Guest blogger Mirna Valerio takes a trip down memory lane each time she prepares for an ultra marathon, likening the experience to those beautiful and freeing field trips we all experienced in our youth. Read on as this energetic blogger, educator, and trail conquerer writes about her pre-race rituals, and what it takes to complete these most grueling races. If your on the fence about doing your first ultra marathon, this story might just be the motivation you need to sign up.
To learn more about The Mirnavator and her trail adventures, go to her running blog:
By: Mirna Valerio
It was an occasion every time we went on a field trip back in elementary school. After all required permission slips had been handed in, chaperones procured, and schoolbus drivers hired, we would leave our classrooms in neat lines and walk down the front steps of our red brick, concrete and plaster public school and into our respective cheese buses. Most of our parents sent us with either cash or brown-bags for lunch. My mother, probably afraid of an impending apocalypse, would send us to school with an entire picnic's worth of items, just so we wouldn't ever feel hungry.
There was the inevitable but highly anticipated night-before-ritual of my mother cooking a veritable feast for me and whichever other kid happened to forget his or her bagged lunch. There was always some kind of chicken or a stack of ham and cheese sandwiches on Wonderbread. My mother would also pack numerous pudding or apple sauce cups, maybe a Little Debbie cake and a bottle of ginger ale, paper plates, napkins, plastic spoons, toilet paper in a Ziploc just in case, and a couple of chico sticks from the corner candy store that also served as a bodega.
We would lay out my trip outfit, down to socks, shoes, and underwear. We would check the weather and make sure that I wouldn't need to carry an umbrella or rain coat. I would pick out my shoes, either LA Gear kicks (remember those?) or 80s iterations of Reeboks.
Traveling to a new place, even if it was only a few miles away, was fraught with so much excitement that the night before the field trip would be a sleepless one. What would we see? Who would we meet? Would Luis' mom be annoying like she was the last time? Would I have to share a seat on the bus with that weird kid? Would the popular kids allow me in to their world for a little bit and let me sit in the back of the bus with them? Which book would I read on the schoolbus? And the most important question of all was "WILL WE HAVE HOMEWORK TONIGHT?"
The field trip would happen. We'd travel to places like Staten Island's Gateway National Recreational Area to talk to scientists doing research on marshes. We would have long, humid picnics at McCarren Park in Greenpoint where you could see the cars whizzing by (or more likely stuck in bumper to bumper traffic on the BQE). I would normally sit on the bedsheet that I'd brought along as a picnic blanket, eat the huge meal that my mother had prepared and either read a Babysitter's Club book or lie down and daydream. I breathed in new smells, like the combination of new spring grass, metal from the wrought iron fences that surrounded the park, exhaust from the parking lot on the BQE...
We often returned to school right before the school day ended. Some of us would still have a little of our lunches left (I always had plenty!), and so we would share and snack on our food, sleepy and contented, until it was time to be dismissed into the arms of our parents.
Signing up for, and traveling to a trail race, or even heading to a new trail head for the weekend's long run brings back to mind the field trips of my urban youth.
What new things will I see? Who will I meet? What book will I listen to? Will that one annoyingly perky barefoot-parkour-loving runner be there? Will I have enough energy to blog about it tonight? Do I have a deadline?
There are also some new questions too: When and how will I faceplant? Which ankle will I roll for the umpteenth time? How will I get unlost, even though there are blazes every ten feet? And where in the hell is the aid station?!?!?
I make sure to have purchased all of my essentials beforehand: Tailwind, jalapeño chips, uncured salami, fresh fruit, ginger candies, and fancy gorp with cashews and dark chocolate. I follow the weather report obsessively and look for rain, wind, sudden temperature drops, or maybe just a gorgeous day all around. Will there be ice? Sideways rain? Slippery trails?
I check to make sure that I have enough Body Glide and pertroleum jelly to last however many hours I think this particular run will take.
I look for a blanket or two to throw on the grass or rocks for after the race, and I assemble an outfit that I may or may not have the energy to change into. Hell, sometimes you just lie down in the grass or on the dirt with no blanket because you're that tired, and you just don't care how dirty you get..you're already way dirtier than the ground.
The evening before a race, sometimes in a hotel room, but often in a tent, I lay out my clothes and gear, carefully and methodically. Waterproof shell: Check. Tights: Check. Bra: Check. Bib and pins: Check. Wool socks, and ONLY wool socks: Check. Electrolyte Powder: Major CHECK. Drop bag: Check. Pack: Check. Gels, Food, TP in Pack: Check. Cap: Check. Tank: Check. Lube: Check. Poles: Check..oh yeah, and Shoes: Check.
I take a ritual photo, and post it on various social media platforms. This makes it real. My adrenaline level rises exponentially. To calm myself, I watch episodes of whatever mindless sitcom is on the one non-fuzzy channel at the cheap hotel, or I breathe deeply in my tent and listen to the patter of feet of people going back and forth to the communal privy, tents being zipped closed and people moving around in their sleeping bags and on their Thermarests. I lie down on the overly soft and dented cheap hotel bed or my own sleeping pad but am unable to sleep deeply. I sleep in fits and starts. I toss and turn, excitement and anxiety confusing themselves in my vivid dreams.
I drive to the start of the race at o dark thirty the next morning, in full race gear, shoes and pack thrown in the back of my trail-dirty car, and squint my way through the morning darkness and fog to arrive at the parking lot, where I get on the dark schoolbus with the other runners. The ride on the bus is filled with nervous chatter of new and veteran trail and ultrarunnners. I don't read on my cellphone because I want to save every bit of battery I can for all of the pictures I'll take on my field trip.
After a much too bumpy ride on dirt roads in the middle of some national forest or state park, they deposit us at the trailhead in the middle of nowhere. The race director will whisper, GO, and then we are off on our hours-long field trip through fields, forests, ravines, cliffs, and streams.
We will experience new things, meet new people, trip over branches and rocks or absolutely nothing, reach lows, achieve delirious highs, get lost, and find our way back to the trail. We will cross the finish line elated, sleepy, and hungry. We'll share our beer and food. And after a while, we will each get into our cars, creaky, stiff, dirty, and smelly...and head home.