My first marathon didn’t go so well. Six months after I ran Chicago I trained for another marathon. I injured my knees a scant two weeks before the race, so I called it off. A year after that (in the spring of 2003) I ran a second marathon, which turned out to be my second most horrible running experience. The course in Frederick, MD was much hillier than I had expected and a freak snow storm blew through dumping 3″ of snow on us during the race. Perhaps racing such a long distance wasn’t for me.
I didn’t run another marathon after Frederick. In the 5.5 years since then I ran an ultra-marathon, then took 3.5 years off of running, then ran two more ultra-marathons. These runs were all far more pleasant than the earlier marathons. First of all, they were on soft trails rather than hard concrete. Second, I didn’t race them as fast as I could go, I just ran nice and easy.
About six weeks ago I was feeling somewhat ambitious. I noticed several friends from the local running club were signing up for this race called Tecumseh. It is a trail marathon–a genuine 26.2 mile foot race on trails through the woods rather than through streets of the city. I hesitated because of my earlier bad experiences with marathons. On one hand this had the potential to be every bit as bad (if not worse) than my earlier road marathons. On the other hand, I knew I was in much better shape than I was 6-7 years ago and I knew I could handle the longer distances better now. Just before the race reached its 600 entrant limit I took the plunge and signed up.
In the six weeks since I registered I did weekly long trail runs. I spent hours running through the woods of central (and northern) Illinois, sometimes alone, but more often with Ellen, or Don, or Brian, or Ken. These are the Buffalo, the friendliest trail runners around.
On Friday evening 18 Buffalo invaded a retreat between Bloomington and Nashville, IN to stay at a cabin the night before the race. I caught a ride with Jack and Bill. We stopped on the way for some great homemade pasta at So Italian in Brownsburg. We stumbled across the restaurant kind of randomly simply because it appeared in the restaurant search results on my iPhone.
The temperature bottomed out at 17˚ during the drive and rose back to 20˚ by the time we reached the cabin. It was cold. We went into the cabin to find Bob, Matt, Katie, and Mark already there. The cabin’s little heater was on full blast, but it wasn’t helping much. There was a thermometer on the wall of the cabin which read 42˚ (though we think it was probably 5-10˚ warmer than that). More and more Buffalo arrived over the next few hours, bringing along with them food, beverages, and plenty of good conversation.
Just as the party was getting started the heater shut off for no apparent reason. Nothing we could do got it going again. Someone went to look for the retreat management, but they were nowhere to be found. Perhaps they were playing late night paintball (there was also a paintball area). Facing potentially very cold night in the cabin a handful of people departed in search of a warm hotel room in one of the nearby cities. The rest of us put on more clothes. Eventually Cousin’ Don (not my biological cousin) found someone who came to help us out. Apparently a fuse blew and this guy was able to replace it. The heat came back on, crisis averted.
By this time it was late and all of us had a long way to run in the morning, so it was off to bed. I was plenty warm in my sleeping bag wearing a couple layers of clothes. In the morning we awoke, ate some breakfast, and headed out to the race venue.
It started to snow. I began to have flashbacks to Frederick and it was making me really nervous. My last marathon was on a hilly course in a snowstorm, and now it looked like this marathon was also going to be on a hilly course in a snowstorm. The snow wasn’t quite as bad as it was at Frederick, but I would soon find the hills to be much, much worse.
The Tecumseh trail marathon is a point to point race. We parked near the finish line. After picking up our race packets we boarded busses and rode almost and hour to the start of the race. The entire time I kept thinking, “We’ve been on this bus forever, we can’t possibly have to run the whole way back.” I guess the busses just took a less direct route.
Even after arriving at the race start we stayed on the warm bus until the just before the race start. During the 10 minutes between getting off the bus and starting to run I was freezing. I kept thinking what a huge mistake I had made in my wardrobe choice, I must be totally underdressed. Fortunately it didn’t last long. The very moment we started running I warmed up and I stayed plenty warm the entire run.
I started out too fast. It’s what I do. I have always started races too fast, and despite my best intentions, this race was no exception. My watch read 7:20 when my GPS indicated we passed the first mile. I really should have been at least a full minute slower. The first two miles were on a fairly wide gravel road. Shortly after that the course turned into the woods onto a narrow single-track trail, which would make it somewhat difficult to pass people. This was one of the reasons I started too fast. I wanted to be in a decent position when we got to the first narrow sections so I wouldn’t have to waste too much energy passing people.
I settled into a pace closer to 8:00 for the next several miles. We hit the first big downhill and, following the lead of the runners in front of me, I really flew down it. I usually take the downhills kind of slow. I don’t know what possessed me. It was becoming clearer by the mile that I wasn’t just treating this as a long run through the woods–I was treating it as a race. This thought scared the hell out of me. I knew I could handle the distance as a long easy run. I knew I could race at least 18-20 miles. I had no idea whether I could actually race 26.2. One way or another I was going to find out.
Starting around mile 8-9 I started to pass several of the people I had been running with for miles. I would pass a few, get to the front, bridge up to the next group, then pass them as well. I was passing people constantly for the next 5-6 miles. Even though I started out faster than I should have, apparently plenty of other people did too.
