A Midsummer Night’s Madness (Race Report)

There are so many wonderful singletrack trails through Mendon Ponds Park. All I could think of, while I ran the third loop at the inaugural Midsummer Night’s Madness trail half marathon on Saturday, was that we were probably near those trails.

Local running store puts on a spring race called Medved Madness in the same park, and I have missed it the last two years due to injuries or sickness. The idea of holding a half marathon in late August with a 2 pm scheduled start time (in order, I understand, to encourage people to hang around and socialize into the evening after the run) is a bit sketchy. But I was looking forward to trying a brand new race, and I expected to know many of the other runners.

We were fortunate this year. August in Western New York can be quite warm and dry, but not this year. We barely had a summer at all, and fall came quickly. Temperatures at 2 pm on an August Saturday were in the low 70s, which is perfect for a trail run.

The plan was to run three “loops,” all starting and finishing at the same point. The start would also serve as the only aid station available, but at about 13 miles, no loop was more than 5ish miles, so additional water stops seemed unnecessary. Each loop was plotted by a different Medved representative, and we were warned that one would be muddy, one would be technical (i.e. hilly), while the last would be longer.

The start of the first loop took us through some fields. There are a lot of fields in Mendon Ponds Park, and I hate field running. The ground is uneven, but it’s hard to see where to step. It’s open to the elements. It’s demoralizing. So I breathed a sigh of relief when we entered the woods.

Early in this loop was a four-way option. I was coming straight, but a large group of the race leaders was coming down from my left. “They went the wrong way,” the guy in front of me noted, and they turned ahead of me to go straight. Always follow the leaders, right?

Not this time. We meandered along the lake to the Devil’s Bathtub section of the park, where a long flight of uneven stairs heads up. Those stairs are not easy, but I powered up with the rest of the pack.

“I haven’t seen a flag in a while,” I called to the guy in front of me.

“Yeah, we’re definitely off course.”

We kept running.

“Does that bother anyone else?” I asked.

“They know the trails.”

Well, I know these trails too. I just didn’t know where the intended trails were. The leaders were fast, but I had to keep up. There was no way I was getting lost when I was already off course.

Finally, we hit the orange flags again and merged on the proper trail just as a long stream of runners who did not get lost were passing through. So we were stuck behind slower runners in an especially tricky section that avoids deep mud by running up and down the edges of a ditch. Running got slow, and I forced myself to push hard at every opportunity to pass people.

Finally, we got to the finish of the first loop, just about 5 miles. Looks like we did three-quarters to a mile extra, including the difficult Devil’s Bathtub stairs. Later, I learned that someone in the park (hopefully not another racer) was picking up flags and deposited them in a pile. The leaders who had turned left were actually going the right way. They just didn’t see flags and turned around before they went far enough. Oh well… I wouldn’t have hit 13 miles per my watch without the extra.

The second loop was hilly, and it somehow found steep up and downhills that I had never seen before. At least it was mostly on singletrack in the woods after wrapping around the field at the start. It also extended to a part of the park that I only ran during Fleet Feet’s Stage Race, and it’s nice to run areas that you don’t see very often.

I was thinking that as I tried to pass the woman ahead of me. Somehow, she must have sensed where I moved, because when I went left, she went left, and when I went right, she went right. I don’t think she was deliberately blocking me, but it was frustrating, and I must have been too close. Unable to get a good view of the trail, I tripped on a root and went down hard on my hands and knees. Worse, though, I must have twisted my leg in the fall, because it immediately cramped up.

I hissed in pain and held my leg extended, gripping the twitching calf muscle as a few other runners slowed to ask if I was ok. I muttered that I was and told them to go ahead. Slowly, I was able to stand and plod forward at a walk until finally my leg relaxed enough to keep going. My elbows and knees were sore and bloody, but that cramp would hurt the rest of the race.

Leg two finished, and I headed out on leg three, passing a few people who stopped for water at the aid station. There were only two or three cups poured with water, and several folks were in line to fill their own bottles with liquid. Seemed like a big time sink, so I headed on with what I carried. It was getting warmer, but I knew that the trails would be much cooler.

Too bad we didn’t hit many singletrack trails on loop three. Almost all of the 5.5 miles of this loop were in the fields. Gently rolling hills and tall reeds were all we had, and the people I was running with at this point found it similarly disappointing. Each time we came around a bend and saw the trail mowed through the grass far ahead of us, we grumbled.

It really was pretty and nice and quiet in that part of the park. There’s nothing inherently wrong with running on the grass. It’s even quicker than in the woods, and there were no bad hills. But it wasn’t what we wanted or expected. And the sun beat down on us relentlessly, despite the seasonably cool temperatures.

Worse, my leg was hurting with each uphill. I found myself walking more of these easily runnable sections, as my calf cramped up again and again. Several runners who I respected and measured myself against were close ahead of me, and I’m sure I could have beaten them if I continued my pace from the first two loops. But the leg pain meant they moved ahead.

Finally the finish, and I grumbled to a friend about how I got lost and tripped and dealt with leg cramps and had to run through the fields. But really, it was a pretty race with beautiful temperature. And it wasn’t particularly difficult. I expect I would have had a very good time if I didn’t fall.

