September | 160 km | Mountain | 36 Hour Cap | △△△△ | USA
As my team and I prepared to make tracks after our break, I discovered Alex and Augusto hadn’t rested the whole time like I did. They had spent half the break developing a game plan for the rest of the race! We would need to keep up an aggressive pace to make my goal time of 48 hours, they said. But if we followed their plan, there was still hope.
Augusto would switch in to pace me, since Alex had been pacing me the whole race. Running with Augusto was completely different from running with Alex. Instead of telling me to conserve my energy, Augusto would tell me in Spanish, since we both spoke it, “Necesitas mucho, mucho corazón. ¡Vamos!”
He put so much urgency into the words. It was tough to keep his pace, but I knew I had to. Augusto reminded me that this day would determine whether all my dreams from the past six months would be realized or lost forever. He revived my mental game from the grave and pushed me to go faster than I thought I could.
On the uphills, he would tell me, “Pasos grandes, pasos grandes,” meaning “big strides, big strides.” On the downhills, he’d simply say, “¡Vamos adelante!” I thought I’d be in pain at this point, but my legs felt rested and up to the challenge. I wondered how long I could keep it up, but did my best to focus on the moment. Augusto was such a fantastic coach that he made this fairly easy. We breezed right through Inconfidentes, past the 70-mile-mark, and continued a half marathon further to Borda da Mata, where Augusto hopped back into the car. Alex didn’t rejoin me on the course right away in order to save his energy for the last leg.
It was a nice respite to set my own pace after hours of following Augusto’s rhythm. I thought I’d slow down without a pacer, but I was even faster. Time was now the primary concern, so I took the brakes off and ran as fast as I could. The hills were so steep that my feet could barely keep up, like I was landing from a sky dive. Fueled by adrenaline, I hit my stride and stayed there for a good hour or so. But after a while, I felt my energy drain and started slowing on the uphills. I’d always walk the hills, but I began walking at a slow enough pace that Alex and Augusto became concerned.
Augusto yelled to me out of the window, “¡Pasos grandes!” Alex, meanwhile, jumped out of the car and began leading me by example. It was grueling to follow Alex up the steep mountainsides, but I was managing. Then I turned a corner and found myself staring at a wall of packed red clay and gravel leading upward with no end in sight! How am I going to make it up this, I wondered. With no other choice, I took a deep breath, slowed my pace, and started climbing. I just put one foot in front of the other over and over again, not daring to look up. Eventually, I reached the peak. A long, rambling descent was my reward, and it was a good one.
Around 1:30 a.m., I started climbing the last big hill before Estiva. A light drizzle made it difficult to see the road, but the VW’s headlights lit up the tiny raindrops like fireflies. It was strangely beautiful, but I knew that I’d soon have to say goodbye to this beacon. At Estiva, Alex and I would set off for the last marathon on our own, since the road was said to be impassible.
Just as I was thinking through the logistics of what we would need to take and how we would carry it, the car pulled up beside me and Alex rolled down the window. “Um, Katie?” he said, getting my attention. “Well . . . Augusto is leaving.” I stared at him in disbelief. Alex continued, “His boss called and said he needs to come in early tomorrow, so he is going to stop off in Estiva and head back. That means I have to drive the car, so you will have to do the last marathon on your own.”
My driver had quit! I was stunned. How could he just quit? My mind raced through all this meant. I was hesitant to take on 26 solo miles through the mountains at night with only as much food and water as I could carry. I felt betrayed by Augusto for putting me in this bind and angry with Alex for not convincing him to stay. I couldn’t face them. I told Alex to give me some time to think and kept climbing. I turned up my music to drown out my anger and considered my few unappealing options.
Not five minutes later, I was interrupted again. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mario, the race director, driving past in his white Land Rover. I hadn’t seen Mario since the beginning of the race, so I was amazed at my luck. I flagged him down and explained the situation. Mario frowned a bit. He said, “Here’s what we’re going to do—this is Louis, he’ll be your driver. He’ll take good care of you, so don’t worry about a thing.”
I could hardly believe the potentially disastrous situation had resolved itself so neatly. I ran up to Alex and Augusto, who were driving just ahead of me, and explained the switch. While Alex, Augusto, Mario, and Louis worked out the details, I ran on, eager not to lose any more time.
The car was soon lighting my way again with Louis at the wheel. He knew the local roads and that the car was capable of following me for the last leg, so we didn’t have to give up the support car after all. I was actually better off for Augusto’s decision. I still had some pent up anger, but I let the emotion fuel me and ran my fastest six miles of the course.
When we reached a town called Consolação a while later, I heard a spectator yell something to Alex in Portuguese from the side of the road. “She says there’s eight miles to go,” said Alex, translating. The finish line was just eight miles away! For the first time in the race, I knew without a doubt that I’d make it. My energy soared as my pace quickened.
“Listen,” Alex said, “We can still make it, but it will be really close. You told me at the beginning of the race that you wanted to qualify for Badwater. We can still make that goal, but we need to push.” He was right. No matter how much I told myself that just finishing would be enough, it wasn’t. My goal was qualifying for Badwater, and a 49-hour finish wouldn’t get me there.
