It was my third time making the journey out to Bald Head Island, North Carolina, to take part in Badwater Cape Fear 51.4 mile race. Traveling from south Florida, the trek includes two flights, a car ride, a ferry, then a tram that delivers you to your rented million-dollar weekend home. Is it worth it? Absolutely! There is something old world to Bald Head Island, a laid back vibe that makes you want to toss on flip flops, grab a golden retriever, and sit on the beach taking in the waves. But first, you need to run either your 50K or 51.4 mile race.
The Badwater Cape Fear course consists of roughly 10.5 miles on well-paved roads during which you pass beach-front mansions, Key West-like getaways, and tons of people in golf carts—the island mode of transportation—cheering you on. Just when you acclimate to the quaint island charm, you enter trail for roughly 1.5 miles of what us runners can only assume is Race Director Chris Kostman’s way of having some fun on our behalf. Here and there, I caught glimpses of hot pink ribbon which indicated that I was heading in the right direction. There were logs to climb over, logs to bypass, tree limbs to duck from, roots to watch out for. There were stairs, bridges, more trees, and then somehow, someway, the trail section ends and you are back on the road for a short spin until you are off to the beach, for the next 18-19 miles.
The first few miles of the beach section are spacious, movie-caliber beaches. And it pretty much goes on that way until the first aid station some 5 miles in at Fort Fisher State Recreation area. After that, fishermen/women and families adorn the beach with their 4X4 vehicles. Some 4.4 miles later, runners hit a stretch of sugar sand, making for a lumpy trudge up to the Fort Fisher Aid Station. Then you turn back and make your way along the beach, to the check in that you started off from, for your 50K finish, or your second loop if you are running 51.4 miles. While the landscape is incredible and freeing those beginning miles, it feels like less of a great idea during high tide, when the waves chase you from the shoreline, threatening to soak you.
I’ve run my share of races, and at this point, I can say that Chris Kostman races are first class. As soon as you receive your email welcoming you to the upcoming race, it’s clear that this is a race director who is going to see to every detail– from travel, to timing, to where you have to be and when. To get us all to gather in the remote locations of Badwater races is nothing short of amazing. And yet we all keep signing up and showing up, so something special is happening! Friendships? Yes. Camaraderie? Yes. Good times and first-rate events? Yes.
All In was the name of our weekend home, and it was fitting, because everyone in the house was running the race—minus my dad. There was that, and the fact that we will meet up again later this year at Badwater 135, which made for a high-energy dynamic. All In was how I felt during the race—although we may have all been going our own paces, we were all in it together, pushing forward.
I am still unclear if it was a good decision to get out there race morning, or if I should have slept it off—whatever virus or food poisoning did me in Friday night—but I am grateful for the encouragement of my housemates and father, and that I opted to get out there and try. After getting sick a few times early on, I predicted that after 12 miles I was going to call it a day and volunteer. But then Laura Mackey came to my rescue and gave me nausea medicine and for the whole of the trail section I felt great! Until I didn’t, and she said it was okay if I took a second nausea pill. But my body was not having it. I decided that I would push on to 31K before I ended my race, and so I kept chugging along.
At one point when I intersected my buddy Chip on the beach, he told me I was a shade of gray, which was likely accurate. But there were high moments, too, like when housemates Gina and Dale cheered and carried on upon our intersecting, making me laugh, and Carl, who was blazing along, told me he was happy to see me out there. Phil stopped to ask how I was, and Liz, who was right there with me more than once, smiled away. With that positive energy, who wouldn’t keep going? Then there were the incredibly helpful aid station volunteers on the beach who looked after me, searching with me for what I could possibly eat, but nothing would stay down.
