28. Trail and Error

28. Trail and Error

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Runners

Trail and Error

The trail is the thing, not the end of the trail. Travel too fast and you miss all you are traveling for.
 ~Louis L’Amour

"No one,” announced an official with a clipboard, “has ever dropped out of this race.”

I swallowed.

Three months ago, when I registered, it sounded romantic — the Superior Trail 25K, a 15.5-mile race on the Superior Hiking Trail. I pictured myself, sunlit and songbird-serenaded, bounding through the trees like the star of a shoe commercial.

Then I read the course description.

“The trail winds through boreal forests of birch, spruce, balsam fir and alder as it climbs to the top of Moose Mountain. A lot of ups and downs make this a very challenging section to run. This is one of the toughest sections of the Superior Hiking Trail and caution must be observed.”

Now it was early on a May Saturday, on a dusty road in Lutsen. Start time was two minutes away.

A pine-scented breeze cooled my nervous sweat. Around me, the other runners stretched their quads, kissed their spouses, knotted their shoelaces, and pinned their race numbers to their shirts. Friends and relatives hovered on the edges of the crowd, snapping pictures, slapping high-fives and shouting good luck. I braced my hands on my hips and reminded myself to breathe. Despite my months of preparation, I felt like a student who forgot to study for a test. I had trained on roads.

Road running is about rhythms — fast music, steady breathing, staccato slap of soles on pavement. None of those rhythms would serve me on this trail. Roots, ravines, and lack of asphalt would preclude a consistent pace. “A lot of ups and downs” would make my breathing anything but steady. And the Superior Trail Race discourages headphone use because, as the website explains, “Full awareness of one’s surroundings, and the ability to communicate with other participants, race volunteers, and trail users unassociated with the event are critical to everyone’s safety.”

The official counted down the final seconds. “Five, four, three…”

I swallowed again.

The horn blasted. I started running. Everything, I told myself, would be just fine. “Mountain” and “challenging” were relative terms.

A few miles into the race, on a long switchback section that had me sucking air like an asthmatic, I kicked myself for leaving my MP3 player at home. Music would distract me from my aching thighs and mud-soaked, squelching shoes. Rules be damned. I could have tucked the player in my pocket until I was out of sight of the officials. And the other entrants couldn’t rat me out; for now, at least, there were none in sight.

A stitch worked its way up my left side. A nascent blister burned my right heel. Hunger torqued my gut like someone wringing out a rag. (I had been too anxious to eat breakfast.) A college friend’s philosophy on racing got more appealing by the minute.

“It’s against my morals,” he always says. “I only run when chased.”

Voices echoed up the trail. Laughter.

I glanced back and saw a pack of women coming up behind me. I debated whether to pick up my pace to stay ahead of them or slow down so they would pass me. It didn’t even occur to me that I could run with them. I trained alone — why should a race be different?

The voices got closer. I slowed and moved right.

A dark-haired woman who looked to be in her forties passed me at an easy lope. She settled into her stride a few yards ahead of me.

“Hello,” she called in an infuriatingly unlabored voice.

I gasped a reciprocal greeting and hoped she would leave it at that. Unlike her, I had no air to spare for conversation.

She glanced back and introduced herself. I managed to respond with my name and a windy “Nice to meet you.”

“Do you want,” she asked, “to run with my friends and me?”

I hesitated. I had trained alone, so I wasn’t accustomed to running with people. I would feel humiliated if I couldn’t keep up with them. But, then again, their presence might inspire me to push myself harder than solitude would. And this race was nothing like training.

“Sure.”

She introduced me to the other women. Turns out they were veteran runners in their late fifties — I told them I had thought they were in their forties, and this conjured big smiles — with a dozen ultramarathons between them. The dark-haired one asked how old I was.

“I’m twenty.”

She shook her head as if in dismay, but she was smiling. “I’ve been running,” she said, “longer than you’ve been alive.”

Keeping up was tough but worth it. We talked during the flat sections and huffed and puffed up the steep parts. At the aid station at the halfway point, I sucked down a salt pill, a handful of M&Ms, half a peanut butter sandwich and two Dixie cups of Coke. My stomach gurgled its appreciation.

Two of the women waited for me. “Ready?”

After the race, the dark-haired woman hugged me. “You did great,” she said. “I’m proud of you.”

This, I realized, was the key difference between road running and trail running. Connection. On the trail there was no asphalt between my feet and the earth, no headphones between my ears and the bird-songs, no distance between myself and the people around me.

~Shelby Gonzalez

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