I've been racing frequently lately, probably too frequently to be honest. I admit that I'm a bit compulsive about racing - perhaps impulsive too. I enjoy exploring new places, running new courses, and trying to meet people. It's especially true this year, having relocated to the great north and (at least so far) not having really connected with the running community. I know it takes time, but I'm trying to add frequency to the mix in the hopes of making friends and potentially finding a team with which to train and race.
I've been aiming toward two Grand Prix series, one on the roads via MDRA, and the other on the trails via UMTR. What better way to meet folks than to make at least a little splash in my age division in both? Each series will base its final standings on the "best x races out of y", so the early scoring is a bit hard to fathom. I've missed one race in each series already, so I'm behind in the standings on current total points, but a bit better on average points per race. It will all come out by the end of the year, of course.
My most-recent adventure took me about 70 miles north of the Twin Cities to Milaca, MN - home of the Runnin' in the Ruff 10k trail race. Touted as technical and muddy (hooray), it is the third race in the UMTR Trail Race Series for 2012.
I truly enjoyed the race. It had a classic small-town, small-budget vibe. People were generally friendly and enthused. The race director spent nearly 10 minutes going over both the two mile and 10k courses in painstaking detail, making many of us chuckle (how on earth would we remember all of that information?). My ears did perk up when he was discussing "Confusion Corner" - a spot on the course where a number of trails came to an intersection. However, he promised that there would be a person at that spot who could be trusted to make sure everyone headed in the right direction. I believed in that trust - and that was my first mistake.
After walking across a footbridge over the Rum River, we took up starting positions and hammered off at the sound of the gun, with 10kers heading one way and two milers another. Some young fella (or do they all look young to me now?) took off like a bat out of hell, and sprinted into the single-track with a substantial lead after only perhaps 400 meters. I was sitting 2nd, and probably running way too fast, but didn't want to get stuck in the narrow trails early in the race if I could avoid it. Another runner was right on my heels, and it was less than one mile in when I moved right to let him go by. Shortly thereafter, another runner pulled up behind me, and I let him go too. I was definitely gasping for air way too hard for this early in the race, so I decided to settle in and enjoy some mud, let the top three run away from me. Not to mention, I had a slight side-stitch, an indication of being tired (too much racing, this was my third weekend in a row).
I was able to keep third place in sight as we dove and wove the trails. Gaps would open up to about 50 meters at times, but when it got technical or flat, I would get back to only 10 meters behind. There was some mud, nothing too deep, and some water, just enough to make it fun. No stream crossings, too bad. by about 2.5 miles, I was starting to pull right up on the heels of third place on the downhills, but he'd pull away on the uphills, so he was clearly stronger than me. He did seem to be breathing pretty hard though, and I've long-employed this bit of race strategy: let 'em go a bit on the uphills, then glide down the other side to close the gap. This approach works in a number of ways, but the most important are: (1) the runner in front of you senses that you are dropping back on the uphills, which encourages him to push harder - thus using more of his energy - you are wearing him out by baiting him, (2) it's much easier to run downhill, so if you crest the top of the hill a bit fresher and think "quick feet, quick feet", you can make up 20-30 meters on a runner rather quickly, because he is likely to be easing off the gas a bit to recover from the climb, (3) it's a bit demoralizing for the runner in front, he's worked hard to drop you on a hill only to have you right back on his heels when the trail turns downhill. If you keep the pattern going for a couple of miles, it can really get in the head of that runner in front of you. Try it, see if it works for you. Oh, also recognize it when someone is trying it on you, so that it doesn't work on you.
At about 4 miles, I was feeling better (breathing deep finally relaxed the stitch), and I could tell that number 3 was laboring a bit, so I made a quick move - this time on an uphill/downhill combination. It only took about a minute to get a decent gap, and with the trails twisting and turning part of my goal was to get out of sight in order to discourage any chasing. I was actually feeling better than I had the entire race, and suddenly I could see 2nd place up ahead, and he looked a bit knackered. I had a shot at 2nd, if things went well. They didn't.
