Hello friends, have you had an EPIC weekend?
Yesterday I had the totally new-to-me experience of running a trail race. The event was put on by Northwest Trail Runs, a group that organizes several series of off-road races throughout Washington state. Everyone I interacted with at the event was SO friendly, I’m definitely considering adding a few more of their runs to my schedule. This was the first year for this particular race; even though there were a few minor hiccups, I cannot say enough nice things about the people behind the event and the experience overall. I was nervous heading into this race, as I have never really done ANY trail running at all, but I finished the day with a huge smile on my face, a little bit of blood on my knees, and a powerful hankering to add more trails to my running repertoire.
I got hit with a powerful case of pre-race jitters Friday evening around seven pm. I wasn’t too terrified of the terrain or the distance: the event website went out of its way to emphasize that the course’s most significant elevation gain amounted to a mere 150 vertical feet. Nevertheless, I was apprehensive about the prospect of picking my way over roots and rocks for 13.1 miles. I love hiking and exploring the woods, but I have never done any trail running at all. Ever. I’m not sure why I drew such a sharp distinction in my brain, but I always strictly thought of beautiful natural areas as “places for hiking” and urban environments as “places for running”.
After yesterday’s race I realize that I need to squash that supercilious separation between these activities that I enjoy. Running around on pavement is a blast. Running around in a verdant northwestern forest is my personal nirvana. It’s strange how new experiences can make us so nervous before they begin. I find that whether I’m developing a new protocol at work, or trying to learn hip-hop dance, new things always seem totally overwhelming and dreadful until you actually start; once you are doing something, it if often delightful.
I decided to lay out all of my gear and put myself to bed early Friday night. I realized that reading a million articles about the dos and do NOTs of trail racing would just make me feel woefully inadequate, and worried about the fact that I don’t own any of the “must-have” hydration packs, ultra-maximally cushioned shoes, or high-caliber bear repellent that the internet recommends.
I woke up at 6:00 am Saturday morning, which is late for me. Normally I like to get out the door and on my weekly long run by 5:30. However the race was scheduled for 9:30, so I had ample time to eat my oatmeal.
I arrived at the starting line 20 minutes before official check in. Which was a full hour before the race itself was scheduled to begin. Did I mention that I had been feeling a little anxious about this event?
Luckily a friendly race official gave me my bib number, and pointed me in the direction of a convenient place to grab a cup of coffee near the trailhead.
After consuming my coffee and saying hello to the honey bucket, I drove back to the starting line and decided to use the extra time afforded to me for 10 minutes of mantra meditation. I’m still going strong with my September meditation challenge. Sitting in stillness for 10 minutes was just what I needed to quiet my overactive mind and find focus before the race.
By this time other runners had started showing up to the starting line. I went through my dynamic stretching warm-up, then we started to cluster around the starting line in preparation for the event to begin.
Fifteen minutes before the start of the race, our friendly event-director made an unfortunate announcement. Apparently some local hooligans had been messing with the course markings: ripping out the signs and flagging that were supposed to guide us along our merry way. He assured us that they were working on re-marking the course, but the start would have to be delayed. I took the opportunity to wander around and take some photos of the Cedar River.
While I was wandering around waiting for the race to start I had a super-surreal moment of deja vu. I realized that I had been to The Cedar River before. During my first year of graduate school I went on a sampling mission to try and isolate an ammonia-oxidizing Archaea named Nitrosopumilus maritimus from river rocks at this very site.
We all gathered together, gave a “three, two, one” countdown, and we were off into the woods!
The race started off on a wide, flat, gravel trail. I appreciated the even surface: running on a flat gravel path isn’t much different than the roads I am used to. It was a warm and sunny day, and there wasn’t much shade along this path. I started to warm up pretty quickly. Luckily the course quickly diverted and we began winding our way through the woods.
