No roads

May 26, 2012 § 1 Comment

Recently I came across a passage in the book ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’ by Haruki Murakami. He’s in the latter stages of an ultra marathon. It goes like this:

Breathe in, breathe out. My breath didn’t seem ragged at all. The air calmly went inside me and then went out. My silent heart expanded and contracted, over and over, at a fixed rate. Like the bellows of a worker, my lungs faithfully brought fresh oxygen into my body. I could sense all these organs working, and distinguish each and every sound they made. Everything was working just fine.

I hardly ever feel like that when I’m running. I’m not a good runner. I’m not a fast runner. And I don’t run very far. Sometimes (more now than before!) I get a glimpse of that ‘zone’ that Murakami is describing where pleasure and effort are in balance. But usually only when I’m off road.

Like last weekend, when I ran on trails in the Blue Mountains. We were there for The North Face 100. This would have to be one of the best trail races in Australia. It’s long (100 kilometres), steep (nearly 5,000 metres of ascent and descent), and hard (barely two-thirds of entrants will finish). It demands, and runners joyfully deliver, physical and mental endurance (the fastest will take nearly ten hours; the slowest will be out there more than twenty-four). I was crewing, not competing, but in my spare time I got out there and it was pure freedom.

Or like today, on Mount Tennent in the deep south of the ACT. A day that promised icy temperatures and high winds (especially up on top) but which turned out to be fairly benign. This is when the magic sometimes happens. Magic like:

  • Recognizing one footfall from thousands of others. I’ve stepped here before, you think. My foot went just so, between those two sticks.
  • Equally strange, backtracking over territory that looks completely foreign, that makes you wonder if you are completely lost when you know you cannot be. Are you sure this is right? How could you not remember this bit?
  • Picking your way on technical sections, sure-footed, nimble and tidy, like it’s your daily commute.
  • Grinding out a long uphill section with grim rhythm, cutting deals with your burning legs about the next time they can stop.
  • Descending as fast as you dare, taking a mental snapshot of each landing and storing it for a microsecond; even as you recall it, you are already gone.
  • All your gear – your shoes, your clothing, your backpack – working beautifully.
  • The realization that you are being carried, that your legs are somehow on autopilot and the rest of you along for the ride.
  • Being alone, even if you’re not. Emptying your mind of everything except movement, breath, muscles and terrain.

These are the reasons I like trails, and the more ‘technical’ (trail running term meaning ‘hard to run on’) the better. Fitness matters, of course it does, but equally important are efficiency, adaptability and even grace. It’s off road that the performance gap narrows. On the flat, it seems like everyone is fifty per cent better but out there, up there, we are closer to being equals.

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