This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.
I was looking for a race to test out my legs some but not worry about times or beat myself up too badly. When I saw this race on the calendar, I couldn’t resist. Times mean nothing when running at Pike Lake due to the extremely undulating terrain so I wouldn’t find myself worrying about running a certain time. No matter what time I run, it doesn’t matter. Further, I figured the trail aspect would save my legs a bit and, this time of the year and with the recent large amounts of rain we have had, ensure times would even mean less. So I signed up and was off to the races.
In the past week or so, I got to the point of expecting a very muddy course. As the race neared, I noted the forecast overnight temperatures in the 20s and decided a bigger concern may be ice. Still, a good reason to break out the cross country spikes either way. So that was my decision. With the cold forecast, I also made some race uniform changes. When I got to the race and felt the biting wind, it was settled. Tights and a long sleeve shirt over a short sleeve shirt. Add in a hat and gloves and I had my racing uniform set.
At warmup time, the temp was 25 and I don’t want to know what the wind chill was, given the strong wind coming off Pike Lake. The only saving grace was that most of the race would be in the wooded hills of the park so I’d be sheltered from the wind. It’s hard to warm up in that but I managed. Unfortunately, I believe the start was a little late so it was hard to keep warmed up but I managed with some additional strides and form drills.
As the race started, the 5K and 10K/half runners went different directions, which allowed me to at least figure out who was in the 5K. A couple of 10K/half runners jumped out in front of me and, while my legs weren’t too anxious to get off to a fast start, I didn’t want to lose contact so I hung with them. After a bit of time to loosen up, the legs decided to get going and I think the guys in front slowed down a bit and I took over the lead. Pretty quickly, the lead was growing to a fairly significant margin.
Then the start of the climb up to the top of Powder Hill. This is roughly a 450 foot climb from the start of the race to the top of the hill so we’re not talking a little climb. It also had a few downhills included so, while the net climb might be 450 feet, the gross climb was more than that. I began encountering 5K participants, some of whom even though they looked back and saw me coming did little or nothing to give me space to pass. Fortunately, it was on the mostly uphill portion of the course so I had more control and was able to work my way through with little to no trouble.
As we approached the top of the hill, we split from the 5K. They leveled off, relatively speaking, while we continued the climb to the top. As I was approaching the 55 foot observation tower near the top, I felt conflicted. The sign at the base of the tower said turn around. However, I remembered the course instructions from the website, specifically:
…towards powder hill tower, up tower, turn around, back down and out…
So what do I do? I have about 3 seconds to decide. I’m in the lead by a fairly significant margin. It’s still early enough in the race that, even if I lose the lead, I have time to gain it back. I don’t want to win partially by cutting the course. So I head up the tower. I start running but, on the first flight of 8 steps, I nearly trip because the steps are so small. So I walk the rest of the way, 2 steps at a time. On the way down, again because of the small steps, I walk down, 1 step at a time. As I’m going back down the tower, I see 6 runners turn around at the base of the tower. Either they missed the message I saw online or I chose to follow the wrong instructions. After the race, I asked the RD and he said we were not supposed to go up the tower but I didn’t know that at the time…obviously.
So now I gave up what I figure was at least 2-3 minutes, very possibly 4-5 minutes, and I went from a very solid lead to 7th place. I have time to make this up, though. So off I go to make it up. Right now, I’m somewhat mad at the guys who didn’t go up the tower because, remembering the very clear instructions online, I was sure we were supposed to go up the tower. I think I fed off that anger a bit and brought all 6 of them back in fairly quickly. Then I was back in the lead and extending it fairly quickly. Then the fun of the course began. I remember some snow and ice from the winter that hadn’t yet melted on the course somewhere but I can’t remember quite where. More fun than that, though, was the biggest "puddle" (more like a pond) on the course. We had already run through some mud spots and a couple of places where a boardwalk was laid out so we could avoid the mud pits. Now, though, I was staring at a small pond on the trail. It extended the full width of the trail and into the woods on each side. After the race, I was told there was a path around it with small flags signifying that was the path for us to take. I didn’t see it while out there, though, so through it I went.
This small pond had about 1/8 to 1/4 inch of ice on top from last night’s solid freeze and was nearly knee deep. When I first hit it, I didn’t know what I was going to hit. I knew it had ice on top but didn’t know if it was a thin film of ice or thick enough to trip me up. It turns out it was thick enough to trip me up. I crunched into the ice for about 2-3 steps at full speed, heard the guy behind me say fairly loudly "oh shit", then my foot got hung up on the ice. I kept my feet under me but I had to slow down to keep from tripping on the ice the rest of the way. By the time I got out, I was soaked from waist down and freezing. Fortunately, the freezing part only lasted about 1/4 mile.
From that point on, the worst was over. A few mud patches but nothing bad. A few hills but mostly downhill. As I had been doing whenever the opportunity presented itself, I opened up my stride whenever I could and tried hitting a nice race pace. I cruised through the remainder of the course, knowing I had a solid lead so not pushing to the full extent I could but at the same time trying to give an honest effort. I encountered some 5K participants along the way but they were spread out enough now that they weren’t too hard to navigate around. Essentially, other than one unmarked turn that I slowed a bit for before just taking a guess (and, fortunately, guessing right) it was a pretty uneventful last 1-2 miles. I cruised in with a pretty healthy lead for first place. I have no idea what my time was. Between the challenging course and adding on a fair amount of time climbing the tower, I honestly don’t care what my time was. I went there to race with no worries about time and that’s just what I did.
It was a good first effort of the year. It’s always nice to start off the year with a low key win and it’s nice to start off the year not having to truly redline it out there and without beating yourself up too badly.
While the race has some organizational challenges to improve upon, I love the course (and I now know it…as long as they don’t change it on me next year) and that to me overrides the problems. I’m never certain I’ll be going back to any race except Al’s Run but I’m reasonably certain that, barring scheduling problems, I’ll be back next year.
Sorry I don’t have any pictures. The mud I picked up on my back alone would have made for some classic images but it wasn’t meant to be I guess.