April 23, 2012

Free State Trail Marathon Race Report

I don't remember the first time I ran at Clinton Lake, the local state park. I do remember that I skipped class to do it; though I can't say why. My memory of the subject is fleeting, comprised mostly of sore knees, slow trotting, and pulling up just short of an hour. Sixty consecutive minutes had been my goal, and although I didn't reach it, the ache in my joints suggested I had done enough.

One year ago, I ran the Free State Trail Half Marathon in 2:14. And I do remember that. The race started, as mine tend to, with a gusto-laden stride, too long and too fast. I clung to the leaders, thinking that pace was a thing to be willed, rather than earned. My training had been fractal, slow jogging whenever I felt like it, with the odd track interval session thrown in. I remember the trees, dirt, mud, and water crossings. I remember falling behind the leaders, stumbling down hills, and twisting my knee. I remember wishing that I had worn something other than road racing flats, and mostly, deciding that this trail racing thing was really too hard, and too painful.

I thought back to those moments, to those sensations, Saturday morning. I sat in my car, hiding until the sun crested the hills, and felt some paradoxical cocktail of confidence and fear. In the year since that half-marathon, I had run two ultras (one somewhat well), and put together some actual training. I had reason to believe in my fitness was up to the task awaiting me.

But then, hadn't I been confident before? And hadn't I been wrong before?

Here I was, nervously swatting my exposed quads, worrying about how my singlet fit. Here I was, wearing a singlet to begin with, wondering if that itself was fraudulent. Split shorts and singlets were for real runners. I remembered the person that couldn't run these trails for one hour, and wondered why he was dressed like this.

The horn went off, without so much as a countdown. The marathoners turned, and staggered down the road. Four of us pulled slightly to the front, myself holding behind. The man in the lead had a spectacular vaudevillian mustache, and the man behind me wore American flag shorts, with a singlet adorned with the word "BEEF". None of this seemed odd.

I spent the early portion chatting with a man from Omaha. He had begun to direct races there, and told me about a number of interesting races in Nebraska. I offered back monosyllabic chatter; clearly, he had more wind at this pace than me. Noticing this, I resigned to let him chase the mustache, and to ease off the pace.

The easing proved all too comfortable, however, as the middle miles slogged on. These were my hometown trails, rocks and roots I knew well. And yet I found myself shuffling, more than running, picking my way through the rocks, rather than bursting across them. My stride was that of someone who was running a 100-miler, not a marathon.

It occurred to me that I was going to get passed a lot, and that I really wanted to get to the halfway point. There, I could get Coke.

The man - who looked an awful lot like a taller Ryan Hall - wearing the BEEF singlet easily slid past me, just before a particularly rocky portion. I fell as he did, mostly because I was trying to read what the acronym ZIP stood for, which was also in bold type. (Zinc, Iron, Protein, as it turns out.) I laughed, and pulled myself up. I had talked for weeks about how comfortable I was on these trails, and how I never, never, fell.

One isn't so bad, I thought. The blood on my knee made a nice accessory, and if anything, served to invigorate my stride for a bit. Then I fell again.

Several more miles passed, without incident, but also without an increase in pace. I begged my hips to open up, but it was no use. I held in my mind a video of Geoff Roes and Uli Steidl, methodically ticking off stride after stride, working their way up a thin swath of dirt. In my mind, I was grinding out the same sort of effort - just a whole lot slower.

The halfway point gave me the Coke I had waited for, and the knowledge that I had covered half the required distance. I felt, on the same day that some were racing 100K, rather pathetic. I had run 13 miles, and was tired. It occurred to me that the only way to defeat that sentiment was to run, so I did. I ran from my paranoid sensation of weakness, and forward. Always forward.

But not very far forward, before I was struck by a powerful need to use the restroom. Does The Pope shit in the woods? I asked myself. No matter, I thought, because I had to. And so, Leave No Trace suggestions fresh in my mind, I waded trough the grass, and far off the trail. My proudest moment, this was not, but these things do happen.

I resumed running, and found my pace still lacking. There was no doubt that I could move forward, and do so comfortably, for hours more. I felt like I could run 50 miles. And while there was comfort in that, it wasn't the goal for the day. I wanted to run - to race - a marathon. And that took a gait I couldn't seem to find.

