The sharp pain in my right knee and the dull bang in my left hand were the most immediate sensations.
“Do you want to take a breather?” one of the other runners asked.
“No, no. I’m okay,” I replied, springing to my feet and setting off like nothing had happened.
The last time I’d been trail running was about six months ago and it was on the exact same trail on which – without warning – I’d just tripped and landed face-first, momentarily breathless on the ground.
Marysville is a popular mountain biking spot in North Fredericton. The trail winds up and down a hillside and is studded with large rocks, plenty of rubble, and tons of roots, all waiting to trip the inattentive runner.
I was out with the Radical Edge Trail Runners, a new group that had attracted about 17 runners on its second outing. It was unusual for me to be running on a Monday evening. Normally, Mondays are my day off as I run semi-long on Saturdays and long on Sundays.
But I really wanted to hit the trails again – just not quite in the literal way I did when I found myself on my hands and knees, contemplating the dirt up close.
Some of the trails we ran carried names like Wilson’s Loop and Swanky. All of them offered short, steep climbs, brisk dips, and rocks, roots. and plenty of ferns, bushes and trees brushing your arms and legs as we whisked past.
I wasn’t feeling so spry when we began. I’d run 23 km the day before, including 10 short fartleks of 30 seconds on and then 30 seconds easy, as well as about five km at marathon pace.
That seemed paltry compared to one of the other runners, who the day before rode 193 km, including 25 of those at full-out race pace in a criterium.
It was time to suck it up, buttercup.
This is the part where I tell you that I did. I led the pack, charging up hills, bounding downhill, springing off rocks and nimbly dodging roots, running like the endurance animal that biologists say is the heritage of homo sapiens.
Except it wasn’t quite like that.
Right off the start is a 200 metre or so climb up double track, which then turns left into a single track ascent that immediately requires you to start briskly stepping over roots and legging up over large rocks.
I was winded and breathing hard. I went from the first third to the bottom third within less than a kilometre, and then I stayed there, where I grimly held on, following a couple of women who seemed to float like gazelles over the obstacles. Behind them came my grotesque heaving breath and my stumbling footfall.
Thankfully, we had short breaks at intersections, where I could quietly wheeze while the sweat poured off me in rivers and where I could discreetly turn away to hide the strings of drool issuing from my mouth.
One of the worst things about being back of the pack, of course, is you never really get to rest because by the time you pull even with the front-runners, they’ve impatiently been waiting for you for the last 15 minutes and immediately take off again.
So I’d ignore the flashing lights in front of my eyes, the shooting pain in my right knee, and bravely – heaving for breath – set out again.
Trail running is fun.
That’s what I told myself in a grim little voice over and over again. This is great. I’m having fun. Oh fuck, I’m going to collapse and wish I was home with a beer.
And then around seven km, a miraculous thing happened: I began to pass runners. First it was one, then two, then a couple more, and the next thing I knew I found myself running up front and feeling good.
All the awkwardness of trying to find my stride, all the worry about stumbling, vanished. I had endurance. I had flow.
Throughout the run, I’d been telling myself to quiet my mind, instead constantly chattering away to myself: look how smoothly the woman in front is running; I’ll put these details in my blog post; to run well on trails I need to silence the talk in my head – and so on.
But suddenly I was moving easily through the trail, no thoughts, just pumping my arms and legs, happy to be running, grateful for my breath, giddy with the day.
When we returned to the cars, my knee hurt more than ever. I was dusty, bruised, covered with bug bites and could hardly wait to go again.