(CW: sexual assault, rape, suicide, mental illness, PTSD)
This was it. On October 21st, 2017, I was going to attempt to run my longest race to date- The Wild Duluth 100k trail ultra-marathon. I don’t remember what I was thinking when I initially signed up for this race, but I do know that I tend to be more impulsive than others and that ultra running tends to attract those with an addictive personality. It can be a blessing some days, and a curse on others. It’s not so much the 62-mile distance that stood out to me. It was the fact that I was going back to a place filled with my trauma, loss, and fears.
Duluth is a place that brought a lot of joy and sorrow into my life. It’s the sorrow that sticks out the most to me. I’m reminded of one particular date when it comes to this town- October 31st, 2014. On Halloween night, I was raped. After that dreaded night, other than spending my time being admitted to the hospital for two suicide attempts and a medical condition that was unknown to me at the time, I took my frustrations and pain to the trails. The smell of the fresh crisp autumn air, the sound of the wind blowing through the trees, and the colors of the leaves are all what I love about fall, but they all happen to be triggers to me at the same time. I believed that facing those triggers head-on meant that I wouldn’t be bothered by them afterward. It meant that finishing this race would represent my healing process for that specific time in my life.I talked to my therapists about how I felt taking on this challenge. Not only was there a risk of my PTSD acting up, but I felt severely undertrained. And so, I was afraid. Someone wise once told me that when you have a goal that terrifies you, go after it. I know that there are exceptions to some situations, but I have a habit of chasing after things that present a high risk of failure.
The sun wasn’t up yet as we toed the starting line. Although it was going to rain all day, it was something that would feel good on our skin in 65-degree weather. The song “Welcome Home” by Radical Face was playing as we made our way down the pavement filled with the sound of scattered cheers and cars going down the streets. Soon enough, all of that faded as we entered the dark and quiet trails. It didn’t take long before the climbing began. This race had slightly more elevation compared to my previous two ultras. As the sun started rising and the life in the trails began waking up, so did my motivation. The sadness that I had expected to be enveloped in had disappeared, and the rocky path in front of me stole my attention instead. The Superior Hiking Trail is very technical, so any lack of focus or hesitation in your step could lead to a nasty fall.
Around mile 11, my smooth flowing thoughts transitioned into scrambled memories of my sexual assault investigation. I didn’t notice these thoughts swimming in my head until the next thing I heard was a pop followed by a sharp pain in my right ankle. I bit my lip as tears started to well up in my eyes. I went off trail to catch my breath and performed stretching exercises, hoping that would make the pain subside. I got a mix of responses from passing runners that ranged from questioning if I was okay to encouraging words that told me to keep going. After 5 minutes of muttering expletives and begging the Heavens to give me the strength to continue, I picked up my messy self and continued to limp on. There was no way I was going to drop out so early in the race.
During the race, I heard a variety of stories from other runners. It’s fascinating how people become so friendly and open with one another when going through the same difficult, often painful, task. It’s the camaraderie on the trail that I adore so much about ultra running. After getting lost for half an hour due to taking a wrong turn, my stomach started growling. I picked up the pace so that I could reach the next aid station faster. Strangely enough, I was in a good mood. I was actually smiling through all the physical pain. For some time, I was able to keep my dark thoughts in the back of my mind.
Around mile 21, I started talking to another runner since we were going the same pace for quite a distance. He told me that this race meant a lot to him, since it was close to the one-year anniversary of his father’s death. I received a lot of advice from him about running ultras that could easily be applied to everyday living. On top of that, any negative feelings were pushed aside as we bumped into one obstacle after another. One section involved crawling on our hands and knees up the very steep and muddy powerline section. Trying to pull ourselves up so that we wouldn’t slide backwards by grabbing onto some vines or branches proved to be a mistake, since they were full of thorns. After a while, I had to leave him behind since our paces started to differ.
