Have you ever had that nightmare where you show up for a big race and have forgotten your shoes and can’t find any of your stuff? I had that feeling Sunday morning at the Wind Blown Ski Area in New Ipswich New Hampshire.
I had shown up early to help set up and park cars before the running of the Wapack Trail 18 mile mountain race. About an hour before the start I realized that the race bag that I had so carefully assembled the night before (so as not to forget anything in the morning) somehow didn’t make it into my car for the trip to the race!
I’ve put enough miles under my feet to have a philosophic attitude about these things. This wasn’t the Boston Marathon. I wasn’t going to die if I missed the race, but it was on the calendar, I was here and I wanted to run. I was quite looking forward to it. The weather was perfect. There was no performance stress and I felt pretty good.
OK – Now what?
Thought one – call the wife, she can run the bag up. Even if she is a little late I can run from behind and get the miles in. No answer. Damn. She’s already left for work and is 30 minutes in the other direction; she’ll never make it even if she would agree to do it.
OK – Now what?
Thought two – All I really need is a pair of shoes. I’m wearing Crocs – that’s not how you want to go into an 18 mile technical mountain race. We’re talking 40% ascents and descents, hopping from rock to rock to tree to root. Crocs would be suicide. I’m not a barefoot runner and this course is not the place to start, but any reasonable pair of size 12 neutral shoes will do the trick. Anyone have an extra pair of size 12 shoes? Hmm… No Dice.
OK – Now what?
Thought three – My Dad has old pairs of my shoes and he’s only 40 minutes away! Brilliant! They answer the phone. Got any of my old shoes there? Yeah? Any of them trail shoes? No? OK – what do you have? Orange? Yeah – I know those shoes, old Gel Cumulus 9’s. Good shoes. Ran 2 -3 decent marathons in them. Can you be here by 9:00? OK – Go man Go!
My older brother and my father have the same size foot as I do. When I retire my shoes they go into the washing machine and then off to their next life for lawn mowing and such. It’s a good deal for everyone.
OK – got shoes on the way – now what?
I’m already wearing my race shorts and a race shirt (thank heavens I put them on in the AM before I left the house). What else don’t I have? $5 gets me a race cap. I have no fuel, no fluids and no lube. I was going to wear my slant pack with 1 or 2 24 oz bottles of Gatorade and water. I was going to have a flask of Hammer Gel and some Endurolytes. This is potentially going to be a 4 hour grind for me – that last hour could be a sufferfest if I don’t fuel.
Screw it! I’ll go old school. Find an empty water bottle and fill it up ½ and ½ with Gatorade and water. Carry it in the hand and trust God to get to the next aid station. I got fat stores. I’ll make it!
What about lube? Chaffing won’t kill you, but it does hurt. Ask around. All these trail runners, someone must have extra lube. Score! Dude gives me a sample size BodyGlide!
Awesome! Now all I need is for the rents to show with the shoes and socks and I’m ready!
And they’re off…without me…
The pack of 70 or so hardy trail runners gather at the start. Paul gives them some instructions. And they are off! Except for me. I’m still waiting on the shoes delivery.
Just as the pack shuffles out of site in a cloud of dust my parents pull up with the old road shoes. I had told my Dad to grab me a pair of socks. Thinking that he would bring enormous tube socks I told him to bring the thinnest socks he could find. The socks are the kind they give you in the shoe store to try on shoes…like nylons… No turning back now. Into the socks and shoes and I’m off at a gallop chasing the pack.
If you want to have some real fun sometime, start a race 5 minutes after everyone else. I swear I was pumping more adrenaline in those first few miles than racing a 10k! I was flying. The pull of the unseen runners over the horizon had me churning up the fire roads in pursuit.
I caught the back of the pack about 5 minutes in…yeah…I know the math doesn’t work, but that’s how fast I was going.
I caught the midpack in a big conga line going up the first mountain. About 20 of them all walking single file up the single path. Excuse me! When you get a chance! On your right!
I have to slow down or I’m going to crater. Now we’re into the rocky rooty stuff and I start to fall. The road shoes are like wearing figure skates to a hockey game. I keep catching the toe on outcroppings. Maybe I haven’t been running enough trails. Maybe I’m going too fast. I have to remember to lift my feet and not drag the toes.
