I have plenty of stories to tell about dozens of races in which I tore out from the start, hell bent for leather, only to crumble well before the finish line. One would hope to learn from such experiences, but I suppose mistakes are part of being human - including repeated ones. In fact, prior to last weekend my most-recent race was the Surly Trail-Loppet Half-marathon in Wirth Park here in Minneapolis. It was a hot September day, I over-estimated my fitness and started too fast. By the final three miles, the heat and exhaustion had overwhelmed me - I was walking about half of the time, and being passed left and right. Finished in 24th, after having been top ten early in the race. Went home really embarrassed and disappointed. Only found out later in that week that I'd actually won my age group. I guess getting older can have a few benefits, because I ran a terrible race and sort of felt like I didn't deserve the age group win.
That might be an odd introductory paragraph for this post, because in this case - a trail race I completed last weekend - I was able to practice real patience and self-restraint, recognizing the distance and difficulty of the course and understanding that every step was included in the final result. And it paid off.
The race: It's called Surf the Murph, and it was actually three separate races rolled into one event: 50 miles, 50 kilometers, and 25 kilometers. The actual loop in Murphy-Hanrehan Park (Savage, MN) was 16.7 miles in length, so while three of those loops would hit 50 miles nearly exactly, you can do the math to see that the other races were more like 54 and 27 kilometers each. Well, that's trail racing. You want accuracy, go run on the roads or the track.
My current fitness ruled out the two longer races, so I entered the 27k. I arrived, after getting lost just once while driving in unfamiliar territory in the morning darkness, about an hour after the 50 mile racers had started, just in time to see the 54k racers take to the course. The 27k would be the final start, one hour later. It was brisk, about 30F with a clear sky but no real winds. Shivering in the bathroom line was a common denominator for all of us. Of course, if you know me you know I like to race in the cold, so this was good news for me.
Having never run in this park before, I didn't know quite what to expect. I'd been fore-warned by a couple of friends that there would be some sharp ups and downs, and the "Surf" in the title was an easy clue to the way the hills just kept coming, like ocean waves. I was determined NOT to repeat my fiasco at the Surly Trail-Loppet. No fast starts today.
As the starter sent us off, I tried to focus all of my attention on myself, how I felt, and ignore the runners around me - not always easy, this race taking place on Halloween weekend, and having several costumed competitors, including a sandal-wearing Neanderthal running just in front of me. Of course, it's still a race, so as we sloped down and around the first corner, I quickly tabulated thirteen bobbing heads on the trail ahead of me - putting me in 14th place.
The first 3 miles or so included some relentless ups and downs. None were more than maybe 100 feet, but they were steep and frequent. Running up is just guts, but running down is about form and efficiency. Downhills have never been my forte, but I stayed relaxed and tried to allow gravity to help.
Without trying at all, I slowly wove past three runners, and hit the first aid station just before 3 miles sitting in 11th place. I was happy with that, figuring that I was probably doing just fine in my age group, and knowing that I'd been holding back a lot - so hoping for a stronger run in the final miles of the race.
The second aid station was said to be at about 5.5 miles, and I'd moved to 9th place by then - again, not trying to run anyone down, just staying relaxed and doing my thing. I didn't have any more runners in sight ahead of me, so figured it was unlikely I'd catch anyone else on the day. At that point, I was averaging over 9 minutes per mile (I told you it was hilly - we did some walking on the uphills).
During the next 30 minutes, we began to catch the tail end of the 54k racers. This surprised me - they had a 1 hour head start, and I was about an hour into this loop. If I was running 9:00 miles, this meant that they had taken about 2 hours to "run" the first 7 miles of their race - something like 18:00 mile pace. Ouch. Those guys were in for a very long day. they still had 25 miles to go!
Things started getting more confusing after this. I was catching and passing people, but which race were they running? I tried to use logic: if I saw someone, then caught and passed them within a minute or less, I assumed they were in the 54k. If I saw someone, but had to run them down over a few minutes before going by, then they must be in my race. But what about the guy walking and stretching his hamstrings? And what about the three guys standing at the aid station at 12.4 miles - which race were they in? Hmm.
Making some assumptions (playing games in my head), I figured I could be anywhere from 5th place all the way up to 2nd, but there was no way to tell for sure. The final 4.3 miles to the finish flew by, and I had finally opened up the throttle and gone into full-on race mode, running as hard as I could to pass as many people as I could. I had to thrash through the underbrush a couple of times, as some 54kers - at least I THINK they were 54kers - refused to move to the side - sigh. To be honest, most of them were totally cool and polite and encouraging, it was just two dunderheads who refused to yield the trail to me, despite my asking politely more than once. Yeesh.
I pushed through to the finish, a very casual set up, with a table of friendly volunteers. No idea what place I'd garnered, I asked a volunteer, who said, "I don't know, second maybe? I think some guys are in already". All right, but what does that mean, and what if runners in the 54k had dropped out at the end of their first loop? Hard to tell.
I decided that it didn't really matter. I'd run a MUCH better race than last time, finished very strong, and felt like I could have gone another mile or two if I'd had to do so. I grabbed some snacks, made sure to thank the volunteers, congratulated the race director for a great event, then headed home.
Waited for several days for results to be posted, which was a bit frustrating. Finally, they were up, and I saw myself listed as 2nd place - okay, that was more-or-less what I expected. What I didn't expect was that the winner was a 58 year old from St. Paul. Fifty-eight?? Dude, I want to know what you have for breakfast! Beat me by 11 minutes too, stomped me. I was curious - this guy had to be an outstanding age-grouper around these parts - so I searched the internet for the name and race results. Nothing, except one of those Mud-Warrior events from last summer, showing a mid-pack finish. Wow, this 58 year old guy came out of nowhere and won a 27k trail race? Then I finally found some links to the name - and the right age - but it was related to some guy who lost almost 100 pounds using some special intense training regimen - didn't look like a runner. Hmm. Weird. Well, kudos to you buddy. Nice run.
The next day, just out of curiosity, I took another look at the results. Lo and behold, I was listed as first place! I guess it was a scoring error or something, but that other guy was now way down the standings, and there I was in first. Hey, I'm an old codger now, I don't WIN races! Or, do I? If I'm patient enough, run to my strengths, build momentum and come flying home in the last miles ... maybe I do!
I last won a race back in 2008, and I was convinced it would be the very last race I would ever win. I was wrong. To say I'm on cloud nine right now would probably be an understatement. Let me bask in this one just a little while, I'm sure I'll be shot back down to earth the next time I toe the line. But I'll enjoy this feeling while it lasts.