I had SO much fun running on the trails. The forest was lush, green, and verdant. The pacific northwest is absolutely beautiful, and this trail was no exception. I loved seeing all the giant ferns and mosses: I felt like I was running through Narnia, or The Land Before Time.
I also loved the mental aspect of racing on the trail. The uneven surfaces, roots, and rocks made me think about where I set my foot with every step. I always think that running a race is a mental game, but I loved the additional aspect of calculation that the challenge of the trail provided. Running is a sensual meditation: you have to check in with your entire body and determine how you are feeling, should you go faster, should you change your stride? Running hard requires absolute focus: all of the superfluous, self-limiting thoughts bouncing around your brain’s default mode network slide away.
It’s easy to find this flow state when you are pushing yourself to the absolute limit: when you are sprinting like your eyes will bleed you cant find mental energy to start doubting yourself. Your only thoughts are an amalgam of: “push, push, PUSH, GO, RUN, GO.”However, most races aren’t run at eyeball-rupturing pace from beginning to end. There’s always a section in every race, after the initial adrenaline-fueled mania of the start fades, but before it’s time to kick it up for the end, where my mind starts to wander as I endeavor to maintain my effort. Normally negative thoughts bubble up to the surface: I have to remind myself to run the mile I am at, to silence the self-talk, and to keep a positive attitude at a challenging pace.
I din’t have a single doubtful moment while I ran yesterday. This is not to say that I wasn’t working hard the entire time.My quadriceps testify to that fact today. I was a sweaty mess at the end of the race and, while I didn’t score a PR out on the trails, I did end up finishing with a respectable time. The reason that I never found room for self doubt is BECAUSE the entire race was such a challenge. I was so busy trying to figure out where to put my feet to avoid tripping and trying to follow the trail markers that I couldn’t spend any mental energy at all doubting myself. I found a glorious flow. The miles flew by, I was at the first aid station before I knew it.
I had heard the rumors about the crazy caloric fueling strategies employed by trail runners, and this race did NOT disappoint. There were four aid stations along the course. Each stop offered: electrolytes, water, energy gels, salt tablets, pieces of cliff bars, oranges, bananas, pringles, coca-cola, gummy-bears, candy corn, Doritos, fig newtons, and swedish fish. I opted to skip the refreshments at the first stop because I was still in a delirious trail-induced time-warp AND because I was thinking about the old maxim “never try anything new on race day.” By the second station I was craving calories. I also realized that, because I had never done a trail race before EVERYTHING about this race day was new. I opted to eat a fig newton and slam some gatorade.
I had a few brushes with disaster out in the wilderness. I manage to trip and fall twice. During my second face plant I donated some platelets to the gods of the trail.
More alarmingly, the trail-vandalizing hoodlums had apparently been incredibly active after the race began. Myself and two other runners managed to take a wrong turn due to a lack of flagging. Luckily a volunteer on a mountain bike spotted us heading off into parts unknown and got us back on the right track. We ran alongside the courageous volunteer for a few hundred yards as he re-marked the correct course for the benefit of those behind us.
When everything was said and done, I finished in 1:47:47, and got fourth place overall. The top three finishers were rewarded with growlers of local beer.
After the event, the fine folks at NW Trail Runs put out a highly impressive spread of food, and held a raffle. I scarfed down some watermelon chunks, a banana, and a PB&J. I also won a coupon for free vegan grain-based alternative meat products, courtesy of field roast.
I loved absolutely everything about my first trail racing experience. Every person at the event was incredibly friendly. I loved the camaraderie of the small race. The scenery was beautiful. I adored the mental aspect of running on trails. I’m starting to train for the Seattle Marathon in November, but I hope to incorporate some more trail running (and maybe a few more trail events) into my routine. I’ll always be out pounding the pavement, running around Seattle. I’m so grateful that I was able to learn that hitting the trails is another fun way to run!
Have y’all ever run a trail race?
What’s the most beautiful place you’ve ever gone running?
Should I have eaten the gummy bears?