5:00 AM. The race doesn't start until ten. Now what? Five hours! Internet news, two cups of coffee. That might eat up an hour. Some stretching? Not four hours of stretching. Can't take on a house-chore. Need to save my legs. Besides, no one else will be up for two more hours. I'm usually done running by eight o'clock. What do I do until ten?
Thankfully the pre-race jitters didn't start until yesterday. Sometimes they set in a week before, sometimes two weeks. I've been calm about this race. I've done it twice before, so I know what to expect. My training was disrupted by a lingering cold and a sore calf, so my plan is to take it easy. Start slow, have fun, and come in with a respectable, unimpressive time.
But yesterday I got an email with final race instructions. That set me off. Got me thinking about the race. A 10K trail run. Lung-burning hills. Enough rocks and roots to trip a mountain goat. Last year I pushed hard the whole race and age-grouped. This year, my legs feel great. Injury free for three or four weeks. Had a clean taper. Why am I holding back? I could smoke this race!
No. Stick with the plan. I haven't even charged my watch. Running on breath, on feel. I don't want to be a slave to pace. I don't want to stress about how slowly I'm hitting the hills. I picked out my travel music – a live Clash disk. Angry, driving music. Might help me release some steam, some tension.
It's freezing out. Frosty. What to wear? Tights? Shorts? How many layers? Which gloves? Where should I leave my stuff during the race? In my car? Too much extra walking. Should I take warm clothes for the after party? Should I have more coffee? Should I eat? What should I eat? Should I take food with me?
7:00 AM. The house is stirring. Kids are up and streaming Netflix. My wife is drinking coffee, watching me pace around the house. Go to the bathroom, foam-roll, go to the bathroom, stretch, go to the bathroom. Pack my bag. Take everything. Tights, shorts, four layers, a coat, two pairs of gloves. In the car fifteen minutes earlier than I expected. Glad to be gone -- I was driving everyone nuts.
8:45 AM. Packet pickup. Much colder than I expected. Maybe 28 degrees. The sun hasn't cleared the mountains and the trees. Everyone is shivering. Guess I'm running in tights, extra layers. Grabbed a coffee, discussed the course with other anxious runners. Too cold to stand outside. Back to the car -- my early start won me great parking. My feet are numb, heater blasting. Assess the race bag. Pin my bib to my shirt. Too low. Now crooked. Not centered. Fourth time, good enough.
9:30 AM. Pre-race briefing. Review of the course. Jokes about the perils of trail-running. Nervous laughter all around. Finally some sun is reaching the ground, much appreciated warmth. But the frost hasn't melted. I'm ditching the tights. Back to the car, back to the heater, back to the Clash. Minutes to go. Decide on my attire. Go minimalist. Shorts and a long-sleeve shirt. Plus the t-shirt with my bib. I can't possibly change that now.
10:00 AM. Halfway back in the pack, anticipating. A cannon roars and we’re running. Well, jogging. I usually start up front, set an early, unsustainable pace. This is different, more relaxing. Next mile and a half is up hill. Passing lots of runners. They’re slowing down, I'm speeding up. At the top of the hill, I'm all out. Race pace. Running with a man and woman who will be with me the rest of the race. The woman is fast and strong, but slow over the rocks. The man is a slightly stronger version of me. The woman and I pass each other several times. I wish she would just attack the technical stuff and stay in front of me. She wishes I'd quit jogging the flats and stay ahead of her. These guys are fit. And young. I must be running well, fast. I dig in.
10:42 AM. Starting up the mountain. Everyone is walking. I've vowed to run it this year. I’m not any faster, but it feels right. And I get a bit of an edge when I hit the top. I’m already running, not questioning when to restart. Back on the flats. That pair of runners pulls away from me. I'm used up, nicely. Still running hard, but no burst left.
11:06 AM. Out of the woods and onto the home stretch. I see the clock and I crack out an exhausted "Ha!" Five minutes slower than last year. But I finish strong. Folks cheer as I cross the line. My wife and kids are there. Some running friends. High-fives. A post-race beer. Camaraderie. Part of a tribe, 250 crazy souls willing to gut through a sub-freezing 10K in the mountains.
And then it's over. I go home and resume my day. I wonder if it is worth all the stress, all the worry. Yes it is. Two days later, and I'm still buzzing. Still feel the adrenaline. Picking a line through the rocks; hopping a creek; ducking a branch. Me against nature, or me in the midst of nature. Looking forward to this weekend, to my next trail run.