I knew it was going to be brutal, in terms of the weather anyways, as the last few week’s temperatures around here have been holding steady in the 90’s and race day was going to be no different. I hit my coach up for advice on a tune up workout 2 days prior to the race, but he advised me to simply do minimal running and concentrate on hydration as, “this weather has an accumulative effect that you can break with rest and hydration”. With a couple laborious days of work on my schedule, I decided to do just that and took off the previous two days completely, carrying water bottles with me wherever I went. Hell, I did 115 miles the week before, so I figured I’d take it easy and put in a full effort for this race instead of just using it as a relatively easy training run. As the race neared I grew more confident with my decision as I could feel the strength come back to my legs.
Race morning was expectedly humid. It wasn’t excessively hot, but I’m sure the dew point was at debilitating levels and I knew as soon as that sun came out that it was going to cause the same problems it had in the past few weeks, which was a little unnerving as we stood next to the start chute at 7:30 as the race director went through an emmy awards long list of thank yous for the people who helped with the race, extending our time in the sun later on in the race that much longer. 20+ minutes longer actually. I’m appreciative of all the work the race director does, but that speech should have started earlier, for as we stood ON the start line, we waited, and waited, and waited…and waited. Apparently the 5k aid station wasn’t set up yet. So at around 7:52, my stomach full of pre-race butterflies, we were finally ready to run.
With an anti-climactic countdown, the director blew a tiny whistle and we jumped off the start line into an almost maze-like section of grass that twisted and turned us through a number of pine trees before sending us into a claustrophobically tight run of single track. I managed to get out ahead right away and attempted to gauge if I was STILL getting away as we entered the woods, but also told myself to concentrate on pace and just keep moving forward. Which wasn’t easy…moving forward that is. This section of trail was comprised of twists and turns that had us jumping logs and downed trees every 30 or 40 feet. It was more of a steeplechase than a trail run. We blasted down some hills and scrambled up the other side of others, some so steep that roots had to act as foot holds and stair steps just to make it to the top.
After traversing this first section of trail I popped out onto a paved access road and moved ahead, trying to be conscious of who might be behind me and just how far, but I had the feeling I was starting to run alone. I decided to put a little more effort into the section of open road and try to create an even bigger gap in case I would need it later in the race. The road pulled us back into the trail section that twisted, dove and climbed somewhat absurdly, just like the trail previous section.
Soon though, it popped back out to a dirt access road that allowed me to push again, this time having to nearly long jump wiped out sections of trail/road and drainage ditches. Such is trail running.
I could tell I was certainly alone now, but convinced myself to not ever look back and just focus on putting effort where I could find uninterrupted pathways to do so. Such an opportunity immediately sprang up as I ducked under a tunnel-like section of trees, climbed up a quick incline and hopped over a guard rail onto a stretch of road that carried us over the reservoir. I was able to open up a little more and continue pushing on the flat stretch that would take us into the trails on the other side of the park. The sun was still hidden in cloud cover at this point and I felt strong and confident in my pace, hoping the clouds might hang around into the afternoon to keep things relatively cool.
I entered back into the trails on the East side of the park and was able to move even quicker than before as the trails are highly groomed, wide open and familiar to me as our team does long runs here every Saturday. I pushed on, concentrating on taking down my energy gels, taking in fluids at aid stations and via my handheld, and dumping copious amounts of cold water on my head to try and remain somewhat cooled off. I was pleased with how everything was going at this point and my lead continued to grow.
After pushing through an annoyingly long stretch of almost golf ball sized rocks that slipped under your footing I bounded out of the park and headed back towards the road, this time up against the long stream of runners entering the woods, most offering encouragement, with other notable exceptions almost causing disasterous, ipod initiated collisions. I continued to move quickly and felt strong as I ran back across the road, now realizing the sun had begun to show itself as the clouds moved away….things were about to heat up.
I jumped the guard rail again, ducked back into the woods and entered the lollipop section that would bring me back to the start for my second loop. Deceptively called a “lollipop”, though accurate in course, this part of the trail contained ridiculous drop offs into ravines that forced you to nearly scale them coming back up, some of them blocked by goliath-like trees. Ultimately, I made it out of the trails and across the timing mat in 1:35, an indicator of the difficulty of this course. (sidenote: a few GPS watches read the distance as 14.1 miles….eh, whatever).
