When you email your trainer at 11:30PM on Friday about the long run you have in the AM and he tells you about a trail race at 12:02AM, guess what you are doing at 10AM on Saturday?! Lining up on the start line for the Vulcan’s Fury 11 miler in Nottingham, NH of course!
As I waited at the start line, my excitement made it difficult to stand still. Toto, we’re not in New York anymore – I was in a park at the end of a road marked with “Moose Crossing” signs. And this certainly was not a triathlon. No speed suits here. And some runners weren’t even wearing watches!
“I’m home” I realized as the race began, and I looked around at the crew I was part of for this backwoods adventure! After a few minutes of running on the park road, we took a turn onto a trail, climbing into the woods. “And it begins,” Marty (my trainer) said. Little did he know that my lessons for the day were just beginning…
LESSON 1) Always wear compression socks or calf sleeves when running up and down trails littered with rocks, roots ,and wildlife!
For my race fuel, I had chosen to carry two packs of Honey Stinger chews, one in my handheld bottle, and one in the back pocket of my Oiselle shorts. My plan was to eat two chews every 15 minutes to keep my blood sugar level. I was about to pop a few in my mouth about 14 minutes in when I felt a prick in my arm and my leg and my back pocket all at once. The sharp sting confused me and I almost fell over… right into a nest of bees!
No not Angry Birds, Angry BEES!
Apparently, some bees (or were they wasps or hornets?) build nests in rotting roots, which the trail was covered in. The lead runners must have disturbed the nest, and now the rest of us were running through a swarm of angry bees! I picked a bee off of my shin, determined to get through that calf sleeve – BEE STING # 1
I picked a stinger out of my forearm, just inches away from the hand that held my Honey Stinger chews – BEE STING #2
I swatted a bee off my back pocket, dangerously close to my other pack of chews. It was too late – BEE STING #3. Yeah, you heard right. I got stung in the ass! Fortunately, I am not allergic to bees, so I shook it off and kept running, assuring myself that I would sweat out the toxins and forget about the stinging sensation soon enough. And thankful for those calf sleeves, making it harder for those damn bees to wage war on my lower extremities.
As the trail wound around towering green pine trees and over creeks, I considered the fact that perhaps those weren’t angry bees. Perhaps they were just drawn to the tiny packets of solid honey attached to me! More likely, they were indeed furious bees, and I propose that the race name be changed from the “Vulcan’s Fury Trail Race” to the “Furious Bees Trail Race”. Just a suggestion! Speaking of suggestions, here’s one for you…
LESSON 2) Never jump jogs in a race unless no one is around to witness your endeavor! Leaping from rock to slippery rock is an effective and fun way to get across a creek. Jumping over roots and rocks is almost inevitable. But downed trees is another story entirely.
Ya know the scene in “Beauty and the Beast” where she is daydreaming her way through the village and leaping from rock to rock? Yeah, that’s how I felt!
At times during this 11 plus mile race, I found myself alone with my thoughts, the chipmunks, and the sound of my breathing and autumn leaves crunching under my feet (And what I was certain was that bear rumored to live in the park)! At other times, I was caught in a traffic jam of runners all trying to find their stride on single track that weaved up and down the side of an extinct volcano. A less than ideal place to try out a new stunt… Jumping over that big ass log laying across the trail!
What happened next will NOT surprise you. My toe caught the edge of the log (actually a downed tree) and I flew through the air, arms and legs spread wide. Then I landed on the SAME shin and arm that were finally recovering from the bee stings, and careened another few feet down the trail!
This is what was under my calf sleeve. My shin was swollen for day… And it was totally worth it!
Another runner handed me my water bottle, which had landed a few feet away from me. “You OK?” he asked. “Yup!” I answered, just slightly embarrassed.
“Shake it off” he said with a smile, and ran ahead, his hiking holes dangling from his side. Later he would jokingly mention that the poles were his race strategy, keeping the other runners from crowding his space! Pole Man was pretty smart!
The sights I encountered and the conversations I had on this trail made the bees stings and bloody limbs more than worth it. Over the course of about 11.5 miles, I realized why New Hampshire is known as the Granite State. Granite grows rampant in places like Pawtuckaway.
Pic from the Patuckaway website… All the granite!
“Cougars!” someone said about the kids cheering for us from above, barely visible from where they were perched atop a giant granite boulder. Sometimes we had to shimmy our way in between moderate granite rocks jammed tightly together on the trail to continue. And small granite pebbles, loose under my tired feet, sent me tripping down the trail.
We gingerly skipped across rickety bridges. We ran harmoniously, content behind another’s shoe soles, considerate enough to jump behind a tree and let the uber-descenders fly by on the downhills. We ran by an intense bouldering class and casual hikers, one of whom called out “How are you doing?”
“Living the dream” was my reply. And with the red leaves camouflaging the pink trail markers, and the golden sun shining on the yellow leaves, and that stretch of backroad, dusty orange like the pine needles on the trail, I was! That open road was my only opportunity to get in a groove all day, but even that pace was inconsistent, as it was a deceivingly steep, albeit smooth (read: no roots and rocks) climb.
If we weren’t climbing, we were flying down hills that made my heart skip about 11 beats. One particular descent made me nervous enough that I elected to walk it, skidding through soft, brown powder. It made me think of my mountain biking buddy Amin, and my trail running bestie Tammy, and how they would charge down such hills! I thought about them. About the handful of friends who witnessed me at my worst over the past year, and still talk to me. When I reflect on where I was six months ago, I confess that I was a mess… And I was blessed. Blessed to have a handful of friends who loved me at my worst. And through it really!