I take a high-velocity fall on the first summit and luckily land in a nice patch of blueberry bushes. My knees are skinned and my hands are scuffed but I’m ok, I pop up and keep moving. I manage to fall 7 times in the first half of the race without killing myself. This does not include several acrobatic and theatrical near misses where I manage to recover! By the second half I manage to remember how to trail run and what these shoes are like, because I stay vertical all the way back.
What a beautiful day! Crisp and breezy sunshine. A cool dry 70 degrees. The trail, for all its difficulty is dry and fast. I love this course.
This, as they say, is not your father’s trail race. It’s 18 miles out and back across 4 mountains. Each of the ascents becomes a descent in the opposite direction and vice versa. Of the 18 miles 4ish are on fire road. The rest are either up or down.
The trail is large chunks of granite, tree roots, stone walls, trees, dirt and just all around ankle-challenging fun! A couple of the ascent/descent sections are 30-40% stair stepping stuff. Brutal quad and hamstring work out. You have to pay attention and stay in control. You have to choose your lines and your foot placement well or you can go for a painful tumble.
In the zone!
With the nice weather and the fact that I’m not carrying anything I feel relatively fleet of foot. I haven’t been training trails so I’m a little slow on the hiking and the descents, but on the flats I’m picking people off and cruising. Cashing in on the road race training. Boo-Hah! Feel awesome.
I’m little worried about what’s going to happen in the high miles. I’m not encumbered with any nutritional crutches and may have a flair out. Well, my last race was a 11:46 ultra-mountain bike race so I’m guessing I can fake a 4 hour trail run.
The leaders pass me as I’m nearing the Watatic summit. They are coming down the other way and working hard. Those guys are amazing. Like little mountain elves dancing down the trail.
Over Watatic Mountain, down to the turn around. Greeting an old friend at the aid station. And we’re off to the second half. A couple guys pass me on the Watatic descent, but they can’t hold my pace on the fire road into the turn around. I keep looking over my shoulder on the hike back up, but they are nowhere to be seen.
Coming into the middle aid station and Binney Road is a long downhill fire road section. I let it go and no one is going to catch me here. I know I have the near vertical Pratt mountain ascent after the aid station so this will be my last opportunity to stretch the legs.
Without gels and such, shouldn’t I be crashing soon? I’m close to 3 hours in. Nope. Feel super fine. Woo-hoo! Through the aid station, past Binney Pond and up the cliff that is Pratt. Nice day for a walk!
Feeling some hot spots on the feet from the road shoes and the slippery socks – but hey, blisters never killed anyone, toenails grow back…
I feel a sharp pain on the outside of my left knee. Oh crap! Sharp pain is bad. Aches are ok. Aches are bruises and unhappy tendons. Sharp pains are tears. I’m thinking all that road work over the last month has popped something. I’ll just keep running and see what happens. I have less than 6 miles to the finish.
I chance to look down at the offending knee, and have to laugh. The pain is coming from a scraped knee from falling earlier. My last little push down the fire road caused sweat to get into it and it’s stinging! Mr. overreacting hypochondriac.
Alone in a dream!
Feeling the miles, but not suffering. Just humming along, all alone in my thoughts. Happy as a lark to be out on this sunny day on this beautiful trail. I haven’t seen any other runners for 30-40 minutes. I start thinking “This is awesome! How lucky am I to be out here on this beautiful trail today doing this thing that I love? How amazing is it that I have the ability do this?”
Late in this race it’s easy to misjudge the finish. You think “This has got to be the last climb.” Then there’s another climb. Eventually it flattens out in a nice evergreen section before dropping down the ‘toboggan run’ descent into the fire roads to the finish.
I’m out of water/Gatorade mix, but I know where I am and can smell the finish. My watch tells me I’m within 20 minutes. No Garmin. No IPod. No Heart Rate monitor. Just me, my watch and the trail. The way it was meant to be!
It was here that I was shaken from my reveries by a runner catching me from behind. He says to me “We have a chance of breaking 3:30 if we push it.” I could care less about the time. I tell him if he wants to make his time he should stretch it out now because this is the last flat section before the finish.
I hang with him for awhile, but let him go on the technical downhill. I’m not going to break something for 2 minutes of clock time!
Then I’m off the mountains and into the fire roads. Tired now. Power-walking some of the steep sections. I hear the clapping and It’s head down drive up the hill to the finish.
Just over 3:35 on the clock – more like 3:32 if you net out my late start, but who cares? It was a glorious day! My feet and legs are sore from the mountains, but my heart is soaring from this classic adventure!
All you need is your shoes my friends.
See you out there,