Monday, April 30, 2012

Me : Slow, Lost Burro - Owl's Roost Rumble Trail Half Marathon

For the past couple of years, I've been plodding through the woods of North Carolina like a slow, lost burro. Stubbornly refusing to acknowledge that I stink at running trails. I've been slow (Umstead). I've been nearly lost (Uwharrie). And I've been stubborn enough to run with a sinus infection (Philosopher's Way), and stupid enough to enjoy the experience (well, the running part, not the infection part).

Not that I enjoy being a slow, trail plodding, burro. On the contrary, I would love to be one of those graceful, effortless, trail antelopes who populate the small patch of the Serengeti that is the 40-45 year old master's category. Alas, I am not (I'm also too old to be a laddie. Sorry, I'm a sucker for puns).

Only two things keep me firmly stuck in the slow end of the trail racing speed Bell curve: talent and fear. Talent, of the lack thereof, I can't really do much about. I'm about as skillful as I can get on the trail, and I still fall down occasionally. Fear is the tricky one. My left knee is a ticking time bomb. After two surgeries to remove most of my cartilage, and a good chunk of my meniscus, I'm left with a joint that clatters like a bone xylophone, if I pound too hard when I run. I'm not fond of any of the tunes that I can play with my knee, so I try to keep it gentle. Then there are the three other surgeries to repair my anterior cruciate ligament and my medial cruciate ligament. I won't bore you with the stupidity that led to those wonderful visits to the Duke University Medical Center. Suffice it to say, my knee is in pretty bad shape.

So, how do you run fast if you are both untalented, and scared witless? Hell if I know. I just run for fun.

I ran Owl's Roost Rumble last year, knowing nothing about the race. This year, I was actually excited to return. Turns out, Owl's Roost is a really great race! The course is challenging enough for seasoned trail runners, and accessible enough for those attempting their first trail half marathon. This combination allows a great mixture of runners to toe the line the morning of the race, and a great atmosphere at the finish.

This year, I carpooled with Bob Sites, a recent Umstead 100 (yes, miles!) Endurance Run finisher and overall cool, old dude. I can call him old, because he's older than me (by 17 years). And faster than me. Way faster.

Bob and I talked race strategy in the car on the way to the race. I wanted desperately to finish in under 2 hours. I've been trying to convert my road speed (where I can run a half in under 2 hours) into trail speed for nearly 2 years, but have failed miserably at mustering 9:00 minute pace for any real distance on trails. Bob said he planned to finish somewhere in the low 1:5x range and would go out running 8:30-8:45 min/mile pace for the first couple of miles, and then settle into a slower pace for his anticipated finish time. This seemed like a good springboard plan for me. I could trail Bob for the first 5 miles or so, then fall off and stroll in for an easy sub-2 hour finish. There were only two problems with this plan. Bob is a maniac. And I am stupid.

Race Miles 1 to 5 - Me versus Greensboro
The first mile or so is mostly downhill, so I felt no pressure when trotting along behind Bob. Adrenaline and a downhill start can do funny things to your sense of pacing. But I trusted Bob. He's an old hand at trail running and has more miles (and years) under his belt than any other 3 runners combined. So, when we passed the 1 mile marker in 7:23, I was a bit confused. And concerned.

"Bob, did you see the pace we were running when we passed the 1 mile marker?" I wheezed.

"Yeah, we are movin'! Probably a little too fast" Bob exclaimed.

"I'm sure we are gonna pay for that later in the race" I gasped. "Probably me more than you!"

I thought I heard Bob chuckle up ahead of me.

Passing the 2 mile marker, I noticed that we had indeed slowed down. Only 7:45 for that mile. My adrenaline and my blood glycogen were circling the proverbial drain.

So it was, that while fumbling with my camera, I found myself suddenly airborne, a primate plane hovering momentarily above a trail veined with gnarled roots. I had time for 2 thoughts. "Oh crap!" and "Maybe I'll miss..."

Microseconds later, Greensboro experienced the mighty impact of my 140 pound frame, focused sharply through my left shoulder. Take that Owl's Roost Trail!

Bob never looked back, and I never saw him again.

