Never Say Never
I swore on a stack of bibles that I’d never do the Quad. I’d flirted with the idea of it from time to time. It seemed like something that should be on one’s trail running résumé if one hailed from Northern California. I’d done the Double once back in 2012 and afterwards felt that was already one Dipsea too many. I’d had enough. To add to my reluctance, I would often find myself on chunks of the course in other races, usually hating my life and indulging in bouts of self-loathing. It affirmed the thought that always hovered at the edge of my consciousness – no, not going to do the Quad, ever. Besides I could always pull the North Face card, which is a race I was usually in, that takes place the following weekend. I’m not strong enough to do both like some of the runners I know so I had a convenient, easy out.
However, this year I wasn’t running North Face so it seemed like the perfect time to finally take the Quad off the list. The only question that remained was how well I’d be recovered from Javelina, my first hundred miler. I could be fine or I could be broken. I had no idea. I’d have four weeks of recovery to find out. On August 1, the first day of registration for the Quad, I stepped off into the abyss. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
There’s been a lot written about the original Dipsea, the oldest trail race in America that takes you from downtown Mill Valley to Stinson Beach. The Quad is, well, four Dipseas. It has 9,200 feet of elevation gain over 28 miles. There are a lot of stairs spread all over the course, not just the famous three flights in Mill Valley. They get all the press but it’s the stairs west of Cardiac Hill that I find to be the biggest challenge. They are uneven, deteriorating trip hazards waiting to send you to the emergency room on the descent and demoralizing to mind and body in either direction. My friends and I had determined that the only flat sections were two spots in Muir Woods – the parking lot and the log bridge that crosses Redwood Creek. It was sort of funny … and sort of not.
Physically I knew that there was little I could have done between Javelina and standing there in Mill Valley looking up three flights of stairs that would have made one whit of difference in how my body was going to handle this race. But what I did have control over was my mental game. Recently I’ve come to understand how fleeting a race actually is. They are nothing more than blips in the big scheme of things. This mindset took root while I was in the middle of Javelina. The potential 30 hour duration of that race is nothing compared to a season’s training time, even less when compared to a lifetime. It may feel long but it actually isn’t.
In that context, fatigue and discomfort became irrelevant to me, transient states to be experienced and addressed. Nothing more. I’m not talking about serious injury but the sorts of things that I have given more power and weight to than they deserve. I’m tired, I’m hungry, I’m cold, I’m hot, I’m sleepy, I’m scared. On and on. It’s not like I didn’t feel these things anymore but somehow they ceased to matter. So that’s how I approached the Quad. The parts of the course that I always viewed with dread didn’t matter. The eventual discomfort moving my body over those sections didn’t matter. As long as I kept pushing, these things would get out of my way and that was more important than dwelling on anything else.
I did the first two legs (1:49 and 1:51) without even looking at my watch. I immediately shut down any thought of “Ugh, I still have to do (pick your favorite pain-in-the-ass section) one more time?” In legs three and four (2:00 each) I allowed myself little reassurances. This is the last time up these stairs. This is the last time up Dynamite. This is the last time at Stinson. This is the last time through Cardiac. This is the last climb, period.
Almost everything was now in the rear view mirror. Just three flights of stairs left to descend.
As I got off the last step on the middle flight of stairs my left hamstring started cramping. I was standing in the middle of the road and I couldn’t move – the painful, involuntary spasms stopping me dead in my tracks.
“Don’t stop. You’ve got three minutes to the finish line. You can cry then. Just keep moving,” said a runner who went past me as I stood there clutching my leg.
This was the first true crack in my armor I’d felt all day and now a random stranger was helping me patch it up using almost the same words I’d been using myself. I hobbled after him over to the last set of stairs.
“Whatever you do, don’t stop!” he called back to me.
I’d hop down one-legged, one stair at a time if I had to. Luckily I didn’t have to as I forced myself to move and the spasms stopped. Seven hours and 41 minutes for my first Quad Dipsea. I’ll take it.
I don’t know why this hard-headed, take-no-prisoners attitude exists right now. It’s powerful but it’s as likely to be as transient as anything else. Nothing is static. It’s an eminently useful gift that the running gods have bestowed upon me for the time being and I’m grateful for it. When it’s gone or morphs into something else, I hope I will be as equally gracious and graceful in letting it go.