Monday, February 22, 2016

Now that I've run more than a dozen races, it's going to become easy to forget the details about each of them. I decided to write down some of what I remember, and save it here at the blog in one long post.

My very first race was the Oh!lly 5K Trail Race in Charlottesville, Virginia. I wrote a long post about that race as a stand-alone post, and you can read it at this link.

My second race, the Vine to wine 5k

This out-and-back road race began and ended in a beautiful vineyard. My girlfriend and I made a weekend out of the trip, staying at a hotel in the area and enjoying the time together. There was rain just before the race, and I had worried that it would ruin the event. But the rain stopped with minutes to go and ended up simply cooling off the area and making the race that much more pleasant. The guy who won this race was put together like Captain America; a fit and healthy guy who had just clearly always been that way. I finished eight minutes behind him. This was only my second race ever, and my first road race, and I remember being astonished that eight minutes was all that separated my final time from the winner's time. I felt fairly legitimized and very happy about my middle-of-the-pack results.

My third race, Four On The Fourth

This four mile road race in downtown Roanoke was a spur of the moment decision for me. I'm glad I ran it because it was the only race I'd have a chance to run in July. Toward the end of this race I became very tired and began to realize that I hadn't done a good job of pacing myself. Pacing issues would develop into a regular problem for me, and occasionally leave me dragging behind at future events.

My fourth race, the Fab 5K

The race was my personal low point, as per pacing problems. (My low point so far. There may be lower points to come.) I nearly ruined this race for myself by going too hard, too fast, too soon. Plus, my new set of cordless earbuds died one song into this race, leaving me with nothing to listen to but my own labored breathing (yes, I am one of those music-addicted runners. I regret nothing. Nothing except forgetting to charge my earbuds).

By early into the third mile I was performing badly. The distraction of having no music, along with a terrible job of pacing myself, lead to a miserable final third. I ended up slowing to a walk twice and actually had to clear the course to allow better runners around me. I was amazed at the end to see that my time wasn't even thirty seconds slower than my final time in my first 5K. Given how awful the third mile was, that's a strong indication of how off my pace was for the first two miles. I simply ran too hard, too soon. I vowed to not make the mistake again, and I can at least say that the lesson made my next race far more successful than this one was. Part of my commitment to becoming a better runner was to put in longer distances and more time. The Fab 5K was the last time I ever ran only 5 kilometers in a day.

My fifth race, the The Roanoke River 8K

I suppose this race is so named to make it seem distinct from the pack of summertime five-milers in every city. By the time this race came around I was running five miles comfortably as my regular run, and I looked forward to incorporating some of what I had learned into a sanctioned event.

The race took place on the Roanoke Greenway, one of my favorite locations for solo runs. That felt like a good omen. I was determined to not remake the pacing mistakes that had made the previous race so difficult. For one thing, only wired ear-buds, no more gadget variables to distract me. And, I carefully studied the course from the information I gathered from the event's Facebook page. I actually ran the course twice during the week before the race. Preparation was the name of the game going into this one.

To this day I still consider the Roanoke River 8K my best race. I went into it confident and ready, and I finished it well. I did not place in my age group, something I have managed to do in a handful of races since. But I ran my race, carefully reigning in my tendency to go too hard early on. I actually managed to finish with negative splits; my last three miles were each under eight minutes, which for me is strong running. I crossed the finish line with my heart pounding in my chest, confident that I had given my all, and that I had paced myself correctly. I felt like I was beginning to understand racing.

My sixth race, the Odyssey Trail Running Rampage Six Mile Race

Odyssey Adventure Racing sponsors the Trail Running Rampage every September at a state park that is ten minutes from my home. This multiple-race event includes an ultra-marathon for the elites, a marathon, a half marathon, and a six miler for those of us who aren't there yet (or who simply don't have time for a longer race.)

Because this state park is so close to my home I have spent many, many hours hiking there. I know these trails as well as I now my own neighborhood. I'd really enjoyed my first 5K trail race in June, and I couldn't wait for the chance to get on familiar trails and really test my legs.

Again, I went into this race prepared. I had actually ran the course a few days ahead, and on race day I was ready. There was a mild, drizzly rain all day that day, but it was only enough to cool the woods and add a little roughing-it element to the race. I finished only one slot out of the top ten, just behind accomplished and capable trail runners. Again, I felt good about my results.

