Register Tuesday | December 10 | 2019

The Guts and the Glory

Why runners take on the most taxing terrain (Part II)

This piece is the second part in a two-part series. Please click here for Part I

The second lap was much like the first; the only difference was that the bottoms of my feet were burning as though someone had replaced my insoles with sandpaper. I didn’t notice it too much on the way up the mountain but as my feet now slammed hard on the downslope I could feel it in every step.

When I got to the bottom, there was the crowd again. They lustily cheered me on as they recognized the slogan on my singlet: “Go Canada!” Either they really like Canadians or they were just kind people who felt sorry for me. Whatever the case, I was encouraged not to walk uphill (as I had in the last lap) by an unidentified spectator who informed me that everyone ahead was walking. Determined that I was not going to be beaten by a pack of walkers, I attacked that final hill with abandon. About halfway up, I caught sight of my first victim: Peter Vail, a fellow Canadian, who was looking very haggard. I tried to pull him with me—“Come on, let’s go!”—but he had already been defeated. “No, I’m done,” he said. I decided that this was his problem, not mine, and headed alone into the steepest portion of the race, hoping to gain as much ground as I could on what remained of the uphill which was quickly becoming my bread and butter.

Despite this confidence, my ego would be shattered not once, but twice, on that final steep ascent. With my legs burning and the pain in my feet starting to make an appearance even on the uphill slope, I trudged over and through what looked to be the same roots and trees that Frodo and Sam had negotiated on their epic journey. A family of spectators was waiting at the top of a particularly steep ridge and as I went by, the youngest member started climbing up beside me—and was keeping up! I tried to focus on my own rhythm and forget that a small boy, one-fifth my age, was clambering up the slope and besting me at the pace of an international athlete. Luckily, his father held him back, muttering something about staying out of the way. I grunted my appreciation.

As my climb reached its final plateau I could see the course descending alongside me—the lead runners were well-through and I could see some of the chase pack bouncing down the course behind them. An Italian runner ahead of me took the turn and dipped into the drop, arms extended like an aeroplane. He tilted his wings for the crowd and did a 360-degree turn, zooming down the hill and laughing all the way. Little kids were beating me up the hill and this guy was pretending he was an airplane. I began to think I was in the wrong sport.

With no one else in sight, the crowd had only the Canadian to cheer on. Peter was behind me but was apparently so delusional that he nearly walked off the course. He later told me he had asked an elderly female spectator for her jacket—he was cold, he explained. There were also some Mexicans and a Ukrainian runner behind me, but I didn’t really concern myself with them—I only wanted to see if I could get within sight of the Irish boys I’d been trailing the whole race through. It was a long shot since we were now on the final downhill part of the race, but whatever—I had nothing to lose, except maybe a tendon or two. As I launched myself down the slope that brought me back into the forest, I remember thinking that I just needed to keep pressing. You never know what can happen in the final stages of a race; a lot of people run out of steam and drop out, after all. That was the last thought that I had before I felt my left foot snap.

I had hit a root and rolled my ankle in a big way. I’ve gone over on my ankle before and from experience I know the best thing to do—if you want to finish a race—is to just keep going. If on the other hand you want to minimize your injury, the best thing to do is stop and get some ice. But in the world championships, with just over two kilometres to go, there is no ice, and I was going to have to get down that stupid mountain anyway. I ran a few steps and realized it was going to be ugly but I wasn’t planning on stopping. I bounced down the trail, leaning heavily on my right leg to get me through. The crowd was still screaming “Go Canada!” so there was no way I was going to stop. I had already walked enough on the uphill when I hadn’t even needed to—I was going to finish this race.

The final descent was likely the most painful experience of my life. I should count myself lucky that I experienced this pain in an athletic competition, in a beautiful setting, with medical staff waiting for me at the finish line. My pain did not involve being tortured for my political views, nor was it the result of a debilitating illness. It was entirely self-made. I could have stopped, after all—that would have reduced the pain considerably. Instead, I hopped and lurched down the trail to the final paved sections. In those last two-hundred metres, I think the crowd could tell something was wrong. I could certainly tell.

When I crossed the line, happy to have completed my task, I found our team manager Jim Clampett waiting for me. “My foot is fucked,” I said. He helped me limp to the medical tent, where I hovered for a few minutes before realizing that he had actually led me to the massage tent. I did get some ice there and took off my shoe to apply it, but as I pulled off my sock, most of the skin from my left heel came off with it. Now it was time to find the medical tent.

In the final stages of the race, all the injuries and trauma I had suffered—the lactic acid in the legs, the burning heel, the sprained ankle—had just melded into one enormous pain, releasing chemicals into my brain that warned me to stop doing what I was doing. But I couldn’t stop—at least, not until I was done.

John Lofranco takes breaks from rigorous training to push the limits of sports writing for Maisonneuve. His column appears every two weeks. Read more columns by John Lofranco