A year ago, I signed up for my first trail race, more or less on a dare from Carl. Because he sucks. I grew up literally running around in the woods behind my house, and have often been accused of being part mountain goat, so it seemed like a good fit. Then I had that Epic Battle of Wills with my lower back. The day before last year's Dirty Bird, I called Carl from the ER. "Listen, dude, I don't think I'm going to be able to run tomorrow. I'm really sore. I'm just going to go have some x-rays, and I'll--"
At this point the ER nurse took my phone from me, held it to her ear, said matter of factly, "Dude, she's not running tomorrow," hit the disconnect button, and dropped the phone onto my stomach.
I spent the morning of Dirty Bird gorked out of my mind on narcotics, alternating between the two positions that felt least like being stabbed in the ass with a pitchfork, staring at the bedroom ceiling and texting pathetically back and forth with my friend Gunz, who can now apparently confirm that I'm very entertaining (and a very creative speller) when I'm on drugs. It was about four degrees out, though I don't think it was actually snowing, and my dad piled two extra comforters onto the bed--partly to stop me from shivering, because it hurt so goddamn much, and partly to help wedge me into position. I wasn't even in my own bed, because I couldn't get up and down the stairs to the bathroom. I was, in short, a sweet hot wreck.
This year I made extra special preparations for Revenge of the Dirty Bird. To start with, I was exceedingly careful putting on my underwear all weekend. On top of that, I actually ran after MCM this year. All of about three times. None of them were on trails. I don't know the woods around here well enough yet, I'm up to my kiester in a PhD, there are papers to grade that I've had so long I forget what the assignment was, etc. etc. and etc. So, yeah. I was totally prepared for this race. I figured I had about three things going for me: the fact that, as I said, I grew up running around in the woods pretending I was doing this exact thing; the fact that I have a very low center of gravity; and the fact that have I mentioned yet this week that my campus is on the side of a fucking mountain? So I do a lot of walking uphill. A lot.
This Sunday, I did even more.
It started Saturday night, when I proceeded to get a nasty shock via text message at a quarter to midnight, when I was on my way to bed. So I slept badly until the alarm went off at 6:30. Ate breakfast (I really did, I swear. I watched myself do it.), had tea, wrangled myself into compression tights, packed dry shoes and socks and a clean shirt for after, stuffed myself in my car, and pointed it towards Birdsboro.
Let me address something here. The location of this race left something to be desired. My ex-husband and I almost bought a house in Birdsboro, right before he left me. In fact, while we were falling in love with the house, he was already talking about leaving me. The park where the race was held is one of the last happy memories I have from our life together in PA, before we moved to Putnamistan and things went more or less to hell in a happy meal. I also pretty much had to drive past his parents' house to get to the start line. Add that to my late-night conversation Saturday and I was in a swell mood.
On checking in, my mood was much improved by the fact that Carl is oblivious and couldn't see me standing right in front of him in a parking lot with two dozen cars in it. I hadn't seen him in (gasp!) a whole month, so hugs and rude hand gestures were in order. Actually, we hadn't gotten to hang out much at MCM, so it was extra good to see him (except the part where he took off his shirt and asked me if his nipples were still properly taped. There's an image I never want again.)
Then it occurred to me that I was about to run ten miles. And I was hungry again. Fuck. Who signed me up for this? Oh right. Carl.
I peed no fewer than three times before we lined up at the start. I use the phrase "line up" very, very loosely. It was more like we assembled in a gaggle-fuck at the start banner while RD Ron gave us last minute instructions. They mostly consisted of useful tidbits like, "There should be an orange ribbon every half mile at least. If you go more than a half mile without an orange ribbon, you're screwed. What you then need to do is turn around and go back to a place where you aren't screwed and proceed from there." And my personal favourite, "The first rule of trail racing is, if the sign doesn't say to turn, don't turn."
The first quarter mile was on asphalt, and I actually kept up with Carl for a bit, before it dawned on me that I am not a sprinter, and I am not warmed up. So I tucked in behind him. He very thoughtfully waited for me at the part we veered off onto the trail, and we trundled up the hill together for a little bit before I let him do his mountain goat thing. I have little stubby legs. I was also a little overwhelmed, wondering what (the hell) he had gotten me into.
Seriously. What the fuck am I doing this for? I am walking up the side of a mountain. In the mud and leaves. For a mile and a half. No joke. From this point on, I was mostly alone. Which is fine, whatever. I train alone, when I'm hiking in the woods I'm alone, and I like it that way. Also, this way no one can see how slow I am. I did actually pass two people by the second mile, which was impressive because they'd caught up to me on the uphill. Go mountain goat ninja skills.
