Thursday, October 21, 2010

My first trail "race"

Back in late September, after dropping out of the Bellingham Marathon, I started trying to plan out my next couple months of running, training, and races. I figured I would still be training for some kind of marathon, though I didn't know when or where at the time. I didn't want to give up all my long run training before I actually put it to use.

One of the events I ran across in my research was the Defiance 15/30/50K. The race was really a 50K, but the shorter distances were incorporated into the total. Because I had had such a good training run in the Birch Bay 30K back in the spring, I thought that this run might be a good one for me as well.

I didn't spend a lot of time thinking about how very different a trail race would be from a road race. Nor did I reflect much on how bad I am at trail running. These things didn't really come to mind until late last week, as the run on Saturday approached, and I started reading the course information again on the website. I started thinking about this: "Course is mostly single track and typically dry mid October. train for some hills but the course is 95% runable." But somehow I still didn't notice this: "The (50K) course is approximately three 16 kilometer loops through old growth forest." And then there was this: "Elevation Gain and Loss per loop is 1,306 feet."

The race started at 8 a.m. and I live about an hour and a half north of the location. So I planned to leave home by 6 a.m. at the latest. The trip south was smooth until I was just at the freeway exit. That spot coincided with I-5 southbound being closed entirely, so even through traffic had to exit. That caused a log jam of delay. However, I got through it fairly smoothly and followed my printed directions toward the destination. But since I was reading the directions in semi-darkness while driving, I didn't see the part about driving three miles to Point Defiance part, and started to get frustrated and worried when I couldn't find the park more quickly.

After I stopped for directions and they pointed me in the direction I was already going (and I read the directions more carefully), I headed onward toward Point Defiance. Once in the park, though, I still couldn't find Owens Beach, until I asked a man in a parking lot and he pointed me in the right direction.

So by the time I got to Owens Beach and parked, it was about 7:45 and time was very short. I thought I still had enough time, though, so I left my gear in the car and just trotted down to the check-in to get my bib. Unfortunately I wasn't the only one arriving at near the last minute, so I had to get in line. After I got my bib, chip, and shirt, I headed for the potty line. This was not optional. I had been driving for two hours and drank a grande coffee along the way! I fastened my chip to my shoe while I waited.

After I emerged from the porta-potty, it was almost 8:00 but I had no choice but to go back to my car and get my gear. As I was putting on my fuel belt, pinning my bib to the fuel belt, and firing up Garmin and my iPod, I heard the race begin. I wasn't too disturbed about that; I had my chip (if I cared about time at all), and I wasn't racing anyway. My only concern (which was well founded) was whether I would have any problems following the route if I was behind the rest of the pack. I turned on my iPod but, in my haste, was not able to open my preferred playlist. I ended up with (I believe) a random mix of everything in my music library. That was actually kind of interesting, because I heard songs I never listen to, as they are not on a playlist.

I jogged down to the start and headed on my lonely way. A few moments later I heard some calls from behind. I turned around and someone was chasing after me, shouting, that's the wrong way! Oops. I had gone in the opposite direction I was supposed to.

I turned around and returned to the starting line. (That extra bit added about a quarter mile, which is not included in my totals.) I restarted Garmin as I recrossed the starting line, and someone assured me that my time would be calculated from there. I had mentioned when I started (the first time), that I hoped the trail was well marked, and someone on the sidelines said that it was supposed to be.

So I jogged along the sidewalk that bordered the water, looking for a sign or a marker that would indicate a turn. When I got to the Vashon Ferry dock I was getting a little worried. Going a little further on, still without any course markings, I reluctantly decided that I had to return to the start once again for further directions.

I turned around and headed back, but then saw a male and a female runner coming my way. They told me they had started late too, and said that we were going the right way. So I turned around (again) and followed them. They were faster than me but I kept them in sight. A bit later they came back my way. Apparently we had missed a turn somewhere. But where?

About half a mile back there was a turn with some stairs up into the woods. There were no markings to indicate that this was the right direction. But after we climbed the stairs the pink flags appeared, and from there on I have to say that the course was very thoroughly marked (with a couple of confusing exceptions along the way). In addition to the pink flags, there were chalk arrows on the ground in some places, and lines drawn across paths that we were not supposed to turn onto. This was very helpful and important, because, as the map below somewhat illustrates, the route was very convoluted throughout the park.

