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!

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