On December 10, 2016, I did my first trail race. It was wet and windy, but I loved it. I was hooked. So hooked, in fact, that I planned to do another race the following weekend. But I managed to mangle my back a few days later. How? Bowling. Seriously. Apparently I can run 12 miles up and down a mountain, but rolling a ball across the floor while wearing ridiculous shoes is too treacherous.
No problem, I’ll just do this 17k run in Woodside on New Year’s Day. It’s close to home and gives me a great excuse not to get plastered on New Year’s Eve. (Kids also should be a good excuse, but they actually sort of turn you towards drinking). But then my beloved Washington Huskies made the college football playoff, leaving me no choice but to desert my family and fly to Atlanta for New Years. (And so also went my excuses not to drink. I might still be hungover from that weekend).
My next attempt was a half marathon in the Pacifica Foothills on Jan 14. Jess’s work schedule was still up in the air, so our nanny agreed to come for 4 hours on Saturday morning so I could finally get back on the trail. There was an epic storm the week before, but the weather forecast called for clear skies. All was looking good. Until they decided to close the park due to storm damage, and the race got moved to San Rafael — an untenable hour+ drive away. Shiiiiiiiiit!
The universe seems to be conspiring against me. But undaunted, I sign up for another half, this time in Huddart Park in Redwood City on Jan 21. I shan’t be denied!
Once again, it’s been raining all week, and the race day forecast calls for continued storms. You’ll recall that my first trail run took place in a downpour, and I was the super smart guy wearing a thin shirt and street shoes. I survived, but was determined to be better prepared this time around. But not too prepared. I waited until the day before the race to get a rain jacket and trail shoes.
You’re never supposed to try anything new on race day. Especially new shoes. Especially a shoe style you’ve never worn before. Especially not for 13 miles of hills, mud, and rocks over uneven terrain. So I guess I’m not so well prepared after all.
Race day arrives, and it looks like we might have a break in the weather. It’s overcast in the morning, but as we near go time, the sun is starting to poke through. At the starting line, the organizer suggests that the trail is actually pretty solid. Shit, maybe I should have worn the shoes I know and love. Crap, what if I get blisters? Or knee pain? Dammit, why didn’t I buy these shoes a week ago so I could test them. Sonofabitch!!!
The race starts with a quick sprint down a grass hill to the trail head. Maybe only about 100 feet, but instantly I’m glad to have these new trail shoes. Without them, I’d be sliding on my ass down this hill.
A group of about 10 people sprint out ahead, down the hill, and burst onto the trail like a rocket. The trail is downhill and winding for the first mile, so it’s hard not hold back from chasing them. But then the trail begins heading up. And up. And up some more. The next 4+ miles bring over 1,500 feet of climbing.
About a mile into the climb I’m running with a guy from the original sprint group. We actually got lost together a one point (confusing trail markings) and after we got back on track he commented that “it’s a lot more fun to run these with someone else” to which I jokingly replied “I’m not sure how long I’ll actually be able to keep up with you.” But in my mind I’m really thinking “I’m not sure how long YOU will be able to keep up with ME.” After all, I just caught up with him. I’m gaining pace, he’s losing it.
Almost immediately I start to fade. I can’t match his pace, and eventually he disappears from view. And to add insult to injury, after another mile or so I start mixing in walks on the steepest bits. 4 miles of steep climbing is not something I’m prepared for, and it shows. (Side note: he finished 3rd overall. Not too shabby.)
By the time I reach the main (but not last) summit, I’ve regained some strength and am feeling pretty good. I work my way towards the turnaround point where we grab a rubber band from a bag to prove that we didn’t turn back early. Sounds like a good system, except it’s a bag of assorted rubber bands (like you’d have in your junk drawer at home). So…if someone wants to cheat, I’m not sure this will really stop them.
I count only 5 people heading back along the trail before I reach the turnaround. Could I really be in 6th place? Holy shit, I could make the podium! It’s on now!
The second half is mostly retracing our steps, with the exception being a long fire road for the last 1–2 miles. I generally take it easy on the downhills, but I’m feeling motivated. Or maybe reckless is a better word. There are two racers close behind me. One passes me early in the downhill. The other slips while trying and has to fall back behind me when we single-track.
I’m running as fast downhill as I’ve ever run before (for a long distance anyway). Trying at once to catch the guy who passed me, while simultaneously holding off the one behind me. Throwing caution to the wind I pound my knees and swing around 180 degree turns on muddied and rocky trails.
By the time I hit the fire road, both guys are out of sight and I’m sprinting purely for time. My legs feel great. My feet (miraculously) feel great. I feel great. I cross the line just under 1 hour and 50 minutes, finishing 7th overall and, get this, 1st in the 40–49 age group!
The last time I finished 1st in a race was 23+ years ago at the Sea-King District high school track championship (a week before getting edged out for the Washington State Championship. Arggghhhh!!! Still bitter). And that was only 300 meters with 8 pretty manageable hurdles along the way. This was a full 13 miles with big old hills and lots of mud. I guess I’ve come full circle, with the eerie similarity being that, then as now, I’m wearing tights.
After the finish I’m famished, and looking forward to some delicious fuel like my last trail run. I’m pretty bummed to find only an assortment of bagels, chips, pretzels and chex mix. Not too gratifying. There are giant bags of sausages and stews, but nothing is cooking yet. What gives?
What gives is that while our race is done, the real racers are still hard at work. You see, like in triathlons, there’s a hierarchy in trail runs. Different triathlon race lengths and difficulties are (usually) on different days and locations. So if you’re doing an Olympic distance, so is everyone else. You don’t have to feel shamed by the people doing a half or full ironman.
But with trail runs, multiple distances are scheduled for same day and location. At this race, in addition to half marathon there was also a 5 mile, 22 mile, marathon, and 50k. So while you should feel awesome about your accomplishment, part of you (or at least part of me) is envious of the folks pushing themselves even further. It sort of messes with your head when you’re an overly competitive guy like me.
Anyway, the longer distance racers start a bit earlier, but of course finish later. Because, you know, they have further to run. And it appears that the warm and delicious food options are to be timed around their finish instead of ours. I guess 13 miles and 2,100 feet of climbing doesn’t entitle you to a hot meal. Just a goofy t-shirt and some Ruffles.
Some of you may be wondering “hey, if you ran this race on Jan 21, why are you just now writing about it in mid-February?” If so, then wow, you really pay a lot of attention. I’m flattered. Regardless, I have a good explanation. A couple hours after the race I started feeling a bit off. And then really off. And then downright awful. My 3 yr-old son Cam was vomiting Friday night into Saturday (thanks Jess for taking care of the kids all morning!), and I apparently got what he had. We struggle together through the rest of Saturday. And Sunday. And Monday. And…well, let’s just say the norovirus appears to have run through our family and kept everyone on the shelf for almost a week. Can’t remember being that sick for a long time. And tough to recover when you’re up throughout the night cleaning sheets, dumping puke buckets, etc, and taking your kid to the ER for an ear infection. Fun stuff when you’re on death’s door yourself.
Did the run make me more susceptible to getting sick? Or make it harder to fight it off? Or just left me too broken to summon the energy to tough it out? Probably. But was it worth it? Definitely. Like my first trail run, I absolutely loved it. Biking is fine. Swimming is tolerable. But running? Running is just the bees knees (as the cool kids would say). And trail running is to regular running what Vegas is to Reno. More dangerous, more painful, but so much more fun. And so worth it. And in this case, without the inevitable regret and self loathing. At least, not yet.
You can see a find a full list of race recaps here (if you’re into that sort of thing): Joe’s race recaps