Waiting by the fire. There are other people about and I talk with them, probably too much. People deal with nerves in different ways and this is mine. Words flow and I shiver.
Sweatpants discarded, undershirt as well. The sun cresting the horizon and evaporating the dark. The day is clear and so is the task: Run like hell.
Chasing a bike down the opening paved quarter mile. Turning on to the trail. The first taste of dirt, firm and sure. Rocks and roots and a comfortable cadence among them. Runners behind but already some distance.
Diving onto the trail proper and I can see no one else. My effort is high and I am chasing the ghost of three and a half hours.
Cruising and focused. Form tight and posture correct. No wasted motion. No lapses in effort.
The miles pass and so does the first aid station. My parents are there and so are several other people I recognize. Good people.
Rocks and winding trail. Head down and there are red flags. More red flags. I pause and there is panic in my chest. My fitness is right and this cannot be. A 50-miler, having started an hour earlier, cruises by and points me in the right direction. She tells me I need to cross the road and I do. I have lost maybe two minutes but do not worry.
Smooth dirt on the shore and nearly halfway. The trail splits and I think, no, no. I pause again and there is not panic but indignation. I think that I am lost and so choose to do the loop again. I run it more slowly this time and I am sure that there was no turn, that I am going the right way. I have nonetheless lost ten, maybe fifteen minutes.
The halfway aid station and I ask how many passed and they say maybe two, at most. There is only one, however. He is only just ahead and I can see him in fact. Let loose choice expletives, cursing myself, not knowing my own course. I say that I will fucking get him and I do, in no more than two minutes.
Hit the aid station again, leading again, comfortably again. More profanity. Reckless running, wasting energy. Build the lead. Margin, margin, margin. Course record? No. Fuck no. Not a chance. Halfway there and I sent myself off, cost myself too much time. It would be a near thing in the best of cases but now it would be impossible.
Final aid. Parents again and there are cheers and support. I do not try to appear pleased. There are six and a half miles to go and I want nothing to do with them. Survive. Win. At least that. My mom tells me to pick my feet up (so I don't trip) and this amuses me. I pick my feet up but my spirits do not lift and I count down the miles, run from marker to marker. Get the job done.
Think back to the tape. The moment of supreme doubt. On course or no? Turn missed? Corner cut? I should have stayed. Should have kept moving forward but I didn't know, and had to. No course cutting. Better 28 than 24.
I pass markers, 50 and 100 milers. All offer their own support. I marvel for these moments at my petulance. Enjoy the day. Good weather. Good trails. Good people. Good running.
I laugh at myself because there is nothing else to do, cross the finish line, utter one word: Fuck, hands on knees, spent.
Hours more at the finish. The best people and the best times. Disappointment dissipates and I am pleased, then elated, not to have won, but to have taken part in such an event for the third consecutive year. I eat a few strawberries and limp slightly.
Noon the next day and I see the last finisher, help clean up. Immense satisfaction and no course record but really, who gives a shit? Times are arbitrary and experiences are real. Nowhere else I'd rather be, nothing else I'd rather do, no one else I'd rather do it with.