A few months back, I decided that I needed a goal. Work had become mundane, home life and exercise had become a routine, and even the joy I generally took from writing had become somewhat stagnant.
I needed something to look forward to- something I’d have to train up and prepare for.
I chose a 5K trailrunning race, up a mountain that I had only ever really used the paved paths on.
This is how I got up a mountain, down said mountain, and where my mind went on the way.
I needed to pick up my race tag and swag at 9:30. There wouldn’t be an official bag check or locker system- anything I came with or acquired would be on my back for the race, or tucked away in a tree for the honor system to decide its fate. Therefore, pack light. I was wearing my Utilikilt- the hiking model I had bought for myself years ago- it has big ol’ cargo pockets that dangle from it’s sides, or can be removed and attached to the belt. I make the call to leave them at home- I don’t need the extra weight slapping around when I run.
The first time was in Philadelphia- a country and several years back. I ran the Ugly Sweater run with my sisters through Fairmont Park. It was really my first test of my fitness since I had decided I needed to lose weight- that I wasn’t happy being overweight and in constant pain, and that I needed to outrun a family history that promised diabetes, obesity, and disease of the heart and lungs.
I certainly didn’t make the run easy on myself- it was going to be cross-country, but on mostly flat terrain. I wore a light, woven kilt, a t-shirt, the requisite ugly sweater (mine said “Happy Elfin Holiday”) and my denim jacket. The morning of the race, it was 1 degree F. Oops.
Better borrow a scarf from my sister.
As soon as I show up, the giant banner/selfie background reading “The Tabor Challenge- Run Fast. Think Smart” blew over. As I start lifting it back up, a few volunteers coming running up to help. A couple cases of bottled water function as sandbags.
“Hey, thanks for the help!”
“No worries- hey, where do I pick up my packet?”I get pointed over to the single most stable structure nearby- a large picnic pavilion containing the registration and raffle. I get handed my tag, instructions for the raffle (some great running gear, gift card to Columbia sporting goods, etc.) all the energy bars I can handle, and a copy of the Chinook Book– a long-running coupon book with deals for locally-run/sourced businesses. A hell of a gift for running the race- that I now need to carry with me or stash.
I should have worn the pockets.
Back in the main starting area, people are starting to file in behind me. They’ve laid out free granola bars, bananas, bottled water, and Gatorade for all the participants, and a merch tent is selling Koozies, hoodies, shirts, and more. Off to one side is a bizarre little bus-like vehicle that, at first, I think is the beer cart getting set up for those who apparently need a beer at 9:30 AM. As I get closer, I read the signs and see that it is something FAR more important- the coffee cart.
As Scott preps for a rush of runners craving caffeine, Cleann and I chat about her story.
“There’s a blog on our website, but people never seemed to care much for it. I just stopped updating it after a while- but when I started taking pictures and telling people about us and the cart, they were MUCH more interested.”
People like hearing about coffee, we agree- but they like hearing about people more, and they LOVE a good story. We part, agreeing to follow each other on social media.
The lineup is starting. I look at my hands holding the coupon book, free t-shirt, and stuff I’d been handed since registering. No way in hell am I carrying all this, and I brought nothing to carry it in anyway. After a little inventive wrangling, I tie it all up in my neon hoodie (yes, I’m cold, but I’ll warm up on the run.) After a little more wrangling and attempted ties, I notice others are stashing their bags in the crooks of trees or under bushes. Well, if they’re comfortable with it….
I tie my hoodie and its tiny treasure trove to the branches of a nearby tree, like a weird offering to Odin. If the Norns decide it’s worth taking… realistically, I’ll be more pissed about losing the hoodie.
Anyway, it’s time to line up.
I am F***ING. COLD.
The race starts ridiculously early, and in Fairmont Park, the sun isn’t even up yet. My sisters and I meet under the registration table where we are given our tags, “Ugly Sweater Run” backpacks, a handful of swag, and a plug for Save the Children- the worldwide charity that part of our registration costs go toward. I’m pounding down mediocre hot chocolate and jogging in place- everyone else is in heavy coats for the moment, or leggings. Lauren and Steph are a bit more bundled, but we all huddle out of the wind. As we stick together against the cold stone of a staircase, groups of runners start clumping together- they’ve been doing these and other runs together for a while.
In a way, I envy them. Ever since I started, running for me was a solitary activity. I ran specifically FOR the quiet time- the energy of motion, and the chance to be alone with my thoughts for as long as the track/my legs could hold out. While being part of a community of runners would be fantastic, I don’t think I’d ever want to actually run as a group. Still, it’d be nice to have a group of friends to talk about it with though. Maybe someday…
A dull loudspeaker announcement… it’s time to line up. Steph, Lauren, and I hop in place- everyone agrees to go at their own pace, and we’ll meet up at the end.
The race began on a downhill. A goddamned DOWNHILL.
We tear off on a short, paved uphill stretch to get over a small rise, before a sharp right turn takes us through the dirt and on to a long-bomb, downhill paved run straight past the first reservoir.
