Going into this race, I wasn't certain what to expect. My training has been going well, but a really hilly course is just not my forte. Plus, I'd never actually raced this 9-mile course before, and running easy and racing are two different animals. With that in mind, my strategy was pretty simple: Run comfortably on the first lap with the hope that I'd be able to let it rip when I hit the Tote Road on the second lap. Employing that strategy and looking at results from previous years, I felt that 1:20 was a realistic goal, but wouldn't have been surprised to finish in the 1:25 range.
After making certain/hoping that we were ready to roll with all the race logistics, I snuck out for a very short warm up. It was more to shake out any nerves than to actually warm up. Then, after Ian's pre-race announcements, we were off. In what has become a tradition, I was in front of acidotic Racing's Chris Dunn for the start of the race, but he quickly moved past me within the first quarter of a mile. From that point, I focused on staying comfortable, relaxed and upright. The latter being a difficult task on this course as many, many racers ended their days having gotten to know the Bradbury Mountain trails more intimately than they would have liked. As I wound my way along the Boundary Trail, I finally caught Ian, and we ran together into the first aid station at the base of the Summit Trail. With a quick sip and a toss over the head, I scooted past him and started the steep climb to the top. Ian was right behind me, and I could here him cajoling the lead women to go for the "First Summit" prize. And, sure enough, just before the top, Lily Childress, the eventual women's race winner, went shooting by me. I had planned to walk the steepest portions of this section of trail, and I stuck to that plan—only running when the grade allowed. I hit the Tote Road for the first time feeling great and knowing that I'd done a good job conserving energy on that first major climb.
At some point in the first lap, I believe along the South Ridge Trail, I picked up a buddy, TJ. For the remainder of the race, TJ and I would swap positions constantly. We must have leapfrogged a dozen times. It made the race a lot of fun to have someone either just ahead or just behind for good chunks of time, and we chatted constantly when the oxygen levels would allow it. Good times.
The first lap closes with a descent of the Switchback Trail, which is my least favorite part of the course. You have to be disciplined on this section because you really want to run fast, but it's way too early in the race to let it rip. With that in mind, I ran very controlled on this section knowing that my quads would pay me back later. It was also on this section that I realized that Jamie was right behind me. (I guess, the good part about the Switchback Trail is that it's a good chance to see who's either in front or behind you.) We exchanged encouraging yells, but I didn't want too encourage him too much. He's been training very strongly of late, and I didn't think I could stay ahead of him on this type of tough course. He's a monster on the hills.
I hit the field and the aid station marking the end of the first lap feeling pleased with how my body felt. I'd been moving steadily, but not overdoing it. I was even more pleased to feel as good as I did and have my watch read 37:30ish. I had figured that 40:00 would have been a solid split. Another sip and cup over the head, and I was off. As TJ said, "Hey, let's do that again!"
TJ and I continued to leapfrog for the first half of the second lap. It was also at this point that reality started creeping up on a number of racers: Running two laps of this course hurts...ALOT. I passed more than a handful of people along the Boundary Trail, and it was clear that none of them were enjoying their time in sunny and beautiful Pownal, Maine. One of the people I caught was acidotic Racing's Rich Lavers who told me "Go get Dunn." "Hmmm...does this mean that Chris is not far ahead? Perhaps I shall run faster and find out." It was also just a few seconds later that I passed TJ for the final time. It seemed clear to me that he had more foot speed than I do (Who doesn't really?), but I was much more comfortable on the technical sections. In fact, I actually said to him at one point, "You need to invest in some trail shoes," after seeing him slip for the eleventy billionth time. In any event, my thought was that I could out run him down the South Ridge Trail, hold him off on the Summit Trail and disappear on the Tote Road. So, on the final climbs of the Boundary Trail, I found myself picking up the pace, and just like last month at the Bradbury Scuffle I had the "Is this too early?" thoughts. Pushing those thoughts aside, I worked hard on the remainder of the climb, and when I glanced over my shoulder at the sharp right hand turn onto the South Ridge Trail, TJ was no where to be seen. I looked back a couple more times, but I had to snap myself out of it for two reasons: 1.) I needed to focus on the racers in front of me (even though I couldn't see any) and 2.) It's dangerous. The trail is way too rooty and rocky to be stargazing.
