I imagined it would feel like this…
Running mile after mile in a meditative state, drinking in the brisk spring morning as my legs carried me forward. By the end I would know I had survived, persevered, struggled, and succeeded.
I would be brave enough. Strong enough. I would be able to endure loss with more grace. I would prove to myself and others that I had what it took to carry on no matter what happened.
And, in part, it did feel that way.
But really, it felt nothing like that at all.
On that April spring morning, I settled on my couch with a cup of coffee and a toasted English muffin piled high with fresh avocado. This was it.
I had spent the past several months disappearing onto the trails, finding solace in the quiet pounding of my feet and the rhythmic breath of my lungs. My favorite run had been a 15 miler after a snow storm had pretty much shut down the city. The trails were transformed, a white blanket insulating the forest to a piercing silence that almost hurt my ears.
It had been the longest run I had ever completed. And now, several weeks later, I was attempting to go twice as far. Winding through Portland’s Forest Park, the Wildwood Trail is 30.2 miles long with 3973 feet of elevation gain. And today I was going to try and run the entire thing. The thought of it sounded brilliant and completely ludicrous.
I filled my Camelbak with water and stuffed the pockets with snacks and my headphones. Per my ultra-running buddies, this sport was about eating as much as it was about running. For the only time in my life, my goal was to consume as many calories as physically possible.
My body would be burning around 600 calories per hour. Outside of simply trying to run for hours on hilly trails, I had also been trying to train my stomach to consume calories while in motion. My stomach was not keen on this whole arrangement, but we had come to a compromise of 180 calories per hour of the easy-to-digest energy gummies and goo.
“Your shoes are filthy!” Alica declared as she walked into the lobby of my building, her red hair pulled back in a pony tail.
“I know it,” I smiled, tightening the laces. “I’ve had many muddy runs in these shoes.”
“Dude, I’m so nervous. Are you nervous?”
I shook my head. “Not really. I’m almost excited.”
“Really? I couldn’t fall asleep last night, and then I woke up this morning feeling all nervous.” We looked at each other and laughed. “I’m more nervous than you.”
I grabbed my change of clothes and Camelbak, and we made our way out to her car.
“I took the water to the drop point,” she told told me. “I wrote your name all over it to ensure that no one would take it.”
“Sweet! Thanks,” I replied. I had originally planned on doing this all myself. I was going to wake up early, drive the water to the drop off point, and then take the train to the start of the trail to begin. When Alicia heard this plan, she immediately intervened, insisting on delivering the water for me, driving me to the trail head, and running with me for the first few miles.
“I totally eyed a park employee ,” she continued, giving me a sideways glance. “I was afraid he was going to take the water, so I hid from view and waited around to make sure he left it there.”
I pictured her crouching behind the tree, ready to pounce on any would-be water thieves.
“It’ll be fine,” I said assuredly. Running out of water in the middle of a wilderness trail run could be somewhat disastrous, but who would dare touch the water of some poor misdirected soul attempting to run all 30 miles of Wildwood?
At 10:00 A.M. we began our slow jog up the trail.
We started at Hoyt Arboretum, the trail weaving back and forth up the hill to a viewpoint at the top. The early morning mist hid the valley, with the dark tops of trees piercing through the white fog on the distant slope. We passed through the cherry orchards and down along the archery field that was flooded with spring runoff water.
Those first three miles flew by as we talked about all the little bits and pieces of life. Nearing her turnaround spot, Alicia suddenly declared, “Do you realize how great your life is right now?”
“Huh?” I asked confused. As of late, I had taken great pleasure in declaring that my life resembled a melodramatic country song with all sorts of heartache including the recent death of my dog.
She continued: “You love what you do, and you’re well-respected. You have a zippy new car. You’re tall and healthy. I mean, look at this run that you’re about to do.”
“Um, wow,” I stuttered, unsure of how to respond. “Thanks.”
“Yep. Now have a good run!” And with that she turned around and headed back down the trail to where we had parked.
As I continued down the trail, the real gift of her words set in. Rather than letting me get in my head for the next 5½ hours, spinning melancholy stories of woe, Alicia made sure I set off on this journey knowing that I had enough, that I was enough.
Over the next hour, I checked off the miles with ease: mile 4, cresting the ridge by Pittock Mansion; mile 5, passing by the remains of the old stone house; mile 6, rising above Balch Creek; mile 8, scaling over a large fallen tree that blocked the trail.
As I came to the water drop near mile 10, a familiar SUV caught my eye. Alicia popped out and ran over to me.
“I just wanted to make sure no one took the water,” she declared, pulling out the jug covered in black Sharpie script warning certain doom to anyone who would dare steal or throw away my water.
