Sunday, May 29, 2011

Lessons From the Trail

Saturday I completed my first trail run – the Paris Mountain 11K Trail Run..  It is something I have wanted to do for a while.  Something I was sure I would enjoy, but I’ve been nervous about taking on the challenge.  I was nervous that I would fall, twist my ankle or somehow hurt myself.  In December I injured my IT band during my first marathon.  After weeks of rehab and physical therapy I was running again.  But my injury free days were cut short when I broke my collar bone from a bike wreck in February.  So, perhaps you can see why I was a little gun shy about trying a trail run; an “adventurous” one at that.  I have been quite happy to be running healthy the past two months.  Why risk it? 

I kept changing my mind about whether or not I was going to run Saturday’s race.  And it was the last minute before my husband and I signed up.  And for someone cheap (um, I mean “frugal”) like me, “last minute” means signing up right before the early bird discount expires.  So, I only committed to the run a few weeks ago, and I tried not to think about it too much.  I succeeded…until the night before.  I couldn’t sleep, and I woke once every hour feeling panicked that I had overslept.

When we entered Paris Mountain State Park at 7:12 AM I had a small case of nerves, but felt mostly excited that I was about to do something new.  I love that feeling.  Having overcast skies and temps below 70 degrees didn’t hurt either.  During the moments leading up to the race start - pinning on my bib, stretching and making a stop by the rest room - I began to feel calm and thankful for the present moment.  I had a good feeling about the run.

I had been warned about the brutal uphill climb on the course, so when the race started I set out on an easy relaxed pace to give myself a chance to get in a good groove.  While I hate to spoil the ending so soon, I have to say that I enjoyed every minute spent on the trail.  And like most good runs, I walked away knowing I had been reminded of some of life’s important lessons.  Running has a way of helping you rediscover things like that.  Here are just a few… 

Looks can be deceiving.  Of course we all know this.  Our mothers made sure we knew this truth from an early age.  But apparently I needed a reminder.  On more than one occasion I have enjoyed races running along side some super athletic looking guys that I assumed were marines or members of a swat team.  If their t-shirts weren’t telling the truth, they sure looked convincing!  Often these guys aren’t super fast – incredibly strong, yes – but not as fast as the leaner dudes on the course.  And Saturday I ran right behind one of these guys.  I was pleased to be keeping up with such a fit fella just sure that I would be following him through out the race.  Big mistake.  Around mile two the trail widened briefly, and he took off and sprinted ahead.  He passed at least five or six runners within seconds.  Not fast, huh?  I never saw him again.

Stay focused on the goal.  You have to be careful not to get sidetracked on the trail or in life.  When things get tough or we get tired we start to stumble a bit.  I’ve often heard how trail running requires such focus.  You have to pay attention at all times and keep your eyes on the course.  Now I understand why that advice is so common.  On a trail you encounter rocks, stumps, twigs, and slick leaves.  Something attractive or even beautiful may take your eyes away from the trail.  Or you may look too far ahead worrying about what is coming next.  Either can cause you to fall.  It may sound draining, but I actually loved that aspect of trail running.  The discipline it took to be totally focused on the path before me made me feel energized.    

There’s nothing like experience.  When doing anything new we all want to be experts immediately.  We want to know it all and get it right from the beginning, at least I do.  While I heard lots of advice from those that had ran the course before, my personal experience taught me far more.  I had heard all about the portion of the run that seemed more like rock climbing, but until I took hold of those rocks and stumps to hoist myself up to the trail above I couldn’t possibly know what it would actually be like. 
We each take different steps hoping to reach the same destination.  Often in life we worry about not doing what everyone else is doing or how they are doing it.  At times on the trail I felt hypnotized by the person’s feet in front of me.  I thought it was fascinating to watch the person ahead of me hop over a rock that I chose to step on, or see someone go left when I went right.  What makes a person leap over a tree stump instead of pushing off of it?  I must admit I felt a little nerdy over my intrigue in to the human brain and body as I compared footsteps of others to mine.  (But then again, at one point I hoped the back of my legs had mud and dirt splashed all over them like one girl in front of me.  It looked so tough!  Yes, I am weird like that.  Sadly, no mud was to be found on my legs post race, but I did feel ultra cool when my left foot got soaked, and I continued to run with water squishing between my toes.)  So, no matter whether I ran the trail exactly how the other racers did, we all crossed the same finish line.       

Competition is a good thing.  Unless you know me really well, you might never know I am pretty competitive.  In racing I like to target someone ahead and pace off of them for a little while before I attempt to pass them.  It is nothing personal.  I just use it as a way to dig deep and do my best.  On trail runs passing opportunities are limited – very limited.    I was able to pass people a handful of times during the run, and I only remember getting passed once.  (However, I am sure that’s only because I went out pretty slowly during the first two miles anticipating the steep climb I kept hearing about, so I had kind of unknowingly conserved enough energy to spend later in the race.)  All but one of my passing encounters were received with a friendly, tired smile.  But one encounter was a fun battle.  It is common for fellow runners to offer you a pass if they feel you are moving in too close and the trail allows for it.  But one gal in particular was not so eager to help me out.  Each time I tried to pass she sped up.  And I loved it!  I wasn’t mad.  I thought “good for you!”  If she needed some friendly competition to dig deeper then I was happy to oblige her.  Luckily, she took more time at the water station so I was able to move in front.     

Even though I love running (okay, I enjoy running, love may be a bit much) I tire of the monotony at times.  Honestly, I have a love/hate relationship with running.  And for the past two weeks I have been in a running slump.  But if hitting the roads and putting in the miles week after week gives me the ability to run more trail runs and take on new challenges, then it is totally worth it!  Two days ago I had never run a trail race, and 6.83 miles later I am hooked.  I can’t wait for the next time!