When my eating disorder was at its worst, I would often stand in front of the mirror right before getting in the shower and look at my body, scanning for areas that weren’t good enough. My hand would come to rest on my hips or my stomach, places where I thought I needed to lose more weight.
And as I looked, the negative narrative in my head grew stronger, deeper. In order to have the self-control to skip meals day after day, in order to go against all instinct and force your body to throw up, you have to really dislike yourself. Loath yourself, even. Those almost daily rituals of ingraining dissatisfaction forged a disordered and destructive self-perception. I was no friend to my own body. Undoing those thoughts has taken years.
“You’ve Come a Long Way”
In the quiet of our hotel room just 90 minutes before the start of the race, I did something I had never done before. Mark had wished me well and kissed me goodbye and boarded the shuttle bus for the finish. I had yet to leave the hotel and jog the 2 mile-warm up to the start area. I was alone, trying to find purpose in those moments before a big race. The work is done, but the pent-up energy makes you feel fidgety so you stretch, pee, drink a little bit, stretch some more and pee again.
It was between another trip to the bathroom and a drink of water that I looked into the mirror and thought, “You’ve come a long way, Sarah.” And then the memory of that self-destructive ritual came to mind. When I think back on my past self: the way I talked to myself and what I believed and felt about myself I feel so much sorrow. I wish I believed then what I believe now: that I am deserving of love and happiness and that my life has the utmost value because of my uniqueness.
Standing there, looking at my reflection in the hotel mirror, the words of LeAnn Rimes in an interview with Lewis Howes on his podcast I’d recently listened came to mind. She had talked about her meditation practice and a ritual she had recently adopted of scanning her body in meditation and thanking it for its work and service.
At the time I listened to her story, I remember thinking: “Wow, that sounds so powerful.” And in the stillness of that moment, in the hotel room, staring at my reflection in the mirror I thought, “That’s what I need to do.”
So I stood next to the bed, facing the sliding glass door and the patio with the view of open fields and the Dolomites beyond and closed my eyes.
Slowly, deliberately I touched my quads and said aloud:
“Thank you. Thank you for all the hard work you’ve done. I love you.”
I touched my calves.
“Thank you. Thank you for all the energy you contain and release. I love you.”
I touched my feet.
“Thank you for all the miles you’ve run. For the places you’ve been. For carrying me through. I love you.”
I touched my glutes.
“Thank you. You’re are my powerhouse. I love you.”
I touched my chest.
“Thank you my heart and lungs, you are strong. I love you.”
I touched my head.
“Thank you. Thank you for the carrying me through. I love you.”
And then I touched my mouth.
“Thank you. Today, I will be my biggest cheerleader. From this mouth will only come encouragement and truth. I love you. Sarah, I love you.”
I opened my eyes, took a deep breath, grabbed my gear and headed down to the hotel lobby to meet my teammates.
In the moment, the ritual of touching my body, thanking it and telling it I loved it seemed silly. It didn’t seem particularly significant. But writing those words down, just now, as I type I’m in tears. Those words are powerful. That practice is powerful. It may not have elicited powerful emotions in the moment, but whatever I did in that little hotel room in that tiny Italian village was big.
I joined my teammates, Emily Renner and Amber Ferreira in the lobby where we spent a good 15 minutes debating whether or not to wear our team jerseys (because obviously the most important thing when you’re racing is Italy is what you’re wearing). The only teams I’ve been on before have been basketball teams, I never race cross-country in high school or college so this idea of racing for team points and as an individual is totally new territory. I’m well versed in racing as an individual, but the team aspect of this race made it all the more fun. As much as we were all running for our own place, we were racing as a team. Somehow that team vibe helped take the nerves out of race day and we jogged over the fields and bike trails to the start carrying our snowshoes and chatting the whole time.
We all opted for a lighter weight layer than the jersey, the warm weather that had kept the natural snow away from the Val di Non Valley was in play on race day: the temps hovered around 32 degrees while the high for the day looked like it would push 40. We swapped hats for headbands, ditched gloves and rolled up our sleeves.
The start area was buzzing. The Ciaspolada is the largest snowshoe race in the world with over 2000 participants annually and has one of the richest histories, the race is in its 46th year. Competitive racers from 29 countries ran around on the snow, some striding off in the field, others stretched while thousands of recreational runners shuffled around. Upbeat music I couldn’t understand blared from the speakers and an occasional announcements echoed around the valley, first in Italian, then in English. It all felt so official with the gigantic yellow, apple-shaped starting arching across the cloudless mountain sky and fencing draped in multi-colored sponsors’ banners. I’ve participated in some big races and this felt big and important, more so than any other snowshoe race I’ve run in.
