My running friend, Karen, her husband Jan and myself decide to give trail running a try. I had read how wonderful it is—the beauty of nature, the commune with the divine on earth and the smell of flowers and buds; a near spiritual experience, or so I am told.
The weather is awful the weeks leading up to the race so none of us is able to practice on an actual trail, well if you discount sidewalks and old railway lines. They are sort of trails, right? I mean, with a race name like Pick Your Poison how bad can it possibly be?
We arrive. I immediately feel out of place. I look around at the others participants and don’t notice many GPS watches, cell phones, fuel belts, ipods or high tech running gear that we’re wearing. Instead, I see bandanas and crazy, flower-power, mismatched running clothes and earth-toned shoes. No one speaks to us except the woman in the next car who is extracting what looks to be ski poles from her trunk. Apparently she uses these devices to walk up hills. I am beginning to question my judgement. However, I think “How bad can it possibly be?”
There are gondolas on the property. This can’t be good. Where there are gondolas, there are usually big hills. Upon registering to receive our race kits, we are given jet black shirts with a blood red skull and crossbones on it. I get a slight inkling the universe is trying to tell me something now.
“Where will I ever wear this?” Jan asks as the clean-cut, thirty-something professional holds the offending piece of clothing up at arm’s length.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Karen answers, “I could always wear it to bed.”
“Oh, that’s nice,” he mutters with sarcasm, obviously unimpressed. I figure I can always wear the shirt when I paint the basement…
And, the race kit includes a jar of free, locally gown honey. How very bijou I think.
No one has spoken to us yet and we cluster together like a small pack of penguins sheltering ourselves from the impending wind, hoping to start running soon to save us from our conspicuous discomfort. Karen and I are excited to see a happy, friendly face. It is Sandra, our former runner clinic leader.
“Hi,” we burst, so pleased to see a recognizable face.
“Hi,” she seems genuinely happy to see us.
“Are you racing?” Karen asks.
“No. I have another commitment today. I thought I’d take pictures at the start and then I have to go. Are you racing?”
“Yes,” Karen says. She adds, “It’s our first time on a trail.”
We expect a response but not the one we get.
“Oh,” pause and forced smile, “It’s hilly.”
“We know,” Karen responds cheerfully.
“It’s really hilly,” Sandra reiterates.
“We know,” Karen shoots back with a smile.
“Have fun. It’s hilly,” Sandra reminds us.
“We know,” Karen giggles.
This verbal game of ping pong is beginning to concern me. There is something in Sandra’s tone that makes me think that maybe there is more to this than we know. Apparently Karen is getting the same vibe.
We walk away. “I’m not sure I like the way Sandra said ‘oh’. We only signed up for the 12.5 km and not the 25 or 50 km. We should be okay, right?”
I do what any upstanding citizen would do in this situation. I blatantly lie, “We’ll be fine. I’m sure Sandra was just trying to let us know there are a few hills in the course. This will be a piece of cake.”
We make our way to the start line and with relief, the race starts. We turn on our ipods and set our GPS watches in isolation. My relief is short lived, though, as we make our way up a never-ending hill. We fly by people as they start walking and think this isn’t so bad.
We enter a narrow path in the woods and it twist and turns as it continues to go up and then up some more. Then it happens. My heart stops dead and I gasp for breath. I think I am going to die or at very least have a heart attack. No, it isn’t the never ending hills, although they don’t help. I see brambles and burrs attack Karen’s new $80 Lululemon capris (this year’s model, by the way) and can’t help myself as I scream out, “Oh no!” Karen seems less concerned as she is focussing on her footing.
We continue over fallen logs, mud patches and branches through a single lane path. All of a sudden I am startled by a woman in a wrist-to-ankle black unitard who is emerging from the depths of the woods. She looks to be about 110 years old. At first I think we are being attacked by the people of the trees and then realize she was just taking a bathroom break. I don’t like peeing in the woods and can’t imagine why she didn’t go 15 minutes ago when we were in the lodge where there were flushable toilets. Oh, well. Each to their own.
Unitard woman has obviously done this sort of race before, because she is now passing me up the hill, putting me to shame. She gives me some kindly advice. “Swing your arms,” it will help you get up the hill. On the inside I smile and politely say “Thank you for the wonderful advice.” My outside voice barely manages a grunt, “Thanks.” I wonder if I have a heart attack if my body will be eaten by bears or wolves?
I feel like I can’t get enough air. “Are you sure we aren’t in the Himalayas?” I ask Karen.
Oh finally, an open space and a downhill run. Karen and I run side by side, feeling a bit better after the steep Everest type climb we just completed. My elation, however quickly dissipates as I watch Karen’s shiny white Ascics Nimbus running shoes sink into the bog we are now running through. I feel my running shoes soak up the water like a sponge. “Ewww”, I say as I swing my hands up like a frightened little girl. There is no way around the water except through the swamp. I look around, half expecting Shreck and Fiona to appear and invite us over for supper.
