It rained all day Saturday just in time to freeze into an icy mess for Sunday morning’s Nippy Niner trail race. The 22˚F weather felt okay when I left the house, but when I arrived at Columbia Bottom Conservation Area at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers a short while later the blustery wind was howling across the flat, wide open prairie.
I was hoping to debut my new race costume at this 9 mile event, but the extreme cold briefly caused me to reconsider. My four year old son Will is really into super heroes and we all really like The Incredibles, so I wanted to race in my new Mr. Incredible outfit. I decided to stick with the plan, though the effect was somewhat lost by the fact that I had to wear an additional jacket to keep warm at the start of the race (I took it off by the end).
Walking to the starting line I saw a runner who looked really fast (sometimes you can just tell). Well, he shot off the front immediately. I eased into it before giving chase. The early miles were on gravel roads with the wind at our back. I wasn’t too surprised to see 5:48 at the first mile. I started to pull back a little bit of ground in the second mile, ticking off a 5:37. In the third mile we turned into a stiff headwind. Then we traded the moderately icy gravel road for a completely iced over asphalt path. We all slowed considerably.
After a mile or so of that we turned onto the “trail.” This wasn’t like any trail I’d ever run before. The former trail was destroyed by flooding last year, and apparently the replacement trail had just been completed the day before the race. To say it was rough wouldn’t be doing it justice. It was a fairly wide swath of trees that had been cleared, with lots of ruts and stumps still in the ground. Most of the length of the trail was constant up and downs of 3-4 feet at a time. Having to constantly adjust my foot placement to avoid breaking an ankle, I simply could not find any rhythm.
I took a wrong turn before quickly getting back on course. Still in 2nd place I passed the lead mountain bike, who was finding the rough trail even more difficult than the runners were. It was then I took another wrong turn and went quite a bit out of my way. Once I realized I was way off course I turned back and once again passed the mountain bike (who presumably was quite confused). Right then the 3rd place runner caught up to me and we ran together for the rest of the race.
We came out of the woods at an aid station. I asked the volunteers which direction to go and they (eventually) shouted “right.” We went right. We ran down the icy asphalt path for a while before nearly reaching the finish line when I realized we were off course again. If we continued this direction we would reach the finish line coming from the west, but I remember from the course map on the website that we were supposed to finish from the east. We discussed the situation and debated various options before realizing that the race was over for both of us. We had run a hard 9 miles and turning back would require several more miles even if we could find the correct route.
We reached the finish line and explained what happened, assuming we would both be scored as DQ or DNF. Whatever. It was then that we saw the leader cross the finish line coming from correct direction. So at least he didn’t get lost.
I went back out to run a few more miles easy when I saw a steady stream of 20-30 runners all going the same way we had gone. This is going to be interesting. I’ve never been at a race where this many people went this far off course. At this point I was really curious A) how they would score the race and B) where the hell did everyone miss the turn?
I continued to investigate as I was cooling down. There were still plenty of runners out on the course. I eventually found the real course and talked to some more volunteers. I put all the pieces together and it turns out we were supposed to turn left where the aid station volunteers told us to turn right. Whoops.
I’ve been to enough road races to know that people can get pretty pissed about this sort of thing. The great thing about trail runners is that nobody seemed terribly upset by the snafu. Everyone appeared to take it in stride. I ran from that turn and followed the real course to the finish line, passing the last few runners on the way. At least I would be a finisher, even if I had gone 5 miles out of the way.
The organizers took pity on us and scored everyone based on the time they crossed the finish line, regardless of which direction they came from. The distances were pretty close (though the way we went was a little shorter, which is how we arrived there just before the winner). So I tied for 2nd place, which seemed fair. I suppose the alternative would have been 4th from last, but I think I would have been fine with that too.
I am thankful for the race organizers and all the volunteers who braved miserably cold conditions to put on a really fun event at a really interesting location on a really awful day. The best laid plans of mice and men something something.