After a few successful sessions of running in quicksand, I decided to brave a race. And not just any race: the Governor's Cross Country Race. I ran this race for the first time last year, and it was probably the most fun race I did all year.
Sure, running through extreme, hilly, muddy trails and diving through creeks isn't exactly an easy way to come back from an injury. But, the race had a two mile option, the ground would be softer than a hard road, and it's not a race anyone tries to run fast. I figured it would be a great way to go out and have some fun.
My fellow two-milers watched the four milers take off, then the race director (my running coach from the training program, Russ) lined us up in the opposite direction. He told us to keep the blue flags to the right and said there'd be a pink ribbon marking the first mile. Throughout the course, we'd find shortcuts marked with yellow flags. Russ told us that they would be shorter, but not necessarily faster. And like last year, there were ribbons hidden throughout the race course that could be redeemed for prizes afterwards. With those instructions, we were off!
After just shy of a quarter mile on the dirt next to the road, the course took us into the woods. We followed a narrow trail that darted in between trees and scraped past bushes. Every single runner stopped to walk up a steep hill, then started running again at the top.
It felt glorious to be out there. The weather was perfect - in the 60s and sunny. The park was beautiful, and the experience of running through the woods felt natural, primal. We reached a clearing, and a volunteer stationed there told us all, "There's a big fallen tree here. You decide: over it or under it?"
I stood and looked at the tree for a moment, considering my options. The space under it was small. I'd have to get on my hands and knees and crawl under it. Climbing over it didn't seem like a good option, either. It was pretty tall, and it wouldn't be easy to get started. I also thought I'd probably scratch up my legs if I tried it. Under it was, and it worked fine. A few minutes later, I snagged a blue ribbon hidden in a grove of trees. I saw another ribbon nearby and called out to my fellow runners, in case anybody was still looking for one.
There were several creeks along the course race that we had to cross. I stepped into the first one and was surprised to see that the water was over my knees. At the next one, I followed the yellow flags and found a volunteer holding a rope that I could use to swing across. Tellingly, a man with a video camera was stationed at the other end. I grabbed the rope and swung... right into the deep water. I laughed and crawled out of the creek.
At the next creek, there was another rope swing. This time, I was ready for it. I knew that I needed to grab onto the rope as high as I could to avoid landing in the creek again. I held on as high up as I could and... SPLASH! Right into the water!
By this point, I was, naturally, soaking wet. Last year, I didn't know what I was getting into and looked a bit silly in really nice new running clothes. This time, I wore a sweatshirt that already had mud stains on it from running Living History Farms in it. Twice. I wore my good shoes because I didn't want to mess around with an injury, but I wore a pair of gloves that already had mud stains on them. I remembered from last year that knee socks were a good idea, but did not remember that a skirt was a bad idea. Just like last year, my skirt ended up sopping wet and clinging to my legs. Maybe the third year will be the time I get it right.
I ran along at a relaxed pace when a dad, decked out in an Afro wig, and his son (who was probably about eight) ran towards me. "Come on," said the dad. "We don't want to get beat by Pigtails here." I laughed, and he added, "And she probably doesn't want to lose to a guy in an Afro." I told him that was true, but that I didn't mind losing to a kid because kids are fast.
I took a walk break so that I could be sure my leg wasn't taxed too much. Two more women passed me... then I realized that the finish line was near. I picked it up, passed both of them, and closed the gap a bit with Afro.
I happily crossed the line in 24:40, then went into the lodge to reap the rewards of this great race. First, I grabbed a beer. Then, I turned in my blue ribbon. Prize choices included a water bottle (just like I got last year), coffee cups, and Snickers bars taped to lottery tickets. I snagged a coffee cup with the logo from the 2004 Pumpkin Dash on one side and my running club logo on the other. Finally, I hung out by the blazing fire and warmed up.
It feels wonderful to be out there again. It will take a while before I'm back at real racing speed, but I don't care. I'm just happy to be running.