Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Dancing with Trees: my first trail ultra

As I stand in the early morning dark at Isle du Bois, listening to the sound of fellow runners getting ready to race, I'm not sure what to expect of the day. The people around me sound pretty confident as they chat and joke about the miles and miles ahead, stomping their feet and jumping up and down to keep warm. I am seriously under-trained but armed with hope and determination. Is it going to be enough? I only know if it's possible for my body to do this, then I will make it happen.

I had signed up for this 52K (32-mile) endurance run several months earlier. It was to be my first trail race and my first ultra all in one. The furthest I'd raced before this was a marathon, but it had been a while since I completed my last 26.2 in Oklahoma in the spring, and that event had been on nice clean roads, not rocky wooded inclines and uneven paths snarled with tree roots, mud, and sand.

My race plans in the summer had been derailed by a lingering Achilles injury followed by an annoying bout of pneumonia and then a series of colds. By the end of it all, I was on regular inhalers and my training base was decimated. One evening, in tears after yet another failed attempt to keep up with the marathon group I was supposed to be co-pacing with my friend Rocky, I admitted to myself and her that I just didn't have it any more. The season had felt like a series of losses as I had fallen behind on run after run and backed out of event after event. It was time to face facts: I needed to fix myself before I could help train others again, so I returned to running alone and set about rebuilding my fitness one slow mile at a time.

I've always enjoyed running by myself--it's how I started--so it was no great hardship to return to solitary sunrises and sunsets once I finally forgave myself for not being there for my running group. I made slow but significant gains and managed to knock out a Half Ironman by November, but that was no guarantee that I could handle a trail ultra--an unforgiving day-long run on rough terrain. Although it was a serious endurance challenge, only 13.1 miles of the 70.3 Half Ironman were spent on my feet--the rest was swimming and biking. I knew I hadn't run enough miles or done enough trail-specific training for what I was about to attempt at Isle du Bois, and as a coach, I would never advise someone else to try running that distance in that condition. I could have canceled my plans or dropped to a shorter run, but there's something I rather like about testing my limits. And who, I asked myself, wouldn't want to spend a day scampering through trees, whatever the final outcome?

The first 14 miles turned out to be a lot of fun. Trail runners are a motley crew but extremely friendly and way more relaxed than the average marathoner. I enjoyed chatting with a variety of interesting people as we picked our way between the rocks and roots in those first three hours. My legs were still fresh, and the weather was perfect--cold and dry.

The route was a five-mile loop followed by three nine-mile loops, and the trail was pretty technical, with lots of climbs and drops, loose rocks and roots, some muddy bogs, and the occasional patch of sand. The trail system itself is not the easiest to navigate for someone as geographically dyslexic as I, but by the time I was heading back out on the nine-miler for the second time, I had become familiar with the system of ribbons hanging from branches to indicate which way to go, so I was pretty relaxed when runners who chose shorter distances left the trail while the rest of the crowd thinned out until we finally lost sight of one another among the trees.

Trail running takes a lot of concentration for me. There's no zoning out like I can often get away with on roads. I have to pay careful attention to stay on route, and the path beneath my feet has a way of holding me in the present moment: whenever my mind begins to wander, a nagging root or rock will trip me and wake me up. The earth is an efficient teacher, and after three falls, I was fast learning to stick with the here and now.

My mantra, borrowed from Born to Run, was "Easy, Light, Smooth," and it was a helpful one. With more training, it might also have been sustainable, but after five or six hours of faithful service, my ankles started to complain pretty loudly and simply wouldn't let me move fast without stumbling on the uneven terrain as they became too tired and too weak for precision placing (something I intend to fix before next time). I began to stress about making the time cut-off (nine hours), but I had determined in advance that I would do all I could to enjoy this day, regardless of the outcome, so I turned off my Garmin and quit running numbers in my head.

My only indicators of distance were now the aid stations: three on each loop. As the day wore on and my body started to hurt more, the thought of them took on a dream-like quality. I would tell myself, "Don't think of how far you've come or how far you have still to go. You're just running to the next aid station--and then the one after that."

Aid stations on trails are a special kind of joy for exhausted runners; they are a riot of colorful and unexpected food and drink. I would emerge from an hour or more alone in the woods to see the familiar canopy at last, sheltering a Smörgåsbord of goodies and a group of friendly, helpful volunteers. These extraordinarily wonderful human beings had stood all day in the cold, waiting for the sound of running feet, and while I was still some distance away, I would hear the call: "Runner coming!" By the time I reached them, they were standing to attention, eager to fill my drink bottles, offer encouragement, and bring whatever I needed to keep me going just a few more miles.

"Try it!" one guy said to me, offering me an orange slice dipped in salt. "It's just like a margarita!" And it was. Also on offer were boiled potatoes, cookies, PB&J sandwiches, pretzels, chips, bananas, jelly beans, and coke. I can't eat real food during a marathon without sparking stomach issues, but on the trails, it turns out I can behave like a human dustbin with no negative consequences at all. Only at the very last aid station (mile 29.5) was I unable to stuff down the salty potatoes and fruit I had come to long for, instead relying on two cups of coke to power my legs to the finish in a time of eight hours, 18 minutes.

So much about trail running, I have discovered, is magical. Despite the growing discomfort in my body as the hours--and the miles--ticked slowly by at Isle du Bois, the most perfect part was finding myself alone in the woods, drinking in the sights and sounds. I'm running, but my senses are hyperaware as I pay attention to the terrain but also experience the incredible world around me with a heightened clarity. A deer darts across my path. Two hawks flirt with each other overhead. There are so many shades of brown among the undergrowth, so many shapes of rock upon the ground. And I am alone but not alone. I am dancing with the trees.

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