|The 30-39 Leader Board after three races.|
Uttering this word silently to myself over the years has gotten me through some otherwise daunting situations. When I toed the line in the third of four races at Sunday’s Backyard Burn Trail Race Series, I burnished this word into the back of my eyes. I had let the idea of "running to race, racing to win" marinate in my head since I captured my first win in this series two weeks ago. Ultimately, I knew I could run in fear, that I might not win again, intimidated by those I looked upon prior to the race, or I could bury those lingering doubts and believe in the many hard miles that led me here.
“Ten seconds,” the starter, called out. My fingers fluttered at my side. Confidence, I repeated. The bullhorn blared and we took off down the road in a flash of adrenaline. The course wound down along the park road. I decided here that I needed to use this portion of the course to do any passing and try to establish my position in the pack to avoid any potentially nasty encounters when the course switched to single track.
I noticed right away that there was a familiar zip to my legs, almost an invincible feeling that surfaces on rare occasions, always unannounced but certainly welcome. I allowed myself a smile and surged forward. This could be a good day. The road took a sharp decline and I decided that on the return side, I would charge up this hill to put some distance between me and the hunters.
The out and back on the road wasn’t as far as I thought it might be and we slammed into the turnaround in a tangle of arms and legs. I lost a few positions in the traffic but regained my composure and went about the business of reeling in the leaders. We crested the hill and returned to the start line where a clump of six emerged. We strung out singlefile as the road turned to grass, turned to gravel, and finally to trail.
My shoes slid through the slick mud, courtesy of nearly 24 hours of saturating rain. If I couldn’t win or place, I told my wife the day would be a victory if I came away without spraining my ankle.
Splashing in front of me, sloshing behind me. I alternated looks at the shirts in front of me and the roots and rocks below me. The trail pitched steeply toward a rushing stream and before I could think about it, I went barreling down the slope, eyes wide like a madman trying to feel the trail and pick my next spots. There. There! Shit! Catch it. There! My mind reeled as my legs wind-milled. I shot arms and hands to the side for balance, hooked a sharp left over the bridge, and merged onto the wider carriage road as the voice quieted in my head. I gave a quick glance over my shoulder to see the white shirt chasing me fade.
We came through the first water station at 1.4 miles in just under 7:30. Yeeeow! I thought, trying to make the quick pace conversion, then giving up and focusing on the task at hand: reeling in the blue shirt in front of me. The wide carriage trails made it easy to find a flow and I rode their steady rises and falls, making subtle course adjustments to find the smoothest lanes and avoid the puddles. I pulled even to the blue shirt and we ran with one another for a stretch. "Five. Or ten?" he asked, meaning the distance.
"Five." I said, eyeing his ten miler bib. When the trail descended, he said, "Downhill. Time to. Close. The Gap."
"Let's. Go," I huffed.
We picked up our turnover and drew closer to the gray shirt in front of us, working off one another. Another runner was hands to knees just off the trail with a long string of spit hanging from his mouth. One less to catch.
With just over 1.5mi to go, a man stood at the bottom of a hill and waved the runners ahead of me forward. Then he pointed to me. “Five miler, turn right here!” he shouted, pointing into the woods.
I hit the brakes and tried to ride the turn into the narrow single track. The river quickened as the swift brown water swelled over onto high banks. I listened above the gurgling for the man to yell to my pursuers, but nothing came. I was the only one who made the turn.
Alone, I picked my way over the slick roots and jutting rocks, latching on to limbs and branches to steady myself while searching for the limp pink streamers dangling from the trees marking the course. When I hit tough climbs, I slowed to a trot remembering that my pursuers would have to climb them too.
I came to a bridge tended by volunteers who urged me on with just one mile to go. I crossed over the river and as the course double-backed on itself I stole glances to the other side looking to see where the hunters were. It wasn’t until I made one last turn up toward the finish with a half mile to go that I saw them. Two in a row, I allowed myself to think, as I continued on alone.
On a particularly nasty climb, I slowed to a hike and chuffed up the hill. When I neared the top, I broke into a slow trot then saw the blue, plastic mesh signaling the finishing chute and straightened up. I came through it to a round of hoots and applause, this time leaving no doubt that I was first. The next runner came through more than 90 seconds later.
Last night before going to bed, I filled up my first place pint glass with the third beer in my four pack and toasted to 50 points and sole possession of first place in the series. One race to go.