My runner’s bib and number arrived in the mail this week. I’m number 4529. They have helpfully put my name just under my number (in case I get lost? Or forget it?) And I’m identified as being in ‘Wave 4’, which means I start with the crowd that would be in danger of being trampled underfoot by all the faster runners (just about everybody else) if we presumed to start near the front. And I got a cool pumpkin orange long-sleeved runners shirt. I’m feeling very happy about anything long-sleeved these days. Five years on the equator in Kenya reduced to nearly nothing my wardrobe for anything under 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Which brings me to this morning.
Saturdays are my normal long run day. Unlike last week, I was not nearly as neurotic in the lead up to flinging myself out the door and taking the first and hardest step. I even managed a good night’s sleep! There were, however, other challenges to confront this morning. It’s been cold here on the eastern side of the Blue Ridge for the past several days. And last night the wind died down and the clouds disappeared, which means radiational cooling did its thing and the temperatures plummeted, so when I checked the temperature at 5 AM when I rousted myself out of bed, it was 27 outside.
So let’s see, what to run in. A pair of shorts. A long-sleeved white runner’s shirt that appeared out of nowhere a few weeks ago when I was sorting through my stuff. I have no idea where it came from. But this morning I was just grateful to have it. And a golf hat (see the very one above). So after eating some breakfast, packing my chomps and phone and contact details in case I keeled over on some lonely mountain road (I had set out my water and PowerAde yesterday afternoon), I was ready to go. So out I went, into the darkness, into the cold. Usually I take a warm-up walk to the corner and then fire the jets, but not this morning – it was too cold to be strolling down the sidewalk. So I just set out, in the hopes that the act of lugging this body of mine through the streets of Crozet would generate some heat.
The darkness wasn’t really darkness – the night before the dawn was illuminated by a bright half-moon straight overhead. The fields I passed were all white with frost in the moonlight, and even the Blue Ridge Mountains behind me were outlined against the spangled night sky. A coal train returning empty coal cars to the mines in the west thundered by. After three miles I turned off the main road and headed down a country lane, through woods still laden with turning leaves, crunching some underfoot, passing a lake whose relatively warm water was making steam in the chilled air. Then it was up a steep hill and onto the gentle up and down past farms and through woods and pasture. The line of the Blue Ridge marked my way on the left, whilst on the right a widening band of color announced the new day.
I got to my first water bottle, slightly concerned that it had frozen. It was fine, but in the process of drinking and running at the same time I managed to get my hands wet and they in turn got very cold. Numb even. One tends to lose perspective rather easily on these runs and I found myself worried about frostbite and losing fingers… So I tucked my hands up in my sleeves and then ran with both hands under my armpits, which probably looked as awkward as it felt. It would be another 5 miles before they warmed up.
The highlight of my run was to be five miles up and back through Sugar Hollow, following the course of a rushing rocky stream through a steep-sided valley to a dramatic dam and reservoir at the eastern wall of the Blue Ridge. I love the sound of the water. And I was looking forward to running through the forest in the early morning sunlight. An introvert’s dream!
So I finally found myself on Sugar Hollow Road. My first hint that something might be amiss occurred when I passed two women kitted out in the latest everything in terms of fashionable running attire stretching beside the road. Southern gentleman that I am, I asked if everything was ok, and they replied Thanks we’re just taking a break. Two minutes later, two other runners going opposite me pass by. Then another three. Then two more. Then six. By now it was a steady stream, and all of them seemingly dressed to the nines for a cold morning’s run. About 15 minutes (and 50 runners) later, the two women I had passed caught up with me. And before they whizzed past I found out that I had stumbled upon the weekly long run of the Charlottesville Track Club, a long-time Charlottesville, VA running institution that’s based in one of the area’s running stores. So much for an idyllic jog through drop-dead gorgeous Virginia mountain scenery. But I did get a lot of ideas for what I might want to wear out on the road if I ever become upwardly mobile.
|Ok, it wasn't this crowded... But you get the idea.|
Laying eyes on the dam, I reached the halfway point and turned around, grateful to follow the stream on its downhill course for the next 4 miles. Then came the looonnnnggg (mile-long) hill that might have done me in a few months ago. But I’ve learned to put my head down and just chug on up to the top. That behind me, it was a matter of retracing steps that I had taken an hour or two earlier in the dark. I resisted the temptation to keep track of the miles and focused on just running. But by this time, my legs were starting to sound like my children when they were a certain age on long trips in the car – ‘Are we there, yet?’
By this time I had rejoined my ‘go-to’ running route, a 6 mile stretch that my mind and body are very familiar with. The good news is I knew exactly how far remained. The bad news is, I knew exactly how far remained. By this time I was on mile 19 of a 23.7 mile run. And it was all work. My pace slowed. My legs complained. Time lengthened out in front of me. 20, 21, 22, 23, seemed like I would never get there. But I did. The longest run of my life.
Marathon day is three Saturdays away. When I started training in earnest back in May, I could only hope that I might be in a position to run the race. I had no idea how hard the training would be, and I have never attempted anything like it in my life. But I can also say I had no idea how good the training would be – giving me a goal, motivating me to, step by step, go beyond what I thought I could do. And though hitting the wall is definitely not fun, it is gratifying to learn from one’s mistakes and see the difference the adjustments make the next time I head out.
Running has been and is a solitary experience for me. This morning, after the initial disappointment of having to share ‘my’ road with 60 other runners, it was awe-inspiring to see so many others working really hard to accomplish some really amazing goals. Some were getting ready to run the 8k in Richmond; others the half-marathon; still others going all out for the full marathon like me. In three weeks, our numbers will swell to 8000 for the half and 9000 for the full. That means sharing my road with an awful lot of people. But it will by then hardly matter. I think I will by that time be in a state of perpetual amazement at what it has taken to get us all there.
|Of course I will be in the back to avoid being trampled...|