This past weekend, I was lucky enough to travel to Phoenicia, NY with Josh, my wonderful boyfriend, to support him during his Cats Tail Trail Marathon (actual length as advertised on the website is 26.5 miles) through the Catskills. We met some trail running friends who were also racing which made the weekend exceptionally entertaining. Not only did Josh do absolutely amazing during his race (finishing 13th of 89 finishers – don’t mind my bragging!), I was reminded of how truly enticing the trail running community is to me.
I spent this past summer craving trails. I got out to the trails as much as I could but I always craved more. I became increasingly intrigued by Appalachian thru-hikers following more and more Instagram accounts of SOBO and NOBO AT hikers. I craved the serenity of the trails. I craved dirt beneath my Altras. Oddly enough, maybe I even craved the hills that torture my muscles (…maybe). But mostly, I craved other trail runners.
I was reminded of this as I stood shivering at the base of a 5 mile ascent with my cowbell in hand at 6:55 AM. I patiently waited for Josh to start the race at 7:05 AM. The first wave of 15 runners went by me and I pleasantly greeted them with a “good morning” and wished them a sincere good luck knowing the next 26.5 miles would be tough ones. Most of them acknowledged my existence and exchanged warm thank yous for cheering them on so early in the morning. The second wave of 15 avid trail runners came by next and Josh was in the front of the pack. I wished him good luck as he began his ascent and traverse through the Catskills. I wouldn’t see him until mile 9.5 and I internally wished him safe travels.
With a few more waves of runners to be sent on their way, I made the short walk up to the starting line where I met a few of our other trail running friends as they waited for their wave to start. The lax atmosphere at the start of the race captivated me. For years now, I’ve stood on many starting lines surrounded by anxious runners hopping up and down, checking their pulses repetitively, and stretching out one more time before they’re sent on down the road to pound out speedy miles. But there, on that brisk October morning, the runners stood relaxed, talking and joking with each other, and re-tightening their Ultimate Direction, Gregory, or Orange Mud packs. Everyone knew the next 26.5 miles would separate the men from the boys and the women from the girls. The trail would do what it does best – challenge every runner mentally, physically, and emotionally.
Again, this is what I crave. I yearn for the moments where I can step up to a starting line and know that the trail will control the result of my race. I want to be surrounded by people on a starting line who truly enjoy the swaying of the trees, the silence of the woods, the dampness of the rain sprinkles falling from the clouds, and the dirt caked on their shins. I don’t find that feeling on the start of a road race. Instead I find tense feelings and minimal human interaction. I find people ready to pound their feet on hard pavement instead of loose dirt. I find people who would rather stand in silence and not make eye contact than someone who is willing to extend a pat on the back and exchange a heartfelt good luck.
As I stood
patiently anxiously at the 2nd aid station, waiting for Josh and our friends to come through, I was once again surrounded by down-to-earth trail runners. The moment a racer came through someone made sure to ask “what do you need? Water? Food? Do you have a drop bag?”. Not only do aid stations become a source of fuel and water but they also become a welcoming place of encouragement and motivation to continue moving closer to that finish line. I saw this time and time again as I witnessed all 89 racers come through the only car-accessible aid station of the race. I was truly grateful to be standing at that aid station for most of my morning because I realized how special the trail running community was.
After a 25 minute drive from the aid station back to Phoenicia, I found myself once again waiting. Waiting for the first finishers. Waiting for Josh. Just…waiting. The time keeper and finish line photographer didn’t hesitate to come over and talk to me. We briefly discussed the difference between the trail running community and the road running community. Of course we mutually agreed the trail running community is truly special. They asked me who I was so patiently waiting for with my cowbell in hand. I told them my boyfriend and our friends. They expressed concern that I might get tired of waiting, but I assured them that I could spend hours and hours of every weekend engulfed in the trail running scene if I could. I was in my happy place and I would wait all day for Josh to come towards that finish line.
The first two finishers appeared and at first glance I noticed from a far that they were running stride for stride. I thought to myself “wow, this is a close finish! I wonder which one is going to out sprint the other”. That sentence right there, that my friends, (and I’m ashamed to admit it) is a classic road racer mindset. I snapped out of it once I saw one of the men had dry blood caked on his face. My next thought? “What kind of trouble did this guy get himself into out on that trail?!” The men finished side by side, tying for 1st place.
As the nosy person that I am, I decided to eavesdrop on the conversation between the race director and the two men. As the story goes, the leader of the race had accidentally ran into a low hanging branch with a sharp knob on it which pierced his scalp. The 2nd place runner came down the trail and noticed a pool of blood had accumulated. He followed the trail of blood and came across his wounded competitor basically bleeding out due to this severe injury, but still moving forward. The 2nd place runner luckily had two extra winter hats to offer to his fellow trail runner to control the bleeding. With 11 miles still remaining in the race, the 2nd place runner wanted to keep the fearless leader of the race safe and in his care. They stuck out the last 11 miles together and crossed the finish line with an epic story to tell.
It was a small moment like that as I continued to patiently wait for Josh that showed me the strength of the trail running community. One man halted his competitive spirit to help a fellow racer. Out of true sportsmanship, despite probably training for months to compete strongly in this race, he slowed his pace towards the finish line for the health of another man. I crave the selflessness like that of the trial running community.
Shortly after, Josh rounded the corner and came towards the finish. I congratulated him and guided him towards the table of food waiting for him and the other racers to munch on. I asked him questions about the course which he happily answered. I offered him Gatorade, water, more food, and some arm warmers for added warmth. We headed back out to the finishing stretch of the race to wait for the rest of our trail running entourage. And again, we waited.
Josh and I finished that day reflecting on our own separate adventures. He had travelled 26.5 miles through rugged trails and slippery rocks. I had seen only bits and pieces of the race and what the racers were experiencing and it left me wanting more. More time spent in the mountains, more time spent on the trails, more time spent surrounded by other trail runners.
Two days ago I signed up for the Hyner 25k in April 2017 (returning next year as a racer rather than a spectator like back in April of this year) and I’ve been energetically researching trail races to fill up my 2017 race calendar. I want to step on a trail race starting line and feel excited about the challenge of the trails to come rather than anxious about my pace out on the course. I crave the ache in my muscles from tough ascents and technical footing. I crave the stories I’ll be able to share upon crossing the finish line. I crave the exhaustion. I crave the passion shared between trail runners.
Don’t get me wrong, I am excited for the two remaining races of 2016 – both of which are road races. I plan on running both my half marathon in a week and a half and my marathon in late November as hard as I can. I know that I will ache and I know that I will be mentally tested during these races; however, I can’t help but look forward to my unoffocial “official retirement” from road racing and transitioning fully into the trail scene. Hyner will be my official debut race as a rugged trail runner.
My wanderlust and craving for trails is at an all time high. I look forward to satisfying these cravings. I look forward to the dirt, the potential blood, the leaves crunching beneath my feet, the hydration pack comfortably resting on my back, the congenial smiles of my competitors, and the yearning for a challenge.
Yes, we may all show up at a starting line on a brisk fall morning with competition coursing through our blood. Competition is inevitable in the human spirit. But once out on the trail, the trail will speak for itself. The trail becomes your biggest competition rather than the runners ahead and behind you. I want to compete with myself. I want to compete with the trail. That is what I truly crave.