I organized my drop bag, did a few strides out across the snowless-field, found a tree, did a few more strides and then debated whether or not to wear gloves with Amber and Emily. After deciding that gloves were a good idea I moved from the grassy field onto the snow and strapped on my snowshoes for onl the second time this season. I strode out over the swath of snow that had been trucked into the course. Rumored at costing over 1.2 million dollars, the race directors had brought in snow to ensure the event would go on without a hitch.
They modified the course from a point to point race, instead making it a two-loop course with a little over 1K off shoot up to the finish line in the village of Fondo. Amber and I had a chance to preview the course several days earlier when the snow was packed down hard and frozen solid. And prior to the opening ceremonies on Friday night, we’d had the opportunity to see portions of the final kilometer of the course as it wound up onto the village streets.
Once I was out on the snow, with the familiar thwap, thwap, thwap of my Dion Snowshoes against the heel of my shoe, I felt at home. The freshly groomed snow was softened and I could feel it kicked up and tossed against my back. The nerves were gone, my mind was strangely calm and empty, no mantras racing through, no doubtful voices, just peace.
There were two things I knew to be true about the start: it was going to be insane, I had to stay upright. They called all the competitive racers to the start, men and women totalling 300+ people. Typically the men and women start separately, making it a little easier to see who your competition is mid-race. But the race directors had opted for a mass start, which considering the logistics of the course, with a large corral that narrowed in less than a 100m to a 10 foot wide path of snow about a foot deep flanked on either side by grass, seemed like a terrible idea. Sometimes you know things will suck and you simply have to acknowledge that it’s not ideal, but you’ll do your best. My number one goal for the first 200m wasn’t to get out fast or get good position, my goal was to not fall.
The announcer, speaking in Italian and then English tried to gain compliance from this surging, antsy group of runners. “Move back! Move back!” Everyone shuffled a few steps under the gigantic yellow arch. They began the countdown, “Dieci!….Ten! Nove!…Nine! Otto!…Eight! Andare indietro!! Move back!” There was a crush to move back under the sweeping yellow arch. “Tre!…Three! Due!….Two” and the the front runners took off “Uno! Go! Go! Go!” the announcer yelled, but the first part of the field was already off and running.
Shuffle, crush, shuffle, crush. The first 100 yards were slow, hands reached out, snowshoes stepped on snowshoes, snow was flying. We moved out of the corral, I could see my teammates around me, and out onto the snow. Ok. Run. Go. I broke free of the crush and started up the first incline. In the next 100m the chaos of the start line was behind me and I was racing.
Run Your Race
I didn’t have a particular pacing plan for the race, which incorporated rolling hills and a steep climb in the last 1K to the finish. I knew that if I raced to my best ability it would hurt and then hurt some more. Thanks to all the 5Ks I raced in December I became familiar with the hurt that comes from running hard right out of the gate. I knew that initially it would feel too fast and that if I just kept my foot on the gas and didn’t back down that my body would rise to the occasion and I’d settle into a pace I could sustain. Each loop was a little over two miles of rolling terrain with a slight downhill to the finish area and then a climb out of the finish area.
Halfway into the first loop I could see my teammates, Michelle, Amber, Jen and Emily out ahead of me, each of us separated by 20-30 seconds. There were a few other women within a stride or two and then a few men in the mix. For the first lap I focused not so much on pace, but on form: leaning from the ankles, keeping my arm swing strong and my eyes ahead. My breathing was hard, but I was conscious of saving the final push for a steep climb at the end. Halfway through the first lap the course turned downhill slightly and back towards the finish. Recover on the downhill. Recover on the downhill, I said to myself. I pushed the pace and breathed deeply using the downhill to my advantage.
I came up on Emily and we ran stride for stride. I pulled ahead a bit, then eased back. Am I pushing to hard? Is my pacing wrong? Will I have enough for the hill at the end? My mind flooded with questions. Emily is a fantastic runner, someone I really respect and who I didn’t expect to pass. She finished ahead of me at the National Championships and is a stand-out road runner training for a OQT. For a good part of this year I’ve struggled with the fact that my road running times don’t match up those of my teammates: on paper my running resume isn’t nearly as impressive. There was a brief hesitation as uncertainty and doubt swirled in my mind. I recalled the same exact feeling at National Championships, a moment of pause where I wondered if I really belonged and was faced with a decision to go with it and push forward or stay within the effort and hang tight.
Just focus on your form, Sarah. Run your race. Go for it.
I leaned forward, quickened my cadence and eased past Emily. I ran down the hill back into the starting area, passing Mark Elmore, the president of the United States Snowshoe Association, “Looking good, Sarah! Keep it up!” His cheering bolstered my confidence as I rounded the corner and headed back out for my second lap.
Oh this is going to be hard. You’ve got this. Form. Just focus on form.