My seventh race, Alleghany Highlands Community Services Recovery Run

My local community services agency sponsored this race, and it felt like good karma to me that, like the previous two races, it was scheduled for a course I could almost run blindfolded. The public school complex near my home is surrounded by a cross country track and a mile or two of wooded trails, and I go there all the time for afternoon runs. On the day of this race I actually went to the course a few hours early just to walk it and sort of "get my head in the game." In this particular instance, I may have actually over-prepared. I am certain of this much at least: I went into this race too confident.

This hometown race attracted a relatively small but friendly field of runners, and only a few of them were men in my age group. I believe that fact is the main reason I managed to place first in my group, because I certainly didn't run the race well. I was overconfident and, for the first time since mid-August, I came out of the gate too strong. My last mile was a miserable, jerky mess, with me trying to dig for whatever energy I hadn't quickly depleted in the first fifteen minutes. I stumbled across the finish line aware that I am not, nor will I ever be, a 5K technician.

I have tremendous respect for runners who specialize in 5Ks. Those races are short enough to run them hard, but long enough that you still have to run them smart. You can't just sprint for three miles, even the masters of this game would end up on their faces if they tried that. By the time of the Recovery Run, I was comfortably running 7 and 8 mile solo runs regularly. I think that part of me though that the equation was simple; the longer you can run, the better you will be at shorter runs. That ain't necessarily so. In fact, I think that idea is just wrong. Running is part art and part science, and the humble but exacting 5K demands that the winning runner must hit every note just right.

Every runner runs for his or her own reasons. My reasons for running aren't even entirely apparent to me, yet. But I do know that part of it is a meditational experience for me, and as my comfort zone increases to include longer distances, I have come to really need that time on my feet. I had a lot on my mind after the Recovery Run, and some of it was my own inconsistent performance. So after the race I did something that has become a habit for me now: my post 5K workout. I ran home after the race, and I wasn't surprised to find that my directionless post-race ramble was more consistent, faster, and more natural than my actual race had been. Some runners are social animals, others enjoy the solitude of a long solo run. I'm settling into that second group with a certain comfortable ease.

My eighth race, the Illuminatight Night-Time Trail Race

By late October, longish solo runs had become part of my routine. Eight and ten mile runs were regular, and sometimes I would go longer than that if I had salt-stick capsules or energy gels and could plan my run correctly.

But, in spite of my preference for longer runs, I still enter 5Ks for one reason: convenience. I am a shift worker, I am at work on most Saturday mornings, and I don't have as many weekend races to pick from as other runners do. I still feel the need to run at least one race a month, at least during this first year as a runner. There is something about an official race that makes me feel like a "real" runner. I still crave the validation that only comes from having a number on your chest.

The Illuminight 5K was another race that had something of a home field advantage for me. It was to be held on a rails-to-trails trail-way that I have walked and ran literally hundreds of times. The novelty of this being a night-time race was the only part of the event that wasn't extremely familiar to me. Still, this trail is my stomping ground. I expected to perform well at this race, as long as I could run it with a clear head.

To better ensure a consistent race, I had my "me-time" run earlier that day. That morning I ran five miles just to get my day's run out of my system, and it must have worked. I was able to concentrate on the Illuminight 5K that evening, and really pay attention to the demands of a 5K. Even another ear-bud failure didn't ruin the run for me, the sound of my own breath and my own heartbeat was music enough. This was a small, hometown 5K, with a pack of about thirty runners divided somewhat evenly between adults and high school students. At the end of the race I crossed the finish line just behind the five fastest students. I was amazed to realize I was the first adult to finish the race, only a second ahead of the athletic young lady who won the adult women's group. The blue ribbon I was awarded that evening at the post-race pizza party will probably always be my favorite racing souvenir.

My ninth race, the Star City 10K

By the time November rolled around I was starting to think about a half marathon. My regular runs were very rarely shorter than eight miles and commonly went a bit more than ten miles. A half marathon seemed within my grasp, but I was still reluctant to risk a DNF. Besides, I did not yet have a regulation 10K in my PRs. The Star City 10K, which is run in conjunction with the Star City Half Marathon, seemed like a logical next step. I signed up.

My girlfriend and I saw our shared favorite singer/songwriter Jason Isbell in Roanoke the night before the race, and rolled the concert and race into one fun over-nighter. The morning of the race was brisk but not uncomfortable. There were quite a few people there that morning for the half marathon. The 10K had attracted a far smaller field of about 200 runners. The 10K took runners through the back roads and side streets of downtown Roanoke, and to my delight it featured a lot of something many runners hate: hills.

