Monday, December 19, 2005

Race Report: The HUFF, 17 Dec 05; The Better Part of Valor

ORN: 12.0 miles, 2:20:09, 11:40/mile

Quick Summary

The race did not go as I hoped. 12” of dry, powdery snow on top of a rough bike trail is not a wonderful way to run. I did one lap of the 10.8 mile course and started the second lap, when I felt my right hamstring start to go. I decided to hang it up and not injure myself. A beautiful winter day, but not an enjoyable running event.

All the Gory Details

OK, if you are a glutton for punishment (also known as a runner), here’s the full scoop on the race.

You know a race is set for cold weather when at registration they give you an ice scraper and a stocking cap along with the obligatory T shirt. Yep, this is a cold one.

Having run this race a year ago, I was psyched to run it again. The
2005 Trail Map here shows the 10.8 mile loop around a man-made reservoir on the Wabash River. Race HQ was at a campground on the middle of the north side of the lake.

I was out of bed at 4:30am, on the road 20 minutes later for the 90 minute drive in the dark. One bank thermometer said 18, the next one said 12. Yeah, it was cold. Had a great time driving and thinking through some issues that early in the morning, with
Twila Paris on the CD player. I pulled into the pitch-black campground that was buzzing with activity around 6:45am. I found the registration tent (well heated with propane flame-throwers!) which was way better organized than last year, and I was all set before 7am. Back to the car, popped in my contact lenses and relaxed, wondering what 20 miles would be like. Oh yeah, I’ll just let you imagine what a pit toilet at a campground in these temperatures was like.

The 8am start was, well, chaotic. I knew that they intended to let the 3 lap runners and the relay teams go at 8, with the one lap runners 15 minutes later. Apparently few others did. It reminded me of the old Charlie Brown films, where the adults are off-screen, going “blah blah blah” while the kids did what they wanted. The race director had a bull horn and was talking, but it was unintelligible.

At 8:03am, the cannon (yeah, a real Civil War era cannon) went off and so did we, nearly 450 in the first wave. We did a half mile on the main road into the campground, feeling very much like a normal race start.

Then, it really started.

We made a left turn and went on the trail. How can I describe the surface?? They had around 12” of snow in this area in the previous 10 days, then bitter cold. So the snow was dry, powdery and refused to pack at all. So, we all moved ahead, crammed into single file in the snow. All trying to find a path that was about 9-12” wide. Seriously. It looked like
this; all in single file. For the first 100 m or so off the road, we had to walk. It was a traffic jam, 8 lanes of cars funneled through a single lane.

Underfoot, it was awful. The snow was very soft and movable. There was no grip for my feet and it was very uneven. So, we all expended much energy just trying not to fall or run into someone. I felt very bad for relay teams who wanted to do well, as there was no way to pass unless you ventured outside the 9” wide path and plowed through undisturbed show, thus burning even MORE energy.

So, there I am, after spending much of the fall getting psyched about this, in a slow moving conga line through the trees, getting well acquainted with the water bottle the guy in front of me was wearing on his fuel belt.

After three miles of this, we emerged on the dam at the west end of the lake. And, just like the freeway when it opens up, there was a surge of traffic. Everyone spread out, there was much passing and we did a lot of work to better sort out the pace. And I was astounded just how much better a flat surface felt. I noted on my Garmin that I was pushing under a 9:00 pace, so I had to back off, knowing that was foolish.

At the other end of the bridge, we had our first water stop then back into the woods. Same condition. Still single file. Just like NASCAR at Watkins Glen…no room to pass. You got stuck behind slower runners and/or were holding up faster folks behind you.

Around the 6 mile mark, we had about a third of a mile on the trail where a bulldozer had been a couple days previous. Wow, was that nice. Two wide, flat packed paths. We quickly spread and enjoyed the comfort. But then, back to the snow.

Just past mile 7, we emerged on a bridge at the east end of the course. Again, almost instantly, I was down to a 9:00 pace. Encouraging, as it felt almost effortless, even after slogging through that much powder. A little before mile 8, we turned back west to head for the campground, 2 miles away.

A year ago, when I ran this course on bare dirt, I was really almost wiped out by this part of the course and struggled. This time, with a much stronger mileage base, it was not bad, except for the footing. I was joined by my work colleague, Jay, at this point. He’s a veteran ultramarathoner, but he told me his Achilles was tweaked and he was going to call it a day after one lap. Wow, the conditions must be tough if a well-skilled guy like Jay is struggling.

I got back to the campground and crossed the mat with one lap down. Grabbed some food and drink and headed out on the second lap. The crowd had thinned by now, as the one-lap runners were warming up again in the tent. But the snow was still deep. And, whether it was psychological from my talk with Jay or not, I noted my right hamstring starting to strain. I cut off the course to run on the asphalt. It felt fine there. I carried on to the first turning off point on the trail, hoping the problem was gone.

In 200 m of snow, I could tell the hammy was only going to get worse. My next “jumping off” point was 2.5 miles away. I had to decide. Now. I thought about my goals. My main goal is to run, injury free, into my 70s. Hey, I’m 52 now, so I have a ways to go still. What will I prove if I run now, injure myself and then be stuck inside all winter? Not much.

So, I packed it in. I ran back down the trail, onto the main road, ran up to the campground and logged 12 full miles on my Garmin. Turned in my chip, told the folks I was a DNF, grabbed some cookies and walked back to the car.

A disappointing day, mostly in the lost chance to enjoy a race. It was a beautiful winter day. The woods were pretty, geese flew overhead; but one had to concentrate so much on the course that one could not enjoy either the day or the scenery. The course was so narrow, I couldn’t talk to anyone, an important part of racing for me.

This is probably my last trail race. I know lots of folks enjoy it, but I’ll focus on the roads.

Thanks for listening!!

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