It is two o’clock in the afternoon, a hot Saturday in May, and I am climbing again. I am down to a sip of water in each of my two six ounce bottles; on my back, the collapsed bladder inside my pack has the residue of water mixed with lemon/lime NUUN “pixie dust” electrolyte flavoring. I have been passed by a woman who was playing slingshot with me most of the day, and my legs are burning. The trail, rocky the past mile, has opened up to reveal another peak of some sort – hill or mountain, everything I’ve climbed today is higher than I’m used to in little Rhode Island. I wonder about the water. I wonder how much further the next aid station will be. I take a moment to check the view, but just a moment. I don’t have a lot of time and I need to keep moving. The pressure to move is always there. It seems a shame to pass the views by, but the brain takes on a linear focus of moving moving moving, of getting some water, and moving until you don’t have to move anymore.
I was pretty sure when I signed up for this race in January that I didn’t really think much about the words “elevation gain” or “challenging.” Somehow, sitting in the safety of a cold winter day with a hot coffee in one hand and a laptop open to ultrasignup… this can be a dangerous thing. The ideal of a community, the comraderie, of a beautiful May day doing something you love with a hundred or so other like-minded people is very fetching. The reality is somewhat more like a terrifying middle school dance mixed with being chased by slow demons across beautiful trail that you can’t spend a lot of time with. Speed dating the trail, sort of. You discover as you go. You wrestle major anxiety leading right up to the very start. You resign yourself to a steady state of urgency for the next several hours. You finish, usually, to little fanfare but plenty of kind words and quiet slaps on the back.
Wapack and Back (because, yes, there are these ultra-godlike humans who somehow think it is fun to go in one direction for 21.5 miles, but turn around and do it AGAIN, and then, a few of them turn around and go BACK OUT another 3.5 miles [this includes 2 “hills” for a total of 4 climbs in addition to what they did x 1 more than you did]) is put on each May by Trail Animals Running Club. For a ridiculously low entry fee, runners are treated to all the royal treatment one can expect from TARC: outstanding volunteers and race directors, most of them very talented runners themselves, fully stocked aid stations, and serious trail. I signed up for the 21.5 miles, thinking that the “and back” was going to be more mileage than I needed at this time, or had time to train for. Once again, I paid no attention to the elevation profile. Like, I was in denial. I knew from glancing that it had lots of pointy tops. Since I am an analyst, I look at lots of charts like this (none of them having anything ever to do with elevation, so I don’t know what the hell I was thinking when I blew off the elevation chart like, huh, you can present data in any way and elevation charts are no different.) I just remember filing away in my mind that there would be some up and down and I would have to walk some ups, and that this would somehow make me enjoy it more, like, this isn’t a race, just a fancy training “run” with fully stocked food stops so I wouldn’t have to carry my own snickers bars! Except one doesn’t take into account that despite the desire to treat it like a Sunday jalopy ride in the country, it IS a race, after all, and one has a bit of a competitive (and altogether unrealistic) streak and there was no way I was not going to do my very best to “race”, since damnit, I paid to do this. Also, my ego thinks that since I have done a few races at this point, I could handle whatever this thing threw at me. I did make the mistake of reading some blogs. Even fast, elite people were saying it was hard. I told Janet, my fellow Rhode Island runner, not to read the blogs. Of course, she read them, so that morning we were both a little bit worried.
It was quickly apparent what kind of race this was when we arrived at the Finish, where we were to leave the car and board the bus for the start. I saw some serious trail people, including some whose names appear regularly in the top ten winningest winners for these races. I immediately felt klunky, like a freshman sitting at the wrong lunch table full of the cool seniors who know exactly what to say and wear and eat. Then I remembered that these people are seriously real, and kind, and that while it was appropriate to be awed in their presence, it wasn’t polite to stare. I yanked my eyes from examining the shoes of a fast looking blonde, and made a mental note that she, too, is a fan of Cascadias.
We took the big yellow school buses up to the start. Too soon, we were let off at another parking lot where GOD, REALLY?, the first runners who had started at 5 AM were passing through for the turnaround. Shirtless wood nymphs flying through the aid station, bandanas and black shorts, unearthly gliding through, back out, up the hill. Running. Someone shaking a cow bell. Uh oh.
I go and pee from being nervous, and then we get together to start. The race director gathers us and sends us down the road and into the woods. Up the trail. It starts uphill pretty much immediately.
I am thinking about what Wendy, a Trail Animals Running Club regular and all around nice person, said in the parking lot when speaking of her first Wapack and Back. She said, “I thought to myself in the first mile, Oh my God What In The Hell Have I Gotten Myself Into?” We are all in a conga line and Wendy is up ahead, somewhere. Obviously, she has come a long way since then. Should I be worried?
I am at the back of the line. I’m pretty sure I’m the last runner. My first experience being dead last. I am taking it easy, holding back, because we still have like twenty miles, right? So it’s just ridiculous to run at this point, right? And someone has to be last. You know. Like maybe I could be the sweep, which is a very important person, if you ask me.
