BY JULIANA WILLIAMS

I’m sitting on a cot scarfing down pizza as the sun sets behind the mountains outside of Phoenix. This is the first meal I’ve eaten since early that morning. Normally, I would be better prepared for an athletic event, but my plane sat for 4 hours as we waited for the second earliest snow ever recorded in Seattle to melt. I finish my pizza just as Trudy, the first runner on our team, returns from her first lap. I feel bad that I missed her start, but I’m here now and can support my team. I try to let go of my fear and not think too much about the nearly 16 miles I am about to run in the next 24 hours.

About a week after my club ultimate season ended, I woke up to a text from Trudy inviting me to join her in running a trail relay race in Arizona. Normally I would have passed on an invitation like this, but Trudy’s closing stuck with me: “I’m not much of a long distance runner, but I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

How many times had I said almost those exact words? “I’m not a distance runner.” If Trudy didn’t consider herself a distance runner and was going to give it a shot, why shouldn’t I? I was just coming off one of my best seasons of ultimate and felt like I was in better shape than ever. Besides, escaping the Seattle rain for the Arizona sun sounded perfect in November. I said yes, and wondered what exactly I had signed myself up for.

“As much as this race was about running 16 miles in the desert, it was also about facing my own self doubts and fears.”

After five hours of supporting my teammates as they start and finish their laps, it is finally time for my first run. I’m warmed up and ready  to go. Up first is the Green loop, the shortest of the three loops at 4.1 miles and minimal elevation gain. I meet Chloe in the transition tent and take the team bib from her. For the first half mile I keep adjusting my headlamp. If only the clouds would part I would turn off my headlamp and run by moonlight. I settle into my pace, I take in the dry smell of the desert and let my thoughts wander.

I always loved running and jumping, but for me that meant going as fast and as high as possible. When I was seven I sprained my ankle on the morning of a week-long camping trip because I wanted to see if I could jump off the highest step on the staircase in my house. In middle school, I ran sprints and did high jump and long jump. I loved the all-out, side-by-side drama of the track. My heart flew every time my foot planted and launched me off the ground.

My sophomore year of high school I gained six inches in high jump, and wasn’t far below the state competitors. It was time to get serious. I joined the cross-country team to avoid sitting on the couch all fall, but I was never motivated to work that hard. In two years I only competed in four races. During my final race, I walked. Distance was hard, and I was not a distance runner.

The Green loop goes by quickly.  The distance isn’t much farther than a cross-country race, so I know when to start my kick. I see the finish line and sprint up the final hill to pass the guy I have been pacing for a mile.

I hand off the bib to our final runner and head back to camp to cool down. I try to eat, but the food feels like a lump in my stomach. One loop down, but I’ve never done two runs in a day before, let alone three. How will it go? How will I feel? Will I limp to the end or finish strong?

A fitful hour and a half of sleep later and I’m getting ready to run again. This time it’s the Red loop, the longest lap, with the most elevation change. Slowly, oh so slowly, I make it to the top of the ridge and then dodge rocks on the single track back down to the valley. I battle fatigue, altitude and the little voice inside my head that said, “you can just stop when it gets hard.”

Four miles into the Red loop the trail joins a wash. Lumpy, dusty sand that sucks energy out of every step. It’s boring and, according to my teammates, lasts for another mile. I think about pausing for some water. I think about taking a break. But a new voice speaks up, “You can’t stop now.” I’ve run eight miles already tonight, as far as my longest training run, and I’m over half done with Red. I roll my ankle and slow down enough to make sure I’m fine. “You can’t stop now.” I think about all the training I had done in the Seattle rain. I think about my teammates waiting for me back at camp, excited to see what we can do together. I think about my teenage self who avoided things that were hard. “You can’t stop now.”

I finish the loop slower than I had hoped, but I don’t stop.

“I loved the all-out, side-by-side drama of the track. My heart flew every time my foot planted and launched me off the ground.”

Back at camp, I take an all too short half hour nap and wake up again with chills. It isn’t a fever, but I am very calorie deficient. I simply haven’t been able to catch up from missing lunch while I was on the plane. I’m exhausted, hungry and force-feeding myself as much food as I can stomach. I’m curled over in a camp chair, huddling under sleeping bags hoping I can digest in time for my last loop. I haven’t felt this unable to function since I got food poisoning last year.

Dawn arrives and I’m able to distract myself from how awful I feel by cheering on my teammates and helping them prepare for their loops. Dharma returns from her final lap, Yellow, and I ask her to tell me about it since I’m running it next. Peine runs a blazing fast Red, then it’s Chloe’s Green. My teammates are cruising through their final laps, and I’m up, back at the transition tent for my final run.

Yellow may be the middle in distance and elevation, but it is the hardest yet. With endless rolling hills combined with my fatigue, this is my first run in daylight. It’s hot, my nose starts to bleed from the altitude and the snot rockets needed to clear out the dust. I trade leads back and forth with a friendly guy with an intimidating Ironman tattoo on his calf. I’m faster downhill, he’s faster going up. Three miles in, I’m no longer able to catch up to him. He extends his lead and I’m alone in the desert. I think about stopping.

But I had already proven to myself during the Red loop that I could do this. I had already run more than I ever had. I focus on just one more hill, then the next as I make my way through my final loop. I reach the last mile and it’s time to kick. I start to fly. I sprint to the finish line breathing harder than I ever have from ultimate or track and field.

We stay at the finish line cheering on runners from other teams, as our final teammate takes off. I choke up for almost every runner I cheer. I see on their faces how much pain they are in. I had just been there. And they fought their own demons on the trail, just as I had. As much as this race was about running 16 miles in the desert, it was also about facing my own self doubts and fears, “this is too hard,” “I’m not good enough,” “I can’t do this”.

My team learned later that we had won the women’s division. But the reason I fought back tears was that I had become a distance runner. I have a new story to tell myself.

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The Awesome Sports Project is an online journal committed to inspiring girls’ and women’s voices in sports. We publish every Tuesday between November and June. Submit your own story or enter our Awesome Sports Writing Contest.