by Michelle Merlis
You’re 8,500 miles from home, in Thailand, staring up at mountains of dense jungle, surrounded by 200 of the most lithe bodies you’ve ever seen. Soon, you’ll all be headed to the vast trail network under the canopy. But right now, as you’re standing with your four teammates, dressed head to toe in Team USA gear, the director of a worldwide trail organization comes over with a camera crew – he shoves a microphone in your face and asks with overflowing excitement, “Will we see Team USA on the podium today?” You try to wake yourself up by pouring ice cubes and freezing cold water over your head. It does nothing. It barely quells the suffocating feeling of the immense heat and humidity, and it certainly doesn’t wake you up. Because this isn’t a dream. This is reality: you’re at the start line of the World Mountain and Trail Running Championships, about to compete with some of the best trail runners in the world.
How I found myself here is both simple and wildly complex. Simply, it was the culmination of years of hard work and consistent progress. More intricately, it was a lifelong journey filled with peaks, valleys, and detours capped off by one perfect day at the right time in the right place. Or, most likely, and no one can convince me otherwise, it was just some glitch of the matrix.
Ever since earning a spot on the team on April 30, 2022 with a win at the Breakneck Point Trail Marathon, I’d been waiting for the nerves to set in. Even here, in the final moments before the race began, they were nowhere to be found. I’d done everything I possibly could to prepare for this day, quieting any doubts and anxiety along the way. Most notably, for 8 weeks prior to the race, I’d lived the best life imaginable: training as a professional athlete, mostly in Flagstaff, AZ, a running mecca. I was fit, the fittest I’d ever been, and I was ready.
“Five, four, three, two, one…”
At 7:30 a.m. local time, the “short” trail race began on the outskirts of the city of Chiang Mai. This 40K course was essentially two large climbs (3.5-4.5 miles long and about 4,000’ of climbing) followed by two large descents (~6 miles long), although the second half of the race also featured two short (500’-800’) climbs. In total, the race had about 9,000’ of elevation gain (and equal loss). At times, the grade would reach 40%... or more.
The first mile, although slightly uphill, was akin to a road race. For about ¾ of a mile, we were on pavement; after spitting out of the convention center area onto the main road, we turned for the hills, running through the grounds of a monastery before dead-ending at a trail with a barbed wire fence and a hole cut through it. The start was en masse, both women and men, and people went out fast.
Once on the trail, we were narrowed down to a single-file line, and we were really starting to climb. The trail at this point, although generally only wide enough for one person, was not technical, meaning there were very few rocks/roots. It was extremely dry, as was somewhat to be expected as we were here during the dry “cool” season, but you could imagine how muddy it must get when it rains.
Despite the 100% humidity, it didn’t feel too hot just yet. We had a nice shade from the growth hanging over the trail and as we worked our way up the mountain the air did get cooler.
As we ascended, I started feeling nauseous. Nausea while running long distances is hardly uncommon, but it’s a bit unusual to feel this way so early in a race. It can be a sign of nutrition/hydration issues or a sign of working too hard. Anything else is generally out of your control. I did a check-in: my nutrition and hydration had been good so far, and my effort felt easy, a very intentional means of being conservative early in the race. My legs felt really good – the uphill training in Flagstaff had definitely paid off.
For now, I staved off doubt of a catastrophic race. It was too early. And I kept telling myself that this climb didn’t matter. My focus was on getting to the aid station at the top of the mountain, where I could then transition to my favorite part of running, the downhill.
The only crewed aid station on the course was the high point of the 40K race. Staged in an open field amidst a fairly primitive village, each country had a tent where designated staff could provide aid and support to athletes. This is where we would refill bottles, grab more nutrition, and most importantly, get a nice ice-cold soak from our USATF staff members.
From here, it was down the mountain. I was aware that I was well behind the leaders at this point, and the last of the Team USA members to roll into the aid station, but I was optimistic about moving up. This is where I really thought the race started and where I could make up some time. Coming out of the aid station, the streets were lined with spectators from all over the world; the energy was palpable and uplifting.
