A Back of the Pack Paradise

I am a Back of the Pack (BOP or Bopper) runner.  In May 2012, I registered for my first, and only, trail run. The lure of 11 Miles to Paradise was not to challenge myself physically and emotionally, but the promise of a soak in the Quinn’s Hot Springs afterward.  Plus, my friends and running partners, Rachelle, Randy and Shannon, promised it would be fun.  A few weeks later, I attended a trail running seminar.  Mike Foote cautioned us that the upcoming 11 Miles to Paradise should not be our first trail run. I looked at my friends with a mix of horror and fear, but they assured me that because our half marathon training miles already exceeded the 11 miles, it wouldn’t be a problem. Plus, we get to soak in the hot tub, post-race. My nerves were quieted by their confidence.

The four of us got up early on race day to drive the 70 miles to Paradise, Montana. We made sure we had proper nutrition (a breakfast bar) and proper hydration (travel size cup of coffee), and headed out. The bus ride from Quinn’s to the trail head was fun.  I met new friends (Elisha and Jim), as we discussed our plantar fasciitis and IT band issues. By October of the previous year, I had only competed in a few 5Ks. That was before the trifecta of foot injuries (stress fracture, ankle sprain, and plantar fasciitis) landed me in a walking boot.  I got out of the boot in March.   At the time of the trail run, I had only been training for two months. I had not yet experienced black toenails, nor lost one. That time would come.

There was a great deal of excitement as we waited for the race to start. Mike explained the race to us; informing us that there was one aid station about 5 miles in. They packed in gel, water and fizz by horseback. He also assured us that there were rescue people with boats in the river below, in case we fell down the side of the mountain. I can’t describe how comforting I found that piece of information.

My running group never discussed our run-walk strategy; I figured we’d just wing it. We started the race on a forest service road. It was shaping up to be a beautiful day, the smell of nature was amazing and I felt terrific. As we transitioned to a deer trail, I found myself enjoying the run.   I focused more on my surroundings and less on the hot tubs waiting for us. We ran for a while, before I suggested we walk. After a few miles in Shannon and Randy found their race pace, which was faster than mine.  As they ran ahead, Rachelle assured me that she was happy with the pace she and I were running. That’s Back of the Pack code for ‘no runner left behind’.

We reached the aid station.  I jokingly asked if I could borrow the horses for the rest of the race. When I was not so jokingly told “no”, we continued our journey.  For those of you who haven’t done this run, pay attention. The website says “there are some short climbs along the way“.  Let me assure you, they are not short climbs – they are mountains!!  Imagine running up the ‘M’ eight times in a row, but never descending. It seemed like every time we crested the top of one mountain another one was waiting for us.

Another piece of information presented at the seminar a few weeks prior to the event was the fact that you are not truly a trail runner until you fall down. Guess what folks, I am a trail runner.  No, I didn’t fall while I was running. I fell while I was walking. If you do this race, beware of leaves. They will trip you. However, one advantage to being in the woods, and a BOP, is that you can relieve yourself when you need to – no waiting for the port-a-potty.

About mile 7, I hit a wall. This was the first (and only) time this has happened to me. It was brutal. I didn’t have any water or gel (rookie mistake- I thought the aid station would be enough). Thanks again to Rachelle, who shared both.  Even though I insisted I didn’t need fuel, she insisted that I did. I insisted that I was going to fall down the hill and wait for one of those rescue boats to find me.

It was about that time that I saw the buzzards circling above us. With gentle prodding, Rachelle kept us moving forward. I was mumbling something along the lines of “what was I thinking”, “I will never do this again”, “I hope we live”.

After a few drinks of water, a couple of gels and encouragement from a friend, I dug deep and found the energy and stamina to make a run of it.  We finally started to descend. And, by descend I mean a mile and a half of steep downhill, where I questioned whether or not we were still on the trail.  About mile 9 Rachelle caught her second wind. At this point in the run, she was leaping over logs and jumping up to hit tree branches.  I plodded on trying to keep up, gaining more confidence as we went.   We realized there were people behind us. We (ok, mostly Rachelle) made the decision that they would not pass us.  We finally broke out of the mountain trail and began running alongside the Clark Fork River.  We came to a spot where the camera man had been.  Often the Boppers are too late for photo ops, but it was ok, I saw the finish line. And I crossed the finish line.  I wasn’t even last.  I didn’t really care. I finished even though I wasn’t sure I could (not that I had a choice).  I hydrated, properly.  I ate post-race sugar and salt.  Slowly, I started to feel normal again. Normal, except that I pushed myself more than I have in years and came out victorious, mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually.

We bussed back to Quinn’s and I got to soak in the hot springs – and a cold water pool for my aching ankle.  I felt good. I felt accomplished.  I felt like a winner.   I turned to Rachelle and said “We are doing this next year.”  She was surprised, “I thought you were never going to run this again.”  How soon we forget about the struggle and only remember the triumph.

On May 19, 2013, I will own that trail run.
–By Peggy Nesbitt

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