Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Trail Race Debut

I've always loved racing on the roads.  You have a smooth, hard surface that gives back a lot of energy return.  You can usually see what's lies ahead and with the mile markers, you get a constant reminder of where you are, how much you have left and what kind of pace you're running.  On the trails, it's a different story.  There really are no mile markers, all the trees make your GPS pretty much worthless, so you have no idea on your speed and you are constantly changing gears and never have a real opportunity to zone in on your rhythm and grind away.

However, the lower "pressure" and structure of a trail race sounded like a fun off-season race, so I decided to sign up for the Still Hollow Half-Marathon in Chattanooga on August 4th.  I've heard a lot of good things about the Rock Creek trail races, so I was looking forward to it.  Well, not completely.  I do at least 99.99% of my training on the roads, am the king of locking into a rhythm and have trouble with sudden pace adjustments and to put it bluntly, am terrible on the trails.  I remember going to running camp in high school and despite being one of the faster people there, was trounced everyday.  Everyday, we would venture out to the Pisgah Forest, which contained constant hills. I was placed in the first group and nearly every day, my teammate and still one of my closest friends, Reed Fisher, started in group two, and even though our group had a couple of minutes head start, and I could beat him by over a minute in the 5k, he would catch me before the end of each run.  But the Still Hollow Half-Marathon seemed like it wasn't too technical of a course, so I decided to test the waters.

After watching my former college teammate, Janet Cherebon-Bawcom, finish 12th in the women's Olympic 10,000m, I was on my way.  I road tripped with three of my friends, who formed quite the motley crew.  You had, myself, the former middle distance runner, turned marathoner and road purist, who hates the uncertainty and ADD'ness of the trails . Our driver was Brent Fuqua, a seasoned trail veteran and the road trip elder, who is getting back into the swing of things after missing many months because of injury.  Vance Pounders, a University of Tennessee-Martin distance runner who thinks six laps around the track is too far, which is a far cry from the more than six miles in the woods that he was destined for in the morning.  And the token German, Olaf Wasternack, who is leaving the roads to try more than his fair share of trail races and ultra-marathons this fall.  Throughout the ride down, he made it known several times that he had not had a cookie in over two weeks and couldn't wait to have one again.

We stopped at Subway on the road for a quick dinner.  Since I had it for lunch, I decided to not go with my usual footlong chicken, bacon and ranch sub and tested out some agnus steak sub that more closely resembled cafeteria mystery meat than the angnus steak sub that I fell in love with at Quiznos.

We checked into our hotel a little bit after 8:00pm and made a Bi-Lo run so Vance could get some of his random hippie food, so I could get some Gatorade and so Olaf could get some cookies.  After watching the Olympics for a bit, we went to bed a little bit before 11:00 with a 4:30am wake-up time (which I wasn't looking forward to, because it was also 3:30am Nashville time).

After waking up, I ate a Strawberry Harvest Powerbar, had my token coffee and stole some of Vance's Smoky BBQ Wheat Thins (which no one can deny.)  The race course was only a few minutes drive and we left shortly before 6:00am.  It was still pitch black outside, but once you entered the park, there were tons of volunteers guiding you where to go, so finding a parking spot was not a problem.

Because I can be a bit of a control freak and always like to have a plan going into something, I did some research to figure out who I would be racing against, so I could make the best possible strategy for the course. Johnny Clemmons seemed to be the guy to beat.  After internet stalking him a bit, I was able to find out that like me, he's starting to get back into running again after taking several years off.  He's been running really well on the trails lately, and several years ago, ran under 25 minutes for 8k and ran 2:40 on the road for the marathon.

The half marathon course had two main sections.  The first section was a wide woodchip filled path.  It didn't seem too technical, which I was happy to know.  After finishing the wood chip part, the 10k runners finished the race and the half marathoners veered off to a single-track bike trail, consisting of hard packed dirt, with plenty of twists, turns and some climbs.  After finding out the course information, I felt like the best strategy would be to start out fast and take advantage of the faster woodchip path.  I was hoping to build up a minute or two lead as I entered the bike trail, knowing that I would probably lose some time to Johnny on the more technical parts.

I knew I wasn't in very good shape at the moment and felt like if I raced a half marathon on a flat course, in cool weather, I could maybe pull out 67 minutes and change.  When I race a half marathon when I'm in shape, it takes about 4-5 days before I can do another hard workout.  When I'm out of shape, it beats me up pretty badly and makes me worthless for several days.  Being that I'm just now getting into hard training, I really didn't want to have to run all-out and was hoping I could run around 70-72 road effort so I could get back to hard training the next week. But as always, if I was forced to run all-out, I wouldn't think twice about it.

Going into the race, I had no idea what shoes I was going to wear.  I packed my Saucony Endorphin LD track spikes (what was I thinking), my Saucony Grid Type A5 road flats and my brand new Saucony Kinvara 3's. I was leaning towards my A5's but Olaf said the rocks would hurt my feet and wouldn't have much traction.  The track spikes were definitely out, so I went with the Kinvaras.  There's a lot more foam in the midsole, which would protect my feet more and the lugs on the shoes would help me with traction.

When the race started, I got out quickly.  For almost half of a mile, you stay on the roads and run down a gradual downhill before entering the trails.  I checked out my watch and saw that I was stupidly running close to 4:40 mile pace.  I slammed on the brakes a bit and tried to find a comfortable, but fast effort.

