Monday, June 6, 2011

My first trail marathon

Readers beware, this is a long one. Grab a beer/glass of wine, or both! Also, please excuse any typos. I was pretty tried when I typed this up! Enjoy!

Ahhh, my first trail race... something I had been wanting to try for awhile now. Over the years, I have run my fair share of road marathons, but on Saturday I traded the pavement for dirt, mud, creek crossings, and some wicked uphill climbs.

The North Face has a series of endurance events across the country and one stop is right here in the DC. In addition to the marathon, there was also a 50K (31 miles) and a 50 mile race. One of the many things that attracted me to this event was the fact that Dean Karnazes, a North Face athlete (and my running idol), was going to be there!

The real fun began Friday night when I got the chance to personally meet Dean after a pre-race panel discussion at the North Face store in Georgetown. I was certainly a little star-struck when I spoke to him, but it was awesome to meet him. I told him how he inspired me to run my first ultramarathon and he replied jokingly, "I hope you still like me."

Me talking to Dean

Dean stuck around the store until every last person got a picture with him. He is a real down to earth guy that cares deeply about running and wants to share his love of running with everyone around him. I hope I cross paths with him again in the future!

Start/Finish Line
The days leading up to the race were really hot and humid and that had me a bit concerned. Luckily, as the weekend approach, cooler temperatures prevailed. The start/finish area was located in the beautiful Algonkian Regional Park, which is situated along the Potomac River. The course, a 13 mile out and back (or so I thought, more on this later), utilized many parts of the Potomac Heritage Trail.

The race started promptly at 9am. Before the race began, Dean provided us all with some words of encouragement. As I passed under the inflatable archway to begin my 26 mile trek, I noticed Dean off to the side giving runners high-fives. I made my way over and traded a high-five with him! How often do you get the chance to high-five you're idol at the start of the race??? 

My race strategy was pretty straight forward, finish and stay hydrated. The temperature was hovering around 70 at the start, but I knew it would only get hotter. So, staying hydrated was going to very important during the race. The aid stations were spread out about every 5 to 6 miles on the course, so I decided to wear my hydration pack. This turned out to be a really good decision. 

One thing I noticed right away was that it was damn near impossible to hold a steady pace. The course terrain was always changing. Some parts of the course were flat, but for the most part, it was filled with little ruts just waiting to roll an ankle and tree roots that would catch your foot and send you flying if you weren't careful. Also, the majority of the course was singletrack, which provided little room for runners to pass each other. The scenery was absolutely gorgeous. However, I was so concerned with my foot placement that it was hard to look up and fully appreciate it. Below are some images I snapped of the course.

To ensure we didn't get lost out there, the course was lined with orange, blue and pink ribbons. The 50 mile runners were to follow the orange ribbons, the 50K the blue, and for the marathon, the pink. We were told before the race started that if you stopped seeing your ribbon, to turn around and return to the last place you remember seeing your ribbon. Luckily, the ribbons were spaced about 50 feet apart from each other so it was pretty easy to know if you were on or off the course.

The first 6 miles of the race were uneventful. There was a 100 foot climb near the 5th mile, but with my legs still fresh, it wasn't to bad to get up. The first real obstacle on the course was a creek crossing around the 7th mile. As me and the runners around approach this section, we more or less stopped dead in our tracks to figure out how we were going to navigate this part. The trail dropped about 3 feet straight into the creek, which was probably 3 to 4 feet wide. I watched the girl in front of me jump right into it and carry on. I, on the other hand, didn't like the idea of getting my shoes and socks soaking wet so early in the race (for fear of getting blisters). So, I backed up a bit and did my best to jump over the creek. I landed a little short of the mark, but managed to keep the majority of my feet dry.

Miles 10 through 12 were a pretty technical. It started with about 150 foot climb and then what seemed like continuous rolling hills. Then, at the 12th mile, I was faced with a very steep 150 foot decent. Some parts of the decent were so steep that trying to run down it wasn't going to work, unless I wanted to face-plant into a tree.

