I'd run these trails a few years ago, biked them too, and had a pretty good idea of the terrain. So today's race for me was a refresher, yet there's no way I can know the route or what exactly was going to happen next. Mostly, I just want to check on my old friend Erik Stanley and see how his Trail Roots race is run.
The half-marathon pack is somewhere above 150 strong when we start at 7:30am, and even with a wide area to spread out, the bottleneck comes way too soon. It takes me way too long to warm up, so I'm mid-pack with another 100 people when we get stuck as soon as we hit the single-track. The race has just started, so the only thing I can figure is a tortoise or two are blocking our progress. I'm used to slow, but standing still during a race is new for me, especially just minutes into the race. The pack around me is starting to grumble and some try to surge around the hangup, only to be squeezed back into place by the abundant prickly pear. We open up and surge again, only to stop again, surge, and wait some more, then surge and wait... and finally I pass the first bottleneck: a woman walking up the middle of the trail, oblivious of all the chaos she's causing. Then I pass the 2nd, the 3rd, and finally we're set free to abuse ourselves as it suites each of us to do on our own terms, with only 15 minutes of official time delay. No big deal really, but I tend to roll with this sort of stuff. There are a few around me that had worked themselves into a big energy surge by the time we break free, and they sprint off with willful abandon. I hope they have enough sense to spin down before they burn themselves out. Oh well, but we will see. All I can do is the same as everybody else: take care of myself.
It was 75 degrees when I drove in at sunrise, and I suspect nothing less than an increase of temp to go along with the abundant humidity: the hallmarks of a really nasty Texas summer day. As has become my standard method when the weather and my clothes reaches this point of sweat saturation, I power down and tend more to a walk than a run. I save my better running moments for the downhills and cool shade areas, if any! I can tell, most of this crowd appears to be more road runner than trail, because most of them are running the uphills. They scamper around me as I walk the ups, which is no concern of mine, but then they clog up the descents with their tentative concerns, as I attempt to bomb through them, and this is just too much. All in all, it makes for some interesting looks from the dozen or so I tend to go back and forth with. They pass me on the up and I pass them on the down, with the result being we simply stay all together through the balance.
Another odd thing, not many are carrying water bottles or hydration packs. Standard operating procedure for me is with a water bottle in hand, and so it is right now. The aid stations are close enough from one to the next, that a single will do, so I skim the aid at mile 3, while all the others around me stop for a drink or two. So the aid station serves as simply another downhill for those around me.
It's a rugged course, rocks everywhere, with quite a few hills, and a few really nice rock chutes that switch down along creek bottoms. These are quite a bit of fun to run, whether they're up or down. This place is typically used as a mountain bike ranch, with more than a few structures made just for a bike. I can avoid most of them until I get to the mountain bikers jungle gym section of chutes and bridges, where I'm herded over the first big one, but find a way to skirt the edges of the other 5 or 6. But all this jumping about stirs up an awful rumbling in my tummy, to the point where I have little option but to go off into the woods to visit the bears for a bit. I can hear a good number of runners pass by, while I slowly try to relax and unwind.
When I get back at it, I've lost my herd, but I've had a bit of a rest, so I spin up a bit and run for a while, wondering if I'll find a new pack. Seems as if I'm between packs now as I'm alone mostly. There are a good number of people around I keep seeing, but the course is such that we're on drastically different sections of the course, yet within a stones throw of each other. Its hard to know who is in which race, going on who knows what direction, and how far form anything. There's more than a few trails on this course that are so typical of mountain bike ranches, ,that go a long way in one direction only to switch back and go a long way in the other direction right next to the same trail, and then reverse again. It seems the designers of mountain bike ranches do not wish to ignore any of the real estate whatsoever. Reminds me of how I mow my lawn, making certain I hit every blade of grass.
Rolling into the 2nd aid is a bit confusing. I see people coming in to it from different directions and going out in different directions. I ask which way I need to go, but the two ladies are overwhelmed and don't understand me. One of them glances at me for just a fraction of a second and points at the water cooler. Wasn't what I asked for but I figure I might as well top off. The trail in and out of here are not much of what I'd call a trail per se. It's just flagged and easy to follow, but no more than a clearcut through scrub on the edge of where flat land tips off the edge of a hill. I'm used to this kind of shit, so I catch and pass a few people in here, who are struggling with the terrain. The thing about it is it's very irregular, rhythm destroying, and awkward: run a few, hop a few ledges, walk a few, and repeat. There's no way anyone can hold a rhythm in here, but hell, thats the way I run all the time.
Again, we go a long way one way, reverse for a long way, then again, and again. The last reversal drops us onto an old pot-holed paved road that eventually reaches up and touches the aid station I was at a while ago, but didn't understand. Now I understand, but I had to see both sides for it to make sense. This time, I'm at mile 9. Again, I don't need water, so I roll off the right side and continue.
Theres a bazillion intersections all over this course, but Erik did a great job using caution ribbon to herd us through all of it as good as he did. The course is one twisted up mess of intersections and caution ribbon that I see from one side of the caution, then the other, and sometimes yet even another. There are runners and voices everywhere, but they offer no confidence I'm going the right way. I find another chute that spins me up, but before I reach the bottom, I pull up to an intersection that seems to want me to go left, but a sign that tells me to go right. Yea, I know this is real simple, but I'm at boiling point now and ready to be done, so I'm second guessing everything. I just stand there and study on it, think a bit more, and as simple as it is, I'm stumped. My body wants left, the sign says right, so what do I do? I go right, but it just doesn't feel right.
There's lots of great deep shade now, and as much as I'd like to sit here and just chill for a bit, I don't. The trail goes up and comes down, so I walk a bit, run a bit, but keep at it, now that I've got past my mental hiccup. Coming to the river, I can now hear the finish line noise, but know I still have a mile or more remaining. I'm about to pass a kid, but I'm going so slow, he gets tired of waiting for me and decides to keep on, and runs ahead. And he does stay ahead for spurts, but I'm hell bent on getting done and stay on him for long enough that he steps off again and this time lets me go by.
The final bit along the river is soothing to my soul, hearing the water first, then seeing some people playing in it. I'm under a bluff, between the river and the plain, a wall to my left and trees between me and the river, offering their cool shade. Such a beautiful and calm setting is a wonderful way to finish out this race, and the tunnel we pass through on our way up to the plain is cool looking as well as cool temp-wise.
Nothing left but for the field now, but even this is another of those same old back and forth affairs that insists on once again mowing all the grass. The finish line chatter pulls on me while my body demands I stop and the ensuing argument turns into a bog war where I indecisively just slog along. There is of course always one last hill and I know it well. I laugh when I see it, because it only makes sense that there is always one last battle before the war is over. No choice but to up the beast and get it done where there is always somebody at the top telling me what I already know.
Damn but it's hot today. A sunglasses, sun hat, and bandana kind of day. It does get up to 90 degrees and everything I have on is sweat soaking wet. Tom's at the finish and like the good friend he is, offers me an ice cold beer. I am done. Life is good