The Duality of Race Day

It’s 6:07.  Still dark outisde.  My alarm will go off in eight minutes, but I’m not going back to sleep: I slide out of bed stealthily so Nicole stays asleep.

The morning is still.  I try to stay quiet so as not to alert the dogs to my presence.  I hadn’t planned on leaving the house until 7, but I’ve taken my time and I’m still ready to leave twenty minutes early.  Outside, it is still night.

Dead Can Dance on the ride.  The sunrise glows pink in my rearview.  This morning, my FB feed exploded with #lovewins–a fight people have fought in this state for years.  Marcus Aurelius–the Uncle John Bathroom Reader of Philosophy–spoke of the continuing infinite drama, in which we are all temporal actors.  We strive and strive for change in our time on the stage until the curtain falls.  All this bounces around in my mind, in the boundless space of the morning.

Tires crunch the gravel at the Whitewater Center.  I’m one of two or three cars here.  I make my way down to the registration line and get my bib and free t-shirt.  On the way back up the stairs I catch the scent of old sunblock.  The sun has begun to chase the clouds, but the moon still sits high in the sky and a luscious rainbow settles on top of the canopy of trees.

Back at the truck, I change into my race gear.  I try to write a little, but writing seems dilatory rather than cathartic.  I’ve got time to kill and I’m ready to go.  I chug my water and head back down into the bowl of the Center.  I fiind places to stretch in relative obscurity while racers continue to trickle in.

By 8:30 I make my way back to the start line.  As the nine o’clock start time nears, the crowd swells, repeating their final stretches, meeting old friends.  A couple with CamelBacks run up and down the hill to warm up and a pair of young girls mimic them.

My start time arrives.  Our band leaves the line and begins to curl the gravel road around the back of the now-still man-made whitewater river.  We begin as a herd, but the the race and the obstacles will move us around.  A man in knee-high neon yellow socks with a CamelBack passes me, and my first urge is to match his pace: I resist this chimeric urge.  The first mile of the race can always be a trap.  When you are training, you often push yourself to run harder, to go beyond your comfortable pace.  But here at the beginning, with an entire race in front of you, it’s more about find your pace that will allow you to finish the race.

We pass the first mile.  7:25.  A really good pace for me.  We come to the first obstacle–5 log hurdles of varying heights.  No sweat.  I pass my first racers–a woman in black shorts with long black socks and her boyfriend–only to have to stop at the next obstacle, a wire bridge suspended across a creek.  I creep but I cross.  By the third obstacle, a cargo net climb up and down, I’m feeling like we’re on the course in the movie Stripes.

Out of the woods and up a hill.  Some people are already walking.  5k to the left.  12k to the right.  Water in the middle.  I grab a sip and head right.  Another more daunting hill.  More people walk.  Here’s where the pack separates.  I trot at a solid, steady pace.  Uphill is my strength, even when I’m hiking.  I was the first of my group to make it up Dead Woman’s Pass (though I got dehydration and altitude sickness for it).  Slow and steady gets me to the top.

I draft a teenager girl and her dad for a bit, settling into a slower pace than usual, just enough to catch my breath.  Two guys pass.  Eventually, I do to, and the dad gives his daughter encouragement as I do.  Then more up hill.  More and more uphill.  I catch the guy who just passed me.  Soon the next obstacle–an upside down rope crawl.  People are already crapping out and doing the substitute 25 burpees for not passing an obstacle.  But I’m using different muscles and give my lungs a rest.  No worries.  Soon I’m looped back on the water table.  Some 5kers are just coming up the hill.

The field is wide and open as the two races join again.  I think about writing this blog.  I’ve done little with the start of school and race training, but the lines are practically writing themselves in my head.  I feel triumphant.  We pass a water table as the races split and we re-enter the woods.  I shrug off the water.  No time to slow down this train.  Just then, a woman in green shorts passes me and is gone.  But I’m good.  And soon, I’m on the monkey bars.  I worry I won’t hold on, but I do.  This obstacle puts space between the runners, and soon I am all alone in the woods.

And then the doldrums hit.  Anyone who’s ever run a distance race knows what I mean.  There comes a point in the race where your doubt is at its absolute worst, where you feel like you will stop and give up involuntarily, when the task of completing the race seems to daunting to dare.  As you descend into this darkness, all of the doubts you have swirling about your life come erupting from the subconscious into the fore.  All the beautiful sentences and thoughts have left, ceding to a wordless bleak pit.

But then the magic happens.  In this wordless, empty place, in this utter lack of hope and energy, the wind picks up, lightly tittering the leaves.  The song of the birds rises.  The symphony of insects swells.  I rise from the pit, now intwined as a denizen of the forest.  I’m off the floor and I’m still running, a thoughtless, flowing pace, a deer on a jaunt.  I could run like this all day.

Soon, I spot a runner ahead, but I make no effort to speed up to catch him.  I’m in no hurry.  I will catch him eventually.  I come to the next obstacle–a wall with a rope, up and down.  I keep in my pace but tear my bib on the way over.  No worries.  It’s in my pocket.  My pace stays solid.  In front of me, my pace actually starts to catch people as they move over.  I’m shocked and elated.  If I just keep a pace between obstacles, I’m going to be good.

And then I hear the clink of a chain and a cry of exasperation up the hill.  I soon come to this trap–the rings.  Here, people are already in their burpees.  The volunteer manning the obstacle is trying to fix the ring that has looped over the wire, and I wait around for him.  I’m more into trying the obstacle than losing time.  But I do, minutes perhaps, and the obstacle is out of my reach anyway.  So, I’m on the ground for my 25 and I’m gone.  The trail snakes its way back near the entrance to this section.  Other racers are just now coming in, and I think of the arduous loop I’ve just completed, the arduous loop they have in front of them.  At the water table, a woman in neon yellow catches me, and we run at the same pace for the next few minutes, crawling 100 feet through a drainage ditch, through the mud, across a lateral climbing wall.  And then she is gone through the woods.  But the wall is something else: I slide across it with grace and ease.  I wish I could go back and do it again.  Instead I cry my barbaric yawp through out the woods.  This is fun.

The pack thickens again, which means we must be nearing the end.  I pass people walking the hills and dads with their kids crossing bridges.  I push to then end.  The human sound of the finish line nears.  Mixmaster Mike drops the beat.  Intergalactic Planetary.  I come out into the open and push up the hill.  Last obstacle–ten knee-high hurdles right before the finish line.  Then the sprint.

1:25:01.

My breath spins around as I re-orient myself.  I walk down the river bank, now flowing with kayakers on their first run of the morning.  Soon, I avail myself to the free water, bagels, bananas and beer.  In the beer line, I hear stories of cuts and missed turns.  Some guy thinks my bib-less safety pins are thorns in my gut, and we laugh.  I loll in the sunshine and stretch until the awards come about 45 minutes later.  Green shorts and neon shirt both finish top in their age bracket.  The man in knee-high neon socks crosses the finishes line.

For me, there is no award or recognition, but this does not diminish the day.  I had the most fun I have ever had in a race, and I hope to return to this race next year.  I did not run for and end goal, not to change myself, not to prove something to myself–not even this blog, but simply to run.  Up the hills among the trees over the obstacles through the doldrums out a drainage ditch into nirvana.  Simply to run.

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