I sit here on a Sunday evening with a huge bowl of salad and salmon beside me along with a delightful smoothie and the satisfaction of having worked hard all week to earn this day of rest. It was a busy week at work, with multiple residential renovation projects in the early stages of development. While more physically demanding than normal, the work was good for my soul and left me with a profound sense of accomplishment and satisfaction in a job well done. By Friday evening, my body was ready for the weekend and my legs, particularly, were exhausted. Little did they know what kind of beating lay just around the corner.
After work, Ernie and I loaded up our earthly belongings and headed west. Shortly after 9:00 PM we pulled in the driveway of a fellow runner (the term ‘competitor’ is rarely used in the trail running community) who had previously invited us to stay over in his enclosed treehouse the next time we ran a race in his area. Alex, thrilled to see us, showed us around the premises before leaving his property to us as he was leaving for the weekend. The treehouse served us very well, with a small heater in the room and bunks for both of us. We woke up to temperatures well below freezing outside and a damp wind blowing. Another hour of central Pennsylvania’s wonderful mountain roads brought us to Canoe Creek State Park, where we were both registered to run Dirty Kiln Trail Race. We dashed to the pavilion where registration tables were set up, grabbed our bibs and free goodie bags, then cowered in the car with the heater blasting, all the while wondering what we were doing here and when winter will finally leave us. Snow flurries were drifting by when we finally stepped out for our warm up jogs around the parking lot.
A few minutes before 9:00 we made our way to the starting line along with nearly 100 other shivering runners. After the customary announcements, we were off to the races! I soon settled into a part of the pack that seemed to fit my pace. Going into the race I had had dreams of breaking the 2 hour mark for the first time on a PA trail half marathon. It was not far into our first loop around the lake, though, that I understood what the ‘Dirty’ meant in Dirty Kiln. Muddy spots on the trail turned into muddy stretches which turned into unavoidable massive sloughs which would have loved to suck the shoes right off your feet and throw you, face first, into the slime. For awhile it was an entertaining diversion. About halfway through this first loop I was impressed with the thought that this mud is causing much more fatigue to my legs than what a normally dry trail would. Somehow, I suppressed this unhelpful thought and soldiered on at a pace which seemed to be both sustainable and competitive at the same time. The mud did really take a toll on a lot of runners, as I passed quite a few people who were (somewhat) less prepared physically than what I was.
I was quite winded when I got to the second aid station nearly 6 miles into the race. My heart rate was somewhat higher than what it should have been as I sipped water from a cup with a layer of ice on top of it. This aid station was near the starting line and marked the end of our first loop. From here, the trail turned steadily uphill away from the lake, and, for a while at least, the dreadful mud. After a gradual uphill climb overlooking a few beautiful valleys, we took a sharp turn onto a section of single track trail labeled ‘Smith’s Sidehill Landslide’. All went well as I struggled up the steep incline until I got to the top. Here a volunteer was stationed to warn us of the peril ahead. I kind of grunted and started carousing down the violently slippery mountain. I had not much more than passed her when my right foot slipped beside a large rock instead of landing on it and slowing my descent. I sat down on the side of the that hill and slid, butt first, into that rock. The volunteer uttered a few expletives in empathy while I assured her that I was ok and turned my attention to getting off that slippery slope. In short order I caught up to and passed a lady who appeared to have been quite traumatized by the hill herself. For the next 4 miles or so the trail was relatively dry with lots of short uphills and very runnable downhills. Normally I thrive on this type of terrain, but my legs were already tired before the race started and had taken quite a thrashing in the early miles even though they were very flat miles. I found myself power hiking most of the hills and flying, nearly out of control, down the other side.
Earlier in week I was telling a friend about my plans for the weekend and explained a bit about the weather forecast and projected conditions. He asked, very bluntly, why I hate myself. I laughed at the time and waved him off. During this part of the race, however, I started to ask myself the very same question. One of the things I love about trail running is the opportunity to soak in creation while having conversation with my Creator. On one of the steeper inclines when I felt punished physically and beat down mentally I asked Jehovah what His words are for me. Almost immediately the answer came, “I made you for this.” Soon thereafter came, “This was my idea. You did not come up with it on your own.” These moments when the Father speaks through a physical experience into the depths of the heart are reason enough on their own to unplug from the world and get into the wild for a few hours. These truths also gave me the mental ability to grind through the rest of the race even though I was trashed physically. From here on out I could tell that the struggle was real for others on the course as well. I exploited my downhill speed to pass several others whom I would not see again until the end of the race.
There is a saying in the trail running world that goes like this,” When you get to a muddy spot, avoid it at all costs. When you can’t avoid it, run slap through it.” I embraced this nugget and ran away with it (literally) when the trail flattened out again near the lake and merged with the first loop which we had run earlier. By this time over 300 pairs of feet had churned up every soft spot in the trail into an awful smeary mess. By this point I was already filthy from head to toenail and there was no avoiding the slop. Mostly, I just charged full speed straight up the middle of the trail with mud water flying in every direction and laughed at the photographers’ expressions.
With no other runners in sight for the final 4 miles or so, my biggest challenge was to keep myself moving and finish strong. At the final aid station I dejectedly asked how far I still had to the finish before grabbing an orange slice and a bottle of pickle juice. When the volunteers looked at each other and guessed that it was about 2 ½ miles, I realized that how well I would finish would depend solely on my ability to stay in the game mentally. My legs were already shot. The mud was only getting worse. The only thing that would change from here on out would be my mental approach. And Pickle Power. I have to give all due credit to that magical little bottle of miracle water.
I did finally power my way to the finish line in 2 hours and 22 minutes, good enough for 8th in my age group and 24th overall. At the finish line, in my wet clothes, in the bitter cold, I ventured into a conversation about Uganda with a complete stranger. I suppose this is one more reason that I ‘hate myself’. The sense of community at every race is outstanding, as is the likelihood of striking up a conversation with someone you’ve never met before, but who will greet you at every race afterwards, whether on the trail or off.
Ernie and I wrapped up the weekend by attending a service at The Outpouring this morning. There was much emphasis on the power of confidence found in our identity in Christ. Both of us realized that this was only a continuation of the object lesson we were being taught on the trail yesterday. Here again I had a wonderful time catching up with old friends and making a few new ones whom I will not soon forget.
After a long afternoon to rest, I am ready for the adventures of another week! Stayed tuned for the next excursion coming up.
When you can’t avoid it, run slap through it,