Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Train Kept a-Rolling ...

Race Report: William O'Brien 10 mile Trail Race, Marine on St. Croix, MN. 

My recent racing continues to be a theater of the absurd. But let's not get ahead of the story.

I raced the trails at William O'Brien State Park last Saturday. Conditions, at least for mid-June, were not too bad. Overcast skies, warm but not steaming hot, slight breeze. The course consisted of a "fat lollipop", with a section of trail covered during the first 1.5 miles, then a big loop, then back to the finish on the same 1.5 miles in reverse. Nothing too technical, but a couple sections that were nothing but rolling hill after rolling hill, enough to batter the legs a bit. One big puddle on the course, but otherwise totally dry. Once again, a trail race for the fleet of foot, and once again about 10 of them jumped out ahead of me during the first mile.

Patiently, I began to pull them back, as I slowly wound up the pace and got into the race. Between miles 1 and 6 I actually passed exactly one runner per mile, so as I approached mile seven (yes, they had mile markers on the course) I was sitting in 5th place and feeling good, thinking about hunting down a few more. That's when the absurdity appeared.

As I rounded a bend in the trail, I could hear a train chugging along to my right. "Please, please let there be a tunnel or a bridge" I pleaded to no one in particular. Nope. Dead stop. Freight train, slowly lumbering along, and the trail requiring me to cross the tracks. Nothing I could do about it, but just take some deep breaths and stand there, while runner after runner arrived behind me. All of the hard work of the past 4 miles, running them down, passing, pulling away ... evaporated. The race changed from a 10.5 mile trail race, to a 7.1 mile warmup followed by a 3.4 mile sprint race to the finish line.

I lost more than two minutes standing there, chatting a bit. Sigh.

Finally, the last car rolled by and I took off again, determined to pull away for a second time. I admit I was fueled a bit by frustration. According to my GPS watch, I was running sub-6:30 pace over that last 3+ miles, quite a bit faster than I'd averaged up to that point (admittedly the course was more downhill than uphill over that distance).

As I crossed the finish line, I couldn't help but smile and report the train crossing. At first, the timer thought he'd make some kind of adjustment, but I said, "No, no, there's nothing to be done, that's trail racing." And I meant it. You can't cry over spilled milk. I added, "I should have run the first 7 miles faster to avoid the darn train!"

I ambled over to my car, grabbed a towel, then took a quick and cooling swim in the waters of Lake Alice. Early results were posted, and if you subtracted just 2 minutes from my time I would have moved up to third overall. Double sigh. At least I won my age group. Results.

Bizarre, you say? Well, what would you say if I told you it happened to me once before? It was a road race, back in the late 1970s, and a train ruined my day then. The frustration I felt on that day, stoked by ample amounts of adolescent testosterone and self-righteous indignation, would sting me for months ... but also provide motivation to train harder and race faster. Now, with more than three decades behind me, I just find it rather funny and absurd. Or maybe I should have turned when that black cat ran across my path the other day when I was out for my morning run ...

A plea to any and all race directors: Please, never ever under any circumstances route your course across railroad tracks that have even the slightest chance of being active. Find a bridge or tunnel or change your course. At William O'Brien Park, we could have run an extra mile or so and used an underpass - it would have meant using a short section of trail twice, but that little detail pales in comparison to the potential risks of hundreds of tons of train pounding along steel rails and some skinny runner maybe tripping and falling in front of it.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The (Sour) Grapes of Wrath

Race Report: Sour Grapes Half Marathon trail race

I took the long-ish drive up to Brainerd, MN this past Saturday morning (2+ hours) to run the 5th race in the UMTR Trail Series in the Northland Arboretum. Theme of the day was the heat: relentless sun, and temperatures headed toward the 90s, with a dash of humidity just for kicks. Probably not great weather to race 13.1 miles, but at least we'd be in the woods for most of the race, where we'd have slightly cooler temps and shade (thank goodness).

