The sinister appeal of another Red Devil
By Marlene Farrell
Red Devil starts with a school bus ride. I feel like a kid on a field trip. There is an excitement connected to the smooth vinyl beneath my legs, the wind whistling through the wide space above our heads, the diesel grunts, and the huddled bodies, two to a seat, whispering hopes and fears or, for some, talking about anything else but what is drawing near.
There’s an expectation of resolution in that ride to a race start. Something to show for all those training hours, the lonely miles, the sweat, the tired feet. The starting line can be an edge, off which we soar or fall.
Today I am uncharacteristically calm. I’ve done a bit more than the minimal number of trail runs over 10 miles, but I am below my normal training load for this 25-kilometer (15.5-mile) race. I’ve already made a plan to let the leaders go. I won’t try to keep up for the first 5-mile ascent. Races with big initial climbs, like Red Devil, require devotion to pushing to the point where my mind has to subdue the chemical signals of exertion and pain. And that is hard work, which I am happy to avoid.
It isn’t a strategy built on laziness. I want to be smart. My left ankle is six months and two days past a triple break and the subsequent installation of hardware on both sides. I am thrilled to be running when memories of a cast and crutches, then a big black boot and hobbling, then a brace and shuffling are still fresh.
In that bubble of calm, time before the gun is a friend, not a foe. I chat with a dozen or more racers that I know. Some are friends from Leavenworth, others live in Wenatchee. Some I know purely from the realm of racing, but I get a sense of mutual respect and always wish I knew them better. They appreciate why I am there, to celebrate health after injury. We are all drawn to the beauty of these hills and the gauntlet laid down.
Race director Joel Rhyner sends us off, and after the initial road stretch and two small water crossings, I fall into a rhythm. I am near other runners for several miles but somehow, none of our paces match. So they either vanish ahead, or I leave them behind. Through the cool forest I climb, following cues set by my tight right hamstring. My left ankle is laconic, content with my careful foot placement.
Although I carry water, I gratefully take the cup offered by an aid station volunteer. Somehow it’s sweeter and cooler coming from that small paper cup. Over the years I’ve perfected my gulp, leaving a few drops to sprinkle on my head, an individual baptism, meant to cool my brow. The course continues to climb for another half mile, and then, like so many trail races, suddenly plunges down rocky terrain and everything changes: technique, effort, focus. Whereas on a climb it’s more about resolve and gravity defiance, the downhill challenge is to give in to gravity, as a partner in a sophisticated dance. If I misinterpret the trail’s direction, angle, substrate, I will be the one to flail and crash.
This time, with my ankle-centered hesitation, I am not the metaphorical blur that I imagine I’ve achieved in years past. Being alone on the trail, I take the rocks and mud pits slow and easy. There’s no one around, so I needn’t be embarrassed. There are also long stretches of buffed trails, mostly descending or undulating, where I tell myself, “Push harder. Faster.” And I can, and I do.
Just past the second aid station, which I skip because my water bottle sloshes half full, I see Jody Chinchen, the woman leading the race. She is as surprised as I am. My appearance is all it takes to spur her on, to increase the gap between her victory and someone else’s. I gladly watch her go, which is unlike me. It’s not that my competitive drive is gone; this is not my race to win. I’m more than happy to be a force prodding her to go faster. There have races when I saw an approaching female racer, thanks to the view at a switchback. On a good day, I’d aggressively ratchet up my speed, and my ears would be pricked to the sound of lighter footsteps and higher pitched exhalations coming from behind.
Red Devil has a sinister finish. Not a deadly climb or heinous water crossing. On this course, I’m deceived, every year, by the sound of voices and the appearance of spectators. When the finish must be only a half-mile away, I actually have one-and-a-half miles to go. Those minutes, when I switch from racing in the moment to craving the end, are long.
There’s a small wooden bridge to cross before the pennants, the girls holding out finisher’s medals and the giant clock. I am ready to be done. My ankle is feeling the wobbles of my less precise steps. I know there’s more in the tank; a part of me wishes there was a reason to keep running. But my friends are here, or soon to arrive. Two of my good friends have never run these trails before and one has never done a trail race. I want to hear their perspectives and share their joy. Their stories compliment my own and make the few hours out here in the woods and briefly on sun-kissed ridges, indelible.
Marlene Farrell, a Leavenworth resident and long-distance runner, helps coach the Peshastin-Dryden Striders kids running club. If you are interested in helping out the Striders in some fashion, email her at email@example.com.