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.

Candlelight 12-Hour Ultra (Race Report)

It’s 2:30 am. You’ve been awake since 5:30 the previous morning, and you’ve been moving – mostly a run, but sometimes a walk – since 7 pm the previous evening. There’s nothing to see but the circle of light cast by your headlamp on the ground before you; there’s no moon, no stars. Your mind is starting to play tricks on you. That stick by the pond looks like a snake…is it a snake? What is that weird sound in the horse pasture? How is it possible this hill keeps getting longer and longer? When was the last time you drank or ate or even stopped?

These are the thoughts that go through your mind in the middle of the night when you’re in the middle of a 12-hour endurance race. These, and a million other inconsequential thoughts. It is quite possible that, in the monotony of running a mile loop over and over and over again for 12 hours, I thought every possible thought there is to think. Twice.

In the realm of races, there are two categories. The most common is a distance race, with every distance over a marathon (26.2 miles) being considered an “ultra”. Then there are timed races, where the goal is to achieve as many miles as possible in six, 12, 24, or even more hours. Most of these races are on short loops, so it is easy to restock at aid stations and see the same runners again and again.

Candlelight is an overnight ultra, from 7 pm Saturday to 7 am Sunday, and it features a just-over-one-mile course on a horse farm in Mendon, NY. There’s a little bit of road, but mostly mowed trails through fields, and you have the benefit of passing the barn aid station twice as well as “tent row,” where participants set up their own bases of operations.

The rules for this event were quite relaxed. You can run or walk as long as you want. You can sleep if you want, and you can drop and go home at any point. Some people were out to run the full 12 hours, but others were just getting their Saturday long run in before going home, and a few planned to quit when they hit their goal distance. It’s the perfect opportunity to achieve goals of a marathon distance, maybe 50k (32 miles), maybe even longer.

Last year was the first year of the event, and I spectated my friend James as he tried to run his longest distance ever. I had left many hours before he achieved 32 miles in the middle of the night and packed up and went home. And as cool as it sounded to run such long distances, it seemed like – to truly appreciate the point of the event – leaving before 12 hours is going against the goals of the race.

Last year, when James ran his 50k distance, my longest run was the Sehgahunda marathon. Since, I have run two more marathons and two 50ks, and I went into this event with big plans. My goal – and that of almost everyone else I knew, James included – was to run 50 miles. But my secret goal was to accomplish a 100k (64 miles) run. I made the former of my goals but not the latter; it was still an amazing experience.

Notice that I do not say it was fun. Quite a bit of this race was not “fun” in the usual definition of the word. But running itself is often not fun. Sometimes, it truly sucks. But the accomplishments are tremendous, the experience can be overwhelmingly positive, and the celebrations afterward are exhilarating.

The start of the race at 7 pm was as anti-climactic as any I’ve ever seen. No one surged ahead or took off in an effort to build up a lead. You just started running. I did the first loop with James, so he could point out parts of the course and compare it to last year. From the timing mats, you wander through horse pastures and then up tent row. You run along the road and up a hill past the horses in the fields, then head into the grass down a long hill. There’s a long flat section, and you go back up the hill, wrap around a koi pond, summit a short hill to a road, and work your way back to the start point. It’s sort of a figure 8 course, with just enough variation in terrain to be nicely chunkable and diverse.

It had been an extremely wet year to this point, and the forecast all week predicted 12 hours of rain, so I was pleased to find a mix of clouds and sun and reasonable temperatures. But it was muggy…so muggy that your shirt was soaked by the end of the first mile loop and the ever-present gnats were sticking to your exposed skin. I realized that the monotony of the course wasn’t going to get to me, but the humidity might.

After the first loop, I ran with Jamie, a runner who I knew was fast but had an even bigger goal than my 50-mile plan. I always feel guilty running with someone in a race. I don’t know if they want to run alone or get annoyed by my presence. But I do so much better when I can find someone going my preferred pace and stick with them. Usually, that’s more anonymous on singletrack trails, but this course was wide enough to run two or three abreast, so I ran alongside her and chatted. When she stopped to change, I went on, and she caught up. When I fell back to talk to my parents, who spectated for an hour or so, I was able to catch up. The first 10 miles flew by in an unsustainable 10-minute or so pace.

I brought so many supplies to this race that I feared being made fun of for overpacking, but I was so grateful for the changes in clothes. I promised myself I would change my shirt and hat every three hours; the first shirt change was in less than two. Still, drying off with a towel, wearing a dry shirt, and refilling from my own supply of Tailwind was a well-enjoyed luxury.

The course was quite nice for being mostly road and field. The farm was pretty in the dimming daylight, and the horses were beautiful to watch as they grazed or watched us back. There were a few farm cats that would sit nearby or smack in the middle of the trail, observing poor trail etticat (get it?). The koi pond was a favorite point in the daylight, with beautiful fish an arm’s length long darting back and forth.

It was fun to see people too. You would pass others by the barn in the only stretch of two-way traffic, and you would pass people up tent row. Sometimes you’d catch up to someone and talk with them a while; sometimes you’d get passed and exchange a few words. Everyone was supportive and friendly, even when it got dark. But the “good jobs” got fewer and fewer as we progressed along and got lost in our own worlds.

It got dark, and I had the headlamp on, which meant that every bug in the field was drawn to my face. I pulled the brim of my hat lower, hoping they’d stay on that side of the barrier, but it didn’t help much. As an early riser, I was nervous about running at night, not so much because of running in the dark but mostly because there would be no distractions, and I would be exhausted.

The advice I received for this event was to never sit. Just keep moving, even if it’s at a walk. No one really runs for 12 hours. Most walk the two up-hills from the beginning, and some people walked some or all of each loop. But don’t sit down, I was told, or your muscles will not let you get up and run again. So even when I stopped at the base camp to pour more drink or get a change of clothing, I never sat.

Around this time, many of my friends at the race were struggling. Jamie, Nicole, Mike, and Dave were hurting from one recurring injury or another, and they began to sit at camp. I kept moving, but it was disheartening to see them succumbing or nearing the quitting point. My legs hurt too; my tendinitis was acting up, and the soles of my feet ached. The bruised top of my foot throbbed.

Mainly, though, my stomach was the primary concern. It was off since the start of the race, but I was ignoring it. Evening races are difficult, because you have to eat during the day, but what do you eat and how far before starting? My stomach was sloshing for the first few hours, and then it got ever-increasingly gassy. I took Rolaids at one point and downed the shot-glass-sized cups of ginger ale at the aid station. I knew the blood was not flowing to my gut, and as the run went on it was probably only going to get worse.

