Blood and Revenge. No, I didn’t fall, that’s not the blood I’m talking about. I flopped around in the tent unable to sleep in the hours before Manitou’s Revenge 54 Mile Ultramarathon, and on a 2:30 a.m. trip to the bathroom all my cravings for Snickers and Doritos made all kinds of sense. My period. Faithful to the twenty eight to thirty day cycle. Back in the tent with my cramps and low mood, my mind fixed on the controllable details: Extra tampons. Extra ziplock for extra garbage. Extra nutrition. When I tried to sleep again, I was bombarded by extra nerves about the plain physical challenge ahead. Manitou’s is not a race that needs any extra added to it. It is already extra. Extra long, extra steep, extra awesome. Extra encouraging community, extra awesome race shirt. And here I was, with the extra going. Periods are a lot. There has been no female ever who was neutral about their period. Some people have it worse, some people have it easier, but if you have a period it affects your life.
Dressing for the race, I raked through my duffle of clothes, socks and shoes. I had only packed one pair of shorts though, my favorite pair, old, perfect Oiselle Toolbelt Rogas, in a very, very light, blue. Goddamnit, I muttered, why didn’t I bring a black pair. Scotie and Sheena asked how I was doing while we puttered around at 3:30 a.m. eating our obsessively specific pre race breakfasts (Wegmans brand Oats and Honey Crunchy Granola Bar and cold brew coffee with oat milk). I paused before answering, asking myself how into the details I wanted to get. Scotie has daughters, he can handle it, obviously so could Sheena, but I just said, “I wish I brought black shorts.”
At the start line the gender balance is about one woman to every four or five men. Milling around the start line we ask each other, as is normal, “How are you doing?” Just by the numbers, more of these little conversations are with men. And in each interaction with men, I did not mention my period, it felt embarrassing, too intimate and personal. Too female in a way I had an instinct to deny. Yet with the women, I easily, immediately actually, when asked how I was doing, said, “Period,” and was met with sympathy, commiseration, offers of tampons. This kind of editing of topics around the female experience, my experience as female, always barks back at me. Why am I editing? Who am I trying to make comfortable? Me, or them?
As the day quickly became difficult, because it is Manitou’s, I started to feel the ways bleeding out here was manifesting. I was tired. My legs felt fine, I just wanted to sleep. At the Palenville Aid Station (AS) there was a woman I recognized from last year. She asked how I was doing with the eye gaze of someone who wants to know, really, and of someone who has also placed herself voluntarily in environments of intense physical challenge. “I got my period this morning. I’ve changed my tampon eight times. I just feel so tired. And I’m wearing light blue shorts.” The best part of being open with people is the stories you get back. She told me about running the Boston Marathon on the first day of her period and going through all the tampons she brought before the race even started. In speaking explicitly about this huge dimension of the shared female experience, the physiology of the body that other bodies come from, I felt my connection to women doing hard stuff during their period over the millennia. It still sucked. I said, “Well, there are only so clean my hands can possibly be at this point, so I’m just bleeding from here on out.” And she said, “That’s what I did.” Coral was there, my eleven year old who has grown up in the transparency of a female oriented household and has heard a lot about periods. She watched us talk, listening closely. She said, “Momma, you need some more Oreo’s, here, take a lot. It’ll help.” So young, so wise. And then up the Kaaterskill climb, which went on forever.
Trudging up that eternal, relentless climb I got more and more tired. I started to think that there was just no way to turn this around. I was 25 or so miles in and had so far to go. I convinced myself that a stop at Platte Clove, 31.5 miles or a 50k was a respectable distance, the furthest I’d run this whole season in fact. I even started to believe that if I stopped at that point it would still be a respectable enough effort that I could wear the race t-shirt even though I’d have a DNF (Did Not Finish). I got sucked further into my mental black hole when I was passed by two people who looked like they were also struggling.
My usually reliable stance of being proud to have toed the line and set my sights on finishing wasn’t cutting it. I was pissed and discouraged. I was sick of being so slow. Why was I doing this? What did I have to prove? I tried to turn this around by imagining being the absolute last person under the 24 hour cut off and stenciling DFL on my race shirt: Dead Fucking Last.
That amused me for thirty seconds. Then I was angry again. And the climb was still not ending. The positive side of female concern for others started to weave into my self absorbed thoughts of a DNF, I started to think about Shannon who had driven all the way to pace me, three hours, and about how she needed to get a run in. I could just do the next section with her, seven of the iconic, photo worthy miles. Then stop. But if I got that far, I’d “only” be 16 miles from the finish…and so I plodded forth.
Another wave of anger happened at Platte Clove AS: Craig, my husband, didn’t have my drop bag collected and open with my shoe change ready. And I’d asked him, reminded him, written down, that I NEEDED THAT DONE when I got there because I knew I’d be close to the cut off. I was only half an hour ahead of the cut off, and I was stressed and I wanted to scream. I wanted to throw a fit and have an excuse to stop. I calmly said what I needed and kept the rage in check. Craig, Coral and Shannon’s genuine care and concern for getting me sorted and back on the trail shifted my mood before I could start to complain. Part of the beauty and the healing of these endeavors is letting yourself be cared for by others. It’s not often in our “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” culture that you have the collective permission to be supported in accomplishing your goal. There are people who have volunteered to provide support. Pacers are part of this voluntary support ecosystem that makes ultra’s an extraordinary microcosm for humanity.
As soon as I was with Shannon I was totally out of my own head, out of my own way and back in the moment. My body was still working double time and I felt it, but I was also able to be outside of that and in the shared experience of being on the trail with another woman, friend, runner. I was relieved when night came and the situation with my shorts was obscured by darkness. I felt how the self consciousness about visible blood is my own fear about creating awkward discomfort in anyone around me, even a total stranger at an aid station in the dark wilds of the Catskill mountains. That is some serious cultural programming right there.
I finished twenty minutes faster than last year. The last mile on the road was total euphoria. Finishing in the quiet night, a crisp, cold breeze coming up off the freezing river, Shannon’s smile glowing in the dark, and thoughts of pizza and a shower. I was so proud of myself for finishing and so grateful to Shannon, Craig, Coral, to Miss Heather at home with Colby while she seized, to my coach Elizabeth, to all my girl gang at home that I run with, to Sheena on the same trail hours ahead of me whose energy I could feel pulling me along. Gratitude for all the love and encouragement that got me out here, gratitude to all the loved ones to whom I feel accountable to give it my all.
Having my period at Manitou’s is a story I decided to share because of how terrible it felt and how preoccupied I was by it. Maybe it is all those commercials about being able to wear white pants if you use this or that tampon brand that really drives home a shame about the sight of blood. I had 22 hours out there to ponder how and why I was automatically inclined to hide it. I am fifty years old. I’ve had my period for a long time and likely won’t have it for a whole lot longer. I felt over the course of the race that it is not the sight of blood or the fact of blood that is the issue. The issue is that it is one of a trillion small and large things that women are taught to respond to with shame. We are taught to deny our periods because it is evidence that women are strong, powerful bodies. I bled. It was a mess. It was another level of work my body had to do all day over 17K feet of elevation gain, 54 miles and 22 hours. That is not embarrassing. That is power.
Postscript: After three rounds of Oxyclean and cold water washing my favorite light blue Oiselle Toolbelt Rogas are good to go.