A couple months ago, a friend read my post on my journey with running and swindled me into trying a MEC Toronto trail race (unbeknownst to him). I reached out to my partner-in-fitness, Charlotte, to join me, gave her a choice of dates, and she selected a 7k route. Internally, I panicked, but I figured I had several weeks to dust off my running shoes and get back in the game. I can't yet run the full 5k in my 5k races, stopping to walk intermittently, and this was 7. And a trail race. Not only would I be running further than I ever had, but there would also be hills. And roots. And maybe some mud, bugs, rocks... You get it.
Two weeks before the race, my panic upped its game a little. Sure, my running shoes had been dusted off, but they had mostly been playing baseball in my beer league, nothing intensive. In a couple months of illness, vacation, and an effort to find balance in food, I had also gained a bit of weight, and at the same time a few minor injuries were bubbling to the surface.
One of my favourite moves is to set my expectations for these things low. People tell me not to get down on myself, but I'm not - this way, I always come out feeling victorious. I decided that if I wasn't at the halfway point at 45 minutes, I would turn around and head back. No harm done, but I didn't want to push myself too far.
Arriving at the Kortright Centre on the big day felt no different than usual, which was comforting - crowds of runners went for warmup jogs, stretched, and chatted. We grabbed our race kits and stretched, me desperately trying to stretch out any potential muscle spasms.
As usual, I positioned myself at the back of the pack, and boom, we were off. (Please note there was no actual starting pistol.)
I slowly ran into the forest, waiting for my leg to painfully cramp, and... nothing happened. One of my favourite things about running is that it can be frustratingly, mindbogglingly unpredictable. You can do all the right things and have a terrible run, or have a couple drinks the night before (ahem) and have a breezy jog. There's a nice kind of surrender in that. No two runs are the same.
I also realized immediately that we were doing a loop, not an out-and-back route, so my backup plan of turning around at 45 minutes wasn't going to happen. I jogged forward, the trees around me getting taller, and felt the blissful solitude of running alone through a forest, unburdened by backpacks and equipment. Then I hit the hills.
Another friend - I have a couple - told me ahead of time not to worry about the hills. Even many experienced runners end up walking up the steeper ones, and a trail race is about finding balance (and taking advantage of the downhills, hollaaaa). So I did that but baby, those hills were hard for me to walk up. And it was fucking hot. I huffed, I puffed; nothing came down, but I did stop to die a few times. I made a few temporary friends on those hills, also gasping for breath and sweating buckets. Humanity can be lovely.
And honestly? Time flew by. At one point I texted Charlotte that I might be a while, and she asked where I was when I realized I was already halfway done. Don't get me wrong, I was slow, but there was so much to see! We ran past maple syrup shacks, streams, and organic farms. Through a trail strung with twinkle lights up above. The terrain was constantly changing, and I had so much more to focus on other than my slow and agonizing death. (A little dramatic, but also accurate.)
The last hill was by far the worst, not because I was tired but simply because it was a long, steep, probably haunted slope. Some of the 11k runners who lapped me (no judgement, I'm used to it) kept pace with me lugging ourselves up that hill.
I made it to the top though, and lived to share my experience here with you now. After a few more twists and turns, I ran past a parking lot and realized how close I must be to the end. Suddenly a few devoted runners (including a regular I've started to recognize at every race) appeared in front of me, cheering me on for the last 100 metres. I exited the forest into the open field, and Charlotte popped out from the picnic tables beside me, taking my photo as I ran toward the finish line like the kind and generous friend (and appointed sports photographer) she is. I laughed, and I kind of wanted to cry.
So, would I do it again?
In the end, I died. I collapsed on a bench, ate two bananas, and chugged some water. The bugs, they bit me. The hills, they laughed at my pain. I was very dirty and slick from sweat.
Obviously Charlotte and I immediately signed up for the next one. And another one after that.
We fell in love with the twists and turns, the trees and trails. This time, when runners passed me, panting "great job!" as they ran up the trail, I felt joy and camaraderie. It was fucking haaaaard, and I can't wait to do it again.