At one point, I almost threw up. For some runners, throwing up is common, but as something of a reformed emetophobe (someone who dreads vomiting), this bothered me a lot. I walked the rest of the way to basecamp, saw that Jamie and Nicole were long gone, and I was ready to quit. James encouraged me to eat something, so I managed half of a Clif bar and more Tailwind. A few more Rolaids, and I headed back out, figuring I’d walk for a bit to see if my stomach would settle down.

The course was surprisingly dry, with only three muddy patches. One was avoidable if you made a turn sharp enough, but the other two were on the down and up portions of the hills, and they got muddier with each tread of feet over and over again. I tried to pick my path, stepping on the still-grassy parts and going one way or another to find the least muddy lie. At times, I seemed to get across miraculously unscathed. At others, I followed the same path and nearly lost my shoe in thick gunk.

It was raining in the middle of the night, a light mist that I could see in my head lamps but not really feel on my damp, sticky skin. My shoes were wet, but my feet never got wet, for which I was very grateful. The rain may have helped with the bugs; it was hard to say, since the insects became an ever-present constant to ignore. I inhaled many, swallowed plenty of others. They were small and tasteless.

I knew the middle of the night would be tough, and I brought my headphones to listen to music in the darkest hours. But I had them in before 10 pm, needing the distraction, and I realized that this time, so early in the race, was my darkest moment. I came up to Mike, who had sat for a while to rest his sore knee and figured he’d walk a few loops before dropping out, and I acknowledged how I felt. I was at my low point, planning to quit, and my stomach was a legitimate excuse. But even though Mike was dropping due to injury, he encouraged me to keep going. I was looking strong, he said, and the low points are common. His pep talk encouraged me to start running again, so I put the headphones back in and took off.

There were fireworks, too. You heard the patter-patter-patter of them in the distance for a while, but only at one point, in their grand finale, could you see the brilliant bursts on the horizon. I stopped a moment to appreciate them, imagining the two-short show was all for me.

The music helped a lot as I went on. I sang along (in my head) and was well distracted as the night went on the miles racked up. Unfortunately, by the time I hit that point in the early morning hours when I expected to need music, the Bluetooth headphones’ battery was dead. I was alone with my thoughts in the most quiet time of the night.

This is when I realized that the hardest part of a timed endurance event is not staying awake or keeping your sore body going. It’s how to occupy your mind for so long. I thought I would meditate or plan a story that had been in the back of my mind for a while. But I have never really been able to disconnect while running. Mostly, I think about the running that I’m doing or I get lost in the beauty of my surroundings. There were no surroundings in the darkness, though.

The hours passed in a blur. I had snippets of thoughts I can remember.

The bull frogs were grunting and croaking in the koi pond all night long, and I wondered what they were saying. Were they talking about us? Didn’t they ever sleep? Do frogs croak in their sleep?

The farm cats that sat in the trail or along the fence and watched us seemed to know something…I wondered what they could tell me. I made the universal tsk-tsk noise to get the cat’s attention, and it looked at me with headlamp-reflected laser eyes, and I imagined that I didn’t want to hear what this cat had to say.

I made promises to myself. Walk to that crack, then run the rest of the road. Walk to that flag, then walk the rest of the hill. Every two laps, get a coke at the aid station. (Ah, coke, the most decadent of ultra aid station fare!) Every three laps, stop at basecamp and towel off or get more drink or take another S-cap.

Wait, when did I last drink? I had to consume calories, and these were mostly from Tailwind. I was carrying a handheld bottle, but I hadn’t used it in so long. I would take a too-warm swig of drink. Later, I wondered again when I last drank.

How many laps had I gone? Was it this lap or the next one when I could get coke? This one…I needed the encouragement. When I passed marathon distance, I celebrated with two of the tiny cups of coke. I did again when I passed 50k a few loops later.

At 4:30, my stomach, which had been bothering me the entire race, finally decided it was ready for me to use the bathroom. So I made it to the porta-potties at the starting point and sat for the first time in 10 hours. Not my ideal location to sit and relax, but I felt so much better physically for finally emptying out, and I thought that I could run again, faster and strong!

Until I left the smelly chamber and started to run. Then I realized that sitting was, most assuredly, a problem for my muscles. My already-tired legs complained. My calf was acting up, and my knee began to throb. Walking didn’t hurt much, but running was painful.

I was over 40 miles, and I knew that 50 was attainable even if I walked each loop at slower and slower paces. Still I went on, walking to this point before running again, running each time down the hill and along the flat trail, running through the pastures to tent row. Not a single loop was complete walking, although one or two were close.

I had anticipated daylight for hours, but it came almost reluctantly due to the low, heavy clouds. Still, it was nice to finally shed the headlamp. The trail looked so different after 100 people trod it to dirt and mud for eight hours in the darkness. The koi were still awake, and the horses came out to watch us again. It was encouraging, but I was tired and sore. I wanted to hit 50, and I wanted to be done.

I caught up with Shea, who was hoping to get to 45 miles as her longest trail run in anticipation of next month’s Twisted Branch 100k. She let me run with her, and we chatted about where we hurt and when we would stop. Shea somehow manages to be the most positive person, always smiling even after the hardest race, and she encouraged me to run an entire loop in which I eclipsed 50 miles. I did one more, to hit 51.3 miles total (an average of 12:30 per mile, which included all the downtime spent at bacecamp). And then, at 6:15 in the morning, I told the race director that I was done. I sat in my chair and cracked a beer, and it was over.

James ran one more loop to achieve the same distance as I did, and we helped Shea take down her garage-sized tent. We packed up, saw the last few people finish at 7 am, and I headed home.

I didn’t hit my ultimate goal of 62 miles, though I honestly think I could have if my knee didn’t hurt so much after that 4:30 am pit stop. I didn’t even run the full 12 hours, though I could have. I knew there wasn’t another meaningful mileage goal in sight at 6:15, and I knew I wouldn’t move up the leaderboard (9th overall, 3rd in my age group isn’t bad!), so I was fine with stopping 45 minutes early. I was there the full 12 hours at least, and I achieved an amazing goal of running more than 50 miles.