So I toddled along for a couple of miles, wondering exactly where the hell I was going, taking it all in, blowing my nose a lot, and just generally being a FireCat in her natural habitat. Rocks, twigs, dead leaves, nose-blowing, mud. After the first water stop there was a perfectly lovely stretch of pine forest, which always makes me homesick.
Frankly, this race is a big blur to me, not like MCM because I was in pain, but because one boulder hiding in the mud under a clot of dead leaves pretty much looks like another boulder hiding in the mud under a clot of dead leaves. And there was a lot of that. One of which I caught a shoe on, resulting in Epic Face Planet Numero Dos of my trail running career (which leads me to Infinite Mystery Numero Uno: why when I land on my face is it always my ankle that hurts the next day?) Got up, took a quick inventory. No blood, no bones poking through, ok, keep going.
When I hit the dam crossing, I noticed that more and more people were coming back at me. I was being lapped by people as old as my dad. Dude. This was demoralizing. What was even more demoralizing, in a weird way, was how gamely everyone encouraged me. Not more than one or two people went by without a genuine, "Good job," "Good run," or one guy, who is my new favourite person on the planet, "Looks good, baby." Looks good, yeah. Can't run for shit, though.
And then, there were more hills. All of which were up. And more mud, and fallen trees to vault over (or climb under) (or both, on more than one occasion) and oh yes, the water feature.
You may or may not be aware of this, but Pennsylvania has shattered all rainfall totals this year, thanks to the world's wettest August. And September. And most of October, too. Add that to the snowstorm on Halloween weekend, and the trails were, um, festively technical. Translation: one section of the trail was now a stream. With a waterfall. And fish. Yeehaw. Somehow, I managed to not fall all the way down in the mud, though I did lose my footing a couple of times. I also came down hard a couple of times on the downhills, jarring my back in a worrisome sort of jar.
Then there was one last hill. Except it wasn't the last hill. I only thought it was the last hill. My victory was short-lived. Because there was the last hill, still ahead of me. I felt like the Bear Who Went Over the Mountain. And the two people I'd passed caught up with me. (uphill is apparently not my strength.) I was hungry. I was tired. My calves were starting to be distinctly unpleased with the state of the up-ness. Whine bitch nag moan. I was pretty sure there were people still behind me (considering I had just passed one of them) but I was still feeling pretty slow. And cranky.
And then I met Charlie Horse, official Wasatch 100 pacer. Also traffic director at the last road crossing of Dirty Bird 15k. Boy that old man can run. "Hi! I remember you--I parked you this morning. Just follow me," and he took off like a gazelle. I didn't have a whole lot of choice. I followed him. Seriously, I think I ran that last half-mile at a 9:00 pace. He pointed my way back into the woods, and I crashed through the shrubbery and back onto the path past the dock, past the restrooms with which I'd become so familiar, past the cars filing out after changing their clothes and finishing their soup and hanging out with their friends ("Finish strong! You look great!" someone yelled out the window. This might be the same guy who called me baby earlier. I would advise him to get his prescription checked), towards the finish clock, and holy shit there's Carl. The asshole who got me into this.
"Dude, you waited for me."
He gave me That Look. The one that only running-family can give other members of running-family. (Not the "you're not a cheeseburger" look, or the "did you just finish my beer?" look. The other look.) "Of course I waited."
Well, yeah. The field was less than 400 deep, and I just found out today I only finished 20 minutes and 8 places behind him, so it's not like he was out there waiting for hours, but still. "No, I mean, you waited for me."
He continued to look at me like I had three heads and go, "Yeah, of course I waited," so eventually I dropped it.
I don't think he gets it. No one's ever waited for me at the finish before, and I've expressed much consternation about that here, though not nearly as much as I feel. People have sworn up and down that they'll run me in at the last half-mile, or they'll come back for me after they make their way through whatever finish festival, but I'm almost always hoofing it on my own back to the hotel to shower and meet up with them. I'm that slow. I'm not left behind, exactly, these guys would never abandon me (and some of you will probably kick my ass for ever even having thought that, and yes I'm looking at you Nita and Gunz) but simply because of my pace, I'm left to fend for myself for the hardest part of the race and its aftermath, which is why running those first fifteen miles with Len last month was so special, why getting to run Philly with Mags in September was so awesome (beyond the fact that I hadn't seen her in well over a year). I started distance running as a way to deal with the upheaval of my divorce, and it's true what they say about the loneliness of the long-distance runner (not that 15k is actually all that long. Unless you're in the woods on the side of a mountain.) But Sunday morning Carl taught me something I never imagined: I still have family, at least for a couple of hours last Sunday, in Berks County.
Who the hell knew?