This story could be considered a prequel to my BABWTR series. It was featured in Issue #7 of Like the Wind Magazine under the title “Grunting.”
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It’s unseasonably cold, the edge of freezing. The sky is glazed with dawn. But I’m not expecting a sunrise – they’re calling for snow. And if it wasn’t so cloudy, the sun would still be hidden. Buried behind the mountain that I’m walking up. Despite the cold, my sweat drips steadily. Every fifty yards or so, the trail dips into a man-made ditch carved across the path. These dips prevent erosion. I use each ditch to start a jog, twelve or fifteen paces, and then I resume my walk. Three miles into the race, I’m already grunting.
The grunting is an audible trilling from the back of my throat, keeping time with my breath. This early in the race, when my breathing is under control, it has the distinct sound of a purr. Later in the race, when I’m completely cooked, it will morph to a bark.
The grunting comes from stress – or distress. In a race situation, it could be either. I never ran this race before, so I didn’t know what to expect. Well, except for this mountain. I saw it on the elevation profile, but it’s much steeper than I thought it would be. My plan was to run the whole course, but now I’ve been walking for a mile and a half. Not counting my twelve-step jog every fifty yards.
My jogging is a good strategy. I’ve reeled in several runners over the past twenty-five minutes. But once this hill is complete, I might regret it. I’m the only person I see running at all, and based on my pre-race conversations, I think I’m the only one new to this race. The Sinnemahone Ultra Marathon Trail Run in Emporium, Pennsylvania. Deep in the Allegheny Mountains, near… nothing. The closest town, a half hour away, is called Driftwood. The only substantial body of water I see on the map is Lake Erie – four hours west. I think Driftwood was named for its loneliness. By East Coast U.S. standards, the towns around here are beyond remote.
There are about forty runners in all. Twenty seven of us are on the “short course,” the rest are running the 50K, the Ultra. The website called this a 25K but it’s not. 25K is just over 15.5 miles. This race is 16.5. That’s an extra mile of barking. An extra nine or ten minutes when the number-crunchers check out my time on the internet. And they will. I’ve been talking about this race for months. Part of my strategy to make it to the starting line. If I talk about it, I can’t back out. Now I want credit for that extra mile.
For me, there’s discomfort in running a new race. I like control, familiarity. I like to know where I’m going. I want to know what the aid stations will stock. How long until my shoes are soaked in a stream? Where do I need to walk, where do I gut-out a climb? I’d really like to know how long the race will take – I put my projected time at somewhere between three and four hours. I wanted to run a mid-October race, something longer than a half, and this is the only race I could find. It’s the first time I’ve traveled for a race and stayed overnight. My family came, too, along for the adventure. Not much control, but an abundance of stress. So I grunt.
Cresting the mountain, the running starts again. The small field is spread out from our uphill hike. Only one runner is within earshot of me, and I feel bad for him. Odd and unpleasant noises emanate from me at regular intervals. There’s my purring, of course, my grunting, gaining in volume and abruptness. And now that I have some space to consider what the rest of the race might entail, my retching starts. This is dry-heaving – loud, purging sounds – the sounds of illness. On occasion, but thankfully not in this race, I throw up. The guy in front of me turns to see if I’m all right. I give him a wave and keep running.
From time to time, I explain myself to the person trapped within my orbit. The grunting is from Tourette’s Syndrome. I do it whenever I’m alone. When I run, when I write, when I read. Even in my office while I work. And when my stress is high, like during a race, I grunt around others, too. It can’t be controlled, so I don’t even try. The dry-heaves comes from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. A reaction to stressful situations, my compulsion to throw up. This is all too involved for a mid-race conversation. When I talk about it, I just blame the whole mess on Tourette’s – nobody knows the difference. But at other times – like right now, on top of this mountain – I keep my secrets to myself. And then I worry what those around me must be thinking.
