Two years ago, large portions of Bastrop County burned to the ground in the worst wildfires in Texas history. Thousands lost their homes and large portions of Bastrop State Park were destroyed. The Bastrop area contains the “Lost Pines” because of the pocket of deep, sandy soils and large stands of loblolly pines that are completely surrounded by an oak savannah and grassland prairie. Being about 100 miles west of East Texas’ Pineywoods, the Lost Pines are the farthest west stand of loblolly pines in the United States. Bastrop State Park, 5,926 acres of the Lost Pines ecosystem, only 50-100 acres of Bastrop State Park remained untouched by the 2011 wildfires.
The Burning Pine Run is a 5k and 10k race designed as a fundraising event to help heal Bastrop and to help rebuild the ecosystem that was so devastatingly jeopardized in the fires. I entered the 10k because I’m passionate about the outdoors, and since moving to central Texas (not a pine tree in sight!) from Michigan, where there are pine trees everywhere, going to Bastrop felt a lot like going home. My reasons for joining this particular race were threefold: 1) losing Bastrop felt personal to me 2) the course promised to be beautiful, if stark and burned;and 3) I hadn’t run a 10K in years, and the first race in my Distance Challenge Series was just around the corner.
There was no parking right at the venue, so after my hour long plus drive to get there, I picked up my race packet and hopped on a shuttle bus to the venue area at 6:20 a.m. The 10K started at around 7:30, and it was two loops around a 5k course. As we gathered like cattle behind the starting line, we were told that in order to start the timing on our chips we had to pass over this narrow little mat laid on the road which couldn’t have been more than three feet wide. We reshuffled, and I realized that I was near the front of the pack. I had a passing thought that I didn’t belong there. I stepped back a couple of steps, but folks were packed in tight so I kept quiet and waited for the gun. After the starting bottleneck, we spread out pretty quickly and I felt great when we got to a nice, fast downhill in the first quarter mile. I mentally thanked the race organizers as I shot past people who were putting on the brakes instead of taking advantage of gravity. That first down was followed by a long lazy up, and since I had started near the front…
I could count every single person in front of me. There were 16. Gulp.
I set my RunKeeper to tell me my average pace every quarter mile because I have a big problem with starting too fast and burning out by the end. Note: I am not a fast runner. My average pace is about a 10:00 mile. I know that’s agonizingly slow to some of you, but that’s where I am and what I do. So when the voice in my ear told me I was doing sub-8s, I made an effort to back off and take it easier. I passed the one-mile marker and looked at my watch. 7:24. That’s a one-mile PR, I thought, but that’s not what I was going for, so I continued to back off until my average pace was around 8:28. I was shooting for a sub-55 minute finish, and figured that I needed to hang in right around 8:30 miles for the duration.
After two miles, there was some really well-defined separation between the first 20 or so runners and the rest of the pack, though every now and then someone would shoot up and join us or drop back. I was behind a slender young lady with perfect skin who was running in a sports bra and hotpants, and two long stretches of KT tape up her right hamstring. I dubbed her “Slim.” I refused to let Slim out of my sight, and I spent a few minutes deciding that she wasn’t in my age group and therefore probably not a real issue for me. Still, I didn’t let her get very far ahead.
During the last half or three quarters of a mile of the loop, there was a killer hill. I saw Slim walking up it, and I huffed “C’mon – you got this!” on my way by her. Her KT tape was peeling off and hanging down to her calf. I didn’t see her again until after the race, but she was right behind me when we passed a volunteer on the side of the road that shouted at us, “You’re the fifth female, sixth female.”
I was the fifth female. I couldn’t see the fourth female to catch her, but I decided I wasn’t going to give up my spot. There were 75 females running the 10K, and 70 of them were behind me.
By the time we completed the first loop, the 5K race had started, on the same course. It seemed that everyone doing the 5K was a walker. And they refused to walk single file, and they didn’t leave enough room for runners to stay on the side of the road that had been blocked off for the race; the other side was for vehicular traffic. I used a lot of energy calling out, “Runner on your left!” By the time I got to the killer hill, I was the only one running. I couldn’t tell the 5K folks from the 10K folks anymore, and with walkers stretched out everywhere, I had no idea where I was in the pack. But I knew one thing – I had not allowed any female runners to pass me. So, at the very least, I was still fifth.
After cresting the hill, I pushed the last mile. There were two women in the finish chute in front of me. I turned it on, like I always do at the very end, and felt a little guilty as I passed one of them, so I tapped her shoulder on the way by and egged her on. She didn’t speed up. I did. I was the fourth female to cross the finish line.
Slim approached me as I was leaning on a tree, drinking from the bottle that a faceless volunteer had handed me after the race, trying not to die. She asked what age group I was in. I smiled and told her, and she said that her fiancée had told her he thought she was first in her age group, but had been worried about me. She was relieved that I was so much older than she was (on the order of 10 years!), and we talked about how we had kept tabs on one another during the race. I cheered loudly when she was called up to receive her award.
Because of the bottleneck at the start, some women who finished after me had actually run slightly faster, so I was in sixth place on the leaderboard. I was third in my age group. But I was still the fourth to cross the finish line, and I had broken 55, just like I set out to do, so I was satisfied. My official time was 54:21.