Think about that: 50 miles. Some race training plans call for mileage runs, and others call for time spent on your feet. This event was nearly 12 hours on my feet (with that one unavoidable sit at 4:30) and 50+ miles. It amazes me to think that three years ago, I ran my first 5k; two years ago, I ran my first half marathon; last year, I ran my first marathon; And this year I was able to run for 12 hours and 50 miles.

To wrap up this long, rambling race report (still not as long as those 12 hours felt, I assure you), I had some worthwhile realizations. I am an ultra runner, capable of great things. The mental aspect of running is my shortcoming, but I was able to overcome that voice encouraging me to quit, keep my head down, and keep moving those feet forward. Even when it got hard and it hurt, I was able to get back into a run. I was able to keep moving forward.

The race director put on a great, well-organized, and beautiful race. The volunteers (and “voluncheers” as they called themselves) were awesome and encouraging. The other runners were tremendous people also capable of amazing things, and I enjoyed running with them all. Even those who quit at their goal distance or time or when injuries got too bad ran long and did great things.

I look forward to learning what I can achieve in 12 hours next year.

0 SPF (Race Report)

I guess this is proof there were downhill sections. I’m in the back running with Michael.

You would think a trail race that is – with one small loop exception – an out-and-back would have an equal amount of uphill and downhill sections. But something about the nature of trails results in the magic occurrence of consistent and unending ups without the equivalent downs. The laws of physics need not apply.

Local running community TrailsRoc puts on the 0 SPF race as a way to raise money for the organizations preserving and maintaining the Seneca and Crescent trails, and it’s advertised as a half marathon(ish). It also falls on the same day as another local road half marathon, the Shoreline Half. Despite hating that race for its relentless plodding past farmland in summertime heat, I ran it both of the last two years, which means I hadn’t the pleasure of running 0 SPF before this year.

And we couldn’t have asked for a better July morning for a race. It was overcast and cool, with a few moments of misting rain that helped against the increasing humidity. And despite consistent rain, the trails were in very good shape. No sun screen of any SPF required!

The course starts on the Seneca Trail in Victor, NY, and winds around some office complexes, crossing a few busy roads, and down an open hill before finally reaching the woods. Seneca opens out to a road for a bit under a half mile before connecting to the Crescent Trail.

Crescent is one of my favorites. It’s hilly but not hard, it’s immaculately marked, and because it runs for 18 miles, it’s an easy destination for out-and-back training runs. So I’ve run this trail quite a few times, and we were on the hilliest section. I passed a few people I knew and fell in behind another familiar runner, and we chatted for most of the first stretch.

The leaders passed us surprisingly early, and they were sprinting. Out-and-back races are nice, because everyone on the trails is encouraging and offers a “good job,” but these trails were pretty narrow. I tried to get out of the way of the leaders each time, but most of the people I passed on my own way back did not offer the same. It was fun to see all the leaders, including one runner who recently ran Western States 100.

At the turnaround, the runner I was with slowed to refill his water, and I shouted out my number and turned back in. There was too much of a crowd there, and I had enough water to at least get me to the refill station halfway back. I fell in behind another runner who was powering up each hill. He would get further ahead of me at this points, but I quickly caught up after the hills.

The one exception to this being a total out-and-back race comes on your way back. You split off on a side trail and connect back to the main trail a mile or two back. The main trail contains a long incline at this part, and that’s always one of my least-favorite sections of Crescent. Unfortunately, the side trail seemed to have steeper trails, going up and down a few more times and sapping the last of your strength for running hills. The runner I was following kept going at one intersection, and I called him back to the turn, but at that point I was ahead of him, and I didn’t see him again until the end.

In the last section of Crescent, I fell comfortably behind three other runners. We ran as a pack, one or two powering ahead up hills, the others of us catching up again. When we came out to the road, however, I and another runner passed the others and one or two people who were further ahead. It seems the roads are soul-crushing to trail runners, but I found it nice to open up my pace, even though it was a sloping uphill.

As we entered Seneca again, the runner who stayed ahead of me on the road stopped to let me go. I thought he’d overtake me quickly, but it was clear the road section took a lot of his energy, and I ran Seneca on an island until it was almost over. When I walked up Powerline Hill, another runner who I had seen running every hill got by me. I figured I’d overtake him again, but he knew how little distance was left, and he managed to stay just in front of me.

We came back around the office parks and into the trail that finished at a nice descent. I heard another runner catching up to me, and I took off in a sprint. Though I couldn’t catch the hill runner, I managed to stay ahead of my pursuer, and I finished a fairly respectable 47 out of 134.

You have to run each hill twice on this race, and that’s frustrating. They sapped my energy on the way back, and I found myself walking even the stretches that felt flat on the way out but now stretched ahead at an incline. That’s the magic of trails, after all. It all ends up feeling uphill when you’re tired. Regardless, I enjoyed the race thoroughly, and I appreciate it as a very challenging 13.5 miles on some beautiful trails.

So this race report is short, and all my swear words while climbing Chair Hill are purposefully omitted. There’s a bigger race in my not-too-distant future. I’m sure that, too, will be all uphill.

Finding Time to Be a Good Runner

The Seven Essential Exercises Every Runner Must Do

How to Make Your Own Energy Bars

The Proper Way to Crosstrain

The Required Foods Runners Should Eat

If you read all these stories in every running magazine and on every running-related website, you might not have enough time to do anything else. But if you followed these suggestions and you manage to hold down a full-time job, you most likely don’t have time to run.

Running, as an activity and hobby, is pretty easy. You put on your running gear and head out the door. Sure, maybe you have to drive to trails or a running path, and maybe you have to plan around busy schedules so that you can run with a partner. But ultimately, running is something our bodies were made to do, and it’s not hard to run.

Being a good runner (or a productive runner) is not as easy. You need a lot of gear for different weather and road or trail conditions. You need to run on different surfaces and in different areas to train different muscle groups and alleviate boredom. You need to run for long periods of time. And you need to run almost every day.

Some people can run in the morning before the day even begins. When I manage to do this, I feel a wonderful surge of energy that propels me through the morning of work…and then I crash early in the afternoon and find myself going to bed before the sun even properly sets.

