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Mountain Running in a Heat Wave
Or, making it to the finish on a bum knee
Just over a week ago, I finished the Zagori Mountain Running 44km trail race for the third year in a row. Going into it this year, I knew my performance would be less than ideal, considering I was nursing a degenerative tear in my meniscus. I’d been able to train, but hadn’t covered as much overall distance, and hadn’t been able to do any hill repeats or speedwork—taking these measures in the effort to keep the swelling in my knee to a manageable level. So, I told myself I had a different goal this year: to finish. With my friend killer-athlete Sue joining in to the race this year, I was confident I would not be vying for age-group winner! Just finish, I told myself.
It wasn’t pretty, but I did finish—and Sue did win the age group, coming first to my second. As I did last year, after crossing the line, I promptly found a place to lie down and fall asleep. Unlike last year, my knee filled up with pain almost instantly and I couldn’t get comfortable enough to doze off. By the time I sat up to rejoin Sue moments later, I had a full-blown case of laryngitis.
The laryngitis has lingered—along with unsettled feelings about the race itself. Though there is an identifiable cause for much of my experience (meniscus tear = less-than-adequate training = slow going), I can’t shake a puzzlement. What was wrong with me? Why did I go so slowly? Why couldn’t I hike faster for the seven continuous uphill miles between mile 11 and 18? Sure, the race took place during a heat wave so powerful that even in Greece where “it’s a dry heat” is the national motto, organizers had altered the course of the 80km race to 60km to keep athletes cooler. Sure, temps were in the high 90s or more during much of our 44km race. But I can’t shake the question: couldn’t I have gone faster?
Logically, the answer is clear. See above. Meniscus tear + less-than-adequate training + heat = slow going. But this newsletter isn’t called The Entropy Hotel for nothing. The question on my mind is: is this age? When a word like “degenerative” gets thrown into a diagnosis, you can’t help but be reminded that it’s all slowly falling apart.
I am well aware that the simple fact that I finished a race of this kind means that I’m doing pretty damned well for 63. Sue and I were, ahem, the only women over 60 years old to even start the race. Which tells us possibly we are nuts, but mostly that we’ve achieved something simply by sticking to the training regimen and being ready to spend ten or so hours on a remote mountain trail.
But races have a way of sharpening ideas and questions. For me, now that my legs have mostly recovered from the effort, my voice has mostly come back, and my knee is mostly manageable, I’m still pondering what the race meant. What can I learn from an outing like this one where my goal involved survival rather than triumph, and where I was reminded of limitation?
Lesson One: Joy. Before the race, I gave myself three mantras. 1. maintain a quick cadence. 2. use the big muscles of your glutes and hips to spare your quads. 3. maintain the joy that superstar ultra-runner Courtney Dauwalter demonstrates in all her races. While I can’t say I remembered to spare my quads—because my quads were so tired that the fatigue was a distraction from the mantras—I did remember to be joyful. I think especially because I knew my stated goal was simply to finish, I kept reminding myself to enjoy being out in these mountains. The route is long enough that it really does allow you to extend beyond where even a long day-hike would normally take you. Going more slowly, I could look up and around me more often, and there is nothing quite like the landscape of the Timfi behind the Astraka cliffs with Gamila to your left.
Lesson Two: Fear. The Megas Lakkos gorge that was the terror of my first race has lost its fear-inducing power. Last year, I braced for a gap in the trail that had nearly stopped me in my tracks in 2021, to find that it was nothing. This year, I couldn’t even find that gap in the first place—and I don’t think the ground has shifted. It’s my perception that’s shifted, and even in a fatigued state, I had much more mental toughness this year and could stay unflustered.
Lesson Three: Endurance. As I approached the village of Papingo—my home village—I knew I’d make the 4.5-hour cutoff, but not by much. (Sue was waiting there, and together we refilled our hydration vests from our dropbag stash.) Letting Sue go ahead on up the mountain, I had a concern: the further up I went, the harder it would be to quit the race. If I decided to quit, I’d have to still travel miles downhill back to Papingo, find a ride for the hour’s drive back to Tsepelovo, and meet Sue (and our car) after she’d finished. I kept going up, each step a question. At some point, I’d gone up enough to solidify the answer. And continuing just made sense—which is a funny thing to think when “sense” means miles and miles of exposed trail and hours before you can stop and lie down (see above). (At the aid station at mile 20, the volunteer asked what I’d like—meaning water, or electrolytes, or nuts, dried fruit, potato chips—and I said, “to go to sleep”.) But I kept going. Because it would be a pain to have to find a ride to Tsepelovo, but mostly because I really wanted to finish. I just kept putting one foot ever so slightly in front of the other.
With the race behind me now, I still have questions. I’ve done the 44km distance three times, and that’s smallest number with which to make a pattern. Do I need to do it a fourth time, or is three a nice set? Should I drop down to the 21km race next year? I’m not sure yet, but I think I need to do it one more time, assuming I can really train properly. I want to be able to answer the question: why am I hiking so slowly uphill with I’m faster than before.
There’s something satisfying, too, about a fourth outing. The first time I did the race, I fueled and hydrated so poorly (almost not at all!) that I bonked and had to struggle uphill on zero energy. The second time, everything went right and I took a meaningful amount off my previous finish time. The third time, injury led to a different sort of bonking: well-fueled, but lacking in fitness. The fourth time could be a return to things going right. Assuming. . . lots of things.
This is why we race, I think. We repeat experiences with the desire, plan, and hope that we can improve them. It’s like revising a manuscript. You go at it again, with the plan to make it better, to use your increased insight—and writerly training—to improve on previous efforts. While my meniscus is reminding me that repetition can’t go on forever—without loss—I want to stay in it, finding new approaches, new elements to try to improve. Maybe if I can’t get any faster, I can grow more joyful or fearless determined in my efforts, and maybe that is more than enough.
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