Register Sunday | March 18 | 2018

The Guts and the Glory

Why runners take on the most taxing terrain (Part 1)

The question most asked of runners is, “Why?”

Why do we wear short shorts? Why do I own more pairs of shoes than my girlfriend? Why do we get up before the sun? Uphill??? Are we crazy? To the non-runner, the whole exercise must seem ridiculous.

The answers are deep inside the runner. What follows is a blow-by-blow account of a recent international mountain race I ran in New Zealand—a clinical but revealing study of what goes on inside the heads of crazy athletes: the anticipation, the nagging self-doubt, the soaring self-confidence, the debilitating ego-checks, the physical red-lining and the various responses to the state of shock.

The start line was on a flat stretch of road by a beach. It could have been any old road race with all the coloured uniforms, and the old and young runners mingling and warming up together. Looking closely though, you could see that the names on the singlets weren’t Nike, New Balance or Reebok—they were Italy, New Zealand, USA. I tried to take in as much of this atmosphere as I could without psyching myself out. They were from somewhere, and I was just me—a little piece of Canada.

We all crowded together at the start line. I tucked in the back, knowing that this was my first experience and not wanting to go out too hard. The gun went off and so did we, in a flash of colour representing some twenty nations. The pace was brisk at first, as the initial 400m was on flat asphalt. Then we turned onto Hay Street, and hit the first hill.

I was amazed at the change in positioning of runners in the group. Without really doing anything differently, I was whizzing by some people as they dropped to a lower gear. Others quickly disappeared into the pack ahead. I instinctively slowed down as I had been warned not to hit the first hill too hard. We would be climbing for almost ten minutes—for half of each of three laps—so the race was not going to be won here.

I locked into a rhythm behind Lanny Mann, a fellow Canadian. I could see Phil Villeneuve and Peter Vail in front of him. The course climbed for about three minutes before levelling off into the first of three short, flat trails. When we hit the dirt everything changed again; those slow climbers behind me suddenly switched gears and rambled past me. There was nothing I could do about it. The trail was tight and they just seemed to be able to find the holes between me, some Dutch guy and the cliff’s edge. When we started climbing again, I made up a couple spots—this part of the climb was sunny and hot. When we got to the next ridge, a long-haired Irishman with pointy elbows made his way expertly through the pack. I had lost touch with Lanny, and tried to maintain pace with Maykel (the Dutch guy) as we hit the steepest climb of the course.

I managed to keep up with this pack as we continued up to the weather station at the top of Mount Victoria. As we started back down, the course was lined with thousands of spectators, yelling like the mad Kiwis they were. Some of the local club runners (whom I had met earlier in the week at a road race) cheered me on, waving their club colours; a Wellington Scottish Harriers singlet—a gift for me, I found out later.

And that’s pretty much where the fun stopped. The next part of the course was either downhill or flat, and any advantage I might have had quickly evaporated. I didn’t have the legs to accelerate and a group of Irish and Northern Irish runners roared past me. I tried desperately to keep them in sight, but it was like paddling a canoe with a butter knife. The downhill portion of the race happened very quickly. After a long straightaway that included two near-blind drop-offs, we pulled a 180-degree turn and headed back down into the forest. This treacherous root-infested downhill stretch was followed by a short steep incline and a gradual grassy upslope. I managed to bring the Irish back into my range at these sections, but by the time we took the plunge back down for the final descent, they had moved away again.

The most technical part of the course may have been the hairpin turn—you have to try to get around the turn and continue your descent without losing too much speed. From there it was a fast drop to another sharp turn around a wooden sign, after which we were back on pavement for a series of twists leading to the straightaway. When I made the turn to head down the final stretch of road (for the first of three circuits) I could see the Irish ahead of me. I felt strangely recovered, my legs almost fresh, and I was determined to put enough space between myself and them on the uphill so that they wouldn’t be able to catch me coming down again. It didn’t quite happen that way.

Despite being 4.5km into my first international race, I really wasn’t thinking about much other than catching those Irish guys. When you get into “race mode,” you kind of forget where you are and concentrate instead on the more immediate surroundings. If you are lucky enough to be in a good battle with someone, your can even forget a bit about your pain. When I came through the spectators again, that’s when doubt started creeping in: “Look at all of those people not running.” “I could be just like them.” “It certainly would be less painful.” “Never mind that, catch the Irish!” “Bloody Irish!”

To my surprise, I caught up to a Northern Irish runner quite quickly. He was walking. I had been warned that I might have to walk and that sometimes it’s actually faster than trying to keep up the pretence of running. I don’t want to give the impression I was flying up these hills, but I was definitely making up ground. The burn in my legs was substantial, and watching me catch and pass the Ulsterman would have been a little like watching snails race. Afterwards, remembering the advice, I slowed to a walk. In retrospect, I should have kept running, but once the idea that it’s ok to walk is in your head … well, it’s hard not to take advantage of it. There are plenty of little tricks the body plays with the mind in order to get its way.

I felt a lot better very quickly, and I realized that if I was going to open up any kind of gap, I would have to start running again. So I did—I moved ahead of the Northern Irish runner, and had a Republican in my sights. I caught him on the steepest part of the uphill, and by the time I crested the trig, I could no longer hear his breathing.

To be continued…

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.