I have become fairly proficient at running hills. I've had to. I live in a little town in the Appalachian mountains, where there is nothing to run on but hills. In my area, your options are, run hills, or don't run.

On hills I tend to be somewhat competitive. The hill running that is part and parcel of my regular routine allows me to take hills in reasonable stride. So I commonly pass those runners who stick to shorter, flatter courses when we get to decently aggressive upward grades. I've learned in hilly races to start to the back of the pack and bide my time for a few miles. As the hills come, runners who aren't used to them will slow down. Those are my best chances to pick up a few positions somewhat comfortably. Because of the hills in the Star City 10K I was able to have a decent final time. In fact, I finished in third place for my age group.

After the race I realized that I wasn't quite as tired as I like to be after a run. I immediately regretted having not signed up for the half marathon, and decided to look around on the Internet for a race that seemed well suited for my enjoyment of hills and longer distances. That is how I first learned about the Sandman Extreme, my eventual first half marathon, and just about the most fun I have ever had training for and participating in a race. But in getting ahead of myself.

My tenth race, the Jingle Bell Run

The Jingle Bell Run was a Christmas-themed 5K in Lexington. But I cannot tell you about my performance in that race without first telling you about the Sandman.

The Sandman Extreme Half Marathon is a 13.1 mile road race in the small town of Wytheville. The race is a promotional event for the local public school, and the good people on the school board will tell you that the "Extreme" is for their "Extreme Excellence," and I don't doubt for a minute that they excel as an educational body. But let's not kid each other. The Sandman is a race that begins in Wythville and winds out into the county and up Sand Mountain. Over the thirteen-plus mile course, runners will climb a thousand feet to the top of the mountain and back down again, running along beautiful country roads and back up into the town of Wytheville to finish. The race is held in January regardless of the weather, and that sometimes means running in 19 degree temperatures. Along the way there is often ice here and there, and there may well be snow. This race is cold, this race is long, and calling it "hilly" is like calling a ghost pepper "tangy." The Sandman Extreme is a monster.

I read about the race online and decided it would be my perfect first half marathon. After all, I had come to running as an offshoot of my love of hiking. I loved the long slog to the top of a mountain, I relished the climbs, and I had become good at making them quickly. I was a fairly consistent runner with regard to hills; the temperament I lacked for pacing a 5K seemed to be made up for by my ability to "speed hike" to the top of a mountain and glide back down again casually. And I had hiked in extreme cold weather, and even found running in the cold to be enjoyable. I was cut out for the Sandman, I decided, and began training for it in late November. I increased my running time spent in the hilliest parts of my hometown. I added several weekly 65 to 75 minute elliptical sessions at the gym to my regimen. And, along the way, I picked up one more 5K.

Lexington, Virginia is hilly, although it's hills are small and gradual compared to the ones in my hometown. Nonetheless, the hills played to my favor, and I performed well during the Jingle Bell Run 5K in December. The advantages of my hilly runs and elliptical workouts were apparent to me when I crossed the finish line in 23 minutes, my PR for a 5K by a wide margin. Running longer and harder was making me faster and stronger, and better capable of pacing myself. I did not place in this race, there were some gifted runners in my age group and they outperformed me. Still, I was very happy with my own PR time. And I was even happier to find myself at the end of the race chomping at the bit for more workout time. I went to the gym and did an hour on the elliptical immediately after the race, and spent the next five weeks repeating that pattern almost daily. I'd be ready for the Sandman, come what may.

I wrote a long blog post about the running of my eleventh race, the Sandman Extreme, and you can read that post by clicking this link.

My twelfth and thirteenth races, The Resolve 10K and the Blacksburg Classic 10 Mile Race

After the Sandman, I was looking for a new, tough challenge ... but mostly, I was just looking for another race. There is a certain junky mentality that seems to come with distance running, and often the high that comes with the current race has only began to fade when many of us are already looking for the next fix.

I wanted another race. A tougher one, sure, but what kind of race could I find that might be tougher than the Sandman without making the jump to a full marathon? As it turned out, winter weather and dumb luck conspired to give me something that fell perfectly into that middle ground: my first double.

I had scheduled a 10K for exactly one week after the Sandman. I was on vacation and wanted to take advantage of the extra weekend off, and a 10K is still a respectable distance to run. Why, if I could run it with a clear mind an really enjoy it, I wouldn't even need to work out again that day.

