I am flying!! Just went through the aid station not even a kilometre ago and realized I’d managed to complete the front half of this race in about 2 hours, 15 minutes. I’m in last place, which I’d expected, but honestly I’d figured I’d be so much slower – I’d guessed I’d come in at about 3 hours for the front half.
Thus, I’m thrilled. And having just seen hubby at the aid station, I’m so pumped. Plus with a dozen or more 35K runners coming up the path towards me, so many of them offering kudos and congrats and amazement at seeing a very pregnant runner coming down the trails at them, I’m on a bit of a high.
I round the corner on a relatively smooth section of the trails and see ahead of me another switchback turn, going to the right. It’s a muddy one. I don’t like the looks of it at all (gives me flashbacks to falling at Squamish 50 back last October)… And so I glance around me for an alternative route down. Yes, there in front of me I can go around the side of the path and cut down early. I make my way forward and reach a little drop off to hop back onto the path. It’s not terribly high – two feet maybe? Not even. Really, not a big deal. After a moments hesitation I turn sideways, to the left, and lead with my right leg to hop down.
Yes, my right leg. The one that’s wearing my ACL brace. The brace that’s slipped down about an inch and I never did stop to adjust it in the past few hours. But my knee has been doing SO WELL lately. Honestly, part of me believes I hardly even need the brace any more.
So my right foot disappears over the side of the drop off… And hits the ground beneath it not even a second later. It doesn’t stay there long – instead it crumbles out beneath me. Did I slip? Or did my knee give out? In hindsight I’m pretty sure my knee gave out. I heard a click (a similar sickening sound to what I heard 7 months ago in Squamish 50, the day I tore my ACL). I get the impression my knee clicked out of proper alignment, and then back into alignment. And boom – I’m on the ground. Stunned. Feeling a bit of deja vu.
I put this race on my calendar many months ago. Originally, I was actually thinking the 35K distance! Clearly I’ve never experienced pregnancy before. Not that I don’t think I couldn’t complete 35 km (ok well, at this moment that might be debatable), but more the cutoff times for the 35K I knew would be a big if not impossible challenge to meet. So I ended up signing up for the 18K distance (no cutoffs other than that of the 35K race) back in February, after running Run Ridge Run 13K trail race when I was just over 5 months pregnant.
Three months later, here I am – with a considerably bigger belly! Now at 36 weeks pregnant (4 to go!!), I must admit that training has NOT gone to plan (in the least bit whatsoever). I nearly didn’t show up today actually. But then found race results for Survival of the Fittest 18K for 2019 showing someone finishing in 6:04 – which is about a 20 minutes per km pace… And now THAT I knew I could do. So as long as it didn’t rain, I would show up.
It didn’t rain. And thus here I was, pinning a bib on myself and entering the contagious energy of a trail race. At 9:30am, I took off across the start line with just under 200 other racers leaving hubby and the doggos saying they’d aim to meet me at the aid station, which apparently was located at about 9.5 km in, per the map given. Note – no crew is allowed at the aid station and the race strictly discouraged runners friends and family from showing up. But I knew how worried hubby would be about me and thus we chose to see if he might be able to at least park somewhere along the side of the road and see me briefly.
I took my GoPro with me, and like usual for races these days my plan was to document the whole thing. Which I was doing a great job of detailing the course and how I was doing all the way up to the aid station (click here for my video race recap) where then my footage falls off considerably post-fall… Thus this post to flesh out the full story.
But in the meantime, at the aid station I see hubby did indeed make it there, and it was so nice to see him, just the best. Along with the great volunteers, he helped get me all refilled and ready to go back out for the back half.
As I exited the aid station, this is where I begin passing the dozen or so 35K runners coming at me, offering up kudos and words of support… And then of course minutes later I take my fall.
So I’m sitting on my butt in some mud. There’s mud on the back of my forearms. And on my hands. How did I fall? Did I hit my belly? There’s no dirt or mud on my shirt, thank goodness. But I’m still terrified. And my knee. What did I just do?
It doesn’t take long – mere seconds, and the sweeps both descend upon me. They are asking me if I’m okay. Can they help me up? I literally cannot speak right away. I just don’t know if I’m okay or not. I simply sit there, dumbfounded and mute. I finally mumble that I just need a minute. And I sit there, trying to process what just happened. Worry flooding me. Also, immense disappointment at re-injuring my knee. But mostly, intense anxiety at having done exactly what I feared most (and I know hubby feared most also) – which is to fall, the act of which is undoubtedly a risk to the baby. Putting myself at risk is one thing… But I’m two right now.