I really went for it on the South Ridge Trail figuring that if I was going to fall, it was going to be spec-tac-u-lar. I managed to stay upright, and as I made the left hand turn to begin the climb to the aid station, I spotted two runners in front of me. I had hoped that one was Dunn, but it was not to be. (He was a good 3-4 minutes ahead of me. I think he cheated. Or, he just smoked me again because he's faster.) The other runner was clearly Chuck. His kilt gave him away. I was still feeling strong and got a confirmation of that from Dave at the aid station: "You're kicking ass and looking strong!" Thanks! That's all I needed to hear as the third and final cup of water went over my head. Chuck and the other runner were together now, and I slowly reeled them in during the first part of the Summit Trail. Unfortunately, the Summit Trail does not getting any flatter the second time around. Chuck was chatting with the other runner, and he seemed both pleased and surprised to see me closing on them. I went by them briefly, but they soon went past on the very top (and steepest) part of the climb. The other runner announced to me his intention to "remain upright" for the rest of the run, so he let me by on the summit. Chuck was off like a shot as it was time to execute part two of my strategy: give it everything I had on the Tote Road.
As I ran off the summit, I could feel that I was hurting. The last climb up the Summit Trail had greatly angered my quads and my calves weren't too thrilled either. However, I now had a huge advantage. If I could hang onto to Chuck for even a little bit on the Tote Road, I'd be in good shape. Chuck is a fearless donwhill runner, and, quite simply, faster than I am. So, I just focused on his back and put my head down. What I saw over the next mile-or-so I will never forget. I'm redlined. I'm all out. I'm trying to maintain control of my bodily functions. I'm picking the straightest line. I'm just trying to hang on. Meanwhile, a few strides ahead of me, Chuck is floating down the trail. Avoid a root here. Skip past a rock there. One side of the trail to the next. All the while his kilt bobbing up and down. Tra-la-la. "Isn't trail running fun?!?!" It looked totally effortless. I hated him. But, I was thrilled he was there. I knew that I wasn't racing Chuck, but I was being pulled along against everyone else in the race.
We made the right hand turn to begin the final climb to the summit, and miraculously, I was still with him. I had indeed hung on. Somehow, I was even able to chat with him a bit. I was also grunting, panting and cursing, but I did sneak in a few actual words from time to time. I know that Chuck was holding back a bit on this climb to help pull me to the top, and I truly appreciate it. It was a tremendous help. And, I also knew that no one was going to catch me. I wasn't letting it happen. I was amazed, however, that we weren't catching anyone. Where is everyone? I resisted the temptation to look back and just kept telling myself that the race was in front of me. Chuck gapped me with a few yards to go to the top, and I yelled my thanks as he took off down the Terrace Trail. (He ended up finishing about 20 seconds ahead of me, which is a lot of time to gain in that final stretch. DAMN!)
Chuck was gone, but I still had plenty of race left. I knew I wasn't going to see anyone for the rest of the race, unless I came up on them from behind, but I also had no idea where I was in relation to my goal time. The Terrace Trail was 100% gravity. I had little fear of trashing my legs now, since it's less than a half mile to the finish once you hit the bottom. I did catch one last glimpse of Chuck near the bottom as he was passing another runner whom I recognized as Bob Porier, but my brain failed to comprehend that fact since I'd never been this close to Bob at the end of a race. No matter now, though, as I'd reached the bottom of the Terrace Trail in one piece. Just one right hand turn on the Northern Loop Trail to the finish.
The trail to the finish features two small, uphill bumps, and I'd been dreading the second one. It's just big enough that it could really hurt at the end of a race. I pushed up that hill with everything I had. I no longer cared who else was running. It was me against the course. I basically sprinted up that hill and let out a pretty good grunt at the top. I'd conquered the final uphill this sucker was going to throw at me. It was literally all downhill to the finish.
Since the trails are open to "regular folk" during the race, I'm certain there are a handful of dog walkers who went home and told the story of the crazed runner grunting and frothing at the mouth, Satan face, arms pumping, snot flying, wild eyed...the whole nine yards. I was that guy. I'd gone to a whole other place. The pain was gone. It still hurt like hell, but I didn't feel it. Overly dramatic for a small, trail race? Not for me. This was the best race I'd run in a very, very long time. I turned onto the field for the final stretch knowing this. I was ecstatic. And, I was very relived it was over.
My final time was 1:16:08, 18th place. Honestly, I have no idea how I ran that fast. Seriously, I have no explanation for it. I didn't expect it, and I wouldn't have predicted it. I would have laughed at you, if you had told me I was going to run 1:16. In theory, this is not my kind of course. Then again, maybe my training is coming around.
Of course, while I was feeling all good about myself, D has to come along and win her age group. Topper. Seriously, though, 10 months post-baby. Yup, that's awesome. Just awesome. Even more awesome: she scored a Nathan Elite 2V Plus as a prize and offered to share it with me. It pays to marry up.
A host of other great performances by the Trail Monsters, even though acidotic beat us out for the team prize. Of course, the real victory is the growth of these races: 127 finishers on Sunday, which is a record for the Breaker. That's awesome. Great work by Ian to organize the whole series, and I've really enjoyed helping out with the directing duties. Now, onto the Bruiser!