There's another notable difference between road running and trail running, and it's the one that usually results in bloody knees and palms. Unlike the nice, smooth surface of asphalt and concrete, trails are filled with all kinds of unkind hazards.
On this course, we navigated our way over roots, stumps, and rocks at every mile, and for long stretches these obstacles were covered with fallen fall foliage, rendering them nearly invisible to the quick-moving runner's eye. We stepped carefully over and between rocks, sometimes large and jagged, sometimes small and easily rolled underfoot. We kicked small stumps of young trees that were cleared from the trail. Worst of all, pencil-thick roots had a tendency to snake across the trail, kicked slightly up from the dirt floor, and wait for runners like a trip wire.
By 4 hours into the course, my foot had found its fair share of obstacles. For at least the 4th time during the race, another runner told me "wow, good recovery!" after a treacherous stumble. I was glad to stop short of my face on the ground, but I had to wonder how many "good recoveries" I had left in me. I knew that one more root could result in my leg covered in blood, or worse, a debilitating injury.
Shannon, my new-found running buddy, and I were at mile 20. The next milestone was at mile 22, when we would reach our drop bag (which holds any gear, food, or supplies we decide to pack for ourselves) near the finish line. This would be the end of the first loop and what I expected to be the most mentally difficult of the race. We would be in sight of the finish line, yet we would have to turn around for a 9-mile loop before reaching our goal.
By mile 20, my legs were screaming. Hers probably were too, but she was too nice to say anything negative out loud. We were walking as much as running, and to make things more difficult, the mountain bikers had started taking on the trail. We expected a few, but every time one pulled around the corner, we had to stop our forward progress, hop to the side of the trail, then summon the courage to regain our momentum.
It was slow going, but we finally reached the familiar part of the trail that told us we were close. We navigated the last stretch of rough trail and turned onto the road. Just as we saw the aid station, I was met with a surprise.
My friend and workout buddy, Brant, had come to volunteer. I had talked to him before the start of the race, but what I didn't know was that he brought 2 more workout buddies along. Brant jogged out to meet me, asked me if he could go find my drop bag for me, and I was showered with encouragement from my friends.
The aid station personnel refilled water bottles while I stretched, and Brant helpfully dug through my drop bag to find what I asked for. I noticed a scrape on my knee, and I couldn't remember for the life of me what had caused it. I mentioned this to someone, but if my voice sounded the way I felt, I wasn't making much sense.
Finally, with food and drink in hand, Shannon and I turned back to the course. We walked for a while as we ate and rehydrated, and by the time we traded road for trail we broke back into a jog.
Surprisingly, this was my favorite part of the race. I had worried, after studying this year's revisions to the course map, that the prospect of turning away from the finish line would be too much. I worried that the task of 9 more miles would be more daunting than ever with the finish in sight. But thanks to a few friends, this stop was exactly what it was meant to be. It was a place to recharge, refuel, and rest before taking on the most difficult miles of the race.
When we were back on the trail, I asked my ultra-experienced running buddy a hard question. "Be honest with me," I asked. "Does it get harder?" She knew what I meant. My entire body was beginning to rebel. I had been running for 5 and a half hours by this point, longer than I've ever stayed on my feet before. My legs were in pain, my body vehemently urged me to stop, and I was just flat ready to be done.
I waited for the answer while she thought. I hoped she wasn't trying to find a nice way to deliver bad news. She finally answered "it doesn't get worse."
Great, I thought. I get to deal with this for 9 more miles.
More to come,