Okay, I let the sweeps know I’ll get up now. They both help me up, one on each side – I’m heavy these days, at 8 months pregnant. I nearly pulled hubby down on top of me the other day when he went to help me up. So much of me still feels like me that it’s hard to remember sometimes I’m carrying these extra 25-30 pounds (or more? I don’t know for sure – I’ve not weighed myself in years and don’t know what my starting point was even if I knew what I was today).
One of the sweeps – I later learn his name is Nick – encourages me to take a few steps and see how it feels. So I tentatively take a few steps forward and am shocked to feel no pain in my knee. However, it is ridiculously weak. My leg nearly buckles out from underneath me again. Telling the sweeps I need a few minutes to determine what I want to do, I keep taking a few more steps trying to cess out the damage. I lean down and undo the straps to my brace, taking this opportunity to pull it back up the inch or so to where it should be and reattach the velcro straps tighter this time. The other sweep – who’s name l soon learn is Desmond – finds a sturdy stick for me to use to help support my weight.
As I come to the realization that what’s done is done – and it appears I CAN move forward, I can’t think of a good reason to turn back. Nick radios in and confirms if I decide to keep moving forward, there’s no other out points. We’re going all the way the way to the finish line from here if we continue on. I’m walking back and forth with my walking stick assessing the situation best I can – and the more I do, the more I cannot come up with a good reason to call it quits here. Both Nick and Desmond let me know they have no problem taking it really easy the rest of the way, and are very supportive of me deciding either way – to call it or to move forward. It’s all up to me.
I move forward. Yes, I can do this. My sweeps ask if I want company or want to hike alone. I tell them I need a spot to go to the bathroom! I’m actually amazed that today I haven’t needed to pee as often as is usual these days on my power walks. But I’ve needed to the past 3 km or so, and at this point I’m just really uncomfortable. Desmond points to a side trail – and I disappear.
When I return, I let Desmond and Nick know I’d like to hike alone. They are understanding and encouraging and send me off ahead of them. My head is still in a turmoil. I’m still trying to process what happened. There’s no cell signal, so I can’t call hubby. Which in hindsight was just as well – I’d have simply worried him and we’d likely have agreed I turn back, despite the fact there was nothing that could be done at this point. So I let my thoughts and fears rise up and I look at them all… And then I let them go. I will move forward.
At this point I realize I would like company – so I stop and wait for Desmond and Nick to catch up to let them know, yes for sure I’d like to hike it in together. I lead for a bit, and after a few sketchy downhill sections, Desmond actually takes the lead, offering me his arm or hand to lean on in any spots with rather precarious footing. I’d abandoned the walking stick he found me long ago – as helpful as it was I’ve always found sticks and poles to get in my way and trip me up more than they are useful (I still remember nearly tossing my expensive poles in Tahoe 200 – thankfully my pacer had the sense to help me collapse them and tuck them away in my pack instead of leaving them in the bushes haha).
At some points I think hey, I could go faster! But, well, that type of thinking kinda played into my fall – so I happily allow Desmond to set a conservative pace. And of course at other points I have trouble keeping up, as my hips and legs and back get sorer and sorer. My knee also stays relatively weak overall. Although adjusting my brace and just moving helped enough to know I could at least keep hiking forward, there’s still a definite sense of imbalance and weakness there.
I get to know my pacers… Um, I mean my sweeps. Lol, the are THE sweeps! But I feel like they are ‘mine’ now – so anyways. Nick and Desmond are both ultra runners, although they are both very modest in listing their achievements. I learn Nick is also a 100-miler! He looks young, so much younger than me. (Why am I feeling old today? I’m only 43 but perhaps the fall and my clumsiness is playing into this feeling.) Although we’ve not completed any of the same 100’s, he’s set to run Javelina 100 later this year! I get excited as we chat about this race, the very one where I ran my personal best 100-miler back in 2018. Later I look him up and realize he’s a very fast trail runner (and I was right he is young, 15 years my junior) – um, he actually won Diez Vistas 50K (a Gary Robbins / Coast Mtn Trail Running race) last month!!
