“Don’t get happy,” the host of a podcast I listen to said recently. “Because when you get happy you get lazy and let your guard down.” I’d liken it to a certain favorite scene of mine from the movie Pulp Fiction (skip to 1:10 for the quote).
While I glided along the trails of Burke Lake early last week, I repeated this mantra in my head over and over. There’s nothing particularly taxing about the Burke Lake path. It has hills, but not long and gradual or short and steep. Nor is it a particularly technical trail.
But for some reason, somewhere in those woods, something always saps my energy and I struggle to finish that 4.6 mile loop.
I can’t tell you why I keep going back. Perhaps it’s the challenge to make things right, to finally have a good run there. Or perhaps it’s because we runners are good at forgetting. Why else would you continue signing up for marathons to continue reliving those painful miles and the hobbling that comes after?
Last week, I went back because route fatigue started to seep in and I couldn’t take the thought of covering my nine mile loop again. And again. And again. Plus, a little pull on my IT band told me it might be time to trade the pavement for some forgiving trails.
So, I laced up on Monday after work and set out to not only tackle one lap…but two.
After a perfect spring weekend, the weather began to turn on Monday toward the Virginia June we know all too well here: hot, humid, steamy. A blanket of gray clouds pulled over the sky and trapped the warmish air that clung to my skin.
I started slow, telling myself it was all about getting the miles in, and time on my feet, and all those other good things to say when no speed work is involved.
The trails ringing Burke Lake are beautiful but deceiving. Gaps in the woods reveal the placid, tranquil waters...if you feel good enough to enjoy them. But just when you think you’ve nearly circled the lake, the trail winds you deeper into the woods or around another smaller cove you somehow missed or hoped wasn't there. I had spent the day mentally preparing myself for this and trucked on.
At about two miles, I remarked just how good I felt, which spurred the “Don’t get happy” mantra.
At 3.5 miles, I looked at the mile post in disbelief. “I’m here already?!” And proceeded to cover the last mile with a quicker stride. Had I stopped there, I could have chalked it up as, without a doubt, THE BEST BURKE LAKE RUN EVER! But I had another loop to cover. I turned around at the parking lot's stop sign to cover the trail in reverse.
I repeated the same things to myself. But I felt a zip in my legs that called back to those glorious late-September/October runs leading up to last year’s New York City Marathon. Those runs where I had remarkable control over my pace, when I could speed up or slow down on a whim and not think twice about it.
I stole glimpses of the lake stretching out and away from the trail, remembering the way the trees appear to be on fire in the fall. I straightened up and accelerated by other runners, tossing a wave as I zoomed by. “Looking good!” I heard over the music piped in through my headphones. I kicked it down again and shot the diagonals on the turns. When I had enough, I pulled back, “Don’t get happy.”
But with a mile to go, when it became clear that this was indeed one of “those” runs, I dropped the pace below tempo and powered up and over the final hills. When I came to the stop sign at the parking lot, I shut things down and took a long pull on my water, forgetting that I had even had it with me for most of the run.
I walked back to the car, the humidity catching up and settling onto my exposed skin. I could feel the sweat dripping off the back of my cap onto my calves.
I finished the day off with some strides and drills, letting those fall memories drift back in, letting myself enjoy a glimpse of what could be again…but knowing that there are still many months to go. This is no time to get happy, after all.