Location, location, location: In running, as in real estate, it’s all about location — well, that and a few other details but as I started my most recent trail race, I thought, “If I go far enough, long enough and big enough, I just might win my age category.” This idea occurred to me when I scanned the crowd and realized that there were very few, if any, runners with, shall we say, my years of experience. In fact, there were very few runners-twenty-five of us in total signed up to run twenty-one kilometres through the regrowth from the 2008 fire in Kelowna.
The day before the race, Gary and I and the dog walked the first section and my excitement and anticipation rose at the gradual incline on smooth, wide gravel paths through the Ponderosa pines. All three species of nuthatch nattered at us and the ever elusive western tanagers flashed through the branches just too fast for good photos. The stage was set for a long cruise in a park full of birds.
And so it was that on race day, the first four and a half k were completely casual as I settled into my pace, enjoying the sights and sounds and relishing the solitude once the front runners had galloped off ahead of me. I was aware that we had been climbing steadily but the first time I had to walk, at five kilometres, still came as a surprise. Another runner had come up behind me and the trail had narrowed to single track down which a creek had run so foot placement was no longer automatic. Well, this is why they call it trail running, I reasoned as I stepped aside to let the other runner pass. She too, settled into a fast walk on the steeper, sketchier ascent. For another seven kilometres, the trail trended upwards and I rarely let my gaze stray to the charred trees and lush undergrowth, though I was aware of the bird calls and fragrant breezes and enjoyed tallying the scurrying chipmunks and territorial sparrows. I gave the course my best effort, remembering the “big” part of my starting thoughts.
Eventually, the trail popped us out for a view of Okanagan Lake and I came to an aid station, ready to refill my water bottles and crunch on a few potato chips and a slice of orange. Again, I settled into the ascent, noticing that my legs were tiring but knowing that they still had strength for another twelve kilometres. On the rare smooth sections, I ran when the trail wasn’t too steep, savouring the joy of scampering through the woods. When I fell, I stretched full length almost as if I was deliberately doing a burpee, albeit an extended one. Nothing was broken or sprained or even scratched except my resolve; it was fraying a bit. With no one around and half a race to finish though, I continued and finally made it to the descent phase.
Now I can cruise along, I thought, and at the same time, I also thought, don’t trip again. I tripped again. Then my adductors started cramping, threatening to seize my legs completely. Stretching helped and on I ran, watching my goal time slip further and further away. I tripped once more, recovered, cramped again and stretched. Each time, I tried to shore myself up with my usual motivational phrases, like this too shall pass and you got this. They worked.
At the last aid station, the volunteer called me by my name, telling me I was looking strong and encouraging me with the assurance that there were just under a couple of kilometres to go. It was a bit odd that he knew my name but since the race was so small, I reasoned that he must have the race roster and could match up my bib number. It wasn’t until I approached the finish line and heard them also calling out my name that I realized I’d finished last (again.) Back on the course, I’d heard people behind me and assumed they were race participants, even though there’d been plenty of evidence that other users, like hikers and bikers, were also in the park that day. Finishing last, however, was not a situation in which I had ever hoped to gain more experience.
I waited for the wave of shame to wash over me and it didn’t — I guess I have gone long enough and big enough and far enough finally, to choose instead to feel the pride in overcoming challenges, the satisfaction in resorting to my catalogue of motivational phrases, the gratitude in staying healthy enough to participate in a sport that continues to teach me new lessons.
Paradoxically, I was also a first place finisher, since no one else was in my age category, as I had guessed at the start. There were no medals for me so I’m glad I kept the rose I plucked on the way to the start and the feather I picked up on the trail.