A few notes about the race itself: the course was a non-technical XC ski trail loop that we ran twice, after sharing the start with the "half-half" runners; that is, competitors doing only one loop (about 10.5 kilometers). Editorial aside: I don't like races that mix multiple distances together for any major portion and especially not at the start, it makes things confusing for everyone and you just don't know who you are actually racing - but maybe I'm in the minority on that front. The course had no single track at all (darn), rolling hills, a bit of sand at times, was fairly wide, had no roots/rocks/mud to speak of - although there were two very short sections that were soft underfoot, so I suppose if this race took place on a rainy day there could be some swampy bits. The course was very well-marked, and they cleverly placed an aid station right at a complex intersection that was used at least a couple of times each lap - very smart move. Thankfully in the hot conditions I was able to grab plenty of water during the race without carrying any myself. Race organizers and volunteers were all friendly folks, and there were quite a few spectators for a trail race. It was chip-timed, a bit slow to get to the awards ceremonies (but I know that can be a bit tricky when racers are covering 13+ miles at paces ranging from 6 minutes to over 11 minutes per mile). All in all, a nice venue and a race worth running, but don't get your hopes up for a difficult course requiring real trail-running technique, this is just another speedster's course (although the sandy sections would slow down even the fleetest of foot).

At the start, I let those speedsters fly off while I tried to settle into something in the "comfortably hard" effort range. I knew it was going to be a long day when the first couple of miles went by well over 7:00 minute per mile pace, but I was already huffing and puffing like the big bad wolf. It was probably the heat + humidity, and those two demons were simply variables to be dealt with on the day. I suspected those faster starters up ahead of me would be falling off their aggressive pace before too long, just because of conditions. I counted about 10 runners in front of me at about the half-mile mark, but then got passed by 2 more in the next half mile. No way to know if they were in my race or not, and way too early to fight it, so I let them go and focused on my own pacing and effort level.

There are many disadvantages to growing older. For example: you get slower, recovery takes longer, you lose that spring in your step, your elbow skin sags, etc. But there are a few advantages: experience, self-awareness, guile. I tried to use those to their full advantage on this day.

I started passing other runners by mile 4 (already?). The first two *seemed* to be running the 10k, judged by the intensity of their breathing and their unwillingness to let me pass. Both of them spit and sputtered and wheezed and battled me for at least 2 minutes before finally relenting. I made no attempt to surge or "race" them head-to-head, I just kept plugging along at the effort level I believed I could sustain. By mile 5 I'd gotten 3 more, one of whom was WALKING, and asked me to reassure him that he'd not missed the 10.5k turnoff. I told him he still had more than a mile to go, and trundled on.

Passing the finish area at the end of loop one, I had no idea what place I was in for the half-marathon. I could see only one runner who seemed to have just finished, maybe, and looking up ahead across the field there was no one in sight. I tried to pick up the pace on the second loop, but it was just too hot to maintain anything much faster than I was already doing. By the end of the race, my watch would say that I ran the second loop about one minute faster than the first, so I did manage negative splits, although not by much.

The second loop was a rather lonely slog for awhile, until I started passing the slowest of the 10.5k runners/walkers who had still not finished their first loop. However, with about 2 miles to go, suddenly there was a runner in front of me who looked to be struggling on a hot, sunny uphill. As I tried to muster at least a little bit of a surge, he suddenly started walking - heat will do that to you. As I passed, he offered a word of encouragement and I told him to hang in there. I started to feel the effects of the heat, sand, and pace at around 11.5 miles, and from there on out I was just doing my best to maintain form. I crossed the finish line and someone told me I was third place, which surprised me a bit - I didn't think I had passed that many runners, but then again some of them may have been in the 10.5k and others may have been dropped out or been walking along with the 10.5k walkers and thus I didn't notice them? Guess I'll never know for sure.

I kept dousing myself with water, but it was pretty hard to cool off. I decided to walk my cool down instead of jogging it, my legs were tired and I was already so over-heated. Back at the race site, I grabbed a few snacks offered by a friendly horde of volunteers, and waited for the awards. I did finish 3rd (results), although I was way behind the guys in first and second place. I'm pretty happy with it. I think I made some good choices on the day, hanging back and doling out my effort wisely while others used themselves up early and bombed out. Every now and then we old guys manage to play our cards pretty well, I suppose.

Now I'll await the updated Grand Prix results to see how things come together. I'd been tied for first overall, but only third in my age group, through some vagaries of scoring (that escape me) and the fact that the series is still not quite half complete. We'll see how the rest of the year goes. Thanks to the organizers, volunteers, and everyone else at Sour Grapes. You put on a great race. I'll come back next year for sure if you promise cold rain!