Monday, May 16, 2011

Race Report: Soapstone Mountain Trail 24k

After reading my friend Steve Wolfe's description of this race last year, I knew I wanted to run the Soapstone Mountain 24k trail race someday. Luckily, someday arrived this past weekend - thanks to my wife's kindness and generosity, because it's a long drive from NYC to Northeast Connecticut and she knew I'd be away for most of the day.

I recruited my sister and her son to join me and my 10 year old son for the day's fun. We expected some rain, and it poured on us for the first half of the drive. Not a great sign, because the weather generally flows from the SW to the NE, so we were getting a preview of what would likely be arriving at the race site later in the morning.

Arriving about an hour before the scheduled start time, we parked in a wet field and headed for race day registration. They weren't quite in the groove yet, and there was a funny little exchange when I tried to sign up for the 24k but they got confused about which bib numbers were for which race (they also have a 6k "sampler" race that my sister was running, with handicapped start times). Eventually we got it sorted out, although I felt I had to keep apologizing because I had to ask two or three times if they were signing me up for the right race, and only on the last query did they realize their mistake. No big deal. In fact, I like these sort of mix ups in a funny way, because it shows that the race is a local, grass-roots event and not some big corporate undertaking. I'm not bashing those big sponsored races, I'm just saying I prefer the opposite.

The rain was holding off as we lined up for the start. There were about two dozen serious-looking dudes up front, then a little gap back to the rest of us. It's funny how different people handle those moments just before the gun. Some are dead serious, game-face on, focusing and ignoring everyone else. Others are non-stop chatterboxes, blathering on and on about something or other (shoes, amount of sleep, running this race several years ago when there were only a few guys showing up, etc.). Others are prancers: they dance and jump around, endlessly repeat their wind sprints, turn into infinite motion machines. I try to absorb it all, and take a moment to remember that I'm lucky just to be able to be there and take part. Well, that and swat at the mosquitoes.

We started a bit late, something about timers and laptops, again no big deal, and no one complained about it - cool. When the "Ready-Set-Go" was finally uttered, I settled into my usual start: falling behind immediately. Sigh.

Actually, I was a bit stunned at how fast these guys were hammering at the beginning of a 14.5 mile race. Granted, the gravel road was wide and trending down hill, but I couldn't help but believe they would pay later. I tried to count the runners in front of me, but there were too many - more than 30, maybe even more than 40. I jockeyed around a little with a couple of guys, but eventually we hit the first steep climb and formed the single file line for the day.

I actually passed two guys scrambling up that first steep hill. Not on-purpose, but because they wanted and asked me to pass them. I guess my being right on their heels made them push too hard, or maybe annoyed them - though I hope not, I think that I'm a pleasant fellow to climb muddy hills with. Oh, well.

The rain started to come down lightly about 30 minutes into the race, for me that was around the first aid station, which I exited at 32:10 after grabbing some water. I was trying to hold back my effort and save something for the second half of this race - partly because I know I'm not quite fit enough to push a 14.5 mile race right now, regardless of how technical the course might be. Adding in hills and rocks and mud, that only makes the effort that much harder.

I was running just behind two others at this point and had been for 2-3 miles. Unfortunately I don't have any names, but they were strong and consistent, and seemed to know the course. I was being patient, waiting, breathing, relaxing. I was catching them on the uphills, they were descending faster than me.

As we neared the second aid station at about the halfway mark, the skies turned dark and the rain picked up. I took one quick sip of water to wash down a gel, and exited at 1:01:18. That time seemed slow to me, but I was trying to be patient and run within my current abilities. Within a couple of minutes, it was absolutely pouring rain, and that would continue nearly without interruption through the rest of my race.

The fact is that I like running in the rain, and I like mud and water on my trail runs. Partly because I know I'm better at running in that stuff than most people, and partly because of the sheer childish joy of splashing around in mud puddles (without getting yelled at by my mother). But this was tough. The course became a combination of wet rocks and deep muddy puddles - not only tough to run in, but frankly a bit dangerous - the rocks were slippery, and the puddles were hiding both their actual depth and any obstacles within (rocks, sticks, mud). We had to run with more control and less abandon than we otherwise would, which probably slowed the overall times.

I started to pick runners off, one by one. First, my two companions. Then, slowly but surely, I started reeling in the fast starters in front of me. By the third aid station, which I hit in 1:41:33, I thought that perhaps I'd passed about 6 - 10 other runners (I wasn't counting, it was definitely more important to concentrate on the course than on the other runners). with about 3 miles to go - I think - it was now or never. I did my best, given conditions, to open up my pace and finish strong. I was passing runners every 2-3 minutes. I'm not sure how many I finally managed to pass, but I ended up 19th overall with a time just under 2 hours and 4 minutes. Not great, but not awful. My quads were beginning to cramp slightly during the final 10 minutes, so I think I probably ran as hard I as I could on the day.

After changing into dry clothes and grabbing a cup of hot chili (man, that was really good chili), I saw a print out of the preliminary results. The winner (Jim Johnson, I think) had run 1:36, which I understand may be a course record. (Update: Found results on CoolRunning). Impressive, especially under those conditions. In 19th place overall, I was only 7th place among the over-40 crowd: those guys are tough. My only consolation prize: Everyone who ran faster than me was also younger than me. Good enough at this stage in my career, I'll take it. If I can get back to this race next year after I turn 50 years old, I can aim for a higher age-group place. Time will tell.

My sister enjoyed the sampler, and my son and his cousin enjoyed getting wet and muddy while playing around in the woods for a few hours. We all devoured veggie burgers post-race and then trekked the 3 hours back to NYC, driving through even more torrential rain. Nasty weather, but a great race. I wish it was a little closer to home!

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