In my last post, I wrote about how running is a kind of adventure, if you open your mind to it. The OED defines adventure as "an unusual and exciting experience". Perhaps it takes some effort to make your everyday run into something unusual and exciting, but there are times when the adventure is just handed to you. Of course, not all adventures turn out to have a truly happy ending like in the movies. Below, I'm going to run an article I wrote last summer, about just such an adventure. At the time, I had no platform from which to 'publish' these thoughts. Well, now I do ...
A Big Slice of Humble Pie
The Escarpment Trail Run, July 27, 2008
Success as a runner will resonate with your core sense of self-esteem, confirming your commitment, rewarding your hard work, and justifying the two dozen pairs of smelly running shoes in your closet. By contrast, failures cut deep … after all, when it comes to running, you can’t blame anyone but yourself. At the 2008 edition of the Escarpment Trail Run, I was handed a very big slice of humble pie. I deserved it, I ate it (with only a bit of complaining), and frankly I continue to digest it. These are the kind of lessons that make of us more than what we would be otherwise. Or at least that’s what I keep telling myself.
The Escarpment Trail Run has been on my radar for years. I love running trails, and usually the harder the trail the more I love it. Escarpment has the reputation of being one of the toughest trail races around, and even though it’s only 30k in distance, runners find that it takes longer to complete than a marathon simply because it’s so damned difficult. In years past, I have had one reason after another that caused me to miss this race: injuries, other conflicting races, vacation travel, insufficient training, etc. This year I made sure to run a tough trail marathon in March so that I could qualify (Escarpment is not for everyone, runners must provide evidence of their ability to deal with the trails and/or the distance by submitting race results along with their entries). Finally, 2008 would be my year to run Escarpment. My training went well through the spring and summer. I ran several long trail races, finishing each feeling strong and near the front of the pack. I was thinking that all signs pointed to my being well-primed and ready for Escarpment. Ah, yes, but pride cometh before the fall.
Race morning dawned humid, overnight thunderstorms having left behind several inches of rain, promising to make the course wet and slick. Still, things went well for the first hour. The course was very difficult, with many hand-over-hand climbs, eye-wateringly steep downhills, and much of the trail overgrown with sharp-thorned raspberry bushes, hanging low due to being wet and heavy. By the two hour mark, I was well-scratched but still feeling great, and had started reeling in the fast-starting runners ahead. This all felt familiar, as I had planned to go out conservatively then finish strong , maybe even crack the top 20 by the end. Yeah, right.
In retrospect, it was the downhills that got me. So steep, so slick, with countless ledges that required severe downhill leaps and bounds. At first I felt like I was handling these just fine, but then came more … and more and more and MORE. Finally, like an old jalopy driven a bit too hard, my brakes just gave out. My quads started to cramp, and I knew I was done. When the mind says “Go!”, and the body says “No!”, there isn’t much you can do. Sure, I tried denial at first, but that wasn’t very effective. Then anger, frustration, willing myself forward. My legs responded with full vengeance, by seizing up completely on a set of downhill ledges, causing me to stop halfway down, yelping in pain, frantically massaging and stretching them, hoping not to be crushed by the next runner leaping from above. A glance at my watch showed that I’d been out for just under 3 hours, and I was clearly in trouble. I knew there were only about 4 miles to go, but it might as well as have been 20. I went from” race” mode to “just-get-there-eventually” mode. And with the risk of cramping up and falling off the side of some cliff, I had to think about life safety. Yeesh.
Humbled and hobbling, I finally crossed the finish line in 4 hours and 11 minutes, more than an hour behind the winner. Frankly, given how horrible I felt, I’m surprised it didn’t take even longer. As I limped back to the car through a cold afternoon thundershower, with my wonderfully supportive wife offering words of encouragement, I was already attempting to be philosophical about the whole experience. I had finished a very tough trail race, definitely the hardest trail I have ever run in competition. I was sore and knew I would be for several days, but I was uninjured. I had seen the beast, and I had survived. I had been humbled, brought to my proverbial knees by a monster of a course that I’m sure has had it’s share of my fellow runners locked in it’s sharp teeth.
Prior to the race, I’d overheard one runner say to another, “Will you beat the mountains, or will the mountains beat you?” I certainly had my answer. I was soundly beaten, thrashed in fact, chewed up and spat out. I can only feel awe and envy for the men and women who ran far faster than I did, and achieved their respective victories: you are all truly incredible, keep up the good work. Frankly, the same goes for anyone who survived that course still on their feet. As for me, I’m going to need to do a lot of quad-specific, ledge-jumping training before my next attempt. Let’s see, if I dump a pail of wet, muddy gravel on my kitchen counter, then leap up and down from it repeatedly while my wife whacks me with a bundle of thorny branches …