Running in the evening is easier. You have the whole day to plan it, and you can work it into your schedule if time permits. You get home, change clothes, and go out to run. But even this is difficult. Group runs start at 6 pm so that everyone has time to get there after work, but since I can’t eat anything significant before a run, I find myself eating dinner at 7:30 or going to bed without dinner at all (and waking up starving early the next morning). Then there’s the coordination with other people: where to meet, where to run, how to fit everyone’s schedule and commute. Social events carry their own post-run requirements. Your entire post-work day can be consumed with the activity of running, which isn’t really a bad thing, but what about family and hobbies and good old-fashioned relaxing in front of the TV (priorities but not necessarily in order)?

To build your running expertise, you have to run long at least one day a week, and there goes your Saturday or Sunday morning. But not just that morning! You can’t spend the night before going out with friends and drinking alcohol and staying up late, because these things kill that early-morning run (and make it far too easy to sleep in and skip it altogether). And after the run, you have to return home and shower and sometimes clean the mud off those running shoes and take a bit to recover (because if you don’t, you’ll regret it later).

To build that expertise, you have to run throughout the week too. Don’t just go out and run, remember. There’s intervals and hill repeats and fartleks, and don’t forget about the group workouts to build your muscles and yoga for runners and all those other physical activities you want to fit in but can’t quite work around your running schedule. It’s unlikely you can do these things right outside your front door. More likely, you have to plan these events into your schedule and drive somewhere to participate, and there goes your evening.

If you’re planning a marathon or ultra and trying to be a better runner, you’re running at least four or five days a week. The longer distances require back-to-back runs to build your endurance. And on your off days, when all you want to do is rest, you still have requirements. There’s cross training; it’s right there on your workout plan. There’s weight training and muscle-building exercises. Don’t forget to treat those sore muscles with rolling and stretching and massages. There’s meditation and yoga and meal preparation to eat right, and all of these things assuredly cut into your Netflix and beer time.

What about relaxing? What about seeing your friends and taking time for other hobbies completely unrelated to running? It’s no wonder most of my running friends don’t seem to have many of these other hobbies, and if they do, they don’t participate in them as much as they would like.

I want to be a good runner. I want to enjoy those days of three or four miles of easy, enjoyable running (just like it used to be when I started to run), and I want to plan those long runs and intervals and hills and workouts and group runs. I’d like to be stronger physically and do exercises and workouts. I’d like to be stronger mentally and meditate more and participate in yoga; these things feel amazing when I fit them in. But there’s not enough time in the day.

It’s easy enough to find time to be a runner. But it’s hard to work your schedule and priorities around being a good runner. There’s just not enough time in the day…

Catamount Ultra 50k (Race Report)

The hills were not alive with the sound of music. That sound was feet sucking out of mud and probably swearing.

The Catamount Ultra takes place at the US home of the Von Trapp family, famously immortalized in The Sound of Music. This property in Stowe, VT, is beautiful, high up on the hills and affording gorgeous views of the mountains. At least, there would be pretty views if it wasn’t raining.

My running partners and I signed up for the 50k event in Stowe many months ago, and our training started mid-January – a full five months before this race – with the goal of Sehgahunda marathon in May and this 50k in June. An injury knocked one runner out of the race altogether, and financial obligations kept another from making the trip. Two others decided to drop down to the 25k. But I hadn’t spent five months of sore legs and muddy training runs for nothing. I was going to do the 50k.

The Catamount Ultra was not described as being overly hilly. But everything in Stowe is hilly, and I didn’t think about how much higher in elevation the start would be compared to what I am used to in New York state. Just driving up the hill to the Von Trapp property, my ears popped and my car’s engine whined. This was going to be hilly.

It was also going to be wet. They had rain for several days in Vermont, and the morning of the race, the air was heavy and saturated. I got to the parking lot at 6 am to sign in for a 7 am start, and the serious rain hit while I waited in my car. Nerves were fraying. I was told the race would take place on cross-country ski trails used by the US Nordic Team to train, and they would surely be set up to drain properly. If I knew the conditions ahead of me, I would have been even more nervous.

The hard rain stopped by 6:45, and everyone stood near the start line in anticipation. I was intimidated, to say the least. I’m used to being around a wide mix of people at the start of the race: some were there to win, some were there just to finish. But this race was probably the most elite runners I have been around. Surely, the 25k was the option for those just out to run and finish by the cutoff. I wasn’t sure I belonged with these people, many of whom discussed their 50-mile and 100-mile ultra races and carried nothing more than a handheld in anticipation of 31 miles.

This was a pretty low-key race. There were no timing chips, and aid stations were approximately five miles apart on the course. I hoped I had enough water in my pack to get me between each stop. But it was cool and wet at the start, so surely I’d be fine. I had replacement Tailwind with me to refuel when I could.

Just after 7 am, we took off. I started near the back of the pack, as I was intimidated by this crew of hearty runners, and we started up a hill. I was running pretty good, passing a few people, staying in a cluster of other runners who ran most of the early hills. One woman ahead of me was telling someone that this was a race of thirds: the first third is mostly uphill, the second third mostly downhill, and the third third was rolling but runnable hills. She was mostly right.

8a

The elevation profile prepared me for the steepest hills at the start, but the first few miles were pretty easy. In fact, there was a very runnable section between miles 2 and 3 that felt amazing. Then you hit the steep hill, and it climbs up for nearly two miles.

I trudged up that hill, soaked to the bone from the rain, but I still felt pretty good. Hills aren’t that bad when you’re fresh and prepared for them. I hit the peak and the first aid station in no time, and I was in good spirits knowing the downhill portion would be runnable and welcome.

Of course, I didn’t consider the mud. Running down that hill was dangerous, slippery, and often arduous. The mud was thick and spanned the whole trail. Some spots forced you to pick your way through carefully, and all I could hear in those hills was the sound of feet slapping through water and mud and the slurp as you pulled your foot up. This was to be the norm for the rest of the race.

Think about how hard running is and the amount of energy you expend just lifting your legs on a normal, dry course. Then compare that to the difficulty of fighting the mud for each step. It sucked your energy as much as your feet. Compound that with the difficulty of adjusting your stride to the mud and sliding awkwardly, and this was, without a doubt, the most difficult run I had ever completed.

At last, the longest downhill stretch was over, and I began to run beside another runner from Massachusetts. We were able to run for the next few miles, and we had a good conversation. This always helps me distract myself from the activity, and his pace kept me running faster than I might have all alone. We hit the aid station at mile 10 in an open field just as the sun was starting to peek out.

