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There is a truism in running. It’s not how big the hill is, it’s when the hill is. In this case, both clauses held paralyzing truth.

Climbing one of the “little hills” around mile 20

The aptly named “Cemetery Hill” stretches roughly half a mile beginning at the 25 mile mark of the Umstead Trail Marathon in Raleigh, North Carolina. The race is a formidable and technical traversing of everything from bridle path to rooted single-track in the majestic Umstead State Park (home to both the marathon and the famous 100-mile footrace). With nothing remotely resembling a smooth, flat stretch of terrain in the preceding twenty-four miles, Cemetery Hill provides the coup-de-gras to a day spent absorbing punishing climbs and harrowing descents, and one that may have changed my running forever.

For twenty-five years, I have run competitively. Following the time-tested tradition, my racing career began with middle-school track and field and local 5k’s sponsored by neighborhood charities. Over the subsequent decades the distances ballooned, the surfaces changed, and the stages shifted but the goal remained the same. Run fast — as fast as possible. It’s a simple and often agreed upon precept of the competitive runner. So my goal for the 2019 Umstead Trail Marathon was no different.

Saturday, March 2nd, brought beautiful blue skies and crisp temperatures which were a break from the daily onslaught of rain Umstead had endured leading up to the race, and as the gun went off, I quickly joined a few other runners with the same goal: run fast, win, and ideally, do both. My training buildup had been one of the best in recent memory despite a challenging winter in Upstate New York. I had managed to avoid injury, maintain consistency during the hectic holidays, and crush a few key workouts. With the elevation climbing, so did my confidence.

The first eight miles held the majority of the single-track sections, mercifully presenting the most technical running when your legs are relatively fresh. Dancing through ankle-swallowing mud and rain-slicked pine needles while avoiding the countless roots perfectly placed to snag a toe does more to punish the mind than the body, and by the time a trio of us exited the final twisting trail, I embraced a foolhardy sense of relief.

Though I was running well within myself, never pushing the pace beyond my comfort zone as we still had 16 miles and numerous hills to cover, a subtle sense began to grow that something was amiss. (Less than 24-hours later, I’d be in an urgent care diagnosed with the flu, but at the time all I knew was I had a lot of running ahead of me.) Running out front with eventual runner-up, Brian Marshburn, was beginning to require far more effort than it should, given our manageable pace this early in the race. Double and triple-takes of my watch at each half-mile confirmed the concern. With labored breathing, and tightening shoulders, I watched Brian, and eventual race champion Bhushan Suresh, fade into the distance as we made the hairpin turn around mile 15 to begin the long trek toward the finish line.

Entering “the tunnel”

It was time for self-talk. I told myself this was a dark patch. We’ve all run through these tunnels in training and racing before and come out the other side with a second wind, a surge to get back in the zone, and a push to finish with gusto. I cajoled and I commanded. I demanded and I despaired. With each stride, and as a duo of challengers swept past me at mile 20, I knew the next six miles would be spent in the darkness of the tunnel. What I did not know is that salvation would be found there.

For twenty-five years, a significant portion of who I am has been defined by the term “runner.” And not just a runner, I’ve wanted to be one of “those runners.” You know, the ones who line up at the front of the race, the ones who people recognize, the ones racers scan entry lists for. It’s petty and childish and real. Being a “somebody” in my tiny pond has been a big reason to lace up the shoes and head out the door.

Staring at the wall of Cemetery Hill, I no longer felt like a “somebody”. My body was broken, my will was shattered, and my hands were on my hips. The forward movement slowed, stuttered, stopped. I was walking. The slow, ego-stripping walk of someone laid bare. I wish I could write that it was at this moment that an epiphany broke through the darkness, but at mile 25 of a marathon, you’re too damn tired for epiphanies. I dragged my ragged self up Cemetery and managed an uncoordinated trot the final half-mile to the merciful finish line. My 25th mile split — 13:04.3.

In the final quarter-mile, through slightly delirious ears, I heard my name announced, saw my support crew send up a small cheer, and watched a handful of finishers and volunteers clap a few times as I crossed the inauspicious dirt line that marked the finish. There were some fist bumps and offers of water, a handmade beaver carving to commemorate my fifth-place finish, and a warm fire in the lodge.

First, fifth, or two-hundred and twelfth. 5:55.2 or 13:04.3. The scene played out over and over all morning long in the same exact fashion. A name, a cheer, a glass of water and a fire. And sitting weary-legged by that fire, it hit me. (Apparently a few orange slices, some Coke, and a handful of potato chips is sufficient fuel for epiphanies.) It’s the experience that’s the value. You’re not a “somebody” based on the aggregate or average of your finish times. Your age-graded percentage doesn’t add value to your person. Instead, you are a conglomeration of your experiences. You are a smattering of the scenery and the suffering; the takeaways aren’t PR’s and accolades, but handshakes and mud-splatters. Let’s be honest, I still want to run fast, still will probably be disappointed when I don’t, but my time in that dark tunnel and a 13:04.3 mile reminded me that where and with whom those miles are spent is of far greater consequence than how quickly they pass.

A hallucination or a smile…you choose
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