Cheat Mountain Moonshine Magnificence
Just one word, I thought: “Instinct.”
Er, well, maybe a few words. In writing a race report for the CMMM, I wanted to keep it short and to the point, not one of those wordy ramblings full of tangents and cryptic references I usually cough up.
So I thought about it for a bit. “In one word,” I asked myself, “what was this race experience to me?” Well, that was easy.
“The word is instinct. It was all about the return of instinct,” I thought, “But then aren’t all endurance events at least a little about that for me?” I always seem to have this on my mind before a race, but forget exactly what it means until I am in the thick of it. A long race for me is like hitting life’s reset button. Going into it, I know this, but in my heavy, pre-race anxiety I have to ask myself “Why do I do this? Why must I tear up my body so in order to restore my soul?”
But in the thick of the run, there is that sweet recognition of the return of instinct; a deep, calming sense that guides and directs, that blows me back on course. Carried away are every worry and fret of unimportance, leaving me with–as–something of substance, something tangible and golden, truth.
Running in the mountains at night brings on a return of instinct unlike any other experience I have had. (But then I have yet to tango with a mugger or visit a war zone.) For me, running itself does this, running long does it better, running in nature–especially the woods and the mountains does it best, and running at night? Well, with all of these elements in place, it switches on senses I forgot I had.
I chose to run this race for practical reasons. I am an ultra newbie. Though I have run some night races, they haven’t been on single track nor as far as 50 miles, and I hoped the experience would help me prep. for a 100m. I opted for one headlamp (with a back up and extra batteries in drop bags) to guide me rather than the head lamp/flashlight combo. For trail running, I like to keep my hands free in case I need to catch myself or scramble up a bank. Or in the case of this race, climb some spruces around a mud pit. The fog turned out to be thick on the trails, and the ferns nearly as tall as me at times. Visibility was spotty. Though I could have used the extra light, mostly I was glad I had my hands free. As the night wore on, I began to rely less and less on sight and more and more on other senses to direct me. How much progress were the runners up ahead making? I could judge by sound. Pretty good? Trail is probably smooth. It’s probably safe to pick up the pace. This was just the beginning. Even the plethora of smells along the trail told so much. After a while, I realized I could smell the mud ahead though I couldn’t tell the depth. I could smell the water when approaching streams. I could smell the woodsmoke of the campfires that promised aid stations. Through it all was the pervasive smell of spruce, thick-sweet blossoms, the acrid ferns, the pungent forest floor: the fungus, the rotting wood and leaf mold, the moss. Oh, the moss! Like none I had ever seen! At stretches, so thick it would swallow my feet! There was such beauty in the smells, in the velvety silence. After the constant din and choking smells of city life, it was like a balm for the soul.
At one long, lone stretch, I turned off my lamp and felt the darkness. It was magnificent.
For the first half of the race, I wore these lovely Merrell trail gloves with Vibram soles which offered no rock plate protection from the rocky, gravelly road stretches, but were fantastic on the trails. Six ounces of grippy rubber and soft slipper upper, they put less between my feet and the ground than my house slippers. I knew it would be a crap shoot to wear these on this rough terrain, but after training a couple hundred miles in them, I didn’t want to go back to regular shoes. They are amazing. I received so much sensory input from my feet, I felt at times I could have run without a light. Surprisingly, it doesn’t hurt much to run on the gravel or the rocks in them. However, when I got to the mud, I was in for some problems. I liked to tie them loosely which meant they were like giant spoons when I dipped my feet into the shin-deep mud. It felt pretty good oozing between my toes, but I nearly parted with the shoes several times. At the first drop bag (mile 23) I opted for my old, beat up Newtons. These are great shoes, but after the Merrells, they rendered my feet blind. It was a tough adjustment and turned out to be an interesting experiment. I was shocked at how much information I had been receiving from my feet and responding to instinctually.
A couple of days after the race, I received a call from my dear grandmother. My grammie is 81, blind, and loving her independence, insists on living alone. She has been partially blind for most of her life, has never seen color, and though she doesn’t see at all now, knits beautifully. She says she always knits with her eyes closed. That way she can see better. She never ceases to amaze me. She told me of her recent knitting exploits, blue and white hats for Joe Paterno and his wife, and nearly two hundred hats for the soldiers in Afghanistan. She said she couldn’t fill the orders fast enough, that she wished she could knit with her feet. She went on to explain the she no longer wears shoes in her house, that her feet have become her eyes. Without telling her about the race, I told her I understood.
After this, I thought about my experience again, about the little oddities, the serendipitous coincidences of life. One of the things I carry with me on long races is a little white linen kerchief edged in lace crocheted by my grandmother’s grandmother. It is a practical thing. I use it to wipe the sweat from my face. But it also serves as a reminder that I am part of something greater, that I am but a thread–albeit lovingly knitted–into this reality. The kerchief was handed down to me from my mother. It is a fine gift, though it seems my great, great grandmother crocheted so frequently, there were pieces of her lace everywhere around when I was growing up. In race prep, I had picked up the kerchief for practical use only, without a thought to its heritage–to MY heritage.
Maybe more than instinct, the word to sum up my race experience is “gift.” It was a gift to be able to run it in the first place, to enjoy it so thoroughly, to finish, though slowly, without injury. It was a gift to be in those beautiful mountains, in the heart of that splendid, dense, silent pine forest at night, a gift to see new friends and old running acquaintances, Jim and Doug, and especially the awesome Jenny Nichols who took 2nd place for the women!, and to make even more. It was a gift to be so graciously looked after by cheery volunteers and considerate fellow runners. It was a gift from Adam, the race director who put together such a fabulous race, a mountain of hard work. It was a loving, selfless gift from my husband who knows so well how much running means to me that he would take time out of his busy schedule to haul my butt down to the mountains to do it, to offer kind words of loving support and encouragement even when I barked and fretted with pre-race anxiety, to be there with me at beck and call, waiting for me at the finish to congratulate me on a job well done. I don’t ask him to do this. He volunteers. He is a rock, that man. And it was a strange and unexpected gift to have had the opportunity to feel around in the darkness, and finally get a sense of what it is like to take a walk in my grandmother’s shoes–or shoelessness rather—to be reminded that we are privy to so much more sensory input if we but open ourselves to it.