Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Into the Woods

“… to get the thing that makes it worth the journeying!”

Somewhere ahead of us were the people who were running the longer distances: 50K, 50 miles, 100 miles. They had started in the pre-dawn chill of a fall morning. The hundred milers would be out there all night and into the next day.
Lining up with a hundred others at the 22nd annual Haliburton Forest Trail Run, I was happy just to be attempting the 26K distance; as a novice in the field, I thought that would about be my limit. I was right.

The trails in the Haliburton Forest are not like the wood-chipped, groomed trails in a suburban conservation area. The larger of them are winter snowmobile tracks; lacking snow they are steep, rocky steeplechase courses. The hiking trails are more like suggestions of pathways through the trees. All around me was the quiet grandeur of nature: tall evergreens, steep rock cliffs, lakes and rivers.

I saw very little of it. I was too busy trying not to fall on my face or twist my ankle. To accomplish this, I had to look down at my feet almost every step of the way.
Look down.
My gait along these paths was a sort of combination of hopping, skipping, and salsa dancing. Every time my foot came down, it landed on a new geological potpourri of dirt, gravel, and rocks the size of my head. The concentration and coordination required simply not to fall was almost mesmerizing. I was in awe of the people who could negotiate this topography with any kind of speed or confidence.

Running over terrain like this is a total body workout. All my leg muscles were working to keep my ankles from buckling and my body moving more or less forward. My arms were continually flying out from my sides to help me keep balanced or to catch me when I stumbled. And stumble I did, many times, although I fell only once. No one was around to see me, so I assumed that I did not make a sound.
As a rookie trail runner, I managed a few rookie mistakes.

Rookie mistake #1: Too many clothes. The morning of the race was very cool. I bundled up as if I were in a February polar bear run. The forest however provided a good amount of shelter from the chill wind. Once I got warmed up, I was sweat-soaked and clammy all day.
Rookie mistake #2: Not enough sustenance. Almost everybody in the event set off with some hydration and nutrition. I didn’t. There were aid stations at 2 and 6K, and at the turnaround at 13 kilometres. I figured I would have no trouble running the 7K between the second and third stations. I run that far all the time without eating or drinking.

Yes … along the paved flat bike paths in the valley behind my house in the city. Clambering down slippery hills and up rocky fields not only took more out of me than I expected, it also took about twice as long. I was dehydrated and undernourished the whole way.
Rookie mistake #3: Worrying about time and space. There was only so fast I could go, even though I felt that I was going as fast as I could. I had enough energy and my legs were never tired or sore; I just couldn’t move any faster. Even as I tap-danced my way along the root-laced paths, I knew that I was making very slow progress. My pace was glacial and there was nothing I could do to speed up.

In a nice urban road race like the Scotiabank Waterfront Marathon, there are little signs placed every kilometre along the way to show you how far you’ve come. In the Haliburton Forest there are almost no navigation aids, except the myriad little orange flags to show where the path is supposed to lead. I was disoriented the whole way because I never really knew where I was or how far I had left to go.
Eventually I realized that this is the point. “It’s all about enjoying the trail,” said a volunteer at an aid station. It took me the entire race to realize the wisdom of what she had said. A trail run is about discovery – of the terrain, the environment, and of your own limits. There is nothing to prove and everything to learn.

I learned enough to know that I want to come back to this place and run again. I crossed the finish line feeling somewhat battered, but also in a way, stronger than when I had started.
No two trail runs are the same, and this becomes part of the definition of the genre itself. Maybe running for me in the coming years won’t be about trying to be better at something I have already done; maybe it will be about doing something that I have never done, and figuring it all out as I go along.