Looking left to right I discovered the clever race organizers had marked the trail down and around the crown of the tree through a small thicket. It made sense. Every runner's brain says down is better than up, right? So down I went. At full speed. Like an African antelope. Leaping and lunging over the rough terrain, lickety split like a.... like a... like a distance runner in a waist deep thicket of poison oak. Elegantly, almost skillfully intertwined with poison ivy. This is when my mantra in answer to why I do this crazy stuff ("Because I can, neener neener") *appears* to be insufficient. Appears.
That is when the emergency back up mantra kicks in: "Because I spent eighty bucks on it." And the emergency back up back up mantra: "because I bragged about it to all my friends." And the back up to the emergency back up back up mantra: "just shut up and think about all the pretty flowers."
Just before the turn around at mile 15 I came across the girl in Orange coming the other way. In races you never know anybody's name. As you pass them or they pass you, you give them names. I'd left skinny calves guy in the dust practically at the start of the race. Prissy run skirt girl had given me a challenge for the first 4 miles and then hadn't wanted to get her shoes wet at a mud puddle and had stopped to ponder it a little too long.
Orange shirt girl had taken off like a rocket right out of the gate. I'd admired her athletic form and her stellar gait, her understated gear, and overall... prettiness right up until she disappeared ahead. I'd encountered several people coming back the other direction, and had been expecting to see Orange shirt lady miles ago with the heads of the pack. As I passed her I said, "HA! I figured you must be up here somewhere!" It was about time I ran across the first finisher female.
From her response I could tell she was tired. She was disappointed with her slow down. This was not her race. Hmm. Maybe I'd make it to the finish line before she left and I'd ask her what she'd been disappointed with.
Two hours later I stopped at the aid station right before Poison Oak Alley. There, seated and clearly still having the worst race ever was Orange shirt lady. Also present was Best Husband In The Universe, poised and ready with poison oak lotion and mini oreos (BHITU=GENIUS). I chatted with Orange shirt girl for about 2 seconds, just long enough to discover A) she was having a lousy race and B) she did not have an emergency back up mantra.
I ran the remainder of the race expecting the more skilled, fitter and in all likelihood less gimpy Orange Shirt Lady to come prancing along behind and cheerfully pass me with a slightly smug "nice race" (transl. "Good job slow poke. I'll wait around an hour or two at the finish line for that high five.")
But Orange shirt girl never showed. In fact, she came in well behind me, tired and dehydrated.
So why, I asked myself, does someone fitter, younger and more motivated to win not leave my gimpy, underprepared self in the dust? My guess? You can train your body to a razor's edge, but it's your brain that wins races. Your body will push through almost anything, but it's your brain that sees poison oak and closes it's eyes and plunges forward. It's your brain that realizes you didn't bring a water bottle and decides whether to beat yourself up, lament the distance between aid stations these nutty trail people set up, or just grab a bottle at the next aid station and stick it down your pants for the remaining 24 miles. Your brain decides whether it will focus on the heat, or the itching, or the mud puddles (which my brain does just because it happens to think mud is the best part), or focus on the little archway of forsythias between mile 6 and 7 that felt like running through sunbeams. Do you formulate in your head all the many things you're going to tell the race organizer when you give him a piece of your mind, or wonder exactly how many days/ weeks/ months you'll be able to use the poison oak anecdote to try and wrangle a discounted race fee.
All these are choices your brain learns to make with one, specific goal in mind: finish well. Have your own very best race possible. Not the race you necessarily win. Or even the race you PR. Just the race where you chose forsythias over poison oak, jokes over complaints. And the more you choose to focus your mind on things it loves over things it loathes, the more determined it will become, the more unstoppable you will be. The more often and constantly you achieve your goal: finish well.