I kept checking in with myself to see if I was running at my max effort, remembering the words my husband had uttered to me before he boarded the bus for the finish line: “
“Rember,” he had said. “No matter what happens out there today. There’s always more inside you. You always have more to give.”
More to Give
I looked ahead and could see Amber and Jen. Catch them. Can you catch them? Reel them in. I wanted to stay within chasing distance of the two of them, so that when we got to the climb I might have a chance at catching either one of them. The snow had softened in the second lap and running seemed harder. I stayed away from the middle and did my best to a pick a line that looked hard-packed.
Breathing hard, I rounded the halfway point of the second lap. Use the downhill to your advantage. I tried to breathe deep while maintaining the effort. I charged down the hill, thankful that all that lay between me and the finish was a climb and not another lap.
The snow in the first part of last section up to the finish was hard packed and I could focus on my cadence. I’d lost sight of Jen and Amber when we transitioned from the loop into the final section of the course.. Team scoring for the World Championships is calculated from the top three finishers from each country, I knew Team USA would do well and I once I past Emily, I thought that being part of that team was a possibility. I wanted to contribute to that effort and stand on that podium. But there was still more ground to cover before the finish, my effort felt maxed out. As I entered the climb, I conceded that third place spot. Just hang on to fourth. [This is my only regret of the race and something I desperately want to work on in 2019: not conceding mentally and believing there’s always a chance because if you are still in it mentally, then you have a chance to be in it physically. My friend Amber’s race proves that point. You should read her recap;)]
I hit the soft snow in the streets of Fondo and felt my pace slow to a crawl. Every footfall slipped and slid. More to give. More to give. I honed in on my form leaned into the effort and surged ahead. I snuck a glance behind me to see if anyone was chasing me down, there were no other runners in sight. People lining the snow-covered streets cheered in all different languages:
“Go! Go! Go!”
Ahh this is so crazy. This is so cool. I settled into the significance of the moment of running between narrow village street packed with snow. It all felt surreal. I turned onto a street I recognized and knew the finish line was less than 400m away. The effort was exhausting, I was breathing hard, my mouth hanging open. I knew Mark would be in the finish area and I just wanted to hear his loud voice cheer out my name. Where is he?
I climbed the last steep section and turned, the finish banner in sight: ARRIVO. Confetti covered the snow and the air was thick with noise of celebration.
The announcer’s voice boomed in Italian, the crowds lining the streets cheering and then I heard his voice above it all: “SARAH!!!! WOOOHOOO! YEAH BABY!
I waved wildly and strode in under the finish banner.
In what seemed like a matter of seconds, Mark was there giving me a great big hug. I’d accomplished my goal of finishing in the top 10 women and it felt surreal. I felt so proud of my effort, so happy that I had pushed my hardest, so grateful that my body had responded and risen to the occasion. But most of all I felt like I belonged. After a year of doubting and questioning, I’d proven to myself that all those doubts are a lie. That the truth is that I belong wherever I believe I belong.
Amber and Jen were there and we hugged and congratulated each other, Emily came in not long after me and there were more hugs and high fives.
We calculated our places and where we had finished, Amber had finished fourth, Jen fifth, myself 7th and Emily 8th [the official results were adjusted later due to a bib that didn’t score and it turns out I actually finished 9th]. Later at the awards ceremony, team USA swept the 30-39 age category where I finished 2nd to Amber and team USA women took the Silver Medal in the team competition.
The Goal of the Goal
I recently wrote in an Instagram post that, “The goal of the goal isn’t the goal.” It’s one of those things that you can only say when looking back. And looking back on the journey to get to Italy for the World Snowshoe Championships I realized that it’s actually a missed goal, one I have yet to accomplish, that got me there.
For many of you who have followed along for a while, you’ve watched the progression over the last four years from being a pretty average runner to a competitive athlete. And it really is one goal, set back in 2013 that proved a catalyst for this journey. While I still want to win the CHaD Hero Half Marathon and I’ll keep working on that goal until I accomplish it, I’m awestruck at where that audacious goal has gotten me.
Sometimes you need a big, crazy goal to set things in motion, to get you moving FORWARD and once you’re in motion towards something impossible and scary and big you open yourself up to some amazing thing that happen along the way.
To say this journey has changed me would be an understatement. I’ve been transformed inside and out. Sure there have been some great performances and achievements, but the real accomplishment here isn’t a time or a place: it’s my perception and belief of myself. Whatever it is I want to do, I can do.
The greatest gift of this whole journey isn’t atop a podium, it the victory in my heart and mind to finally celebrate and love who I am.
I’ll be going LIVE on IG today (1/14/18) to chat about the race, answer questions and flesh out more details. Join me at 7pm EST!
Curious on how to get started with snowshoe running? Check out this post.
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Email: RunFarGirl [at] gmail [dot] com