Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Dances with Mud

The 2011 edition of the Mudders and Grunters five mile trail race is in the books. Organized by the Taconic Road Runners Club, this fun little race has been on my calendar for ten years. It has grown from a tiny club event into quite a competitive race with nearly 500 runners, some travelling hours to get there. For a taste of the race, here are some photos I culled from the internet:

I also found a short home-made video someone posted:

My race ended up being about exactly what I expected: I did not get a great start, because the young bucks just move too fast for me. However, as soon as we hit any technical stuff, I can reel them back in. I was about 30th at around the half-mile mark, closer to the top 20 by about 2 miles, and passed a few more during the remaining 3 miles to finish a fairly respectable 17th on the day, out of 423 runners. That is actually my worst-ever placing in this race, not surprising given my current state of fitness and my age. However, ironically it wasn't my slowest time ever on this course - I ran almost a minute slower way back in 2001. So I haven't lost it completely!

There were more downed trees on the course this year than I remember from years past. In fact, we twice had to sort of wriggle our way through a tangle of branches laying across the course. That meant coming to a near-stop twice and crawling/scrambling/pulling ourselves over/around/through the limbs. Fun, but definitely not helping with overall elapsed time. Ditto for some of the muddy sections, which were appropriately goopy and stinky, as only swamp mud can be.

The water crossing was about average in depth, but rather darned cold this year - or is that I don't manage to remember how darned cold that thing is every year? I do think that I am not aggressive enough leaping into that stream - check out Ben's aerial hi-jinks in the slideshow above. There is another funny aspect to that water crossing: somehow it doesn't feel all that cold when you're IN the water, but a few seconds after you get out, it kind of hits you ... and hard. My toes curl up, I start breathing in shallow gasps, and I almost want to rip off the cold, wet clothes I'm wearing - only that sounds cold too! It takes me about 30 seconds to get re-focused on the simple of act of running the final half-mile to the finish, on my cold-numbed and thus wobbly legs.

I wanted to send kudos to a couple of old friends who ran great in this race. Kevin Shelton-Smith, who at age 51 has been running lifetime personal bests on the road, finished 12 overall and first in the 50-59 age group. Nice work. Not far behind, George Buchanan was 14th overall and second in that division. At 17th overall, I am actually lucky to be still age 49, because I'd have been 3rd in their division, but managed second in my YOUNGER age group. Those two guys are really strong trail runners - and lest I forget to say so, Kevin had actually raced a 30k trail race on the day before, and had come in second overall in that event. I can only envy that kind of fitness right now, because my only real goal for 2011 is to avoid the injury bug. That requires me to take more easy days, and not to push my hard workouts too hard. I'm not willing to take the risk of hurting myself in order to maximize my fitness, at least not yet. Maybe later this year, maybe next year, but not right now. I'll keep at it and do what I can, but I'm not pushing myself back to the sidelines again if I can help it.

A final note on this race: my 17 year old son Max came along and gave it a shot. I was slightly worried that he'd lack the fitness to make it the entire way, but he seemed enthused. I lent him some gloves, a hat, some trail shoes, and he stomped through the swamp like the rest of us. By the end of the day, he finished in 157th place out of 423 runners, on literally no training whatsoever since last October. I'm proud of him for that, and as we stripped the muddy clothes off of our shivering selves back at the car, it really made me happy to hear him already plotting to come back next year and bring friends. Now that would be really, truly great.

Update: I found another video of the race, featuring the Race Director and some of the craziness. Enjoy:

Monday, March 21, 2011

Bring on the Mud

Next up: Mudders and Grunters 5 mile trail race in FDR Park on Sunday, March 27, 2011.

Yes, I prefer longer races (can't keep up with the speedsters anymore - I have no speed at my age), but I've had so much fun at this race over the years that I just have to go back. It's raining today, and more rain is predicted during the week, so I'm hoping for a real slop-fest on Sunday morning. Mud, mud, glorious mud, nothing quick like it for cooling the blood.

As an added treat, my 17 year old son has decided to leap into the mire this year. I don't think he's race-fit, but I do think he can manage to have a blast wallowing around in the mud with everyone next weekend.

