Seeing this was my first race back since the Personal Best 5 way back in August, seeing this was my first race back since being down and out with an injury, seeing this being my first race back and it being a 4 out of 5 on the difficulty scale trail race, seeing this was my first race back and I have not been feeling fast or strong in my workouts….seeing all that…I wasn’t feeling all that confident about stepping to the start line. I was nervous, yes, but I was also scared. Scared of going out too hard, running a pace I USED to be able to handle instead of my current fitness level. Scared of getting rolled by the competition. Scared of experiencing that muscular dying feeling that absorbs me after being conquered by the hills. Scared of…well…just stuff. The normal stuff I suppose. The stuff I’m always scared of. But no matter, I signed up for the race, was at the start line and ready to let the course sort all my fears out for me.
My body was poised in attack position and my muscles were taut like a stretched rubber band, ready to shoot me down the course into the woods, hopefully out front where I prefer to be in a trail race. The race director gave the “Runners Ready!” and the bullhorn siren jolted us off the line and down the 800 meter stretch of paved trail before hitting the leaf-covered grounds of the woods. I got out front as I had hoped and comfortably rolled into a quick start, a much younger and naively eager runner holding pace next to me for the first 200 yards before dropping off the back. My teammate Lucas and two other runners he has been fighting with throughout the series were just behind me as expected and we pounded down the seemingly non-stop downhill into the course, leaving the pavement and entering into the groomed, but leaf-covered trail that camoflauged a number of precarious ankle-twisting (breaking?) rocks and roots.
The beginning of the course continued to stretch downhill, saving the strength in our legs for further into the course, but sending our lungs into redlined territory as we beat further and further into the woods. I continued out front with Lucas a handful of strides off my back and the other two runners somewhere close behind. We picked our way over some short rock gardens, a bridge or two and took some meandering turns through the first mile and a half. I resisted looking over my shoulder so early in the race and decided to keep pressing on, expecting Lucas to hang with me as we ate up distance. And he did.
After bottoming out for a little bit the course took some short inclines that had us back off our lungs and start laying into our legs, but nothing too problematic. I wondered if Lucas would stay with me as we climbed, but continued to look ahead and not back as we ran on, though I heard his footfalls in earshot and I knew he was hanging on, much to the disappointment of the inherent competitive spirit that takes over and consumes me in the heat of the race.
I didn’t want to look back, but after a hairpin turn I had no choice but to catch sight of Lucas pushing right behind me just a few seconds back. It was at this point that I was running scared, redlining it in my legs and lungs, but trying to make enough of a gap between the two of us that he might start to fade. The only consolation I had at this point was knowing that 3rd and 4th, Lucas’s old competition, were nowhere in sight. We had pushed the pace hard and they blew up rather quickly, never in reach of making an attack if they had it in them. It was just us two out front continuing to eat up the course as quickly as we could.
And quickly we went as the trail opened up onto a gravel road that dropped severely down the course, pounding our quads into mush as the weight of our bodies tried to keep up with gravity or brake our momentum into a pace a little more in control. It was a relief when the trail turned by the river, a topographical marker that we had no more quad busting downhills to manage at this point, but obviously a precursor to climbing back up the hills we just descended. I took the turn at the river and caught a glimpse of Lucas still just hanging off my back, not losing any ground at all…he was killing it and with every section of the course he held onto, I was growing increasingly scared that he was going to take me over soon.
We ran along the bottom of the ravine, over a respite of flat and bouncy boards build over a floodplain, through a foot soaking creek with dangerously positioned rocks and then….up. And up. And up. We were warned about this hill.
The trail rose sharply and continued to rise as our momentum dropped exponentially, turning our blurred legs into freeze frames as we picked our way up the hill, and continued to pick our way up the hill, and continued to pick our way up the hill, and continued to pick our way up the hill…until it leveled out for a second…before getting even steeper at the very top! Those kinds of hills are the WORST. But we both made it and worked our way through a couple paved campgrounds before being spit back into the woods, slowly descending back towards the river and fighting through roots, rocks and a number of other ankle destroying and speed sapping obstacles. I stayed just ahead and Lucas stayed just behind as we met the final obstacle before having to loop the course a second time to the finish. That final obstacle?…..Stairs. Endless stairs that climbed to the outer reaches of infinity, or so it seemed.
See, when a trail has to build stairs, it says something about the general topography of the area. It says the grade of the hills are so steep that you can’t even cut switchbacks into them to get out….you just have to build stairs that take you straight up. There is no turning, no platforms to rest upon, just stair after stair after stair.
I reached them first and started the climb, trying to figure out which was most efficient – running them individually, running every other one, yanking myself forward using the railings as I walked every other one, or doing the same but walking every step. I heard Lucas mutter,
“This is brutal!”, and I responded with encouragement, “Come on Lucas!”
