“I think that is the hang glider take off.”
In every situation that I can imagine, when a race begins next to a river and proceeds to promptly top out at a hang glider take off, you can unequivocally know that it is going to be tough. It will require a certain degree of suffering. Its work will come with the rewards that often accompany big climbs.
As the three of us stood on the stone lookout, pointing out our tents and the other now minuscule landmarks in the valley below, I could imagine some of what the next day would bring. The searing of legs moving too quickly up terrain too steep. The flutter and inevitable seizing of my calves that is both my Achilles’ heel and has become par for the course. The post race euphoria. The feeling of doing something that has forced you up to the edge of what you can and can’t do. The feeling of looking out from a ridge knowing that it will not be long until you are in the valley below. Or a back up on the ridge.
“We will run out the road from the start and along a cliffy and off camber singletrack along the river,” I say, pointing into the valley below.
This section specifically, while picturesque, will pass faster than it should. The starting paced by runners, like myself, who are eager to burn off the pre-race jitters and put a bit of a gap between them and the individuals that follow. The course then making a sharp left at the foot of Humble Hill, the trail eventually bringing me to where I currently am, perched high above the valley below, the river, the area where we are all camped for the night and the road that, post-race will take me home.
I make a call home, talk to Jess and ask her to pass along my goodnight wishes to the kids. We chat with a few others that have made the ride up the winding road to this look out and eventually make our way into our cars where we coast effortlessly down to valley floor and the road along the river.
Back at the campsite, runners mill around, talk and prepare for the race. We all sit near our cars and chat. For Matt, Chris and I, our cars are home for the night. When I pulled into the camp following the pre-race pasta dinner hosted at a local church, I methodically prepared my home for the night.
Fold down the back seat. Inflate the sleeping pad using deep exhales of breath reminiscent of the huge pulls of oxygen I will surely take tomorrow at the top of Humble Hill. Pull the stuffed sleeping bag from it’s stuff sack and toss it into the car, feet towards the passenger seat, head near the tinted hatchback window. Prep the clothes for the next day. The specific shorts, a hat, a couple of options for shirts based on weather and temps in the morning. Each decision carries far greater weight than choosing clothes for any other day, the slightest discomfort transformed over 30 miles into a horrendous and unbearable purgatory. Nonetheless the decisions are made easily, the clothes, the shoes, things I will eat and drink, all details that have been honed over many miles and hours leading up to this point and points like this.
We talk about running. Matt and Chris have both accumulated stories of runs and races that pass the time easily and before long we all decide to end the day and recede to our cars for the night. I slip into the sleeping bag. I think of calling Jess. I think of writing her a text and pressing send even though I know that the lack of cell service will leave my words suspended, hanging, unable to reach their intended destination. Instead I lay on my back nervously looking through the tinted rear window for any glimmer of a star through the hazy early night sky. There are none and I fall asleep to the sound of tents being zipped shut, runners talking and the crackle of a campfire started far later than expected.
At 6am my eyes open. The 8am race start is 2 hours away and I try to force myself back to sleep. No luck. At 6:15 Matt taps on my car window. We joke about sleeping in and all get ready for the day.
Coffee. Shorts. Almond Butter and agave on wheat bread. Shirt. Protein shake. Hat. Banana. Socks, shoes, and so on. Ready early. Rest, stretch. Wait. At just before 8 someone says something over the PA system that has at this point been playing music. I can’t quite make out the details but I get basics. Ten minutes to start. We make our way to the line, wish one another luck and get ready to head out.
Ten seconds to start. I put my face in my palms. I am grateful that I am able to do this, thankful to be in this moment and hopeful that all will go well. 4, 3, 2… A cheer.. We all move collectively. Like starlings under some unseen auspices, morphing into abstract shapes in the morning sky, we move.
I don’t know how long it took to get lost in the act of movement, its rhythmic pulse propelling me onward. The awareness of the world around me and its near immediate impact on what I feel, my response and my connection to it lifts each foot again and again. The climbs bring us to the tops of the mountains and the big, open and raw beauty of the landscape is sublime. The descents take us down into the valley. The rocky and technical trail reminding us to watch our step, choose carefully. The decisions we make, the path we choose, determines how we are affected by this rugged landscape.
The duration of my day on the move was laced with what now, even only a few days later, seems a blurry montage of dream sequences. Brief discussions with runners. Encouraging words to and from those that I pass. The backdrop of the shaky highlight reel of a video shot while running with reckless abandon down some backcountry path. There are the stops at the aid stations, where total strangers give you the support that you have only seen from close friends and family members. There are the sections when you link up with another runner and drop the hammer, each lactic acid inducing step propelling you that much close to the inevitable end. There are the euphoric moments when you top out. The long climb to a ridge that has forced your hands to your knees in a strong march to the summit. The moments of communion. The connection of the moment, your body, the landscape and something far greater that for now is beyond a name. The deep and difficult descents that remind you that it cannot always be mountain tops and ridge runs.
And then the small crowds along this mountain course increase exponentially. The descent from the mountains end and we meander along a road, over a river and wind to the finish.
The movement ends.
I tilt my head back and look at the sky. There are a few big white clouds ambling past. I breathe deeply, content. I ease myself to the ground and lie in the grass. This has been a good one. This has been a good day. I am thankful for every mile that has passed and every breath that I have taken.
Eventually I work my way to my feet and hobble to the car. I gingerly ease my sore and sufficiently dirty body into clean clothes and head back to the finish area. I see Chris and Matt; we share stories of the day that do not do justice to the actual experience and talk of runs to come. We decide to get together soon, hop in our cars and are once again on the move. Only now, I am being carried. The wheels hiss along the road as the air whips in the open windows. I am struck with joy, the melodies of music mixed with the waves of wind and flowing on the rolling hills of the surrounding landscape. I look forward to the bend in the yellow blazed trail ahead and move in the direction of a new destination.