For any number of reasons, I overheat way too easy nowadays, especially during the warmer seasons. But it's winter now, the time of year I typically ramp up the distance. Thing is, the Wild Hare race is s short multi-loop course, and the thought of running endless loops doesn't fit well into my thoughts. And also, I've run this 25k two years in a row with my wife and kids, for my only less-than-ultra distance trail race in the winter. So now it's just what I do this time of year. Joyce and the girls were planning to come with, but as things go, they’ve all cancelled, so I once again connect with Michael Langer for a ride.
It's a crisp overcast 42 degrees at 7am when we start. In the past, I'd gone out slow, allowing myself some time to warm up and get loose. But what I remember most about last year’s slow start was how many people I struggled to get past after I did warm up. After the initial half-mile loop around the pond, we enter the trees and then follow a twisted and winding trail that dips into short shallow ups and downs while simultaneously turning constantly in an area of spaghetti trails. From the moment we enter the trees until the half-way aid where we exit the trees, this is how it is. The trees have already dropped their leaves, so it's easy to see people in all the different trails around me, but I've no idea if they're in front or behind... and how far. It's not always easy to pass, which is why I've decided to do what I don't like doing... go out fast. I intend to push the pace until the half-way aid, and then back down to a more rational effort... at least for me.
I remember the game of crack-the-whip us kids used to play oh-so-many years ago. One kid would lock hands with another kid, and that kid with another, until we had three or four or more kids who would then run around going as fast as we could, until we could not hold on any longer, and go flying off, whipped into a high speed tumble and fall into the grass, mud, or ice. It was a silly game, but that's what it feels like running this course, getting whipped around each turn, and using the turns to whip my self into more speed. If I use the turns correctly, it works brilliantly to maintain or increase speed. But, if I screw it up, I kill my momentum, and have to work to get the rhythm back. And so it begins to be a game of reading the terrain, finding the best approach, how to take a hill, and the best track to descend as well.
I am where I usually never find myself, between the really fast runners and the rest of the field, running what I want to run, passing nobody and not being passed either. It's much faster than is usual for me, but the effort feels comfortable, just not sustainable. With all the switchbacks, twists, turns, and all, I see numerous pace-lines of runners stacked up in groups of five and twenty, which is exactly what I wanted to avoid, and I have. They’re all on other trails away from me.
I check my GPS watch when I exit the trees at the half-way aid and note that I’ve certainly arrived faster than I had last year. But it's now time to back down. I eat a pickle and follow with the juice before restarting. A good many of those who were behind me begin to stream past, including Zita. We're in the open now, a cattle chute that leads into the top field, which then drops down Gas Pass, with a tilted bike ramp at the bottom. This spins us to the right and quickly into a second field. With my more relaxed effort in affect, a few more people pass by. Around the field, and then to the mixing yard, where we rise up and turn only to head right back down the slip-n-slide chute to the creek. I walk up, while people run past me, but then bomb down, cross the creek at the bottom, and enter the third and biggest field.
In year's past, we used to run through the field. Now they’ve created two parallel trails at the edge of the field, one in the shade of the trees at the edge, and another further in, cutting between the trees, with a bit more roll to it. There's a creek to the right, the other trail just to the left, and with little room to work with, this trail is complicated, dodging about, rising and falling, and not so simple, but kind-of fun. At the far end of the field, the trail pops out at the oil rig, which we run around and onto another parallel trail on the other side of the field, laid out in a similar fashion to what we just did. Up a quarter mile and then back the way we came, just a few feet over.
At this point, we cross directly over the middle of the field, the only time we're in the open, and now we return next to the other long trail just next to the trail we came out on that was in the trees. It's a good place to see how far in front or behind you are with the others. I pass by the creek crossing, along the creek, and onto a beautiful old pine-needle-covered skinny bridge taking me back up onto the bluff. With the up-tilt constantly changing through here, so does my effort. Also, it's a very pretty section of course, big pines on the edge of the bluff, looking down into a picturesque winding creek, with pine needles and leaves covering everything. I slow a little partly just to take a look. It's the first time I get out of my focus on the run and smell the pines.
Its at about this point when I see Michael a few twists of the trail behind me, and coming hard. I do believe he wants to catch me! And I suspect he will. Once up on bluff, I'm in the area of the pond and it's connecting campsites. The trail once again wanders about in a similar fashion as it did in the first section of trees, but with slightly bigger hills, rises, and drops. As is my fashion, I walk all the ups, but quickly spin back down and run all the rest, around the pond, cut through the camping area, and then up to the barn, which marks the end of the loop.
Michael and I had setup our gear in the barn, so I stop to drop my water bottle and grab another pre-loaded and ready one. I decide to ditch my long-sleeve shirt for a short-sleeve, and as I change, Michael sprints by and keeps on going. I already knew he was going to do so, as he told me before we started. He wore a camelback so he’d not have to stop during the run. I take a pack of gels with me as I walk out eating, using the time to recover and reset before I power back up again. So far, the race is going as planned, and I hope to keep it that way. I'd like to keep running comfortably through the first half tree section, and then push it, if I can, for the second half, through the fields and final part. At least, that is the plan. We'll see how that goes!
I can see Michael on the other side of the pond as I circle round it, and as much as I'd like to chase him, I let the thought go. I also see Zita just before she enters the trees. Once I get into the trees, I start rolling again, striding out, finding my cadence, and enjoying the feel. There is another grey-hair I'd matched strides with on the first loop, who is always going uphill faster than me. We even talked about it. I seem to catch or pass him on the downs, but otherwise, we're evenly matched and usually stay tight through the flats, at least enough to talk a bit. But, he ends up pulling away each time, and it does nor surprise me to see him again. He turns and sees me, says hi, then speeds up, and pulls away. Again, I need to run my own deal, and just like I did with Michael, I put it out of my head and let it be. I need to stay in my plan.
Back to the Half-way aid, I check again to see I am still well ahead of my plan, and it's all I need to know to stay tuned in and relaxed. Through the top field, down the Gas Pass chute, and into the middle field, I can feel my legs getting tight, so I push harder to maintain the same speed. Back to the switching yard, I walk up and see Michael on the down-chute, which is not all that far in front of me. I yell out his name, and he looks at me, so I know he's gonna get after it now. Last thing he wants is for me to run him down in the last few miles. Well, I'm not racing Michael, but I certainly plan to push my effort for the rest of the race, so I just may see him again.
And so it goes, once I head down the winding drop chute to the creek, I get my speed and my buzz up, and continue to push across the creek and into the third field. Along the way, I pass by a few grey-hairs and wonder if any are in my age group, not that it should matter, but I can't help but think about it for a moment... and then the thought is gone. My legs are starting to hurt, so I go faster. Something I learned from my wife a long time ago: when she gets tired, she goes faster, so she can get done sooner. At this point, I'm passing people and people are passing me, and I have no idea who is in the same race as me, outside of the handful I started with.
I see Michael just after the field with only a few miles remaining, and catch up to him with just a mile to go. He senses me closing on him, and steps off the trail so I can pass. But, I cannot do it. I tell him to go on. I have no intention on passing him. I tell him I just wanted to catch him, and so I have, so I tuck in behind him and continue. A few minutes later, somebody else closes on us and I tell them to beep if they want by. In reply, I hear almost the same damn thing I just said to Michael, and so the three of us finish the pond loop, and pass through the barn to finish all three of us with exactly the same damn time. I nailed my plan and ran better than I expected and exactly what my plan suggested I could do. Zita finished almost 2 minutes up, so we all ended up pretty close.