I don’t usually feel as knotted up as I do right now at a trail race. Unlike road races, I do them for fun, not performance, so I am usually excited without the nerves. Not this time though, and I feel surprised at this. I’ve had a pretty tough week, including sleepless nights and a cancelled flight that almost made me miss the starting line, so it’s not like I’m expecting anything. Especially not with my notorious clumsiness. A nagging feeling is eating up at me though, and I try to ignore it. Or at the very least, pretend it’s pre-race jitters.
I know and really like this course. It’s an 11k run in the dark, 3 times around a loop that manages to provide lots of variety: a steep but very short climb, some technical sections, faster, rolling sections through the woods, plenty of mud, high grasses and a gravel road. We’re warned it’s wetter and muddier than usual due to the incessant rain of the past weeks, which takes some doing, as this place is notorious for its mud. It’ll slow us down.
The start is, as it always is, so beautiful with all those headlights. We look like a huge, tangled, happy Christmas garland. There’s a 600m section on a wide road that allows for this garland to spread itself out before we hit the single-track section.
On the first loop, it starts. That thought that I wanted to keep at bay. The face of the friend and colleague who, following an intense 2-year fight against cancer, just passed away. Quite suddenly, right when it was thought she was doing better. So quickly that it was all over, including the funeral, before I was even able to make it back here from an out-of-town work contract. I pick up the pace. I want to outrun these thoughts. It’s all too raw as of yet.
Rosalie’s face is in front of me. It forms in the mist that is created by the heavy humidity in front of my headlamp as I breathe out. Her face warps within the air. It is the only thing that exists within this darkness. There is no world outside of my beam of light. She’s smiling, like she used to during her chemotherapy sessions where I went to keep her company. She’d want to talk about anything except her disease, and so I’d tell her ridiculous travel stories to make her laugh and distract her from the bleak setting. She so loved to travel. I run a bit faster still, faster than my skill normally allows. I’ve fallen often on this course, once doing a belly flop that winded me so badly I couldn’t even breathe, let alone get up for a bit. But somehow right now, I’m doing what I’ve never managed before; I let my body think for itself, deciding how to step, while I stay with her.
This time we’re at a café. She loved discovering new ones, and I took her to my favourite haunts. This one is in a tucked-away corner of Montreal. She’s sharing stories about Madrid, a city we both love. Without realising it, the first loop is done, and I am passing people on the second loop, on the steep climb where I usually get passed. My body remembers the holes of mud where others sink to above the knee and I avoid them. Right now I’m feeling good, a part of me is flying, but I can feel something building up in my chest and I try to outpace it. In my mind I’m still in Madrid and I am suddenly out of the woods, running down the grassy hill that leads to the road and the beginning of the 3rd and final loop. I no longer know whether I’m running away or to her.
This last one is blurry. In part because I don’t remember it. In part because I’m crying. I’m realising that that time in the café talking about Madrid was the last time I saw Rosalie. She cancelled the next two times because she was tired. We were due to see one another once I got back. I sprint across the finish line and I don’t want to stop but now I have to and suddenly I can’t run away from my feelings anymore. I feel totally oppressed by them and my biggest concern is finding a quiet and discreet place to cry my heart out.
I can only guess at what I looked like right then, but suddenly there is Sébastien, who has one look at my face, asks me what’s wrong, and I blurt out both my explanations and tears, and before I am even through one half-gibbered sentence he is holding me tight. The relief is tremendous and I can barely make myself care that I am soiling his pristine clothes with my sweaty shirt and runny nose as I sob out my pain, my guilt, my sadness.
This, too, is trail running. This is its community. It is tight-knit, supportive. Steadfastly loyal. In a sport that involves so much digging in deep to find inner strength, people hold one another up through rough times, and are unafraid of showing their feelings. Whether it’s momentary weakness during an ultra, or pain over not being there for a friend one wished to have accompanied in her final moments. It doesn’t matter. I am comforted back into calmness and strength.
It’s been a few weeks since that race. I’ve supported others through their own races since then. And I’ve been able to let go of the pain. It started to fly away while running, and dissolved when hit by the trail running spirit.