|At the start of the Crystal Springs 50K|
|The antithesis to my frosty face photos from Alaska — this is what winter running looks like in coastal California.|
Everything motored along swimmingly until I passed the last checkpoint, 4.6 miles from the finish. I looked at my watch and realized if I could somehow log sub-nine-minute miles for the rest of the race, I might just reach something that has been a longer-term goal of mine — to finish a trail 50K in less than six hours. The remainder of the course was predominantly downhill, but in my world, that's a bad thing. I think you have to be a similarly flailing and awkward runner as I am to really understand what I mean. Even on flat pavement, seven miles per hour is about my speed threshold before I begin to feel uncomfortable, like my feet are stumbling over themselves and painful things are about to happen, and sometimes they do. Even if they're physically achievable, fast speeds frighten me enough that I'm psychologically incapable of letting off the brakes.
I crested a small hill with my GPS registering a 13-minute-mile, which just wasn't going to cut it. Just then, a song came on my iPod that reminded me of my trek in Alaska, and momentarily moved my thoughts from the vibrant sunlight filtering through the redwood forest, back to the frigid air and frozen swamps of the Susitna Valley — "The Cave" by Mumford and Sons:
It's empty in the valley of your heart
The sun, it rises slowly as you walk
Away from all the fears
And all the faults you've left behind
For a moment I could feel all of it — a hundred miles of snowshoe trekking, a reluctant sled tugging at my hips, lips cracked with windburn, swollen fingertips, a painful patch of dry skin that formed on my nose after I dozed off with my face sticking out of my bivy bag, the cold headaches, the fatigue after my long flight home, the lead weights in my legs during my difficult training run, the 27 miles of consistent running I had already logged that day. And then, in the next moment, I let it all go. And I ran.
But I will hold on hope
And I won't let you choke
On the noose around your neck
I locked in to the frenetic banjo harmony and matched my own cadence, feeling a rush of wind and adrenaline as I accelerated down the narrow, winding trail. A towering redwood canopy filtered the sunlight into a hypnotic strobe, dry leaves erupted at my feet, and I could almost taste the moist aroma of soil and green moss. Even the endless hairpin turns couldn't disrupt the exhilarating sensation of simply running without fear. Who cares if I fall?
And I'll find strength in pain
And I will change my ways
I'll know my name as it's called again
I passed several runners — a guy, another guy, a woman, two guys. One of them called out to me, "Nice pace!" "Thanks!" I shouted back. The trail disappeared beneath my feet like a conveyor belt. I felt like I could run faster, but I had a hunch I was running fast enough. That was good enough for me.
I crossed the finish line at 5:51, a personal record by 20 minutes. (Garmin stats here) I didn't win. Not even in my age group. The woman who did win shattered my course record and beat me by an hour. But it felt like a big victory, all the same.