Coming across the mat I passed the aid station table and bee-lined straight to my personal cooler full of water and ice, jammed my handheld deep within and came back up with a fresh supply of ice cold water to keep me going. Entering back into the woods I still felt strong in my legs and didn’t have any concerns of rolling my ankle on the root infested paths.
Going through the motions again, hopping trees, climbing hills, etc., I repeated the course back to the road that would bring me across the reservoir again. That’s when I noticed something. When the funnel of trees lay behind me and the open road stretched out, I felt slow. I could tell my pace had dropped when I had the true gauge of the pavement to measure against and I started to feel the fatigue that has become all to familiar in the past few weeks of heat. I wasn’t deterred yet though, and kept pressing across the pavement and back into the trail system. However, things weren’t getting better.
I ran through the easier trails, but could tell my breathing was more labored on the uphills and recovery time was extending far enough to get swallowed up by the next hill. My “thank yous” and “good jobs” to the other runners were getting more difficult, less enthusiastic and a little slurred. I told myself to just make it to 20 and then hopefully a mental effort will carry me the rest of the way.
I entered back onto the rocky stretch of “trail” that made footing so incredibly difficult and tried to push on the flats, but could tell I was only making intermittent progress at picking up pace. And when I came off that stretch and went up a winding hill, I felt incredibly defeated. Things were quickly going from bad to worse. Trudging through this portion of the course I made it around the lollipop and started working my way through the trails back to the reservoir road, and that’s when I saw the runner I thought might be second place. He was looking good and as I was climbing a hill…slowly…I know I looked like shit. However, I had a pretty significant lead at this point and it was going to take quite an effort to make up that distance. I hoped he was feeling as fatigued as I was.
That’s when I walked. I tried to fight it off, but I remembered how refreshed I could feel if I gave my legs just a bit of reprieve. I just hoped I could get going again. I took a few very short walks in the last East section of trail, loading up at aid stations, and then worked my way back onto the reservoir road for the last time. The sun was out, my breathing was labored and my lungs felt like they were filled with cotton. This all had the cumulative effect of sapping all the energy from my legs as my body worked to pull precious liquids to my skin to cool off.
Somehow though, I lost myself in my thoughts and managed to dreamily make my way across the bridge without walking or slowing down, knowing that once I got back in the woods I would have relief from the sun and the final encouraging stretch of trail to the finish. I refilled at every aid station I came across, hoping all the electrolytes and sugars might take me to the next one, but I think I was a lost cause at this point, just doing the marathon “survival shuffle”.
Actually, I was letting the trail dictate my pace, which meant trying to keep a strong pace on the downhills and…well….the uphills I walked. I would try to run as far as I could, but each uphill seemed to become more and more difficult. I was dying. But I was still making progress.
I passed a couple people on the access road stretch, which illicited some swear words from getting lapped followed by words of encouragement. Broken and defeated I just tried to keep pushing the last couple miles to make it to the finish line and misting tent….which seriously, is what kept me going. I walked the hills, pushed the flats and let the downhills take me where they may. I remained upright and didn’t roll my ankle (bonus!). Then I hit those damn logs again.
Now, as difficult as it was to duck and jump at this point, what made it worse was my legs began to cramp when I had to lift them over the logs. Now, I’ve never cramped in a race before in my life, so that should give you another indicator as to how hot, humid and draining it was out there. Still…I was having a blast, especially as the finish neared. I traversed each log as it came, but also noticed that each effort had me working to get the cramp back out after it started to come on. Coming through a couple of the final ravines I jumped one last log, felt my hamstring and calf tighten up and almost couldn’t run it out! Fortunately though, the trail popped out of the woods into the grass and I had a short stretch to the finish line. I saw Michelle, weakly threw her the devil horns (it felt stronger in my mind) and put in a final finishing kick across the timing mat, catching the announcer off guard.
Done. I composed myself, grabbed my “medal” (a piece of wood actually) and found my way directly to the misting tent to lay down and try to cool off.
In all, I was pretty pleased with the outcome of the race considering the conditions of both the weather and the trail. I knew it was going to be a struggle, but I’ll admit I didn’t realize it was going to be THAT difficult, so I have to be pleased with how I came through it and kept pushing despite the deterioration. This also gives me one more notch of experience before next month’s 50 miler in Vermont, which is going to be a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT BEAST.
Eagle Creek Marathon (or 28.2 miles?)
3:23 (don’t let the time fool you)