Photo © Stan Brewer
By Amy Clark
Mel says I promised her there would be fairies. And it’s true – I believe in them, and believe that any good enchanted wood should host them. So when I looked down the long stretch of the first quarter mile of the trail race we were about to embark on, tunneled by trees and lined with grass as green as any I had witnessed in Ireland, I suppose I sensed them hiding in the branches of tilia, a field of red clover, or a swath of staghorn sumac. Magical thinking is a term used sometimes to talk about visualizing goals in the way that a child would: as if the goal itself existed outside of any context or circumstance, and all one had to do to reach it was believe. For good or for ill, I have adopted it as a sort of philosophy, and it was in magical thinking mode that I lined up with a hundred and fifty other runners in an unknown territory on this day.
Running and I were not always in affinity. I had tried, twice prior to this year, to train for a marathon and ended up with knee pain and injured tendons that forced me to retire for another long winter, resigned to starting again in that catch-all of new beginnings: spring. But for some reason this year I have broken my previous 7-mile-barrier without a hitch; without even so much as a stitch in my side. I can now eat while running, drink while running, and pause to take my shoes off and run barefoot for 2-mile stretches. Where the change came from, I’m not entirely certain – except to say that I read a fair bit of running philosophy, internalized it, and attached it to my already honed skills of magical thinking.
But running alone through the same worn trails of one’s hometown gets stagnant after a time, so I started searching for races. Trail runs, to be exact, if only for the lack of good wooded trails in this particular neck of the central Iowa non-woods. I came upon the ‘Muscle Milk Woodsy’ – a first-time event that advertised 8.9 miles of ‘untouched’ and ‘challenging’ terrain. A test of both agility, and will! Or so they said.
It also happened to correspond with the weekend near my 31st birthday, and a concert being performed by some dear friends of mine in Minnesota. What better way to celebrate than to give oneself a quest and complete it successfully? All signs pointed ‘go!’ I paid fifty bucks, continued to run on the flat trails of my home base landscape, and crossed my fingers that my agility and will would rise to the unknown challenge ahead.
Mile one: a brief stretch of flat, grassy trail that soon rose in elevation as the trail itself became strewn with loose rocks and gravel. But hey – they’d advertised a thousand-foot elevation gain (and subsequent drop), so here came the uphill battle. If I could make it to mile four, it was bound to get easier from then on. I was winded, but I felt rested and energized. I knew I was going to make it, so I slowed down and primed myself for the surge of energy to come after I reached the end of the elevation gain and then began the languorous descent back to beer and water and a community of other runners waiting to congratulate me and chat.
Mile two: steep hills. Rise, descend, rise again. Mile three: repeat. Mile four: water. Rise, descend, repeat. Rise again. Mile five: you get the picture. Turns out the course was no straightforward ascent/descent pattern. Instead, she threw steep hills in the way every chance she got – to the point where myself and others could be heard swearing at her under our breaths, if we could catch them, as we were either reduced to power-walking up them or sucking wind to try and keep a jogging momentum. On the way down, I’d put my hands on my hips to expand my rib cage as much as possible and regain the ability to breathe before another ascent launched itself in my way. I thought I logged a fair amount of miles before embarking on this journey, but I assure you they have never seemed so long.
Still, I finished in a time I could be proud of for such a challenging run. And I never felt discouraged. When the fairies threw a wrench and giggled from their hiding places, I smiled to them, myself, whoever was watching and visualized the finish line far ahead.
I am inexperienced as a runner and especially as a racer, but after the Woodsy, I came to realize what it is that’s so empowering and addicting about it. And the answer lies in our need to have a dual nature: one that strives to prove ourselves as individuals who can overcome internal struggles and succeed, and one that relies on the support of a community to be a safety net in times of both triumph and adversity.
This day was a day of triumph. Mel and I both conquered the she-devil that was the 8.9 mile course. We found camaraderie with a few of our fellows, we hugged, we got free shirts and socks. We also forged a bond with the inner part of ourselves that we had chosen to battle with mentally through those sometimes lonely 9 miles of woods. We learned, in some small way, to identify with the subsistence hunters we evolved from, and run on against the voice that would compel us to stop moving, to give up, to – in a previous version of our existence – die.
Me and you, I said to the woods. And me and you, to the man in front of me, and the woman I had just passed after pacing her for a few miles. Me and you, to my friend Mel who was hopefully still battling her own agility and will somewhere behind me. Me and you, I said – to all the forces that allowed me to exist to experience this one fine day at the beginning of the fall, to be surrounded by woods and water, to be alive and allowed to suck in enough clean, pure air to propel me to the top of the next hill.
Amy Clark is a writer, educator and freelance editor, currently teaching at Des Moines Area Community College (go Bears!). Born and raised in Iowa, but having lived elsewhere in the Midwest and outside of it - Amy is currently exploring the concept of community in these short essays - what it means, and how it is forged by both people and place. She believes in the role of a writer as a conversation-starter, and hopes that some of her work will spark that. Please feel free to comment or email: firstname.lastname@example.org