“Pain is the toughest riddle.” -Minutemen
Trail runners love to get hurt.
Now don’t get me wrong, none of us like injuries that incapacitate us or force us into an unwanted running hiatus or the physiotherapist’s office. You can keep your plantar fasciitis and your achilles tendonitis, I’m talking about good old fashioned gore. Dripping blood, skinned knees, cuts, abrasions, puncture wounds, contusions of any and all description. Nothing says commitment like crossing the finish line covered in your own personal crimson tide. While there’s no doubt that a nice trailside bloodletting is unequivocally badass, I wonder why that is?
Thinking back to the highlight reel of my life, most of my best days were spent as a victim of minor, self inflicted blunt force trauma. When I was a kid, a day out with friends wasn’t considered a success unless someone got gashed, cracked or otherwise mangled. It was all in a day’s work that various kids would fall out of trees or off rooftops, attempt ridiculous, death defying stunts on loose trucked skateboards or take one in the head from a wayward rock pitched from the bed of a railroad track. Of course the best destruction always came on two wheels.
Devising ever more asinine ways to destroy ourselves on glorious Saturday afternoons, we would launch our BMX bikes off impossibly implausible ramps (…the old children’s board game “Mouse Trap” comes to mind) in attempts to become our neighbourhood’s next Evel Knievel. I remember one particular day during the summer before grade eight. It was the same year that I accidentally set a kid on fire, but still a year or two before things really got serious. Although I was still very much a kid, I definitely had aspirations of teenagerhood. While I was still into junk food and comic books, I was beginning to dabble in more sophisticated pursuits. I had my first real crush on a girl from the Catholic school and although nobody smoked, we all carried Zippos. We were a grubby little pack of scrubs and we were into having fun. On this day we had set up a makeshift ramp on the sidewalk in front of my house. We used some plywood with a couple cement blocks and were happily launching ourselves as far as we were able. With every successful landing, we were forced to up the ante. “It needs to be higher, stick another brick under there…” And so the ramp grew and grew as we added anything we could find to make it higher, less sturdy and more dangerous.
In no time the ramp took on a personality of it’s own, and it wasn’t a pleasant one. If the ramp were a kid, it would be the kind of kid that makes fun of everyone’s shortcomings and pulls chairs out from under them when they’re about to sit down. The ramp would be the kid who lit the tag of your jeans on fire while you were about to set your personal high score on Galaga. The ramp was a total jerk, but when you went into an early morning detention, you knew that the ramp would be there cracking jokes and making it a good time.
The ramp, all scrap lumber, rusty pipes and cracked masonry, was a formidable adversary, but it could still be beaten. Once we mastered the take off and the landing, we started adding obstacles. In time you had to clear a couple garbage cans if you wanted to pull off the landing and if you really wanted to be impressive, you could attempt a tabletop or some other trick whilst midair. But the fun was just beginning. We had gone on a school trip to Ottawa that year and a bunch of us came back with fake switchblades. Soon we pulled out the knives and started throwing them at the bikes as they sailed through the air. If we were covered in blood and looking like the aftermath of some gory medieval battle already, things were about to get really interesting.
Alas, nothing lasts forever. Just like rosebuds in Springtime, the final strains of a Brandenburg concerto or the innocence of a newborn baby, our fun was destined to come to a sad, abrupt end. The bane of our existence in those days was a young, fresh faced police officer who lived at the end of the block. There we were, happily chucking knives at bruised and bloodied children on flying bicycles when this nosy do-gooder had to step in and ruin everything. As the cop rolled up, knowing that I’d probably have some explaining to do, I stashed my knife in my back pocket. He didn’t fall for my evasive action at all and made me cough up the blade. “You know what this is?” asked the cop. “A knife,” I answered. “No. It’s a switchblade!” he dramatically pressed the button on the side of the knife as he said this. Nothing happened. “A switchblade!” he repeated as he once again pressed the button to no avail. Perplexed, the cop looked at me and said, “How do you open this thing?” As much as I would have loved a real switchblade, on our trip to Ottawa, they only sold us fakes. I took back my knife, pulled open the blade and passed it back to the cop. He studied the knife, tried to close it, failed and asked, “How do you close this thing?” I took back my knife, pressed the lock at the back, safely closed it and passed it back to the cop. He told us that even though we were doing nothing illegal, he was confiscating the fake switchblade for our own good. As he put my knife in his jacket pocket, he motioned towards the ramp and said, “And tear that thing down before someone gets killed.” With that, our fun was over and we headed down to the river to go play in the rapids.
It wouldn’t be long before getting cuts and bruises took a backseat to other, more civilised forms of entertainment. And then in the blink of an eye there would be bills to pay and diapers to change and getting pummeled for fun was the last thing on my mind. Life was more or less safe. I would strap my kid into his carseat like he was an Apollo astronaut headed to the moon and I wore a bicycle helmet if I was riding three blocks for a loaf of bread at the corner store. Then came trail running.
The first time I bailed on a trail run, I probably wondered what I had gotten myself into. Picking rocks out of open wounds by the side of the trail wasn’t what I’d signed up for. I was supposed to be getting fit, I wasn’t supposed to be getting stitches. But soon those trail wounds morphed into something else. In time they became conduits back to the days of childhood freedom and skinned knees. The fun of pushing boundaries and testing abilities, that I had left behind to become an adult, was back. Those cuts and scrapes were there to tell me that I was living life, that the best years weren’t behind me, the best years are now. I look at my scarred and battered legs, the barely healed trail rash on an elbow, a nose bloodied as face meets rock, and I remember those carefree days on a BMX bike or a skateboard like they were yesterday. I remember those promises that I would make myself to never grow up, to never become boring or complacent, to never let myself be ruled by the fear of falling down and I can only hope that the grubby little banged up kid inside me is thinking that I’m not half bad after all.