Being as small as they are, our islands don’t offer many road races for those of us that are runners. However, once a year in St. John, there is one race called 8 Tuff Miles that is well known for being one of the toughest (tuff!) runs you can do down here. The first 5 miles of the run include an incline that is the equivalent of climbing to the top of the Empire State Building. Then, the last 3 miles are all downhill. Basically you’re running from one bay, up across the island, down to another bay. It’s a popular run and a huge community affair. Since I knew I’d be on-island for it this year, I signed up and committed to training for it.
I have to say that training for this run was no easy task. I’ve been running for 20 years, so I’d like to consider myself an experienced runner. It’s only 8 miles. I told myself. How bad could it be? However, running long distances in the islands compared to anything else most of us are used to can make for quite the challenge.
First, there’s the issue of where to run. St. Thomas isn’t exactly runner-friendly. There are no evenly paved sidewalks (or roads for that matter) or nicely wooded suburban trails. In fact, there aren’t even shoulders on the roads that you can run on. So basically, you have to run on the actual road. This would be safer if the road was nice and straight, but the roads down here are about as straight as Ricky Martin, so safety is out the window.
Then, there’s the issue of which side of the road you should run on. The general rule is to run against the flow of traffic, however, when you’re running in the road, up a hill, approaching a 90 degree turn, you don’t want to be on the inside of that hill/turn – that’s called having a death wish because the one thing that islanders do fast (the only thing as far as I can tell) is driving. So, here you must usually make an exception and run with the flow of traffic. Except some of the roads are so curvy that there’s no avoiding danger no matter which side of the road you’re on. This is when you have to get creative. Upon approaching a sharp, blind turn on a very curvy road, I tend to run out into the middle of the lane more and flail my arms out in a semi-panicky state with the hopes that the oncoming driver will see me. So far, I am still alive, so it’s working.
Of course, there is also the issue of stray dogs. I’m a huge dog lover, and I’ve never been afraid of dogs, but the locals here don’t necessarily have the same affection for them that I’m used to. Unfortunately, this means that dogs here behave a bit more on the wild side. As a result, I’ve developed a fear of being attacked by a dog while running. I often find my mind racing as I run, trying to come up with a back-up plan for what I should do if an island dog chases me down. I look around for parked cars I could hop up on, utility poles I may be able to climb, and periodically look behind me to be sure (for the 10th time) that I’m not being chased. It’s not a great feeling, but it does typically distract me from the physical pain of running.
Running to me is on par with pain. Over the years, I’ve ran through broken toes, shin splints, countless (and I mean countless) side stitches. I’ve ran with colds, with the flu, while hyperventilating (usually from crying), and – the best one to date – with a fractured femur (yes, Kevin, I’m still milking that one – though it should be noted I didn’t know it was fractured at the time). Though none of this prepared me for the types of challenges I now face running in the tropics. Everything about it is intense. The heat is intense. The hills are intense. The humidity is intense. But the good news is that I’m typically so concerned about getting hit by a car or bit by a dog that I don’t really notice the heat or hills much anymore. In fact, running in fear is a phenomenon that I think should be studied at length. It’s worked well for me as a training motivator.
So for the months leading up to the race, I stuck to my training plan and, all things considered, it went pretty well. I felt myself getting stronger and stronger and even did a few runs over on St. John to prepare. Considering that I’m originally from the Midwest where the terrain is flat as a board, I can honestly say that after training for this run, I was in the best shape of my life. I was psyched.
And then I got the flu.
And I didn’t just get that type of flu that could potentially be confused with a bad cold. This flu came on loud and clear: “I AM THE FLU!” it raged. I have never felt body aches like that before. At one point, it was so bad that I thought I had dengue fever, which is like malaria in the Caribbean. I was a pathetic mess.
But after a visit to the doctor and some much-needed meds, I was on the upswing. A few days before the race, the doctor cleared me to run “if I felt up for it”, which I translated to mean that I had no excuse not to run.
I got up early on Saturday morning, hopped on the ferry from St. Thomas to St. John, and took off on my ascent up to the top of the island with about 1,100 other people. As I climbed up the hills of St. John, the cold medicine I was taking kicked in heavily and my mind kind of removed itself from my body. It was weird – there seemed to be a disconnect between what I was doing physically and where I was mentally. This is how I coped with getting up the first big hill, which was about 1.5 miles long. It wasn’t until the torrential downpours that came at Mile 2.5 that my mind and body came back together, and I started focusing on the fact that I was destined to get mononucleosis.
I have to confess that I did have to walk a few times uphill (which is every runner’s most demoralizing moment), but I always picked it back up and pushed myself as soon as I could. Finally, I reached the damn summit and started on my decline, and I was on my way to the end. Thank God. Then, as luck would have it, I got a raging side-stich on my way down, certain that that is what it feels like to get stabbed. I was reaching hard to keep with the run and when I finally made it to the last mile, I felt that I may be able to pick it up to finish strong. However, all the rain had made things really muddy. So, as a final slap in the face, the last 100 meters of the run to the finish line was a complete mudslide. I was mostly just grateful that I didn’t fall on my face at the end. But I had completed my run and all the pain I had just experienced magically subsided.
I’m not sure why I put myself through all of this, but I guess it’s kind of like childbirth. I’ve never had a child, so maybe this isn’t a fair comparison. However, it seems the same in that you go through so much for this special accomplishment, then you achieve it, and all that pain and time and effort are totally forgotten. Then you think to yourself, I can do that again. It’s demented, but these are the things we do for glory.
I’m definitely going do it again next year.