“Maybe we should do a race?”
She wasn’t convinced. After all, we’d hardly been doing any running, me in particular. “What did you have in mind?”
I scanned a trail running calendar I conveniently left open in another tab and saw there was a race at Dash Point State Park near Tacoma. “We can do this one, it’s a month away. Plenty of time to train.”
“For the 10k?”
“Let’s do the half marathon. It’s only $9 more,” I said, as if arguing for the larger bucket of popcorn at a movie theater and not a thirteen-mile race. It made no sense and I knew it. I hadn’t run more than five miles in a year. But that’s me when I’m making plans. I do it with no concern for current fitness levels. “Plus, we can check off another state park from our list.”
Various maps hung on the wall to our right, each pierced with dozens of multi-colored pins, a triptych of three-dimensional checklists. We’ve added a half-dozen new pins this year to the map of Washington’s State Parks. Kristin glanced at the map and nodded, her lips tight. “Okay, if you’re sure you’re going to train for it.”
“Enough to finish,” I said, and laughed as I clicked the registration link. This was late February.
My training wasn’t going to match Kristin’s. Her daily stop light runs in the city—turning in whatever direction has the walk signal—nets her up to to five miles each day at lunch. Once a week she does stairs, hiking the 65-flights of stairs of a nearby office tower. Twice. I would run three or four miles once or twice a week. Then, on the weekend, would go for a longer run of six to eight miles. I mixed in one or two rides on my mountain bike, a dust-collecting victim of the most miserable winter I can recall since moving to this land of perpetual gray and drizzle in 2002.
My lone attempt at making a serious foray into training involved a very hilly six-mile run that ultimately had me wandering around unfamiliar, snow-covered trails, trying to follow a GPS track I downloaded from Strava. Then, last weekend, a week before race day, we each went our separate ways, aiming for an eight to ten mile run on our neighborhood trails. The rain had been incessant, the woodchip trails were as much sponge as they were quicksand. Running water and shoe-sucking mud provided variety. I mapped a route in my head and decided that I’d run straight home from wherever I was when I hit eight miles. Knowing the distances of our trails too well, I hit the eight mile mark a short ways from home. Kristin ran nearly ten. Because, of course she did. She’s prudent.
Last Wednesday, I went out for one final tune-up run. I didn’t have a lot of time, so I kept it close to home. There was a gap in the constant rain so I opted for the roads instead of the trails. I hate running on pavement. I should have friends that stop me. I went too fast. Memories of my faster days, my youth, flood my mind when I’m running on the road, and just as my GPS watch beeped the third mile and as I saw I ran it in 7:22 (my fastest mile in too long), my left calf seized. I was walking three steps later. And walked the rest of the way home.
I had been dealing with calf tightness on and off for over a year. This was the third or fourth instance. Each time in the past, it took up to two weeks to fully go away. A byproduct of not enough water, not enough stretching, my overly-long stride on too-soft terrain, my past-their-use trail shoes, and, probably, a touch of too-much, too-soon. A physical therapist friend of mine studied my gait and my shoes and filled me with tips that kept the pain from recurring. And it worked. Right until I stopped following his advice, thinking I was beyond the need.
I realize I’m never going to beyond needing those tips. Life in my forties… sigh.
Can You Race?
It was the topic du jour each night at dinner and even moreso the morning of the race. Can I race? I didn’t know. I shouldn’t. That I did know. I could barely walk around the house without feeling that tinge of tightness. But nightly massages—thanks babe!—and stubbornness and the knowledge that this whole damn idea was mine and mine alone, had me at least wanting to try.
So we drove to the race and as Kristin went about her warm-up run, I gamely tried to run around the parking lot, convincing myself I could do it. Try to do it. Maybe the first lap. We’ll see.
The race began and the hundred-plus entrants shuffled double-file onto the trails and were soon queued up for a series of staircases.
Stairs were unexpected.
Though I had looked at an elevation profile of the course weeks prior, it masked how steep the terrain was. And we had never been here before. As a rule of thumb, I tend to consider an average of 100ft/mile being the mark of a hilly run. This two-lap course averaged over 200ft/mile for the first three miles (and then again later at miles seven through nine). And though the latter half of each loop was predominantly downhill, there was still plenty of ups sprinkled into the tight, twisty trails that grew slicker and muddier with each passing footfall. Total elevation totaled ~1540 feet for the course.
