Saturday, 22 March 2014

The madness in the forest

The ecstasy of the start. 

Start lines are my favourite part of any race. It is the time when the excitement or dread broils in your belly. If you are well prepared the gun is something you look forward to. If not then it probably accompanies the hope that somewhere along the trail it will get better. I love the feeling, the excitement, the electricity of the moment. On another level there is a secret thrill in checking out your competitors and at least marking one other person out that you just have to beat, usually someone with lots of compression gear. It could just be me, I am a little immature that way.

Racing or at least caring about racing on an amateur level is as self-interested a first world problem that you can get. If you have ever known anyone that has tried to qualify for ironman Kona, you know the obsession that goes behind that journey. But racing is a luxury and its fatuousness at times, it is something I love. And besides which, it is far more socially acceptable than dressing up as a grown man in fatigues shooting animals or paintballs at other people. Although given the current trend in trail running fashion it might be debatable seeing how many shaved and compressed legs there are at the start line.

I remember the starts of all my races but not all the finishes. I do know that I will always at some stage during the race question why on earth am I doing this, usually when the pace starts to hurt or the fatigue begins to grip your legs. It was even worse during my triathlon days as I always had a paranoia attached to the swim. In fact I always viewed triathlons as a good bike and run race ruined by a swim. I always wondered why I was flirting so needlessly with death. Regardless, racing is always that way too, trying to resist the little voice that tries to distract your focus, entreating you to throttle back a little.

This last weekend I had entered my cross country kids in a short trail race. I was going to run the longer race which would follow the same course except for an extra loop on one end that would make up the extra distance. We had recce'd the course a week earlier with my kids and knew that we had a long section of undulating dirt road before we disappeared onto narrow single-track. I wanted to at least get ahead of the main pack so I would have a little space on the technical sections. So I set off, a bit quicker than normal, following the main group. I almost ran over one of my school kids getting to the front. But hey, it's every man for himself and you need to lead by example when dealing with women and children in dire situations. And so with a short sharp shoe I flung the 12 year old off into the bushes. No I didn't but it was a scenario that flashed through my mind.

Amateur racing is a luxury and in lives of comparative first world comfort we seek out these moments of hardship and challenge. I know that at certain times of the school year I just do not have the surplus energy to race or even train well. Forget about it if I had had to toil over a field for 10 hours a day. But at others, when there is more of a balance and I have the energy, the challenge of the races fulfils a strange need in me. And I am not alone. Dean Karnazes put it rather nicely:

Western culture has things a little backwards right now. We think that if we had every comfort available to us, we'd be happy. We equate comfort with happiness. And now we're so comfortable we're miserable. There's no struggle in our lives. No sense of adventure. We get in a car, we get in an elevator, it all comes easy. What I've found is that I'm never more alive than when I'm pushing and I'm in pain, and I'm struggling for high achievement, and in that struggle I think there's a magic. (for the full interview)

Start lines might be the closest we get to feel an inkling of what it must have been like to stand before a charge at the enemy. Recently I was reading Polybius's account of how Hannibal routed the Romans at the
battle of Cannae. There must have been a great deal of excitement and certainly an even greater deal of apprehension than what we face now in our tightly compressed limbs. But that start still must have a similar sense of the 'fuck it' feel of off we go. Your legs feel light and you spring forward. Those perhaps are the most glorious moments of the race. There is no pain, and now thankfully no prospect of having a digit nicked off or of a piercing of anything in your gut.

Get 'im

So back  to the charge of the foolish brigade. After disposing the child discretely into the bushes I was in the pointy bit at the front of the main group. I was following a few good runners who were following Greece's foremost mountain runner, a Salomon ambassador athlete and a sub 2.15 marathon runner, and even an all round nice guy to top it all off. More distressingly, my wife was a national level rower with him in the squad and she told me once that as a training exercise he had run up a hill with her in his back. I resolved to hear no more rowing camp stories after that one, but I knew full well what he was capable of and so the illusion of following him for very long was never a serious consideration. Nonetheless it was an interesting experience. It made me think briefly of the marathon - that sustained and brutish race at the elite level. Amateur marathoners have a different ordeal to run through but the speed that the top field runs at for a full 42km - and a wholly unnecessary 195 more metres - is a whole new realm that I think we would rather not experience.

