“Comparison is the thief of joy.” So they say.
Running can involve so much comparison. Other runners to ourselves. Yesterday’s pace and split data – or last week’s, or last year’s – to today’s. Three-year-old PRs to today’s finish times, when life is completely different. Apples and oranges. Then me versus now me.
So how do you break away from the comparison? I know a lot of people take off the watch, and that can help. But the clock doesn’t lie, and as long as I keep racing, I compare. But if I do something new, something that can’t be compared, then – maybe, just maybe – I can set aside comparison.
Two Saturdays ago, Shannon and I completed our third trail half (joined by our friend Laura, completing her first). And it was completely different from the other two. There is no comparison. Well, not too much anyhow.
We signed up for the Helenback Half back in January, and after running Swamp Rabbit in February, we had grand plans to really train for this half: build some good mileage, get some serious hill and trail strength, even do some trail tempo and hill work. I hoped to work on my technical acumen, which is severely lacking, especially on technical downhills. I run scared and pick down them slowly, which prevents me from improving as a trail runner and beats up my quads even more from hitting the brakes.
Per usual, life had other plans. We traveled a ton. Had out-of-town guests. Were each under several major deadlines. And I got sick for a week and a half (moderate head cold, followed by a severe bacterial sinus infection that totally kicked my ass). Two weeks out, Laura and I managed a triple loop of the Botanical Gardens for 11.3ish hard miles and more than 1000 feet of climbing on a warm and muggy morning. Our cars were our aid stations on each loop (though we also carried water and fuel), and we kept our watches running and hiked the climbs early and often, preserving our legs and increasing time on our feet. Shannon was at a bachelor party that weekend, but still squeezed in an 11-mile run.
The last weekend before the race, we hoped to do a 7-mile loop of Lake Chapman, but nature had other plans: an in-and-out downpour the day before left the lake swollen beyond recognition, and every spot we tried to enter the trail quickly turned out to be water-logged. Not just muddy or a couple inches to splash through, but knee deep or worse. We managed six miles of road and trail, and under the time pressure of preparing a Passover seder that day, I had to call it a day.
The week of the race was…a little crazy. Monday night we had the usual Fleet Feet run. Tuesday we had a happy hour with friends. Wednesday we had a group trail run, which I cut to 3 miles (I had hoped to do the 5-mile option) when my legs and feet felt like hot garbage, which I hoped was not a sign of things to come. And Thursday night, we saw Avengers: Endgame with Shannon’s lab (#nospoilers). Suffice it to say, by Friday, my introvert batteries were pretty low. And Friday evening I need to work our club table at packet pickup for another race.
Fortunately, all it took on Saturday morning was to spy mountains in the distance, thirty minutes into our drive up to Helen. My mood lifted and my heart was happy.
The full marathon began at 7:00, but the half was scheduled to start at 9:00. I had been concerned that it would be hot, but we woke up to the perfect morning. So perfect that the poor race volunteers were shivering under sweaters and blankets and packet pickup. The starting temp was low 50s and it would get into the mid-to-high-60s by the finish, with sunshine — and the air was mercifully dry. So I stayed in my singlet and shorts outfit for the race, though put on a long sleeve and hoodie when I was out of the car pre-race. We didn’t have to wait at all for packet pickup or bathrooms, between arriving plenty early (more than an hour prior to the start) and the small field. With fifteen minutes to go-time, we donned our gear and gathered by the start for instructions. The race director warned us about the first mile – which I knew would be a doozie (or at least, I thought I knew) – and right at 9:00 AM, we were sent on our way.
That first hill was a shock to the system. Logically, I knew it would be–it was 350+ plus of climbing in about three quarters of that mile. It was split over two very steep climbs, and the second one was worse (or at least seemed that way). We were reduced to walking pretty quickly, and even power hiking was difficult, given the steepness of the grade and loose gravel. My legs and lungs wanted me to stop but I was afraid I’d never start again, or I’d slide back down the hill. I tried to alter my stride to use different muscles, but still my calves felt like they might explode. It was a relief to see the trail level off.
All three of us struggled to get our breath back, and hoped aloud that that hill would just be the shock to our systems we’d need to conquer the rest of the race.
And for the most part, this was pretty true. Within a mile or two, my legs had shaken off that first hill, and I was just so happy to be in beautiful Unicoi, running with my husband and friend, not caring at all how long it took, just grateful to be there and moving my body. Some sections Shannon and I recognized from Helen Holiday Half, running segments of the Unicoi trails we ran in December, in reverse this time. We all wore packs and scooted right through the first aid station (though I asked about a bathroom–tummy was unhappy. Luckily there was a restroom a mile or so later that was worth a few minute stop). At the second aid station, we were ushered up the long climb, a semi-out-and-back (more a hairpin parallel trail so we weren’t exactly retracing our steps, but it was up and up and up going out, and down and down and down coming back to that same aid station).
The course was incredibly well-marked, and we followed the blue flagging for the half. At one switchback, I briefly lost confidence as it took a good half mile to see another blue flag. It was like that moment when you’re driving somewhere new with written directions, and wonder if you missed your turn, and how long should you wait before you turn around? We shouted “a-ha!” when we at last spotted a flag and were reassured we were still on course.
