A 30K Trail Race Rekindled My Love of Running

Everything was going wrong until I started to run along the paths.

After a few gimping days post-marathon, my body feels pretty much back to normal. I got a massage, took a few walks, jogged, and started running again. At this point in my relationship with running, my head starts to miss running a few days before my body does.

Paige and I did an 8K run, then we ran 11 kilometres, then 16, and then almost 20K. It is such a treat to be able to enjoy a well-trained body without any expectations or agenda. But I have my six day, 160K trek this July – so saying I have no agenda is not entirely accurate. Now that the marathon is behind me, I can start to think about that.

I’ve been getting group text messages and pictures of the rest of the crew training in the mountains with packs and poles. They meet up early at trail heads and wear headlamps. They do back-to-back training days. They’re all in a different state, so I’m starting to feel left out, and more than a little worried.

Training in the hills is not the same as training in actual mountains. And while I’ve been hitting the trails a bit since the marathon, it’s nothing like what they’re doing.

Sometimes I wake up at night breathless and freaking out that I am lost and alone in the Alps. This is supposed to be a fun adventure, I tell myself, something dreams are made of – not nightmares. Yet the detail girl in me knows I don’t know the first thing about what it takes to carry a pack for six days with everything I need inside it.

I realise (with a little help from my therapist) that my go-to pattern to manage the unknown is to try to ‘control’ and gain knowledge. Well in this case (as in most others, to be honest) you cannot possibly control every uncertainty. Duh. And you can’t gain knowledge without experience.

So last weekend I signed up for a local 30K trail race on a marked course – supported with food and hydration – thinking it would be a good way to get some more experience with few chances of getting lost. I woke up at 4:30 Sunday morning to pack up and hit the road. It was about an hour away.

A storm was rolling in. Rain whipped against my windshield and lightning etched the dark country sky. I felt nervous and alone without Paige as my usual wingman, and I began to make dumb mistakes.

I forgot a headlamp or flashlight, and it was dark when I arrived – I know better than that. I forgot a sweatshirt and it was cold – I know better than that, too. I spent too long sipping coffee in my car, and didn’t give myself time to wait in the portaloo line — I know better than that, too. I missed the pre-race instructions at the start line, then ran to the start from the bathroom, barely making it. I had to keep running right through the start line, at the very back of the pack. Oh no.

My heart rate was too high and my breathing too rapid, as I started out, struggling to find my pace. I forgot how fleet-footed the experienced trail runners are, how beautifully they sail over rocks and roots. I picked my way around anything perilous, tentative and pokey, especially on the downhills.

The course was three loops of a 10K route. We had a couple of creek crossings and a steep plank bridge. It was wet and slippery from the rain and I completely wiped out on the first loop, sliding down it. There was lots of climbing, and sections of terrain technical enough that you had to stay completely focused. Trail running forces you to be in the moment. It’s mentally tiring, but also makes me feel totally present and Zen-like.

The experienced, zippy trail runners took off and I never saw them again. The rest of the pack plodded along. It was crowded near the start line, but we spread out.

The first 10K loop there were people all around me. Sometimes they clogged the single-track path in front of me, and other times I was the clog.

The next two laps, for whatever reason, I was mostly alone. That’s 19K in the woods. Nineteen kilometres. Alone.

It’s a good thing I enjoy my own company, right?

I found myself smiling as I ran, and I imagined how goofy I must look: alone and smiling, salt-encrusted, thinking, climbing, praying, making plans, and sifting through old memories.

I was reminded of summer days and weekends as a kid when we left the house on foot or riding a bike. There were no cellphones, and we might be gone all day, going between friends’ houses, to the playground, pool or park. We headed home when it started to get dark or we heard our mum yelling.

That’s how I felt out there: alone but not lonely, disconnected but connected, remembering how to play.


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