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a long run

a long run
words x joey kile
illustrations x evan melnyk
I have a soft spot for endurance events. There’s something about the prolonged suffering and being able to eat whatever you want afterwards that really does it for me. To say they are anything but grueling tests of the human spirit is an understatement. Throughout COVID, people have endured their own race of restrictions and isolation leading to much unfamiliar sacrifice and hardship.

A more direct comparison is ultra trail running. In this event, the mind and body become a battleground as mile after monotonous mile is spent alone in rugged environments. There are no dense crowds cheering along a road, no college students handing out beers between water stations, and likely no cars coming to pick you up if you’re unable to keep going. There’s just dirt, rock, and the unending thump of your feet as they bring you closer and closer to the finish line.
for a lot of us each day has passed like those miles, physically isolated from our peers, staring at the same patch of wall day after day, hoping to eventually get to the end.
In late summer of 2015, I decided a long distance trail race would be fun and partook in my first trail marathon. The term “marathon” is used loosely and even in the event description for this race it states, “The marathon is always more than a marathon and exact mileage is never shared…let us know what you got at the end of the race!” Distances were estimated somewhere between 27 and 30 miles, as long as no one got lost.

Leading up to this event, my longest training run was a questionable two hours. My nutrition plan was a couple gels and whatever was at the aid stations. I am not sure I had even logged more than 20 miles in the shoes I would use on race day. To put it lightly, I was undertrained, underprepared, and without a doubt in for a world of hurt. Ignorance coupled with the invincibility of youth kept my spirits high.
Heading into COVID was similar to being unprepared for this race.
as a community, we had little to no training. we walked up to a starting line without knowing what to expect.
Many thought this would be over in a few months and our summers would be free to roam. As time went on, understanding what we were in for became more apparent. A real finish line was unknown.

Stepping up to the marathon’s starting line, my legs were full of pre-race jitters. As soon as the gun went off I went out strong, confident, and naive. The first half hour was spent maintaining splits near the front of the pack, adrenaline and endorphins softening the damage to my body. Minutes passed by and the hours rolled underfoot. At hour three, however, something did not quite feel right.

The confident run became a haltering jog, further slowing to a trudge. Most of my energy was spent making sure each step was forward. Arriving at an aid station not long after, my stomach dropped in dismay when the volunteers said mile 22. My white Timex did not have a GPS. After four grueling hours I had been under the impression there were only a few miles left. The truth of potentially having another seven was soul crushing.
this part of a race has always been the most challenging aspect. more than halfway, less than the last push, the excitement of the start has worn off and you find out if you paced appropriately.
Now that vaccines are being administered, it feels like this is where we are at in the world. It is not quite the end, but the finish line is closer than the start. We are finding out if we went out too hard and if we have the energy to keep going. Do we have what it takes to continue wearing masks in public, socially distancing, and thinking of the safety of others at the cost of our own comfort?

Luckily, the last miles of my own race were not spent alone and it made all the difference. Acquaintances made on the trail usually follow a similar equation–commiserating is the icebreaker, lactic acid the friendship. Sharing in the love of the effort, sometimes the pain, is what makes a lot of running communities so powerful.

Without a companion on those final miles, I am not sure I would have finished the race. So text your friends, FaceTime your parents, and wish your acquaintances happy birthday. Save disconnecting for when the world opens back up and you spent the last two nights shutting down the bars before PR’ing your Sunday 5K.

As my partner-in-pain and I descended from what was hoped to be the last hilltop and exited the dense forest at a walk, a race volunteer came into view. Standing cheerily upon a dusty dirt road she informed us, “Last mile! Great job!” Having a competitive spirit I turned to my companion and said, “You want to send it?” With a polite decline and not sharing my same masochism, I headed into that final mile at a jog, sans comrade.

It was the hardest mile I had ever run and one of the slowest. My focus went in and out as I approached within a couple hundred meters of the finish. I don’t even remember crossing through the roughly planted stakes that served as the threshold from racing to recovery. When my vision finally came back to the world around me I could see the faces of the people I had exchanged amiable pre-race banter. They were all very casual in appearance. Their salt-streaked faces turned up in grins as the endorphins kept their spirits afloat. The final mileage tallied somewhere around 29 miles with 2900 feet of elevation gain. I was a shadow of what I had been five hours earlier. The feeling of strength and power in my legs had turned into stilts made of peanut butter. Grabbing fluids and food I precariously lumbered to a shady spot. With neither the strength nor the stamina to sit, I let myself fall to the ground.

Embracing this same spirit I will continue to endure to ensure the safety of my community.
although I do not know when that will be, I know I am closer to the end than the beginning, and it is a place I have been before.
about the author
joey kile

joey kile is an endurance athlete, community enthusiast, and creative. follow his adventure on instagram @joey.kile.