Here I learned another interesting lesson: If a man offers you a magical Mexican potion at an aid station during a race, take it. Alongside the cups of water, Gu, and soda were cups of Iskiate, a drink used by the Tarahumara people of Mexico. It’s chia seeds in agave and lime juice, and it was delicious. It was also supposed to be a great energy drink for endurance runners. I was looking forward to more the next time I hit that aid station.

The last five miles of the loop were mostly through open fields, and the guy I was running with pulled ahead. I hate field running; the grass makes it difficult to judge the levelness of the terrain, and it’s open to the elements. Plus, all those shiny, flat things were not rocks; they were cow manure.

You run right by the Von Trapp Lodge, where the race starts and ends, but there were over four miles still to go. This is disheartening in a distance race. At one point, you head on mountain biking trails for a little bit of welcome singletrack running, but then it’s back out into the fields. And the mud. Oh, the mud…

I hit a patch of mud so deep that I went in past my knee. I had to grab my leg to pull it out. All I could think about was how much worse this would be in the second loop, after all the 50k and 25k runners had been through. And it was still worse than I expected.

At last, you come to the finish line for the mid point of the 50k race. My running partner whose injury kept him out of the race was there to cheer me on, which was nice, and I refilled my Tailwind for the first time here. The sun was out full force now, and it was getting hot, although I was still soaking wet (mostly from the rain, but maybe sweat as well). It was hard to return for the second loop, especially since you start up hill. I felt so good a few hours ago the first time I did this stretch, and now I was walking as soon as I was out of sight of the crowd.

That flat or downhill stretch was still runnable in the first third of loop 2. In fact, it was the most runnable portion of the entire course. But it was followed by that long uphill again, and I felt miserable. The hill went on forever, and my legs were tired from running and fighting the mud. I was hot and grumpy, and I sucked down Tailwind like it was all that mattered. At one point, I even contemplated dropping from the race, but I knew I’d have to do it at the aid station at the top anyway, so it kept me going.

Finally, the aid station was in sight, and I slunk in feeling dejected. Both bottles of Tailwind were half empty, so I pulled a pouch of caffeinated Tailwind from my pack and split it between the bottles with fresh water. Several other runners came in as I refueled, so I left quickly to stay ahead of them. We all knew what was ahead.

As difficult as the downhill was the first time, it was ten times worse now. Most of the trail was a mess of thick mud and running water. The runnable parts from the first loop were not runnable now, and the hard parts the first time were painfully difficult. I was swearing and trudging through, passing a few people and getting passed here and there. We commiserated in our misery. Worse mud was yet to come.

I found myself running through the water with relief. Water was nothing compared to the mud, and it cleaned the shoes off temporarily. Plus, the temperature was getting downright hot, and I was feeling blisters develop. Cool, wet feet felt nice at this point.

At the end of the long hill, when it opens up to be runnable again, I got my second wind. Maybe it was the caffeinated Tailwind; I had never tried it before. Or maybe it was just the chance to run again. But I felt better, and I passed people, and I came in to the second aid station feeling like I was going to finish this thing.

The Iskiate was almost gone, but one cup remained, and even though it was warm, it was delicious! I also caught up to the guy I was running with on the first loop, and I passed him for good on the way out of this aid station. The sun was out, the weather was warming, and I was finally dry.

Of course, running through the fields in this last third were worse than before. The mud was so thick, I went past my knee at one point. You would start running for several strides, then have to walk through the mud. You’d run again for a bit, then walk. It was demoralizing! One runner passed me while running through all the mud, and I thought I would never see her again. But she must have burned out running through that stuff, and I passed her up a hill, finishing quite a bit ahead of her by the end.

These long races are interesting… There are always moments when you’re completely done, and others when you’re amazed that you’ve surpassed marathon distance and are still running. I honestly felt better running into the finish than I had at the end of the first loop. Although this was not a fast race, mostly by virtue of all the mud, I finished a very respectable (for me) 57 out of 99 people running the 50k in under 6:30. I imagine I would have shaved well over an hour off that time with less mud.

Overall, this was a decent race. Two loops are rather imposing mentally, and the mud made it extraordinarily difficult physically. In fact, I’d say it was the most challenging race I ever ran. I wish more of the race was run on the singletrack mountain biking trails rather than the ski trails. The Von Trapp Brewery had beer at the end, which tasted amazing. There were giveaways, but I couldn’t hear the guy shout out numbers even if mine was called, and if you weren’t there to immediately respond, you didn’t win (despite being told anyone on the course could still win). But I never win anything anyway.

Everyone I talked to was quite nice. I felt like I belonged with this group of runners. I wasn’t fast, and I’m not elite, but neither was I out of place. All the training I did this winter in wet, muddy, cold conditions paid off, it seems. For the first time, I really felt like I was a part of the running community. And for the first time, I considered maybe I have an even longer race in me for the future.

Webster Trail Classic (Race Report)

This will be a short race report, because the Webster Trail Classic is not quite as intense as some of my longer runs, and there were no major realizations or injuries that took place. But to stay in practice, I figured I’d write this up quickly.

Flour City Raceworks puts on two races: this one, in its third year, and the Ossian Mountain Run at Swain Ski Resort. Because this is a short-lived race, it’s about my only chance as a relatively recent runner to say I’ve participated in an event every year. In fact, the first year of the Webster Trail Classic was not only my first trail race but trail run of any type. I was hooked on my very first jaunt on the trails.

Webster has three neighboring parks, and this race hits all three. Webster Park is full of pine trees and scenic campgrounds, Whiting Road Nature Preserve has mostly flat trails with equal parts oak trees and open grassy areas, and Gosnell Big Woods Preserve has some singletrack and a lot of open area. That the parks are so close makes them perfect for a race like this, with 10 miles being completely sufficient to hit most of all three.

Webster Park had a lot of downed trees from a major wind storm earlier this spring. But despite all the rain we’ve had this year, the trail was in very good condition. And sometimes it’s fun to scramble over trees (and under one). The only other real challenge of this race is the vast field in Gosnell. It’s a loop through the grass, and in hot weather like last year, it can be brutal. But this year, it was only demoralizing, as this stretch seems to go on forever.

I started out faster than I normally like this year and fell in easily behind another runner. That’s my preference: to find someone going an ideal race pace and follow along, because I’m not good at pacing myself. I talked to my pacer a bit at the field and then passed her as she let the vast, open, grassy run get the best of her. Two other people were passed on this part of the race as well. People really hate that field.

