Monday, February 23, 2009

Happy Trails

On Saturday, February 21, I needed at least 18 miles for my last big training run in preparation of an upcoming marathon. Adding a new twist to my training I, along with my friend Madelyn, decided to attempt a trail run. The Black Warrior 25K/50K trail run was to be held that day, so the two of us signed up. Two weeks prior to the race itself, we did a training run on these trails so we’d know what to expect.

The trails took us to some beautiful areas of Bankhead National Forest and while the course was extremely muddy, the two of us had a wonderful time. So when race day arrived, I was looking forward to another go out there on the trails. This would be my first real trail run and I felt a little hard core just showing up on race day.

Jason (who would be running the 50K) and I picked Madelyn up at 5:00 a.m. and drove the hour to the camp grounds at Bankhead. It was a cold 35 degrees that morning and I shivered as I stood in line to pick up my race packet. I had planned to run a mile or two before the race so that I didn’t have to add on so many afterwards in order to get my 18. I wimped out, however, and didn’t get out of the car until almost time to start the race.

I had decided to wear shorts and two long sleeved shirts for the race, but it was so hard to take off my pants in the cold morning air. Once I did, however, it wasn’t so bad and after Madelyn and I jogged to the start line, I felt warmer. Madelyn and I said a short prayer and then I looked for Jason and my three traditional good luck kisses.

The race director gave course instructions on when the 25K and the 50K would separate and said a prayer for all of us. He said, “Go!” and off we went. We ran the first 2.5 miles on a gravel road which would take us to the trail. It had several steep hills, but I didn’t mind as they warmed me up quickly. My fingers were my only discomfort as they ached and stung with the cold. I had a water bottle in my hand and I had to keep swapping it from left to right in order for those fingers to have a chance to warm up.

Once on the trails, I felt it really begin.

There were immediately many muddy spots, and this mud was thick and deep and slippery. When I stepped in it, I was guaranteed full shoe coverage up to my ankle or higher in some spots. I just had to hope my shoes were tied on tightly enough so that when I pulled my foot out with a loud slurping sound, my shoe came with it.

When possible, I would run around or leap over the mud. However, after several miles, the desire to leap became less and less and I was more apt to just slosh right through it. So many times when I’d planned to push off with a foot that was supposed to be under me, I found that it was behind me instead. I’m sure the guys behind me got an eyeful as I ungracefully made my way through mud pit after mud pit.

Several times there were trees over the path which required going over or under. At one point a huge pine tree had completely obscured the path so that we could not see where we were supposed to go. We eventually decided to go through the tree and sure enough, the path was on the other side.

The forest was beautiful. We ran over streams, by waterfalls and huge rock formations, and under canopies of trees with the strong, fresh scent of pine all around. Every time we’d get to another beautiful spot, I’d tell Madelyn it was my favorite…only to come to another favorite a few minutes later.

Finally we exited the trail and returned to the gravel road. It was like being set free with no obstacles, no trees, no mud, nothing but straight road ahead. Madelyn picked up her pace and shot ahead, catching three men in her pursuit of the finish. I picked up my pace as well, surprised that my legs were willing after all the leaping, climbing, slipping and sliding. I poured out the rest of my Gatorade, tired of all the sloshing and the weight, and ran with all I had.

I finished the race in 2 hours and 33 minutes. And I was exultant. I had just completed my first trail run and I was whole with nothing broken, sprained or torn. I had a few briar scratches and one bruise where my leg rammed into a root, but I was a little proud of those. I made sure to point them out to all my friends and to photograph them for posterity.

Madelyn and I grabbed some water and half a banana before heading back up the gravel road to get in a few more miles. Even though we’d tried not to rest too long, our legs protested. We looked at each other at the same time and said, “Ooooh.” We got ourselves back up those hills, however, and back down.

On the way back to the camp site for the final time, I realized just how empty I was. I’m not so great at fueling before and during races. Before every race, I know I should eat, and before every race I find a way to forget. I had coffee and a few yogurt raisins before the race and during I sipped Gatorade and ate two gummies. After the race I had half of a banana, but 4 miles later, I desperately needed something more.

It became all I thought about as we ran down the final hill. As soon as I stopped my watch, I told Madelyn I needed something to eat and made a beeline for the picnic area.

There, I received the most delicious hamburger I’ve ever eaten. The man doing the grilling took it right off the hot grill with cheese melted perfectly and put it on my hamburger bun. I slathered it with ketchup and went to town. I think it lasted about 3 minutes. I chased it down with 2 chocolate chip cookies and some diet pepsi as I waited for Jason to finish his 50K and chatted with friends.

My legs were aching by this point and the wind was chilling me to the bone, but I didn’t really care. I’d just run my first trail run and I felt it was a major achievement.

A few years ago I’d attempted to run trails and I hadn’t cared for it much at all. I never could understand why other runners enjoyed it so much until running in Bankhead National Forest. Now I’ve completed an actual trail run, and once again I’m surprised and pleased by where my running has taken me. To new friendships, to new terrain, to new goals and achievements and blessings – it never ends. I love that.

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