Today, I want to tell you about the woman with a backpack.
I spot her ahead of me in the second half of a 12km trail race. If it wasn’t for the backpack, I don’t think I’d have enough fight in me to try and pass, but that backpack… It’s too big for this distance. It fits loosely on her back, and jumps up and down as she runs. That backpack gives me hope.
I have done this race a number of times, and every time I forget how technical the course is. It’s as if a volcano full of boulders erupted, lining the entire single track with round rocks of various shapes and sizes.
I still manage to fly downhill, hopping from rock to rock. Lean into the hill, use gravity, pay attention and do NOT slow down. “I want to be able to do THAT”, says a fellow runner at the finish line - “you looked like you were flying!”.
The secret recipe to running downhill fast is lots and lots of experience, AND a firm understanding that you can break an ankle at any point, and that slowing down actually makes that outcome MORE likely, not less.
I made an educated gamble back at the start line to leave my already-light hydration pack behind. With energy gels and an aid station at the turnaround point, it was doable. I’d be at least somewhat dehydrated by the end, but I’d also be lighter on course.
Would the gamble pay off? Can I pass the woman with a backpack? We were about to find out, and it was going to suck either way.
“This is going to suck” is not a mindset problem, it’s an accurate assessment of how the next half an hour is going to feel. How the next half an hour HAS to feel, if I am going to push.
The running conditions are perfect.
I’ve been running all summer.
I know this course.
I am trained. I am ready.
I CAN push.
I WILL push.
Pushing is hard. [Vaginal birth, anyone?]
I mentally brace myself, and pick up the pace to start closing the gap.
The trick is to push hard without pushing too hard. If you push too hard, you blow up in the last few miles, and find yourself crawling to the finish line. This is the same forest where I have done exactly that a few years ago, and those last few miles felt like a proper acid trip. I wandered through the woods, stumbling, and talked to the trees. It would be great to NOT do that today.
I get closer to the woman with a backpack. Her pace is solid. I’m on her heels, but can’t quite speed up any more without losing control of my own pace and breathing.
She is breathing hard. I know that breathing. That breathing is way too hard for where we are in the race. This is not a sustainable effort for another two miles.
It’s the game of time now.
If I manage to keep the pace, she WILL drop.
Another runner is heading towards us. It’s an out-and-back course, so many racers are still heading to the halfway turnaround point.
“Good job!”, the woman with the backpack squeezes out, as the runner passes.
I settle for lightly lifting two fingers in acknowledgement.
This is not at all remarkable, except… as minutes tick on, I realize the woman says something to EVERY runner we encounter.
“You are doing great!”
I’m gobsmacked. Is she for real?
Uttering words - any words - at this level of exertion is excruciatingly hard. Ever heard that expression “smiles are free”? Not when you are running full out, they are not. Doing anything with your mouth apart from breathing right now seems like a misuse of energy.
She’s quite literally “wasting her breath”.
OR, she is not a clinically competitive running psycho, and she is here to enjoy herself, and even… encourage people? In which case, we are both using our energy accordingly.
In either case, she will blow up any moment now.
Except, she keeps going.
I am both irritated and impressed.
At 10/10 effort, it’s no longer about physical fitness - it’s allllllll about the mental game. How hard are you willing to push? And for how long?
And her mental game is ON POINT.
When she finally slows down, after what seems like HOURS, and I pass her, I’m too tired to celebrate. I’m hurting, and I could really use some freaking water.
Another mile to go, and that mile is HARD. If the finish line was even half a mile further, I’d have to walk. Instead, I gather up everything I have and sprint across the finish line, and collapse on the other side.
A course marshall comes over to check on me. “How are you doing?"
“Not great”, I breathe out.
“Is your breath under control?”, she asks.
I look up at her incredulously, my face beet red, and shake my head.
No, of course, my breath is not under control. Did you see that finish? It would be very strange if it was.
But I don’t need my breath under control right now. I needed it under control when I was bracing to push past the fellow racer with a backpack. And it WAS under control back then.
Racing is about strategy, and intentional use of energy.
You need to know when to go fast.
You need to know when to go slow.
Whether or not to bring water.
Whether or not to encourage others before crossing your own finish line.
It all takes energy. If you feel that energy shift as soon as the leaves start turning yellow, you know what I’m talking about. Colder months require more energy from you. The winter itself is a stressor, and if you are not intentional about your energy reserves, you will “blow up before the finish line”.