It’s feeling a bit like an ultra race, with how I’ll run and chat with runners in ultras getting to know them and learn their racing history and a bit about them too. Desmond is signed up to run Knee Knacker this year, in just over a months time. It’ll be his 14th Knee Knacker!! And he ran Buckin’ Hell 50K (another Gary Robbins / Coast Mtn Trail Running race) in 2019 coming in first in his age group. Speaking of Nick’s youth – Desmond is 20 years my senior, proving age is simply a number. Love that. Both Buckin’ Hell and Knee Knacker are races I’ve yet to do – have always been a bit hesitant of them due to how tough they both are. Or maybe how tough I perceive them to be! Anyway, I’ve got many years ahead of me in which to get out there and tick these challenges off my list.
Neither Desmond or Nick have kids… Nor have they ever been pregnant (ha), therefore I suspend vocalizing my worries and fears over my fall and my baby belly while we three trek together. I already bared my pregnant belly to them (was worried about how it looked right after the fall – my skin got oddly blotchy), and I think that was more than either of them bargained for when they signed up to sweep this race lol. That said, they were both incredibly encouraging, supportive and non-judgemental in helping see me through the entire experience. So much gratitude for these two.
One of my favourite thing about races (typically ultras, cause you’re out there so long) is meeting people you’d normally never cross paths with or chat with and end up having such great conversations with them. Truly, human connection is something I know I crave – and over the past couple years it’s really been lacking. I mean, I’ve connected with so many amazing people over the past few years but it’s mostly been over Zoom. And that will just NEVER replace real, in-life connection. Honestly they are not even comparable.
As we cross various points in the race where along the path we must take a turn, there are race marshals at each of those spots pointing runners in the right direction – and as we pull through each, Desmond and Nick let them know they are free to go (seeing as I’m the last place runner)! At one of these last spots, two marshals take off, passing us as they shuffle along the path at a pace much faster than mine. All of a sudden the one turns around and asks if I’m Sarah, Sarah Cuff? I reply affirmative. And he says he’s Adam, the very Adam that was the sweep in Squamish 50 last October who, with Nadine, found me on the path with my newly busted ACL. The Adam that half carried me out of those trails. It’s a small world… And clearly, Gary Robbins races have very dedicated regular volunteers who seem to show up for multiple of his races to help out! Not to mention just the most amazing human beings who both love to run trails but also love to support other runners.
Although my body is getting quite weary (not only pregnancy but also I’m sure simply the lack of training) and my knee remains annoyingly weak, I’m buoyed by just being out here. I’m on the trails, in good company (caring, helpful company!!) and by the end I’m feeling like a bit of an insider to this race. Not to mention I now have a real desire to volunteer at a future race! My turn to give back.
Finally we pop out of the trails and we’re about a kilometre away from Quest University – the start/finish line. Desmond and Nick peel off with about a half kilometre to go, and I power hike up the steep incline towards the finish line. I see Gary Robbins himself (the race director) at the top of the steep hill – Desmond and Nick are there also, with a few others – all cheering me in.
Gary is maybe 200 metres or less from the finish line. He high fives me – and says wow, this is a first. I think he means I’m the first 8 month pregnant woman to complete this race? I almost stop there thinking he’s the finish line as he tells me amazing work and congratulations, but no, he tells me to keep going as the finish line is just ahead!
And so I power walk the last few metres – there’s ZERO running left in me at this point. And I cross the actual finish line, under the blown up arch. My hands are up in the air but my head falls forward – more out of pure gratitude to be crossing this finish line but also a bit of trepidation at having to tell hubby about my fall as well as a new flood of pent up emotion I have about the fall itself. My time is 5:07:04 – which is honestly neither here nor there at this point. I am truly happy to have finished. I was prepared for 6 hours, and at one point thought maybe more like 4 hours… And am totally pleased with 5 hours.
I cross the finish line and go straight into hubby’s arms. Then I just sit on a bench close to the finish line for many minutes. A paramedic comes over to check on me. I tell him I’m okay, totally okay. I mean, I’m not – but there’s nothing he can do for me in this moment. When I get up I can only hobble – my knee has tightened up to quite a degree. I can’t know what exactly I did to it – I’ll never know. And as for baby, I can only trust that baby Cuff is fine. Later, I’ll feel baby kick about as usual and will honestly say I’ve never been so happy to feel those kicks. As the day goes on they become more regular. And by the next day I can truthfully say, they feel totally normal in terms of strength, duration and timing.
Do I regret showing up for this race? No. I’ve made a habit of never regretting anything I choose to do.
Is there something to be learned from my experience? Yes, of course.