But my calf pain was a blessing in disguise. It forced me to run slower than I would have otherwise. It kept me from striding out the downhills, from sprinting to pass, or from taking the stairs two at a time. It kept me in check and, for that, I was thankful. Once, on mile four, I considered dropping out after the first lap. I hate multi-lap courses. They mess with your mind, as much a test of fortitude and determination as physical fitness. It’s easier to finish when there’s no alternative but continuing on, knowing the shortest way back lays ahead of you. But on a lap course? Passing your car halfway through? Knowing you can stop now, grab a clean set of clothes and a beer?
No, don’t think about it. Just keep going. Don’t succumb to the temptation of warmth and relaxation.
I grabbed some Cliff Bloks and Nuun at the aid station, having completed the first lap in 1:06, a time that felt impossibly slow and shameful because I remain haunted by the times I used to run, in races I ran half a lifetime ago.
Kristin’s co-worker and friend Linda caught up to me at the start of the second lap. I wished her well as she passed me on the stairs and never saw her again. My calf pain was uncomfortable but by the seventh mile, it wasn’t my issue. A lack of training was. I knew the only way I was going to finish was if I walked each and every hill during the second lap.
And so I did. My mile splits were each over a minute slower on the second lap. But so what? I kept moving. Left foot, right foot, left foot around the mud puddle, right foot slip-and-slide.
There were two lollipops on the course, short stretches where traffic moves out and in from an isolated loop. I passed Kristin late on my second lap, as I was leaving the latter of these lollipop loops, as she was entering the “stick.” We high-fived. I was happy to see her out there. She looked good, slower but steadier than I.
Years ago, when we used to do triathlon and marathons (and even some ultra-marathons), she would be the one with the nearly even splits. Her first marathon, I still remember, down in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, she ran a 4:14, going out in 2:05, and coming back in 2:09. Incredibly even splits. I rolled through the half-way point that day at 1:25 and came back in 1:50. Oops.
I tried not to look at my watch too often, to not worry about the time. It’s the beauty of trail running. The time is almost meaningless as even when courses do remain the same, the conditions change from year to year. What would my time be? Would I break two hours, as I had hoped weeks ago. Would I break 2:30, I wondered during my second lap.
I wondered about a lot during that lap.
My feet ached. So much pounding. Is that a blister on my arch? I’m too heavy for this shit, I thought. What ever happened to clydesdale divisions? That was so popular in triathlon years ago, back when I was podiuming at a lean 178 pounds. I wonder if they still have them. I’d probably do pretty good for my size.
Downhill from here. Down the stairs. Be careful on the bridges, they’re slick. You’re not on a mountain bike, Doug, don’t worry. Who put the uphill in the downhill? Ugh. Okay, there’s the tent. Round the corner. Tap the watch. Finish.
2:18, okay. Is that good? Who cares. Stretch. Eat something. Oh my God do my feet hurt. Watch for Kristin. Stretch, you dummy. Oh, look, blueberry muffins. I’m so hungry! Potato chips and Coke! Excellent. More blueberry muffin.
I think Kristin’s coming. High-five with Linda. Wow, she’s fast. Finished in 2:13. Nice job! I’ll have to buy her beer when we go out for lunch. Kristin’s done. 2:31. She’ll wish she had broken 2:30 after the fact. Because round numbers make great barriers. I’d wish the same.
Wanna Race Again?
It’s Tuesday, my calf is still a little sore, but I run up and down the stairs of our townhouse without trouble. I’ll go for a run today. It’ll be raining when I do. Writing this report reminded me to check if the results had been posted. It never occurred to either of us to look.
Kristin won her age group, finishing 1st out of 8 women in her group, 23rd out of 58 women overall.
I finished 5th in my age group out of 10 men, 25th out of 49 overall males. Middle of the pack. Middling preparation. Only fifteen people (including three women) broke two hours on the course. It was hard. I mentioned there were a lot of stairs, right?
The winning time of 1:28 was thirteen minutes ahead of second place.
We didn’t run this race because we cared about racing. It was just a goal, a marker on the calendar to inspire/scare us into getting out there and pushing a little harder, a little further. The goal isn’t to become fast. The goal is to lessen the discomfort of the other adventures we have planned this summer. Too many of our adventures last year hurt too much. We want to minimize that with preparation. How novel!
Do we want to race again? Yeah, probably. I like this distance. Half-marathon. 25k. Whatever you want to call it doesn’t matter, the distances are never exact in trail running. My GPS said the course was 11.8 miles, undoubtedly a short measurement based on the spaghetti-like network of trails. Was it 13.1? Who knows. Who cares?
We’re going to Florida in May. It will be hot. And flat. I think I’ll get some running in while I’m there. Even if it has to be on the road.
After all, the flattest race on the calendar is at the end of May. Two hours or bust(ed calf)!
Image photo from Evergreen Trail Runs.