Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Dashing Through the Snow

The Winter Trail Race Series Race 2 that took place last Saturday was quite an adventure. Running 10 miles on single-track trails that were covered with several inches of loose snow was one of the most physically-challenging things I've done in many years. Even today, three days later, my legs remain sore (especially calf muscles, hips, and the arches of my feet). Despite all of that, there is a certain level of satisfaction at having completed the race, and at having done much better than I expected. Ironically, my very slow-looking pace of just under 9:00 minutes per mile actually represents the hardest effort that I've put into a run in a very long time, in fact it has been nearly two years since I got after it with such intensity. I wonder what my pace would have been if there had actually been some traction out there.

It was a cold morning, about 15 degrees F I think. I somehow managed to convince Xiao Wang and Diane Kenna to come along with me. Of course, Xiao needed to exact some revenge for going off-course at the December race, but for Diane this would be one of her first real trail races. I knew it would be hard, but I also know that she is a very tough runner.

On my brief warmup jog, I tried out the first half-mile or so of the course. The snow was deep enough to present problems, plus it was that sort of gritty, loose snow (not the nice packable snow) that makes you feel like you are running in dry sand (except for the obvious temperature difference). From my perspective, it wasn't going to make much difference what shoes you wore, or if you opted for ice cleats or spikes - this stuff was just too deep, and it wasn't going to offer up much traction, period.

The field was a bit smaller than the December race, but no less enthused. I was one of only 3 to be wearing shorts (hey, it's a "race", right?). We started just about on time at 9am, and headed across the parking lot to the trails. There was a bit of jockeying for position in the first 1000 meters. The race combined those running one lap for five miles and those running two laps for 10 miles, with no real way to know the difference. In addition, you had the option of stopping at the five mile finish and calling it a day, even if you'd signed on for 10. I wouldn't call it chaotic, but I was surprised to have a couple of guys literally sprint around me just to get to the singletrack more quickly. Truth is, I passed all of those folks back eventually, except for one guy (who I believe finished 3rd in the five mile, and must have simply gotten a slow start before cranking it up). I have no qualms about people running this way, unless they downshift markedly when the single track starts, which thankfully no one did on this day.

I was sitting in about 12th place overall at the 10 minute mark, a bit better than I expected. The young horses were already off the front, and I could see that Xiao was among the top 3 - good for him. He had opted for lightweight racing flats, and I wondered if he was getting any traction at all. I had my Inov8 Flyroc 310s on, and except for the gritty snow I was doing okay.

Around the first lap we went. I was yo-yoing a bit with two runners in front of me. They were clearly faster on the downhills, but I was reeling them in on the uphills. I've often referred to myself as a tractor among sports cars when it comes to racing, I think that's why trail races suit me better. Seemed to be ringing true in this race.

After a brief respite on a gravel road with hard-packed snow (about a mile, from 2.6 to 3.5 miles of the loop I estimate), we were about to re-enter the single-track when two of the young guys completely missed the turn in front of me and one other runner who looked familiar from the December race (I think it was Jim Sonneborn). We shouted out to them, and they sprinted back, offering thanks ... only to fade back quickly - I never saw or heard them again. For the next 3 miles, Jim and I kept up the same rhythm: he'd pull away on the downhills, I'd catch up to him on the uphills. After about 1.5 miles of the second lap, I decided to pass him - surprisingly on a downhill section. I'd been running on his heels for the previous three hills, and I think he was tiring a bit. I surged by, and then tried to put some distance on him (because I can't outkick anyone anymore, and also the last half-mile was mostly downhill where he was clearly better than me). I thought I had him gapped, when I heard someone moving up behind me along that gravel road again. Entering the single-track, I glanced back to see that it was someone new (I think Jon Sellers). He must have been running the second loop much faster than the first. In fact, the results showed that he ran the second loop more than six minutes faster than the first. Either he was holding back, or he missed the start!

The second loop was just a bit more runnable, because more than 150 pairs of feet had mashed the snow down a bit, and stirred up just a few leaves and flecks of dirt. Anything for a little more traction!

As I hit the final downhill, with its switchback trail, I saw Xiao only about a minute ahead of me. Too tired to cheer him on, I just kept plugging away. At this point we were passing the back of the five mile pack, and most of them were incredibly generous to step off the trail and cheer us on as we went by. I love trail runners for this kind of thing. In a road race, lapped runners throw elbows and crowd the aid stations - but in a trail race they actually stop and let you go by. Amazing. Thank you.

In the final 600 meters there is a trail that runs along the edge of ravine, which forces you to deal with a sideways angle. In the slippery snow, this was almost funny. On the first lap, I'd slipped badly a couple of times, but I had not fallen. Now, on the final stretch, I was a bit more weary, and I finally fell for the first time all day - not spectacularly - just a slip on an off-camber trail that made me stick a hand into the snow to right myself. Cold!

I continued on to the finish line, managing garner 5th overall out of 64 hardy souls. I ran negative splits, but I think most everyone did because the trails improved slightly with traffic. Still, on a course that by all rights should have been used for a snowshoe race, I have to be pretty happy.

Grabbing a cold beer (brrr) post-race, I had a nice chat with second-place finisher John Montgomery, who's an old dude like me (maybe not quite as old, but we are from the same era). He's a talented runner, obviously, I'll have to see if I can get in good enough shape to give him a run for the money someday soon.

Xiao grabbed third overall, and Diane ... well, I think she found the day adventurous and kind of peaceful. I was afraid she'd cross the finish line and slap me dead in the face for dragging her out there. But she finished with a smile, grabbed a beer and a pretzel, and told us of having run alone for most of the day, fearing she was in last place! Not so, my friend, you ran strong. And I promise that most trail races aren't quite that hard!

Now I'm motivated to run the remaining two races in this series. These races have provided the perfect way for me to ease back into competitive running after so many months away. Friendly people, single track trails, physical challenges, bad conditions - the kind of stuff I love to run in.

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