Looking ahead to my weekend off in February, I found the Blacksburg classic, a ten mile road race that sounded like a lot of fun. So I scheduled that, too.

But then, we had a winter storm on the east coast. And then we had another. And, the next thing I knew, both the 10K and the ten miler were rescheduled for the same make-up date, February 20th. The shorter race at 9 AM, the long one at one in the afternoon. It was technically possible for me to run both of them. I didn't think it was logistically possible, though, because of my work schedule, so I didn't even entertain the notion. That's when fate played its final card: a coworker called me and asked for a shift trade. Not only was it now entirely possible for me to run both races, I didn't see any way out of it.

A 10K and a ten miler combined adds up to just over sixteen miles of racing in one day. That somehow felt to me like the logical next step after my half marathon. A crazy step, maybe, but an inevitable one.

I talked to some more experienced runners at a running forum and asked for advise. What they told me made sense, and I was careful to make note of their suggestions: rest the day before the race and fuel up properly. Bring gels and salt and Tylenol, and make sure to stretch adequately between races. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. And, above all, pace myself during the first race. Pacing myself correctly, my biggest struggle, would be more important during this double race than it had ever been. If I ran all out during the first race of the day, I'd have nothing left to complete the ten miler that afternoon.

Weather decided to cooperate on race day, and the morning of the Resolve 10K was overcast but comfortable. The 10K and a 5K were being held that morning to benefit the town's YMCA, and the group of runners was small but enthusiastic. There were only seventeen of us who lined up for the 10K. I ran the race absolutely obsessing on the realization that if I ran too hard I'd ruin the second race for myself. I wanted to finish well, but not give the 10K everything I had. So over the course of the race I found other runners to pace off of. If someone looked to me like they were running just slightly slower than the pace I wanted to run, I'd make myself fall in behind that runner and run his pace. I did that with three different runners over the course of the race, and managed to finish in about 53 and a half minutes.

After the 10K I stretched and changed into dry clothes and drove to Blacksburg for the second race. On the way down I had some fruit and a muffin, and drank tons of water. When the ten miler began I was feeling prepared and ready, and I will say that I ran it fairly well. I did rely on salt-stick and a couple of energy gels to finish the last half of the second race, and I was properly exhausted by the end. But I finished it at my humble goal pace; I wanted to get done in less than ninety minutes, and my final time was about eighty-seven and a half. That gave me two races and just a hair over sixteen miles for the day, and the novelty of that accomplishment felt good.

My fourteenth race, the Shamrock Hill 5K

Hooo, boy. Rough race. Really rough race.

I mentioned in the notes for my fourth race that I always run twice on days when I have a 5K scheduled. On the day of the Shamrock 5K I decided to do my supplemental running very early in the morning, before the race. That way I'd have the rest of the day to goof off after the 5K. So, on the morning of the race I got up at 4:30 and ran seven miles, just as a pre-race jog to loosen up a bit.

That jog was the beginning of me throwing off my usual pre-race routine. After the jog I drank a ton of water, then drove to Roanoke for the race. I wanted to have my usual pre-race breakfast of a whole-grain muffin and a cup of coffee, but the coffee shop didn't have muffins ready yet. So I got a scone, which is apparently significantly different from a muffin. And, because I was already starting to get a little sleepy, I drank a hell of a lot more coffee than I usually do. So my stomach was a little wonky before the 5K. Then, as soon as I started running at the start of the race, my digestive system went into full-scale revolt. I'd only ran a few feet when it became obvious that I had to get off the course, run back to the starting point, and find a porta-potty immediately.

So I ended up actually starting the race over, a second time, a good twelve minutes behind the actual start time. Hey, it was that or get a DNF for the race, and I couldn't live with a DNF.

So, my previous 5K, in December, was my best time for a 5K ever. And this one was my worst 5K finish ever. Spending the first twelve minutes in the porta-potty will just wreck your final time. I finished the race with a lousy final time, but with a lesson well learned: do not vary from a pre-race ritual that works.

My fifteenth race, Mill Mountain Mayhem 10K Trail Race

Wow, what a hard race! A real challenge. It wasn't my longest race, but it really wore me out.

Mill Mountain Mayhem is a 10K trail race with more than 900 feet of elevation gain crammed into it's 6.2 miles. Over the course of the race, runners travel a corkscrew course that takes them around and up Mill Mountain, before finishing with about a mile and a half of really steep, rocky, root-lined, treacherous down-hill trail running. This ain't no leisurely hike. Mayhem is an appropriate word or this course.

