As I drove up the tiny hill that led to the race, I started to see indications of the type of trail I’d be running. In contrast to last week’s trail marathon, this course did not play to my strengths. The Chewacla trail is single-track, mostly flat, and covered in roots and rocks and other trippable things. My heart sank as my dream of another competitive performance started to diminish.
When I arrived, around 30 minutes before the start time, my hopes were further dashed as saw that the turnout was good for a race in its second year. Competition would be steep, with some strong local (and non-local) runners in the 20k distance. I didn’t know how I’d do, but I resolved to stick to my race plan: start at a steady pace and maintain it until the last three miles, then push hard if I was feeling up to it and circumstances demanded.
In contrast to pre-race information, the 5k started first, followed by the 10k, then the 20k. As I watched the 5k and 10k races start it dawned on my that even if I started at the front of the pack, I’d still have to pass many slower 5k and 10k runners on the single-track. This would further complicate navigation of the technical trail. Resigned to a less than ideal situation, I made my way to the line. Raindrops began to fall as we set off.
A few runners started off fast and I landed towards the back of the front. As I feared, the trail became technical immediately, though flat and even gently sloping downhill in places. As long as I kept my eyes on the trail, I was able to navigate without losing speed. But then almost immediately I had to start passing other runners.
Passing was complicated when runners didn’t step aside to let me pass, even when I asked, so I had to navigate past them without falling or running into them. Normally I would be excited to pass people because it might be improving my race placement, but because the shorter races started before us, I didn’t know if I was passing a 20k runner as I moved through the pack. But that wasn’t much of a problem compared with the technical course issue. It was already taking all of my focus not to trip, and navigating people and the brush and rocks to the side of trail was slowing my progress considerably.
After four miles or so I’d passed the bulk of runners, so I could focus on maintaining my pace and getting through the 10k and 15k points, after which the real race could begin. This course was two 10k loops, and while I felt good through the first loop, I was definitely feeling signs of fatigue in my legs from the trail marathon and 5k. I knew it would be easier to trip as they grew tired so I refocused on my legs and ate half a Power Bar to fuel.
Aside from being closer to the finish, the bright side of the second loop was that I knew anyone I passed would be a 20k runner. With that in mind and energized by my Power Bar, I redoubled my efforts. The first part of the second loop is fast, although technical, so I went hard, searching for runners to pass. Then I had my first and only fall, stumbling as I navigated a particularly technical section.
No serious damage other than getting shaken up. After a few steps I regained my pace and saw a woman runner pass by on a switchback. My heart quickened. I like passing men, of course, but if I want a podium finish I have to pass women. Being unfamiliar with the course I didn’t know how far ahead this runner was, but I was excited for the chance to chase her down.
I hadn’t paid enough attention at the start to know who was ahead of me, and any sense I did have was lost in the mix of 5k and 10k runners, but I suspected that there were only a few women ahead of me. Even if it didn’t mean a podium finish, passing a woman would improve my place, so I started pushing hard. The power bar had kicked in and we came into a section with more dramatic ascents, so I tapped into my strength and powered uphill. Finally, with around three miles left, I saw her ahead ramped up my speed.
She saw me coming at the aid station and rushed through, dropping her cup and setting off on a sprint. I had my hydration pack, so I didn’t need to stop, and I started my chase.
We came to a road, and she was just feet ahead of me, and moved onto the road near a volunteer to block my path around her. I knew what she was doing and how bad of a position she was in; being chased is a terrible feeling and I had the advantage. With less than three miles left, I didn’t want to run out of course, but I knew I had reserves, so I settled back to and let her run and waited to make my move.
This frantic pace continued for a mile. and I let her sprint as we passed runner after runner through the course. We were flying, but then the course started to ascend and I could see her pace start to flag. By contrast, I was feeling great. It was hard, for sure, but I was feeling strong and pushing through the pain, helped I’m sure, by adrenaline. I have no doubt I had a huge grin on my face as I stayed consistently behind her, waiting for her to slow so I could overtake her. At the same time, I half hoped she would hold me off so the chase could continue until the finish. This is the very essence of competition, when another runner pushes you to go beyond your perceived capability!
On a particularly steep descent she slowed considerably, and I took my chance, stepping on the ridge of the trail, to pass by. I kept my effort hard, as our positions were now reversed and I was determined to build a big gap. I wanted a nice cushion if I slowed in the steep ascents towards the finish. Within a quarter mile she was out of sight. I settled back into a more sustainable pace that I’d keep until the end.
After passing a few more men I sprinted through the finish. It wasn’t until I was in the recreation area that I saw only two women had finished ahead of me. I had a podium finish as third place woman overall!
I assure you, the consistent pace and fast, smart strategy I ran with would have made me feel amazing regardless of my finish, truly. The podium finish was icing on the cake.
After two good weekends of racing I’m feeling good about my capabilities as a runner, albeit a bit unsure of why I haven’t been able to run this strong until the last couple years, when I’ve started to place well. Even though I won a few races prior to this season, I’ve never been able to race like I’m running now. Somehow in my sixth year of running, I finally figured out how to go out hard and keep pushing my effort, even when it gets hard and starts to hurt.
There’s a logic that says my fitness should be declining as I get older, but I think that because I started running so late in life I’m still mastering the skill—maybe I have just now accumulated my 10,000 hours of running. Additionally, I’ve finally figured out how to fuel my runs and my life. I have a good idea of how much I need to eat and what I can eat without making me sick while still meeting my nutritional needs. I’m eating more than I have in a decade, but I’m eating enough, which is shockingly impactful for running performance. I also think that after these six years of running, I’ve learned that I can hurt real bad and still survive. And without the stress of grad school I have more emotional and mental resources to dedicate to racing hard. Finally, despite being an Alabama summer, the weather gods have been very kind to me this year. Gentle rain and moderate temperature and humidity levels (maxing in the 80’s) makes running hard easier.
Whatever it is, I like it. Now it’s time for me to balance training and recovery, so I can keep doing this running thing for a lifetime.
That is, after the 50k the next weekend.
Just kidding. Maybe.