Once we entered the wood chip trail, it was tougher than I thought.  The wood chips made the ground incredibly soft, so you didn't have a good feel for it, you received no energy return and it was hard to get a good push-off. I checked over my shoulder on some of the switchbacks and saw a guy in blue only a few seconds behind me.  I didn't know anything about him, so he had me a little bit worried. I tried to keep the same effort to see how he would respond and after another mile or so, he slowly started to fall behind, which enabled me to relax some.  The trail had a few windy climbs that really stole my mojo and I kept waiting to be passed but I was able to hold onto my lead.

About five miles in, a water spot appeared, which I was happy to see. It gave me a few seconds to relax for a bit and get some fluids in. I've never really taken water in a half marathon before, because I've always been lucky enough to run in cooler weather ones, and the one time I tried, most of it went in my nose.  But the weather was humid and over 70 degrees, so I decided to physically stop at every water station to make sure I got enough fluids in. I chugged a couple of cups, frat boy style, and then I was on my way.  The water was really cold and bounced around in my stomach too much, so I relaxed the pace for a couple of minutes until things became more settled.

Why did I agree to coach this guy?

After the woodchip trail, I came out of the woods and saw the finish line.  Some guys thought I was doing the 10k and directed me to the right, but since I was in the half, I veered to the left.  There was a water stop at this point, so I stopped, drunk a cup of water and cup of Heed and then I was back on my way.

During a half marathon, you really don't need any carbohydrates, especially if you train pretty consistency.  Your liver and muscles have stored enough of them to last you well over 13 miles, so taking them in is pretty much useless.  However, the Heed was warmer and thicker than the water, so I decided to make that my drink of choice for the rest of the race.

Once I entered the bike trails, I really enjoyed the surface.  It was hard packed dirt, with some scattered rocks and for a few minutes, I took off and took advantage of the conditions.  It didn't last long because the twists, turns and hills started to rear their ugly head.  Luckily there were a few more water stops that gave me a brief break and gave me something to look forward to.

At what I thought was about nine miles, I was pretty sure I had at least a two or three minute lead, so I decided to back off the pace a good bit.  I've had an on-and-off knee issue lately, which wasn't enjoying the turns and hills.  Not to mention, the constant changes of rhythm was really burning me out mentally and I just wanted to kick back and enjoy the race.  I felt that if the last four miles were on a track, I could pull off close to 5:00 pace if I were forced to, so I knew that if someone caught me, I would be able to throw down a few hard miles.  I decided to run around 6:00 road effort and just finish up.

I decided to slow down just in time because around ten miles, there was a long, winding climb that never seemed to end.  I also had to run over these steroid-infused speed bumps that left my clueless.  At first, I just ran up-and-down them, but that didn't work well.  I then decided to try and jump from one bump to the next, but that about made my legs buckle but at least I got some sweet air out of it.  Eventually I was out of that trail and surprisingly, some downhill road running was thrown in.

At this point, I knew I would be done at anytime. I was looking forward to the finish line and was impressed that I didn't get lost or fall.  I thought too soon because on one of the turns, I ran into and ended up hugging a pine tree.

Eventually I crossed the finish line in 1:26:09, which was a 6:35 mile average.  Johnny Clemmons finished 2nd in 1:30:51 and Olaf ran a really solid 1:32:44 to finish in 3rd place overall.  Brent finished in 66th overall, which placed him in the upper 1/3 overall, despite missing so much training time, in what I believe was one of his first races in about a year.  Vance finished 4th out of nearly 150 runners in the 10k but has declared he now hates trail running.

After the race, I ended up meeting and cooling down with Johnny.  He told me he has run 4:01 in the mile and 2:25 for the marathon on the roads.  I'm glad I didn't see those results during my internet stalking because I would have run scared, with a much faster 2nd half.

Overall, it was a fun experience.  I won a cool plaque and some water vest type thing (I'm a road guy, I have no idea what they are called) that I will probably use to sneak Coke into the movie theater or when I'm too lazy to walk downstairs for a drink.  I was glad that I was able to relax a good bit that second half, which will enable me to jump right back into hard training.  I'm not completely sure how fast I could have run in the race, but feel I could have at least run sub 1:22 and maybe come close to 1:20 if I spent more time attacking the hills and drank water on the fly, rather than relax at all of the water stops.

I was also really impressed that I never got lost.  I've gotten lost running in my neighborhood, in many road races and during tons of cross country races in high school.  In one high school race, I ended up getting lost on two different occasions, even though I was running with a map of the course.  All of the turns were marked with flags and all of the "wrong" turns were taped off.  If it wasn't for the hard work of the volunteers, I would probably still be out there wandering around today.

I'm not sure if I will run another trail race in the near future.  Maybe when I get tired of chasing times on the road, I'll make a reappearance, but the style of the trail racing just isn't made for me.  However, I've always had the Western States 100 on my bucket list, so I should probably pursue that before I get old and fat.

Overall, it was a fun weekend and Rock Creek did an excellent job running the race.  The drive home brought back some nostalgia, as we stopped by Waffle House, and I loaded up on my my old school "usual" which is a double waffle and large hashbrowns with cheese.  I even got home in time to unfortunately see Mo Farah beat Kenenisa Bekele in the 10k and Galen Rupp sneak a silver medal, which I felt he had little chance of doing. But for now, it's back to the roads!

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