My new friends were running about a 9:30 pace, and I never saw a 10 after the first two miles, so fairly soon I was on my own again, and remained that way for more than half of my first loop. My next confusing situation occurred about three miles in (or so), when I came to a Y in the trail and, oddly, no pink flags or chalk marks for guidance. (Other than the very beginning, this was the only place this happened.) After some mental debate, I went left, because the trail in that direction looked more well-traveled than to the right.

Soon thereafter, I saw my friends from earlier coming from the direction I had not gone! And, in fact, there were pink flags up that way. I debated turning around and retracing my steps to go the "right" way (which was, coincidentally, to the right), but decided not to. I felt that since I had already covered a lot of extra territory, and since I wasn't racing this competitively (and had no chance of getting any awards), that it was okay just to follow my own path, even if it was somewhat off course for a short period of time. Even so, my total distance in the end was two miles more than the "official" distance (which was, actually, two miles more than 30K).

This first part of the run was on moderately wide (about 2-person width) dirt and gravel trails, occasional veering onto or across sidewalks, roadways, and parking areas. A lot of it seemed to be climbing, although mostly not steeply. In the first few miles I had no reason or desire to walk at all, although my pace was quite slow, even by trail running standards.

I passed through the Gig Harbor Picnic Area somewhere in mile 5 (this was mile 5 by my measurements, not the actual course distance--officially it was about mile 4) and as far as I know, this was the only restroom on the course except for the ones at the start/finish area. So I made a moderately quick stop, then went on my way.

Here is the map of one loop. (I did this twice.) (Fun stuff: you can click on the satellite button and the map will switch to satellite view!)

Shortly after the bathroom stop I encountered a youngish male who was running in my direction (opposite direction of me) and looking rather distressed. He asked me if I was on my second loop (ha!) and then said he must have taken a wrong turn because he'd been by here before. I told him that the course definitely went the direction I was going (I had seen arrows!), but he said he'd been running an hour and 20 minutes and was only supposed to do 15K. What he didn't know was (1) the 15K distance was actually about a mile further than that and (2) 80 minutes would be super-fast for 15K on trails (even if the race were a true 15K distance). Although undoubtedly he had made some kind of mistake and was going to end up running extra (like all the rest of us!), he would still have several miles to go even if he just tracked back to the beginning in reverse. Poor guy. I wished him well and went on my way.

In the second half of the loop the trail really went into the woods and became truly single track. Here we also began to encounter obstacles like trees across the trail (and in one place, a metal cable!), and hills steep enough to suggest walking up (or sometimes down). This was actually the most fun section of the route for me, since it was very pleasant-looking and the enforced run-walk made it pretty "easy" to do. In this part I actually caught up to, and passed, some of the back of the pack runners who had started on time.

After that I came to the mid-course aid station at Fort Nisqually. They had water and pretzels and gummy candy and mini-candy bars and PB&J sandwiches, all of the usual "ultra" fuel. They probably had some gels and sports drinks as well. In my first time through, I just took some water and pretzels. When I returned later, I had a piece of candy as well.

The remaining miles were back in the woods (for the most part), although the paths were less obstructed. When I was running through on my first loop, I had yet to learn that the course was long (in addition to my own extra mileage). When I passed a crossing guard around nine (or more) miles on my watch and asked how far to the finish, he said we were at 8.something miles. I said, "so about another mile?" and he said yes. I don't know if he knew that he was lying to me.

The remaining couple of miles were the most frustrating, perhaps, because they were the most convoluted with hairpin turns and the runners passing each other going in both directions. There was one place where a bunch of people took a wrong turn and ended up repeating a section or running extra to back-track. I did it right the first time through and then made a mistake on my second loop....grrrr.

Just about when I thought the 15K must be done soon, the route merged onto the road and I found out from another volunteer that there was still about a mile to go. We ran along the road for a bit then back into the woods for another round of limb-strewn trails and the denoument: a downhill climb so steep that you had to hang onto a rope to descend it. I really wish I had taken a picture of this when I came back through a second time (I intended to), but by that time I just wanted to be done, and had no interest in fiddling with a camera. Just past the bottom of that hill the route turned back onto a park roadway, and there was a short stretch to the finish line. Or the restart line, as it may be.

My first half took about two and a half hours. The finish line pictures are from that point; there were no pictures of me the second time around.