People ask me about running these kind of races, particularly about special gear, techniques or other tricks. Actually, I think it's pretty darn simple:
1. You need shoes with some traction, preferably lightweight ones because they're going to get wet and muddy. Trail shoes aren't that expensive, get some.
2. You shouldn't wear extra layers of clothes, even if it's pretty cold out there. Once those extra clothes get wet and muddy, they just become heavy and cold. Keep it light & tight, move fast.
3. You need to tie your shoes tightly. You don't need to duct-tape them to your ankles, or any other crazy technique. Just tie them tightly and attentively. And skip the socks, they just get wet and heavy. A quick slathering of petroleum jelly on your feet will do.
4. Run with quick & light feet. In muddy conditions, you need to get up on the balls of your feet, chop your steps a little, and just keep churning along. Drop your heel into that quagmire, and it can bring you to a near-stop, and possibly suck the shoe right off of your foot.
5. Turn corners with your feet, not your torso. That probably sounds funny, but it's important on slick surfaces to keep your center of gravity over your feet, and run around the corner, as opposed to leaning hard and just having your feet come along for the ride (like you can on a track).

It's spring time, so that means time for some muddy, messy trail running. Enjoy.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Slip Sliding Away

This song was stuck in my head throughout this race - read on to learn why.

Last Saturday February 26, I headed back out to New Jersey for the fourth and final race in the NJ Trail Series Winter Races - this time at the half-marathon distance. I've mentioned before that I really needed a low-key, uncrowded set of trail races this winter to help me transition back into running hard after so many months being injured and unable to run at all. At the risk of being a bit effusive, this series of races could not have been any better in that regard. Friendly people, well-organized races, just-long-enough distances, and fairly challenging trails. Nice.

Back to the race: the weather during the week leading up to the race had turned warmer, melting the snow on the trails and then adding a bit of rain on top of that. However, overnight on Friday night the temperatures dropped back down under freezing, and all of that wet stuff froze solid. At about 8:15pm that night, the Race Director sent us all an email warning of icy conditions and imploring everyone to wear some kind of cleats for the race. He wasn't kidding.

I actually pulled out my trail "screw shoes" and added a few more short sheet metal screws across the area under the ball of my foot, bringing the total screws up to 12 in each shoe. It was a wiser move than I knew at the time.

I arrived a bit early for the start, and headed out on the trails just to see how bad they could be. The answer: pretty bad. Obviously, they had been run/hiked when melted, so the re-frozen trails were covered with uneven ice pocked by footprints. Even the few snowy patches were frozen fairly hard, so I was running on top of slippery stuff with each step, not really penetrating it to find any traction. Definitely a need for screw shoes. I jogged back to the pre-race traditional port-a-potty line and nervous discussion forum. Most everyone was fretting about footwear. I was a little worried for those who planned to run in just their shoes - some were wearing road shoes even. They would be in for a frustrating run.

The event included a 5k, 10k, and half-marathon. To spread the field, the three races would start at different times, but we'd all be out on the same trails. The half-marathon consisted of one flat "lap around the lake" - about 0.7 miles on flat gravel roads with no real ice - then two laps of the 10k course, which was about 80% single track and 20% fire roads. As usual, my plan was to start conservatively, and try to run negative splits. On icy trails, the second time around was likely to offer a bit better traction, especially because the sun was out and temperatures should be rising by the hour.

At the start, we received ample warnings that the trails were marked with orange flagging, and that we should be careful not to follow the orange paint still out there from previous races. That's the kind of thing you need to listen to carefully, folks.

The gun went off and familiarity reigned. Seven runners blasted away and flew around the lake. I felt like I was going about as fast as I could, and I was simply losing ground with every step. As those 7 entered the single track as a single-file unit, I was sitting isolated in 8th place but almost a minute behind already after only 0.7 miles! The first thought that went through my mind: oh, well, 8th isn't so bad. Then I tried to reassure myself that they'd come back, this wasn't a race that would be decided in the first mile, and after all I am a Harrier, bred to track down those rascally rabbits, with patience, guile, and determination.

About a mile later, the first pair of those rabbits came into view. We were climbing up and down a series of short hills on a very icy single track trail, and neither of them were wearing any kind of ice cleats. The poor fellows were slaloming back and forth between the outside edges of the trail, desperately seeking some kind of traction, arms flailing and legs slipping out at all kinds of odd angles. They were struggling along in tandem, which made it a bit hard to pass them - not to mention I was afraid one of them would knock all three of us down in the process ... but soon enough there was an uphill stretch of ice, and I just chugged on by with my screws clinging to the surface. As I passed, I heard one say to the other, "This isn't worth it, we're both going to get hurt". He was probably right. I felt bad for them, and hope they found a way to finish safely. I was now in 6th place, and could see the leaders up ahead. They still had some time on me, but maybe less than a minute now. My mantra: Here comes the tractor (me).

