That's not how this story ends, thankfully. But it's not how it begins either.
We'll start at the start, because that seems appropriate. I left for the first loop, running with Carl Specking, former University of Missouri cross country runner, and certifiable fast dude. Both of us had run the February edition of this race, and knowing what lay ahead, were content to let others tackle a more ambitious pace. We talked, about shoes and future race plans, gliding through the first 7.5 miles without noticing. Nothing hurt, and although it was hot, I was icing, drinking, salting, taking gels, everything. I felt good, like whatever semblance of a plan I had was working.
Carl began to gap me a bit, when I chose to hike a massive hill that he ran. This was me pacing myself, being smart. I adopted a similar strategy for the bigger climbs over the last couple of miles, and finished the first third of the race in 1:40. This was on pace for a 5-hour finish, which, given the course-lengthening and 104-degree heat, seemed like an ambitious goal. One lap down, I was pretty sure that that time would lead to a high finish, and so it became my goal. (As it happens, no one would come close to that time. I wouldn't even come close to coming close to it.)
The second loop was lonely, and I began to feel the heat. I had settled, as I seemingly always do, behind the leaders, and in front of the mid-pack. Still, I was running everything but the steepest inclines, and continued to ice/hydrate/eat/salt at planned intervals.
And then, somewhere around the halfway point, my radiator blew. I stopped in the middle of the trail, put my hands on my knees, and gathered myself. I started to run again, but stopped just yards later. I felt heavy, lethargic, and above else, anxious. Some part of my brain had panicked, and decided that we were stopping this silly endeavor, right now.
But I shuffled on, because the middle of the trail is no place to stop. I reached an aid station, put down as many calories as I could, iced myself down for a few minutes, and started running again. Not a mile later, the feeling came back. I stopped again, put my hand on my forehead, and decided that this, probably, was heat exhaustion.
My anxiety increased, not because I was worried that I might hurt myself, but because I could feel my goals evaporating in the smoldering heat. I had put in too much training for this to happen, PR'd at 10K and 13.1 in training, spent hours climbing imagined mountains on a treadmill. And I was going to stop because it was hot? No, I thought. Fuck that. And so I ran, digging in to the powdery dirt and ascending the incline in front of me.
And then my calf seized. I eventually did stand up, began to walk, hobbled, sat down again, hopped along for a bit, yelled choice expletives, and then just stood there. I stared in to the trees, breathed, felt my heart racing, my clothes dripping, and my calf knotting. Someone passed me, asked if I was OK, and I think I said that I was. It was a lie, of course, but one you have to tell.
I turned off my watch then, because I couldn't stand to see the minutes pass. I stood there, alone for I don't know how long, until finally, my toes uncurled, and I began to walk. Some time later, the muscle loosened up enough to allow for a clipped running gait, but nothing with any real pace. I decided that I would drop out when I arrived back at the start/finish.
The rest of the loop consisted of limping, hobbling, jogging, hiking, and getting passed. Normally, this is nothing to be pleased about. But in my condition, I was glad for it. Misery loves company, and all that. I tried to hang on to people as long as I could, be pleasant, and commiserate about what hurt. Everyone was a saint.
But something more needs to be said for the aid station volunteers. It's cliche to express thanks by calling someone a lifesaver, but in this case, it may literally be true. Were it not for their patience and assistance, things would have been worse.
So, going aid station to aid station, I stumbled across the line. There was a large crowd there, my parents among them. Had they not been there, had so many people I know not been there, I may have dropped then, as I had planned. But I couldn't, and didn't. I was suffering, but I decided I could endure another 2+ hours of it in return for the knowledge that I had done so.
I went back out, calf screaming, head burning. I may have decided to continue, but my body wasn't quite willing to oblige. Still, it would keep moving forward, so long as I limited my running, and kept icing and eating.
As more and more people streamed by, my mood improved. I was no longer angry that I wasn't really racing the race, and their positive feelings about finishing rubbed off. Still, it wouldn't be accurate to say that I was having fun, or that I felt good. I could not, no matter the amount of ice or water used, cool myself down for more than minutes at a time. And I could really only run a half mile at a time, before my calf would again seize, tremble, and force me to stop. It's a funny thing, feeling so utterly defeated, your fitness not doing a damn thing for you. Your body has quit, and that's that.
But that wasn't quite that, not yet at least. There were still a handful of miles to go, and they crawled by. The largest hills of the course lay at the end, and I wobbled up them, hands planted on my knees, barely keeping myself upright. But I loved those hills, at that moment. Maybe it was delirium, but I smiled every time I reached another, knowing that I was that much closer to being finished.
When the finish line did come, I ran across it, adopting a gait I hadn't used in hours. The clock read 7:04, and I thought, seven fucking hours? I laughed a bit, felt my calf cramp again, and nearly fell down.