The light reflected back into my eyes, bouncing off the rain drops and my condensed breath. Stumbling through the ankle deep mud and the rocks, I reached a hand up to adjust the settings on my headlamp hoping to get even a little more visibility. It was no use. At most, when my breath cleared, I could see the ground three or four feet in front of me...just not enough to make out the rocks buried under the mud. As carefully and deliberately as I could I continued to race forward, slowing to a walk when necessary.
Soon the trail narrowed, moving into the trees toward the edge of what seemed to be a deep ravine. Among the pinon I was forced to look up from the ground more often in order to find the trail markers, strands of green ribbon and reflective tape, hung from trees at intervals along the trail. Catching the glimpse of a cabin off to my left, I looked back down at the ground pushing forward. Suddenly I hit a ribbon tied between to trees. Stopping I looked around and found the green trail marker off to my right. Green trail--green trail markers. Adjusting course I took off, forced into a U-turn that began the descent into the ravine. Shortly after making the turn down into the ravine, I was rewarded with a largely rock and mud free trail. I increased speed taking advantage of the clear trail and the force of gravity.
Peering ahead I hoped to see any dangerous conditions in time to slow down before careening into a tree or off the trail into the ravine. Rapidly a sharp corner with a bank approached. I applied the brakes, sliding into the corner. I managed the turn and stepped out again. Similar situations repeated a few more times until the angle of descent lessened, introducing large puddles across the now sandy trail. More than once I was left with no choice but to plow through the water, freshly filling my shoes with more run off.
At the bottom of the ravine the trail was wide making it easy to follow. On my right I passed a few runners on the return trail, heading back up the side of the ravine. My legs were burning from running through the mud and pounding down the hill. Fighting the temptation to jump across to the other trail, I pressed on, anticipating the turn around, know that just beyond the turn around an extremely deep gully lay waiting. Hopefully it was as well marked as promised.
There it was the turn around. A brave volunteer stood in the cold rain, in front of a bright, orange ribbon, making sure the runners turned back on the correct trail. Muttering a quick, "Thank you," I made the turn and instantly found myself on a very narrow trail choked with roots and rocks. Within twenty yards of the turn my foot caught a root hard and I went down, just catching myself with my gloved hands before I face planted in the mud.
Vision became an issue again as the trail became narrow and moved through the trees and rocks. Luckily the incline wasn't too steep at first. Eventually I broke into an open area away from the trees and into some bushes. Once again I wasn't sure if I was still on the trail and began to fill a bit of anxiety build until I found a trail marker hung low on a bush next to the trail. I pushed forward with a forced sense of confidence.
Soon the trail turned back, splitting away from the descent trail. The incline increased and the trail went from single track to a rutted ATV trail. Foot placement was of the utmost importance as I was often forced to jump from side to side up the ruts. Once turning a corner I jumped a small stream crossing the trail and hit a small, muddy hill. My legs churned, my feet slipped and I was forced to turn around and slide down. The only way up was to force my feet into the soft mud on the side of the rut and walk up.
Moving ahead I could hear the music and cheers coming from the runners village. Knowing my teammate awaited, I pushed on, hoping I was close. Looking up to my right in the direction of the exchange, I saw a light form a building above me. Somewhat demoralized I realized I was still had a good climb ahead of me. Now on a small dirt road I had to deal with standing water from the rain and small rocks falling into my shoes as they sank below the mud. A number of side trails and roads peeled off. Again I wondered if I was on the right path. I hadn't seen a trail marker for awhile and I wondered if I had missed one. Remembering the admonition that if I stayed on the path I would see another trail marker, I kept going. Soon I was rewarded with another trail marker.
With the steepening incline I forced my burning thighs to lift my mud caked feet and place them in front of me. No longer running, I felt as though I was moving in slow motion. I saw the beam of another runner's headlamp coming up behind me and soon heard their splashing footsteps. Shortly the runner passed me, taking advantage of their lighter frame and well-conditioned legs. Exchanging the normal pleasantries he pulled away from me.
Finally, another volunteer was in front of me asking my team number, giving me encouragement. I was excited, thinking the village was just around the next corner. I wasn't. I had another ten minutes or more to go through the thickening mud, suddenly worried again about falling down. At one point, walking through the deepening mud I looked down and couldn't see much skin on my legs. They were the same color as the splashing mud.
With only a couple hundred more yards to go and the clock approaching midnight, I looked down blew out a breath and started to run again, stepping into a deep puddle because there was not other option. The conditions were perfect and a large drop of muddy water splashed directly into my mouth. Spitting, I ran on, turned the final corner and saw the large orange arch. Following the sputtering tiki torches and the light of the bonfire, I picked up my pace, sort of, almost sprinting into the exchange.
I waved my arm, acknowledging the cheers of the other teams and the congratulations of the race directors.
As I reached down to pull off the timing band, the race director looked at me with worried eyes and asked, "How was it? Are you okay?"
With mud on my face and dirt in my mouth, I smiled and said, "It was awesome! Only two legs left to run."
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- Jarad Van Wagoner
Check out my previous post on the Ragnar: "Why I Ragnar"