How I Lost & Found Myself in a 216 Mile Relay Race

found myself
Photo by Procsilas Moscas

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What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

When I signed up for the Cascade Lakes Relay (a 216.6 mile race through central Oregon’s high desert) I was thrilled at the opportunity to experience the outdoors through an activity that I love.

On the road I took in the picturesque landscapes, the expanse of trees, the crisp air, and the comfort of knowing that the noise and distractions of Portland were miles away.

At times throughout the course, CLR seems like any other race. As people run their legs, their teammates pass them and cheer from support vans, and I felt like I was part of a magnificent event.

But when my own support van passed me in the middle of my legs, I was caught off guard by the unexpected solitude.

This experience is what made the Cascade Lakes Relay different than any other race I’ve finished. There were no aid stations, no mile markers, and no familiar avenues or landmarks.

There is only the runner and the road stretching before her in a remote and unfamiliar country.

After several races, I know just what to expect from your typical in-town road race. I know that in a half-marathon I tend to hit a wall at mile 10. And I’m familiar with running until my feet feel as if I’ve worn the skin off them. But this race required physical and mental endurance unlike any other.

As a first time runner of CLR, one of my intentions for this race was to challenge myself in a way that I never have before.

I trained for the physical challenges; running 4-5 times a week in varying distances, running on hills and hot summer days, and going for 6-8 mile runs, which was about the length of my legs. A week before the race I even did a two-a-day run, so I knew what it felt like for my body to have a short recovery time.

But there is no training that could have prepared me for the mental challenges of the relay. I encountered something far more challenging than completing a long distance or finishing with a PR.

Immersed in this solitude, it felt as if the race had ripped down the walls of comfort and security. It felt like free-floating, cut loose from the ties of society. Unsure when I would see my team and support van again, a panic arose in me, and I had to rely on my own means for pulling through it.

Running is an exercise in mindfulness. I choose not to run with headphones and instead listen to what arises when my mind and body are pushed to the limit.

So in those moments I didn’t have music to distract my mind when uncomfortable thoughts arose; thoughts that told me I’d lost my van, that I was on the wrong road, and that I would never finish this race.

This was particularly challenging on my night leg where I was surrounded by thick darkness. Other than a blink-and-you-miss-it-town, there are no signs of life for miles. For a period I was completely alone, and I felt surrounded by unfathomable emptiness.

As I ran toward the van lights in the distance, I felt light-headed and fearful, because it didn’t seem like I was getting any closer. For the sake of finishing the leg, I quashed it down, but the feeling still haunted me. I was stunned by the sudden occurrence of these emotions.

Early the next morning on my third and final leg, I found a little peace amid the emptiness. For the last couple miles of the leg, the support vans turn off on a dirt road, and the runner is unsupported until they meet their van at the exchange point.

By then I was tired of constantly sharing the road, and I longed for the quiet experience of being outdoors. In the absence of the vans all was silent. For the first time during the race, I was grateful for the stillness and seclusion.

I let go of everything, which I had been clutching tightly: eagerness to finish my leg, uneasiness about the race, and any fears about my ability to finish.

As I reflect on my experience, some of that fear and panic remains a mystery. I find myself asking, “What was that?” But while I don’t have the answers, there is a noticeable shift. I know that my running has evolved in a fundamental way.

I’m searching for something else now, something that cannot be counted like a distance, a pace, or a finish time. It’s something visceral that doesn’t yet have a name.

As I continue to push myself to the edge, I need only think of myself on the last couple miles of the third leg, present in my surroundings, a runner on her own quiet road.

Have you had an experience that had an unexpected outcome? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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