To Finish is to Win

“Climbing through a hemlock and spruce forest, the trail emerges above treeline on tundra and flowered meadows accented by stands of weathered, gnarled hemlocks.  The area was at one time heavily glaciated; now brilliant blue lakes fill every depression, reflecting the snow covered summits of surrounding mountains.”

~ from 55 Ways to the Wilderness in Southcentral Alaska, describing Lost Lake Trail

The annual Lost Lake Half Marathon is a fundraiser for cystic fibrosis, and much of it seems impossible.  The scenery is impossible to photograph, the generosity is impossible to calculate, and my aching muscles are impossible to ignore.

But apparently it is possible for an ordinary person like me to finish the race!

Three years ago, I doubted myself.  My book club buddies enthusiastically registered, and I was the lone hold out.  Warnings on the official race web site about stream crossings, medivacs at your own expense, and my own personal fears plagued my confidence.  Surely we could transition from reading to running with a nice 5K instead?  Why jump into a 15.75 mile course that traversed a mountain range?

But jump in they did.  And when they returned to Anchorage, it was clear they had succeeded in much more than the race.  As I listened to their stories and looked at their photos, I felt a profound sense of disappointment in myself.  Not only for missing a great party, but because I didn’t even try.

In 2011 I vowed not to make the same mistake, although I made plenty of new ones.  I registered early, but trained late.  I spent the summer loosely following Hal Higdon’s training routine, even sticking with it when we traveled to 100+ degree Midwestern temperatures for a solid month.  My mom helped me break a sweaty path through the pasture, and she kept me company on longer hikes along the gravel roads.

Back in Alaska, heat was no longer an issue.  On race day, the weather was overcast and chilly in a wool hat sort of way.  I was nervous about the unknown terrain ahead.  The rain was light but pervasive, creating slippery, treacherous conditions for a trail that would be shared by hundreds of people over the next few hours.

I can’t say it was anything close to euphoric, but it was an enormous relief when I finally crossed the finish line after 6 hours, 37 minutes, and 22 seconds.  I was in 638th place, which was something like 2nd to last.  I wasn’t sure whether to feel embarrassed or proud.  Mostly I just felt relieved… and sore!

This year we all signed up again, and now that I knew I could do it I didn’t stress as much.  Unfortunately, I didn’t train as much either.  The longest walk I did to prepare for this year’s race was about seven miles on a (key word) flat trail.  As a result, I made the trek to Seward with a bit of dread for the second year in a row.  But hey, I was there!  And this time it was a party!

My friends and I decided to make a weekend out of it.  We rented a house with a hot tub that was big enough for all 11 of us, and meticulously planned our gourmet meals.  And snacks.  We had a Google doc going and our email thread was 48 messages deep before the details were finalized.  If only I had put so much time into my training!

The day of this year’s race was a sunny slice of paradise sandwiched between a string of gray, rainy days.  I knew I would be slower than the rest of my crew, but at least I was confident in my ability to finish.  I begged them to all go ahead without me, and was perfectly fine with the idea of completing the hike in solitude.  The last thing I wanted to do was hold anyone back.

My friend Janelle had other plans.  She had the ability to finish in the 4 hour range, but opted to hang back with me instead.  The pack quickly thinned, and before long it seemed as if we were the only hikers on the thickly forested trail.  I kept encouraging her to go ahead, but when we passed a thick pile of fresh bear scat I decided maybe it would be okay if we hiked as a team after all.  If I had been alone I may have shat right on that shit and turned around to hightail it out of there!

Janelle is awesome.  (Check out her blog and see for yourself!)  We have a young but cosmic friendship that started three years ago.  She was a new teacher on staff at my middle school, and had just moved here from Nebraska.  I still remember one of our first conversations:

“Where did you teach in Nebraska?” I asked.

“A little town called Fremont,” she replied.

Imagine my shock – and hers – when I told her that my parents and husband had graduated from Fremont High, and my younger sister was currently a student there!  Talk about a small world moment.  Once it was established that we both loathed domestic beers and loved college football we were pretty much cemented for life.  Now we even share an OB/GYN, which is appropriate when you consider that Lost Lake is an experience that can cement people much like childbirth.

During the race (okay, for us it was just a hike) we talked for six straight hours without a single lapse in the conversation.  She crossed the finish line with me in 6 hours, 14 minutes, and 58 seconds.

I’m convinced we would have crossed in the five hour range had it not been so damn scenic.  How could we resist stopping for all these photos along the way?

An athlete I am not, evidenced by the fact that I still finished at the very bottom of the heap.  But Janelle reminded me that I finished ahead of everyone who chose to stay on the couch, which made me feel a little bit better.

This year we ran the race not only in support of cystic fibrosis, but also for our friend Molly.  These pink ribbons are for her:  we know she will attack breast cancer as vigorously as she attacked the Lost Lake trail the past two years.

One thought on “To Finish is to Win

  1. I was lucky to have you as a hiking partner. The forces were aligned to send me into that library and make friends with you. I am convinced it was sheer compounded karma that made the weather so glorious for lost lake. So many people workin there butts off for a good cause. It was the best hike of the summer!!

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