The Trail Runner Who Raced Through Time

by Rich D. (contributing writer)

trail runners
Credit: Free-Photos

When I signed up for my first trail race I anticipated hard climbs, harder descents, Japan’s soul-sapping heat and humidity and well-earned exhaustion. Time travel never crossed my mind. But there I was, unknowingly bounding through time. Who knew Einstein's theory of relativity applied to running?

Green Trail, Greener Runner

The race, a half marathon distance through Kobe’s famous Rokko Mountains, began normal enough. The starting mass of runners swept me into its rhythm and the running mass reached a pace few of us would maintain for long. Runners jockeyed for position as we funneled into the narrow trailhead, leaving the soft grass behind for earth, stone and knotty, toe-catching roots.

At the 2km mark, I finally broke a sweat and found my pace. I wasn’t alone. As other runners hit their strides, the single file queue stretched to the breaking point and front runners disappeared into the distance, mountain goats bounding up and down the trail.

I did my best to keep up with the runner ahead of me, mimicking his manic footfall. He lengthened his lead on the hills and I caught up on the straightaways. The first steep, earthy climbs left me with baby deer legs, shaky and unsure. Eventually my rabbit disappeared around the bend.

trail in the forest
Credit: ForestWander Nature Photography


Pushing the Limits

Alone, I pushed on. My calves ached and my feet numbed from the pounding. At 4km I had only put one-fifth of the race behind me and feared the remaining 17km would be an unprecedented practice in self-brutality. Cast into an unfamiliar dimension, light-years away from the road races I had grown accustomed to, I knew I was in for a long day.

Relatively speaking, I couldn’t be more wrong.

Credit: Jack Kirby’s 2001:Space Odyssey

Enter the Stargate

Movies like Chariots of Fire, Without Limits, Fire on the Track, and Run Fatboy Run are runners’ favorites, cited for their inspiration or embodiment of the running experience. Yet, my mind strayed to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the famous “stargate” scene, hyper-speed space travel leaves the astronaut’s face in knots gazing upon a beautiful yet nightmarish mix of colors, light and landscapes.

Although far from hyperspeed and minutes off my usual marathon pace, I entered the Rokko Mountain’s version of Stanley Kubrick’s stargate, marveling at nature’s kaleidoscope. Time, distance and location melted away and ceased to exist. Even at my modest speed, my brain reached it computational limits, focusing on my footfall and the course churning underneath.

(Blink) Take care of the uneven ground!

(Blink) Hop over that root!

(Blink) Wow, these trees are beautiful.

(Blink) Duck under that branch!

(Blink) Brown.

(Blink) Green.

(Blink) Blue.

Then I crossed the finish line.

Finished Already?

Instead of a finisher’s medal, volunteers handed out cans of cider. I popped the lid and guzzled my reward before crumbling into a sitting position, eager to examine the race data. My GPS read 21km and 2 hours 24 minutes. I cycled through the settings. It had to be wrong. I had not run for over 2 hours. And that couldn’t have been 21km. I had just left the midway aid station! I picked myself up and walked to the result table. The printer buzzed and a smiling volunteer handed me the official printout. Indeed I had run 21km and it had taken 2:24. How could it be?

The Runner's Laws of Relativity

Lost in a euphoric mix of runner’s high and pure exhaustion, my mind wandered back to my first days of running, when short runs tested my physical and mental endurance. Then I thought of my first marathon years later and all the training and races that followed. Finally, body fresh with exhaustion, I reflected on my first trail race. It hit me: time is relative.

1. A runner’s perceptions of time is relative to their fitness and experience level.
As a rookie runner, 1km took forever, a hellish eight minutes or so. At that time, 10km represented a ridiculous, super-human accomplishment. Now, with several marathons and years of training under my belt, 1km isn’t even a warmup. Time felt long relative to my low fitness and experience levels. However, once I stepped up my training, increasing my fitness and experience, my perception of time relative to distance shortened.

2. A runner’s perception of time is relative to the terrain.
Despite running slower, my trail pace felt faster than any marathon pace I have ever run. And although it took an hour longer than a half marathon, it felt much shorter. The views and technical trail challenged both mind and body and my sheer focus forced me to forget time and distance.

A Runner's Evolution

Unlike the astronaut in the final scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey, I did not emerge the starchild. But Kobe’s Rokko Mountain changed me; I evolved into a trail runner. No longer limited to the roads, trail-running is now part of my DNA and I’m looking forward to bounding through time, relatively speaking, on the trails again.

I only wish I knew The Runner’s Laws of Relativity when I first started running. New runners keep in mind, it may be arduous now, but your perception will change relative to your fitness and experience. For long-time runners whose routines are getting stale, try something new; a change of pace (literally and figuratively) might be just what you need.

About the Author

Although Rich started as a “casual” runner back in the USA, a move to Japan that coincided with Japan’s marathon-boom awakened the true runner within. Now, the self-proclaimed running otaku’s passion for motivational manga is only surpassed by his quest for interesting and challenging events around Japan; a quest that takes more travel, time and money than he’d like to think about.