On Belonging

Estes Epic

Okay, look: I’m not the most athletic person in the world, okay? But last year, my favorite friend did this unbelievably difficult kayak race called the MR340, which inspired me to put myself through some sort of physical challenge. (Besides eating too many donuts, which would be a more typical Launa-inspired physical challenge.) (I’m not wrong, am I, Launa?)


I can’t run (joints), I don’t enjoy biking (butt), and I didn’t want to kayak (dark water scares me). So, I registered myself for this 12-hour walk in Minneapolis, set a goal to do 36 miles in 12 hours, and started training. That goal sounded bonkers to me at first, but sooner than expected I was doing 20-mile walks in a little more than 5 hours. I was confident I’d do well.

But then my dad’s stem cell transplant interrupted my training schedule and preempted my trip to Minnesota. (Which is fine, because I’d choose a life-saving medical procedure over a stupid race any day of the week.) So, I set out to find an alternate Hard Thing. And I found The Estes Epic.

For those who don’t want to clicky the linky, here’s the scoop: On Saturday, the Epic hosts a mountain bike race of 25 or 50 miles. Then on Sunday, there’s a foot race of 15, 26.2 or 50 miles. Some nutcases participate in both days. As for me? I did the 15 miler—otherwise known as a Heavy Half. And I want to be clear: I hiked that Heavy Half. I did not run.

And I was the only one who did not run.

Now, I have to tell you, I was in tears at the start line because I clearly didn’t belong there. The people participating in the Epic are beasts. I’m talking, serious, serious athletes. I am most decidedly not an athlete—serious or otherwise. Don’t get me wrong: I trained for this thing at the gym, on trails, and on pavement. But I don’t eat right, I’m 46 years old, and I’m pretty jiggly in places. These people, though? They look like what you’d expect of ultra-marathon types: lean, young, adorable outfits, the whole package.

I found myself a spot at the very back of the pack, and I tried to hush up the jerk in my head. “You don’t belong here.” “This was a terrible mistake.” “Who do you think you’re kidding?” “You’re a joke.”

And then it was time to start. So I did. I told myself I wasn’t going to set too quick a pace, but it’s hard to walk normally when everyone else is running, you know? So I power-walked through the first turn, accepted a “You’re awesome” from a guy with a camera and a pity smile, and set about my business.

Allow me to pause for a moment and talk to you about elevation. The highest elevation in St. Louis is 615 feet. At the tippy top of this race, I was at 9400ish feet. Why does that matter, you ask? It matters because there’s not as much oxygen at higher elevations, and when you’re hiking 15 miles, oxygen is really damn helpful. But, I’ve hiked in Rocky Mountain National Park before, and I had no problems. And we arrived for the Epic a couple of days early so I could adjust. So, I really wasn’t terribly concerned; I figured I’d just go slowly and take breaks.

What I didn’t count on so much was the elevation change. Going from 6000-something feet at the start line to 9400ish feet—sort of quickly—is a bit of a shock to the system. The brain, in particular. As it was explained to me, until you get acclimated (which takes about a week), your brain thinks it’s getting sufficient oxygen, but it’s actually not. Which makes all sorts of weird things happen.

In my case, my arms were like lead, I felt like I was going to throw up, and I really just wanted to curl up and take a nap. I began counting my steps: Walk 50 paces. Stop. Walk 50 paces. Stop. Walk 25 paces. Stop. Do it again. And again. And again. My legs weren’t sore or tired. I wasn’t out of breath. But I felt like I was going to die. Which got me worried about altitude sickness. (Learn how to avoid altitude sickness here.) Which got me wondering if the bull elk I kept hearing would eat me if they thought I was already dead.

I almost burst into tears on multiple occasions. I knew it: I don’t belong here.

At one point, the slowest marathoner—whom I’d actually passed walking at the start—caught up with me.

“Hey, you okay?” she asked.

“Umm, not exactly,” I responded.

“You need anything? Have plenty of water?”

“Oh, yeah. I have water and gels and all kinds of stuff,” I sighed.

“I have real food,” she offered.

My stomach turned. “Nah, that’s okay. Thank you, though.”

“You want me to walk with you for awhile?” she asked. (I could cry right now just thinking about how beautifully kind people can be.)

“Oh, no,” I said. “You go ahead. I’ll be all right.”

Mind you, I had absolutely no idea if I was going to be all right or not, but I couldn’t be responsible for slowing anyone down.

Eventually, I made it to the turnaround, thanking Jesus and every disciple I could think of that I didn’t have to turn left to climb the next hill. I sat down for a moment to chat with the race volunteers, who were incredibly helpful and encouraging. I was so certain I was actually dying that I asked, “So, how do I know if I need to be done? I don’t want anyone to have to rescue my ass off this mountain.” One of the guys looked at me and said, “Oh, you’re not done. The hardest part is over. It’s all downhill from here. So get going.”

So I did.

And I finished.

On a normal day, at a normal elevation, I could knock out a 15-mile walk in three and a half hours. The Epic took me nearly four hours and 50 minutes. I finished a full hour after the last Heavy Half runner. Nine people finished their marathon before I made it in. The winner of the 50-mile foot race finished in something like eight hours.

Nope, I’m not an athlete. My time wasn’t impressive. People are blown away that I did the Epic—until they hear I walked and “only” did the Heavy Half.

And I don’t care.

Know why?

I belonged there. 

Here’s my point: Whatever hard thing you’re trying to do right now? Don’t compare yourself to the younger, leaner people in the pack. Or the more attractive ones. Or the more educated ones. Or the wealthier ones. Or the ones with the more successful kids. Okay? If you’ve decided to do something—get after it. The only person who can decide if you belong or not is you. And you do.

You belong.

You’re not done. So get going.