Toward the end, I caught up with another runner I know who is typically much faster than I am. She was struggling physically, so I spent the last mile and a half talking with her and encouraging her to keep going. She needed the distraction, and I did too. I felt like I was struggling prior to this at the pace I was keeping, and I was all alone, so having someone to chat with helped significantly. And even though I could have passed her at the end, I stayed just behind her at the finish.

This is a fun, inexpensive, no-frills race. It’s perfectly marked (the RD indicated several hundred flags on the course), and there are homemade cookies at the end as motivation. Plus, these are very runnable, fun parks. Even the hills are short enough to be entirely runnable. I finished just a few minutes faster than last year, but as with my last race, I felt like I enjoyed the experience more. So that’s my goal this year: not necessarily to be faster, but to be happier during the race and suffer less.

Here’s hoping I can keep running this race every year! And maybe I’ll convince myself to run the ski resort for Ossian again. Maybe.

Sehgahunda (Race Report)

Last year, my training partners were preparing for the Ontario Summit trail marathon in early June. But I wanted to run Sehgahunda, a well-known area trail marathon (billed as an “ultra” at 26.3ish miles) down the east side of the gorge in Letchworth State Park. It was to be my first marathon, and who knows if I’d ever be able to run another? In my mind, I wanted to run the race with cache.

I finished Sehgahunda last year, despite temperatures in the low- to mid-90s for most of the race. It was brutal, and my time of 6:30 was nothing to be excited about. But it was my first marathon, and I was so happy to mark a major item off my bucket list.

Skip ahead a year, and I have run two more long races – the Rochester marathon and a 50k trail race. But Sehgahunda was calling me again, and this year my training partners were running it. We trained together through cold and endless mud all winter, and despite the mental challenges detailed here in depth, I was physically ready.

Or so I thought, anyway. A nasty bout of cold or flu knocked me out of commission for over a week and still hasn’t fully left my system. My calf injury that almost derailed training last year was back and bothering me worse than ever. I didn’t really feel prepared in the week leading up to the marathon. But, as often happens, I showed up to the starting line feeling the excitement and nerves, adrenalin pumping through my system, and I was ready.

The big differences between last year and this year were obvious. First, it was much cooler. Barely 50 degrees to start, it maybe got up to the upper 60s. Last year, I survived by stopping at each of the eight mandatory check points (CPs) to refill my water and scoop ice in a buff around my neck. This year, I was in and out of the CPs immediately, stopping to refuel at only two of them and saving myself plenty of extra time for the trail.

The other big difference was the trail itself. Last year, we were in near drought conditions, though there was still dense mud on the offshoots to the CPs. This year, we’ve had nearly historic levels of rain. The main trail itself was not bad, despite dipping down to cross water or run-off nearly 100 times over 26 miles. There was mud, sometimes thick, but the main trail held up very well. The offshoots, however, were a different story.

These open, grassy paths were required to get to marathon distance, so the check points were mandatory. They were narrow and featured two-way traffic, and some were close to a full mile each way. Worst of all, they were full of thick, deep, pudding-like mud that reeked of raw sewage. It was bad enough when you splashed through and kicked mud up on yourself; when a passer ran through, you were liable to get muddy up to your face.

But these offshoots are always the acknowledged worst part of the race, so rough conditions were expected. The race itself was excellently run. Women start at 7:45, getting an extra 15 minutes on the 8-hour cutoff. Men start at 8 am, and the relay teams (running as two- or four-person teams) started at 8:30. I took off a bit faster than last year, but I felt comfortable, and I fell behind two other runners who kept up a good pace and offered some welcome chatter. So I figured I would bank a little extra time in the early sections.

The first CP is 6.5 miles in, and I went in and out quickly, high-fiving a few friends as I passed them on the way back. The CPs have some advantages, despite the poor conditions and too-narrow path. For one, they’re uphill on the way out but downhill on the way back, so you get a boost of confidence and energy when you leave them. And you pass people regularly, nearly always with a “good job” or “keep it up” that is, for me, the best part of trail running.

CP 2 is only 2.5 miles further, but the run to CP 3 is nearly 7 miles. Altogether, it’s over 15.5 miles to CP 3, and everyone considers it a major accomplishment to get to this one, the busiest CP of the route, with the next relay point and plenty of room for spectators. That stretch from CP 2 to 3 feels very long, and the uphill is painful, but the volunteers at this race are always good and eager to help, never more so than at CP 3. I came in to some cheers from my spectating friends, and I got them to help me refill my Tailwind. Two orange slices, and I was out much quicker than last year.

After CP 3, the remaining five CPs are no more than 2.5 miles apart and sometimes just over 1.5. You can easily run CP to CP, which helps with the mental strain of running a marathon. I was mostly on an island at this point, as everyone had stretched out considerably. I was passed by the runner who sat with me on the shuttle bus, and we had a good conversation. Then I passed him as he struggled with his nutrition and fell back, but we encouraged each other on.

Mostly, I’m reminded of how amazing trail running is by the people I pass or who pass me. There’s almost always a good wish or word of encouragement, even from those who run with headphones. Even the relay folks had good things to say, knowing we’re all in the struggle together.

My one big complaint was the two women who ran together, blaring terrible pop music through a Bluetooth speaker. I don’t like music when I run trails, but if you do, wear your headphones. Don’t force others to listen to your music, especially loud. I’m in the woods, enjoying a beautiful day, and I have to hear your music for a long time before I catch up to you and long after I pass. That is not okay; loud music should be a disqualifying offense.

But back to the trail. Mile 18 is a hard one, uphill the full way, and the offshoot to CP 6 (the last relay point) was as bad as I remembered from last year. Rocky and difficult, this offshoot was a mile long. The relay people had made up the 30 minutes by this point, so they blew past you going the other way. And this last stretch for them was the easy leg, with only 4.5 miles, so they were less accommodating in the narrow sections. On my way back down, recharged by the downhill and knowing I was almost done, I came back to the main trail and complained audibly to the runner behind me when it immediately turned left and went steeply uphill.

“Oh, come on, it’s just a fun run in the woods,” said the young woman as she blew past us and ran up the hill.

“Says the relay runner!” I replied loudly. How bad could this hill seem to someone who started on a one-mill downhill and had only 4.5 miles to go? For us, it was intimidating. I didn’t mean to be rude, but she looked back and saw us trudging up and apologized profusely. I thought it was funny.

