Running to the finish line of the Stump Jump 50k, hand in hand.

Not gonna lie, yesterday I did not want to run. 

We’ve been training for the Stump Jump 50k for months and reached race day relatively injury-free. (Aside from Chris’s roughed-up heel.) Our only other experience with a 50k trail race was the Long Hunter 50K, which is a relatively flat route with 1,100 feet of elevation gain over 31 miles. The Stump Jump, in comparison, has 5,000 feet of elevation gain and is considered one of the more difficult 50ks around.

After my surprising win at Long Hunter, I can’t help but wonder if it’s possible to repeat the feat on this larger stage with 120 runners of the 50k, 30 of whom are women. I train with a target finish time that should have me in contention.

But the day before the race I come down with a sore throat, and a particular monthly visitor decides to make an early appearance. 

I am worried about the sore throat but we had made a point to minimize contact with people in the week before the race, so it seems more likely that this is allergies or a response to anxiety around the race. 

It isn’t.

I’m sure the throat also contributes to my terrible sleep the night before the race. I lay in bed, counting down the hours before I can stop trying to sleep and wander into the predawn chill with purpose.

So, tired, wheezy, and feeling generally gross, I toe up to the line, hoping it will only take a few miles to shake off the nerves and get into my flow. 

It doesn’t.

The first eight miles of the Stump Jump are relatively fast-rolling terrain. This is generally where people establish their placement in the race before the more technical terrain hits. 

I start with the lead group at what would normally be a reasonable pace. But I struggle. Chris keeps pausing to let me catch up, and other runners pour past us. 

By the time we hit the technical section, 8 miles in, I am already winded, my heart rate is spiking, and I am struggling at a pace I trained for. With it comes a moment of doubt: can I even finish this? I can hardly breathe. And this Aid Station is not just a place to fill my flask and grab a PB&J. It’s also the point where the 50k route splits from the alternate 10-mile route. To the left, I have 24 miles of remote trails with limited resources. No bathrooms. No tissue refills for my torrentially flowing nose. To the right, is two miles to the finish line. Maybe I could even count as a “finisher” for completing the 10-mile route? But that’s not what I came for. And frankly, even the thought offends me. We have trained for so long, and I’m the fittest I’ve ever been. Is some congestion going to stop me?

I’m angry. 

People keep passing us as I struggle to maintain pace on the steep, rocky climbs. 

Finally, around mile 10, I’m able to gently pick up and keep pace with the other runners. It’s slow going but at least sustainable. 

We are backed up in a winding line of lightly jogging runners on single track for the next eight miles. But the slow pace along gently rolling hills helps. We wind along a scenic bluff, past a wedding, mid-ceremony, clambered over slick, mossy rocks, and gingerly hop between boulders to cross a swollen river.

It’s been cool and drizzling on and off all day. But the possibility of a thunderstorm seems imminent as we round Mullen’s Cover Overlook and look over a vista at dark, heavy clouds. The drizzle intensifies into rain, but the downpour only lasts long enough for Chris to pause, put on his rain jacket, and then quickly regret the decision. Me? I just keep running.

At mile 20, I get my second wind, and the tables turn. It’s late in the game but we pick up pace and start passing people. One man who recognizes us from the beginning of the race comments, as we pass, “You’re looking so much stronger than at the beginning.” I feel so much stronger. I feel so much more like myself.

I count down the miles remaining as we turn toward the finish line and reel in runners. 

At two miles out, we pass a man in Chris’s age bracket, and Chris wants to keep that lead, so we continue to pick up pace.

We hit the final hill, where a woman is walking. We run past and continue accelerating. 

Cheering attendees with cowbells and signs for their loved ones crowd the trail along the last quarter mile. 

Best of all, we finish, running hand in hand. 

We were so much slower than I had hoped but finished stronger than I expected. 

A day later, with a profoundly stuffy nose, I acknowledge that I am (and was) sick. I am still baffled as to how I could have picked up such a virulent cold in the window of time before the race, but I managed it. 

So here’s to finishing. Not all races are won.  Some days, crossing the finish line is achievement enough. 

Lexi lives in a truck camper down by the river.

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