My ultra-shuffle took me to a clearing, and a path next to a fishing spot. There were men by the water, relaxing, certainly unconcerned by whatever I was doing. And there was a man behind me then, his pace like a metronome. I stepped aside, letting him by before we resumed running in the woods.

His company was pleasant, and we chatted for several minutes. I told him that I was going to hold his pace for as long as I could manage, and wished him a good race when I no longer could. But as he disappeared ahead, I felt encouraged. He had run 3:38 the previous year - good for 3rd place. He said that he was ahead of that pace, with about ten miles to go.

Under four? I asked myself. Would I be happy with that, and could I manage it? Yes to both, I decided. In a race where one might expect to win with anything under 3:30, sub-4 would suffice.

There was another aid station, positioned such that I could see many of the chase pack. To my surprise, I also saw the man who had passed me at the lake, and the then-departing BEEF shirt wearer. And so I told myself a lie, which happened to be completely true: You need only run a hard 10K. Your legs can manage that, and your lungs haven't really been taxed to begin with. The twenty previous miles were prelude; this, now, is the race.

It was a lie - but I wanted so badly to believe it, that I did. For the first time since the opening miles, I felt like I was running. I took the downhills with abandon, thinking that my quads and knees could be sore the next day, and nothing would be lost.

But my perception, it seemed, was not wholly accurate. There were footsteps again behind me, two runners that I could see, and others that I imagined.

And then it was fun. I flung myself down the hills, and charged up them. I felt myself pulling away, looked back, and found that I had. I felt a sticky substance in my right shoe, looked down, and saw that my venerable Hattori had a larger-than-usual hole in the upper, and that there was red spreading from that area. I felt proud, in a sense, like I had earned some sort of validation. I was running in split shorts and a singlet, but I had a bloody shoe!

My enthusiasm grew as I hit the final aid station. I downed two more cups of Coke, and ran with whatever I had left towards the finish. This was a section of the trail I knew especially well. It was rockier than most, and hillier too. But this was a 5K now; and I had run two 5Ks on these same rocks.

My pursuit, it seemed, had the same idea. They appeared again; first as the crunch of shoe on rock, then was the swish of shorts, and finally, as the breathing of a man laboring. I ran harder, because there was nothing else to do. My arms swung, and my stride lengthened. I held my gap, but did not lengthen it. And so I ran harder yet, and the gap remained the same.

There was a hill then, which I remembered walking up the previous year. I was near the finish, I knew, one final push from sprawling across the timing mat. Roes again in mind, I worked up the rocks, picking my way across them.

But there was still no gap, and this time, when I tried to run harder, there was nothing. A man in a blue shirt passed me, then one with a Salomon hydration pack, and finally, one with a red shirt. They were all very courteous, thanking me for pushing the pace to the finish. I stepped aside, clearing the trail for them. I congratulated then on matching that pace, and then besting it.

I saw my Dad, as I climbed the final hill. I smiled, and pointed to my shoe. 23 years old, and still pointing out a stubbed toe to my Dad, I thought. There was another surge behind me, though for this one I had an answer. I sprinted the final yards, leaned across the line, and finished in 3:46:50, 8th overall.

There was more Coke at the finish, but I didn't drink (or eat, for that matter) anything. I smiled, shook hands, accepted and extended congratulations. I talked with several people I knew previously, and a couple I had met during the race. We had shared the trail and the experience; and now we related it, with words and smiles. I felt tired, sore, elated, and so many other things. But whatever else, I felt, at least, like a runner.


  1. 1. Congrats! :D
    2. Where's your "COFFEE" singlet?
    3. Okay, tell you the truth, this was also a scary read for a nonrunner.
    4. Poor toe.........................

    1. 1. Thanks.
      2. Sadly, I've never seen one. Someone needs to get on that.
      3. Trust me, it never stops being scary. And I hope it doesn't. The day racing doesn't scare me is the day I'll stop doing it.
      4. It's ok now. Just a small cut that bled a lot.

  2. Maybe if you drink Alterra Coffee before the race next year you will be even faster! I love Alterra Coffee! I also ran the marathon but was 45 min behind you, just not getting to read people's race reports.

    Congrats on a great run.