An angry sun rose over Pound Ridge Reservation yesterday morning, squeezing every bit of burning heat from its nuclear furnace, hell bent on sizzling the flesh of we mortals as we lined up to start the 23rd edition of this great tradition of prancing through the mud. As I did my final pre-race sprint to try to awaken my aging legs, I gazed back at the assembled horde crowding the line under the flapping plastic flags. I’d never seen so many folks at this race, and the summer-vacation-like weather added a significant number of supporters in a concentric ring: spouses, kids, dogs, friends, and assorted curious onlookers. What a scene!
We jostled cordially for starting position and listened to the long list of stars (past and present) who were venturing once more into the fray. Then the traditional blessing was recited (… beauty above me as I run, beauty within me as I run …). I felt a rivulet of sweat already trickling down the nape of my neck and knew we were all in for a hot one. The scene felt so incongruous, because I associate the Loop with windy, gray, cold, rainy weather and shivering competitors huddled together for warmth and freezing cold, black, soupy mud … not smears of SPF 70 sun block and dry hot gusty breezes.
Just as my skin began to sizzle like cheap bacon, the horn sounded and we were off, in the most-chaotic start I can remember in years. I was pushed, elbowed, and stepped on repeatedly, while the sprinting masses closed in from both sides, shutting me off from contact with the lead pack. Uh oh. My work was going to be cut out for me in the woods. We turned downhill into the first muddy (barely) patch, and that bunch of macho dudes who shot out at the start all suddenly downshifted in unison … so I ran right into them, literally. Sorry, my fellow Loopers, no ill will intended on my part, I didn’t plan to bump and touch any of you at that point in the race, but these old legs of mine were still actually accelerating (it takes me awhile!), and all of you suddenly slowed down. I managed to weave through without major incident. My two older sons were counting runners at the first little stream crossing, and they had me at around 20th place, give or take a few.
The next mile or so of the course stays fairly narrow, with rocks and roots, and goes up and down a couple of times before hitting the first river crossing. I found myself trying to pass one particular runner who was already wheezing with effort, but he just would not let me go by. I tried three times to get around him, but each time he accelerated (wasting both his effort and mine). I backed off and waited about two minutes, until the river, when I shot past him and hit the water hard. I actually passed 4 runners who were wallowing about in the water (although one other guy passed me, nicely done). Up and out over the slimy rocks, and into mud we went. On this warm day, I was already cotton-mouthed and red in the face. Ugh.
I had been working my way through the field (“on your left, thanks … on your right, thanks …”) steadily, and there was Tony at the top of the sand hill announcing that I’d managed to get back to 9th place. Okay, not bad, but I’m melting!
The second half of the course is less technical than the first, and it’s all about maintaining your power as long as you can, and trying to reel in those in front of you. I could see old friends Steve Calidonna and George Buchanon up there, and did what I could to join them so that we could be a merry trio. I also assumed that my old pal and teammate Stephen Marsalese would eventually pull up on us from behind, and maybe we could call ourselves the Fearsome Foursome. But alas, on this day Steve was feeling the heat (and hallucinating that the course was somehow stretched half a mile too long), old Cannonball was busy chasing a young guy just ahead of him so I never did close that gap, and Stats Marsalese had his own duel going on behind me and never quite caught up with us. We were all doing our own thing, together but separate.
I was looking forward to the final river crossing near the finish like never before. In fact, for at least 10 minutes prior, I had been fantasizing about performing a perfect belly flop into the cool waters, then maybe spending 5-10 seconds underwater, anything to cool off my core just a little. That day-dreaming might have been just what I needed to motivate me to stagger through the final stretch of tall meadow grasses and jump into the not-so-raging torrent. An impressive gaggle of spectators had gathered, all hoping for us to trip up and fall flat on our faces in the murky water, cheering mercilessly. It’s funny, in trail racing you never expect to have any noise like that. If you are lucky there might be half a dozen hearty souls clapping politely along the home stretch. This was more like the crowd at a high school cross country meet, complete with screaming and clapping and shouting. Brought back some very old memories.
I pushed the final uphill stretch to the finish (into the relentless sun) the best that I could, somewhat confused that so many people in attendance actually knew my name as they urged me on to the line. Of course, post-race, I remembered that race organizers had printed our first names in bold letters on our bib numbers. Duh. It was a tough, hot day, but I had somehow managed to finish in 7th place overall out of 955 finishers (see results here). That gave me first place in my age group, but only because Tommy Nohilly won the race outright (he’s 42), and George Buchanon just turned 50, so both were removed from my age group technically, even though they finished ahead of me. Rest assured, that technicality will not hinder the enjoyment I get from eating the cherry pie that was my reward (yes, pies as prizes, not silly trophies … after all, you can’t eat a trophy, or share it with your family … all races should give baked desserts as awards).
No amount of water could slake my thirst after the finish, as I tried in vain to rehydrate. But once my stomach was sloshing about adequately, I wobbled over to the nearest stream bed with my sons. While they waded around barefoot, I sat right down in the cold water and soaked my weary legs. My older son Max remarked about how calm and peaceful it was to just sit in the woods, with no distractions and no reason to rush anywhere. Well put, my boy, well put. The truth is, even while racing in the woods, and even while giving it all I’ve got, I don’t actually feel “rushed”. In fact, and this may sound odd, I often find myself wishing the race could go on longer. I know that’s not a practical thought, and the truth is that my effort-level yesterday was geared toward a distance of 6.2 miles, so I would have completely unraveled if my wish had come true. So it’s not really about wanting the race itself to suddenly, magically be longer, it’s just the feeling of wanting the EXPERIENCE to continue, the wish to capture the moment and surround myself with it, the old dream that was expressed in song with “… catch a falling star and put it on your pocket, never let it fade away”. Corny and sentimental? Yes, but still true.
A huge thanks to the race organizers and everyone else involved with this great event. I heard a rumor that there might be an autumn race on these trails, I hope that it turns out to be true. Count me in. My one suggestion: use the entire set of trails available in that area and make it a nice and LONG race!