Three weeks ago I was crawling on all fours up a mountain side towards the Tunnel Aid Station in mile 22 of the Speedgoat 50K.
Yesterday, I was power hiking over trees limbs, brush, and rock formations while climbing 2,100 feet straight up Mary Jane Mountain at Winter Park Ski Area.
Needless to say, over the last month, having run two trail races that focused on vertical gain “by any means necessary,” it was a relief to return to the flowy, single-track trails of Steamboat Springs to finally get to ‘run’ trails again.
It’s been a long summer. For the last three months, I’ve focused my training on mountain climbing, tapering, and recovery. Having run at least a marathon distance race in each of the last six months, I haven’t been feeling the mojo flow of running of late – the juice that made me fall in love with the secrets of the trail in the first place has been missing.
So here I am standing in the 3rd place position on the podium for the Steamboat Stinger Trail Marathon – exhausted, bloodied, bruised, covered in dirt – feeling accomplished, satisfied, proud, and in need of a break!
Patience, Determination, Grit.
Was this my best race? Nope. Was this my fastest race? No way. This race was, however, an invigorating, well managed, and properly executed race. Precisely the race that I was hoping have on this day.
I began the race with patience, forcing myself to hang back in the top-10 for the first third of the race. Too often I go out flying, hoping to build a lead on the competition and throw the extra time/distance in the bank for later. This rarely works and has a tendency to backfire as I get worn out quicker, and am passed by more controlled athletes in the later stages of the race.
I rolled through the midway point in 8th place. I was cruising along the single track trail, but as I ran solo descending the switchbacks I worried that the competition was building a lead and I’d never catch up. Was my patience backfiring? Had I forfeited my opportunity to compete for the podium? “Patience… Endurance Changes Time.” Seriously, I said this to myself.
Interjection: Endurance Changes Time has become sort of a motto for my racing this season. I’ve built up my resume of ultra-distance races and pushed my limits of endurance this season. I’m racing on fatigued legs, I’m racing competitors who are more prepared and fitter. Yet, I feel like I have this secret endurance potion in my back pocket that allows me to kick into racing gear in the final stages of races. That is how Endurance Changes Time.
So this is where determination takes over. I’m 13-miles in and sitting in 8th place. [I should make the word ‘panic’ bold and italicized for effect here, but determination makes me sound like I know what I’m talking about]. Let the race begin. The mixture of panic and determination may formulate that secret potion that I alluded to earlier. I began my charge, following closely behind a yellow-shirt runner (6th place). I cruise with him for a while, accepting his pace, and trying to prevent myself from expending any extra energy by just following, not exerting.
I made it a few miles with yellow-shirt runner, before getting closer to his heels and requesting to pass. I took off on an extended climb, eager to get my next target into view. This climb felt long and lonesome. As I searched for another racer to catch, my thoughts wavered to things like home design, marriage, and ice cream, but I was able to keep chugging along at a steady clip. It was on an uphill switch back that I finally caught the next racer, advancing me into 5th place. Phew.
I regained my race-focus, doused myself with confidence, and longed for the next aid station a few miles ahead – which would mark 8-miles remaining to the finish. This final third of the race, I thought, is where I would and could make my mark… Endurance Changes Time. I was feeling great physically – my legs were limber, I was drinking a 20-oz bottle of water at roughly 4-mile intervals, and the Gels were going down smoothly every half hour.
Not long into the final 8-miles, I unexpectedly pass another runner. Whoa, sweet, that was easy: Me 4th place, other runner wiping his ass on the side of the trail, 5th place. Sorry, dude. While this is an unfortunate truth of racing (especially trail racing) this is one of those variables that seemingly no one can control. Volatility of the bowels on race day is about as predictable as race day weather. You never know what you’re gonna get and bad can turn to worse at any moment.
It was sort of an anti-climactic pass, but now that I was running in 4th and I had the podium on my mind. I was tracking through a heavily-wooded and windy forest trail, when out of the corner of my eye, I spy a yellow blob in the brush. “Whoa you spooked me!!” I smirked. It’s not often that I encounter potty- breakers during a trail races, but I just propelled into podium position as a result of nature calling someone other than me.
I felt comfortable in 3rd place, though I still had my sights set on the two racers ahead of me. Could I catch them? Uggggghhhh. I’m on the ground.
Dusty, winded, and achy, I regain my bearings and start jogging. I had been blazing down the single track trail when I kicked into root that sent me superman-ing to the ground, belly first. It wasn’t my first encounter with a stubbed foot on a root, but damn did it hurt. As I assessed my body, I felt wrecked. Both knees were bloodied, water bottle covered in dirt, and my foot throbbing in pain. I honestly wasn’t sure if I could make it six more miles to the finish. I was jogging, trying to shake out of the stupor that had attacked me in an instant.
Ah yes, this is the third highlight: Grit. It was all downhill from here, but now I had to keep especially aware of each footstrike to keep me upright. One foot in front of the other. I successfully made it to the final aid station and was told that 2nd place was 3-minutes ahead, and 1st place had passed through 9-minutes prior. OK, I thought, I’ve got four miles to go, I’ve got to grit on to try and catch #2.
“MOTHER FUCKER!” Yes, I said it. I fell victim to Root number 2. This time I exclaimed, hoping that someone had witnessed the trickery that the ground was playing on my size 13 flippers. The spill generously reapplied another coating of dirt on my body, but I had kicked that root even harder than the first time and with the same left foot! [Post-race sock unwrapping would reveal a swollen & smashed blueberry-like 4th toe]. This trip was kindof amusing: I grinned, I groaned, I thought what else could happen, then I started reciting Chumbawamba. Yea that song, yes that chorus. How grit is that?
For the remaining 3-miles, I felt my feet slapping the ground as a result of limited control of my lower extremities. I cringed with each step and nervously peered uphill with each switch back afraid that I was being chased down. I was in the clear, but I knew one more mishap and my race could be done. I painstakingly focused on each step desperate to make it back to the finish in one piece. Final turn, “Hey Twig”, final sprint, “Woo Hoo, Julia.” I crossed the line in 3:30 minutes, 3rd place.