Saturday, 3 September 2016
Five years ago, I went to a VFAC workout on a sweaty May evening. I hadn’t been to workouts in a few months. There were some new girls out, around my age. After the workout, jogging back to the fading light, one of them mentioned a 21km trail race she was planning to do two days later. I had never done a trail race, was barely racing half marathons.
I told this girl who I had just met, who had blew by me on the final interval, that yeah, I’d do the race with her, and would give her a ride to the start line. The other two girls also decided to sign up at the last minute.
And that’s how I did my first trail race with Katie, Tara and Alicia. Tara went out fast up Nancy Greene, stayed fast on the uphill to St. James’ bench, and, even then, disappeared on the downhill. I lumbered up next, trying to keep Tara in sight, losing her as soon as I needed to negotiate rocks and roots. Katie passing me easily on the final descent to Deep Cove. Alicia at the finish moments later.
Five days later, back at VFAC, all of us still stiff and sore and slow. Our coach: “You guys shouldn’t do anymore trail races - especially Alicia."
We got older, and now Alicia races 100milers, has been on the national team for the world ultrarunning championships. On another summer evening, biking to UBC to rock climb with Alicia. Us on the easiest climbs, wearing running shorts, Alicia’s shoes untied and loose to air out an infected toe. Me, moments before reaching for a hold, and failing, and swinging in the air. She told me: “It’s okay to assume a resting position!”
Later, biking home to the crunch of gravel along Spanish Banks, a neon sunset reflecting off the North Shore mountains, we made plans for another week.
In a years’-ago September, Alicia had been ten minutes late for a run – I was impatient, exasperated, left without her, without apologizing. We didn’t talk for months after that, didn’t make plans for a even longer.
We got older, and Tara just raced 122miles through Manning Park. Our first hike together, she wore racing flats through knee deep mud, onto snow, didn’t pack a lunch.
At Fat Dog, she had labelled boxes, changes of shoes and clothing, food and water treatment and multiple flashlights and moved through the aid stations with so much toughness and grace and passion for running.
There was a year when I’d see her race results, text her congratulations. She would reply, ask if I wanted to get together, go for a run, a drink. I usually wouldn't answer.
We got older, and Katie ran the entire East Coast Trail – all 230 kilometers of it – in one go less, than a month after a 70-miler.
This week, visiting from Newfoundland, we met at Triple O’s and ran around False Creek together. As the sun rose behind clouds, the previous week’s heat giving way to muggy rain, Katie said: “Remember when we used to run fast?”
The way we ran harder, ran longer every week, like it was a new country that we were exploring, and would only go farther in. How we spent breaks at work reading about other ultrarunners, looking at their pictures, wanting their lives of mountain ridges wearing only a sports bra and shorts, sleeping in the back of vans.
And for a while, we got up into different mountains every weekend, ran faster on the roads during the week. We started with False Creek on weekdays before work, and kept those easy Wednesdays as we built for marathons, ultras.
Katie ran her way into a labrum tear that four years' ago winter. I waited another year, then fractured my navicular while running 100km weeks, convincing myself all I needed to do was breathe into the pain.
This morning, I went running with an old coworker, greasy clouds and a very quiet final 5km. I told him, I’m trying to write about my friends, about how we’ve all grown up in the last five years. He said, if you’re writing something, you need an ending, something you’ve learned, a kind of lesson.
I thought about it as we covered the last silent stretch. How it feels like there are two stories, two endings.
The first one, the one that I’ve been writing, have been grateful for all summer. That a group of us girls did our first trail race. It was harder than we thought, and longer than we thought, and we could barely walk down stairs for a week after. None of us really knew what we were doing, but we knew enough to love the outdoors. And how we kept running, kept getting into mountains, and had experiences that none of us could have imagined when we started out.
That it was all worth it. Even with hard days, bad races, injuries, all those non-running setbacks that you wish were injuries because then you’d know the healing time, how long it would take to stop hurting, the times where we didn’t talk much, got into fights. How the runs I’ve done this past fall, spring, and summer, the gasping uphill, straggling downhill, stripping off into lakes - have felt like coming home.
How I’d like to say, in all those years jumbled up against each other, if you squint hard enough, you can almost see a pattern, a meaning. How you can say: “all of it happened for a reason.” To say: “all these bad and painful things were part of something bigger.” Then add, because this is running, what the next race is, what the training plan is, to talk distances and times and all those adventures on a list somewhere. Because the reason is always to come back, or stay back, or get faster. To turn that pain into a fast finish, the next goal.
I saw a photo on the internet, someone I follow on instagram who knows some of the same people I do, who when you see their pictures, all those mountains you’ve never visited, it’s easy to feel that you know them when you completely don’t.
This photo is beautiful until it’s not. There are mountains (because there are always mountains), grey and spiky and crammed with glaciers. A skinny cloud, then a sky so deep and blue you could dive into it. At the top, a helicopter. An impossibly thin line is holding something, wrapped up. That something is a person. A list of injuries that you look up, look up again. To say a prayer even though you don’t know them, aren’t even sure if you believe in anything enough to pray to.
And after, saying; “everything that happened, happened for a reason” doesn’t come out right. It doesn’t come out at all. Realizing, actually, there’s nothing to say and no neat ending to tie this all up. That bad things happen and sometimes all you can do is wake up the next morning. Thinking back to my friends, to all the places we went and what we did, the only thing to say is: “We all got older, we grew up, and we’re all still here, together.” It’s not even an ending, but really, it’s enough, and it’s more than enough.