On the morning of the race the weather decided to be a grab-bag of chaos... temps in the thirties and high winds and snow, interrupted by periods of sunshine. This course has the advantage of a first mile on paved road, which gives the pack plenty of room to stretch out and allow runners to find their natural place. I was running, as I usually do, fairly well in the middle of the pack on the paved uphills. But the fairly small amount of time I've had for trail running really caught up with me once we got to the trails. I was wobbly and not at all sure-footed, and I ended up falling hard twice during this race. By the time we found our way to the top of Mill Mountain, I was tired, pretty sore, and way off my pace. And all of this happened before that tricky last mile and a half.

The last part of Mill Mountain Mayhem is without a doubt the hardest and most challenging technical running I've ever done. Rocks and roots everywhere, seeming to grab for my toes and ankles. I decided that finishing on my feet was more important than finishing well, and I slowed so much on the steepest parts that experienced trail runners got around me like I was a tree. That was fine. More power to 'em. I'm jealous of their prowess, but I know when I'm outrun.

I finished this race slow and sloppy and ragged, but on my feet and glad to be done. Trail running is fun, but I either need to do a whole lot more of it or a whole lot less of it.

My sixteenth race, Greenbrier Valley United Way Dirt Dash, a 5 Mile Trail Race

Half-way through this five mile trail race (with about 700 feet of elevation gain), I had a realization: Wow, this is the first race I've really enjoyed since January. Sometimes running is a chore, even with a number on your chest and a crowd of happy people around you. Other times, it's just a gift. Today, it was a gift.

The Dirt Dash was a benefit for the United Way in Greenbrier County, WV. It begins and ends at a picnic shelter in the Greenbrier State Forest, and the rolling hills are manageable, but still winding and challenging. About a mile of the race is on a double-wide course of combined paved road, grass, and an old access road. That wide mile gives the pack plenty of room to spread out. After that, the rest of the race is on true, one-lane hiking trail. Unlike my last trail race, although I stumbled once, I never wiped out. Best of all, even the down-hills weren't brutal. I do OK on the up-hills... I regularly run in a hilly little town and I've learned to pace myself fairly well on steep ups. But when the downs are treacherous (see the Mill Mountain Mayhem notes above), I end up slowing to a walk. Thankfully, the downs on this race were like gliding on dirt. This was five miles of absolutely beautiful country-side, and it made me think I ought to make the short trip across the state line to run in West Virginia more often.

This race was somewhat informal, and as of this writing, official results aren't available on the web. My bib was a printed sticker rather than a polymer runID bib, and the pack was a small group of 40. But this friendly, capable group was made up of gifted runners, and I'm very proud to have finished in the top 15.

If I have the right day off next year, I will be happy to run the Dirt Dash again. It benefits a good cause, and the course is beautiful. I smiled all morning.

My seventeenth race, The Conquer The Cove 25K, a 25K trail race

I knew this would be the hardest race I've ever run, but I had no idea it would be as difficult as it was. The Conquer The Cove 25K was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life.

This 25K took place at Carvins Cove near Roanoke, Virginia. It was held on the same day as the Conquer The Cove Trail Marathon, and both races began at 6:30 in the morning. Thunderstorms were forecast, but there was no rain during the race. Instead of rain, we had the most humidity I've ever tried to run in. By the end of this race, it felt like the humidity had pulled every single bit of energy out of my body.

Part of what made this race so tough was that I made some seriously dumb decisions the night before the race. I'm used to having a fairly indulgent meal the night before a race, and I usually lean toward the carb-heavy side of what I'm comfortable eating. But the night before this race, for some reason, I made one of the stupidest pre-race decisions I've ever made. I went to a barbecue restaurant, where I ordered as much meat as I could. Then, that night, I didn't sleep well as all that spicy pork and beef rumbled in my gut.

That barbecued meat sat in my stomach like a brick for all of race-day. My usual pre-race regimen that enables an easy trip to the bathroom did not work. The bathroom was a cold, unaccommodating place where I could do nothing functional. So, I worried throughout the race that I was going to have an ungodly digestive accident, and thank God that never happened, but preoccupation with the idea stayed in my head.