With 31 miles complete, I thought: you can battle this out. You have been here before. I was only drinking water and taking an endurolyte here and there. I kept telling myself that the race was helpful in that it was forcing me to sweat out whatever was going on with my system. Back out on the beach I went. I like to finish what I start. I believe that it’s in the sticking with it that I build mental strength and clarity. Quitting is easier on so many levels, but by keeping going there’s the possibility that I may discover new truths about myself. Quitting creates a dialogue of excuses and what ifs that deflate me. Keeping going isn’t always glorious and no, nothing in my life depends on it, but it creates a dialogue within me of persistence and grit, and it teaches my body and mind not to give in to discomfort. In my experience, that is where the learning is; that is where the races help me to grow as a person. Because each day isn’t easy. We all face our daily battles and struggles. But if I can condition myself to muster the big and the small challenges, to accept them and be with them, to feel my way through them, examining and exploring all the while, perhaps I will grow.
I was sure I had made the right decision to keep going for the final loop, until high tide came in. For hours, I clashed with the waves and sloshy sugar sand, until the water finally caught me, drenching me up to my thighs, and then I was pretty much soaked for hours, until those final five miles, when the tide receded again. And yet, there was magic to this race: around 4 pm, the sun broke out from the clouds, and the sky and beach were a medley of blues. Beyond the shoreline, there were dolphins playing in the water. I pointed them out to anyone I intersected with. Out on that beach, under that sky, with that incredible backdrop, being alive was pretty incredible.
I had my music with me for the last 15 miles, and I listened to Sara Bareilles’ “She Used To Be Mine” over and over—something I am known to do. But that song is different, as in my creative world, it’s the theme for Tess, my novel’s protagonist. Listening to it, I can see my novel come to life. Creating in motion is how my mind works best, and suddenly I lost the race and how good or bad I was feeling and was plotting in my mind. I recognized in every inkling of my spirit that being out there was truly a gift. So I didn’t feel so great. So I lost all of my time goals. So it wouldn’t be my best race – in fact, it would likely be my slowest 50 miler ever. But I was out there, on the beach, in one of the most beautiful settings, my mind in flow, and life was perfect. It was better than perfect –it was exactly how it was supposed to be.
In that last stretch, soaked and wearing sand-filled shoes, I made a decision to be happy. The baby bird formations fixated me—they all stuck together as they flew above and beyond and then landed on the beach, until my approach led them off on their journey. We were playing a game—they were leading the way, and their synchronous dance mesmerized me. The beauty of the race was that I was not racing, I was living and taking in the natural world that in my fast paced life, I don’t always get to do. The universe granted me a gift on that day, and while it wasn’t what I would have asked for, it was exactly what I needed. I had a choice to make: I could be disappointed in myself, or I could accept the situation. Either way, it wasn’t going to change. So I chose to accept it.
Somehow, the miles happened. I felt sick, but not low. I doubted myself, but I didn’t lose my faith. The last stretch in the dusk was perhaps my favorite part of the race. The moon rose in its fullness and the waves gleamed black leather. Without a headlamp, there were stretches of total darkness, until the mansions came into view with their myriad of lights. It was peaceful to be out there, the full moon looming, the waves licking the shore, birds landing about me here and there. I was simply moving along, the white of the waves and the moonlight guiding me. I didn’t mind the work. I was thrilled to be out there, and then I was back on the final stretch of road, over the mini-hill and it was over, and as always, the struggle didn’t feel like one at all. It was just part of life, of being human, of the ups and downs, the good days and the not so good days, which translate into living. There was the typical good cheer at the finish line, and the famous Chris Kostman photo shoot to memorialize the moment.
While it is never easy for me to go the distance, it is always necessary for me to keep going, keep trusting, keep finding my way. Running long distance enables me to create a relationship with myself. Do I blame, get angry, frustrated, or see the beauty, and find the drive within to keep going? Races give me the opportunity to make sense of it all. To catch glimpses of who and what I am made up of on any given day, and for that, I am grateful.
At National Sports Endurance Conference back in October 2015, Ann Trason said something that stuck with me. She recalled that of all of her races, perhaps one or two were good ones. So maybe there are no free passes in this sport—maybe we all have to work hard. I take that with me. When I see the front runners blaze by, I appreciate how hard they must be working and when they smile, they are my heroes. What could be more amazing than to smile in the face of adversity? To be pushing full force, but have the ability to shower others with kindness. To me, that is something close to grace—something I will keep aspiring to everyone time I hit the road, trail, or beach.
Photo credits to Alix Shutello