It seemed like forever ago. It was an odd feeling. For years, I've felt like I was beating my head against the proverbial wall. Try as I might, I was reduced to a slogger. (Interpretation: slow jogger) The bounce was gone. The joy a distant memory. I loathed the idea of competing because I wasn't any good at it anymore. Yes, I was older. Much older. I'm supposed to get slower. But still. . . Each time I stepped to the line, I simply wished for the finish; the between time merely action out of obligation. I tried to will up excitement for entering the fray but could not. But now. . .it was another story. I smiled.
The Friday night before the Promise Land 50K is like a camp-out on steroids. Two-hundred or so of my fellow runners set up camp in the freshly mowed field in the shadow of the mountains through which we would run. People mill around, shoveling pizza and treats into their face, the calories welcomed in light of the Saturday's challenge. I was part of it this year. Not as a race helper but as a participant; a willing one at that. As dusk hinted at the coming night, I quietly slipped off to my Jeep and crawled into my sleeping bag. It was strange to again be corralling my thoughts into race mode rather than dreading the starter's gun. With distant laughter and the crackling bonfire merging into the night air, I closed my eyes and awaited my time to run. I smiled.
I was determined to do my best. My training over the last few months was much more consistent than previously. Long runs no longer crippled me the next day. My confidence rose as the times for my daily runs became faster and more intense. Most of the time, I felt smooth and efficient. I ran more. Walked less. I even looked forward to group runs because I could actually be a part of the group. It's a far cry from when the "group" part ended in the first five minutes. Why bother? But now, now I run into the darkness, wanting to be anonymous in the first miles so I could settle into my own pace. My own race. I had something to prove--to myself. No one else. I smiled.
Up the gravel road, alternating running and walking. A sharp right onto a single track trail doing the same. And then came the long and undulating grassy road. I felt strong and agile. I looked forward to running further up inclines than normal. My breathing guided me. By the third aid station at fourteen miles, my legs still responded and my watch encouraged me to race by the table and continue pursuing my dreams down the mountain. I smiled.
The miles flew by. Even the valley's nearly flat dirt road failed to discourage. I passed people. They did not pass me. This was odd indeed. The Whitetail Trail ushered me back into the forest, white streamers beckoning me along the narrow way. Then it was up a hill, around the corner, past another aid station filled with happy volunteers and onto another grassy route. Though I had anticipated a quiet solo run, my perfect running companion of the previous ten miles continued with me. Scott and I enjoyed pleasant conversation as well as moments of contented silence as our paces perfectly matched. We arrived at the last low-country refueling station and quickly left, anticipating our climb skyward. I was still smiling.
The weather could not have been more perfect. The skies were overcast, a gentle breeze tousling my hair. The mountainside creek rushed downward as we climbed the rocky trail still higher. We both counted 173 wooden steps above the cascading falls. My slight stumbles elicited an "ouch" from Scott as he saw my calves tighten in cramped response. I continued evaluating my condition, keeping the intake of electrolyte tabs and drink a constant. And then we arrived at the parkway; the gateway to the last downhill portion of this race. I grabbed a cookie, exchanged bottles from my awaiting son and ran--did not walk as in other years--across the parking lot, roadway, and down the trail. The smile went with me.
Down, down, down. We ran together knowing the end was near. A few stumbles, a slip in the mud, and a calf threatening to rebel did not prevent us from waving as we passed by the aid station folks at the top of the last 2.6 mile descent. I felt good. Though tired, I was not scathed. My feet were fine. No blisters. No painful grimaces. Just a relentless downhill flow with my trail buddy and now another friend, Jaime. Perhaps anticipating the sight of the five-foot squirrel mailbox denoting the road's last turn too much, the loose gravel beneath my feet betrayed me, sending me belly-sliding in the tire track much like a baseball player reaching for home plate. Both calves seized immediately, rendering me incapable of gaining my stand. "Pick me up! Pick me up," I blurted to my amused friends. Laughing, while investigating the less-than-expected damage to my hands and knees, I was pleasantly surprised that I could run on without further difficulty. As the finish line drew near, I smiled as we hooked arms to cross the line, a gallant gentleman on each side. I smiled because it was more than a race. It was more than a finish position. It was more than an elapsed time. It was the dawn of a new era, a better era.
And I still smile.