In fact, it was early December when I realized that I had not run a race of any kind during 2010. I'd been injured most of the year, and then simply out of shape. But then it occurred to me that I had never failed to run against competition at least once per year, every year since 1973 (yes, that's right, the pre-disco era, and the final full year of the Nixon Presidency, when he uttered the infamous "I'm not a crook"). Well, this just would not do. I had to race in 2010.
So I scoured the internet for some kind of low-key race that I could enter and enjoy. I found one, a nice little trail race in New Jersey, put on by the NJ Trail Series folks. A 10k on the hilly trails of Lewis Morris Park, the old high school stomping grounds of my pal and fellow Harriers coach Kevin Horty. The previous year they'd had a relatively small field, and the times were reasonable. I could finish mid-pack and not completely embarrass myself!
I asked a few friends, and found a pair of adventurers who were willing to come along: my old friend Peter Masullo and my new, young friend Xiao Wang (both Harriers). Off we drove in my decrepit old Honda in the cold morning of December 11, 2010.
We found the venue just fine, and stood in the registration line a bit long, which gave me pause. These little trail races are exploding in popularity, I wondered if the field was going to be bigger than expected. As we completed our warm-up run, I was proven right. The Race Director (great guy, totally honest and doing his best) announced at least a 20 minute delay to get everyone registered. That led to quite a crowd standing around shivering. Xiao and I just kept jogging around. I think we had nearly 3.5 miles of warm-up running by the time we could line up at the starting line.
Finally, we were off, and attacking the first steep uphill. I felt surprisingly good, actually. Probably in about 25th place right away, better than I'd planned. The race had the 5k and 10k fields combined, no way to know who was in which race. The 10k was simply two 5k loops, simple enough. After about a half mile, we hit the first section of single-track. This is where technique comes into play, and the wisdom and experience of wily old vets like me can actually make a difference. We hit that uphill single-track, and within 1 minute I'd passed 10 other runners. They were tip-toeing along, staring at their feet, perhaps terrified of the rocks and roots below. Me, I'm a tractor, so I just chugged on by. Pretty funny, at least for me. Luckily, there was enough room to get by on the sides, and it was December so there wasn't much underbrush to trip me up.
Despite no racing in my legs and no speed training to speak of, I was doing all right. Well, admittedly I was huffing and puffing noticeably, but that was to be expected. For the next couple of miles things settled in. Xiao was off with the lead pack, Peter was bouncing around in the over-crowded trails somewhere behind me, and I was basically running along with the lead woman, who was a terrific climber but a bit picky on the descents, so we kept yo-yoing back-and-forth.
I hit the first 5k in about 22:10. Yeah, that's slow, but I was running pretty hard to achieve that and the course was fairly technical and featured a lot of turns (plus, just like an inexperienced high schooler, I had a little side stitch - yeesh). As I started my second lap, I feared that I would fade badly. But I actually hung in there. Trading the "lead" with the first woman definitely helped me, although during the final 1.5 miles I decided to stop passing her on the downhills so that she could be left alone to run her race and not have to keep passing me back on the uphills (after all, she was winning her race, I was just trying to hang in there). Over the final 400 meters she kicked it in and pulled away, while I just got across the line in one piece. I finished in 44:39, so my second lap was 22:29 and not anywhere near the crash and burn that I'd worried about. I'll take it!
All three of we Harriers had to pack up and leave before the results were posted at the race site, but I was thinking I'd been about 15th place in the end, out of maybe 150 runners. Xiao had been up with the leaders and had even moved into first place at one point, but he took a wrong turn and ended up finishing behind me. I know he was disappointed in that, but he seemed to enjoy running on the trails nonetheless. Peter was happy to be out in the woods, but his traditional start-slow-finish-fast had been impossible with so many people all over the single-track, so he just settled in to enjoy the day.
I was quite surprised when the results were posted online. I was 8th overall in a field of 145, and (on a technicality) given first in my age group (the technicality: they eliminated the top three overall from the age-group standings, and two of them were in their 40s, plus one other runner ahead of me was in his early 50s). So, really, I consider myself 4th in my age group. Like I said, I'll take it.
They posted some photos from the race (and amusingly enough from the warm-up laps too) online here. If you plug in my bib number of 40, you'll see some proofs - including Xiao and I doing some warm-up miles.
In retrospect, I am really happy we trundled out the NJ on a cold morning so that I could keep at least one streak intact. There are three more races in this series during January and February, and I'm hoping to do at least one if not all three of them. Maybe I can convince a few more Harriers to come along next time.
To the Race Director and crew: fantastic job, really. I am assuming the field was much bigger than you expected, but you were clear about it and kept things together. You helped set a fun and positive tone with your pre-race announcements. The course was well-marked and just challenging enough to make it a real trail race. Too bad it was a dry and cold day so that we had no mud, but maybe next time. Having the automated timing system was a real plus for a trail race, and a pleasant surprise. I wish I could have stuck around for post-race fun, because I saw some tempting snacks and libations. You definitely made me want to come back for more races.
Happy New Year everyone. Hope it's a good one. Let's ALL remain injury-free this year, shall we?