Thirty-five minutes into my last race I developed a stitch that spelled trouble. I was less than halfway through the 7-point-something-mile course and the usual remedies — slowing to a jog and jabbing a few fingers stiffly under my lower ribs — had no effect.
That was when the nature of the Fall Series — four woolly trail races hosted by Pikes Peak Road Runners — saved my keister: Dead ahead was a steep set of stairs built into the hillside, and beyond them, more rugged single-track, climbing ever upward. The runners ahead of me slowed to a walk; I fell gratefully in line. By the time we had hiked up that rocky ridge, the cramp was gone and the fun was back.
This was the third race of the series, and while also the longest — organizers were vague on the exact distance, probably because they didn’t know — certainly not the wildest. All we had to contend with was narrow, steep trails, ankle-turning rocks and exposed tree roots. (Pre-race instructions: “Follow the flour arrows and colored ribbons. It’s about 7 miles, maybe 7.2 or 7.3. Maybe 7.4. If you twist an ankle, the support vans have bags of ice.”)
It was an unseasonably warm first day of November, with temperatures nudging 70, and when I crossed the finish line, I felt like a not-quite-baked pretzel: twisted, darkened by the near-winter sun and heavily salted. I felt good.
I am not one for gimmicks: I will not pay a premium to participate in a military-style adventure race, nor to have people spray me with colors. But I’d heard a lot about the Fall Series, which is more along the lines of seriously fun cross-country, and the entry fee for club members was right up my alley: Where else can you get four races for $50?
So, I signed up. The first race, in early October, featured four creek crossings and ended with a choice.
I have no idea what’s in store for the last race, a rocky, hilly, 5.5-or-thereabouts miles. “If there is water, it will be found, and there is always the possibility of snakes,” organizers say. “This is by far the most challenging run of the series.”
Well, alright. The Fall Series races have reminded me of what we runners sometimes forget in the familiar and predictable day-to-day: Running is about being fully present, in the moment and in your body and — at race time — with the kindred spirits and kindred bodies of others. To that end, it’s helpful to not know exactly how far you’re going, or where, or what challenge you might encounter next.
I thought of that during this last race, after the cramp had subsided. I was cruising down a relatively smooth stretch of trail, feeling the acceleration of runners ahead of me and thinking I could smell home. But I knew better from the final aid station, a quarter-mile back.
“How far to the finish?” I had said. I should not have asked.
“About two more miles,” a volunteer replied.
Two more miles of rutted single-track, of climbing in the warm winter sun, of banking between outcroppings, jumping over rocks and tree roots. Of following the flour arrows and other runners, when I could see them. Two more miles — give or take a little — of just keeping going.
It didn’t matter. My only task in those moments was to run the course in front of me until I crossed the finish line, whenever it appeared.
I am not Christian, but I could not help but think of myself and my fellow runners in the context of Hebrews 12:1: Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.
Let us do that, I thought — just that, every day, in our running and in our lives. Let us do that.
All photos copyright Tim Bergsten, creator and editor of Pikes Peak Sports, the digital stomping grounds of running, cycling and other outdoor activities in the glorious Pikes Peak region. Thanks, Tim!