Dirt Cheap Stage Race (Race Report)

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” – Helen Keller

I’m not a quote person inspired by pithy wordplay laid over scenic images on inspirational posters or memes. But as I sat around the house Friday afternoon, mentally counting down the time until my first of three races for the weekend, I was thinking a lot about suffering.

The temperature was in the teens on Friday, a bitter transition from the late-summer weather of late September and early October. A three-mile trail run is hard enough when you push yourself to go fast despite rocky terrain and steep hills, but compound that with darkness and a thin layer of snow over everything plus air cold enough to hurt your lungs as you gasped for air, and it was certainly a sufferfest.

Why was I leaving the warmth and comfort of my house for a bitterly cold trail run? I could have easily called it off and had a good dinner and binge watched more episodes of Stranger Things. The longer I sat around the house on my day off (in honor of Veteran’s Day), the more appealing it became to choose comfort over discomfort and suffering.

Then again, if I stayed home, I would accomplish nothing. Comfort is transient. By going out, I’d be amongst people, talking and interacting rather than sitting home alone. And all would be suffering, not just me. Then there’s the simple fact that suffering increases strength. It got darker and colder, and I forced myself out the door.

Friday’s 5k was the first of three races in Fleet Feet’s Dirt Cheap Stage Race, all in Mendon Ponds Park. Saturday featured a 5ish-mile race starting at 10 am, and Sunday toured most of the park over 11ish miles at 9 am. Run all three, and you get a coveted hoodie. Some people have run every year and wear their classic hoodies proudly. This is my third year and the first time that running 20ish miles over three days didn’t seem imposing in the least.

In fact, I ran faster last year than this year despite feeling significantly stronger and faster in training runs. Chalk that up to colder weather and trickier footing, I suppose. Perhaps I didn’t push myself hard enough. It isn’t that important; comparing yourself today to what you did in the past is always misleading. I ran all three races and got my hoodie, and today, looking back at the weekend, I’m pleasantly encouraged that my legs feel every bit as good (if not better) than they did on Friday.

A quick recap of the three days:

Friday’s run is a time trial, which means each runner goes off in five-second increments. You race for time, not finish position, and it’s a fun concept. Runners leave in bib number order, so I got to packet pickup particularly early on Thursday to get a low number. I’d much rather stand around after a run when my body is warmed up than wait for several minutes in the cold.

I didn’t feel great on this run. It was hard to see the surfaces buried under leaves and snow, so I felt like I was running tentatively. There are several steep hills in three short miles. And though I wore a headlamp and carried a flashlight (this works for me on night trails), I felt distracted and distant, not really focusing on the ground in front of me.

Only a few people passed me, and as I came to the finish I heard a runner in pursuit, so I sprinted down the hill to finish 45 seconds faster than last year. Not a bad race despite the cold and snow. I was struggling to breathe after the race, though, my lungs fighting the cold, dry air. It was a disconcerting feeling that fortunately didn’t bother me the rest of the weekend.

Saturday’s run always goes through the muddy parts of Mendon. Even last year, when we had an almost historic draught, there was mud in the marshy trails. This year had a historic rainfall, and the mud was thick and not close to being frozen over. It was nearly 25 degrees Saturday morning, and wearing several layers of clothing while fighting the mud made for a bit of a slog. Still, I finished just two minutes slower than the previous year, and I felt good powering up “Cardiac Hill” and the infamous Devil’s Bathtub stair ending. I passed people on both. My hill game is on point this year!

Sunday, the temperature was closer to 30. This day’s course covers most of the park, including all the muddy parts from Saturday plus a few extra muddy miles. It passed quickly for me. I was running by myself for nearly all of it, at one point even wondering if I was still on course when the trail opened up and I could see no one before or after me. I kept going anyway.

I remember suffering more last year, nearly out of energy and on dead legs during the second half of the third day’s run. This year, my legs felt fine. I was most mentally tired than physically. The hills were nothing; I power hiked them all and passed people again, though I was still tentative on the sketchy terrain of the steep downhills. Familiar sections that I remember struggling through last year passed particularly quick. If not for the dense mud that turned cold feet to ice, it would have been a lovely run.

I knew it ended up hill, and I have a great photo of me from last year as I powered up to the finish. This year, they narrowed the uphill finish into a chute, which confused me until I saw a tree down nearly at the top. They wanted to make sure we went over the downed tree, not around. It killed all momentum and made for an awkward uphill clamber to the finish line. But I was done and breathing much smoother and easier than after Saturday’s stair finish.

The best part of last year’s three-day experience was staying after, lingering and talking to people and drinking beer with friends. A few of us shared a beer or two this year as well, but it was far colder (at least 25 degrees each day), and the sun disappeared Sunday, so no one wanted to linger too long. I got my hoodie and felt accomplished.

Only one day of the stage race was faster than last year, although I finished about six spots higher in the overall standings (likely due to less competition in the cold, wet, muddy conditions). And even though I suffered, I felt strong. My legs are far stronger than they were last year, especially evident as I powered up steep hills. I breathed easier, although that’s always a struggle for me. And though the course wasn’t as runnable as in past years, I felt like I was running well and quick when I could.

Better yet, my legs feel good today. In fact, my knee, which has been hurting badly and hampering my running, isn’t bothering me at all today. Last year, I was very tired after three days of racing hard. And this year, I feel comfortable and fresh. It’s a good sign that all the endurance is paying off with strength.

The stage race is a fun event, and I’m glad I left the warmth of the house all three days. Cold-weather running is not nearly as fun to me, and fighting the shoe-sucking mud and soaking wet feet is miserable. But running with other people is always better than sitting home alone. Even though that’s hard to remember beforehand, it makes for far better memories after.