“We, the great and small, stand on a star and blaze a trail of desire…” — Carly Simon
I woke up race day before the alarm even rang, and it was set for 5 am. Just a little race day anticipation! I stretched in bed for a few minutes, knowing that I keep my alarm clock time at least 10 minutes ahead of real time, so I had a little margin. Then it was time to go upstairs and make the coffee. The team was sharing a house at the beach for the race, plus our special guests, coach Judy Heller and Official Team Waterboy Sam. Somehow, I’d just totally lucked out on the coffee situation; I was the only coffee drinker in the whole house, so I didn’t have to plan any complicated coffeemaker-sharing schemes. Coffee in hand, I moved on to the next item: warm my feet with a heating pad. Some of my teammates were up and about, others I didn’t see for awhile — its a three story house, most of the bedrooms were upstairs from the living room. I knew Annmarie was up, because she gets up at 5 everyday anyway. (I shake my head in amazement just writing this.) After coffee and heating pad, it was time for some gentle yoga. I have a travel yoga mat that is much lighter than the full ones and folds into a square for luggage, so I spread this out and stepped through my routine. Teammates appeared at various points in my routine, getting ready, stretching, using a massage stick one last time, even applying temporary tattoos with the Wonders of Walking logo (a local walking club in Portland). At 6:15, they headed out, leaving me and Sam and all of the drinks and gels to follow. I went downstairs to dress. I’d laid everything out the night before, but found that I’d pinned one of my numbers through both sides of my tshirt, so I laughed and tried again, thinking, even on race day, I’m still the absent-minded professor underneath. I carefully prepped my right foot: gel wedge into shoe, elastic arch support, toe separator, then sock. It didn’t feel quite real, that this was really it, after training for so long. But leaving time came; we loaded everyone’s stuff into the trunk and headed for Chula Vista. Mercifully, Sam drove — possibly with a thought to his own safety. We arrived at 7am — one hour to go. I’d told Sam “I must be there at the start area at 7am” so he pulled up at 7 precisely, let me out, and headed off to park the car. Nice trick, that!
Prep time was pretty surreal — everywhere I looked, and next to me on line for the porta potty, are these Giants of Racewalking. And they’re being nice to *me*!!! I feel a little like the Little Green Sprout, but I step through a light warmup and try to stay focused. There’s some confusion about the aid table setup, Sam says they’re bringing another table but I’m nervous that the race is about to start and we have nothing available for the team. I suggest we set a few things up in an available spot, just in case the new table never shows, and put one of our bags there to claim it. Just then the call for athletes to approach the start area is made, so I hurry over and look around to check for my teammates. Here we go!
I start out next to Annmarie, since we both had discussed wanting to start out easy and our paces are close enough that it should work. Dora and Sandy are a bit further behind once we get going; I know Sandy’s pace is a bit slower than mine, but I try not to get too much ahead of Dora, who seems to keep to her intended paces while racing like a machine. Me, I’m always in danger of too fast, too eager, too hungry. At a 50k, if I give into that side of me early, I’ll be toast. We pass the aid tables, and I see Sam but don’t really register what he’s doing. Its a 2k loop course on a road, with a ninety degree turn in the middle, and just before the turnaround there are metal plates across the road, with some carpets on top to ease our footing. I do a pretty poor job of keeping form over these, but with 25 laps in the race, I figure I’ll have some practice time. Luckily the rules don’t actually limit how inefficient you’re allowed to be! Its metal plate, metal plate, turn around the cones, metal plate, metal plate. I laugh to myself when I see a judge right there. Gee, how did they know?? I’m really going to have to figure this metal plate thing out. Annmarie’s moving right along; before long she pulls out ahead, leaving me between her and Dora, with the returning champ, Heidi Hauch, in the lead. I will myself not to hurry.
Doesn’t take long for me to get a caution for bent knee, then a red card. As I see the board I think sarcastically “and leading the team in the red card competition, its KAREN”. Come on, girl, get it together, you’ve walked so many miles these past few months its ridiculous, YOU CAN DO THIS. Racewalks go by a three strikes rule — 3 red cards means your race is over, you are DQ’d and must stop. My count is 1.
