I ran 12 miles through the woods. And if that sentence gives you an image of me crashing through the forest footloose and fancy free, I can assure you that’s not what this particular run looked like. Trail running is half blind belief that you won’t slide off a mountain and half channeling your own inner mountain goat. I wasn’t particularly good at either one of those things this time, so really I was just gingerly picking my way over technical trails high up in the mountains. More like a fast, but determined hike.
Running through the woods is complicated, because I have no sense of direction. Especially in a forest, where everything looks pretty much the same to begin with. Simon likes to convey to people that, when we visit the mall, I will come out of a store and inevitably head right back the way we came and be none the wiser. And that’s with all the shiny trappings of brightly lit signs featuring store names. Imagine what happens when I’m just looking at trees.
And, yes, the trails are marked. But sometimes people get off trail. It happens. There’s a whole Stephen King novel about a 9 year old who steps off trail for just a minute, gets hopelessly lost, and spends the entire night battline off a spirit that’s haunting/hunting her–or maybe its just her own mind–but it’s only her love of baseball (and Tom Gordon in particular) and a fantom baseball radio broadcast that saves her.
So, obviously if I get lost in the woods I’m shit out of luck, because I just don’t love baseball all that much.
In addition to my extreme directional challenge, I am cautious by nature. This is a liability on a trail. I know, it seems counterintuitive. But hang with me for a sec: on a trail, you’re working with the momentum you build with forward motion. That’s why trail runners can leap off slippery rocks without falling down constantly. Their foot was never on that rock for long enough to slip in the first place. Not so if you’re cautiously picking your way across a muddy, rock strewn trail in the rain.
And I know this. I know that the only way to avoid rolling my ankle constantly is to not over-commit to each step on the trail. To keep it light and be able to bound along if it feels like things are starting to go awry. But I was intimidated by this race. And I went in scared. Which is one of the top things you don’t want to be on the trail. Scared gets you hurt out there. And it slows you down. And slow is slippery, and tippy, and in general a hot mess.
I ran for 3 hours, 41 minutes and 50 seconds on Saturday. I was a hot mess for 90% of that time.
I could tell you all the reasons: its the busiest season at the bookstore, so I haven’t been able to run as much lately; I didn’t climb 100 million stairs to train (oh, there were stairs on this run. So many stairs); I waffled at the last minute about whether or not I could actually do this–and self-doubt is a real buzz kill.
But when I was out there, being passed on the trail by god & everybody, I had some time to really take stock of a few things:
- This earth that we find ourselves on is astoundingly beautiful. Really breath-takingly so. Nature can be harsh, extreme, punishing–but it is always majestic. It is the face of the divine. And we should protect it at all costs.
I know, all that from a little jaunt on a trail, right? But yes. I was in Cloudland Canyon, which is like running around in the clouds (hence the name). Waterfalls just cascade off mountains seemingly out of nowhere. It’s just all a little unreal. Like magic. But it isn’t magic, it’s nature. Or maybe they’re one in the same. Either way, it’s a tremendous bit of luck that we have access to this kind of spellbinding beauty. And it’s impossible not to feel connected to it on an intrinsic level when you’re out there trying not to go hurtling off a cliff.
- People are surprising. I was bested in this race by almost everyone who went out there and ran. No kidding. I was one of the last 15 people to finish. Know who won? A 12 year old little girl. People passed me that were older than me (like, old enough to be my dad) and younger than me (children passed me. Actual children). People of all shapes, sizes and statures passed me. People who looked like they’d rarely even been on a trail passed me.
It was humbling.
And kind of badass–because getting good at something involves practice. I can practice! Which means I don’t have to straggle through the course every time. This can just be a starting point.
- This race found me standing on the bottom of the canyon, fighting back tears because how the fuck was I supposed to get out?! I wasn’t lost. Nope, I was staring up at 600 stairs. And my legs were already trashed. I pondered whether or not a helicopter could be brought in to lift me out. I wondered about pack mules. Maybe I could jump on another runner’s back and they wouldn’t notice? But eventually I had to just come to terms with it: the only way out was to keep moving forward. One agonizing step at a time.
And I made it. I pulled myself together, and I made it happen. I’m not still on the bottom of the canyon. I didn’t die. I also didn’t come running through the finish line in a blaze of glory. But my best friend and our kids met me, hollering and cheering, when I came hiking (slowly) out of the forest. That little encouraging group who believed I could actually cross the finish line buoyed me enough to jog, just a little bit… back into the forest. And then (thankfully) my whole little crew (including Simon) popped up in the forest right there at the end. When I wanted to just lay down on the trail and take a nap. I followed their voices in to the finish line. Because isn’t that what we do when things get hard, follow the people we love back into the light?
When I finished the race, I swore I’d never do this again. But trail runners are a little unhinged; I may have already signed up for another one. In May. In Virginia. And there are wild ponies involved. How could I possibly say no to that?