“Cross-country has always been a vital part of my training program. You can develop fine muscular endurance and suppleness in your stride by running cross-country. It also develops good running form and strengthens your muscles. In cross country the pressure is put on your muscles because of hills and uneven and slippery footing, your overall general conditioning can be developed without taxing your body too much anaerobically. So cross-country is one of the best forms for general conditioning.” ~Arthur Lydiard
In heavily forested Thetis Lake Park, 10 minutes from downtown Victoria, the rolling trails are where some of the region’s best runners and triathletes often train. Several parks blend into one large green space, vast enough to allow a runner to train for an ultra, daily, without covering the same swath of single track path twice.
Creaking from my warm car, into the vaporous morning air of early spring, I feel a chill. I want to be in the middle of my run; already warmed and bathed in sweat. The first steps are callow and timid. Each plant of my feet sends signals up my legs. Because I’ve ramped my mileage lately, my muscles and tendons have been tuned an octave too high. If they could play, they would be piercing the air with the sounds of Marsalis’ trumpet in a crescendo at the top of the highest musical scale.
I want my heart to race, but I want to control it and make it hurt, to speed along in a torrid pace running out my internal clock. After my first lap of the main Thetis Lake, which is made up of approximately three kilometers of hostile terrain of roots, rocks and mud, I start to feel the heat.
The muscles and tendons are less taut now and somewhat supple. Any pains that were present have subsided. Now I want more of it, on my own terms. We may be propelled by the addiction of reaching a high, which the body provides in a rush of serotonin and adrenaline, released from their glandular hiding spots and I am here for that fix.
Now it’s time to run harder. Hitting a set of rock stairs, I climb them two by two, reaching the top in a victory of sorts. I drop down the other side, going faster. I keep mindful of recklessness and the risk of ripping my body to shreds on the jagged steps, rocks and tree roots that lie there. Hitting the flat section of dirt trail, hard, I pick up the pace. I know damn well that the next hill is merely seconds away. It’s a straight-up bit of vertical bedrock; short but deadly on the quads. Still, I leap from foothold to root, gripping and pushing off hard with each step, gritting my teeth arms splayed for balance. I hit the top, feeling warmth.
The burn in my chest is matched by the burn in my thighs, which erupt and subside in a linear symbiosis. I’m gasping and my lungs need to suck every last ounce of oxygen from the universe. I throw my head back to open my wind pipe, for a fleeting moment. Then I recapture my breath and continue on, leaping mossy bedrock and exposed Garry Oak tree roots. Bounding up more steps, I deftly crank a corner, I run on a flat stretch and over a wooden bridge. Thirsting to regain the burn, I drop the pace hard, over-striding, mouth gaping open, as no rogue oxygen is going to escape my wrath.
Brow furrowed, perhaps displaying primal effort, a man with a dog passes; they measure me in all my muddy glory. I want to tell them a tale about how maddeningly ethereal the effort is . . . but I know they won’t understand. So I push on faster, for more of it. I hit a hill and again I climb and thrust my knees forward and up, devouring every inch of path, ripping shreds from the soles of my shoes. Just past halfway, I find the top of a hill, the feeling from the effort is so addictive, I scarper down the other side in a way that leaves me only partially in control of my hips, ass and legs. There is thrust, but no lift to this flight.
I touch the pine and rocky path for enough time to toe-off, as my flight carries me to the top of the next hill. For good measure, I repeat the perilous descent, like on a roller coaster ride. In front of me is a small group of people and their dogs. I am only partially aware of them, and the harder I go, the harder they stare. The dogs heave and tug on their leashes; they want to play too, to nip at my heels and bark themselves hoarse. They can’t catch me on the downhill.
I dig into the road, which rises and curves before me like a ramp. It’s a fight between gravity and oxygen. I suck it up, just to regain balance, form and focus; it’s a life source. Down the other side, arms flail, following the paved road. Again I’m over-striding, so much so that my legs feel as though they could slip from my body and carry on all by themselves, leaving me to sit on my carcass, out of breath and helpless. To the beach I go, kicking into the sand and landing softly. I am slowed as if I have released a ‘chute. I jog a moment across the sandy beach, and then carry on into a torturous and wonderful third lap.
This time I am going to run faster, I am going to get muddier and I am going to rip through the woods in my maddened quest for that high, which will consort to propel me for the rest of my day.