In hindsight, obviously I ought to have secured my brace on more tightly – allowing it to have slipped down meant it wasn’t positioned to work the way it’s supposed to. Originally I was saying my brace malfunctioned, whereas really it was me who wore it incorrectly. But would that have been enough to prevent my knee from collapsing? I don’t know.
I also could have been even more cautious and chosen not to hop down that small jump back onto the path. I could have gone further over and hugged a tree to get down. Or I could have led with my left leg. Or sat on my butt and slowly lowered myself down. Basically, I could have exercised more caution.
But had I chosen NOT to run this race, I know I would have been disappointed. It’s like a case of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”. Lose lose. I mean, that’s one way to look at it. But that’s not how I choose to look at it. I see this day as playing out how exactly how it was meant to. Things happening how they are meant to doesn’t mean perfectly or good or happily. It just means “how life is going to go”, and this isn’t always pretty or straight forward.
I am fully aware there are some who believe I ought to have ‘played it safe’ and not ever have showed up to attempt this race – a challenging course with lots of elevation in trails that can be rough and technical at points. By showing up, I’d be ‘asking for trouble’. Sure, I get that. And I totally respect anyone and everyone who chooses to play it safe. But if there’s one thing you need to know about me – I’m not one to ‘play it safe’. I abhor everything there is about the idea of hiding and basically quarantining oneself in the name of safety. Life is meant to be lived, fully and viscerally. Within reason – but each individual must decide for themselves what that boundary of reason is. Since Sparkle died, I have spent many tough years learning how to live with unapologetic strength and fierce courage – and as such, I choose a wild and free way of life. This is me.
The trails are my happy place. They are where I feel truly alive. Races allow for new trails to be explored and offer support and energy that going out on ones own can never provide. I love the trail race energy and atmosphere. I’m not sure I’m able to succinctly describe just how much vital life force I get from being out there on the trails, in a race like this – but will say it’s significant. Additionally, nature is where I feel most at home. Technology and modern day society can feel terribly suffocating day in day out, whereas in the mountains and trees I am able to breath deeply and fully.
I will also say that in no way was I ought there to prove anything to anyone, not even myself. I already am fully aware that the human body is capable of amazing feats. I already know with absolute certainty that pregnant women are definitely capable of the most outlandish and incredible accomplishments, even when nearly about to give birth. Nothing would surprise me. Me completing an 18K trail race in last place at 36 weeks pregnant is literally nothing up against some of the things other pregnant women before me have accomplished. So no, I’ve nothing to prove and would have been happy enough to be invisible in this race. That said, I am human – and the cheers and encouragement I did receive were honestly so lovely. I hold so much appreciation and gratitude for every runner and volunteer who supported me out there.
As hubby and I are leaving the race area, I see Gary Robbins over to the left, standing right where he was when he cheered me into the finish line. I reckon he’ll be there for at least another hour as he cheers in the remaining 35K racers. There’s a paramedic standing beside him – I believe she was at the aid station earlier in the day I went through, where I saw hubby at just past half way. She’s asking him if he knows about the 8-month pregnant woman who ran – and FELL!! I could be completely wrong, but she seemed to be insinuating this was going too far and had been an irresponsible decision on my part. If that was the case, I don’t blame her. We all are prone to judge based on what we feel we’d do.
Gary’s response seems pretty neutral… He might have been torn between being like the runners who cheered me on telling me how amazing and awesome I was… But also as a dad himself also fully appreciating the risk that I took… Plus maybe there was a healthy respect for the autonomy of each adult to make decisions for themselves (and their dependents). I’ll point out I’m simply hypothesizing at this point. Of course I have no way of knowing anyones actual thoughts.
I don’t actually hear any of this exchange (hubby did) as I’m beelining my way straight over to him for a quick chat. He congratulates me again and wishes me all the best. He gives me one of his Gary Robbins hugs (he was known for hugging every runner that crossed his finish lines in pre-Covid world) and says he hopes to see me back at a Coast Mountain Trail Race soon with kiddo in arm. Yes, me too. Me too!!
And so hubby and I make our way home, me in this interesting place between elation and anxiety… Yet trusting at the end of the day everything has unfolded as it was meant to, and everything will be okay.
Everything is okay.
UPDATE: On July 3rd, 2022, hubby and I welcomed our baby boy into this world. River Wilder Cuff is absolutely perfect and we are thrilled to begin our new adventure with him in our lives!