My mental approach for the race is to group it into sets of 5 laps. Sets 1 and 2 are the “first third” — stay in control; 3 and 4 are the “second third” — stay focused, okay to get a bit faster; 5 is the “last third” — everyone has said the tough part of a 50k starts at 40-42 k, so I’ll push if I can, but know it won’t be pretty. Based on recent practices, there’s a good chance I’ll be in pain by the end of the first third, because after a shoe change to fix my plantar fasciitis, my posterior tib tendinitis has acted up in the other ankle. I raised the issue of pain with my doctor a few weeks before the race, and he offered me some options, including a cortisone shot right into the tendon, and a prescription for codeine that I could leave on the water table with my Gleukos, but I’ve decided to go it with just an ibuprofen before the race. As I finish each lap, I repeat in my head my progress — “lap 2 of 5, halfway home, lap 4 of 5, last lap.” Before the race, I made myself a list of goals: first is, make it to the starting line; next, don’t die; then, finish the first set, finish the second set, etc. then FINISH; then, beat 6:19:21, etc, working my way up the chain of previous national championship times for the 50. No way to know if I’ll get to the timing goals, for me its mainly about going the distance. After lap 2 of each set, its my trickiest juggling act — drink plus Cliff cubes, one in each hand. Sam manages to get the stuff over to me pretty much flawlessly, once we realize handing me the plastic bag is just beyond my skill level, and he unwraps everything for me and uncaps my bottles. After each lap 5, I get a bottle of slightly more concentrated Gleukos. Its amazing how much less processing power I seem to have during the race — once he hands me the wrong bottle, and its got a cap on it, and first I try to drink from it, of course nothing comes out, then I look, realize there’s a cap, and it takes another few seconds for me to figure out what to do about that. Good grief! The night before, we’d all sat around the table, giving Sam our specific directions, and he’d written it all down, not missing a thing. After the race he told me that he’d had to keep a lap count with times for each of us, to be ready with the correct items as we approached the aid table.
Not long into the race, Sam comes jogging by me near the aid table, and asks me where my house key is. I have no idea why he’s asking, but I know he never would have bothered me unless something was up. As it turned out, he hadn’t seen me put the bag of stuff onto the aid table before the race start, and it contained Sandy’s sports drink, and now it was missing! But I didn’t find that out until after the race. They don’t find her stuff until several laps in — my capped bottle was nothing compared to what Sandy had to endure.
Before I know it, I’m cheering in my head — first set done!! four to go. I’ve gone faster than planned so far, but I feel pretty good. At some point I notice the banner on our water table, and it feels like a hug from home — my marathon coach, Ellie Hodder, has made up a banner that says “Dream Big — 50k!” and seeing it makes me think of her, the women who coaxed and prodded and enthused me to the finish line of my very first marathon, six years ago.
As I go, these incredible elite athletes are blasting by me, and I get to watch them, and hear their chatter, and note what they’re doing. Ever since the 2004 Olympics, I’ve had a picture of Teresa Vaill on the bulletin board over my desk. Its a shot of her just after she crossed the finish line, and her face and entire body are the embodiment of joy and relief. I keep it there to remind myself that you only get that moment by working really, really hard. Now here she is, blasting by me, aiming for an Olympic qualifying time for 2008. Periodically, Loretta Schuellein whizzes by, looking great. Her fiance, and my coach, Dave McGovern, cheers me as he goes by, in a small pack of fellow elites. Also, Ray Sharp, whom I’ve only met in cyberspace. Many others whose faces I don’t know, but who together represent the best of the best. Then I see Dave on the sidelines, saying “Now I get to coach.” Ah, he’s pulled out early.
