I’ve had a pretty good October when it comes to events.
An actual race at the Newton Hills 10K, a trying of something new at the Elmwood Forest Cyclocross race, and then a long run by myself with everyone I know this past weekend for the Newton Hills 30K.
I ran it for the first time last year, met my friend Roy at the start and did two loops with him until my friend Patrick jumped in for the heck of it on the third loop. It was a beautiful morning, and I needed those hours in the woods that day, with friends, to get through what I was going through.
This year, I stood at the starting line on a 17-degree morning in heavier clothes and lighter emotions than the year before.
It was dark, and I had a headlamp I “borrowed” from race director Nancy Kirstein in April and have no plans to give back because it’s the lightest headlamp I’ve ever had and I’m a terrible friend. (See: Book about the Supreme Court I borrowed in 2005 from an old neighbor and still have, even though we no longer live in the same state, let alone on the same street.)
I got up around 5:15 that morning, and my friend Kelly came to watch the kids so I could drive down. I did nothing to prepare for this race. Well, nothing formally. I ran maybe one 10-mile run, and, if we’re honest, it was only 9.5 miles. I did the normal amount of trail running.
It showed on Saturday. I ran 10 minutes slower than I did last year – and who knows how much of that is just not putting one foot in front of the other fast enough and how much is time wasted at the very excellent aid station, drinking hot chicken broth and socializing.
But maybe there was less need for the relentless forward motion that got me through least year and more room for just a beautiful morning in the woods.
I wasn’t the same kind of wreck at the starting line – instead I had mostly enough sleep, not too much wine the night before, made myself something to eat in the car on the way there.
We set off in the dark, and, as sometimes happens to me at the beginning of a race, I had a minor panic attack. We dropped immediately onto the single track, with all its invisible roots and rocks. I ran for a bit with my friend Nate, and then, as people came up behind me, their headlamps threw the path in front of me into so much shadow I started to freak out a little bit.
I stepped aside, and said, “Just go, go past me,” to the people on my heels. It wasn’t their fault. They weren’t running up on me or crowding me, but I was already struggling to see and feeling anxious for no reason, and the thought that I might hold one of them up was magnifying all of it.
They went past, and I found myself in a good spot with nobody too far ahead, nobody too close behind, and I ran.
Newton Hills is way hillier than you remember, than I remember, and I was just there running this exact same route two weeks before. As usual in trail runs for me, I power hiked the hills, ran the flats and downhills. Made my way over the hardened trail where horses had torn up the dirt, fall had frozen it in peaks.
We came through the first 2-mile loop and past the aid station and then picked up the 4-mile loop. This is how the entire race is. Do these two loops, linked by a field, and then do them again, repeat. It’s about 30K with a few long climbs.
I ran almost the entire race alone. I didn’t wear headphones. I didn’t really chat with anyone besides a few “Good job, runner” comments I made or were made to me in passing, and a few hellos to folks I knew along the way. There were three races that day, with a staggered start, which meant you saw some new faces on each loop. The trails were never overly crowded.
I didn’t race on Saturday. I didn’t even hustle on the downhills. Instead, I remembered where I once flipped off my bike there. Or of hikes on Mother’s Day with the kids, both of them complaining the entire way. Or last year, when I felt dead inside as I picked my way over the roots.
This year, I just ran. It was cold, but for a change I had worn the right amount of clothing. My hands were mostly OK inside my huge winter mittens with chemical handwarmers tucked in. My feet got better after the first lap, though I have to remember to cover my shoes in duct tape as the weather cools down. The valve on my Camelbak froze, and I dropped it after the first loop, but I never missed it.
I drank hot soup at the aid station, every lap.
On the third loop, I climbed a hill and looked around at the top and realized I couldn’t see anyone. The trail turned, and I followed it, and for the rest of the race, I ran alone. Even though I had been on the course all morning, I still had a panic that I had lost the trail and would somehow end up at the campground or something.
It didn’t happen. But I had this weird thought were if it had, it would have been OK. I would have just wandered off course, wouldn’t have finished the race, would have walked up behind everyone I know at the finish and been like, “Hey,” surprising them when they turned around.
That’s when I realized the best part of what was happening on Saturday was this – this time alone, in the woods, slowly making progress. Never out of breath, never working that hard, never doing anything but being grateful I can roll out of bed and run 18 miles on a random Saturday, still. Hoping I never lose that ability, know I will, am , with each passing year. With every season I don’t actually train. This good luck won’t last forever.
Add these three hours of peace to the rest of my summer of events – from the adrenaline of the last race there, the wonder of the bike race, the joy of Afton, the transformation of Zumbro in the spring, working my way backwards through a year that will end completely differently than it began, and I found exactly what I needed out there.
The confidence to do it. The knowledge I would make it, somehow, by myself, with everyone else, the climbs would end eventually, the descents wouldn’t hurtle me toward disaster, the undulating would even out, and I would turn a corner into a field full of friendly faces, of people I know and love, who are happy to see me, however I got there.
Jacqueline Palfy is a longtime runner, reader and writer, marathoner, mom and board member of the nonprofit Sioux Falls Area Running Club. Her contributions to the 605 Running Co. blog will appear each Tuesday. You can follow her on Twitter @runnerJPK or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Story ideas are encouraged.