Wow, what an adventure. I have to thank jtpaten and Anne for offering some insight going into the race. With their advice, I ended up digging out some old (as in I don't think I've even worn them for about 12 years) rubber soled cross-country spikes since they had the best tread of any of my shoes, including training shoes. I hoped they would give me enough traction for the race. I didn't really have a choice, though. If they didn't, nothing would. I also threw a pair of road flats in my bag but pretty much knew I wouldn't be using them. Just doing a workout at the local county park in them earlier this year, I found them to be a little lacking of traction on nothing but wet grass.
Got to the race site and they had a pretty extravagant setup, much more than I'm used to at relatively small races. They had tents up, all kinds of sponsor ads and a few tables with sponsors handing out free samples. More closely resembling a pretty large running race but it did seem later like the bike part of the event was pretty large so that might fit in. I registered and looked at the course map. My first thought (and still my best description of the course map) was that it looked like a 4 year old took a map and just started scribbling on it. This wasn't a race like cross-country with generally wide, sweeping turns and a lot of straight stretches. This course snaked around all over the place and, with a log jump and rutted sections noted on the course, I knew it wasn't your typical cross-country course at the local golf course. Fortunately for me, I always preferred what I considered “real” cross-country, with challenging hills, changing and difficult terrain, and a little of everything thrown at you. This would definitely qualify. I warmed up on part of the course and realized at that point that parts of the course were going to be difficult to say the least to run fast on. When you're zigzagging around trees and you can't run a straight line for more than about 2-3 steps, you can't really turn it on. At that point, had I been thinking about what all of this meant, I would have adjusted my race strategy. I didn't.
At the start of the race, I saw jtpaten and we exchanged a few words. He admired my ancient and not very beefy shoes and we wished each other well. As the race started, I got out well and got myself right into the lead. There were a couple of people behind me hanging with me but, with my road racer's mindset, I didn't want to try to win it in the first half mile so I decided to just stay in front. I heard a cheer (something including “hillrunner”) from who I deduced to be Adimal very near the start line. We ran down a park road for a bit, then turned into a campground and looped around there before crossing a parking lot, then heading into the real trail running. The real beginning of my first trail race. I made sure I had the lead going into that section. Through a series of twists and turns and up and down a couple of hills, I felt like we were down to two but the guy behind me was persistent and I was having difficulty finding places to turn on the pace. If I could find a place to surge, it was about a 10 yard surge and I'd have to slow down for more turns. By I'm guessing about a mile, I felt my right sock slip down over my heel. Well, that's not good but it's not like I'm going to stop. Eventually, we came up to a creek crossing. About a 2 foot vertical drop into the creek, then a muddy ascent out the other side. I tried to size up a gentle way to drop into the creek but couldn't come up with any, so I just launched myself. I landed on my right foot directly on a flat stone on the bottom of the creek bed and I could feel the impact shoot through my foot and into my ankle that was already weakening from all the twists and turns. I gingerly climbed the muddy ascent, at one point using a tree to help pull myself up as I felt like I was slipping right back down into the creek bed. After we got up that initial incline, I was still sizing up my foot as we came to a slight opening in the trail. That persistent guy behind me took advantage of my hesitance with my foot and blew by me. I wanted to respond but hesitated with the foot. Eventually, we got into an easier section to race with fewer turns and I started pursuit once I knew my foot was fine. I felt like I was closing in some but still could only occasionally see him. At some point during this stretch, I also felt my left sock slip down my heel. This course was knocking my socks off – literally! I got to the bottom of a hill and heard Adimal call out from the top that I was about 15 second back. OK, that's not much. I can make that up in the second half, which looks to have more opportunity to open it up and maintain a faster pace. By the time I looped around and got to the top, no more than a minute and probably much less later, Adimal tells me I'm 30 seconds back. That's impossible. I may not have attacked the hill that hard but he couldn't have gotten 15 seconds on me just going up the hill. I later found out the 15 seconds was an approximation and the 30 seconds was measured. After hearing that I was 30 seconds back, it only took about a second to decide that I was in solid shape for top two, so