I’m not a fast runner. My mile-pace is squarely in the nines. My skills are on the climbs, the descents and the single track. This race has just the one big hill and limited trails, it is mostly rolling fire-roads. The top of this mountain is relatively flat, so I struggle to keep up. I pace off that one runner for the next three miles. From time to time, I catch him on a hill. When I do, we run together and talk. He’s a road-runner, a marathoner, tall and strong, hard for me to hang with. Usually, I’m twenty steps behind him, retching.
When we hit the single track, I’m gone. My pace actually increases. Trails are easier on my legs, and motivating for my soul. Three tight miles, not rocky but undulating. Quick downs and ups, with an unyielding sideways slant – we’re running on the side of a hill. For me it’s the highlight of the race. Alone in the woods, sighting the trail-markers, quickly planning my steps. The sun even shows up for a few minutes. At times I wonder where the other runners are. I’ve seen no one since I passed the marathoner.
Coming out of the woods, I overtake a runner. He’s actually a walker at this point. He’s trying to loosen his hips. I feel his pain. That slanted trail has done some weird things to me as well. My right hip and my left groin are aching. I experiment with some odd foot-strikes to stretch things out. The walker resumes running as I pass him, and together we knock out a 9:15 mile. I’m not actually capable of running this pace ten miles into a race, so eventually I rein it in. He quickly drops me. But his hip still hurts, and he takes brief walking breaks. When he does this, I pass him, and he starts running again. This is how we spend the next four miles.
By now I’m barking, and on occasion, still retching. With this guy, Adam, I explain what’s going on – why I make so much noise. I feel like I owe it to him, we’re a team. We’re pacing each other. I’m trying to catch him, and he’s trying to keep ahead of me. Our conversation is a nice distraction during these late miles. It takes his mind off his pain, and I feel like I’m educating someone. We have a breathless discussion about Tourette’s, and then he drops me again.
By the time we’re off the mountain. I’m used up. But I still have that extra mile to run. That mile that extends beyond the 25K. I exit the woods with Adam and two other runners. One of them caught us from behind, and the other we overtook halfway down the mountain. The four of us trade positions until we hit the flat. Then I can’t stay with any of them. All three turn on their final surge, and I’m slowing down. Our final placement is set thirty yards later, but the gaps get larger as we near the finish. I glance around every minute or so to make sure I don’t give up another place, but I’m not sure what I would do if anyone challenged me. I have nothing left.
When my wife and kids meet me at the finish, my legs are shaking uncontrollably. It looks like I’m shivering, but really, I’m just too tired to control my muscles. I nailed this race. I ran it perfectly.
I came in just under three hours, a fast time, a good showing, at least for me. Still, three hours is a long time in my head. Time to contemplate, to analyze, to obsess. My grunting and retching are part of me, but not a part I like. The aloneness of trail running suits me. It’s probably why I’m drawn to it. But races can be a problem. I’m often paired with another runner for an hour or more. Does my mental illness affect their enjoyment of the race? At times I want to let the other runners get away from me, give them some space, some quiet. But my competitive nature won’t allow it. I have to hang on, make use of their faster pace, push beyond my ability. So those runners need to endure an obnoxious symphony of sounds – the purring, the barking and the retching.
At the finish line, Adam and the other runners are friendly as we congratulated each other on a well-run race. None of them mention the sounds, none of them seem annoyed. No one even looks at me oddly. And that leaves me with some peace.
I doubt I’ll repeat this race. It was well organized, inexpensive, and everyone was incredibly friendly. But it was a long drive, and it wasn’t very technical. Quick hills and rocky single track give me a comparative advantage, and this race just didn’t have enough. I have one more race before winter starts. A monstrously technical 10 Miler in southern Pennsylvania. I’ll do my best to avoid the other runners, but history shows that by mile five, I’ll target a slightly faster runner or two, and spend the rest of the race hanging just outside their wake. Hopefully, I won’t be too annoying.