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.


  1. Wow, Douglas, great story. I know you'd rather have had a good time, but I like the story. And your time was pretty good, better than my PR.

    What's funny (probably not to you right now) is that there are only two trains a week on that track (one northbound and one southbound), and I have never had to stop for a train before despite it being one of my favorite running and skiing spots.

    Hey, keep up the good work! You're torching the toughest age group in UMTR.

    John K.

    1. Hi John,
      Actually, I do find it funny, in a nothing-you-can-do-about-it-so-might-as-well-laugh sort of way. I'm likely going to miss the next few UMTR races due to schedule conflicts and travel plans, but will be back at it in the fall, legs willing.

  2. I've had races that had train delays. The Northern Lakes 30K and 10 Mile in White Bear had me outsprinting a train and one of the early Hopkins Raspberry Festival 5 Miles had a train decide the outcome. There was one I did yearly in Indiana where the race directors got the train schedules before planning start times - and every year there was a "special."


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