But we could only make our way up at an embarrassingly slowed pace, using the handrails more than anything else as we picked our way up, not even looking to see what progress we had or hadn’t made. I finally reached the top and felt a weight and fatigue fill my legs like I hadn’t in a long time, muscles I forgot I had exerted to their maximum, threatening to buckle under me as we started getting back into our groove on the flattened trail at the top of the course. I kept picking through the rocks and roots with varying degrees of success and Lucas stayed just off my back, continuing to force me forward…still running scared and waiting to be overtaken.
We ran by the finish chute and the race director called out through the microphone,
“Here come our race leaders, Scott Spitz and Lucas McCabe, running all alone at this point.”
We crossed the start line for the final time and headed back into the course for the long downhill that would stress our legs, but give our lungs a bit of needed relief. Honestly though, at this point I knew Lucas was going to make a move on me and take me down once and for all. I was going to be defeated just halfway into the race. I prepared myself to conceed him the race and encourage him to take off towards the finish, in effect leaving me behind to fight the course into second place. But as I used the benefit of a paved trail and gravity’s power, I stopped hearing footfalls behind me, though I wasn’t at all convinced he wasn’t right behind me. A couple spectators hiking the woods cheered me on and I listened to when they would do the same for Lucas, giving me a sense of how far he lay off my back….but I heard nothing. I bottomed out at one hill and took a sharp turn, inadvertently looking back for his bright yellow jersey, but saw nothing in sight, though a large tree sat right in the direction I looked and I could only assume he was passing behind that tree just as I looked back. Whatever was going on behind me, that’s what I told myself.
The second time through the course was going to be a fight, no doubt, but there was something assuring knowing what obstacles we had ahead and their severity, allowing the consideration to ease up in preparation to take on the downhills and uphills. Still concerned about Lucas coming up behind me I found the drive to push on and despite feeling like I had been redlining it in both lungs and legs up to that point, was relieved to be able to find a rhythm and some speed when the course let up and allowed me to do so.
I tackled one of the uphills, leveled out for awhile and then dropped the long, precarious gravel road to the bottom of the river, overshooting the turn when I lost focus of the course while trying not to step in the washed out gulleys in the road. I kept pounding my quads into mush down the trail when suddenly I found myself considering my strategy after realizing Lucas had fallen out of sight.
“You should ease up on this flat, get comfortable and save your strength for the climb and stairs.”
But before I could even consider that even further, my true racing voice interrupted and took over.
“What the fuck! You attack the course and continue to attack the course! THAT’S how YOU race! Wise or not…that’s how YOU do it!”
And just like that, I hit the flat and found myself pressing on harder, using the relief of the level ground to keep up momentum towards the long climb that would eat my body up….and I loved it. I jumped over rocks, picked my way through the creek, double-jumped roots and attacked the course like I said I would. And when the hill came, I slowly picked my way up, refusing to put my hands on my legs and letting both my legs and lungs redline themselves all the way to the top.
Then soon enough I found myself facing that long stairclimb to the top of the ravine, knowing that once I passed that annoying monster I was home free to the finish. I knew if no one had come up on me by the time I reached the stairs that I had the win locked. I put one foot up on the first step, grabbed the railing, and started that obnoxious and slow ascent to the top of the course, finally reaching the last step before informing the volunteers waiting at the top with water,
“God, that’s ridiculous”, and then shooting back down the course to the finish.
At this point I wasn’t worried about how strong I felt running towards the finish, but I was quite surprised at the burst of excitement and adrenaline I felt when realizing I only had a relatively short and easy path to the line. My pace even quickened as I called out to the other runners in front of me finishing up the 5k course,
“Runner back!” and “Runner back!” and “Runner back!”
I made the final turn up a small incline and passed one of the course volunteers who I swore said, “Only 1 more mile!” when I was sure it was only 100 more meters. I could have easily run another mile if necessary, but I was mentally prepared to finish, so that was a small punch in the gut. I was quite relieved to hear the race director call out my name through the bullhorn and confirm my finishing sprint. I pulled up into the chute, crossed the line and let the tidal wave of relief and calm wash over me as my heart rate dropped precipitously and my legs let out an almost audible sigh of relief. I had did it. I held off Lucas, the two other runners of concern, fought a brutal course to its very end, completely thrashing my body in the process, but most importantly, building a massive base of race confidence to work from as I move on towards deeper training and more racing. Stronger and Faster.
One more thing…it should be noted that Lucas has been vegan for a few months now, so that made a 1, 2 vegan victory at this race. Were you saying something about vegans being weak?…yeah, didn’t think so. 😉
15k (Garmin’s read 9.7 miles)
1:04 and change