... my journey from ballerina to triathlete

Monday, February 25, 2013

Dabbling in "Ultra Running"

At 7am on Saturday morning, I found myself in a small covered pavilion in the middle of a beautiful park at the base of the mountains, surrounded by lean yet muscle-bound throngs sporting light, fitted shoes that screamed "latest and greatest technology," oddly off-setting the old t-shirts that were equally plentiful. As has become the usual during my training, I realized that I had made the wrong decision; in fact, in this case I had made exactly the opposite choices of those necessary to make me fit in amongst this group. Knowing that we'd be running on trails, I had dug out my old, ratty running shoes and chosen a cheerful fuchsia-colored dri-fit shirt that I figured would make me look like a "real runner."

Wrong again.

I was so wrong, in fact, that when I saw my boss from Hawaii Sport Magazine (doing registration for the race) he immediately asked if I was going to be alright with getting muddy on the course.
       "Of course!" I replied enthusiastically.
       "Oh. Good." He replied, seemingly unconvinced. "It's just that you shirt ... it's so... pretty. And purple."

God damn it.

How did I get myself into this? I kept thinking. The answer, of course, was that my colleagues at the magazine consider this kind of thing normal and offered me free entry and a chance to meet the other members of the running team I'd been talked into joining. (If you've read my earlier blogs, you know how hilarious this is.) The odd thing (and the thing that I am loathe to admit) is that the more I run longer distances, the more I like it and want to do more. Thus the reason I was up at 6am driving to God-Knows-Where to attempt to run over 6 miles in the mountains surrounded by the very fitness gods I mentioned in my very first blog post.

Within a mile of starting, I realized that running on trails is a million times harder than running on roads. My usual 10 minute mile pace had stretched to over 11 minutes, despite the fact that I hadn't walked at all and my legs were already burning from leaping over roots, dodging puddles, and squishing through mud. I have to admit, however, that even from the start I found it oddly exhilarating to be running through the forest and into the mountains with mud slurping around my feet and splashing my legs. Although I was clearly unprepared, I felt like running in the wild brought me a teeny, tiny step closer to the badass triathlete that I had imagined might be inside me somewhere.

Over the river and through the woods...
As we continued on, it became clearer that dodging the mud and water would be impossible. As valiantly as everyone tried to avoid stepping in puddles, inevitably one snuck up on you and your shoe got doused. And, although for the first mile the trail had alternate "high routes" to steer it away from the places where the water running from the mountains had overtaken the path, these disappeared somewhere around mile two and the only option was to run straight through the small rivers in our way. Squish, squish, squish ... with each step my shoes shot water out the sides.

At about two and a half miles, I started seeing the first runners heading back down the hill, and the only way I can describe it is as a work of art. They appeared, at least to me, to be flying down the trail. Rocks, rivers, roots -- none of these obstacles seemed to matter. Were their feet even touching the ground?

When I finally reached the turn-around point, I could not possibly have been more grateful to run downhill. It poured with the kind of fury that is only possible in tropical mountain forests, but the water running down my face seemed to balance the water that filled my shoes. It was cooling and relaxing. As I ran the downhill, the jarring started a horrible side ache. After running half a mile or so doubled over in pain, I remembered the odd posture I'd noticed in the "real" runners as they came down the hill -- arms lowered and slightly extended, held away from their torsos. Figuring it couldn't do any harm (and confirming that there was no one in sight to witness my awkward arm experiments) I tried my best to imitate the position I'd seen. Miraculously, the side ache immediately melted away.

The beautiful finish
I flew down the hill.

The finish was gorgeous, coming back to the open lawn of the park we started at. Typical of runners, there were two options: run around the entire perimeter of the park to the finish, or cut straight across -- riding a tricycle or a hippity-hop. Not wanting to make any more of a fool of myself I opted to run the perimeter, but I definitely enjoyed watching those coming in behind me struggle to balance on the tiny bike crossing the sopping wet grass. If I'm being completely honest, a lot of my enjoyment was probably due to the fact that there actually were people behind me, as I had been fairly certain that I was the slowest in the group.

Double rainbow reward at the finish
Once I made it to the finish, all I could see was my dad. In the runners milling about, in the rain trapping us all under the crowded pavilion roof, and in the snacks laid out on a folding table -- all of these things so oddly familiar, so reminiscent of my childhood when my dad would take me to the trail races put on by the running club in my hometown. All of these were things I had forgotten, yet from somewhere inside me came the memories and I felt like he was near. Even the cookie selection was the same. Although feeling him is always bittersweet, it made me smile.

Today, I hit 100 miles of running since my first training run on December 15th, and I know my dad was with me. This triathlon has given me so many things: new energy, a new physique, new goals, a new sense of strength, new friends, a new job, and another connection to my dad. I can only imagine what the rest of the year's training will bring.

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