I was at the 38 km mark of my planned 43 km run. It was to be my longest run ever. But I was exhausted. I had already been running for nearly six hours, up and down the hills in the Dandenong Ranges, trying to complete a race course that I’d been unable to complete a month before, or at least to complete the planned race distance. This run was also part of my training for the upcoming North Face 50 km Race, just four weeks away.
I had come to the road that led back to my car. If I turned right, I would be done, I could rest. I was starting to hallucinate I was so tired, seeing people where there were only trees, startling myself with sudden fear. I had been running alone since before the sunrise, running and running and running. Sometimes I had to slow to a walk to climb the steepest of the hills, and walking was becoming more frequent at this point in the long day out.
To my left was the last five kilometres – it began on the steepest hill of all, Dodd’s Track. It seemed unfair to have to face this hill again, for the second time today. I glanced down the road towards my car, toyed with the thought of going that way, of finding some excuse to let myself quit early.
Then I turned left, up the hill. I wanted to go home. Instead, I dug deep into my pack, found a ziplock bag with banana chips and pineapple pieces, choked some down, took a deep drink from my CamelBak as I walked, and started climbing that hill. My legs were trembling. I was starting to hate the look of the trees and the rocks. But I was going to get to the top.
It went on and on and on. I talked out loud to myself: You will not quit. You are a fighter. One foot after the other I climbed. I made it to the top, sweating, shaking, hungry. I found the next trail and the next. When I finally made it to Banksia Track I knew I was on the way home. I stopped for a moment to marvel at my surroundings, then picked up the pace and ran some. I walked the last steep hill, swearing at it like Sigourney Weaver swore at the biggest of the aliens in Alien.
But I did it, got to the top. And I ran down the last downhill, cheering myself aloud, being careful of my footing, not wanting to celebrate too soon. I got to the bottom, ready for joyous elation, ready to have completed my first ever marathon, my first ultramarathon!
And my watch said 41.5 km! The car was only 250 metres down the road.
Instead of running back in triumph, my work done, I turned back. I ran back down the trail I’d traversed twice already, coaching myself, saying just go .5 km and turn back, and you’ll have made it, so tired I couldn’t even do math. Somewhere down that last turnaround my watched clicked over and beeped at 42 km. I had just completed my first mountain marathon! I kept running, backtracking towards the car, running out of the park gates, waiting for the 43km goal I’d set to tick by, but with sinking heart I realised I wouldn’t get there unless I turned around again!
So I did. I turned around and ran back through that same gate, back up the same road for the fourth time, and six and a half hours ticked by, and with a final push, my watch finally read 43 km.
I had done it. My first marathon, followed a few minutes later by my first ultramarathon.
I wanted to quit so many, many times. But it is not the desire to quit that matters.
I am sure I will pull the memory of that run out again when I need to remind myself that I have the strength to continue on when life gets tough. In fact, I pulled it out today. Polished it. Savoured it. And reminded myself that though today was a very difficult day, I have the strength to go on. To not quit.
Sometimes it takes more than one go to get to the goal you are aiming for. Sometimes you have to backtrack and try again. And again. But that is how we become the heroes of our own stories. By facing what needs to be faced. By not quitting.