Last Saturday, I ran my first trail race – The Dirty Spokes Harbin Park Half Marathon
I signed up for this race on a whim; Jerry, the resident BMR trail running aficionado, invited me to come out with him a few days before the race. Given that I was already planning to run that distance on trail for my long run, coupled with the fact that I’ve declined his offers on more than a few occasions due to schedule conflicts in the past, I figured why not.
A couple days and an hour’s drive later, I was in the Dacula, GA waiting to get started.
The first thing I noticed upon arrival is that trail racers and road racers have very different pre-race routines. When I get to a road-race, I normally see a bunch of people alternating between stretching and running in order to warm up for the race. Most of the serious folks are not really speaking to anyone and are, instead, focusing on getting into their runners’ zone.
This was very different.
Jerry arrived about 10 minutes after I did, and he proceeded to point out all of the top athletes on the course this day. They were all just casually walking around and chatting it up with the people nearby. None of them seemed stressed. None of them wore headphones. None of them were running strides… or even stretching for that matter. They were just hanging around. There was nothing in their demeanor that suggested they were about to run an extremely impressive half marathon, which they most certainly did by the way. The vibe was just different; I liked it.
I got to the race early enough to do my favorite pre-race activities. That included a bit of stretching, a few strides, and (most importantly) a few minutes to sit and read. Yes, one of my favorite pre-race activities is reading; it helps calm my thoughts and ease my tension before the start. Different... I know.
Though I’ve run on trails many times now, this was my first trail race. Usually, when I run trails on the weekends, I go at a comfortable pace and often stop randomly to take in the scenery. That being the case, I had absolutely no idea how to pace myself for an actual trail race. After talking a bit of strategy with Jerry, I settled on going at a pace that was about 1 minute per mile off of my road half marathon pace.
The race director stated several times that the race would start at 7:30 sharp, and he stuck to his promise. At precisely7:30, the race started. The race began with about a quarter mile of asphalt before heading into the forest. This was good because it allowed time for the pack to spread out appropriately (by pace) before getting into the double track off-road stuff. It was cool not to have to do much weaving and positioning before I was able to comfortably settle into the pace that I would (hopefully) be able to hold for the ensuing 13.1 miles of dirt, hills, rocks, and fun.
By the time we got on the trail I was somewhere amongst the front 40 or so people. I quickly found a guy that was running at a pace that I liked and latched on to him. We stuck together for the first 9 miles or so. When he passed someone I passed someone… My objective was to tag him through the entire course.
The first 9 miles were awesome! Up and down relatively non-technical beautiful forest land. There was a decent amount of elevation change (nothing extreme) and minimal rocks, roots and trail stuff to trip over. It was pretty much all moderately well groomed, double track, bike path. Though I should note – I witnessed one of the most athletic maneuvers ever around mile 8. Remember that guy that I said I was following. Well together we passed many people as we slowly (but steadily) moved up in placement through the course. Well, anyway, he took a bit of a tumble around the 8 mile mark. There was a pretty big tree root that crossed the path right around one of the sharper bends. He didn’t see it. What followed was this:
1. He fell forward and completed what appeared to be a double tuck somersault.
2. Mid-fall/ninja-flip, he managed to call out “watch out for the tree root!”
3. As I passed by his tumbling body I replied, “are you okay??”
4. I looked back in time to hear him say “yes!” as he scooped up his dropped water bottle mid stride and fell right in place behind me
I was impressed!
Speaking of water bottles, I REAAAAALLLY wish I had mine because the water stations were few and far apart. After mile 9, I was starting to dehydrate and I could feel it in my performance. My pace slowed and my runner buddy/secret ninja eventually pulled away from me at mile 10 shortly before I stopped at a water station.
After guzzling down two cups of water and some gel blocks, I felt like a new man. I gathered my strength (and pace) back just in time to attack the last 4 miles, which were full of some fun single track, highly technical (by my standards), fast winding trail-awesomeness. I passed a couple of runners in this stretch, but I never caught back up with my original (and un-official) “trail guide.”
I finished my first trail half marathon in 1:46! Much better time than I expected, and I had a blast doing it! Oh, and I got second place in my age group!! 21st place overall!
I feel like I can officially consider myself a trail runner now. I thoroughly enjoyed my first trail race, and this definitely won’t be me last.
Until next time...