Monday, September 22, 2008

A half marathon (not on the SHT) as a precursor

I had the best laid plans. I followed them to a T. Everything worked out, almost better than could have been expected. And holy cow do my legs hurt.

After my encouraging run last weekend, I decided to run a half marathon (and follow it up with some hiking). My choices were on the Birkie Trail and the City of Lakes Trail Loppet. I'd classify both as "known unknowns". That is to say, I knew both of them, but I didn't know exactly what to expect. I did know, however, that the City of Lakes race was a 45 minute bike ride, and the Birkie Trail was a three hour drive. That made my decision.

I was up a bit before 7:00, having carbo-loaded the night before I had a half a clif bar and set off for Minneapolis. It was already pretty warm, and I don't race well in warm weather. When I did my time trial a week earlier it was 53 and drizzle, perfect running weather (although maybe a tad on the hot side). It was already 60 with the sun coming up. The Greenway was eerily quiet; definitely no one to draft. I got through Uptown and headed north to Wirth Park. I registered and set about warming up.

Every time I had run this week, I'd had cramps in my upper right chest from about the 1/2 mile marker to the 1 1/2 mile mark. Today would be no exception. Thus, I made sure that I warmed up at least two miles so that it would not occur during the race. I ran in to the woods and found some of the course and was surprised that it quickly went down to a singletrack trail with some sections of tricky footing. This was probably to my advantage (lots of hiking has helped me how to best land on trails) but I figured that most of the trail would be on the wider, more gradual ski trails. Even though Wirth has some nasty hills, none are too long or steep. I warmed up for about 20 minutes, and then went back to the start to sip down some more gatorade and wait for the start.

Now, I had no idea what to expect in this race. This was mainly because I had, to that point, never run a running race. Of any kind, shape or form. Both my parents stopped running by the time I was about five years old, and neither they nor friends in high school convinced me to run cross country. I started running only as ski training, and I hated it. I really despised it. It was something to do to get to skiing, but it had little value on its own. So I begrudgingly ran. And as I did so, over the years, I began to like it a little more. By college, I would have some training runs where it felt good. Especially on trails — a 20k pole hike on the Birkie trail ended with me sprinting to the end (to my credit, there was a van full of food). I didn't run much on the AT, owing to a heavy pack and, at times, bad ankles, but it learned me to appreciate monotony.

In the past year, however, I have really begun to like running more. I can think of several times I've gone on "great runs," which I never thought I'd have. One was an ad hoc run on a cool evening to the tops of West Newton Hill, the hill near Newton Corner and the top of Heartbreak Hill (at night). Another was a run on a frosty morning right before I moved out to Minnesota. Another was a twelve miler over the Ford Bridge and Franklin Bridges. And a trail run from Zealand Hut to Shoal and Ethan Ponds. And the aforementioned 9.4 miles at 6:50s last weekend. So I was up for a race.

I had no specific goal, other than to finish and not make too much of a fool of myself. I looked around at the starters and started about five rows back, just in front of the "there's no way in hell that guy's running faster than me" group. The gun went off, and I quickly realised that I was with some slow people. So I ran on the outside (is there running race etiquitte?) to get to about fifteen or twenty guys from the lead. The pace wasn't too fast so I went with the flow. At first, I did well on the steeper sections, both up and down. I know how to ascend, and would get on my toes and dig in to the hill, and on descents, would let gravity gather in to the next uphill — I passed a few folks during both these exercises. The trail wound about around Eloise Butler and then passed a feed where the 5k went back to the start. Supposedly your first race should be a 5k. Or something.

I took the feed but I was feeling pretty beat. Probably something about never having run a race before. I could have gone out slow, but this year I am trying to be stronger at the start. I know my endurance is "there", I've been feeling great at the ends of marathon hikes, but my strength and speed at the starts is not (note to self: more strength and speed work). So after three miles, I slowed down a bit as the trail wound in to the Quaking Bog, home to big hills. And it did not take the ski trail. There were lots of singletrack sections, with logs to jump over, branches to duck under and trees to squeeze through. I felt pretty dead at the top of the big hill there but pushed on through some minor cramps. At one point two runners in front of me took a left instead of a right and I had to yell at them to go the right way — they would have run to Uptown.

The trail flattened and went back through Wirth Beach near where it started. As we ran the sun-beaten pavement one other participant commented "this is brutal." I sort of agreed — although I had nothing to compare it to. The course wound around, up to the Olsen Highway and then made a couple of U-turns to duck under 55 before a flat, open section. Then it was along some mountain bike trails (again, nothing flat, wide and long enough for any sort of rhythm), ski trails and then in to a section of single track at the base of an esker by Twin Lake. It was heartening to see, where the trail doubled back on itself, a lot of people, many of whom looked to be in good shape, a mile behind me. I was running with a couple guys where the course was marked straight up a hill. We took a couple switchbacks and it seemed to climb a steep, scramble of a hill, where hands were required. This was running? We made it to the top, wondering if we were on the right trail, when we finally saw another marker.

Supposedly the course would be flatter, but the organisers managed to find every bit of topography they could that wasn't on the golf course. We ran around the chalet at Wirth, then on some barely-used slabbed trails so narrow I was grabbing trees to keep my balance. Finally we hit the flats along Bassett Creek and under 55 again, where I had a cup of water for the last mile. I thought it would be an easy time back to the finish. Wrong. We followed the creek, then climbed a up a steep hill, went back down and hit the streets of Bryn Mawr. I as running with a woman and we were commenting on how this was a brutal last mile. We headed back in to the trails I knew would lead to the finish — volunteers told us it was a tenth of a mile. It was more like a third. On that downhill, feeling a wee bit of energy, I let loose and put some time on her, and then mustered whatever kick I could in to the finish. I wound up in the chute and drank about six cups of liquid, dazed but pretty excited about having finished my first half marathon.

I cooled down, picked up my bike, and glanced at results. It turns out a bunch of runners had followed one misguided soul off the course like lemmings. They had all run a fourteen or fifteen mile race. So with them out of the picture, I came 18th (out of 233, 15th out of 128ish men). I was fourth in my age class. Top three get prizes. Gack — I didn't really expect to win anything. I got on my bike and rode home.

Now, why did I write all this? This is an SHT blog, right? Well, because a normal person would run a trail half marathon and call it a weekend. (And not an easy half, either. A friends mom who ran it, and is going to Kona for the Ironman in a few weeks, and is sponsored and such said it was a very hard course, and I'd concur. It was definitely a trail run. The Birkie Trail, all on a ski trail with grass and dirt tread and, from OO to Fish Hatchery, few major hills, would have been far easier. The winner of this race ran it in 1:30, 6:52 miles, or three seconds slower pace than my training run a few weeks back. To top it off, it was 70, sunny, with 60 degree dewpoints.) For me the weekend was just starting — I planned 34 miles on the Superior Trail, and all that separated me was a bike ride home (nice and easy), some packing, and a drive.

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