I don?t belong here. I am at the start line of my seventh Emperor?s Challenge race, feeling old and nervous beside the confident, laughing young people. What are they wearing? I need new running shorts. What am I doing here? I don?t feel ready. I never do, but this year is the worst. I haven?t run more than 10K all summer, so there is no way I?ll make a decent time. All I can hope for is to pace myself so that I finish strong. The whistle blows and we?re off. I wish I hadn?t done this.
The first kilometer is hard, but things start to improve when we leave the road and plunge into the trees following a skinny, fresh trail full of roots and branch cuttings. This is new. I need to really watch my step. Excellent, this gives me something to think about other than how much I don?t feel like running. We have to go single file so I let some people pass me and some ? amazingly ? I need to pass. Everyone is courteous as we step aside for one another. We all know there are many K?s and a very big mountain ahead. It really is not a race against one another, not this far back of the front anyway, but many personal races against the mountain. I think having the trees so close is good for me. They breathe their strong air into my lungs and I finally begin to believe I?m going to be okay. The trail steepens and talk dies away as we start the long climb.
We break out of the trees and there is the gully I?ve been hearing about ? Matthew?s Gully, named after the doctor who nearly died here while blazing the trail for us. Yes, it is pretty. A creek sparkles down toward me, threading between great gray boulders that must have rolled down the steep gravel mountainsides into the crevice eons ago. I look upstream and see people, bright bits of color dotted along from top to bottom, heads bent, picking their way carefully among the stones.
I look down at my feet, or rather, Ester?s feet; she?s young and I know she?s been here before so I figure she?ll know how best to weave her way up. The gully is a couple of K?s long. I lose track of how many times we cross the stream. It really is a clamber as we use hands and feet to climb, twist and lift ourselves up the boulders. Some people are actually slower than I am, so I pass them ? not that it matters. I?m not competitive, really.
Finally, the gully softens into a hill and at the top of it is a new mining road, cutting a line of fresh dirt diagonally across a green wall ? the mountain. A pickup truck is stopped on the road, and men are handing out white paper cups of cold water. I like the look of the road because it doesn?t look too steep and I think it will be a refreshing change of pace.
I?m actually feeling pretty good now, ready to run. As I get to the truck I notice that the runners are running behind it and across, not along, the road. Sure enough, the pink tipped stakes go relentlessly up that green wall. We don?t get to use the road. Darn! Up I go. It is a steep push ? I don?t know how long. We get past tree level and are in the alpine. The color dotted line of runners swerves right, down a bit of a valley and then slowly snakes up, up, up to the top of the mountain. We always have to go the hard way. This is a mountain run. Somehow, no matter how often I do this, the reality is always bigger than I expect.
Now I am toiling up the final ascent. The slope is steep and the air is thin. I used to hate this part, because it was tedious and I would cramp up and have to stop and stretch, but now I have a pattern that works well for me: ten long steps, ten short steps. It breaks the monotony and keeps me moving onward and upward. I know there is majesty all around me, but my whole being is focused on counting and stepping. I am much too strained to admire the view.
As I reach the summit it is all wonderfully familiar. There is the rock cleft we go through, one last, big, stretchy step up ? yes, here we are. The first thing I notice, after the camera guy, is the quiet and stillness. I guess it has been windy, but I barely noticed until now. In the shelter of the huge boulders that form a kind of circle at the top, like a crown, it is quiet.
ut of the sheltered summit back into the cold wind, steeply down the shale-y, stony path to the blessed dirt road, gently sloping down, down, down. Oh! It is good to stretch my legs again after nearly two hours of hard climbing. I am running loose and strong: this is my favorite part. I know there are still 13K?s to go, but I have to cut loose because, after all, I am on the mountaintop. The climb is behind me and the whole world is spread out before me like a thing of wonder. I am still in alpine so there are no trees blocking my view, only huge, bare mountaintops everywhere I look, stretching into the distance as far as I can see in shades of green and blue. The sky is vivid blue, and beside the dusty dirt road grow wildflowers of purple, yellow and orange.
