I kind-of sort-of not-sure, but thought maybe I just might could run a sub-3hr race today... if everything went well. You know, if the sun didn't pop out and roast me, if my left calf tightness holds off and stays just a minor irritant, if so many different things just go a little bit right for me. And I certainly expect my calf to be a problem. It's been bothering me the last few days. Something new that just sort-of appeared of late, but has been reliably irritating enough for me to not run the last few days. And so, I make ready to run, and climb into the chute with all the others. Its odd, knowing I feel pretty damn strong overall, but for the calf ache.
At 8:30 AM we begin, and I make certain my GPS is on, and then I lock it, just to make sure I don’t accidentally pause it or stop it, which happens when I fall or even just brush up against something. My little hesitation to make certain the GPS is where I want it has me stumbling out of the start chute initially, but then I right myself and begin to accelerate. I find a comfortable early race stride, and ignore the handful of runners who rush past me. The ground is already rugged as hell, full of rocks that'll trip you and cut you up, but also wet and slick. Thing is, I like it. This technical trail and sloppy wet condition is a combination that tends to spin me up and make me faster.
The herd spliters quickly, with the leaders disappearing into the twists and turns. I see flashes of color and movement out ahead between the bare trees. Peripheral vision and fractions of seconds create the flashes that mean little more than somebody is moving up there, which I am already well aware of. I scan the ground, subconsciously plotting the track I intend to launch my body through. I am not really paying much attention to the other runners except as moving obstacles to avoid. I get past one guy easily, but the next one speeds up as close on him, so I remain behind. As much as I'm scanning the ground, paying attention to all the rock land-mines, I can't but help watch the guy right in front of me too. After all, at this point, he's just another obstacle to get past. He's pretty fast, certainly running faster than I am. So why am I still right behind him? I realize he's sliding about, spinning on the slick rocks, and slowing now and again to avoid the rocks, while I maintain my speed over the rocks. Anyway, so I start talking to him. He tells me he's new to trail running. He misses a sharp set of S-turns, and I move past him and keep going. He falls off, but I know I'll see him again. After a few minutes, I'm alone, dancing with the rocks, sliding, skipping, hopping, and what-all-ever it takes to move down the trail without falling into it.
My left calf is beginning to hurt a bit, and after I kick an unmovable rock, and reflexively throw my left leg out full length, it hurts a lot more. Well damn it now, and I was doing so well. I change my stride: less length and higher cadence and it doesn't hurt so much now. And I start to walk all the short inclines, which I hadn't been doing until now. I'm extra cafefull of the slanted slick rock that looks like a good place to slide off. I seem to be able to keep up my overall speed with my new stride and cadence, so I lock it in.
When I reach the four mile aid, I stop to eat a gel that I have with me: a Sea Salt & Chocolate GU. I leave the trash at the station as my new friend runs past. I spin back up and go after him, but this section is not technical and he slowly runs off and leaves me behind. I sink a subconscious hook into him just for the motivation I need to keep on moving, not that I really care if I catch up. Truth is, I need him to stay up there in front for motivation, so the last thing I need is for him to start walking, and thankfully he does not. And so I begin to build up a fierce momentum that serves me very well.
The leaders pass me at the seven mile point, which means they have two miles on me, and I have just one mile to the turn-around, and its also the same exact time two guys who have been closing on me, blow by as well. I walk for a moment just to readjust and settle into not getting caught up in any of it. I just need to run my own damn race, and as much as I see what is going on, and who is how far, and the gaps between each, none of it really matters besides what I can do. I need to just wait until I get to the turn to check my watch and then I'll have a better idea of the time I am capable of today. Doesn't mean I can run it. But it does provide the information I need so I know what is possible.
I arrive at the eight mile aid at 1:25. Now I have to run back the exact same trail to the finish where I started, and I would almost have to match the same damn time I just ran to get here. Not likely! I eat another gel that I have with, and take one from the table with me as I turn and head back, and then I start sprinting. Not that I can hold this for very long, but there are no rocks or trip hazards for awhile, so I need to take advantage of this rare opportunity to actually run. My leg holds steady. No pain, but I can feel the edge of it. I keep on! I can see the flash of movement way ahead and I chase it, using it to move me.
The trail is muddy as hell in places, a few muddy creek crossings, some shoe suck, some ducking under, and bobbing about, but mostly its all about the endless sea of rocks. I kick one so very hard, and remain upright, but almost choke on the pain as it radiates up quickly and then slowly sloughs off. I start running again, and pick my effort right back up. Hell, kicking rocks is part of trail running and I never expected to avoid them all. Been doing this long enough to know I was bound to bang my body on some of these nasty little bastards.
Back to the mile four aid, which means I have four miles to go. I stop to eat another gel: the one i took from the eight mile aid. I leave the trash here and again spin back up. Partly to check and see if I can, and also because I just checked and I saw I have 45 minutes left to bag a sub-3hr. Thing is, thats the same amount of time it took me to get here coming out. Its highly unlikely I can run the same time now as I did earlier, but I'm going to give it a go.
And then I see my friend again, and its the last bit of mojo I need. I slip into a bigger sprocket and start spinning, Even when I can't see him, I can feel him. Little flashes of color or movement here and there. Finally, I catch him and realize its not him. Its a runner from the eight miler. But I keep moving and realize he's still up there. He'd just passed the same guy before I passed him, but he's still there, so I keep surging. Up and down, through mud, rock, and tree, and it all starts to blur. And then i see him and then I'm on him. He sees me and its no different than earlier, I can't close. A gap of a dozen yards separate us for five and then ten minutes, and then he just stops. What? No! I dont want him to stop. I need him to keep pulling me along. At this point, I dont even care if I catch him. I just want him to pull me right up under the sub-3hr time. But he does stop, and I roll right past him.
Now, I'm on my own, and with only one more mile to go. I see another eight miler ahead and as I'm about to pass, I bust my ass, roll over and slide. I slowly get back up, dust myself off, and try to rebuild some momentum. It's not easy. My friend is behind me, and I'm just now starting to feel every little thing I've done to myself since I started. But, I can still do it, I think. I dont have time to check my GPS. I just need to go. I reach the first road crossing, cross over, run like hell, reach the second road crossing, and now I can hear the finish. I pop out of the trees and right into the finish, and stop. There is no clock. I check my GPS, but cant read it. I sit down on a milk carton right at the finish line, unlock my GPS, then stop it, and then I see my time, and it is just barely under 3hrs. I've done it... and nothing seems to hurt anymore!