But up there, see? They’re running.
I run a little. Now I am hot. Off comes the pack as I walk, off come the two thin top layers.
I hear panting behind me. I run a little.
The panting one runs a little. So now, I can’t really walk, can I?
We spread out. So, I haven’t been passed by the panting one, and I am panting, so we two are in a tandem place of acceptance. We will be winners today because we will finish this thing, but we will be last. I have passed no one at this point. Janet and her friend have moved ahead, out of reach. I settle in to a run-where-I-can, hike the ups, skedaddle the downs. During a skedaddle session, I passed three people. I tried to stay consistent on the climbs, keeping my steps small and billygoatlike, my breath even and full. The trail here is big slabs of granite. We are in New Hampshire, after all. I finally catch up to Janet and Laura. But not for long.
I stayed with these awesome chicks just long enough to be like, guys? guys? Hey I’ve been chasing you like forever and I finally caught up, guys? Hey, wait for me!
And just on the other side of this, we entered this clearing and there was Aid station number one. All I had to do was glance at my watch to know that this wasn’t quite a third of the way in. In fact, one volunteer loudly proclaimed, we were one lifetime yet only five point five miles in. I did that cartoon head shake thing, gave some love to the volunteers as they filled my bottles, and processed that I had sixteen odd miles to go, and wouldn’t it be strange if they were as hard as the first five?
Just after the aid station, we crossed a road and then went up this dirt road that was quite steep. Disliking the direct sun and no shade, I power walked and kind of tried again to stay with Janet and Laura, who were talking and neither one was panting. And I was like, pant, pant, um guys?
Not sure exactly where
I lost them. they lost me.
Alone for awhile, I took a moment to pee. One nice thing about trail running is peeing in the woods. One eye on the trail, the other on my shoes, I hear some panting and see a woman come up the trail. I am being passed as I pee.
Let me just say that this section, the ridgeline between those first climbs and the next climbs, was pretty stunning running. Pocahontas light feet, a swell view, the promise of a sunny day, birds singing.
Except that if you stop to take this picture, you risk slipping back to being last, again. Or, there is always this moment that you think, am I even on the right trail? Sometimes, it’s just better to keep moving.
I am feeling pretty good at this point. I’m maybe two and a half hours in. I am not hungry, and not thirsty, and the day is perfect, and while I wish I wish I wish I were a little faster, because wouldn’t it be nice? I accept the fact that I am not, but I am something that is pretty cool: tenacious. I am dedicated and have good stick-to-it-iveness. I love being out here and I know I will finish. I won’t be first and maybe I’ll be last, but I am steady and determined. That’s a skillset!
I could have stayed up on that ridgeline forever. It began to descend fairly gently (compared to some of the others.) I heard some fast feet behind me. It was two of the “and Back” fellas, and boy, were they speedy. I hooted and clapped and pretended to chase them like some annoying old lady. They kind of laughed. At the bottom of this wonderful long flowy mountain bike downhill doubletrack dream, the trail abruptly ended at a road and this vision of a woman with her kid surrounded by about forty gallons of water. I stopped, refilled, and asked her which way? She said, go to the road, down the hill, and the trail is at the end. THANK YOU!!!! Real tears.
It was here that I caught? two people and passed them. On the road. I know a lot of trail runners don’t do a lot of road running and dislike it. I moved across the road into the shade and trucked along, knowing if it was the only place I was going to all out run today, I might as well go for it.
When you do that, it means you have to maintain it. At least until they can’t see you anymore, and then you can stop and pant for a bit.
At the end of the road, the trail collapsed into the forest and turned into a muddy doubletrack leafy ATV trail. I pretended I was awesome and ran for the next few miles, mud, ruts and all.
I have stopped running. This is interesting, this trail goes straight up. Like, normally, wouldn’t there be switchbacks? I really, really need to keep moving though because if I stop to catch my breath those two people who I passed on the road will pass me, and I will be close to last or even last, again.
Suddenly, at the top, I am dumped out at a road, a couple of roads, and I lose the trail.
I head down this long dirt road, knowing I am stupid to do this because I have not seen any trail markers.
It is now officially hot out.
Wait – is that a person? Coming toward me?
She has a number!
I run faster to catch up. She looks pissed. She is shaking her head. She has gone to the bottom of the road and there is no trail marker. Together, we shuffle back up the hill.
We get to the top of this road and I see the guy I passed earlier heading right, where we missed the turn. I follow him, eventually passing again. I am ahead of the guy and the lady who I had met at the bottom of the wrong road. We come in to aid station two (I don’t want to know where we are in the run, because if they tell me like, seven miles? I will lay down and die), and I am feeling devilish and a little hyper and fun, and grab my M&Ms and make idle chitchat while I notice the wrong turn woman had come in just behind me and gone. So I skedaddle, trying to stay with her. I get ahead of her on the climb, a beautiful, sweet staircase of a climb. I stop to take this picture at the top:
See that person? That’s the wrong-turn girl who just passed me. Ah, well. She looks strong, doesn’t she? That’s because she is.
