The humbling experience of having your ass kicked by a trail race

Check out that post-race dirt line! SEXY.

Isn’t this always the way?  You come off of one of your greatest triumphs, feeling like you can take on the world with one hand tied behind your back, only to fall flat on your face.  It’s like the universe senses my hubris and issues a swift kick in the butt to keep me back in line.  Or am I the only one who experiences this?

Anyway, this happens to me all the time, with the most recent occurrence taking place yesterday.  Brian and I had signed up to run the XTERRA Wild Horse Trail Half-Marathon in Dover a few weeks ago, thinking it would be a fun trail race in a pretty, rural part of Florida, a nice way to let our legs recover from the pounding we’d give them the weekend before.

I mean, after all, the website described the race as trails with a few sections of off-trail running, which the race organizers described as “unconventional” and “a little different.”  We like unconventional and we like different, so we paid our race fee and showed up at the race start early Sunday morning.

Right away I noticed some differences between road racing and trail racing.  Take the shoes – trail running shoes tend to be darker in color (all the better to disguise the mud) and they have sturdier soles.  Even the barefoot shoes are like this.  Plus, trail runners often wear gaiters that keep rocks out of their shoes, and they wear compression sleeves to protect their legs.

The biggest difference, though, is in personality and demeanor.  Serious road racers can often seem like militaristic monks, their lean, muscled bodies doing stride after stride in teeny little racing flats.  In comparison, trail runners seem like wild-eyed hippies.  They are no less serious about their sport than the road racers, but they are definitely a bit kookier, and I like that. (All kinds of runners seem like flower children on heroic doses of LSD when compared to triathletes.)

For the first mile or so, I was enjoying myself, thinking I could definitely see myself as a trail runner.  Of course, this wasn’t your average trail run, as the folks at XTERRA pride themselves on designing events that are like races hopped up on steroids and psilocybin mushrooms.  I figured that out as soon as I found myself practically reverse-rappelling up the face of a steep hill, then running along single-track marked by fluorescent orange flags while trying to avoid tree branches and roots sticking out of the grass.

Then we came to another spot where we had to rappel down a steep hill, then leap across a stream before heading off onto another half-mile or so of single-track.  I wasn’t expecting any of that, but it was fun and I didn’t mind.

Eventually we hit the first part of the wide trail we had actually expected to run on, and so we tried to make up a bit of time. Brian was feeling antsy because we were going hella slow, so we tried to push it.  However, all of the side-to-side and jumping had left me with a sore spot in the side of my left quad, and I wasn’t quite able to run the way I normally do.

For the next couple of miles, we switched between the wide trail, which was evidently frequented by horse-riders (as evidenced by the huge piles of horse crap we had to leap over), and the single-track.  The day was beautiful and overcast, and Brian and I had left our iPods at home so we could really immerse ourselves in the experience of being in nature.  (No, we did not sing “Kumbaya” and no, we do not wear patchouli.)

I kept noticing all of these weird little aches I’d never experienced before, and I was able to put them aside – until we hit a huge pond and had to traverse the “moguls.”

The moguls are basically a series of crevasses that ring the hydrilla-choked pond.  No sane person would look at the moguls and say, “Looks great for a race!”  A mountain goat is perhaps best equipped to handle the moguls, but I think that even the dimmest mountain goat would have taken one look at the moguls and peaced out.

Yet, there was a string of orange flags and streamers, instructing us to make our way through them.

So for the next twenty minutes, we jumped and slid down into the bottom of the crevasses, then scrambled up the other side using exposed roots and tree trunks as hand-holds, then slid back down and scrambled back up.  Over and over and over again, we did this, until finally we reached one last downhill that took us to a field of muck, traversable only thanks to a series of car tires placed across the narrowest section.

We tip-toed to the other side, clinging to mossy tree branches and thick ropes of vine, only to be greeted by more moguls.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” I said out loud, causing someone behind me to laugh.

We finally emerged from that part of the course, covered in dirt like some sort of strange race of athletic swamp people, and tried to run again.  By this time, my quad was cramping and my lower back was aching.  I also noticed that a thread had been pulled out of the ankle of my hot-pink Thorlo sock, which almost caused me to have a Cher Horowitz-style meltdown:  “They made me climb up dirt hills and jump over a stream and walk through muck, and they forced me to ruin my Thorlos.

