Its been awhile since I’ve run trail with Joyce. She’s a bit nervous, not having been to a trail race for some time. It's fun watching her nervousness, her smile, her cute quirks in what she might call, getting ready. We get there 90 minutes early, find a parking space not far from the start, and pull up our chairs next to our rockhopper friends. Joyce goes off for a last bathroom visit while I watch the 60k start. I only have plans to carry a single water bottle. The bottle holder has a large pocket in it with a few ibuprofen, some gels, and a baggie of Tailwind. We’ll start in daylight, but finish in the dark, so I wrap my headlight around the water bottle. Shorts, lightweight shirt, bandana, and a heavy set of trail running shoes is the crux of it. I'm carrying enough weight on my legs, and have no intention on adding any more on my back than I have to.
Joyce suggests we NOT start in the back, like I usually do, concerned we might go out way too slow, and get stuck behind the entire pack for way too long. So, we move further up than I usually have a mind to do. We begin on a flat and wide jeep road for a half-mile, that is typically enough for people to sort themselves out into the proper pace place. Joyce starts out ahead of me, then backs off and tucks in behind. These last few years, she has been out-running me by more than a bit. Her slim physique more than a match for my bigger and heavier mass. Used to be that she struggled to stay with me, but that hasn’t been the case for a while, so I suspect, she drops back just so she can stay near me for the start.
The transition from wide jeep road to rocky uphill single-track creates another sorting out. Those who wish to RUN up, and those who prefer to WALK. Joyce and I prefer to walk up, but due the narrow confines and few places to move off trail, we’re forced to run or create a bottleneck. So, we run! It's not a hard charging sort of run so much as a run strong enough to stay with the fellow in front of me. Joyce stays on me for just a few minutes when I hear her speaking to me, I’m gonna step out and let some people pass'. It's not a good place for me to do the same, so I continue for another few minutes before I can step out. Groups of 4 and 5 run past, but no Joyce. I start again, jumping back in, go a few more minutes, then step out again. More groups go by, but no Joyce. Finally I see her, and start back in just in front of her. Minutes later, I hear a voice that is NOT Joyce behind me, so I step out again. Joyce stops again and lets another dozen by. I wait for her before we get going again. The climb becomes less finally for us to continue together.
This trail is pretty nasty! How much is like this? Pretty much the whole thing, but for a mile down by the river. I know you told me it was pretty rugged, but I must have forgotten had rough it was. Yep, its nasty enough to keep us rock dancing til we’re done. And it'll be a lot worse after dark. Gotta pay attention. I trip just as I say this. I trip a lot. Being damn near blind and running without any corrective lens, my kids tell me I run by brail, reading the trail with bat-sonar. I can’t wear contacts and glasses cause so many other problems, I’ve grown used to running this way. Joyce lets a few others go by, so I wait again, and so this continues all the way onto Lemon Ridge station. I top off my bottle, then Joyce's and make ready to go, but Joyce is not.
I start the next section, but stop over and over as I realize she's fallen off. She says she's overheating, which surprises me. She shoves a scoop of ice down in her bra to cool down. Usually its me who is overheating: not her. My 200 pounds typically has more of a heat issue than her 115. All of this is so abnormal in a reversal of sorts. I'm already soaking wet from sweat, but I feel great. Joyce trips and hits the ground, rolling over onto her back. The guy behind her helps her up and then goes past as we walk. We're just under 5 miles in and she's already fallen 5 times, and not feeling too damn good about it. I trip a lot more than she does, but usually recover. It's going to be dark in another 15 minutes and I tell her so. We talk about her stopping, she begins to cry, not wanting to quit, but worried about hurting herself. She’s exhausted and overheated, likely from being out in the sun a lot these past few days. She already has a huge bruise on one leg from a horse mishap the day before. She decides to head back. The road is just a half-mile back and she can hoof it back to the start on the paved park road. It's not the running so much as the rocks. And so she heads back.
I watch her go and when she's out of sight, I turn and start running. It feels good to just watch in front of me, to get into the rhythm of the dance, hopping from rock to rock, and starting to go faster. I pass a few people, then a few more, using the stolen energy, I get a buzz going. Joyce will be fine now that she’s out of the woods and off the rocks. I no longer need to worry about her. I can relax and simply flow with the wind and the rocks. Its dark soon, but I so much enjoy running without lights, so I go for as long as I can. The reflective ribbons that mark the course are hard to find without a light to reflect, so I’m eventually forced to click on my light if for no other reason than to find the course markings.