I can’t even. I am out of water. How did that happen. Wait, I’m five hours in? How long since the last aid station?
A photographer. How’d he get up here? I wonder if he has any water?
Somehow, I never expected this Adirondack scene in the middle of this trail on the NH/MA border:
I am tempted to strip and swim.
And then goodness, some nice boring safe flat stuff for awhile. The stuff that makes me think of my Dad, of how he loved being out hiking… all the wonderful things to see and here… you feel secure enough to try to identify whether that wuk wuk you heard was a bullfrog or a juvenile pileated woodpecker and then BAM! Down you go.
Okay, so that’s good, I got that out of the way. I’m tired. I fell. At least I didn’t open that knee I always seem to skin. I just have pine needles up my shirt. Get on up. Get moving. I reach for my water and shake the empty bottle. I wonder whether that last aid station was the last aid station. I check the other bottle. Empty. I check the bladder on my back. I can taste NUUN fumes. I’m also a little peckish. And hot. I have a GU in my pack and a melted snickers bar, but both require water because otherwise GUH! So I run and worry.
LAST AID STATION
Two guys and a dog. Water! I get my refill, and venture the question. Hey guys, I have like, five miles or something left? Nah, more like three. Oh, I think. Like a 5K. They ask, so how do you like it so far? I say, this is the hardest thing I have ever done. Then I say, I think I am close to last, guys, so you won’t have to be out here much longer. And the one guy goes, for the 21.5? No, it looks like there’s about fifteen people behind you. So you better get moving.
This next part is a dirt road, so I get to think, again. And I’m like, duh! I totally forgot that they have yet to see some of the 43 and 50 milers, so they will have to be there even after the last 21.5 miler kindergartener has gone through. You know, it is really a big deal to volunteer. They are out there all day long. They are there to help you. They are awesome. I am going along thinking this and then BAM! Down I go again. This time, I hit knees and elbows. I don’t even have to look to know there’s blood. Ow. I sit there for a moment. I am not going to go crying back to the aid station, now a half mile back. I get up, squirt some of my precious water on the knee, and shakily start jogging.
I begin to see some signs of civilization, or at least, that I am nearing the finish. It seems that way. I am seeing people as I climb. These are people not decked in spandex or carrying water and so that means these are normal people out for a nice hike with children and stuff. I get to the top and this woman, she has an umbrella stroller she is dragging, and this toddler, and two bigger kids, and she says, “does this trail go down to 119?” and I said, yes, that is where I am going. And she says, but we just came all the way up here, I thought!” She was all turned around. I said, well, I just came from the other way and 119 is not that way.” Then she got a look at my blood and was like, uh, are you okay?
I chucked down the trail, thinking, that must have been the last climb, right? Well, actually, it kind of was, but it wasn’t. The trail started back up the other side of the saddle. I could see what must have happened to the woman. She had already been to the top of THIS part, and had gone down the wrong way, and ended up at the top of the other one. I felt badly that she would have a couple of miles or so to get her and that stroller back down. At this point, there were more people. Everyone I encountered stared at my bloody knee.
And then it couldn’t be anything but the last descent.
Lovely piney woods, big rocks.
I saw more of the 50 milers coming back for their last seven.
Families with children.
My last fall, this time, on my ass.
And finally, finally, the down turned to slightly down and then to flat, and I knew the finish was just ahead because I could hear 119. I pulled whatever energy was left out of my rear end and “sprinted” to the finish.
I love trail running, because everyone so mellow and nice and easy going. Let’s get a picture of that awesome carnage before we find some peroxide to pour on it, shall we?
I found Janet asleep in her car, having finished over a half an hour earlier. As she drove us back home, I thought about the day, and how my expectations have changed the more of these things I do. How I am never as sore as I was the first time I did one of these crazy trail races. How quickly I take it all for granted, and how easily this trail humbled me. How while I was not dead last, I was close to it, and that was okay, all ego aside. We need people like me in these things. We turtles who are out there twice as long as the winners, who stop and take pictures, who play catch up only to lose any gains joking around at the aid stations. How strong I’ve become, even if I’m slow. How some people wish they could do what we do.
Back home, after this simean princess took a long bath and ate an entire Pizzeria Uno Potato and bacon pie, alone (Tom had taken the pups up to Grammy’s for a mother’s day overnight) with my battle wounds and twitch-inducing memories of the day, I thought about something my brother had said to me when I saw him last, in March. We had been discussing smoking and other little or big (however you might want to look at it) habits or addictions, something I used to do a lot of. Like, a pack a day of. It’s been years and I don’t miss it. He raised an eyebrow. One could argue, he said, that your trail running is just an addiction replacing another addiction you gave up? Nah, I said at the time, it’s nothing like that.
I take a bite of my potato-bacon pie and glance at the mud covered shoes in the corner. Maybe, I thought. I didn’t really have time to think of it, though, because I was logged in to ultrasignup, checking out this race in South Carolina in the fall.