Friday, June 9, 2017

My thirty-fifth and thirty-sixth races were trail races. Trail running is very different from running on road or track. If I were going to write a brochure to promote trail running, it would begin something like this:

Are you a combination of adventurous and suicidal? Would you like to go for a hike without enjoying it? Do you like running but lament the low likelihood of a crippling injury on roads and tracks? Would you enjoy playing guessing games, like "Is It Venomous?" and like "What The Hell Is Bleeding Now?" If so, then trail running is the sport for you!"



After 45 years of lethargic apathy, I decided three years ago to get active, eat healthy, and generally change my life. The first activity that I really came to enjoy in that summer of 2014 was hiking. I loved to spend time in the woods, and as my weight went down I found that I was fairly light on my feet and could climb and cross mountains somewhat efficiently. Then I added running to my exercise routine. I loved running as much as hiking, so when I found out about trail running it seemed like a natural hybrid of my hobbies.

The only problem is that, even on flat and even surfaces, I'm about as graceful as a Sherman tank. Plus I can't bend my knees very well. So trail running is generally an opportunity for me to get muddy, get bloody, and curse in the woods a lot. Nevertheless, I give it a go fairly frequently. I like to think that my poor judgement is somehow balanced by my ability to commit to bad ideas.

Last June I ran the Conquer The Cove 25K in Roanoke, Virginia. This 25K trail race is 15.5 miles long, contains nearly 3,000 feet of elevation gain, and involves some of the trickiest, rockiest, rootiest, most technical single-lane hiking trail I have ever run on. I made a series of terrible choices before the race last year and I ended up finishing with a dismal final time of three hours, seventeen minutes.

This year I ran the Conquer The Cove 25K after making a series of very different and even worse choices. For one thing, I decided to approach CtC as a training run toward the marathon I will run at the end of this month. That's ridiculous; CtC is a demanding, difficult race that requires serious effort and adequate training. I also went into this race on very tired legs, having run almost forty miles over the preceding five days (including a brutal ten mile set of intervals that had left me wobbly). I didn't get enough sleep the night before the race, and I may have enjoyed a couple of cold beverages at dinner that I didn't really need.

So I showed up on race morning overconfident, unprepared, and doomed by my own bad decisions. By midway through the race my spent legs were doing more stumbling than running. I fell twice during the race. Falling is not unusual for trail runners, and they spend a lot of time learning to fall correctly in order to prevent injury. My method of falling usually involves slamming my face into the ground with as much force as possible, and this is not a method sanctioned by most trail running groups. One of my falls was on a particularly tough stretch of trail that is known as The Gauntlet, so named for good reasons. For what felt like months I stumbled around on the mountain, falling, cursing, bleeding, stumbling, and farting. Now and then I'd tell a passing runner how much I hated trail running. I'm certain that I told that to nearly every runner in the race, because nearly all of them passed me. I managed to drag my carcass across the finish line late in the morning, after hours of inept, painful wandering on the mountainside. It was a humiliating, agonizing, and inevitable failure. Last year's time was a disappointing 3:17. This year's effort took more than five hours.

Lucky is one of those despicable trail runners who glides weightlessly up mountains and bounds over streams like a deer. She finished the 25K well ahead of her own goal time, and nearly two hours before me. So she had plenty of time to wonder if I were dead, lost, or sitting somewhere crying on a stump. Oh, and get this ... the 25K is the less difficult of two races that take place during Conquer the Cove. There is also a full marathon. Yep, 26.2 miles of climbing, jumping, twisting, turning, sweating and cursing. We have friends who ran the whole thing, and finished it before I wrapped up the 25K. I admire their strength, I am in awe of their tenacity, and I hate them and hate their ass-faces.

So after my existential faceplant at the Cove, my choices were simple... give up trail running completely, or get into another trail race right away. The OH!lly 5K Trail Race was in Charlottesville two days after CtC, so Lucky and I decided to go run it with her son. I had run this particular race once before, in fact it was my first race ever two years ago. I remembered it as a demanding but fun race. I was a little nervous, but I went into it generally feeling optimistic.

My primary goal at the OH!lly was to finish without making a fool of myself. My secondary goal was to beat my previous time. I ended up coming in 20 seconds slower than my first time running the race, but I finished on my feet and happy. I actually ran somewhat competently and had turned in an effort I wasn't ashamed of. The OH!lly is a tough course, too. It's kind of like a mini version of Carvin's Cove. There's more than 680 feet of climbing over the course of the race, and some of it is pretty hard. At the end I'd had a good time, and so did Lucky and her son. We managed to turn my desperate need to get back in the saddle into a family-style outting, and it was a success in more ways than one.

The OH!lly is hosted by the Charlottesville Area Trail Runners, a friendly and welcoming bunch of people. The race attracted quite a few runners, just as it had the first time I ran it. I wore my GoPro head-mount and taped the race, and that tape is here:

So, trail running. Yeah. It ain't for everyone. Ultimately it might not be for me. It certainly isn't an activity I will engage in for the rest of this month, I can tell you that. I have a marathon at the end of June and I am in taper mode as of now. But before the summer is over I will probably find my way back to some trail at some point. To be continued....