Race Miles 5 to 9 - Me versus Me
Stumbling off Owl's Roost trail I grabbed a water and a Gatorade at the first aid station. I hate Gatorade! It does awful, unspeakable things to my guts during races, but I was desperate. I had gone out way too fast and was in danger of a complete and total bonk after only 5 miles. I choked down the Gatorade, chased it with the water, and then opened one of the two Honey Stinger gels I had stashed in my pocket "just in case." I struggled to keep even a 10 minute pace for the next mile as I entered the Nat Greene Trail. My legs felt dead and my feet felt like they had been dipped in molten lead. Running sucked. This race sucked! I sucked!

And then, I gave up. I decided that the time goal was stupid and that I should just run the rest of the race for fun. As one of my trail running friends, Brandy, so succinctly put it - I pulled out my check list of excuses and promptly checked them all off with a single stroke of my mental pen.

  1. I'm tired. Work has been crazy the past week and I'm mentally drained. Check.
  2. I screwed up the start. I went out too fast and have now blown up. There is no hope of a good finish. Check.
  3. I'm in pain. My shoulder feels dislocated and my bad knee feels tweaked. Check.
  4. Beating last year's time (2:12) is good enough. No need for a ridiculous sub-2 hour goal. Check.
  5. I run for fun. I'm not having fun. Slow down and have fun. Check.

I pulled out my camera and began snapping pictures in a feeble attempt to improve my mood, as I continued to stumble down Nat Greene Trail. I glanced at my watch and noticed that the 3 minute buffer I had built up on Owl's Roost Trail had been whittled down to about 1 minute. Pfffft!! Who cares! Now there is absolutely no way I can make the sub 2 hour goal. Moments later, emerging from my dark, self indulgent mental playpen, I found myself airborne once again.

I managed a perfunctory "oh great..." before I pounded the trail with the same shoulder that had put a small dent in the Owl's Roost Trail. I stood up and took stock. Camera? Ok, just a scratch. Shoulder? Hurting, a lot. Attitude? Complete defeat.

I stowed my camera in my pocket and walked for a few seconds before resuming a slow trot down the trail.

Race Miles 9 to 13.2 - Me versus the Clock
Nat Greene Trail is a fairly tame trail, but when I emerged from the trail at the aid station, I was still surprised to see that I was only just over 2 minutes off the time needed for a 2 hour finish. I had lost my 1 minute buffer and had added a couple minutes of penalty with the mental breakdown on the Nat Greene Trail. On the bright side, the mental funk and resulting slower pace had allowed me to come out of the near bonk. I was feeling moderately good now, as I opened my second "emergency" Honey Stinger gel. I pulled out my camera and snapped a couple shots of the Lake Brandt Dam as I ran past on the way to the final Piedmont Trail section of the race.

I always feel bad when I have mental breakdowns during a race. For one, it's just plain ungrateful to not enjoy every single moment of a run. I'm running on borrowed time (left knee time bomb and all), so time spent in the pity pool is time wasted. But I think this is probably true for all runners. Running is a gift. One that should be cherished by both the most and the least talented among our tribe.

Turning onto Piedmont Trail, I made a decision. I would embrace the gift of running. I would run hard. I would run hard for joy alone. I would not look at my watch again. I would not think about a time goal. I would run free.

I think I flew down Piedmont Trail. I have no idea how fast I was going, but it felt quick. It felt light and easy. And joyful. Approaching the final up hill mile of the Big Loop, I was still running hard, and smiling. I cheered on all the guys I passed as I pushed harder and harder up the hill towards the finish.

Flying across the grass to the finish, I was focused only on putting every bit of speed I had left into the sprint. Crossing the line, I slowed and finally stopped my watch, allowing myself at last to see the final time.

I bought this picture from the official race photographer
because it shows my emotions perfectly the moment
after I realized I had made my time goal. 1:56 !!

Leaving the finish line, I was delirious. I couldn't believe I had achieved my sub 2 hour goal. I had somehow pulled back the lost minutes and smashed through my goal by several more minutes. I would have given anything to have my wife there at that moment, but Barefoot Josh would have to do. He gave me a big bro hug and let me dance around like a fool in celebration. Shannon came by moments later and gave me a hug as well. Actually, I was sort of a hugging doofus for a while there. I think I hugged, Josh, Shannon, Iris, and maybe even Bob. Thanks to everyone who suffered through my post race craziness!

Some runners understand how important something as trivial as a mediocre PR can really be. Some runners understand the joy of even the simple achievements. I'm glad to have them as my friends. And I'm glad to have finally fulfilled a small running dream, through joy alone.