Its funny though, I start to trip more with the light on. My peripheral vision is gone with the light, creating a small area just in front that becomes my new world of light. I catch an occasional glimpse or flash of light in front which spurs me to go faster and catch the next one. Many runners are starting to slow now that they've burned down a bit, while I’ve been set free and just now beginning to roll. One or two latch on as I go by and run with me a bit, but each soon after falls off while I continue to run. I so much enjoy this rock and roll trail dance. I don't always find the best foot placement, or dodge every low hanging branch, but what I typically do well is balance all of it. I usually recover when I trip, but not always. I'm telling another runner just that when I bust my ass. My hand swells up like a baseball with half the knuckles disappearing into the swell, but it doesn’t hurt. I run the jeep road into the Windmill station, top my bottle, and take a banana.
I see another flash of light in front of me again and increase my speed. Sometimes, these flashes are no more than a spinning reflective ribbon, but if even that motivates me to go faster, I consider it a good deal. Its pretty dark now so I can’t see any of the people I pass, so I say something to each of them, and if they respond, and some don't, I might recognize their voice. Such is the case with Axel and again with Bill. I’m catching the back of the 60k pack now. This section from Windmill to Gorman Falls has more variety than all the rest. Rocky and rugged then some easy flat, then a rugged rock path thats flat but for the insane amount of rock obstacles impossible to avoid. I pass a guy thru here who I know is much faster than me, but I mange the insane chaos of rocks much better than he, and slowly slip ahead. Mostly down, but it's not always easy to figure which way to turn at so many points, so its more of a stutter, skip, and turn, half dragging a non-comital leg now and again as we drop over ledges of rocks, round and under ducking low oak branches, around dry creek arroyos which I do know are very pretty when I can see them more completely, and not in my minimized light tunnel.
Coming into Gorman Falls feels like I've reached a major goal. I take the time to empty my water bottle pocket: fill the bottle with Tailwind, eat the gels, and pop the ibuprofen, to help with my swollen hand. Gorman Falls is next to a building by a bridge. There’s a crowd at the tables, filling bladders and talking in hushed voices. With no light besides what we bring, its off that everyone coming in speaks quietly. Being polite I suppose, not wishing to wake the ghosts within. I walk out as quiet as I came in, turn down the river trail and then start up the next climb. Walking, I pass two people, and this spins me back up again. Not that I want to run up this, but my walk becomes more focused, faster, even hopping up a few ledges such that I move well ahead. It's mostly an easy climb, with only a few steep sections, but it's not long before I turn left, to twist about in the trees. Theres a few people in the trees ahead and their lights point in every direction, so the trail must really wander about.
I go after each light again, catching and passing each, including Rich. The trail bottoms out at the river trail which is smooth, fast, and easy, but I can’t stand it. My nemesis is flat easy trail. I slow down for the first time since I left Joyce. Odd how the easiest part of this entire adventure is where I meet my match. I mix walking and running the entire length of this section, moving well for both, and liking none of it. I hurry myself just to get back to the single-track. Towards the end, I turn off my light. Its acting up and I wonder if it’ll last til I'm done. I find the turn and head back up into the rocks once more, and turn the light back on as much to find the trail as to find the reflectors.
I force march up the trail, moving well without running. I catch Nancy just as she trips into some cactus. I pass a woman who’s light is worse than mine and she hooks on just for the light, but struggles to stay with me. We both reach the Lemon Ridge station soon enough, looking for light more than food or water. I ask for batteries and she trumps me by asking for a light. One guy runs off to find batteries while the other volunteer simply hands the lady her headlamp. I don't want to just stand here with only 3 miles to go waiting for the guy to come back with batteries, so I march out and on down the trail, hoping what I have is good enough to last.
The last 3 miles are lonely, with nobody near but for 60k runners heading back out on loop two. All I see are spots of light passing in the dark. Some have a voice, but most don't. I’m tripping a lot more, tired to the bone, I cant get my feet high enough to clear the rocks. Not that I'm just tripping over them as much as kicking some with a good deal of force to make me cringe. No sooner than one ache begins to fade, when I kick another.
I'm ready to be done long before I am done. I can’t get my left hand into the water bottle holder any longer. My hand has swollen and I don't want to look at it just yet. My light is randomly changing intensity, such that I have an even harder time seeing the rocks well enough to dodge them. I feel like I’m stuck in a dream, wandering endlessly, no end, nobody else, just me and the rocks. No longer running, I keep pushing myself to get to the road, to get done.
The road is the final goal and it feels so damn good to finally reach it. As much as I want to, as much as I try, I just can’t manage a run for more than a few moments, before I walk again. I’m toast, done, empty, and all I need is to keep pushing til I get to the finish, which in time does finally happen