Sunday, May 31, 2015

Running with Real Bunnies

Sumer is icumen in, lhude sing cuccu.
Summer has arrived, loudly sing cuckoo.
English folksong ca. 1240

It’s the season of trail races, those oddball off-road events that are pleasantly devoid of the noisy hype that surrounds a major marathon. 

Instead of lining up out of sight of the start behind ten thousand nervous runners, the participants in a trail race might just follow the starter to some imaginary line in a field and start moving when he says Go. Instead of a hysterical run down a finishing chute accompanied by a shrieking announcer and thumping techno-music, in a trail race you quietly cross the line, grab a banana, and walk to your car. At an event I ran several years ago called Vulture Bait, the finish line was two guys at a card table checking off names. Two little girls held a piece of twine across the path for us to run through. I loved that race.

When I gratefully crossed the line after finishing the Seaton Soaker 25k the other weekend, the lone marshal there laconically asked me if I was going to go around for another lap or was I done. I was done.

Trail running is different. Of course, trail runners will tell you that this is a no-brainer. But I had forgotten just how many ways it is different, beyond the obvious ones.

To start with, trail runners look different. There are people wearing Rube Goldberg-like Camel-Bak hydration arrangements, held together with duct tape and string, sloshing up and down the hills. There are greying men with long, un-hipster-like beards, wearing bandanas. There are women of all shapes and ages who come not to show off their spandex outfits and laboriously wrought gym bodies, but to run. The love and respect of everyone there for the trail they are following is palpable.

A chance to get covered in mud.
I’ll tell you what I love most about running trails.

It’s not the sylvan peace, although the muffled sound of feet padding along a dirt path can be hypnotically soothing. There are times when you are so quietly alone that you wonder if you have gotten lost. There are no pace bunnies. There are real bunnies.

It’s not the relaxed pace, which can be Andy-of-Mayberry slow.  There is simply not much point in hurrying. Not only will the terrain slow you down anyway, but you will eventually find yourself climbing a hill on a single-lane path behind four people who want to walk up rather than run. So you walk too. This whole approach really suits me. I am naturally slow and lazy when I run, and I welcome any chance to be both. You do not have to go fast to get a good workout; the trail will give you a good workout.

It’s not the pretty rural scenery. Running off road actually doesn’t give you much chance to enjoy the scenery. You are too busy watching your feet—every footstep—to make sure you don’t trip over a tree root or twist your ankle in a rabbit hole.

And a chance to wash it off.
Photos :Dave Robinet
And this is what I love most about it: every step is different from the one before it. Every time you land, you land a different way and use a different configuration of muscles to control that landing. Great concentration is required or you will definitely take a tumble. Running 21 or 42 kilometres along a city street wears away at the quadriceps muscles and plantar fascia due to the repeated, monotonous pounding. On a trail, the varying terrain makes sure that every muscle in your body gets recruited. Even my neck got stiff from looking down at my feet so much.

Trail races are the Bits N Bites of running. Every step is whole new ball game.

 The weather for the Seaton Soaker Trail Race was warm and sunny, except for one ten minute period when a cloud came over and rained on us. This sudden shower happened to me as I was starting gingerly down a long, steep hill. Of course, I slipped right away and body-surfed the rest of the way to the bottom, covering myself in mud. I looked either tragic or hilarious; mostly the latter if the reaction of the people at the aid stations was any indication. Luckily there was a river crossing near the end of the race so I could wash the worst of the mud off before crossing the finish line. One runner told me that the race used to be called The Mud Puppies, so I guessed I was now initiated.

I finished near the back of the pack, stiff, tired and, sore, and covered in mud and creek water. I can hardly wait to do another one.