As I stood at the starting line of the Imogene Pass Run, 17 miles from Ouray to Telluride, I believed that I could finish in less than 4 hours – beating my last time. This run is a badge of honor for some – a sign that you’re a glutton for punishment for others – but truly a marathon that tests you in every possible way. I now believe that the real triumph lies in starting, trying and enduring.
Perfect weather, beautiful day, but after the first few miles I could tell this would be a different race for me. My head hurt and I felt nauseous. I began to talk to myself. Drink – Stop – Rest – Breathe. You started and you will finish. Still, each step I took to higher altitude was a little slower than the last.
The Mountain began to grow and elongate and my group began to change. The people I had left behind at the start moved past me. I felt their strength in sharp contrast to mine. I heard encouraging words. I eavesdropped on conversations about not wanting to give up, not wanting to stop. One man had promised his wife that he would give up running when he could no longer make the cut off time on Imogene pass. “I beat it by 12 minutes!” he gloated. Giving up running – like giving up driving – feels something like giving up your independence and your youth.
About a mile from the top, I started to hear the faint sound of cowbells, ringing down into the valley to tell us all that the summit was near. Finally, a hand reached out for me and lifted me up onto Imogene Pass. “Aren’t you happy? You made it!”
“No.” I said. I found a spot and sat, tears rolled down my face. Four hours had already passed, and I had 7 miles to go. An EMT named Brian knelt beside me and offered me something I didn’t have for myself – compassion.
“Can you tell me what’s wrong?” I told him I thought I had altitude sickness.
“It can happen to anyone at anytime,” he said. Anyone at anytime. I was prepared. This can happen to anyone at anytime.
There were people with leg cramps, back aches and bad knees all around me. Incredibly, most were chatty and cheerful. “I always get leg cramps. One year it was so bad, I had to be hospitalized.” One woman said.
“Do you do this every year?” I asked.
“Every year,” she said, triumphantly.
As I we started down again, I began to see beauty in persevering, being vulnerable and receiving kindness. In pictures of the finish, I’m smiling. No sign of my odyssey. No sign of the courage I witnessed and mustered in myself. But I knew that my focus had shifted from the Finish to the Journey to the Finish. Next time I run over Imogene Pass or walk down any long road in my life, I’ll remember that.
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