On a Shoestring - Page 5
Mid-September: Crans-Montana, Switzerland
If there was any discussion of the lack of vertical or the amount of pavement to be found on the World Mountain Running Trophy course, it has been lost amid the steel-gray drizzle, the gasping for air, the perfectly planted rows of pinot noir bulging for the harvest and the ever-present thwopping of the helicopter blades just overhead. Still early enough in the race, the unbroken stream of runners works its way up the mountain—red, green, white, yellow, blue, black jerseys from 39 countries. With the strongest men's team ever represented by the United States, I find myself in the top fifth of the field, within meters of all five of my teammates'.
Immediately ahead of me is Eric Blake, 29, propelled upward by the massive and muscular legs that have earned him the moniker "Quadzilla." Just behind me are two of the three first-year members—Zack Freudenber, 30, of St. Louis, Missouri, and Matthew Byrne, 33, of Scranton, Pennsylvania. Leading the American team is its youngest member, Joseph Gray, 24, of Lakewood, Washington. Having raced Joe no less than five times in the past year, I know that his clamorous, college sense of humor gets turned off entirely for the race. His statuesque frame is the vehicle for a long and elegant stride.
Last, just behind Joe is Simon Gutierrez, 42, of Alamosa, Colorado (see "Mountain Master," February 2008, Issue 50). Simon, more than any runner I know, has had a legitimate "career" in running: 25 years of road, cross-country, track and mountain running. A week ago, Simon won the Masters World Mountain Running Trophy for a second consecutive year. And now, for a seventh year, he is bounding up the mountain, not unlike the Jack Russell terrier he left back in Colorado.
At the first and longest of three plateaus on the course, Joe and I take the lead for the Americans, maintaining line-of-sight contact with Wyatt and 10 others determined to stay within reach. I concentrate on running close behind Joe, knowing that his recent college track background in the steeplechase will provide him with a pace worth matching. Overexertion causes my vision to blur, which I don't bother to correct. I just try to enjoy this distilled moment of few ingredients and precise mechanics—legs, arms, heart and lungs, pumping, driving, in, out, up and down. From the periphery of my stained-glass vision protrude rhythmically the pale pistons of my legs.
My mind wanders back to the days immediately following Telfes when, just as Wyatt had warned, the miles on my bike, the number of races, the numerous beds and make-shift campgrounds finally caught up with me. I found myself needing more sleep to run fewer miles at a dwindling pace. I did what any running fool would do in my situation and doubled my weekly mileage. Although it took over three weeks, the miles slowly brought my body back to life.
I pull ahead of Joe as the flat pavement ends and the singletrack begins, hoping that he will follow my lead. With the amount of rain that has fallen and the number of runners that have trodden this trail already today, I pray that my shoes will stick to the greasy corners and off-camber straightaways. The exhaust from a helicopter fills the forest like a phantom, morphing into billowing clouds, one after another, into the still, cold air.
As I turn a corner, I catch a glimpse of the furry Italian disappearing behind the next bend. I get closer and closer until I am finally matching his pace only a stride behind. I know that I should be thinking about the race, but of course I'm thinking about his nickname. The only thing to take my mind off it is the swelling of spectators as we enter the final kilometer.
The crowd is three people deep, and they are playing accordions, blowing horns and swinging pumpkin-sized Swiss cowbells. The cowbells are in fact so large that they must be swung between the legs like a child rolling a bowling ball. "Dai, dai! Allez! Bravo! Soupair! Hup, hup, hup! Go, go!"