The best way I would describe what happened between about mile 32 and mile 38 would be dissociation. I don’t remember that part of the race at all until I realized that I was walking. It’s almost as if my inner self began telling me “don’t fall for it.” For the next hour, my mind kept repeating that phrase like a broken record. It was getting dark as I started climbing Ely’s peak again and my headlamp was giving out. This was the part that I needed to see where I was landing my feet and where the arrows/ribbons told me to go. Getting lost or injured in the dark trails didn’t seem like the best scenario. Despite having food in my stomach, I felt fatigued and weak. If there was ever a worse time for my bad memories, fears, depression, and anxiety to attack me, it was then. I started to panic when I realized I was having a hard time balancing myself at times.
When I hit the mile 54 aid station, the volunteers told me that not only did I just miss the cut-off time, but my sprained ankle didn’t look good at all to finish the last 8 miles. I realized that throughout the whole race, I refused to look at how my ankle was doing. It was more swollen than I realized. At that point, my energy felt depleted. I sat on the ground with other runners who had to stop and was handed two cups of soup. I felt like a failure. I know that friends of other runners attempted to speak to me, some recognized me from other ultras, but I don’t remember responding to them fully. I was completely out of it and just wanted to go home. I was emotionally desolate.
Before the race, I expected to successfully finish, and then write a blog about how I’m finally over my past hurts and that this race represents my healing process. That was foolish not only because my trauma is more complex than just what happened in Duluth, but also because I learned that one can’t expect instant results. There’s a reason why we always hear why patience is so important. We tend to want fast results. It’s not surprising, considering how we are constantly surrounded by technology. It may be true that there were things that slowed me down that was out of my control during the race, but I also didn’t train half as much as I should’ve. And that showed. My inability to finish this race taught me that I need to go through the pain of training, so that I can develop the proper muscle for future events. How is this any different than my emotional healing process? Why did I expect a single race to make me “get over” my 2014 trauma? I’ll tell you why. It was because I didn’t want to deal with the pain of therapy, medication, self-care, vulnerability, and everything else that will actually help me heal. I tried to create a deadline to my healing.
The race taught me the importance of mindfulness. Running to me is meditation in motion. Once I let thoughts of my troubled past take over me instead of me taking over my thoughts, I stumbled and fell. The key is to stay focused on breathing and gain better control of your thoughts. It’s also important to accept the support of others and know the strength in vulnerability. From other runners encouraging me through their comments and stories to volunteers spending all day in the rain to serve the participants. This is important to remember when I am tempted to isolate myself from friends, family, and other supportive people in my life.
When something doesn’t feel right, don’t toss it aside and pretend it’s not there. It will catch up to you. I ignored the pain in my ankle and didn’t look at it for the whole race. I probably would have been in less pain and ran a bit better if I had taken the time to address the injury by icing it and/or wrapping it up. The same is true for one’s mental health. Whenever I start to feel really bothered or triggered by something, pushing it aside and not addressing it will do more harm in the future. Identifying triggers helps lessen the effects of PTSD and identifying when you need to seek professional help such as therapy or admitting yourself to the hospital is crucial to recovery.
Overall, I started the race long before the director said “go”. As someone who likes to have control over aspects of my life, it’s especially difficult to have things not go as planned. Life is continually teaching me how to let go and alter expectations. I may have failed to finish this race, but I’m certainly not a failure. I may have walked away with a sprained ankle, black toenails, blisters, and a bruised ego, but at least I know what to expect for running this race next year. There is a certain amount of glory that comes from failing. I learned a lot about myself because of it- physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
I now know there is no timeline to healing, I am not broken, and I refuse to be a slave to my emotions and pain. As Brene Brown wrote in her book, Braving the Wilderness,
“What we know now is that when we deny our emotion, it owns us. When we own our emotion, we can rebuild and find our way through the pain.”
Ellen is a 4th year undergrad majoring in Sociology and plans to attend physical therapy school after graduating. She is half Hispanic and half Asian. She was born and raised in Houston, TX and moved to Minnesota with her mom and sister in 2010. Ellen is a hardcore feminist and is passionate about social justice. She enjoys talking about topics such as race, gender and gender violence, LGBTQ+, class, ability, and mental health. When Ellen is not at school or work, she loves to spend her time running ultra-marathons, doing yoga, meditating, gardening, playing the oboe and piano, playing video games, listening to people’s life stories over coffee/tea, spending time with family, volunteering, annoying her sister, and playing with her birds. Email consultant.