels. No expectations, no regrets (if I tell myself that, maybe I’ll believe it).
Hello Sparta. I’ve missed you.
"The timorous may stay at home." ~ Murphy v. Steeplechase Amusement Co., 250 N.Y. 479, 483 (N.Y. 1929)