I looked at Alex and said, “Let’s do this.” I knew it would be tough, but how tough could eight miles be? We crested the hill and took off like bandits, sprinting as if we had all the energy in the world. I knew the pace was unsustainable. I just hoped we’d reach the finish line before running out of gas. After hours of feeling the race had left us behind, we started passing competitor after competitor. Many were walking down the hills, their energy completely spent. An hour passed, then two. I thought the finish must be just around the corner. The pace was completely out of my comfort zone after running further than I’d ever run before, by about 50 miles. But I continued running, fueled by certainty that it would soon be over. As I came to the end of a long, fast descent, someone yelled to Alex in Portuguese again. Alex translated, “Four miles to go!”
I was dumbstruck. My energy drained as if a plug had been removed. How could we possibly still have four miles left?! I’d been running as if the end were in sight for two hours, since the eight-mile mark. I’d been counting on relief just around the corner, and now it was at least an hour away. “Just four miles more, Katie. Let’s go!” said Alex. I had no choice but to push forward, but it was hard to summon the energy and willpower. Facing a long uphill climb, I tried my best to keep moving.
The sky was still dark when Louis told us that we’d have to tackle the final few miles on our own, since the road was really impassible now. I filled up my water bottle, grabbed my headlamp, and set off, walking. I was far too tired to run. I thought I might be able to jog down the hill once we reached the top, but I couldn’t do it. My energy was tapped. A short time later, I found it difficult even to walk. I kept moving forward, but I felt close to passing out.
My consciousness began fading in and out every few seconds. I’d slip into a dream, stumble to the right or left, and then snap out of it just in time to catch myself from falling. I’d get back on track, and then slip right out of consciousness again. This went on and on and on. I felt an urge to lie down, like lying down would release all the weariness that had been welling up within me. Then the urge overwhelmed me. I told Alex that I absolutely had to lie down.
“Okay,” he said, “you have 20 seconds, no more. We have to keep moving or we’ll run out of time.” I carefully lowered myself to the ground, quads in agony. Ten second went by and I could feel my consciousness returning. Fifteen seconds and my dizzied thoughts came into focus. Twenty seconds. My time was up. I arose just slightly better off than I’d started. At least I wasn’t falling asleep with every step, but I was still moving too slowly. I could tell Alex was getting frustrated, not for himself, but for me.
Competitors we had passed overtook us again, and I was so out of it that I didn’t even see them go by. To make matters worse, my headlamp’s weak light made it difficult to see the terrain. After at least an hour of this, I looked up from my daze and found myself staring at an enormous 400-foot hill, as steep as any street in San Francisco. I knew I couldn’t make it up the hill in my condition, but I also knew I had no choice. I started up the hill, summoning all of my energy stores. Much to my surprise, the hill climb completely broke my sleepwalk. It was so strenuous that I had no choice but to focus and breathe deeply. At the top, another team’s support crew gave us bananas and water. Alex talked with the driver to find out our position.
“He says we’re just two flat miles from the finish line. Let’s get moving!” Alex warned that we should hustle. I was confused, because we had a full hour to cover two miles.
“I’ll hustle,” I said, “but the finish is close, right?”
“Yes, that’s what he said. But I don’t know about these guys. The last ones lied to us about how far we were. They all just want to win and they don’t mind messing up other people’s races to do it.” I found it hard to believe that someone would intentionally sabotage my race, especially when I was so far back in the pack. I didn’t have the energy to question Alex, though, so I just kept running, praying the finish was close.
Facing a long, gentle downhill, I felt what must have been my seventh wind rush over me. Day had broken, and I was feeling better by the second. I began jogging, then running. Pretty soon, I was all out sprinting. I knew the finish couldn’t be far. Thirty minutes passed. Then I saw someone running up the hill I was descending. He must’ve run from the town, and he didn’t look too tired. We must be close, I thought.
As we crossed paths, the runner yelled, in English this time, “Three maybe three and a half kilometers to go!” I felt like a hamster on a wheel, with the finish line perpetually out of reach. How could I still be two miles away? I kept running, determined to make my 48-hour goal. I still had at least 40 minutes left and had just heard with my own ears that I was less than two miles away. I quickened my pace. My body was so sore that even my cheeks hurt. Pain didn’t matter though. I knew it would be over soon. I caught my first glimpse of Paraisopolis. It was still a ways below me, but the end was finally in sight.
Exhilarated and exhausted, I sprinted down the final long hill. Alex ran ahead of me, encouraging me to pick up the pace. The dirt path turned to cobblestones as I entered the town. I ran down a steep street, following yellow arrows around a corner. Then I saw Alex, standing at the end of a long alleyway. He was swinging his shirt in the air and yelling, “Run, Katie! Run!!” I sprinted faster and faster. I felt no pain, no fatigue, only victory. A wave of emotion welled up and I stifled a few tears. Despite all uncertainties, despite all obstacles, I’d finish. I ran to Alex and then spotted a crowd just a few hundred yards ahead. As I neared them, two volunteers stretched out the finish tape. I ran through it. I’d finished the Brazil 135!
Alex threw his arms around me and exclaimed, “We did it! 47 hours 40 minutes. Katie, we did it!!” The tears I’d been stifling broke free. There would be no need for self-doubt, no room for regret. I’d made my goal. I’d taken the first step to qualify for Badwater.
Later on, Alex admitted that he’d been the one who lied about the distance remaining. If he’d told me in the last mile, I’d have killed him; but now I just had to laugh and appreciate that he got me to the finish in time.
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