Cows and Cacti and Another Year of Life
Updated: Apr 19
I don’t think anyone who knows me would consider me to be boring or complacent, but it’s one of the deepest fears I have. That I’ll wake up one day near the end of my life and realize I never did all the things I wanted to do simply because I was too afraid of looking “stupid” or doing them “wrong.” I suspect actually a number of people would be surprised by this about me; I think many think I’m pretty fearless, unafraid of change, willing to try most things at least once, and – as one friend told me a few months ago, much to my own surprise – bold. But the reality is that I, like so many, heavily curate the outward picture I share. I dye the grey away, I cry in the shower where no one else can see or hear me, I talk about the PRs I run, leave out the runs I barely finished, and obviously am absolutely perfect at everything I ever take on. (Yes, cue eyerolls).
I’ve run a handful of trail races in my life, all of them on a railroad grade flat course. They’re “trail” only because they’re not paved, but the differentiation from a road race generally stops there. This is for the very reason I just explained: I was too afraid to “fail” at running a trail race. What does that mean, exactly? Great question. I’m not entirely sure even I know what I mean by “failing” in this context, but it has something to do with not running fast, probably having to walk, and maybe even coming in dead last in a race. Anyone who’s been following along with this blog knows when Gretchen is at her best, it means I'm at my worst.
I’m about to turn 39-years-old. I feel no concern about age; in fact, I quite love how every year I turn more and more into my authentic self. So what better thing to do as I round out the end of my 30s than finally attempt that trail race that’s been daunting me for years. I certainly go for runs on the trails, but almost always by myself, with no one else to see how much I struggle and hear my wheezing and cursing on those hills. Honestly, trail racing seems like a natural thing I’d enjoy; I love to run and I love to hike/backpack. I love to see gorgeous views while powering myself through an untouchable landscape. I’ve dabbled in seeing those views on two wheels, but I feel much greater satisfaction exploring places using only my own two feet.
Last Friday I flew to Tucson and met my dear friend and long-time running partner, Alex. (Eventually…. Poor Alex got stuck in SeaTac airport for hours and despite my flying clear across the country, I made it to Arizona long before he did). Alex is quite possibly the best running partner anyone can have for a number of reasons, but not the least of which is that he runs solely for his own enjoyment. That means he doesn’t care if we walk, he doesn’t pay attention to a watch, and at the end, he’s always simply excited that we accomplished whatever it is that we just accomplished. Although he’s almost always ahead of me and finishes first, when I ask him what his time was, he rarely knows or cares. He’s the perfect non-competitive yin to my exceedingly perfectionistic yang.
Our two other awesome friends, Joe and Gwen, flew in from California to join in the fun too. They would be supporting us on the trail race on Sunday, while we supported them in the (frankly far-more-spectacular) feat of riding their bikes up Mt. Lemmon on Monday. There's truly nothing like old friends, sushi (my go-to pre-race meal), and being 3,000 miles away from your everyday life to really nourish the soul.
But I’ll admit it: I was terrified. This race started at altitude (about 4,100 feet), something I notoriously struggle with as I’ve always lived at sea level. It was in the desert; I love the cold. It was going to hit the 90s that day, and, I repeat: I love the cold. I was jet lagged, coming off a pretty stressful few weeks, and felt constantly light-headed and dehydrated from the thin(ner) air and dust. I definitely couldn't have even considered it without the aforementioned soul nourishing, but I still feared that wasn't enough to get me through it.
Alex and I boarded the school bus taking us to the trailhead start at 6:30 a.m. sharp. The weather was perfect – mid-50s and sunny. The entire race was one of the most informal I’ve run; we had to hop a fence to get the trail head, there was no chip timing, and the organizer apologized at the beginning for the rough road we’d be encountering for the first half mile. But there was no pretense among anyone there. I heard no one talking about pace, or qualifying times, only about the unbelievably stunning views we had to look forward to.
Mile 1: Alex and I started together in the middle of the pack, and as it turned out, this was a great choice. The first turn to get onto the AZT was about a half a mile up the roughshod road, but the marker was small and the first few dozens of people blazed past it. Luckily we were near an older couple who knew the trail well and yelled out that we needed to turn, which we did, much to the chagrin of all the folks ahead of us. The new trail was not as steep or treacherous as the beginning road, but it was only about a foot wide and covered in sharp, loose shale.
