Jesse Besset finishes his first rainy trail loop (above). His first words to me afterward are ‘You’re gonna need trail shoes.’
His face is sober. Serious. His body splattered head to toe with mud.
The Ragnar trail relay was delayed 2 hours for lightning. The accompanying rain turned the Mountain trails into mud and slush pits. The grass is slick, the rocks are slippery and the mud will suck your shoes and socks off. All I had to run in were two pairs of Nike frees. Good shoes for roads or dry trails, a liability in these conditions.
Jesse’s words scared me right into the Salomon trail shoe tent. ‘What size are you?’ the guy asked.
You know what they say about guys with big feet?
‘Let me see what I have.’
They don’t carry much in our size.
‘All I got is this one pair.’
I try them on. The bottoms have grip, the soles are stiff. They are a lot tougher than my Nikes. Beggars can’t be choosers.
‘Let’s do this.’
An hour later I’m waiting in the transition area. It’s pitch dark. I wear a headlamp. To my right the course cuts steeply into Ascutney’s mountain bike ridge.
New shoes, pitch black, 10 pm, mud, wind, rain, hills and trails! This was gonna be special.
Why is that before every race, every important run I suddenly feel like I’ve never run a race before in my life, or like I’ve completely forgotten to run?
My friend Pete shuffles up the finishing chute looking like a soldier returning from the front. He’s covered in mud. Hands covered. Legs covered. Arms covered. I’m not sure what color his shirt was when he left, but now it’s mud. He looks a little defeated.
‘Hope you’re wearing skates,’ he says and hands me our team bib. ‘I slipped at least a dozen times.’
He waits a moment, mutters ‘Fuck,’ and then walks off to clean up.
Yep. This was gonna be special.
I’ve run with .5 inch spikes through the mud and muck of New England Cross Country but I’ve never seen conditions quite like this. Only 7.5 miles to go. Through the mountain woods. In the dark.
I leave the transition area. I’m following the red trail. There are dozens of glowing red arrows lighting my way. I’m in no rush. Someone passes me in the first 100 yards. This is a first for me at a Ragnar event. I’ve never been passed. I give chase until I see someone lose their feet and smash down into the mud.
‘Fuck it. Let him go.’
He peels off and runs down the green trail. I charge up the red trail, through a series of switchbacks where I see no fewer than 4 people lose their feet and fall into the mud. There will be blood.
No more giving chase. Just stay on your feet.
But now I’m charging along. I’m buzzed. I’m learning the rules. I can spot the good footholds, the ditches, the mud pits, the ankle breaking roots. My new Salomon shoes are a God send. They grip the mud and dirt like fly paper but are nimble enough to step over obstacles. Everyone else is walking.
Me? Flying. I know I’m running too fast but it feels effortless. I trot around switchbacks, gallop up hills and around slush filled corners. I have never been more alive than right now. At one point I run straight down a steep slope into a roaring stream that washes up over my shins. My socks don’t even get wet.
Salomon trail shoes- they are the shit.
I let out a war whoop! ‘I live for this shit.’
And then I’m running up hill. Straight up. Forever. This hill will not stop. Finally I reach the top and see three or four people gathered around a wounded runner. He’s holding his ankle. Probably a casualty of some rock, root or ditch. Maybe all three.
A reminder- this is the real deal. One wrong step can break an ankle.
Do I slow down? Nope.
Why? Because I’m stupid.
Fog comes with rain. I’m at the halfway point. I’ve climbed to the top of the mountain ridge. I can hardly see three feet in front of me through the haze. All I can control is the next step. There’s no solid ground. My quads are barking at me. My back reminds me I’m not 19 anymore. My stride is short. I have to choose between bad and worse footing. Several times I slip, maintain my balance, and slip again. Somehow I keep my feet. The trail disappears, washes away off a steep incline into a roaring stream below. I make my own trail.
All I’ve done is go up. I’m waiting for it. There’s going to be a huge downhill. You know what’s worse than running up a slippery slope? Running back down it. When you run downhill you naturally sit back, lead with your heels, slow yourself down so you don’t lose control.
Lean too far back on slick ground and you’re gonna fall flat on your ass. On a steep hill you’ll slide for a bit.
‘Hope you brought your skates.’ Thanks Pete.
There are perfect downhills though. Juuuuust the right slope. You lean into the hill then, stay on your toes, pick up speed and let gravity take you. A controlled fall is what Ed Eyestone called it once upon a time. Those hills are rare. Whatever is coming will be steep and merciless on my quads. Until I lean back too far and crash onto my ass.
I turn a corner and there’s a sign lighting my way. ‘Look right, look left. Enjoy the view.’ I’ve left the fog but it is still pitch black. I’m in a meadow with a grass trail shooting down the center. The flattened grass trail glows white under my headlamp. I’m fairly certain that there is tall grass on either side of the trail. Beyond that I can’t see a thing.
Just flat grass extending down… into infinity.
It’s probably 11 pm. I’m by myself. Middle of the mountains. No one else is with me.
The slope of the hill is perfect. I lean in, cautious. I can’t build up too much steam in case the trail ends abruptly. I know what a 6 minute mile feels like. I’m running faster. I could pore it on but I just know there’s a mud patch or a ditch waiting for me. A quarter mile passes. Nothing but smooth grass and downhill running. I lean forward and shorten my stride. I know what a 5 minute mile feels like. This is faster. I trust the hill and lean in.
The moment leaves me in awe. I think about life. I think about my High school Cross Country Coach. He’s been gone for 4 years. He would have LOVED this. I miss him terribly in that moment but know he’s with me in spirit, racing ahead of me down the grass. I wish I could document it. Film it, photograph it, share it on insta. But that would mean I have to stop and this is a moment. I have to be present. Drink it in.
And then the bottom. The grass becomes a gravel driveway. There’s another runner ahead. I see his headlamp as I approach him, then pass him. I’ve just run the most amazing mile of my life and I need to share it with this guy.
‘Great job,’he says.
‘When I die, I want to come back as me so I can experience that last mile again,’ I answer.
I seriously think about turning around, running back up the hill and doing it again. But this is a moment. Try as I might I’ll never recreate it. All I can do is be thankful I was there in the first place.
The best mile of my life happened at Ragnar Trail Vt. 8/3/18