Once I reached the base of the downhill section, the course flatted out. From there, I had about another mile until the turnaround. I reached the turnaround in about 2 hours and 15 minutes with 13 miles registered on my GPS watch. I was happy with this pace and I still felt pretty fresh. I knew if I could maintain a similar pace on the return, I would easily finish the race with a sub-5 hour time.

The turnaround point was also the second aid station on the course. My hydration pack (which can hold 70 oz. of water) was bone-dry, so I refilled it. I scarfed down some potatoes, a handful of M&Ms, and washed it all down with some gatorade (a tasty mid-race meal if you ask me!). Then, I set off for the trek back to the starting point.

So, do you remember that downhill at mile 12 I talked about? Yea, well that hill was a bitch going up. I didn't even make an attempt to run up the hill....nor did the others around me.

Miles 14 through 18 were pretty rough on me. I went from feeling pretty good to completely wasted in the matter of minutes. It caught me off guard for sure. They say in marathon running that runners hit that iconic wall at mile 20. Well, for me, it happened at mile 16...not good. It sucks when you realize that you still have 10 miles in front of you and you feel like you can't go another mile. However, I tried my best to stay in the moment, focus on putting one foot in front of the other, and not worry about the future. I couldn't control what was going to happen an hour from now, so why worry about it?

To say the least, it was slow going until I reached the next aid station at mile 20.5 (or so I thought). When I arrived at the aid station a volunteer said to me, "Nice job. You're at mile 19." "Really?!?!" I asked back. I knew there was no way that could be right. My watch had 20.5 miles registered on it. However, there was a sign confirming the volunteer's comment, "Aid Station #3 - Marathon mile marker 19.1." I was pissed! Here I was, thinking I had about 5 miles to go, and now I'm being told I had more like 7 miles to go. It was a huge mental blow. 

I took a lot of extra time at this aid station. I now had to prep myself for at least another hour and a half of running when I thought I had maybe an hour left. I drank some extra fluids, and munched on a banana and a PB&J (another one of my favorite in-race snacks). I also poured quite a few cups of water over my head as the mid-afternoon heat was really starting to build.

The long break at the aid station did me some good and I was feeling much better. About a half mile outside the aid station I encounter the creek I had jumped over earlier in the day. However, this time I could care less about getting my feet wet. The creek water was ice cold and actually felt pretty damn amazing on my aching feet! 

After crossing the creek, it was about another half mile until I approach the last challenging part of the course, the 100 foot climb I faced at the 5th mile. After the hill, the last 5 miles of the course were nice and flat and to my surprise, I felt myself coming out of the slump I had been in for the past 6 miles.

The last 5 miles of the race were very enjoyable. I shared a few laughs with some fellow runners and had pushed aside my frustration about the course going long. A couple extra miles in the bank does the body good I guess.

I finished the race in just under 5 1/2 hours with 27.6 miles clocked on my watch. All said and done, I was really satisfied with my race. Sure, the course chewed me up and spit me out, but sometimes its nice getting you're ass kicked. I've certainly gain a lot of respect for trail running and as always, I'm left wanting more. I'm motivated now more then ever to train harder, squeeze in a few more trail runs, and give it another go!

The reason I run is for self-satisfaction. I'm doing this for no one but myself, and I wouldn't want it any other way! I can't say it any better than the late Steve Prefontaine,

"You have to wonder at times what you're doing out there. Over the years, I've given myself a thousand reasons to keep running, but it always comes back to where it started. It comes down to self-satisfaction and a sense of achievement."

Race Stats
Time - 5:26:25
Avg Pace - 12:28 min per mile
Elevation Gain - 1,131 feet
86th out of 199 overall
25th out of 43 in age group (21-29)
65th out of 138 in gender

The bling and stylish pink bib