I’d been running on this mountain ever since we moved into the area- almost always on the same, paved path, but it followed the mountain: uphill all the way to top, when one normally has the most energy, then the long downhill run when gravity helps your tired muscles and all you need to do is keep your feet.
The race is starting out downhill though… and paved. This might be problematic. I hadn’t prepared for this.
Halfway through, I know that I’m not making my average pace. The long downhill led to a flat run around one of the reservoirs, and then a lap around the lowest ones- the reservoirs I do laps around at the end of my ordinary runs.
The lined path has sharp corners and switchbacks- baffling any momentum a runner might pick up by forcing them to stop on a dime and change direction. With half my energy burnt up on the downhill, and essentially having to start from a standstill after a hairpin turn, I recognize where in the course we are… and that we are making for the top, in the mud.
Roots. A few small rises, and the frozen ground warming under wave-after-wave of pounding sneakers and the rising sun make the going a challenge, but not impossible. I’d been running almost entirely through the flat streets of my neighborhood in Egg Harbor City, NJ. There was rarely a space- or need- to run over dirt, and the flatness of the Pinelands made elevation changes non-existent.
No matter, though- my main speed came from the need to keep warm. My bare legs, though still chilly, were being warmed by rushing blood. Some people are slowing down- others are walking. I manage to outpace a few- I’m sure that if I slow down, sweat will make me freeze.
“Run for warmth,” I think. “Run for your life.”
Pink Floyd’s “Run Like Hell” is blasting in my headphones. Goddammit, I’m TRYING.
I’ve been reduced to walking, more like a dogged hike. The uphill dirt path is rendered to cold mud by the recent rains- absorbing all the energy from my footfalls, and giving little support underneath except what I can gain in traction. I remember my hikes as a Scout- “when going uphill, stay on your toes. Lean in to the hillside. Make it a controlled fall, and keep your legs pushing BACK, rather than DOWN.”
A few guys who had passed me earlier are walking too- stretching or breathing out stitches. It’s too cold to make out if anyone is really sweating, but their breathing is heavy enough. The sun is fully up, and I’m starting to feel hot.
“Glad I ditched the hoodie” I mutter, rolling the sleeves of my running shirt up. We’ve gotten to the flat moutain-top park.
Oh god, they’re making us use the STAIRS?!
Pink Floyd gives way to Springsteen. “Baby, we were born to ruuuuuuuuun!”
8 minute, 14 second mile- that’s my pace as I barrel down the long stretch to the finish line. I’ve long since stopped feeling cold- the layers of t-shirt and sweater actually feel unbearable as I emerge from the trees into the sunny clearing.
My sisters are nowhere in sight, so after walking out any cramps my legs may have, I grab the phone in my pocket to text them- let them know I’m at the finish line, ask where they are, maybe brag a little bit. I wind up reading instead.
“Matt, are you at the finish line yet?”
“Someone’s hurt, around mile 2. I think she sprained her ankle.”
“Find a medic, there’s no one on the trail and we can’t move her.”A medic is leaning against his ambulance. A quick rundown, and he’s grabbed his bag, heading back the way I came. My sisters cross the finish line, jogging slowly- one of the runner’s friends caught up and agreed to stay with her when they said they’d texted me for help, and would try to run ahead to find a medic or me, whoever they got to first.
The medic gets to the injured woman quickly and patches her up. My sisters and I grab a beer in the sun. It’s been an exhausting morning.
8 minute, 46 second mile as I come down the mountain- appropriately now set to “Mountain Song” by Jane’s Addiction as I cross the finish line.
I’m bitterly disappointed. 8:30 min/mi had been my target pace, and if I had trained properly, maybe I wouldn’t have wound up slogging up some of the trails.
At the bottom, the volunteers are laying out MORE water and granola bars. One of them grins at me- I’m one of the first group to make it over the line.
“How’d you do, man?”
“Ugh… not so great. 30 seconds behind my goal pace.”
“Aww, don’t sweat it, dude! The rain made the whole place muddy. You sign up next year, I bet the weather will be better. Get some record action going, brother! Here, have a snack!”As I stretch and walk off the race, I happen to look at the tree. My hoodie is still hanging up where it was. No one touched it- just like they didn’t touch anyone else’s. There is a community here- an understanding.
The beer tent is set up, but I skip it- I can’t stand IPAs. As more people come across the line, a few wave and smile at me.
“Dude, how’d the kilt treat you?! I saw you have some really good leg motion on the uphills- I gotta think about that!”
“Hey man, how’d you do? That mud was a killer- I was trying to keep pace with you, but DAMN!”
I walk around and watch friends catch up. Pizza arrives, Scott and Cleann are busy. I don’t win the raffle, but I DO treat myself to a new running tee and a laser-engraved steel coaster. There’s an afterparty that night at a local brewery, but for now I’m fine just walking home.
At home, Emily is awake. She asks how the run was, and if I want to go shopping with her later- she’s had a lazy morning and wanted to slip off somewhere and write.
I’ll join up with her later. My hoodie gets hung up, my clothes in a laundry bin. The tag goes on a pegboard with the one from the Ugly Sweater run.
Well, that was interesting. Just like last time.