“Everyone runs in her own way, or his own way. And where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within.” – Eric Liddell
Saturday morning, just after sunrise, I found myself standing on the cool grass of the steeplechase field at the Georgia International Horse Park in Conyers, GA (the exact location of the 1996 Olympics’ steeplechase) with a timing chip strapped to my ankle and a number pinned to the front of my shirt. (My number was “180” and though randomly drawn, I couldn’t help but think of how perfectly it symbolized the past year my life). Over a hundred runners huddled together eagerly awaiting the start signal to compete in a 10K (6.2 miles) trail run through the woods. [Cue Vangelis] Each of us there for our own purpose, our own reason.
I’ve never competed in a running competition – of any sort: not a hundred yard dash, not a 440, not even a potato sack race. (Sure, I had to complete a mile “run” while in boot camp, but the time limit imposed by the military was so bloated you could visit the mess hall and spit-shine your boots and still finish comfortably within the alloted time.) So, I had no idea how events like this unfold. I just wanted to run with folks who shared my desire to dash through the woods. Thus, my mindset was simply to run my own race – in the company of others.
I shook each foot to ensure my legs were still beneath me, then fluttered each arm to remind myself to relax.
An electronic blare from a bullhorn signaled the start of the race and the mass of runners sprinted from the makeshift starting line painted across the grass.
The open field was just long enough to permit us to sort ourselves out as we approached a narrow opening in the woods. The opening funneled down a gravely slope and onto a sandy roadway which ran along the banks of the Yellow River. I could see the leaders up ahead, but I’d let several folks pass as I settled into a comfortable pace. No sense in over-exerting myself; I wanted to make sure I finished my first race.
The sandy drive along this opening-mile stretch was riddled with hoof prints – a stark reminder we’re not the primary runners on this trail. Thus, the footing was a bit precarious.
I soon found myself trailing a pack of guys who seemed to be going just slow enough to hamper my progress – and based on a course map I’d studied before the race, I knew before long the trail would narrow down to a single path, so I politely slipped passed the guys one at a time.
Sure enough, after climbing a short but steep slope, the trail turned sharply onto a slender path, which descended deeper into the woods. With all of the twists and turns, and my complete unfamiliarity of the trail, it didn’t take long before I had no idea which direction I was going or where the next turn would lead me. (Thankfully, the course workers painted directional arrows on the ground to guide us along, or I might still be wandering those woods today.)
Amidst the tangle of trees, I was finding my rhythm. Keep my strides short, take an extra step rather than lunging over obstacles, and keep my arms relaxed. I leapt a muddy stream, climbed an embankment and found myself in a gas line clearing (imagine a giant mower cutting a single, 25-foot wide line through the woods). I could hear someone on my heels, so I move aside and waved him around. He thanked me as he passed. The trail then twisted into the woods on the opposite side of the clearing.
I could see a number of other runners slipping through the trees on another trail (none of whom looked particularly swift) and for a moment I thought, there must be more folks ahead of me than I thought, till I realized those were the 5K runners on an adjacent trail.
Now, I don’t consider myself a runner, per se, but rather someone whose feet happen to move while he meditates. Real runners wear stopwatches and heart rate monitors while sporting the latest in high-dollar running gear and sipping highfalutin energy drinks. I’m just a newbie. Why, only nine months ago I couldn’t run the length of a football field without being completely winded. And trail running, heck, I just started that a few months ago, for a change of scenery.
Somewhere near the second mile, I was winding through some trees and needed to clear my throat. As a courtesy to any runner who may have been behind me, I glanced over my shoulder before spitting. But before I could get my head back around I was suddenly on the ground rolling over my shoulder and popping back up on to my feet – all in the blink of an eye. Fortunately, since I’d already glanced back, I knew I wasn’t in the way of oncoming runners, so I took a moment to quickly assess the damage. The toes on my left foot were screaming. My hands and elbows were covered in dirt, both of my ear buds had been yanked out and the other end of the wire had come unplugged from the mp3 player. No time to deal with the non-essential items, so I balled up the wires and stuffed them into my pocket. Another glance over my shoulder assured the path was still clear as I started running again.
What the hell was that? I wondered. It must’ve been a rock, or a tree root. My toes sure felt it. Well, I can get a better look at them. . . in about four miles.
There was a water station at the half-way mark. A solitary girl was offering me a paper cup as I approached the table. “You’re doing great,” she said. I’d slowed to almost a walk to ensure I grabbed the water cleanly (no need to showcase my tumbling skills. . . again) and thanked her. Then I tried to run and drink at the same time. This is tricky enough on a smooth paved surface, but add in a twisting undulating trail and, as I found out, you end up wearing most of the water.
The one lengthy hill (which was a bit longer and steeper than I’d expected) sapped most of my energy. So, once again I adjusted my pace to ensure I could complete the event running. As I continued along the trail, I took whatever opportunity I could to reassess my status. I brushed my hands and elbows and couldn’t find any abrasions beneath the dirt. So that was some good news. My foot, however, felt as though I had kicked a fire hydrant. Glancing down at my feet spinning below me, the toes still appeared to be attached, so I pressed on.
The sound of cheering, from wherever it emanated, meant the end was near. Sure enough, I broke out into a clearing and could see the finish line. By now the sun was out in full force and the temps had climbed another 10 degrees since the start. The runners had strung out so much over the length of the course that we were trickling in one at a time.
Immediately upon crossing the finish line, the timing equipment folks stepped in to retrieve the timing chip from my ankle. As the girl knelt down to release the Velcro strap, she asked if I was okay. I thought, is this a standard question they ask at the end of these runs? “Yeah, I’m fine,” I replied, then headed for the water station.
I poured myself a drink (one I intended not to wear) and watched a few runners cross the finish line. Then I focused on my foot. Though my toes still stung, I was able to wiggle them – a good sign, but what caught my eye was the trail of dried blood on my shin. Apparently, I’d scuffed my knee during my roll at mile two. Oooh, THAT’S why that girl asked if I was alright.
I got some more water and rinsed the blood from my leg – no point in unnecessarily grossing anybody out. Then I headed to the scoring table to find out how I fared.
The timing sheets were separated by age groups. I scanned the "Male 40-44" sheet and didn’t see my name. There were already a dozen guys listed on it for my age group alone. Sheeze, I didn’t think there were THAT many guys ahead of me. So I waited around while they handed out medals to the top finishers in each age group. . . for two reasons: 1) to applaud those who finished up front, and 2) to see if I recognized anyone I may have passed along the course (thinking that might give me an idea of my finishing time).
The emcee was handing out medals for the top three male finishers in the "45 to 49" age group when I heard him say “. . .from Dacula, GA. . .”
Huh, I thought, someone else is here from Dacula. Whaddu know.
Then he said, “. . .Rick. . . Ranna. . .”
Holy crap! He’s trying to say MY name! Turns out I finished third in the "45 to 49" age group (they bumped me up an age group because my birthday falls within their race season – in fact, my time was good enough to have finished second in the "40 to 44" age group) and I finished 18th overall! I was stunned and thrilled.
When I slipped out of my running shoes before leaving the horse park, I discovered two of my toes were already black and blue and the outter half of my foot was swollen. Nice. And I can hardly wait to do it again!
Copyright 2011 Rick Rantamaki