I might as well roll the dice. I bolted whenever the opportunity presented itself and, not too much later, was informed that I was 20 seconds back, already gaining 10 seconds back. Maybe I can make a race out of this. I kept trying to pour it on whenever I had a chance but the chances became less frequent than I hoped for as we entered the park on the other side of the road. First, I encountered a bike that was previewing the course and had a chain derail. While they did get out of the way, I wasn't sure they would as I was approaching and I slowed down. Then, we left the river and hit some more turns that slowed me down and I was still holding back on the uphills and not able to let it all go on difficult to navigate downhills. Then, came the equalizer. I swear, as I was running up to this thing, it didn't look like a hill. It looked like a wall. Straight up. I got up that thing in pretty good condition and hit more opportunity to open it up. I didn't take advantage of it as I should have but I did open up the stride a bit. It was then more of the same until near the finish. One problem I encountered is I didn't know how far I still had to go until I was heading back to the other side of the road. Then, it was too late. I gave it what I had but I didn't have a chance of making up enough ground. As I came up over the final ridge and could see the finish line, I saw the clock right around 36 minutes flat. I have to believe this was a little short of 10k. I finished with an official time of 36:08, somewhere probably around 10 seconds behind first. If I ran that time on a legit 10k on that course, I have to get myself to a track. I could be running some seriously fast 10k times without all the obstacles of a trail race.
As I was passing through the finish chute, someone approached me and said I must be Ryan. I said yes and figured she was Anne. We said a few words and I headed out of the chute. I had more opportunity to talk with Anne, jtpaten, and Adimal as well as an old friend introduced through Coach Conway who I didn't even recognize at first it's been so long since I have seen him. It was great talking with everyone after the race and at the awards ceremony (where I got a medal for second overall and a case of bottled water, a 1 year subscription to Trail Runner magazine, and a pedometer in a drawing).
Given how I feel today (both feet – mostly the right from the landing in the creek – are sore, I noticed a bruise just behind the arch of my right foot yesterday evening, both ankles are sore, and both hips are sore) this probably sounds insane but I'd actually love to do at least a couple of these events next year. These events are pretty fun, they are very much a new challenge in a sport where there aren't a lot of new challenges out there after about 16.5 years of running, and I have a lot to learn about how to run these races. I think I could be pretty good at this thing if I learn how to run a trail race properly, not to mention get a good pair of shoes for the discipline. I also think running a few of these could help me on the roads, re-teaching me surging strategies and helping me get in some good fartlek and strength workouts.
What I learned about trail racing from this experience:
– It's much more difficult than trail running due to the added factor of trying to run fast through challenging terrain.
– I have to take advantage of every opportunity to open up the stride and hammer a fast pace, no matter where it comes. There were several points, especially at the start, where I should have just hammered the pace, knowing there would be other portions of the course where I would get a break while navigating terrain that you can't run fast over. This kind of race has to be run more like a fartlek than a tempo run.
– Contrary to my road race/cross-country strategy, I have to charge the uphills and relax on the downhills. The downhills are too severe, rutty, and have too many turns to let it go like a road or cross-country race. On the flip side, the uphills would seem to present an opportunity to push the pace and try to break or gain on the competition without going at such a fast pace that you can't handle all the hairpin turns and ruts in the trail.
– If I'm going to do more of these, I have to do some research on shoes and get a good pair of shoes that can handle trail races. A pair of shoes I haven't worn for 12 years just isn't going to cut it. I haven't decided whether I can get away with a new pair of cross-country flats or I'll have to break down and get a pair of trail shoes but I'll probably have some kind of new pair of shoes at my next trail event.
– Serial trail racers are nuts! How else could you explain people willingly subjecting themselves to that kind of event after having run one before and knowing what it consists of?
– I'm nuts! Well, everyone already knows this but there is now a new piece of evidence: I want to do this kind of thing again.
– I might just have to become a serial trail racer. I'm beginning to think that, like a hard drug, these things are addictive. Do it once and you can't resist coming back for more (unless you're sane but, if you were sane, you may have the sense to not try it the first time).