My first trail race was last weekend’s Catalina Island Eco-Marathon 10k. Originally I was only going to be a spectator. My husband and son registered for the Eco-marathon, which promised 26.2 miles of tough hills (some at 15% grade), fire roads and single-track trails, potential buffalo sightings, hawks and eagles, and exquisite 360 degree views of the Pacific Ocean.
Catalina Island is about 20 miles off the southern coast of California and is unique and beautiful. Participating in a trail run, usually marathons or 50-milers, is one of the few ways to explore the terrain, which is mostly designated as coastal conservancy. I jumped at the chance to run the 10k race when I realized it was offered, not anticipating the difficulty to this seemingly innocuous distance.
My right hamstring and hip flexor were still tight and sore from running the Portland Half Marathon in early October. They prevented any real training between the half marathon and race day, a period of almost six weeks. Not feeling prepared, I reasoned I could walk the course (isn’t that what people do on the hills of trail runs anyway?), relish the warm weather after snow and mid-teen temperature weather in Colorado, and use the race as a means to cover parts of the island inaccessible by the ubiquitous golf carts.
As you Salty readers know, though, the pull of running is strong. Even though I tell myself I’ll walk or jog or do a walk/run combination, in actuality, it’s hard to do. So, on Saturday morning, after meeting Alex and Glory at the ferry terminal and wondering aloud why I was doing this run, I bade them good-bye and walked to the very casual start line.
The race crowd gathered by the harbor at the city center. The race director pointed in the general direction of the road around the harbor, then mentioned some steep road to the right, “You won’t get lost, just follow the faster runners!” We laughed, looking around at who that might be, until we saw several athletic-looking high school boys. They’d clearly run the race before, maybe even had cross-country practice on the same trails. Needless to say, they shot out like rabbits, leaving the rest of us to maneuver the course without a clear understanding of how it would unfold.
The marathon course, including the infamous mile 19 climb, the “crush,” was described in detail on the run’s website. The 10k must have been an after-thought as there wasn’t an elevation map and the course description was vague. I didn’t really have a sense of the hills, the elevation, or the type of trails I’d encounter. Poor judgment on my part not to have asked more specifically about the course at the expo, but then again, the expo was only a small room with bibs and tee-shirts.
There I was with about 175 people, ready to do what we needed to do. As we left the center of town, we ran along the harbor, circled the casino (where scuba drivers were putting on gear for viewing the incredible sea life), turned a sharp right up hills through residential areas high above town, swooped back down for another sharp right turn, ran the “gradual incline” (ha!) along the golf course, turned left on the rocky fire road, wound around the hills for several miles, then ran a steep descent, where all the runners I’d passed on the way up passed me, back down to the harbor.
Did I mention the weather was hot? Humid? The hills steep, both ways, with total elevation gain of 1229′ and loss of 1203′ during the 6.2 mile course? The race director warned us that we’d appreciate the first water stop, only 1.3 miles from the start, and we did. I rarely drink that early in a run but that morning, with the temperature already in the mid-seventies at 8:30 a.m., required a different approach. The several runners with whom I spoke, well, grunted at, agonized about the “brutal” climbs.
I had side stitches most of the run. I intentionally ran slowly, nursing the legs, concerned about hydration, remembering trail race pointers where we’re supposed to focus on effort not time. I didn’t have any choice: I felt like I was running through molasses in a hot oven, the effort was certainly real! I wasn’t exhausted at the end of the race but couldn’t have been happier that it was over when it was.
Although the course was difficult, the scenery, even in the middle of the California drought, was spectacular. The Pacific Ocean was cerulean, clear, calm. The hills were covered with cacti. The runners and volunteers were friendly. After the race, unlike my previous 10k races and half marathon this year, I didn’t experience the ever-present sharp pain in my hamstring and glutes. That was wonderful! I can only attribute it to the slower pace, less pounding because of the dirt roads, more focus on form as I actively used my arms like I learned in Chi Running class to propel me up the hills.
The relief was temporary, though. A few days later, my hip almost locked up when I ran six miles in New York City with my older son. I couldn’t forego the opportunity, though, to run with him as our time alone is precious. Sore, biting pain be damned! Of course, we’ll see what I say in another week or so!
Lessons learned: trail racing is an entirely different sport than road running. Enjoy the scenery. Be present. Remind yourself to go slowly. Time doesn’t matter. The experience does.
What are your experiences running trails v. roads? Do you enjoy the scenery more? Does your body feel differently?