Right around the end of my second set, I come up on Annmarie, and settle in behind her. I draft her for the next 4 laps, sticking close, trying not to stumble when she occasionally slows down. We talk about when to switch sides of the course, because there’s some uneven patches, and although in theory, it should be easy enough to memorize where they are and avoid them, in practice, we’re just getting nailed over and over by the same few spots. At some point as I pass the aid table I see my friend Ted has arrived, from L.A. I exclaim, then hear a voice say “63, caution, having too much fun on the course!” and after missing a beat, I laugh — its Dave, who is standing just past Ted. I yell “okay, I’m warmed up, when does the race start?” and Loretta says “Its that attitude thats going to get you through, you are going to do it!” By the end of the set, Annmarie slows down slightly; I look at my watch and take off past her. “Go for it Karen!” she shouts, as I head off. Second place. Second third, stay focused. My next time past the aid table, I hear Sam say “she’s pulled ahead.” (Because of the turn in the course, most folks can’t see what happens down by the metal plates. )
By now, the course is emptier each lap. The 10ks have finished, then the 20ks, now they’re announcing the top 6 50k men. I know I’m second but Heidi’s way out ahead, and I’m not even trying to catch her, just trying to do my best, and make it as hard as possible for her to lap me. My perception of things is a bit altered in the latter part of the course; I know things are happening, but they seem a bit peripheral. I see Loretta with Dave, and know she’s made it into the Olympic trials, but as I write this I can’t remember who told me. The sun comes out and all of a sudden it feels HOT and I take in extra water. At some point I get my second red card, and the pressure ramps up. Each lap goes through two extremes: at one end, the start/finish line, announcers, people cheering, and music, closely followed by the aid tables. Then a long, empty, quiet stretch, with the metal plates and turn to get through. Eventually, I figure out that I need to just go in slow motion around the whole end of the course, and can’t believe it took me so long to think of it. FINISH FOR THE TEAM! I tell myself over and over. Three out of four of us must finish to qualify for a team award. I tell Sam and Ted “you guys are going to have to shout ALOT near the end.” Ted, being Ted, immediately starts shouting, and Sam must have given him some grief over this, because as I continue past I hear him saying “well, I’m practicing.” This makes me smile and OH GOD DID I NEED THAT SMILE. Somewhere around 5 hours and 45 minutes in, Heidi finishes, and I see Sandy sitting on the side of the course. “And then there were three” I think. Sandy’s out. No more room for error, we all must finish. I dig and keep digging, trying to find the stuff I need to keep at it. I start to feel I will just fall over, because staying upright is too hard, but I think “If I fall, I’ll stop. If I’m DQd I’ll stop. Other than that, NO STOPPING. No stopping just because I *might* fall. No being a wimp!!” I no longer feel able to speak, or drink, or check my time. Just step, step, step, don’t stop, don’t stop. I sort of know its cloudy again, because I’m not feeling the heat anymore, and I know that Annmarie and Dora are still going, because I pass by them, and I know I have to keep going, don’t stop, don’t stop.
And then they are pointing me to the finish line, and people are cheering, and someone’s announcing my name, and I can stop! I can stop! I’m done! And then I almost *do* fall over, Sam has to help me lean a bit as I try to walk a little to cool down. And I’m happy, but I’m so exhausted, its an odd, distant kind of happy, a bit surreal, and no energy to scream or jump. I’ve just walked under the watchful eyes of judges continuously for over 6 hours and 21 minutes without a break. After five minutes or so, I’m a bit less out of it, and get down an orange that Sam peels for me. Then, he runs back off to the aid table to be ready for Dora.
Dora comes in incredibly strong, looking just as solid to me as she has throughout the race. Then I just hold my breath until, finally, I see Annmarie. She’s had to stop several times with muscle cramps in the last few laps, but incredibly, she has just gotten back in each time, and here she is, bringing it home for the team. I know I scream alot, and hug her, and cry.
I got a silver medal for second place; Dora took third; and Annmarie took fourth. But the team, the team earned gold — Western Women Go The Distance earned the first place team award, the only team to finish the race, and the first women’s team ever to finish the USA national championship 50k racewalk.
“Let all the dreamers wake the nation” — Carly Simon