This is a new experience for me. Rob and I planned first planned this trip overseas for another run of the gorgeous 95-mile West Highland Way race in Scotland but somehow upped the ante for ourselves by adding the 52-mile Mourne Way Ultramarathon in Northern Ireland the weekend before the West Highland Way. New race, then familiar race. Northern Ireland, then Scotland. Fifty-two miles, then ninety-five. Small trip, then more complicated. Easy week, then more challenging week. The new wasn’t in the distances themselves, it was the combination back-to-back in two separate countries. And this one of the two was new to me. The whole plan had several somethings I’d never done before but would be fun to try.
When we saw the opportunity to shoehorn it all in to our two allotted weeks, I jumped at it. I love the dare. The “what if.” The new. And in this case the chance to see so much trail in beautiful places in one fell swoop. I couldn’t resist.
But a big dream like this still comes down to the individual steps and I’d never run the Mourne Way race. How would it compare to my what I imagined? To my ability? What if I couldn’t finish? Big dreams or not, when it comes time to line up for the start of something new, I’m just as nervous as anyone else.
And We’re Running?
Months later, we’re standing in the chill, misty morning in Kilbroney Park, shoes soaked in the dewy grass, with in a loose group of maybe 50 other runners at the start of the 52-mile option (there’s a marathon, half marathon,10k, and amazingly, a marathon walk too). Glancing around and listening to the occasional quiet comment, everyone else seems nervous too, which turns out to be way more reassuring than you might expect. Some things are common the world over and we’re far more the same than different.
Rob and I have agreed without discussion on a simple strategy: finish, conserve legs for next weekend, and soak up every tiny micron of detail because we don’t know when or if we’ll ever be able to fit this in our schedule again. That all means starting conservatively. Which in turn means starting slow. Which translates to starting last. Which makes me nervous in situations like this where I don’t know the course and am not yet sure I can trust the markings.
At the signal, everyone sprints across the grass at 10k pace (yet another almost-reassuring commonality the world over) leaving us last. Rob is fine with this but I quickly rule that we’re going to keep at least one runner in sight until we’re comfortable with the markings. I glue eyes on the next runner ahead, and as the already-small pack thins out along a dirt road through tall, dark woods, the runner makes a stop and then joins us.
I didn’t expect that. The rest of the runners disappear over the hill ahead but our new companion Peter (who’s still recovering from a cold which explains why he’s back with us) turns out to be an excellent tour guide. Although he’s foiled my strategy and thus thrown me into navigational anxiety, he quickly makes up for it as an unexpected opportunity to set my lifestyle and running experiences alongside that of someone i another country. Talking with him here, an ocean away from my own home, gives me a refreshing new view of my own life I didn’t anticipate. Not only that but there’s a bonus as he names local mountains we pass and as we climb out of the first aid station into a gap between the hills, he points out a starkly mystical high valley ringed by cloud-wrapped peaks to our right where the Game of Thrones HBO series is filmed. What a perfect setting. A mythical army should emerge from the mist on the barren hillside at any moment and my skin actually tingles as I stare up the starkly empty ovalley. No wonder there are so many Irish tales about people tempted into enchanted places they shouldn’t go.
The urge for a few photos overwhelms me so I let Rob and Peter run ahead for a moment. All of a sudden, I am totally alone in complete silence. The quiet only adds to the spell and an insistent part of me would rather explore than run the race. Several photographs later, it is only barely outweighed by curiosity about the wonderful things that must surely lie ahead.
I catch up with Rob and Peter where the downhill turns boggy. We hop from peat hummock to peat hummock, investing time in maintaining dry feet because wet feet torquing around in shoes for 50 miles is a sure recipe for blisters. By the time we set foot on the dirt road below where we can see a half mile further down the hill, the other runners are long out of sight. My mind surfaces back to the business at hand and deems that slightly alarming but decides we can make good time on the road.
We Have To What?!?
Unfortunately, not good enough. When we arrive at the aid station at the bottom of the hill, the young guy manning the station says the halfway cutoff is going to be hard for us to meet.
We have to speed up, for real. Faster than I usually run. Far faster than my comfort zone, even without the distracting mountain scenery and the not surprising return to slow, boggy trail. I actually like bog but now that we’re in a hurry and I’d prefer clean, dry feet, it’s far from welcome.
Heads down, the three of us are squishing recklessly through the black muck when I lose a shoe to the bog. I retrieve it and put it back on, only to take a sure-looking step up to my knee in the deceptive slop.
If You Can’t Beat ‘Em…
While I’m standing with a sock foot squarely in this messy, underestimated force of nature (what the heck, the socks and shoes are already filthy wet) to retrieve my shoe a second time, I understand exactly what happened to those prehistoric people found immaculately preserved in bogs after thousands of years.
Once they got stuck, their lives stopped changing. They froze in time. The world changed around them and left them behind. They disappeared.
It was like being stuck in a rut, doing the same things day in, day out, year in, year out. You freeze in time. The world changes around you but you don’t. You cease to grow. You – the You inside that was excited about life ahead and wanted to start your own organic bakery or study the language of whales or raft the Amazon – disappears.
I could be one of them (literally, if I sunk any deeper the next time) and figuratively, if I didn’t keep trying new things like this. As uncomfortably hard as I have to work to catch up with Rob and Peter, I feel alive. As we push over the moor, my body teeters along the knife edge between aerobic play and the anaerobic no man’s land. I stop only for a few to-die-for photos while Rob runs on because it costs far too dear to catch back up at this pace.
We leave bog for a few miles of pavement then turn down an easy bank onto more trail, where my feet promptly slip out from under me and I land sliding downhill on my butt. Camera, gloves, shirt, shorts, almost everything is now stained peaty brown. I’m even starting to look like a bog woman.
The course skirts a reservoir, then a stone wall, passes through a beautiful woodland park, and then out along another stone wall bordering the side of a hill. The hill lets the water drain and though it’s peaty, it’s terra firma. At the top, the course turns left down a gravel road and we pound the mile or so to the halfway turnaround…arriving in time.
Peter drops out because of his cold, which is a real shame because he was great company and the return cutoffs are more leisurely. But even without a cold, the hard effort out to the turnaround took a toll and I will be stiffer than planned the next two days. The marathoners are standing around waiting to start so Rob and I head out as quickly as we can to put some distance between us and them. When the wave overtakes us, we want it to have as little momentum as possible.
The wave of marathoners eventually surges past us, and then recedes. We pass ultra marathoners, then marathoners, and by the end, even a walker and a half marathoner. On the way back, I get to look around and share some of the things Peter had pointed out, its all familiar but new seen from a different direction. I manage to take one more false step up to my knee before climbing out off adjacent hummocks for one last escape.
We finish in the same grassy park, now sunny and warm, where I’d been nervous that morning. I stretched today and tried something new. I’m not going to become bog woman, either literally or figuratively, at least not today.
For me, the danger is letting everyday muck wear me down to the point I am only surviving the race instead of enjoying it. Rather than trying to remember to venture out of my safe little bog every now and then to spice up my life, which I would eventually forget to do and then slip into the inevitable rut, it seems better to live so adventure is the way of life and you stay perpetually open to new possibilities that come along, whether you choose to take them or not. Of the two approaches, that one feels happier, more powerful and alive.
When I die, they can scatter my ashes on the bog but until then, there’s a lot of life to be lived.