June 14, 2009

Wildwood's Revenge

The week pressed on as I dutifully stuck to my training regimen: 6 mile hill run, track workout, two 5:00 AM gym workouts, and a nice flat 5 miles on the waterfront. My legs are slowly beginning to come around, which I think is due mostly to the speedwork. On Friday night, I double-checked the training log for tomorrow's long run.

Well, well, well. Wildwood Trail, we meet again. This time, I'll be ready for you...or so I think.

Same bleary-eyed morning routine: whole grain cereal, fruit, cottage cheese, and coffee. Sports drink: check. Chocolate Gu packets: check. Hydration belt: fully stocked. Muscles: stretched. 7:30 AM rolls around and I'm out the door and off into the wilderness.

The distance today is a choice of 12, 14, or 16 miles. Since I've had experience on this trail, I know better than to shoot for a 14. Knowing how Wildwood will surely test my will, I settle on 12 miles. I don't want to be disappointed when I inevitably tap out at the end. I line up with the four-hour marathon pace group and we hike up the road to the starting point.

Everything starts off swimmingly. We head off at a relaxed 11:20 per mile pace, and my heart rate settles comfortably at 161 bpm. The first two miles are gently rolling hills, and the scenery is beautifully green and lush. I'm with a faster group this time, and my footsteps fall right in line with theirs. My place at the front of the single-file line makes me feel like an integral part of the team.

We arrive at Rest Stop #1 in no time. Stretch, hydrate, refuel. We start the descent down for Part 2, and I know that this is where the fun will really begin. The steady and sharp downhill pitch in the beginning always makes me dread the return. Sharp switchback, steep incline, root, branch, rock, fern. The guy in front of me stumbles over a wayward branch, so of course, I immediately trip over it and fall down in the dirt. The trail is jarring on my ankles, knees, and hips. It's a challenge just to stay balanced and upright.

We get pretty far along, without the soft, oozing puddles of mud this time. I'm proud to see we've gone much further into the trail than we did last time. I'm so focused on myself and my thoughts that I don't even hear the commotion in front of me. I'm suddenly seized by an intense, searing pain in my thighs and it feels like daggers driving into my flesh. Everyone is panicking. Did I get hit with a stinging nettle or something? What the hell just happened?

It takes me a second or two to discover we've been attacked by a swarm of aggressive, angry wasps. The groups in front of us must have disturbed their nest and boy, are they pissed off. There's about six wasps latched right onto both of my legs, stinging repeatedly. I have a phobia of bees and wasps, which doesn't help because I only have a tiny, single track trail on which to COMPLETELY FREAK OUT. I jump up and down, brushing them off my throbbing legs. Another one descends on my right thigh and I swat at it frantically. My right index finger promptly swells up and hardens. "Did anyone get stung?" asks the pace leader. I nod and manage to say yes. Not sure how many times, but it feels like a thousand.

I will my aching legs to move on. We hit the second rest stop and collect ourselves. I can barely stand up straight at this point, and peel back my running tights at the knee to have a look at what lies beneath. There's a raw, red, bleeding dot where I got stung. I know there are several more on my upper thighs, but I have to ignore them for now. My finger is swollen and bruised, and I'm not looking forward to the return trip.

Our group comes up with a plan: separate and sprint through the wasp's nest. I ask if I can use anyone as a human shield, half in jest. I sprint for my life, waving my arms in front of my legs and desperately hoping they got enough of me the first time around. I narrowly escape, unstung this time. My comrades aren't so lucky - two girls get stung, one of them on her neck.

I can feel my thighs swell and harden through my running tights, and the multiple spots where I got hit are throbbing and burning brightly. I press on, and start to fall behind a little. I had tried to make a mental note of all the steep downhill spots on the way out, but there were too many to remember. It feels like we're running completely uphill the whole time, and hill running isn't my strength.

Around a bend, I let most of the group pass me by. As we move on, the gap widens even further. Another member of the group falls back with me, due to an IT band injury. We slog up the big hill alone, having completely lost sight of the pack. I'm wheezing and panting, willing my swollen legs to stumble upward while my companion is taking it easy to protect his left leg. We're trail running road kill. There are so many twists and turns that I can't see the opening of the trail, and the rest stop. It's killing me, and just when I'm about to give up and start walking, I hear whoops and hollers. Oh sweet Jesus - we're done. We've made it.

When I finally get home and run a hot bath, I peel off my sweaty layers to carefully inspect the carnage. I have 11 wasp stings total, all glowing red, swollen, and angry. I wonder briefly if I should seek medical attention. As I sit on the edge of the tub and wait for it to fill, I give myself kudos for finishing what I started. Sure, I ran the shortest distance of the day, fell face-first in the dirt, got attacked by wasps, lost the group, and ran out of steam at the end, but the point is, I never gave up.

Oh Wildwood, you'll test me every time, but you'll never get the best of me.

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