The morning was cool, and foggy… a slight drizzle hovering in the air. The mountains above the Watauga River were in their finest form. This is a race still in its infancy and there were about 15 adventurous souls near the barn, ready to rumble into the meadow and upward into the forest.
The command was given and we were off, chuckling, jovial, smiles from ear to ear. Yip! Woot! and then silence. The rhythmic brushing of trail shoe on grass, the hushing of the Earth soaking in these visitors. One by one we reached the tree line and disappear.
The front group quickly vanished from my existence and I fell in with a few other runners, reluctantly leading the charge upward through the first 3 miles. At 10 minutes I knew I was already too close to the red line and wanted to back off but lacked the discipline to step off the single track and fall into a more appropriate pacing for my sprouting fitness level. This was to be my longest “long” run in about 9 months… after taking 3 months completely off coming into a recent surge in mileage. I was sure to have a long second half of the race and this early aggressive start was doing me no good. I knew all of this, and still there I was, unable to simply let myself stop, step to the side and gather my effort… I wanted to somehow make those others… pleased by pacing the group.
Behind me I hear what seemed to be labored breathing… “oh, God! oh, God! oh, God…” or is it “O-kay, O-kay, O-kay…” I notice my dichotomous perspective and plug away twisting and climbing and dipping across small, spring fed creeks. We catch another runner. I am relieved to have him set the pace and that it is eased back somewhat. He has made the choice I could not. The three of us move along the trail, sharing a few thoughts. I am careful to not engage in too much conversation. I am here for the work and for the woods, there will be time to chat later on. I keep the talking trail related, follow the orange arrows, look for the hidden drops.
A half mile out from the 3 mile aid station the leader of our group begins pushing a little harder and gaps us. I am feeling that initial effort now and know that this stretch is crucial. I back way off and gently take it into the aid station. I pause to fill my bottle as the lead woman runs through the stop with a quick gulp. I top off my hand held and give a few more moments to create space on the trail and set off with renewed eyes. I begin to soak in this place.
The trees come alive, the mist hangs and collects on my face. The air is spectral white and I recall times when I could breeze through a run like this. I come back to myself and feel the loading and unloading on my legs, the bounce of body weight carried across this technical terrain. Zoom! Down this hollar and then the climb up the other side… no long grinds yet, just twinges of sting in the legs- a prelude to pain.
I am holding back. I know the dangers. My second wind comes to me now after recovering for a few miles. The trail tops out for this section and I feel the excitement urging me to go catch the next two runners, they are right there. I see them at every switchback. A half mile of running a little harder and I’d overtake them… at least temporarily. This competitive runner is buried inside of me, yearning to get out! I am able to convince him to stay there, to wait until another day. I am not denying him, just asking him to run with me, to internalize the desire. I’ll need it soon enough to keep up with myself; to do my best with what I have.
I pass through the second aid station, a quick stop to refill, still maintaining contact with the others. I see them for brief moments then they disappear, at time the trail’s folds allow us to be close enough to extend a smile and a grunt of ‘good work’.
We enter the boggy area and I know on the other side of this is the real pain… the climb out. I enjoy running through the Jurassic gully, beyond large downed trees, through the mysteriously appealing odors of decomposition… and then I am in rhododendron and climbing. My heart rate spikes and my lungs sear… with even the brief climbs now. I chop down my strides, I use long, smooth arms swings and I am able to regain sanity… ‘chug, chug, chug up the hill’. I leave the weight of anxiety behind.
I hear the gasping, heavy breaths of the other two runners as we work together to navigate the trail crossings over jeep roads, following arrows and guessing at a few junctions- straight ahead and hope to see a marker… the strategy works and we move up and up. The climbs get longer, steeper… or do they? The brain is hypoxic and I am unable to know or care about any reality but where the terrain meets my feet.
I move ahead, 14 inch strides… counting my breathes, 1, 2, 3, 4… 1, 2, 3, 4…. I reach a crest, glide down the other side and switch back to climb again…. I don’t know how long I’ve been climbing, I don’t know how long it will be and it doesn’t matter. This grinding effort, these searing breaths feel like home- it’s been so long since I’ve run with this determination and patience. I am able to watch it happen, to observe my rationalizations…. the reasons my mind gives me to walk- but another part of me is more comforting and counters- you can slow down, stay within yourself, you will not walk… run up this hill. And so, I do. It feels good to hear from this friend.
I run up every hill, and down again… higher and higher until I see a clearing through the trees, it is a bright green glow of a meadow. I follow the trail as it descends, zigging and zagging back to the barn. I meet up with the female runner I’d begun the day with, we enter the meadow together and I follow her through the trail cut into the grass.
We arrive at the barn where smiles and high fives and stories of the last 90 minutes are shared. I am beat and renewed. I am triumphant and empty handed. I am thirsty and quenched. I am resting and yearning for the next run. I am content and becoming.