And up and up and up we went. We ran what we could, but again hiked early and often, preserving our strength and savoring the beauty of the lush trail. When we reached the top, and its aid station, we stopped to refill and recuperate for a couple of minutes, before Laura led us down the hill. Leaves camouflaged roots and branches, but we picked our way down without braking too much. The more I relaxed, the better I ran, as long as I remembered to pick up my feet.
Now more than halfway through the race, we arrived back at the aid station at the base, coming from its other side, grabbing small cups of electrolyte drink and then moved on. We were discussing aid station food – the bread with peanut butter caught Laura’s eye, and she wondered aloud if that would just dry her out to try to eat. As I was about to respond to her (I was leading at the moment), my toe caught a small rock and I flew through the air. Laura said I managed to get an extra half-step in, which slowed my fall.
Truly it was the most gentle fall I’ve ever had, road or trail. I wasn’t scared, and it didn’t feel like the quick crash I usually experience. I almost floated. My glasses came off my face, but didn’t break. I sat up slowly and evaluated. I had a mild skin scrape on the back of my left shoulder, which took most of the landing (my left hip took some, too, as I discovered in the shower later). My hands were covered with dirt, but not scraped at all. Otherwise. I was fine. We walked a few minutes to make sure all systems were go, and then broke into a jog on a relatively flat section and kept going. Second trail race wipe-out of my life (surely not the last): survived.
As the mile clicked by, I savored it more and more. I briefly thought about one day being able to push myself more on the trails. But that wasn’t what today was for. Our training had been enough to finish well, but not to race hard. And this was Laura’s first trail half, and the longest time she had ever run, surely. That experience needs to be honored and savored, never rushed. But the longer I ran, the better I felt, even as I grew tired and knew I would be sore and beat up the next day. My body was strong and capable. I may not be a good trail runner, but I let gratitude echo in every step. My body can do this. And that’s a gift.
With a couple miles to go, and from the other direction, we came across the creek we ran through in December for Helen Holiday Half. Then, it had been high, rushing, and frigid cold. This past weekend, it was cold, but horribly brutal, and it was decently high but not rushing nearly as hard. We took our time across it, and another woman who had been with us for a little while, laughed and talked through her worries as she crossed. We encouraged each other, and Shannon waited at the other side to extend a hand to me, and then to her, to ensure we made it across. My feet were cold, but my shoes drained quickly, like the champs they are.
We ran across a couple struggling runners. We called out to them, especially if they were sitting along the side. One insisted he was okay as he sat on the side, knees to his chest, taking a moment to gather himself. Partway up a climb later, we came across another runner – young, maybe in college – who looked exhausted and pale. He sat on a rock and looked ready to pass out. We stopped, asked if he needed anything. He said he was probably just dehydrated. I took out one of my bottles and gave it to him to drink. He chugged the whole thing quickly. I offered him a gel to get him to the finish, which he also took. We were only about 1.5ish to the end, so I hoped it would be enough to get him there.
Before I knew it, we were hitting paved road, and cruising downhill toward the shouting crowd and finish line party, the river rushing nearby. My feet were suddenly flying, a big smile plastered across my face, running side-by-side with two of my favorite running buddies. We crossed the finish three abreast, thrilled.
The finish line spread was perfect: we had the option of two free beers (we each only had one), with options for IPA or a Berlinweisse from a Cleveland, GA, brewery, poured right into our finishers’ beer glasses. There were hot dogs and chips and cookies and sodas and Capri Sun (Capri Sun! In the pouch!) and Yoohoo (Yoohoo! Of course I had one, and it tasted like childhood). We sat on the lawn chairs we brought and listened to bluegrass and talked and relaxed and laughed and soaked up the sun and the race and the joy and the camaraderie. We dipped our feet in the frigid creek for as long as we could stand it.
Eventually, we reluctantly packed up to head back for the hour-and-change drive, forgoing lunch in town after the smorgasbord post-race (and lack of appetite following the exertion).
We grabbed food back in Athens, and Laura and I took a little break before meeting up later, not rested but at least showered, to check out Twilight (the best weekend in Athens). We stayed on our feet, drank too much free VIP tent beer, and talked and talked. We realized late tat night that we had spent the entire day together without planning on it. That’s the thing about running friends–you never run out of things to say to each other, on trail and off, and even if you do, you can just be.
So how does this race compare to the others? It doesn’t. And yet, it does. I feel stronger, I feel better at tackling trails, even if I was still a bit undertrained. I feel better going into my second round of the Rabun Half in June (even though I’m no sure how well running and hiking and touring around Ireland for 12 days this month will translate to running up and down a mountain, but there’s still time). I learned I can fall and be okay. I can do hard things. My body can run up mountains and carry me back down, reasonably safe and sound. I learned once again that Laura will rise to any challenge I throw her way, and absolutely crush it.
And even if I do compare this year’s Rabun to last year’s — well, I won’t let it take away the joy.