“You’re amazing!” I marveled, as I slipped my pack off my back and opened the mouth of the bottle to refill it.
“How are you doing?”
“So far, so good,” I declared. “Really wish there was a bathroom out here though.” I winked, and she looked horrified.
“We’ll see you in a few more hours,” she smiled.
“Pizza!” I exclaimed and was off down the trail again.
At mile 11½, I began the steep switchbacks sloping down toward another creek, followed by a climb back up on the other side.
At mile 13¼ I realized I had just completed a half-marathon, and yet I was not yet halfway done with this endeavor. My ankles hurt, my hips ached, and the arches of my feet began to burn. The pain isn’t going to go away, I realized as each step felt a little less comfortable than the last. It is just going to get worse. But you have to keep going. You have to keep going.
And then I rounded a corner and came face-to-face with Shawn, a buddy from my trail running group. He was with a small crew that were running the same route, but in the opposite direction. We paused and laughed at the chance encounter, took a selfie, and wished each other well. A little bit later, I ran into Marcia. Then it was Maciej, Neil, and Brian. Those friendly faces of fellow crazy runners pulled me out of my head and kept me pushing down the trail.
By mile 15½, I was halfway there. It would be harder to turnaround and go home, so I had nothing to do but keep moving forward. I put in my headphones, and ran to the beat of my favorite power ballads from Rachel Patton, Beyonce, and Katy Perry.
The trail had flattened out, but it continued to wind along the curved ridge, in and out of ravines, over the spring water brooks. I opened a new tube of Shot Bloks and popped one in my mouth, dreaming about the real food waiting for me at the end.
At mile 20, I sent a picture to my family to prove that I was still alive. My 3 year-old niece responded with a text full of celebratory hearts, smileys, grapes, watermelons, and ambulances. That last one felt pretty spot on.
The miles felt longer and longer apart. When I passed mile 24, I was now setting a new PR with every step forward I took, and my achy muscles knew it.
As I neared mile 25, a familiar tall figure came running toward me. He reached out his arm as I nearly collapsed into his hug.
“You are farther along than I expected you to be,” Nick, my brother-in-law, declared as he started jogging with me. “You’re doing great.”
Those words were balm to my exhausted body. Two days earlier, I had been at my sister’s house for dinner. As I explained my final plans for this crazy run, Nick had pulled my sister aside, concerned that my plan of running alone on remote trails for that long was perhaps not the best decision. Rather than stopping me, he determined that they would simply need to join me for those final miles where the trail was steep and my body was tired.
Knowing that his presence meant I was getting closer to the finish, I felt adrenaline start to kick in. I stood a little taller and my stride grew a bit longer. We rounded the corner to where my sister was waiting for me with fresh water and happy cheers.
As Erika and I continued down the muddy path, Nick drove their car to the end of the trail and jogged in to meet us for the last several miles. They delighted in informing the casual day hiker that this crazy girl was about to finish a 30+ mile run. They distracted me with funny anecdotes about their kids, and I gladly shared some of my energy gummies knowing that I would not be needing them for very much longer.
Running on delirium and adrenaline, we laughed and hammered out those last miles.
As the low buzz of traffic grew louder, I knew we were nearing the end. I looked through the trees and saw my friend Lex standing at the top of the last hill. Knowing she had a newborn baby at home, I couldn’t believe she was there. Later I found out that she had left her baby with grandparents and had stood there for 45 minutes, wanting to make sure I had a picture capturing the moment when I finished this crazy dream of mine. Her cheers gave me that final inspiration to run strong to the very end.
For a long time, I have had a fear that I will get very sick some day. The disease itself does not trouble me nearly as much as the thought of being alone, of being unable to take care of myself, of shriveling into a puddle on the floor.
Whenever that voice of fear and isolation whispers in my ear, I lace up my shoes and hit the trails, running farther and farther, reassuring myself that I am strong enough to do this alone.
After so many long, solitary training runs, I had set out to complete this run to prove somehow that I was brave enough, resilient enough, strong enough. Running Wildwood end-to-end was my ultimate statement of internal strength: I am capable of doing this all by myself, and therefore, I do not need to fear being alone.
But this ended up not being about my personal endurance at all. Completing this run did feel amazing. But the real strength came from some special people who came alongside me when I didn’t even realize I would need them:
Alicia, telling me I was enough from the very start,
My trail running buddies, reminding me that I was not on the trail alone,
Nick and Erika, carrying me along with humor when it felt impossible to keep going,
Lex, giving me a safe destination and celebration for what I had done.
I really was not strong enough to do all this by myself, but that is okay because I was not alone. I have never been alone.
And all those voices of fear and isolation telling me I will one day die alone? They have been drowned out by pounding footsteps of the community beside me.