I know I have to rein in my exuberance, because I can?t let the mountain win. I need to have something left so I can finish strong. But slowing down is not easy, either. I have to brace against the downhill momentum. I find a pace that works, and let my mind go. Finally, I can enjoy the solitude and the knowledge that I will be running for more than an hour. The runners are all spread apart now, each running their own race. I begin to thank God for this beautiful gift of a day and a strong run.
The route takes me down the switchbacks into the valley I remember so well. I know that there is a long uphill still to come. Not a mountain climb, but long and up nevertheless, and I dread it because it always shows me how beat I am. At the bottom of the hill is another water stop and Bob Norman is handing out water. I like Bob. He assures me that the worst is over, but I know this hill here is long.
Now, something magic begins to happen. As I start the climb I am fully expecting to walk, like I did last year, but I don?t want to walk. I want to run. Not just to show off either, I really want to run. So I run. And I keep running, nearly up that whole hill. I only walk the steepest bits. I can hardly believe it. And I keep running. And it feels good. I?m having fun.
I don?t know how long after the hill I see the mile marker that tells me I am at kilometer 14. I have six K to go. For the first time I look at my watch. It shows 11:30 but I know it is fast, and the race started a couple of minutes after 9:00. I?ve been going two and a half hours. If I could somehow run very fast for the final six K, maybe, just maybe – who knows – maybe I could beat 3 hours.
No. It?s a crazy thought. I never run that fast – ever. But even as I think it I start to pray, ?God, I know it?s a lot to ask but oh, I would love to beat three hours. Please help me.? I lengthen my stride, my arms start to pump and I go. Before, I was jogging, now I am running. I don?t really think I can keep this up for six K, but it feels good now. As long as it feels good, I will do it. It is a bit of a cat and mouse game with the mountain, and I know it. I may run out of steam altogether and then the mountain will win after all, but if I don?t I might totally whop that stupid old mountain.
I run up on a young man who is walking. Many people are walking now. He begins to run as he hears me coming. He paces with me, and we run side by side in silence. Finally, I break the silence, ?And it?s neck and neck in a dead heat.? He laughs breathlessly, thanks me for challenging him to run again and we gasp out short pleasantries. We race by a water stop – neither of us is stopping – and come to another hill. He has to walk it, he tells me apologetically. No matter, so do I. But he goes faster than I probably would have, so if he reads this, let it be my thanks, because at the top I start running again, and he declines.
I am simply amazed that I am still running this hard and loving it. Of course my body feels strangely of numbness and pain, but there is a glad energy pumping through me. The mile markers have been falling away behind me and I am in the last kilometer.
Oh. I forgot about the creek. The road dips down to it and then climbs back out. Its hardly a climb, just a few meters, but very steep and I?m nearly spent. I?m afraid it will slow me down too much and I won?t break 3 hours after all. ?Please God. Please help me.? Down I rush, and try to use the momentum to carry me up but it barely gets me started. I have to walk it, so I push as hard as I can. At the top I feel I might be done, and there is still at least ¼ of a kilometer to go. ?Please God.? Even as I begin to pray, I start to run again. It is the final push and I am all out running. Here comes someone toward me, a finisher who is just looping back to encourage other finishers. There is the finish line. I hear the wonderful, familiar cowbell clanging and people are cheering as I race through the posts and then I hear it behind me in the clamor, the timer person calls, ?Two hours and fifty-six minutes.?
Oh! I am strong, exhilarant and fiercely glad ? though oddly numb and rickety at the same time. I finished strong and beat my best time. I whooped the mountain.
As I walk to the food table I can already feel my joints stiffening. I was right: I am old, my shorts are funny, and I wasn?t ready for this race ? but I am so glad I did it. I belong here.