Written by KEEN Ambassador Gracie Cole
I awoke before the sun, hobbled out of bed, tended my blisters, and braced myself for another – the last – day on the road. Aside from two rest days, I had been averaging more than a marathon a day for 19 days. On day number 20, I faced a final 31.5 miles to reach the Atlantic Ocean. As I donned my running clothes, I took note of how my body had changed over the weeks: for the first time in my life, if I tried really hard and the light was just right, I could see on my abs the faint outline of a 4-pack. Yet, I looked down and was happy to recognize that the fat on my inner thighs had hung on; I think those lumps are just too cute to lose. After tying back my pigtails, I reached for my sweatshirt to cover my tanned skin to start a chilly morning of drizzly weather, back on the road for one last day.
My husband, Kevin, has proven himself a stalwart adventure partner; I am still amazed at how I got so lucky. Before this journey, the most he had ever run in one day was only 13 miles; yet, he jumped into the heart of this adventure with me, running the first 8 days that included three 50Ks, two marathons, and two 21-mile “recovery” runs. Watching him successfully push his limits and accomplish new feats was a source of daily inspiration for me. Sadly, an overuse injury disabled his running, though he continued along on a bike we bought on Florida’s “Forgotten Coast.” He shifted his focus from running to supporting my run, and I am overwhelmed with gratitude for someone who enjoys contributing everything from a positive attitude to roadside foot massages.
The morning started out as others had, though today’s physical pain was starkly magnified with the recent onset of Achilles tendonitis. Blisters had formed from running 26 miles with wet shoes after a humid night of sleepless camping, yet the ensuing pain dominated my movements each morning. I endured my every-day usual of at least 15-30 minutes of excruciating blister pain as I fought the intuition of every cell in my body, mechanically forcing myself to place all my weight where it hurt the most, step after step until a passive numbness set in. Next, I focused on managing my Achilles pain; this 20th day involved a limp of heel-striking on my right and a healthy toe-strike on my left. Although a manageable gait, it was only a matter of time before my left calf and left quad began cramping and straining from the footfall compensation. And so I hobbled the last 31 miles to the ocean.
Over the course of the day, I cried only a few tears from the pain. I was able to actually run (not walk) all of the 31.5 miles. I honestly don’t know how, but sometimes focusing on “one step at a time” really does get you to your destination. The determination of bite-sized chunks is, I have found, the most powerful tool for achievement… bite-sized chunks followed by the simple decision to act, the choice to move forward.
As we approached and crossed the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, tears welled up, crying softly as I limped beachward; mentally and emotionally, I attempted to process all that I had endured physically to arrive in this moment. Thoughts flooded with recent memories of intense pain, daunting challenges, and peerless joys in this mind-over-matter journey. I breathed deeply in the crisp ocean air, recalling three weeks prior, when my legs were fresh and our route hugged the white-sand beaches of Florida’s Gulf Coast.
Across the bridge, the ocean water and sandy beach awaited my footfall. Once on the sand, I pushed aside the gear stroller and quickened my pace across the flat, packed sand into the delightfully cool water. From that moment on, I would savor the hard-earned accomplishment that will outlast this body and its painful limitations.
Now, I have only occasional, fleeting moments in which I feel able to comprehend the accomplishment. The swelling of my Achilles tendonitis has subsided, but the injury remains. Driving in a car blows my mind; 70 mph has never felt so fast. But, anyone who knows me will tell you that I can’t sit still for long; when my Achilles recovers, it’s back to my Colorado mountain trails at home to hone my training for the 2014 Leadville 100-mile Trail Race. Meanwhile, my hobbling is less intense each morning, and I see runners out for dutiful exercise and I have already begun to itch to run. Long-distance running favors the patient, and those who dare to go just one step – or 487 miles – further.