We are put on this planet only once, and to limit ourselves to the familiar is a crime against our minds. – Roger Ebert
There was little about what I put myself through last Sunday that was familiar. I completed the Peaks to Prairie adventure race – 68+ miles of running, road biking, and paddling some of the most breathtaking country in Montana, from the Beartooth mountains to the Yellowstone river.
I have had more than my fair share of adventures that leave me lost on unfamiliar ground – but I’d never done a triathlon. I’d never ridden a road bike until a month before this race. And there was something about the challenge of this that I could not turn away from. Some would call this masochism – but I am of the tribe that calls it a good story in the making.
There are things that you can look back on that you thought at the time were the hardest things you had ever done – and now it has become a good story and bragging rights. You block out the pain and remember only the high at the end – that you are alive, that your body has surprised you, that you had transcended the familiar.
Paddling 21 miles out of Cataract Canyon to Lake Powell with a mean headwind, no current, and only half a bagel, for example. Taking an hour to navigate ¾ of a mile off an unnamed bowl in the Mission mountains, now known as one of the more heinous backcountry ski exits ever. Hiking 18 miles from the trailhead to Half Dome at night just to watch the sunrise from the top. I’ve already forgotten the misery involved in all of these adventures and others that have since evolved into suspiciously painless good stories.
The Peaks to Prairie race was one of the harder things I have done, and I have sensed the pain of it fading from my mind over the last days.
I’ve only done one other race, a 12-hour adventure race involving orienteering, running, mountain biking, and whitewater paddling, where skill and strategy counted jor just as much as speed and endurance, if not more. Sacrificing my body to a race where speed and endurance are the only spaces to play left me on unfamiliar territory – which happens to be one of my favorite places to be.
But there was another major piece that gave me butterflies. Most people run this race as a relay, and racers are fresh on each leg. Out of the 450+ people registered, only 37 were the brave souls known as soloists. And only 7 of those were women. I wanted to be strong enough to stand in their company.
I don’t think of myself as an athlete. My goals in this race were to enjoy myself as much as possible, and not to crawl over the finish line dead last.
It’s amazing how far emotions can roam in the space of 68 miles. From nerves and adrenaline at the starting line to demoralizing doubt on the painful 9.3 mile run downhill on pavement.
Joy and exhilaration on the rolling and sometimes unforgiving hills of the 49-mile road bike ride – until the last 14 miles. Those were the longest miles in my life (because I’ve blocked out all those other long miles from what are now painless good stories, remember) . The only reason I smoked the bike leg was that nothing motivates a woman to get off a bike seat like riding nearly 50 miles without padding.
Confidence cutting through the river. Remember the Cataract Canyon adventure? 10 miles on the quiet Yellowstone was nothing – a beautiful ending to spend my remaining energy. Until relief to be sitting turns to spasms as legs that have been firing for 4 hours are stuffed into a kayak and forced to stay there for another hour.
The finish line. The endorphin high. The best part. There’s nothing like it. It draws me back again and again to the unfamiliar territory that leaves me a stronger person.
The emotional wave when the endorphin rush subsides that leaves you hollowed – because you have nothing left, because you’ve given everything, because you are empty and proud and you know the definition of exhaustion.
To now, when the pain has faded, and the story remains. And I am left with amazement that I was one of only 7 women – out of more than 450 athletes – that traveled almost 70 miles under my own power.
I am so proud to stand in their company.