The narrow trail was completely covered with leaves, which were completely covered with snow. It was very slippery, particularly so on the downhill switchbacks. On one of the short road sections the guy running next to me slipped and fell on his butt. He got back up and assured me he was okay, but it looked like it hurt.
At mile 13, roughly half way, we hit a really big hill. It was on a short road section of the course. I could see it from a distance as soon as I turned a certain corner, and I actually laughed out loud. It was huge. I can’t believe we’re expected to race up that hill. Adding insult to injury, once we reached the top we weren’t even at the top. The road turned and continued skyward. I did the sensible thing and I walked up the steepest sections. One of the guys around me decided to run the entire thing (he was the only one I saw running this hill), and he would pay for it. A couple miles later I passed him convincingly and never saw him again.
I was drinking lots of water and eating very well the whole time. I carried a water bottle with me and I took a small drink every few minutes. I also had a flask of Hammer Gel with me that I used every four miles or so. Then I had some fruit snacks with me that I ate around mile 14-15. I also stopped at several of the aid stations (which were spaced about four miles apart) to drink Gatorade and eat some bananas, M&M’s, Cheez-Its, or Fig Newtons. Eating anything while running is a challenge for me, but the Fig Newtons were the hardest for some reason.
Around mile 16 I was starting to get a little tired, but I still felt good. At an aid station one of the volunteers was counting and told me I was in 35th place. Whoa, that was better than I expected. Could I hang on the last ten miles? This section was very hilly. There were big uphills at miles 17 and 19. I was still passing people every once in a while, but they were fewer and farther between than they were earlier in the race.
At mile 21 I reached an aid station and to my surprise saw Matt (a fellow Buffalo), who was leaving the aid station as I was arriving. Matt is fast. Very fast. He wins races. Either I’m doing very, very well or he is having an off day. It was looking more and more like the former. As we continued on he pulled away from me a little. After a mile or two I could no longer see him. I think seeing me may have provided a little extra motivation for him.
The good news was that I still had plenty of energy (which has never happened to me at the end of a marathon). The bad news was my hamstrings were starting to cramp up (which has always happened to me at the end of a marathon). Every once in a while there would be a log I’d have to jump over and I had to be very careful not to bend my knees too far, because they would immediately cramp if I did. My form got worse and worse. I started to fade by mile 23 or so. My last three miles got slower and slower. Fortunately, the last few miles were almost entirely flat or downhill. I was all by myself. I couldn’t see anyone ahead of me or behind me.
I was still shuffling along pretty well when I hit the last mile. I was slightly demoralized when I turned a corner and saw one last huge hill to climb. I walked it, as I had been doing on all the hills in the last half of the race. Once at the top I shuffled on into the finishing area. The finish was on a road which was incredibly icy and slick by this point. I actually had to slow down the last 100 meters so as not to fall down. I was incredibly happy to cross the finish line in 3 hours 54 minutes and 44 seconds. Moments later, I saw Matt standing there. He finished about a minute and a half ahead of me. Moments after that I turned around just in time to watch Ellen finish. She won the women’s race! It found it hilarious that the three of us finished back to back to back, within 2.5 minutes, but we didn’t run together.
Within minutes of finishing I got really, really cold. I slowly walked across the parking lot, soaking wet, shivering like crazy to get back to Jack’s car, where I had dry clothes. He was good enough to give me a key before the race. Without that I would have been screwed, because I didn’t see him or Bill for over an hour. I started the car to turn on the heat. I dried off and put on every single article of clothing I brought with me (which it turns out was a lot). While sitting in the car for 20 minutes or so I watched Pat, Marla, and Bob finish. I wanted to get out and cheer them on but I just couldn’t. I was so cold.
I finally warmed up and went back out with my camera while a few more Buffalo finished. Don came in, as did Katie, and Brian. Then I grabbed some hot chocolate and vegetarian soup and sat with friends in the (somewhat heated) picnic shelter.
One by one the rest came in. Unfortunately, Jack had a hip injury and was unable to finish. After even walking became too unbearable he stopped at an aid station around mile 23 and a volunteer gave him a ride back to the finish. It was unfortunate. He just fished a 50 mile race a few weeks ago and he is doing a 24 hours race in a couple weeks, so this was just training for him anyway. I have a feeling he’ll be back at it in no time.
Well that was the (long) story of my first trail marathon. I really had no idea what to expect. I’ve done (bad) marathons before. I’ve done long trail runs before. I haven’t actually raced this far on a trail ever and I wasn’t certain how my body would hold up. I was confident I would finish. I thought I could likely keep up with fellow Buffalo Don & Brian. I thought if I had a great run I might be able to keep up with Ellen. It turns out I did have a great run. I finished 31st place overall, out of 490 finishers. Best of all, I didn’t injure myself (which is always a worry for me, given my history of knee problems). I’m feeling better about the upcoming Illinois marathon next spring.
Update: While reading someone else’s race report I was reminded about one of the coolest parts of the race. Around mile 22 we entered a beautiful pine forest for a short stretch. The trees were very tall and very close together. It was like nothing I had ever seen in the midwest. For a moment I wondered whether I was in the Pacific northwest. There were a few times during the race when I definitely wished I had a camera with me, and this was most certainly one of those times.
Update 2: This blog has a great video from the race. About four minutes into the video there is footage of the really neat forest I mentioned above.