Yesterday, I ran my first trail race, at half marathon distance it was also my first race longer than 5K, as well as the longest run I've ever done.
Driving out to Fall Creek Falls State Park on St. Patrick's Day, the scenery was breathtaking. It was reminiscent of the sorts of scenery you see in the opening minutes of every movie about Ireland. Except of course "The Commitments" Rolling hills, vast valleys, livestock grazing in areas steep enough to make you wonder if two of their legs were longer than the other two. In some areas the fog was so thick it looked as if I would drive over a hill and off a cliff into the ocean. Even though I'm fairly certain there is no ocean front in Tennessee. We missed our turn and stopped at an old store with four men sitting out front.
On asking for directions the first response was, "Oh, no, you can't get there from here." Then the four put together directions that were more precise than any GPS system I've ever heard of and we made it to the park with less than half an hour to start time.
Quick! To the registration table. Quick! to the bathroom. Quick! Get your water bottles and energy gels ready and packed.
As I look around at other racers at these things, I always feel as if everyone else looks so much more confident and experienced than I feel. It turns out at this one it was because so many of them really were much more confident and experienced than I am.
Up the paved road, to the gravel fire road in my Vibram Five Fingers Treksports. I was concerned that the fire road would be about two miles of gravel, and it was. It was however, also heavily worn, resulting in the gravel being pretty much unnoticeable to my Nearly Bare Feet. Next onto the trails.
Trails are hard. Trail running is hard. The difference in my stepdaughters half-marathon time on the road last year and on the trail this year is nearly a 2 minute per mile deficit on the trails.
Trails are fun. Trail running is fun. Running for 2 hours on the road gets pretty boring, on the trails, the ever changing scenery and terrain keep things alive, leaping over logs, ducking under branches, gingerly stepping through streams, crossing bouncy suspended bridges, slaloming among big rocks all lend to keeping things exciting. And hard.
While dodging through some closely growing hemlock trees, I heard another runner coming near me. On a road race I would expect this person to talk a little bit to me. "Passing on your left." and "Good run." This guy was a trail runner though, and as my wife, my stepdaughter, and I learned independently, trail runners are different than road runners. This guy, who later left me eating his dust, had a twenty minute conversation with me while running down the trail. We talked about racing, trail running, our choice of race nutrition, how we started running. . .
The Upper Loop Trail at Fall Creek Falls is beautiful, running it is incredible. Up hills, across streams, sideways on hills so that you feel like you have to run sideways. I stopped at one point to grab a pine cone to bring home to my daughter. Eventually the single track trail spilled out into an area that appeared to be cleared wide enough for cars. I stopped and looked around. There was a wooden sign that said, "Upper Loop Trail" and pointed to the right. I turned right and ran. Up ahead the entire path was blocked by a ten foot tall pile of sticks. I slowed down. Two runners came back towards me through the sticks. I said, "Am I going the right way?" They said, "Apparently NOT!" I followed them back to the trail, and got back on track. It probably cost me four or five minutes.
Back on the trail, I made an effort to pick up the pace, I'm not sure if I picked up the pace, but I definitely picked up the effort. I drank some water and took my third energy gel and hustled past the aid station located a little past nine miles down the trail. On the trail, I had another conversation with a guy doing the 50K race, then he ran on past me.
At about the last two miles, my old friend Plantar Fasciitis decided to pay me a visit.
I ignored him.
He didn't like being ignored, so he stabbed me in the right foot.
My new run cadence became left, ow, left, ow, left, ow.
My foot was hurting, my legs were aching, then I heard the second most wonderful sound of the race.
The last mile of the race was on the park road, the sound of traffic meant I was almost to the last mile. I headed downhill (blessed, blessed downhill) towards the finish, thinking that this would be the first race I ran in which I did not kick into high gear and sprint to the finish. Then I heard the most wonderful sound of the race, music playing at the finish line. I kicked into high gear and ran as hard as I could to the finish. Two hours and twelve minutes after I started, I was finished.
For my first trail race, and my first half marathon, I think it was a wonderful finishing time. Fifteenth place overall, second place in my age group which means I got to bring home a finishers medal and a top three water bottle. Strange I know, medals for everyone and water bottles for top three in each division, but I like it.