Two other things worth remembering happened during this race. One is that I fell and broke the pinky-finger on my left hand. I'm not the most graceful trail runner you'll ever meet. The other thing worth remembering is that I ran most of this race without music. About forty-five minutes into the race I just wanted to take my earbuds off and listen to the woods, listen to my own breathing, and think about running. During the really tough uphill slog from about 7.5 miles to 10 miles, I needed a distraction, so I listened to music for about half an hour. After that, I put my earbuds in my pocket.

That up-hill section was serious work. Add the incredibly tough climbing of this race (2,800 feet of elevation gain), the challenging distance, the tricky terrain, the humidity ... yeah, this was a tough one. I was so glad to be finished. At the end of the race I was really happy, don't get me wrong, but I'd learned some tough lessons the hard way. No more barbecue before a race. Plenty of rest. And be prepared for uncooperative weather.

My eighteenth race, The Jackson River Scenic Trail Half Marathon

This race went well, mostly because I remembered the lessons I learned three weeks prior during my difficult 25K trail race.

It also went well because this race took place on the nearby Jackson River Scenic Trail, a trail I have been running and training on for well over a year. At the risk of sounding too confident, I feel like I know just about every inch of this trail by heart. That definitely helps with the mind-over-matter part of racing. A race on unfamiliar turf can really be intimidating, especially late into it when I get tired and the unknown course before me starts feeling insurmountable. That wasn't an issue during this race. Every step of the way I knew exactly where I was, what to expect, and how to run. My head was more in the game this time than it's ever been.

It also helped that I was well rested, and that I ate correctly the day before the race. I didn't do a pasta-intensive "carb load," but I did eat to the carb side of my usual diet, focusing on the more carb-heavy of the foods I eat regularly. I am certain that it helped. For the first half of this race I felt like I could run forever. I even got a "runners high," which doesn't happen often for me and has never happened during a race before. It sure did this time, though. About six miles in, an endocannabinoid rush hit me like a freight train. I literally spent the next two miles running and giggling. It felt great.

I didn't begin to really feel tired until the tenth mile. And even after tiredness set in, I only had to slow to a walk once, for about fifty yards. I took that opportunity to pop an energy gel and some salt caps, and then pick my pace up again. I ran the rest of the race at a steady pace, and finished with an average 9:06 mile. I even took third place in my age-group.

Although I performed to my own satisfaction, the race itself was touch and go for a while. Two days before the race there was some extreme rainfall, which caused very serious flooding in my home area. There was some doubt that the race would happen with less than 24 hours to go. Kudos to the town manager for making the call to let the race continue as planned. And huge gratitude to the hard working parks and rec employees who cleared debris from the trail the day before the race.

A number of people in my home area, including some folks I know personally, suffered serious property loss during the flood. Their was also loss of life just across the state line in West Virginia. The seriousness of that situation certainly makes the details of this race seem far less than trivial. But it did intensify the sense of gratitude I felt while running today. At it's best, running makes me feel humble, grateful, and incredibly lucky to be alive. Those feelings mingled with the runners high I mentioned above, and with the concern I feel for some of the folks I know. All of that, along with the familiarity I have with this course, made this race feel like a uniquely and intensely human event. Life is wonderful, fragile, and chaotic. I was very aware of all of that during the Jackson River Scenic Trail Half Marathon of 2016.

My nineteenth race, Four On The Fourth, a four mile road race

This was the second year that I'd run this event, and like last year, this race was sort of a last minute decision. I'm training for a marathon in October now, and trying to run five or six days a week rather than three or four. So I had to change some of my training plans, but I'm glad I did. This year I ran this four mile race much more consistently and much faster than I did last year. In fact, my final time was nearly three minutes faster this year.

It poured rain all morning, but by race time it had let up to a mild drizzle that actually felt good to run in. My splits were pretty steady, I brought each mile in in just under eight minutes, and I finished slightly faster than I started. These short races emphasize speed rather than endurance, and that isn't what I'm best at as a runner. I'm pretty good at staying on my feet over long distances, but I'm not particularly fast in the shorter races. Nonetheless, I'm pretty happy with today's finish. Not bad for an old guy who's happier with a long, slow slog than with a speed contest.

My twentieth race, The Great Country Five Miler, a five mile mixed surface race

This is the second race I've run in the small town of Rocky Mount, Virginia. Like the first one, the Resolve 10K back in February, this race had a small but friendly field of runners, many of them young and very competitive. The 10K I ran in February was in the town itself, but this five miler was outside of town in the Waid Park Recreation Area, which is a beautiful little park.