With about 2.5 miles to go, you break out of the woods on a rough and rocky logging road. It’s mostly uphill here, and the miles are truly getting to you at this point. There was no easy running path on the road, but eventually you hit the last CP and turn on to a much smoother gravel/rock road dubbed the greenway. This goes on, mostly flat, as far as you can see. I saw one man far ahead of me, occasionally walking and running, and there was no one behind me until, with barely a half mile to go, I was passed by a struggling runner. This section is demoralizing, but it’s not hard, and finally the yellow gate is ahead.

It’s at this point that you come back out on the road and wind through the parking lot to the finish. And the first stretch of that road is a short but very steep uphill section. Still, people are watching, so you have to run it, and I chugged up it with my head down, willing my feet to keep going. My friends were cheering and yelling, and I hit the apex, wound back around (and passing the runner who powered by me on the greenway), and there was the finish.

The clock said 5:35, and I was pleased to be so much quicker than last year, but I forgot to deduct the 15 minutes for the women’s early start. So I actually finished at 5:20, more than 70 minutes faster than last year. And, more importantly, I enjoyed the run this year so much more. The temperature was a big part of it, but I was struggling less in every way, and I appreciated the people and the scenery more this year.

Afterward, wearing my Sehgahunda sweatshirt and arrowhead medal, I hung out with my friends by the finish and cheered on the runners for several hours. There was copious amounts of beer and plenty of people to cheer. And now, several days later with enough time to think back, I’m still on a bit of a high at the accomplishment. Though this wasn’t my first marathon like last year, it’s still new enough to me to be empowering. It was wonderful to have more friends there to cheer and drink with, and the event was so much fun. Even though my legs are still sore and training has to continue for a 50k in a month, I feel like a major milestone was met. I was faster than expected and felt better than I imagined. It was a pretty damn good day.

Sick and Tired

The training season is finally winding down. Started in mid-January, my goal races of the Sehgahunda trail marathon in May and Catamount 50k in June seemed so far away. As the runs grew longer and longer and my legs grew sorer and more tired, training starts to take over your life.

Last year was a perfect year for running. The weather was dry and warm, and events were welcome runs in the sunshine and greenery. This year is dramatically different, almost historically so. Although the winter wasn’t especially cold or snowy, late winter and spring have been cold and rainy. I count one Saturday run in warmth and sunshine and countless runs in cold and rain.

The worst of it may have been a practice run for the first segment of Sehgahunda in Letchworth State Park. It was about 35 degrees, and the rain of the last few weeks didn’t let up that day. Every step was calf-deep in icy-cold water. On the trail back, the conditions were nearly unrunnable. Each step meant slipping and sliding back or to the side. I had never felt more frustrated with running.

And during these miserable conditions, my legs felt worse. The calf injury that nearly derailed last year’s training showed up again, and though I treated it just enough to keep going, it probably will continue through these long races. As I’ve written about earlier, I’ve struggled with the mental aspects of running as well. Things are not new and fun anymore. They’re a struggle.

The one truly good run was the Muddy Sneaker 20k trail race a few weeks ago, when the sun shone on a mostly dry course, and my spirits were high. I felt like this was a turning point for the running season. From here on, the weather would improve, and I’d rediscover the fun of trail running. Instead, the weather got colder and wetter. And then I got sick.

The cold or flu that hit me last week left my head achy and fuzzy, my body weak, and my thoughts discouraged. I didn’t run for a week, the first full week of no running in as long as I can remember now. I missed the same race that injury kept me out of last year: Medved Madness. I missed my longest run before the marathon. I wondered if I could start running again at all.

The cold hasn’t gone completely, but yesterday I ran in the sunshine. It was chilly, a mid-May day that would have been more suitable for mid-March. But I ran a few easy path miles and four miles on the trails. The legs felt heavy after a week of lying on the couch in misery, and my calf flared up in pain. But I got running again.

And it could have been worse, I know. I could have dealt with this flu or cold going into the marathon instead of two-plus weeks before. Or I could have dealt with a really significant injury that would keep me from running altogether. In fact, a week of no running after nearly five months of training may end up meaning fresher legs.

These runs will not be fun for me until the weather improves consistently above 50 degrees and spring decides to show up for good. But there’s an end in sight now, as I taper the distances down and work on psyching myself up. A marathon followed a month later by a 50k in the hills of Vermont will not be easy, no matter how many training miles I put into it. At this point, I’m looking forward to finishing them and seeing a way to enjoy my summer instead of seeing each day as a running or resting day. But there’s an end in sight.

Seneca 7 2017 (Race Report)

They say the course around Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes of New York is precisely 77.7 miles. I think that’s awfully convenient, but it sure looks good on a sticker and makes for a good seven-person relay event!

I was a last-minute fill in for the captain of a team that has been running this relay all six previous years. Turns out, two other teammates had to drop as well due to family issues, so there were three newbies on the team this year. Our brilliant team name: Still Chafing After All These Years. Paul Simon was the cover model on our shirt. Pretty clever!

Geneva, NY, the starting point of the race, is about an hour from Rochester. And our wave began at 6 am, which means we had to leave about 4 am to get there in time and prepare for the start. It was going to be a long day from the very beginning. Still, I was the seventh of seven runners, which means I got to dress warm and doze in the van for a few while while other people ran in the cold pre-dawn hours.

And it was cold and damp. A few degrees over 40 and gray and dreary, we shivered every time we got out of the van. My leg was about 9:45, and it was 4.1 miles all up hill. I shivered in shorts and the team t-shirt, waiting for my relay predecessor to come in. And it took at least a mile to warm up enough to not be miserable.

Generally, this is a beautiful view from every leg. Seneca is a gorgeous lake, with mostly vineyards and farmlands between it and the road. But I just kept my head down and plowed ahead up the road. Some of my fellow runners were running fast due to the relatively short distances of each leg, and I wanted to prove my worth. 4.1 miles of uphill running ended in a fast sprint to the finish and…waiting for Runner 1 who was still in the bathroom. Oh well. Finished the first leg with a 7:20 average.

At one point during the second legs, we were at an exchange point in a park, making PB&J sandwiches at a picnic table. I was shivering so badly that it was hard to get the sandwich into my mouth. And yet an hour or so later, the clouds broke and the sun came out, and the weather rose into the 70s. Suddenly, it was a beautiful day, and the lake glistened. Spirits soared.