We soldier on and come to a fork in the road, pardon me, trail, (there are definitely no roads here) and a gentleman who appears to have taken part in Woodstock in 1969 hasn’t changed his hairstyle (or clothes for that matter) since directs us back, around down a familiar path.
I think I’m losing my mind, delirious with this strenuous running. The hazardous roots, felled trees and brambles are starting to look the same, exactly the same as what we just came through. I talk myself out of my psychosis by telling myself I am imagining it until….we see the swamp, the precise swamp we just came through a few kilometres earlier and Mr. Woodstock is at the top of the hill.
“Is this your first time around?”
“No.” A group is now forming.
“You’ve done this part twice. You didn’t need to. I’m sorry,” he said way too matter-of-factly for my liking.
This man is responsible for my wet feet and my angry disposition has misdirected me and the best he can come up with is “sorry”. This costly mistake will add another 3 km to our run. I don’t think so. I’m not doing it.
“Where’s the car?” I ask Karen.
“Let’s go back and find the car.” I continue. I decide I’m not doing this torture twice.
But Karen has more resolve than I and says, “Let’s finish. We’ll go this way and see how it goes.”
Begrudgingly I follow.
The trail narrows and follows a ridge. One wrong step and you are stumbling down the side of a very steep hill, some (being Karen and I) would even call it a cliff.
“I don’t like this. I’m afraid of heights.” Karen confesses as she trudges forward.
I’m sure the area must have been pretty, but I can’t tell you. I was spending all my time watching my footing to make sure I didn’t break something important like a limb or appendage. So much for enjoying nature.
“I signed Jan up for this race. I might be divorced when we get back to the finish line.”
I didn’t doubt it. If I could divorce myself for signing up for this experience, I would.
“Maybe he’s enjoying it.” I say, inwardly knowing it wasn't even a remote possibility.
Finally the trail widens and I see a golf course through the trees to the right of us—civilization…and golf carts.
“Want to hijack that golf cart?” I ask, hoping she’ll finally buy into one of my plans. But alas, Karen is the strong one and we keep going. Then I see people running the other way, just a few meters from us. Obviously this must be a loop and we will be going that way eventually.
“Want to cut across through the trees?” I figure we already added extra kilometres, this might be a way to reduce the distance a little. But then I think better of it. There are 25 and 50 km races also going on. What if that is a 50 km route and we accidently get on it? Then, my life would be over. So, I get proactive. I yell through the trees, “Are you running the 12.5 km race?”
I am met with a very emphatic, somewhat insulted, “No. We are the doing the 50.” My first impulse is to yell out "freaks" but I restrain myself. I don't know how long it would take them to find my body in these woods if this breed of super athletes decided to turn on me. Darn, I guess we better stick to the plan.
“Oh. Better stay on the trail, then,” I say.
We are being passed, “You’re a road runner, aren’t you?” a random trail blazer asks. “Yes,” we hang our heads in shame.
We’re nearing the end and trail is getting yet even more narrow and the ascent is so steep, I think I need a climbing harness and a belay partner. My calves have given up and are in a permanent contraction. I turn my body sideways in hopes of using a different set of muscles, “I have to go up the hill sideways,” I announce to Karen who is mountain climbing in front of me.
She can’t stop laughing now, “I have to go up on all fours.”
Now I’m hysterical. We are laughing hard enough to cry if we had the energy. There is a line up of people behind us now and a gentleman asks what was so funny. “Were you laughing at us ‘old’ folks?”
“No, no, no,” I assure him, recounting the tale. I am laughing because we are so out of our depth and so humbled by these extreme athletes who call themselves Trail Runners. We might as well be characters out of the TV show Sex and the City, two New York City-esque women parachuted into the Canadian wilds, wearing Prada gowns, Jimmy Choo shoes and holding a Cosmo in either hand...
I hate going up hill until I realize that I hate going downhill more. We descend a ski hill in the last leg of race. I fear losing my footing and going head over heels only to land in a heap at the bottom and we would be the inspiration for a new nursery rhyme. It is called Karen and Heather:
Karen and Heather went up the hill
To fetch a skull and cross bones t-shirt
Karen fell down and broke her crown
And Heather came tumbling after
Luckily, we both survive.
I see Jan at the finish line. “Did you enjoy that?” I ask.
I refuse to write what he said but it was as colourful as the rocks, trees, roots, and swamps we just traversed. Since I like both Karen and Jan, I will not recommend a good lawyer to either of them.
Karen and I decide to go for a run on the city roads the next week.
“Oh, the sweet smell of exhaust,” I say as I hungrily suck in the fumes.
A car honks at us and another almost hits us.
“Now, this is nice,” Karen remarks with sincerity and conviction.
We get lost because a couple of road signs are missing and it doesn’t ever both us. A driver gives us the finger and we wave and smile in glee.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” I yell out to the disgruntled and now confused motorist.
Yes, this is the life. Nature, trees and fresh air are over rated. Give me the fume-infested, angry motorist plagued roads any day. By the way, I have a medium sized skull and cross bones black t-shirt for sale if anyone is interested…