Mile 2: COWS! Literally my favorite. We are in the midst of ranching territory and the cows led the path for a while, mooing us on. It’s not unlike the runs I go for when I’m at my parents’ dairy farm and the cows follow me from one end of Crumb Road to the other, a silent and non-judgmental herd of my best supporters. We also begin to make friends with the two folks ahead of us, who are constantly asking if we want to pass. I assure them I do not (confirming with Alex) as I’m afraid of then being like the elite starters who took a wrong turn. They claimed it was nearly impossible to get lost – just follow the same trail straight ahead to the end.
Miles 3-4: We passed the two older folks on their assurances we were unlikely to miss the path going forward, and took off. We were mostly in downhill territory now, but that didn’t actually mean speedy. The loose shale was a slipping hazard and starting to heat up from the hot sun. I let my mind wander into thinking about what if I won this race!? It’d be a fluke, of course, since the other, faster runners just got lost, but it still made me excited.
Miles 5-6: The elite runners caught up. You’d never know, though, that they had run an extra couple miles and they were all smiles and encouragement as they asked to pass. Given the narrow width of the trail, any move to the side meant a dodging of cacti and I didn’t dodge fast enough a number of times.
Mile 7: Joe and Gwen! Despite the race instructions saying there was not any place for race watchers, they unsurprisingly refused to take no for an answer. There’s not much that can really recharge my batteries as well as seeing some of my favorite people along the way. We filled up water, ate a snack, pulled the cactus prickers out of my leg, re-applied sunscreen, and basked in the warmth that comes only from decades-long friendship (and of course 90-degree sun).
Mile 8: Oh god, another hill. Alex and I were both pretty hot and tired at this point and decided walking this hill was what we needed. We weren’t alone; the crowd we’d fallen into by now was all as hot and tired as we were, but that stopped no one from being cheerful, friendly, and encouraging.
Miles 9-10: Honestly, I cannot remember. Hot. Tired. Feet aching in a way they never have. I have drunk nearly 2 liters of water at this point. And yet, the most stunning beauty I have ever seen in my life. The mountains are radiant, the horizon a deep blue, and hot pink cactus flowers are blooming.
Miles 11-12: So.much.walking. Alex and I are both feeling totally wiped out at this point; Alex experiencing the most sun he has in months (the curse of Seattle) and I with feet that feel like I’ve cut them with glass and every step I take is piercing pain. After a hot tip from the woman who’s been playing chicken with me for the last mile, we turn around at the tunnel at mile 12 to see a spectacular snake painted on the entrance.
Mile 13: We can do it – we are so close at this point. We’re running along a ridge, looking out at the Rincon Mountains, stunning cacti, and a raw beauty I don’t think I’ve experienced anywhere else but Alaska.
Mile 13.8: The race was calculated wrong and we run beyond a half marathon. But, it’s nothing compared to the early runners who missed the first turn and ran close to 16 miles.
Joe and Gwen are, of course, waiting for us with loud cheers and hugs at the end. I am covered in sweat, white salt all over my face and I want nothing more than to put my feet in the ice bin holding cold cans to drink. I devoured a couple of cookies and Alex made friends with another runner. We are both exhausted, drenched, dehydrated and in pain, but still calling this one of our best races of all time.
This race was absolutely the hardest thing I’ve ever done. In my fear of “failing,” I did just that – it’s the worst time I’ve ever put up and the slowest miles I’ve ever run. I walked huge swaths of the course. Despite this, I feel nothing like a failure. I can easily say this is my favorite race I have ever run. Road racing is fun, and the energy is always good, but I’ve never experienced this kind of camaraderie between my fellow racers. The race organizer’s only plea to us at the beginning of the race was: Be Kind, and everyone took it to heart. I saw a number of people slip and fall on the shale, only to be met by everyone around them stopping to help them up and make sure they were okay. Anyone who passed me said both thank you, for my moving over, and more often than not something like, “you’re doing great!” When I ran across the finish line at an alarming 2:48, the folks at the end cheered like I’d just won the damn thing, not run a 13-minute mile. To top off the absolute delight that everything about this race was, there was a mariachi band enchanting us all at the finish.
Here's to another year around the sun, another decade of friendship with my besties, and to a 2023 of facing my fears. Oh, and another moral of this story? Don't fly Delta.