Definitely had quite a different view of this water during the race!
While shuffling and tumbling through Pawtuckaway Park, we ran past shimmering bodies of water, peeking out from behind the trees lining our way. “Look at that!” a runner behind me said, just as I was thinking how stunning it all was.
“Don’t look too long though!” I called, laughing as I narrowly missed running into a tree while gazing at the water! It is my observation that the more challenging the race, the more interesting the individuals I meet along the course! The ultra couple from last week’s Twilight Challenge that I had nicknamed Jack Rabbit and Jill were back for this week’s race. This time Jack Rabbit had traded in his glow stick bunny ears for a fuzzy fox ear headband.
It’s no surprise that the more challenging the race, the more likely I am to encounter a kindred spirit, scattering joy from mile marker to mile marker. Last week I met Rainbow Bright (tutu wearing, unicorn loving ultra runner Yuki)! And this week, I met Pizza Dude, the name I gave to the guy who pointed out the enchanting pond we ran past. We chatted about wipeouts. At that point I had only one crash under my belt. Before the finish line I would wipe out a second time, in between half a dozen wobbly moments.
“You’re doing awesome. I’ve wiped out three times!” he assured me.
We passed backpackers, waking up from their night of camping and heading off for a hike. “How’s it going?!” I called to one hiker who appeared to have a year’s worth of gear strapped on his back. Pizza Dude (his name may actually be something like “Mason” but I can’t be sure) exclaimed “I thought you were the delivery guy here with our pizza!” which is why he became known as Pizza Dude… and why I was craving pizza for the rest of the race!
Much like my sparkly friend Yuki, he and I were the ones cheering on the other runners as we climbed straight up the side of a mountain (if it wasn’t a mountain, I don’t want to encounter a mountain). There was no running up this mother of granite! This was rock climbing territory. Mountain biking territory if you were hardcore! Which is likely why the mountain bikers and rock climbers seemed so startled when we’d pop up on the other side of a boulder, or come rolling down the side of the cliff they were climbing! Running Vulcan’s Fury is not for the faint of heart. But it is for that dreadlock headed young man, and the red lipstick rocking 80-year-old lady.
Another photo I found online of Pawtuckaway. Because who puts a TRAIL here? And who pays money to RUN it?! Oh wait, me.
I crossed the finish line so grateful to be one of these brave, wild hearted runners. As far as I’m concerned, I was not racing any of them. Our rival was nature, and our own doubts and fears. I crossed that finish line humbled, but happy. Vulcan’s Fury may have kicked my bee stung ass, but I never gave up.
All the dusty runners gathered at the finish line to feast. We chatted with the other runners, recounting our trail tales and unrolling calf sleeves to show off our cuts and bruises.
It was here at the finish line cookout where I discovered that Jack Rabbit and Jill are actually Josh and Leah, and I am certain I will be seeing them around! I also caught up with Pizza Dude in the pavilion long enough to blame him for my pizza craving… and thank him for his sincere encouragement on the trails as he walked around barefoot, showing off blue toenails. His enthusiasm and his uniqueness just solidified Pizza Dude’s kindred spirit status in my book.
My own toe nails (all nine of them) are also painted dark blue, which is the color several of them have turned in the past few weeks. A small price to pay to be living and running free in New Hampshire! An insignificant fee for a day spent tearing down the trails, hanging out around a fire in a pavilion, in the woods with salty, smiling runners!
This, THIS is my life! Running up the side of an extinct volcano, feeling overwhelmed by the knowledge that this, THIS is exactly where I should be and what I should be doing right now. Completely present in God’s presence. Completely certain of who He made me to be, and free to be that chick!
And these, THESE are my people, my tribe. Ultra runners, trail runners. Every one of us unique and owning it, just as every trail is unique and should be celebrated as such, which brings me to…
LESSON 3) When I shifted my sport focus to trail running, I stopped saying “It wasn’t the day I was hoping for” about races. Because every trail is different and the same trail can be different from day to day. You literally cannot compare the day to any other run. You just have to be in the moment. There are no more bad runs. Gone are the “not the race I was hoping for” days. When you are lost in the woods, running down the trails, every run is a good one!
Last October I was running / limping through a marathon with a busted hip and a busted heart along the HudsonRiver in Albany, NY. Over the past 12 months, I’ve been told “Your job position will be dissolved by the end of the month” and “I want a divorce. I’m just not in love with you anymore” and “Your hip is going to get worse if you don’t quit running.”
Exactly one year later I am soaring through the woods of Pawtuckaway Park in NH – My legs are cut up, and I am flaunting three bee stings, but I have NO hip pain. I’m officially single, riding solo, but I have NO heart pain. I’m in love again, but this time I’m in love with LIFE! And I AM running again, but it’s different now. Because I have learned…
LESSON 4) If your Garmin is on auto pause, change the settings before your trail race.Inevitably you will be trudging SO slowly up some unending hill that your watch will not detect movement and flash “Auto Pause” at you.
“I’m moving, dammit!” you will yell to the deaf device on your wrist. Fortunately, when I shifted my focus to trail running. I stopped looking at my watch (as it is actually a hazard)! Gone are the days of obsessively staring at my Garmin. So really, that Garmin can remain on auto pause in the end and I likely won’t know the difference! Because I don’t run for PRs or podium finishes any longer. I am too busy just being grateful to God for this miracle that is running, and being head over heels in love with LIFE!
I took the Robert Frost Scenic byway home from Nottingham after the race and found a fantastic farm. I also got to put “Robert Frost” and “Nottingham” in a sentence describing my day and the literary nerd in me lost her mind over it!