Next up: Confusion Corner
So, this is how it played out:
I came running up to Confusion Corner at full-on race pace. The main trails form a T intersection, so I could turn 90 degrees left or 90 degrees right. There was a tiny little gray sign in the ground, very hard to read, but I did see an arrow pointing right. The course marshall was standing to the left, so if I were to try a left turn, I would have had to dodge him a bit to do so. This gave me two visual cues to turn right, so I did. Then I hear:
Course Marshall: "Which race are you in?"
Me, still running away: "10k!"
Course Marshall: "mumble mumble"
Me (now 20 meters up the trail, slowing way down and glancing back over my shoulder): "What? Which way is 10k?!"
Course Marshall: "mumble mumble" and no hand gestures at all.
Me (now at full stop, turned around, palms turned skyward): "Which way is the 10k??"
Course Marshall: "mumble-mumble" something that sounded like "this" or "yes" and again no pointing motion, in fact he's sort of staring at his own shoes.
Me: (giving up, I turn back around and continue running hard on the trail I've taken. I assume if I'm heading the wrong way he'll start shouting at me - and he doesn't - so I assume I'm right on track and accelerate to try to catch 2nd place).
So, let's count: that's mistakes two, three, and possibly four all in the space of about 15 seconds.
At the next corner, the trail is marked with orange flags so I assume I'm on the right path. I keep hammering as hard as I can, still hoping to catch 2nd place. I head up a couple of steep hills, and eventually emerge from the woods onto a gravel road. I recognize the footbridge leading to the finish. I'm at the top of a hill, and I've got maybe 600 meters to go and there is nobody anywhere in sight. I think to myself, "That guy in 2nd must have really been flying the last mile, and buried me." Oh, well.
I kick it in home and cross the line, assuming I've gotten third place, and assuming I'm the first old geezer to finish. Because I had to leave almost immediately to head to a business lunch back in the Twin Cities, I started a slow cool down jog right away, heading back along the course. First thing I notice is that the runner who had been third is finishing very close behind me. Right behind him is Joe, the runner my wife and I had met back in February. I saw him at the start, and he assured me that I'd be way ahead of him. I figured he just had a great race, and cheered him in.
Then I looked up and saw runner after runner coming to that footbridge, but NOT from the same direction I'd come. Uh oh. I tracked down Joe, who said that I'd definitely blown it, I was supposed to turn left at Confusion Corner, and come in along the river. Clearly, I'd gone the wrong way at the aptly-named intersection. Argh!! I guess I followed the second half of the two mile course, by mistake.
Let me make one thing clear: I blame myself, at least mostly. I have very little sympathy for trail runners, myself included, who go off course and then whine about it. Take responsibility for your own actions, I say. In retrospect, as soon as I knew there was a "Confusion Corner", I should have taken it upon myself to memorize which way I would be turning. My fault, period. Of course, I also trusted the course marshall, and I do think that he should have been shouting and pointing for me, which would have saved me from my own foibles. He was probably the most low-key course marshall I've ever witnessed. Darn. But, like I said, I have only myself to truly blame for this one - that guy was a well-meaning volunteer and he may have actually told me TWICE that I was going the wrong way, I just didn't hear him or understand him. He probably thought I was an idiot! (and he's probably right).
Next year: Maybe I should make them a really big, bright, day-glo sign indicating that the 10k and 2 mile turn different directions at Confusion Corner.
As I said, I had to depart the race site to head back to Minneapolis right away, so I had no time to find out the final standings and whether I'd held third despite running a longer race than everyone else and having to go uphill and back down when everyone else just ran along the flats by the river. I feel pretty dumb, but I take some solace in that I ran a pretty good race even though I wasn't feeling great early on. I made a good strong move, and I was making up ground before I decided to add a bit more distance. Yeesh.
As far as going off course: I should have known better. I'm not a stumbling rookie here. Duh. Live and learn? Hope so!
I'll post a link to results here when they are up (assuming they even will be, I can find absolutely nothing online yet).
In sum, I really enjoyed the race and hope to make it an annual event now that I'm a Minnesotan. I also hope I can stick around next year to get to know more runners, which is one of my main goals anyway.
Note: Nice blog post including some photos here:
I actually took the shot of the three runners at the starting line - she handed me the camera and I obliged. Cheese!