Ruth Stodghill

After miles of relentless downhill, Ruth Stodghill (far left) learned that cheating doesn’t always pay.

Over the course of the years, I’ve shared some incredible stories — tales full of inspiration, heroism, and victory.

This isn’t one of those stories.

This is a story of the good, the bad and the ugly. A story about pain. And disappointment. And embarrassment. Because these, too, are a part of life. And something we can be equally proud of when they are genuinely earned.

This story starts, as so many classic stories do, with a hero setting forth on a gallant quest. I, dear reader, am that hero. And my quest: to run a marathon in under four hours. It is a feat that few runners accomplish.

Now, like any good hero, I need a flaw.

Mine is this — I am not a naturally fast runner. I have no fast-twitch muscle fibers in my legs, my feet kick out awkwardly to the side like a mule’s when I jog, and I tend to trip over every and anything, including my own shadow.

How in the world would I, a slow runner, pull off running a fast marathon? Well, the answer is simple.

I would cheat.

How does one cheat in a marathon? Easy. One finds a marathon to run that is almost completely downhill.

Being quite adept at internet searches, I quickly found a marathon that billed itself as “The Fastest Boston Qualifier West of the Rio Grande,” namely the Sandia Crest Marathon in Albuquerque, New Mexico. With a whopping elevation loss of 4,459 feet, I knew this was my cheat.

There was only one problem. I had already signed up to run a half marathon, the Santa Fe Thunder, the following day.

Brilliant hero that I am, I decided, no problem. I would just go ahead and do both.

Fast forward to the morning of the Sandia Crest Marathon. In the pre-dawn hours, I climbed onto a bus with my fellow runners and was hauled far away from Albuquerque, almost 10,000 feet up to the heights of the Sandia mountains. Waiting for the race to start, I peered down from the summits, admiring the distant lights of Santa Fe to the north. It was breathtaking.

With almost no warning, the starting gun popped off and with my fellow herd of runners, I dashed from the starting gate and began to descend from the mountains towards Albuquerque, 26.2 miles away. The descent was steep, much steeper than I’d anticipated. I felt like I was flying as the miles quickly ticked themselves off ...one ...two ...three ...the fastest 5K I have ever run in my life. I thought to myself, this is BRILLIANT. Why didn’t I cheat before?

But quickly, the magic pixie dust of downhill running wore off, and reality started to take hold. My legs were becoming hard — as hard as lead pipes, and just as heavy. The muscles were tensing under the pressure of a downhill stride that I wasn’t prepared to maintain. By Mile 10, I knew I was in trouble. I paused at a water station to stretch my quads... and almost collapsed. My muscles were shaking, rapidly firing an S-O-S to my body to STOP RUNNING.

But no hero quits without completing their quest.

So I kept running.

As the miles ticked away, I passed other runners experiencing the same phenomenon. Some were limping. Some were crying as they dropped from a jog to a walk. Some attempted to stretch out their angry calves and quads. I gritted my teeth and kept pumping my legs forward, desperate to reach the finish line before my legs locked as solid as the Tin Man’s in a rainstorm.

And finish, I did. I met my goal, with a time of 3:54:22. I broke the four-hour mark.

And by the time I hauled myself to my car to drive to Santa Fe, I knew this race had broken me.

My legs were a series of knots, from my ankles, to my calves, to my quads, to my hips. The best ‘walk’ I could manage was a waddle because that’s what it looks like when one is limping on both sides.

I prayed that my legs would somehow, some way heal themselves as I slept that night. But when I awoke the next morning, I knew, I would not even be able to manage to walk the Santa Fe half marathon. I couldn’t even walk to the bathroom.

And things were about to get even uglier. 

One week after the disastrous marathon, I was registered to compete in a local race — the Cougar Canyon Killer 5K. This race is part of the 2019 RaBa Cinco running series. I was in first place for the women, but barely. I knew that in order to hold on to first, I needed to earn one more RaBa Cinco point — meaning I would need to place in the top three for the females in the Cougar Canyon race.

But 5K’s require speed. They are a sprint, basically, for three miles.

And my legs were still trashed. I was in trouble.

By the morning of the race, I was managing to walk. Barely. I didn’t think my legs had much more in them than as slow trot. I stuffed my tired calves into knee-high compression socks, not so much to improve my performance at the race, as to contain the carnage somewhat if my legs completely exploded into a million bits whilst on the race course. Less mess for someone to have to hose off the sidewalk.

As I neared the starting line, I counted my female competitors: three. Plus myself. To place third, I had to beat at least one other female runner. How would I manage not to come in dead last? Especially when all the other women were adept sprinters?

It wasn’t pretty. It was pretty ugly, in fact. As we trotted away from the starting line, I could hear the rusty cogs and wheels of my leg muscles grinding against each other sharply, protesting my desperate efforts to make them fly down the road. I watched in agony as the pack easily pulled away from me, gliding away in the distance. Before I lost sight of them, I counted the women ­— two were ahead of me.

That left one behind me.

I refused to look back to see how close this final runner was on my tail. I feared that if I turned, I would lose my precarious balance as I tottered along, causing me to trip and fall. I huffed and puffed my way forward, struggling for every inch of ground that I covered.

By the time I reached the finish line, I was a hot mess. My face was beet red, my nose was running, my eyes were watering and my legs were throbbing sacks of flesh. But I made it. I managed to scrape myself across the line just ahead of my opponent, earning the critical last RaBa Cinco point. It was an ugly finish, but it was a finish.

In the end, I achieved my quest,  but returned to my kingdom humbled. I learned that downhill isn’t always easy. Faster isn’t always better. And cheaters may win — but the aftermath won’t be pretty.

The Sandia Crest Marathon, Santa Fe Half Marathon —Cougar Canyon Killer 5K

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