The after party was excellent. People sat around in camp chairs and cheered the runners. There was an excellent BBQ dinner to enjoy, and we drank beer in the soft pint cups that were given instead of medals. Most people did stay late into the afternoon, enjoying the company and trading stories of their own races.

That’s the best part of these experiences. So what if it wasn’t all singletrack, right? It was a fun race with good people, and my time wasn’t as bad as I feared.

Would I do it again? Maybe, but only if it wasn’t a hot August day. That last loop through the fields would have been horrible and draining in hotter temperatures. Hopefully a few tweaks to incorporate the wooded trails would remedy that concern.

And hopefully my leg holds up for next week’s race up the mountain at a ski resort…four times!

Blues, Blacks and Blues, and Blahs

I’ve been contemplating several ideas for posts this week, and none of them seemed worthy of being wordy. So I’ll address several of them in brief postlets!

The Blues

13aI’ve been dealing with post-race blues, I think. The third of my four big races is now over, and a good portion of my year has been spent training and planning for these events. Even though another is just under two months away, I feel adrift without a goal.

After the Catamount Ultra, I used my post-race excitement as motivation. I knew I was capable of so much more than I had thought, and so even my long runs felt simpler. I was encouraged to run again. But after Candlelight, with my injuries, I haven’t been running. And when I’m not running, I’m not socializing. And that results in way too much time to sit and drink beer, a pleasurable experience that does not, unfortunately, lead to motivation and encouragement.

I’m already thinking of next year’s goals, but I have never been a long-term person. I want what I want right away. Even the effort of training for an event kept it at the forefront of my mind and gave me motivation. With nothing significant to look forward to, I’ve been down in the dumps.

I know this isn’t unique. These post-event blues are common after any large, monumental activity. When I’ve experienced them in the past, a week or two of routine tends to render them harmless. Wallowing these past two weeks hasn’t helped, though.

I need something big this year. I need to find something to do this fall, whether it’s running-related or not, just so I have something to look forward to. I’m open to suggestions!

The Blacks and Blues

13bAs written about in my Candlelight 12-Hour Ultra race report, I did not emerge from moving for nearly 12 hours covering 51 miles unscathed. The brief break to sit in a surprisingly clean port-o-john at 4:30 am did wonders for my stomach issues that plagued me since 7 pm the night before, but that oh-so-short time off my feet hurt my legs.

Specifically, my knee has been hurting badly. It caused me to walk much of the last few hours in that event, and it’s kept me from running much since the 12-hour event. What started as a sore spot on the side of the kneecap has become an almost-burning ache on the kneecap.

The Internet tells me – as only the Internet can do when searching symptoms of any injury – that I’m either suffering from a heart attack, PMS, or Runner’s Knee. I suspect it’s the latter.

There are a million articles about Runner’s Knee, but they’re nearly all about how to avoid the common injury. That’s like telling someone who walks into a cross beam to duck as they rub their bruised forehead. The only real treatment is rest, and I haven’t run much since Candlelight. But running is my primary distraction from the realities of life, and it’s also my main social outlet.

I’m choosing to treat my Runner’s Knee with benign neglect. I’ll ignore it if it ignores me. Keep running and hope it goes away or I get used to it. That’s healthy, right?

On the positive side, most of my injuries this year have gone away when new ones arose. My calf strain that bothered me for so long has been silent when tendonitis in the back of my knee surfaced. Now that tendonitis isn’t bothering me while my Runner’s Knee flares up. I can’t quite decide if it’s better to have all your injuries at one time and then get rid of them or deal with them individually.

The Blahs

13cBesides the views and the rampant opportunity to plummet down a cliff toward certain death, the best thing about trail running has to be the community. Every trail run or race that I’ve experienced has been full of the nicest, most supportive people. You can’t pass a person on the trails without hearing a “good job,” and people will actually stop during a race to help out someone who is struggling.

So I’ve pondered whether to write about an unfortunately negative experience. Ultimately, I’ll reference it in a confoundingly vague way, because it has bothered me these last two weeks, and writing about experiences is a way I process these things.

A trail runner I know came to Candlelight late at night, and I assumed this person was to encourage and support those running the event. Instead, as I passed three separate times, this person was outright rude and insulting to me. The first time, I laughed as if it was a joke. The second time, I challenged the person with a retort. The third time, I nearly stopped and offered a one-finger response.

Now I understand that everyone is different. It’s possible (even likely) that I don’t know this person well enough to understand his or her sense of humor. Perhaps I gave an indication from past interactions that this banter was amusing or encouraged. But late at night, after running more than 30 miles and with many hours to go, when I was struggling physically and mentally and challenging myself to continue, this was not a welcome, helpful, or appropriate communication.

Contrast this to another member of this same trail-running group who was also running Candlelight. I passed this person several times and ran/walk stretches with him. Each person he passed, he encouraged that runner by name. He knew nearly everyone, and even while he personally struggled, he kept calling out to those who passed him with an encouraging word or just a “great job!” It was clear he meant those words, and he was vital in continuing through the darkest hours of the night.

You can’t let one bad element spoil an entire community, I acknowledge. But this experience will certainly impact how I relate to this person in the future. And, to be fair, it will also make me think about my own interactions with others. I’d much rather say nothing than be seen to be discouraging or rude, even if the words I say are meant in good-natured jest.