As the sweat dripped in my eye, the slight burning sensation it created has awaken me from my stupor. All of a sudden, my senses were heightened and I became aware of what was happening around me. Straight ahead, I noticed rays of sunlight pass through a canopy of dense forest--making the foliage shimmer and lighting up the once gloomy undergrowth.
Dawn has finally given way to the morning splendor, and I couldn’t be happier! My hazy headlamp almost made the race perilous. I was literally running through the trail almost completely blind! Except for the light coming from a runner’s smartphone ahead of me, I was running in complete darkness! Not that I blame anyone for it. It’s all on me but that’s a completely different story. Thank God for the sun! I can finally see clearly.
The morning breeze gently touched my sweaty face and then it dawned on me: I haven’t slept a wink this past couple of nights! Maybe it’s adrenaline, maybe it’s the nerves. Whatever the reason may be, this always happens to me in the run-up to every race and I’m at a serious disadvantage every time. It hasn’t come to a point yet that I wasn’t able to finish the race because of it so I wasn’t too concerned.
I ducked under a mossy fallen tree and soon realized what I’ve gotten myself into! Everything’s uphill from here on out and my knees, lungs, heart and resolve would surely be tested. Trail running is a curious thing. Sure, it requires a lot of physical effort but more than anything, It’s a mental undertaking. When your lungs are on fire, your heart is palpitating and your whole body is quivering with the desire to continue, it’s the mental toughness that gets you through each and every single time—at least for me. I’ve heard people say: “Running is 90% mental and 10% physical.” I agree with this wholeheartedly.
The ground was quite wet that day, maybe it rained the previous night? I carefully scaled the muddy serpentine trail so as not to slip. So far so good. A few ascends and minor descends and I’d probably reach the turning point at the majestic waterfalls. Easier said than done! The trail ahead was quite technical as it appeared to be covered with vines and thick foliage. “One step at a time,” so I told myself.
My left foot landed awkwardly as I was going downhill and I almost fell down the cliff next to the trail! That was a close call and that woke me up literally! You see, trail running requires your full, undivided attention. One false move, one wrong turn, and it could easily spell disaster. There’s very little margin for error.
I continued walking down the trail and there it was, the pristine turquoise river meandering through the forested landscape. The water was very inviting but I wasn’t there for a swim. Instead, I opted to splash cold river water on my face and I instantly felt a burst of energy! The turning point was nearby so I quickly crossed it. Several dozen runners snaked through the narrow and jagged trail that led to the gorgeous Twin Falls. What a sight to behold! I’ve been here several times and it never gets old! The relentless roar of the waterfalls was exhilarating and the cascading water that cut through the mossy boulders was truly a magical thing to witness—let alone experience!
I didn’t linger. I quickly had my time recorded by the race marshalls and went on my way. The trail back was similar except for the 7-km road that led to the finish line. Bummer! Concrete roads are the bane of all trail runners. I don’t know why but I can only speak for myself. Your feet land the same way, the scenery is repetitive and you are completely exposed. There are no trees that can offer some sort of shade. That’s road running in a nutshell.
The midday sun scorched my skin as I began to run through the concrete road. All of a sudden, my ankles started to hurt and I felt my knees turn into jelly. I felt every step, every stride, every tumble. My toes were throbbing as they were repeatedly being slammed against the tip of my shoes. They hurt. They hurt like hell! But I soldiered on. I kept telling myself that I’m almost there. That it was almost over. This is what trail running is all about. It’s mind over matter.
Up ahead at a distance, I saw two red arrows signaling the runners to turn left. Now, it’s real. Any moment now and it would soon be over! I breathed a big sigh of relief as I crossed the finish line. Almost instantly, the pain and suffering turned into thrill and exhilaration. The feeling of accomplishment was overwhelming! It was an out-of-body experience, like euphoria and pain unlike any other!
As the dust settled, I soon found out—much to my surprise--that this was my first trail run ever wherein I didn’t get lost along the trail. As a result, I surprisingly had a breakout running performance. It was my personal best record so far. Having said that, it’s still not good enough for a podium finish. I wasn’t particularly bothered by it because I wasn’t aiming for it in the first place. In fact, I felt quite the opposite. I was smiling from ear to ear. And besides, trail running is not about finishing in record-breaking time. It’s about finding what you’re really made of because the trail will eventually reveal who you truly are; physically, emotionally, mentally. When people ask me now why I run even if I’m not particularly good at it, I simply say: “Because it’s one of the few things that makes me feel alive!”
Trail running is the ultimate expression of freedom and the greatest metaphor for life. In life, much like trail running, you go through some peaks and valleys and might even get lost along the way. But so long as you persevere and finish what you started, you’ll eventually find yourself in the end. And that to me is so much better than winning. It’s cathartic and purgative; trail running is life itself.