My watch showed 11.5 miles for my first 15K loop. I stopped to chat with another runner (who was only doing the 15K but probably did at least 13 due to wrong turns), and go to the bathroom, and headed out a second time. This time at least I knew the way and got on the trail right away!

I was still running pretty much on my own except (embarrassingly) I began to be passed occasionally by the faster 50K runners on their third loop. This happened more near the end than the beginning. And, near the end of my second loop, I also passed a couple of 30K people who had started doing a lot of walking. (Keep in mind I was running nine minutes behind everyone who had started on time.)

During the first half I hadn't felt tired at all. This time, around 15-16 miles, I started to feel sort of tired of running. This feeling increased as I neared, and passed, the 18.6 mile mark (which would be 30K if the course were actually 30K and if I hadn't added extra miles by my own actions.

I probably reached my lowest lows as I approached 20 miles and beyond. I started to feel depressed and teary. I tried to figure out how I could cut the course short and head to the end...but my one attempt ended up adding another mile or so as I went the wrong way and then had to double back. From then on I just had to gut it out. Finally I was back on the road and headed toward the finish. I slid down the rope-guided hill and, at the bottom, had a few moments of confusion as I couldn't remember whether we still had to go along in the woods...then I remembered that it was time to go to the road.

I did my best to put on a good "finish line" sprint and powered through with a smile on my face. (Although there are no pictures to prove it.) The clock said about 5:30 but of course, my actual time was nine minutes less. Thank goodness I didn't care about time.

They were serving hot food at the finish but I couldn't handle the thought of that. I took a few pieces of watermelon, then went back for more. I also put some pretzels and mini-candy bars in a paper cup, to nibble on the drive home.

My legs were pretty sore (and would be more so in the days to come). After a bathroom stop, I hobbled back to my car. I didn't want to make the walk back to the bathroom again to change my clothes, but I did take off my shirt in the car and put on a dry tee shirt. I kind of draped a jacket around me but really, I had no care for modesty.

Then I had a ninety minute (or more) drive ahead of me. I was a little concerned that leg cramps would hinder my driving, but I massaged my quads and knees as I drove and I never got a real cramp. I did stop along the way for coffee at a Starbucks, hobbling into the store rather than going through the drivethrough. I thought it wouldn't hurt to shake out my legs a little! When I got back to town I stopped at QFC for a bag of ice (using a shopping cart to help me walk through the store) and then took a 10-15 minute ice bath at home. It's a lot harder to adjust to the cold water two hours after a run, when your body is no longer warm from running!

That night I had the usual long-run achy legs, and by Sunday my quads let me know that I had run up and down a lot of hills (even if they weren't especially long or steep). It actually took until Thursday before I was able to walk down the stairs in my house without hanging onto the wall or railing!

So this was my first real trail race/run. I wouldn't mind doing it again (this one or another), although I don't believe I could ever be very fast. Maybe that's part of the attraction--license to run slowly and walk as needed. As for this particular race, I'm inclined to think that I would rather do the "15K" option if I did it again. Although it is hard to justify driving all the way to Tacoma for "just" a 15K when there is a longer option! What I think might be fun, alternatively, is to do the 15K as an easy hike (maybe with trekking poles), if I could find someone who wanted to walk ten miles with me...perhaps Rod after he is recovered from his hip surgery? (By next year he will definitely be hiking-ready, and as hikes go, this one wouldn't be as hard as, say, climbing Mt. Pilchuck!)


lindsay said...

Ahh trail running. Very hard stuff! I've only done a 4miler trail race, not much opportunity to get lost. I read about getting off track though in many reports. LOL about trying to cut it short and only adding on more near the end! Running karma... ;) well Congrats on surviving the trail run and not getting lost!

Sarah said...

Congrats on your first trail race! I'm still surprised at how much slower I am on trails. I don't know how some of those speedsters do it so quickly! Practice and training, I suppose. :)

I was in the pack so just followed along, but I noticed there weren't any flags by the stairs. I suspect they were vandalized. I guess I was lucky I only missed one turn!

Lisa said...

I am impressed that you ran such a long race for your first one! My first was a 21K and I was in a pack of people, which is very helpful. Great job muscling through a tough race!

I love trail races because there is no time pressure. I am hoping to do one soon.

shenx said...

Trail running are hard stuff but you did it congrats that you can ran such a long race. Thanks for sharing.