However, as soon I started going downhill, I was met with the reality that this was somehow worse than going up. The pounding of every step threatened the emptying of all my stomach’s content. The trail on this first descent was entirely an old jeep road, which while beat up and rutted out, meant it was fast and very runnable. At a more gentle grade than the uphill, this is where I should have been flying, but I was barely jogging. Current status: frustrated.
On the descent, which felt like it was taking forever, I was almost always alone. The only people I’d see were course volunteers ensuring that directions at intersections were followed. Occasionally there was a stray dog that one might be tempted to pet, but probably should be avoided because rabies isn’t uncommon. Fortunately, at this point, the snake count was still zero. I tried to look around – it was really beautiful – so many gardens, a handful of waterfalls, interesting plants, unique sounds, but it’s pretty hard to focus on your surroundings during a race.
The closer I got to the bottom, the hotter and more exposed it became. I knew I had two options: (1) ignore the nausea and turn up the gears, risking putting myself in a position to get violently ill on the course and have to potentially drop or get pulled, or (2) play it safe and make it to the finish line, even if slowly. I thought back to my coach’s advice: the goal is to make it to the finish.
At the bottom, I hit an on-course “aid station”; these spots, of which there were only two, were just tables with bottles of water on them for us to grab. We had to use the bottles to refill our own flasks. It was refreshing to pour the bottle over my head – and of course as I started to do that, I saw a camera. Fantastic, this is where the live feed was coming from – “Hello, friends and family, please enjoy these 10 seconds of me pouring water all over myself to prevent heat-stroke – don’t worry, Mom, I’m fine!”
Headed back up the mountain, again, my legs feeling great, the rest of me, not even close. This climb was much steeper than the first. I thought about the mini cell phone in my hydration pack; part of our gear requirement was a cell phone. It seemed silly for a race made up mostly of people not from Thailand. Most of us didn’t even have phones that would work - they were just for show. My husband had attempted to get mine a SIM card, but even if it did work, I didn’t know what number I would call if I had an emergency. Better not have an emergency out here, I thought, although it was starting to feel more and more like I would.
I had a lot of time to think on that climb (and during the race in general). I oscillated between the gratefulness of being where I was and the experiences I had to get there and the shame and embarrassment I felt for a day gone so poorly. I worried that my teammates would be upset that I'd finished so far behind them and the staff would think my being on the team was a mistake. I worried that my coworkers would be annoyed that I'd taken so much time away from work to train just to have a bad race. I felt I let down the running community back home. Then, I neared the top once again, popping off of the singletrack trail onto a dirt road that seemed to be in someone’s backyard. Wild dogs, stray cats, chickens, local children, and my husband were all running around just ahead. “The team might win.”
Back through the main aid station, I got some crew support once again, I had just about 8 miles to go, mostly downhill. About halfway down, the nausea that had plagued me for nearly 4 hours started to back off. For a brief moment, there was a technical section of trail – finally, just like home. I relaxed. On the last climb, I worked with a Thai athlete to push each other to the top. I was thankful to be around another person, even more so to be working with someone whose country was playing host to such an incredible and unforgettable memory, currently in the process of being seared in my brain.
At last, I was off the trail with just one, very hot, but very flat, mile left to the finish. My final moments to just be out here, competing in the World Championships, wearing a USA singlet. Somehow, even under the fatigue, drenched head-to-toe in sweat from the oppressive heat and humidity, it was more appealing than having to cross the finish line, to have to declare the journey over.
Rounding the corner to the finish line, a volunteer hands me an American flag, a courtesy to all of the athletes, and I run it across the line. There, I’m greeted by Kimber, Ashley, and Stevie, the top three finishers for our team, whose combined times would earn us, Team USA, a silver medal.
The picture perfect version of this story would be that I had the best race of my life on the world stage. The real version was an imperfect day. But days like this made me work as hard as I did to get here. I’m sure there will be more imperfect days on the horizon, but I’m looking forward to striving for a few more perfect ones along the way.
Michelle Merlis is an elite trail and ultra runner. She has won numerous events and is sponsored by a host of running related companies. She recently represented the USA in Thailand at the World Mountain and Trail Running Championships with Team USA coming in 2nd in their division.
Click on her picture to read articles about her in The Pace Setter and that she has written.