My second leg was only a 5k, and a lot of it was downhill. I averaged about 7:15 on that one and felt pretty good despite my allergies acting up and interfering with my breathing.

As everyone else ran their third leg and relaxed for the day, I had to keep waiting. There’s good and bad about being the last runner, I guess. The very last leg started along a busy highway, and there was no breeze away from the lake. By this point in the day, everyone had spread out enough that I passed just two or three people and had little to enjoy in the way of scenery until I turned into Seneca Lake State Park back in Geneva.

There was about a mile of pitted park road to go, and it was nearly right on the lake. Quiet and peaceful, with just one or two parkgoers in the area, I plodded away until finally the finish was in sight. You wind around the finish area and pick up your teammates – all looking clean and rested at this point – to run through the finish arch together. I averaged 7:30 the last leg, but by that point no one really cared. I blame the team run for the slowdown!

All in all, we couldn’t have asked for better weather. Rochester dealt with torrential rain and hail that morning, and we had no rain at all. The sun even came out and warmed us up. There was beer and chili at the end, and finally we headed home.

The original team put in expected paces and was expected to run an average of 9:05 minute miles. With three substitutes, we averaged 9:06. Safe to say there wasn’t a letdown! And even though I won’t be back on the team next year (barring another injury), I enjoyed my fill-in! It was a day of brief runs interspersed with a lot of riding in a smelly van, eating peanut butter-filled pretzels and potato chips, and laughing. We cheered on every runner and finished strong.

There’s a lot of comradery in a relay race like this. And unlike Ragnar, which challenges your ability to function on no sleep, Seneca 7 is over in a realistic timeframe and has pretty good bling to boot! I ran faster than expected (and my legs suffered for it the next day), but it was fun to feel challenged and have other people to run for. Here’s hoping I get to do this one again some year!

Muddy Sneaker 2017 (Race Report)

When you schedule a trail race in mid-April in Western New York, you have to be prepared for any sort of crazy weather. When you call it Muddy Sneaker, it seems like you’re begging for bad weather.

The 20k Muddy Sneaker is sort of the unofficial race season kick-off race. Taking place at Hi Tor Wildlife Management Area in Naples, this crazy race is all about hills. Naming it Muddy Sneaker is, I think, a sly way to overlook those hills. But look at that elevation profile. Look at it!

Last year was my first time running this 18-year race, and I went in to it with hurt legs and in the middle of marathon training. It was hot, and I suffered, finally lumbering over the finish line at about 2:20. This year, it was warm and sunny, with more mud but no bad patches. My legs felt better, but I’m again in the middle of marathon training, and it was my breathing and my mental status that had me most worried this year. I ran with some friendly folks and talked to people and enjoyed the weather and the views and felt far better. And I still lumbered over the finish line at about 2:20. So much for improvement.

You start and end this race up hill. Goose Adventure Racing drives a car ahead of the 200 or so (the race is capped at 200, only about 175 finished this year) racers up the hill at the start, and you power over the top and into single track trails. A trail runner I strongly respect was ahead of me for a while, and I subsequently passed and was passed by two or three of the same friendly people for the first few miles of trails. It was pleasurable, a little sloppy, but good trail running.

Then you hit the logging roads. These unpaved roads are the true challenge of Muddy Sneaker. First you go up and up and up, and I would run the gentle inclines and walk the steeper ones. Then you go down and down and down, too long to truly bomb through with abandon. I felt like I went quick down the hills, but I’d get passed on each one.

The hill at the end (again, look at that elevation profile!) is nicknamed The Demoralizer. Last year, I read race reports and knew it was coming. You come down into the valley and cross a fast-running (but shallow) stream, and then you head up and up through the woods. This section is brutal, a painful slog of roots and long reaches but beautiful gorge views. At last you turn out of the woods, leaving this lengthy demoralizing stretch behind, and… come out on the never-ending logging road.

The lines of people ahead of you look like a death march. Most are walking, a few trudging ahead at just over a walk. Unlike the inclines before, there are no gentle slopes to guilt you into walking. It’s steep and about a mile long, and my legs were dead.

Last year, I ran this stretch with another runner who would motivate me to pick up the pace here and there. This year, I felt no such motivation, and I was happy just to keep up a steady walking pace. The trail runner who was ahead of me early ran past me, and I was surprised to realize I passed him at some point. He finished a minute ahead of me. Another runner was complaining loudly behind me, but she found some energy to run ahead and finished 10 or 12 seconds ahead. I kept plodding, willing my heavy legs and pounding heart to keep going.

I was prepared for this hill this year, and I cursed it far less. But I wasn’t happy on this stretch. I think knowing it was coming only made me appreciate the rest of the 11+ miles before it all the more. Last year, my legs hurt badly, and I cast my eyes at the sides of the path for a helpful walking stick. This year, I mostly kept my head down and kept moving. You round a curve, and the finish is ahead, up a long grassy hill. It’s not close, but inevitably the sight of a finish line brings with it a burst of energy.

I had just been passed by another guy who looked like he used the last of his reserves and was ready to quit. I started to run again, and he looked back. I imagined he was wondering if he could run on again to stay ahead; he couldn’t. I passed him and kept going, running through the finish and greeting the race director with the traditional high five he gives to every single runner at this race every year.

I felt so much better this year than last year. My legs were sore, but an expected kind of sore. The only real problem was with my feet. I may have worn the wrong socks, as they bunched up under my foot and around my ankles when they got wet. Or it may be the new trail shoes. But when I slumped to my car (again – up hill) to change and get the camp chair and beer, I peeled off my socks and had terrible blisters on my heels. Running this week will be excruciating, I’m sure.

After the race, folks sit around in the barely mowed grass and talk and drink. I knew at least half of the runners by name or at least by face, and everyone hung out for a while to relax and enjoy the dwindling sunshine. The rain, which all week had been predicted to start just after race start time, held off until well after the finish, giving us time to drink and socialize before heading home.

Muddy Sneaker is, without a doubt, a hard 20k race. Even with good conditions, the hills take everything you have. Two days later, my legs still burn (and my heels are raw). But while last year was an exercise in suffering, this year was enjoyable. I appreciated the people I sporadically ran with, the gorgeous sun, the tremendous views, and – secretly – the pleasure I took in knowing that first timers had yet to face the Demoralizer. That, I think, is half the fun of Muddy Sneaker.

Good start to the race season! I think, even as my legs and feet recover, my mental situation is much better condition!