For a brief moment I had a taste of what it must be like to follow a top class runner and it wasn't good. The initial euphoria of the start began to wear off quickly and all sorts of warning signals appeared that things were going wrong. If you were unfortunate to pay good, or even bad money to see the Gravity movie with the oh so reluctant astronaut played by Sandra Bullock (NASA surely would have weeded out the candidates who were Oh I am not really sure what I should be doing with my life). Still, if you managed to sit through it all to almost the ridiculous end, it is a little bit like the part when her soyuz capsule enters earth's atmosphere at wholly the wrong speed and things start burning up, tiles fly off and the whole thing is just a shaken tin can. Or what a Martini must feel like but boiled and shaken (if it takes off - you heard it here first). Eventually you implode and it feels like suddenly you have my wife on your back.

Despite how haphazard Hollywood  usually makes re-entering earth's atmosphere seem, astronauts have to read Cyrillic and learn to fly the capsule with Russian instruments - makes sense doesn't it? Because the ultra NASA nerds, they don't like to leave anything to chance, they actually even learn to fly the capsule, something Sandra must have missed on a duvet day. They can land anywhere on earth with a 15km margin of error. Quite why Sandra Bullock lands in some marshy graveyard in only her underpants kinda says it all, or that the writers built a movie around a plan to see Sandra in her underpants. Smart guys come to think of it...

Trail or mountain races in Greece are quite like walking into the bar of Cheers. They are generally small and charming and most people do end up knowing your name. The problem when you do start to know everyone's names is that you can spot the opportunities that arise when some of the familiar faces are not in attendance. This happened to me, and I saw the chance to get a good result. I'd like to say it was because I wanted a good result for the kids, it was but mostly I wanted it. Competitiveness can bring out strange beasts such as the ones that fling aside errant 12 year olds. So being of competitive bent I made it to the trail head in third with the all-round-wife-carrying good guy disappearing like a wraith into the forest. Single track is where it goes all wrong for me. I am a big guy that is not able to nimbly dance my way along the path. Too many years of being a rugby forward and the mindless linear running from triathlon mean I take everything wide and end up going through many a bush. At the end of a race I often look like I fended off the only the bear on the hill. Slightly bloodied with bits of flora wildly attached to various parts of my clothing.

Of course when your blood is up there is no way you backtrack if you think you have temporarily lost the trail or will wait for someone else so you can both get lost, which has happened before. Such was me today. After crossing a stream I was faced with several paths to choose from with none offering a hint of a race marking. I heard twigs crack behind me, or at least I imagined I did and then hared off down the most middle looking path of the selection in front of me. For a long time I thought I had somehow crossed over the course loop and rejoined the original outward going path, just now I was going in the wrong direction, covering all the ground that I had run on before. Everything looked the same - I swear I had seen each and every log, rock and stream before. I stopped hearing the twigs snap and all the other usual sounds of people on the trail behind you. It tuned out that it wasn't the case and running alone makes paranoia in the woods is an interesting thing.

Last year I visited Addis Ababa and I had a moment of clarity so crushing that it has remained with me ever since. I was in my marathon taper and was in the best condition I have ever been in to tackle a marathon. Happy with my form, I went to a local gym to run a few easy km on the treadmill. On the treadmill alongside was a small wiry man, in most anyone's rough estimate he would have been a third of my height and weight. He ran so lightly and with such coiled energy that it was breath taking to watch. More alarming was my reflection in the mirror. I thundered along next to him like a huge, lumbering sweaty white buffalo. It was good to get a dose of reality. There are real runners and then the rest of use are just visitors.

And that is how the afternoon ended, I had somehow stayed ahead of the guy behind me and was inside the final kilometre which helpfully as it turned out was all uphill. There really is nothing worse than feeling as though your kidney may have moved to the wrong side of your rectum. All I wanted to do was stop until I could see straight again and that is when I heard the little voices cheering me one. There was nothing sweet and angelic about it, the mean little wretches had hiked down the last 600 metres to wait for me. It felt like little vicious bats where looping about, screeching at me to keep moving or they would feast upon my body. And the little bats followed and harried me until I crossed the line. Needless to say their cheering was effective and I did not get caught. It must have looked lovely to all the spectators. A coach being cheered on by his proud runners. And it really was, my race didn't matter at all, they had had a fantastic day and loved every minute of it.


My kids were amazing and had one of those defining days in the mountains that I know they will carry with them always, at least until they forget it during the beer blaze of college. Later it will re-emerge I hope. I pushed myself to the dark side, I found my inner big sweaty white buffalo and made it run up a hill around the trees and clumsily through small and badly placed bushes. And really, sharing a race with young runners, there is nothing better. It is a finish I will remember. 

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