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My chin was dripping blood when I crossed the finished line of the “Double Trouble” 30K trail race on Sunday, greeted by runners from my club and a new friend met on the race. The moment encapsulated the spirit of trail running: a shared experience with friends and strangers alike of nature-loving, exhilaration, sweat, scrapes and in my case: a bloody face.

(Comparing battle scars. Photo: Helen Horn.)

My longest trail race so far, at 18.6 miles, started fast in the beautiful French Creek State Park. My friend Bill, who just two weeks earlier had run a marathon, told me that the trail was narrow at the start and that I needed to get out of gate fast to avoid getting stranded. On my feet were my first pair of trail-running shoes, which let me navigate through rocks and tree roots in a much smoother way than I used to with my less sturdy, regular running shoes. On my left wrist was a Garmin watch bought the day before. I had hesitated for about two years before investing in a watch that, through satellite connection, tells you how long you’ve run and how fast, among other things. I had a girly moment at the store: I picked the gray version with a pink lining rather than the plain black.

The advertised trouble started when I found myself behind the only female ahead of me — she was wearing a pink top that was easy to spot amid the male runners. I was almost sure I’d seen her at the 15K race start –Ron Horn, the race organizer known for his sense of humor, had split us in two starts a few yards away from each other to separate the men from the boys.
My brain was tricking me into thinking that maybe she was doing 30K after all. Regardless, it was no excuse for not trying to catch up if I could. After the biggest hill of the loop, I lost sight of the runners ahead, including the pink-top runner. That’s when I started to take my tumbles.

After a few near-misses and ankle twists, I took my first spill, landing on my left arm. A few minutes after getting back on my feet, I was down again, on the same side, now covered with dirt and bloody scrapes.
“Are you OK?” asked the runner behind me. Yes, I was. My one-day, girly pink watch, however, wasn’t: the glass was shattered, along with my spirits. It was the equivalent of crashing a new Ferrari on the garage door on the first day out.

(`Honey, I crashed the Ferrari in the garage door. How was I supposed to know it was closed?’)
Pink Top reappeared in the distance. She was slowing down and I caught up fairly easily. “Come on!” I said when I passed her. I don’t know why I would say such an arrogant thing: Had I hit my head during the two falls? Was I upset about my watch? The kind explanation is that I meant to say “Come with me” to kick her competitive spirit. She could easily beat me in a sprint and she shouldn’t have allowed me to pass her — and eventually she did win the 15K in what I fancy was a faster time than if I hadn’t been around poking her. The unkind explanation is that I am ridiculously, needlessly and pathologically competitive and wanted to prove myself that I could race with her. The very unkind explanation is that I was being arrogant.
The start of the second loop was much more peaceful. I was alone among the trees, relaxed. Except I seemed to have lost gravity: my upper body felt strong, while my feet were left behind. Was it the shoes? They felt great but no matter how much I concentrated, the left foot especially kept dragging and twisting. I was caught by a runner who’d been ahead of me during my second tumble and we ran together, chatting. I thought he was brave to stay behind me given my inclination to go down but he said he liked being paced by me.

The third fall was the worse by far. My chin hit the ground so hard it resonated through my head. I could feel a rib or two were bruised, hopefully not more, under my trapped arm. I got up and asked Aaron, my new running friend, whether I still had all my teeth. He said yes, but my chin was badly scraped. I felt good enough to carry on. We had about three or four miles left, according to my watch; it was hard to tell through the shattered glass. When we reached the final water stop, I was all dirt and blood. Aaron told the volunteers we’d been running together so at least I wasn’t alone.
“We just met and already he punched me in the face!” I said. We had just a mile or two left and Aaron took off for a strong finish while I tried to stay on my feet; my balance was getting worse. I didn’t want to get caught at the very end the way I’d been at the Pocono Marathon two months earlier, when a runner passed me in the final 100 yards to take third place. This time I looked back a couple of times to make sure no one was behind, and won the female race in 2h42.
(You should see the bear’s face.)

My friends from the club surrounded me after the finish, offering support, water and congratulations: Janet and Mike, who had participated in the 15K only three weeks after running an amazing 100K race, and Kelly and Katie. We waited for Bill, who finished the two loops after twisting his ankle around the first mile, a “silent” injury that was less showy but probably more painful than my shredded chin.
Upon giving me the award for first female, Ron Horn said: “She was a mess when she arrived, but now she’s cleaned up.” It took a hose to recover my natural skin color.
Once home, I watched a rerun of the Tour de France‘s stage 9 on my French cable channel: Sunday July 10 was crash carnage, with four riders sent to the hospital. A rider was hit by a television car in a crash that sent a second rider into a barbed wire fence. They continued the race with what appeared to be a dislocated elbow for the first one and injuries that required 33 stitches for the other. Professional riders go through hell on grueling races such as the Tour: They crash at high speed and continue riding for hours with injuries that none of us could bear for two seconds on a bike. They know pain.

I’m only an amateur runner with scraped chin who will avoid mirrors for a few weeks.

 (Post-hose cleanup: Showing off my award and my new Franken-face. Photo: Helen Horn)

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