I am standing at the start, quite cold, looking to my left. There is the man who will win the race, I think, based on everything I know about him and the field. I try to gauge how he looks and can only discern: cold as well. I look for others who have an aesthetic of speed, trying to gauge who might go hard, and with whom I will have to reckon.
I am twitching and bounding and skipping and doing things that might be called a warm up, but really, are just an expression of nervous energy. I have not really raced in months, spending that time half training, half recovering from injury. I am healthy now but not terribly fit. My training has been decent, in terms of recreational volume, but has lacked anything resembling intensity. I have taken only a handful of trips to anaerobic hell, content to cross train and leisurely run hills instead. And so I am nervous, because a race well run requires a degree of pain I have not calloused myself to.
I look across the field and know that there are ten miles and several thousand feet of ascent/descent there, thick with mud, and I don't quite know what I'm going to do about it. It's a silly thing to wonder, of course, because there is only one thing to do: Run like hell. Whatever fitness I've got is what I've got, so let's fucking see where it gets me.
3... 2... 1
I am bounding near the front, conscious of the fact that only 200 yards in, I'm huffing. I let the leader go, and several follow. Two more surge past me and I think that they are racing far too early. This is the first hill of the course, and quite small comparatively. Surging here is either inexperience or hubris. I count my steps, keep my head down, and try to ignore the competitive voice in my head that's screaming to keep the leaders in sight.
I am successful and hit the first aid station in 5th place. I tell myself that this is a good thing, that this is where I should be right now. I tell myself that I will reel in 4th, then 3rd, then see what happens.
4th is wearing blue Adidas shorts that I own but am not wearing today, and blue Kinvaras. They are caked with mud and his cadence is slowing. He asks me how far we've gone, and is obviously dejected when I say that it's not yet been 3 miles. Moments later he steps to the side and lets me pass. I surge just a bit, trying to dissuade him from making any effort to chase. The switchbacks make for comical cutting, and I grab at trees for stability.
3rd is wearing black and has a bottle on his waist. He is 20 yards ahead of me, and appears to be comfortable. I am breathing hard and could not answer clearly if you asked what my name was, but I will not let him get further away. When possible I run on the fringe of the trail, hoping to find some purchase and keep my turnover respectable. When the hills appear, there is nothing to do but spin, and so I do, trying to drive my heels down and engage the posterior chain.
Having gained nothing, we descend a series of steep switchbacks. I fall and a tree branch goes up my shorts. This is very nearly a disaster but I only take mud away from the exchange. There is a clearing next, and the race's longest climb; half is on grass and half is on pavement. By the top of the hill he is looking back, and I am there, right there; I could talk to him comfortably if my breathing would allow.
I think that I have him then, that he has gone out too fast and that I have reeled him in. I am quickly disabused of that notion when the singletrack begins again. He sprints down the hill, so narrow and slick as to resemble a luge, with speed and agility I have neither the skill nor the heart for. I am vaguely aware that there are rocks underneath me and think that I would rather not die here today.
He is gone. I am running still, pulling myself up hills with bungee cords and maintaining decent pace on the flats. I am either gaining confidence on the downhill portions or simply losing whatever shit I was giving previously. But I can no longer see 3rd. Neither, however, can 5th see me. I don't know who occupies that spot now, but am glad for that fact; I don't want to know until the race is over.
I am resigned to my place with 2.5 miles to go, though still churning up hills and through mud with enough urgency to, I hope, keep the gap between myself and the man I had chased respectable. I am trying to decide whether I am happy with 4th or not, then scold myself for worrying about things like that. This is not the Olympic Trials; that shit doesn't matter. I tell myself that I ran like hell and that my shoes look pretty badass muddy; this is a good day. The cold breeze now feels good and so I agree.
The final hills are a cruel joke, but still funny, and so I smile and laugh my way up them. There is the characteristic lactic acid buildup in my legs, which feels as if I've somehow absorbed the mud via osmosis. But I go on, and am pleased to find that my hips will still open up and allow for good pace on the runnable stretches that remain. The finish is one such stretch, a slight downhill grade that allows for a perfectly photogenic finishing kick, chasing no one.