Over the next two miles I reeled in 5th place (a young and clearly faster-then-me dude who was running very hard but slipping all over the place - I said, "Hang in there" as I passed him and I think I heard him chuckle in response). Then came 4th place - along the first stretch of fire road, which was basically a sheet of ice. As I passed him, and I think it was Jim Sonneborn, we shared a laugh about the inanity of trying to run uphill on an ice rink. Let's just say we were making progress, but rather slowly. Slip Sliding Away ...

I could see John Montgomery up ahead, he looked to be running strong and had settled into 2nd place (or so I thought, read on). I'd chatted with him pre-race, and I knew he had added some screws to his shoes as well, so I would not be able to rely on beating him due to simple traction. The race was on. I was closing the gap, but then I saw him come to a complete stop up the trail. I first thought he'd stopped to drain the radiator, but as I came around to catch him he asked "Which way?" with arms extended and palms up. The trail had two options, one marked clearly with orange painted arrows and the other with orange flagging. "Follow the flags!" I shouted, and we were off again (remember those instructions?). Maybe it was the adrenaline of stopping-then-starting, but he shot up the trail and put a minute on me again, as we came around to the end of the first 10k lap. We were both flying by some of the back-of-the-packers from the 5k race at that point, most were nice enough to make room for us. I stopped briefly for a sip of water, while John charged ahead. Going into the single track for the second loop, I figured I'd settle for third on the day, and I was happy with that. Still, I continued to push myself, it was a race after all.

The next 4 miles were relatively uneventful. The trail was slightly roughed up from the other runners, adding just a tiny bit of traction. We did pass a few runners who were clearly lost out there - probably from the 10k race, some even going the wrong direction! People: you need to listen to instructions!

With about 2 miles to go, John almost missed a sharp right hand turn (I shouted to him from behind) and that allowed me to catch him. He said, "Let me know when you want to pass" and I thought to myself "Yeah, well, only if you slow down a bit". Truth was: I was running at my limit. In fact, in retrospect, my biggest mistake of the day was running a bit too hard on the first lap. I fell so far behind so early, that I'd gotten anxious, pushed it the pace a little too hard, and caught too many runners in the first 4-5 miles of a 13 mile race. I think if I'd held back a little over those miles, I could have pushed the second lap harder and maybe overtaken John. But, we'll never know for sure.

The hard-packed snow on the trails was melting at this point, and we were starting to sink into some wet stuff. That made the last mile and a half a bit of a slog. There as one last section of icy road, and I used that to make one last run at John. I got within about two meters of him - and now we were dodging in and out of the tail end of the 10k pack, but he was clearly the better runner on that day, because he just pulled away in the last half-mile and beat me by nine seconds at the finish line.

At that point, I heard someone say that I had finished second overall. Huh? Where was the guy who had the overall lead on the first lap? I was puzzled, and simply chalked it up to a mistake on their part. But when the results were published a day later, there I was in second place. Cool.

I've finished 2nd plenty of times in my racing career (in fact, something like 75 times out of nearly 700 races). On some level, it's frustrating to be so close and fall short. On the other hand, on most days the truth is that I did my best and just got beat by one runner who was better. Period. Of this race, I could try to say something like, "If I'd known we were racing for first overall instead of for 2nd overall, I'd have gone harder" but I'd be lying. Even now, three days later, my legs are still sore which is probably proof enough that I was doing the best I could. After the race, sharing a cold one with John, he said, "I had plenty of energy left at the end, and when I heard you behind me I just had to take off" - which is the final fact here: he had energy left, while by comparison I was doing all I could just to stay close to him. He won. I kept him honest. Good race.

For our efforts, we walked away with commemorative pint glasses, much better than another trophy or cotton t-shirt. Over the course of the series, I managed to bring home an ear band, a technical shirt, gloves, a blanket, a pair of socks, a sweatshirt, and three pint glasses - plus my placings allowed me to have discounted entry into the latter races of the series. I couldn't be more pleased with the entire experience. A big thank you to Jennifer and Rick McNulty, who put on a great series in cold conditions with constant smiles - even when complained to by people who went off course because (I'll write it again) they can't follow directions! I told Rick after the race: look, if the lead runners, who are going as fast as they can and are thus the most-likely to go off course, can navigate the race properly, then anyone else who gets lost has only themselves to blame. Besides, this is trail running, it happens. I've been off-course plenty of times in trail races, you just have to suck it up and get yourself back on course. So you ran an extra mile, it was probably good for you!

With spring on the horizon I'll be plotting out a few more trail races in the near future, and looking forward to some deep sticky mud instead of ice and snow. But, next weekend I'll be the babysitter for our son and enthusiastic spectator as my wife races the first NYRR points race of 2011. Go Monika!