May 16, 2009

Happy Trails

I've no shortage of motivation. Setting the goal of finishing my first marathon has given me a significant aspiration, and it's kept me out there on the road every weekend with all the other crazy folks in my marathon training group. The thing I feel has been sorely lacking in my life at the moment is inspiration.

I awoke on Saturday morning, bleary-eyed and incoherent, having not ingested any form of caffeine yet. There was much scuffling about in the kitchen fixing breakfast, searching for sports nutrition, consulting my training schedule, and furiously mapping the "long run" starting location while promising my husband eternal best-friendship in exchange for a Stumptown latte. After cursing up a storm at my stubborn printer and throwing on layers of hi-tech fabric, I somehow produced a map, and furiously searched for my hydration belt.

Sadly, it has come to this: I own an adult fanny pack.

I found it amidst a strewn pile of clothes I still hadn't unpacked from last weekend's getaway. Since my loft has become Marathon Training Central Control, I suppose I've let some basic housekeeping fall to the wayside. So it goes. I hastily grabbed car keys, chocolate-flavored Gu packets, a headband, and my exalted Stumptown latte. I headed out the door in the general direction of Forest Park. It was early, and the temperature was already a clear and balmy 65 degrees.

I wound the car up towards Wildwood Trail. On the menu today: a beast of a 10 mile trail run. I immediately spotted the throng of crazy folks in my training group, and scoped out a place to park. I maneuvered the car into a makeshift spot on the shoulder of the woodsy 2-lane road, and headed off bravely to face my morning sentence. The training clinic director had already begun her spiel, and I craned my neck to listen intently as the various pace groups were called out. The enthusiastic runners lined up at the start of the trail: 3:40 (no freakin' way - Boston qualifying pace.) 3:50, 4:00, then 4:15. Shit.

I managed to fall in line with one of the last pace groups, the 4:30. The trail was so narrow that we bunched up behind each other single-file, and trotted off at a pace that was only slightly faster than power walking. My group was the largest, so we took our time getting started. The evidence of Spring was all around me, with vivid greens and earthy browns. Luckily, we were under a thick tree cover, the dense leaves matting together to provide a forgiving shade that brought the temperature down a few degrees. My bare shoulders shuddered a little at first, and I knew I would be thankful much later when I inevitably heated up.

About a mile in, I began to hit my stride. The pace group leader, a formidable man of about 6'5" with a solid build, yelled out "RUNNER UP!" and "ROOOOOOOOOT!" every so often with a deep, booming bullhorn of a voice. I kept my eyes alternating between the trail floor, on the lookout for thick bulging roots, treacherous jagged rocks, and wayward branches, and the serene landscape in front of me, with the hazy sunlight gently filtering in beneath the thickly matted tree branches. The lush, sun-dappled greenery stole a few of my precious breaths.

We foraged on in single file, like a well-oiled machine. I kept my eyes focused ahead, intently working in sync with the rhythm of my heavy breathing and the sound of a hundred footsteps gently pounding the compact earthen trail. On a slight incline, we reached a crescendo of birds twittering, twigs snapping, feet thudding, and strenuous panting.

After what seemed like an hour (roughly thirty-six minutes in real time,) we arrived at the rest stop, which was only three miles in. A more beautiful sight was never had: fresh, ice cold water, sugary gummy bears, and crunchy cookies. After thanking the rest stop volunteers, I scooped up a handful of gummy bears and stretched out my warmed-up muscles.

The 4:20 pace leader called out for her group's departure. Game on - I was feeling good and ready to dial it up a notch. We started off on a slight descent, and I moved to the front of the group. The trail descended and turned steeply, and we eased cautiously down a few switchbacks. Mental note: that'll hurt on the way back. We trudged up a particularly nasty hill, our overzealous pace-setting cheerleader promising us a "hot ass" as the payoff for conquering it. When we reached the summit, I exhaled a heavy sigh of relief.

My frontline position put me in charge of calling out hazards to the rest of my comrades: "Rock! Root! Branch! MUD!" Oh, there was mud on this trail. Thick, oozing, squishy mud. Thin, slippery, splashy mud puddles. Huge pits of quicksand-mud ready to trap heavy, pounding feet. The only way to avoid a nasty slip or fall was simply to run straight through it. I planted my left foot into a sizable mud pit and drenched my toes. Mud splashed up around me and brown streaks coated my lower calves and ankles. Oh, well - it was about time to get new shoes anyway.

We reached the halfway point after much pain and suffering, and stopped momentarily to refuel before heading back. I glanced my heart rate monitor swiftly - 845 calories burned thus far. I had felt great that morning, but didn't want to press my luck. Standing at the 5-mile mark, sweaty, salty, quivering, and breathless, I knew that 10 was about all I could hope for today. We turned around and dutifully trudged on.

The road back was quiet and introspective. The sun was shining brightly through the greenery, bathing the woods in a serene glow. The trail wound deftly around and the forest and thankfully, the gently rolling hills were forgiving on my weary legs. My feet throbbed, and I could feel them swelling inside my damp, muddy shoes. I was convinced I had multiple blisters on my toes. The gummy bears, chocolate Gu, and sports drink handily strapped to my waist had run out long ago. Come on, don't bonk. You can do this. Finish.

We turned a corner and I heard the whooping and hollering from my group. We had arrived at the finish, and the stairs leading up to the paved road were a welcoming sight. I slowed down to a trot, gave the requisite high-fives, and beamed at my group. I was covered in sweat, salt, and grime. My muscles ached to the core, and my feet pulsated. I wobbled up the stairs and out to my car, taking a generous breath of fresh air into my lungs. I pushed "stop" on my heart rate monitor, and peered expectantly at the resulting data:

Total run time, 2 hours, 10 minutes. Calories burned, 1496. Average heart rate, 166. I felt so productive, and it was only 10:30 AM.

That day, I got the inspiration my soul was so desperately craving. Being a part of the long, hard-working machine that churned out treacherous trail miles gave me a fulfilling sense of purpose. Suffering with the group made the finish much more meaningful, and the beautifully quiet landscape provided the inner reflection I knew I desperately needed.

I sat down wearily in the driver's seat of my car, took off my filthy shoes, and knocked them together in a feeble mud-removing attempt. Time for my trail-weary legs to head back home. Time to count each heroic moment, each swelling red bug bite on my sore calves.

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