Last spring, at the Marin 35 km trail race, I ran out of energy at about 30 km. It was my first long trail run, and I hadn’t yet read Steve House’s Training for the New Alpinism. Running faster when I felt like it was fun at first, but maybe made the last 5 km the hobbling comedy-show that it was.
At the Ashland trail race last weekend, I tried to be a little smarter. While I was lured a bit by trying to run with everyone else as we left the start, by-and-large I managed to keep a slowish, steady-ish pace up the long grade that is the first third of the route. And my energy seemed good! Maybe I had learned something after all!
But then, just after the half-way mark, my hip flexors, psoas and iliacus in particular, started complaining. And then seizing. While I had reasonable energy levels, there was just no getting them to move quickly. I tried to find a pace I could sustain, and at some points the muscles relented a bit, but inevitably I would have to walk some before I could shift back into a running stride. As the remaining distance declined, so too did the proportion of time I could run. I began to cajole my hips: “come on! We can do this boys!” It was fun.
The last section was a steep downhill accomplished via long switchbacks. On the straight-aways, the grade was just so so that my legs would swing forward under their own weight, not requiring much help from my freaked-out flexors. At the switchback turns, the increase in steepness meant that they had to do some braking, and I could manage only by making many small steps. For me at least, it was hilarious and I spent a bunch of time laughing.
I thought, “you are just going to have to waddle the rest of the way in”. A few minutes later, I came across an instruction painted in the same temporary markings as the intersection guides for the race: “No Waddling”. I thought, “they must’ve been thinking of me!” I stopped waddling and began thinking of Isabel Allende’s Sofia Loren story. I straightened up as much as I could and tried to make only dignified noises. I think I successfully stopped waddling, but am pretty sure I didn’t run any faster.
By the last mile, the pain seemed to stop hurting per se, and just became the way of the world: the way things had always been and always would be. This too was an improvement! I managed to “run”, so long as you are okay with a broad definition thereof, joined by the volunteer sweeping the trail: yes, I was the very last.
The last mile took me 18 minutes. It was so funny it was fun. And somehow, I felt some delight in finishing last; perhaps it was a recognizable place? Not some indeterminate location in the middle? Or perhaps because I finished at all? In any event, I deeply enjoyed moving across the Earth’s surface on my feet; dancing, swinging, dancing. I didn’t want to stop then, and I am thinking of how I can go even farther next time. Maybe I enjoyed being last because I got to run longer? In my dreams, I never have to stop.