The race was over mixed surfaces, some gravel and some paved road, and a couple of sections of trail. It was hilly and somewhat tough, but I still managed to finish was a time I wasn't ashamed of. 42:22 is probably a decent time for five miles over hills and through trails if you're and old fart with bad knees, right? Rocky Mount is more than ninety minutes drive away from home, but I'll gladly make the drive again to run in such a beautiful area. Some of the towns runners are becoming familiar to me now that I've raced in Rocky Mount a couple of times, and I enjoy talking to them afterwards.

My twenty-first race, The Trail Running Rampage Half Marathon

The Trail Running Rampage is an event hosted at Douthat State Park by Odyssey Adventure Racing every September. There are four races that are part of the event. Last year I did the six miler. This year I felt that I was ready for the half marathon. I ran it today, and although I finished it, I'm not at all sure I was actually ready for it. I had a lot of fun, but I tripped and fell three times. The second and third falls were real bell-ringers. The second one in particular was really scary. Have you ever fallen so hard, and so dramatically, that you had to just lie there for a few seconds and wait to see if anything was going to hurt enough to indicate a serious injury? That's what my second fall was like today. And although my injuries were only nicks and cuts, it was enough to make me think that maybe I ought not be trail running.

First of all, the good... Douthat State Park is gorgeous, and Odyssey Adventure Racing does a great job at organizing these events. My fellow competitors were friendly and helpful. I don't have one bad word to say about anyone associated with any of today's events. And I actually hike and trail run at Douthat all the time, although I usually bring my trail runs in at eight to ten miles. So I can't even say that unfamiliarity with the terrain was an issue. My problems today were my own, and may have been today-only issues. But, the truth is, today seemed somehow inevitable.

The half marathon began at 10:00 AM, and the first three miles were a tough uphill climb to the top of Middle Mountain. I've traveled this particular trail many times, and I knew to expect a lot of rocks and roots. So my first fall today, during the first mile, wasn't surprising. Trail runners fall, that's just part of the game, and I'm a clumsier trail runner than most. But, no worries, just a little dust on the clothes... I got up and continued.

My second fall was on the downhill after the big climb, and it was a doozy. It was honestly the hardest and most painful fall I've taken since I've been running. My ears rang, my vision got momentarily blurry, and my cuts were enough to attract attention. Other runners made sure I was OK before they continued, and I'm glad they were out there (more on that in a minute). Nonetheless, this particular fall scared me.

The third fall came with only four miles left in the race, and it was another painful one. At this point the problem was that I was tired and I just wasn't lifting my legs high enough to avoid roots and rocks. So, down I went.

Running on trail when you're tired is legitimately dangerous. For me, today's race might have been reckless.

I did today's run as part of my training for my first marathon, scheduled for next month. The distance made sense, and the elevation gain itself (more than 2,500 feet) was tough, but generally just a good and hard workout. The problem for me was the technical aspects of trail running. I'm not a gifted technical runner, and I'm not graceful by any stretch of the imagination. I'm as graceful as a blind, drunken monkey trying to perform surgery with a jackhammer. It might not make much sense for me to continue trail running. If I had my druthers, every race I ever participate in would be on crushed gravel. I run well on crushed gravel, and I can actually compete a little bit on that surface. Maybe I should concentrate on my strengths and leave the trails to those who can channel their inner white-tail better than I can.

Regardless, tonight I am indebted to a stranger. I think he was one of the ultra runners or a marathoner, someone who was out there for a much longer day in the woods than I'd signed up for. After my hard second fall of the day, I was trying to get on my feet when this guy came along behind me. He asked if I was OK, and I told him that I was more just rattled than really hurt. This guy took a second and assessed my condition. I'll never forget what he said: "OK, well, you ain't bleeding that bad. Get up." He didn't say it unkindly, he didn't say it with impatience, but he did say it with imperative. He was not mollycoddling me. He wasn't concerned about hurting my feelings, he was concerned about my progress. In short, he told me what I needed to hear, when I needed to hear it. So I got up, and I continued behind him. And I finished the godamn race.

Too few people in this world actually care enough about you to risk pissing you off with the truth. Today, I received that simple, unadorned kindness from a stranger. I don't even know his name, but he'll be one of my favorite people for the rest of my life.

I wrote two blog entries about my twenty-second race, the Peak To Creek Marathon. The first entry, about training, is at this link. The second entry, about the marathon itself, is at this link.

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