Cornered by the first bits of daylight, Mt. Hood is a golden ghost on the horizon. The eastward pull of these roads, roomy in the vacancy of early morning, is reflex. Deep breaths try to soothe out pre-race jitters creeping into my stomach between bites of what has to pass for last-minute race morning breakfast (zucchini bread toast with peanut butter). I can feel air catch – like there’s something siphoning it off before it can reach the ends of the awkward triangle beneath my ribs.
On its best day, marathon training (for me at least) can be an exhausting, blistering endeavor. On a bad day, it results in fundamentally reconsidering my decisions. Initially I planned out every training run, intent on adhering to a schedule, convinced it was the only key to success. After injuries, and the resulting mockery they made of plans for marathon number 1, maybe the compulsion to exert my will on attempt number 2 rebounded.
One, two, three, four. Counting repetitively almost quells tremors in tired legs, almost frees me to fixate on the sun tracks through the trees and the quiet morning trail. Cool mountain air skims into my veins in winded intervals with the steepening trail. My feet periodically stagger to a walk while my eyes wander off the edge and down the misty fingers of the Columbia.
I was indignant when life stuff happened to jeopardize the carefully planned schedule. I was militant in pursuit of it and the satisfaction of manifesting order from chaos. Even if the satisfaction was only temporary.
My foot lands wrong. Creaks over the side like a ship in close-haul, Slow. Down! I hiss at myself, carefully skirting a patch of rock and feeling the rising warmth of unfiltered sunshine. The acceleration of the downhill comes too easily while my brakes screech against the mountain of momentum behind me.
I fun-sucked running to within an inch of its life and was somehow surprised when I woke up one morning resentful and defiant. Before the peak of resent set in, and in a fantastic stroke of good luck, I signed up for a 10 k race at Dog Mountain (you can read my full review over at RunOregon). That day, marathon training as I conceived it became abruptly past tense. I ran directly into the intersection of my limitations, physically and mentally, and somewhere in the tangle of them had no choice but to confront the mess I’d made of running, and the jeopardy I’d placed my running head space in.
Calm comes in waves as the trail’s decline mellows, slowing legs as easily as racing thoughts. Trees break, opening on views ablaze with vivid blues before another thick cover of brush and a welcome, if not bittersweet, finish line in sight. I have to laugh at myself that it took Dog Mountain for me to learn that letting go might be the only way to get it back.
I still fight a conditioned response to feel guilty and nervous if I miss a run, or short a few miles here and there, but I think I know better now (or at least I comfort myself in thinking so) that the race doesn’t matter. Miles pass. The freshness and the made-new-in-sweat-and-sunshine are what linger. I learned, maybe just in time, it’s the Dog Mountains I’m in it for. Part of me wants the marathon too, but it’s the trail dirt everywhere, early morning stillness, salt trails and smile lines and the stupid, blind love for this thing, and everything we’ve been through together, that keeps me coming back for more. I have to think that’s something worth protecting, marathon or not.