And then I realized the worst part of all, which was that I was going to have to do all of this all over again.  When we hit the water table and learned we were only at mile six, I very nearly took a DNF.  I have never, ever taken a DNF but this just about did it for me.

My attitude was shit, there’s no way around it.  It was so shit that Brian picked up on it, and bless his heart, tried to do everything he could to motivate me.   “Let’s run fast on the trails,” he said.  “You know we can do that.”  He was right; that was something I could do.  I perked up for a while as we headed back for a few more miles of single-track and horse trails, but as soon as we hit those moguls again, I nearly burst into tears.  I choked back the sobs by telling myself that there was no way Catra Corbett or Kami Semick would cry at mile nine of a race.  What was I, some kind of pansy?

We made our way through again, scrambling up and down like filthy alpinists, and at one point I realized my brain was saying over and over again, “This is hard…this is hard…this is hard…”  like a mantra of obviousness.  It was a factual statement, but it was also completely not helpful.  So I changed my mantra around and started saying, “You are doing this because it’s hard.”  This is also a factual statement, but it is way more helpful, because it reminds me that I chose to do this and that I wanted to do it.  (I know, I know – it’s absurd that my life’s philosophy has become to seek out the hardest shit I think I can possibly do, and that it’s a set of guidelines that runs completely counter to everything that we have been evolutionarily programmed to do.  But what can I say?  I like to do difficult things.)

Brian had suggested I use the moguls as forced-recovery time, but I couldn’t, because I had to use my entire body to get through them.  When we finally emerged the second time – this time, having navigated an expanse of exposed barbed wire in the dirt – I was completely out of breath and needed to walk.

When we hit mile ten, Brian and I had a bit of a tiff that was, in retrospect, completely my fault.  I was tired and sore and hot, and I was not at my best.  So he took off ahead of me, and I began lumbering my way along the trails, running at a pace that can best be described as a forward-lurch.  By this time, my quad was throbbing, my left hamstring was cramping up and both of my ankles were aching.  I felt like a seventy-five year old woman with arthritis, but still, I kept moving.

I met up with a woman named Uta, who was struggling with a knee issue, and I told her I was going to stick with her for the last few miles.  We chatted sometimes but mostly we ran in silence together, and occasionally we engaged a woman named Allison in conversation.  Allison was preparing for some of the ultra-trail races that happen around here, and talking to her reminded me that if I ever want to complete an ultramarathon, I am going to have to learn how to suck up pain and agony and boredom and push myself through all of those things.

Finally, we hit the last mile or so, which was entirely on grass, and we hobbled across the finish line.  No kick, no big smiles, just huge waves of relief breaking over me like an emotional tsunami.  The clock display read 2:49.  It had taken me over an hour longer to do this half-marathon than the one I’d run the previous weekend.  I was crushed.

I spent the rest of the day in bed, reading “The Lonely Polygamist” on my Kindle and playing The Sims Social on Facebook.  I was so tired and sad and deeply disappointed in myself.  It wasn’t about my time, which, let’s be honest, is not comparable to any road half-marathon I’ve ever done, but more about my attitude.  How was I ever going to run a 50K on trails if a half-marathon nearly broke me?

In the light of morning, though, my attitude changed.  Brian and I spent an hour talking about the race – what had worked, what didn’t – and I realized that I was actually glad I’d run that crazy half-marathon.  It was hard, and it hurt and sometimes it sucked, but I learned a lot.

I learned that fear and doubt will always be part of me, and that I will always have to fight against them if I want to succeed.  I learned that I still have a long ways to go when it comes to negative self-talk (sorry to get all psychobabble here but it’s the only way I know how to describe it).  I also learned that I do have the ability to reframe my thinking, and that even if I can’t crush the thoughts before they happen, I can recognize what I’m doing and turn it into something positive.

And maybe most importantly, I learned that even when shit sucks worse than it has ever sucked before, I do not quit.  I saw this in February, when I took part in a racing challenge that had me covering 30 miles in two days, and I saw it again yesterday.  Who cares that I was sore and slow and fussy like a baby with a dirty diaper?  What matters is that I didn’t quit.

I’ve said it before and I will probably keep saying it until I die, but I learn just as much from my “failures” as I do from my successes.

And hey, next time I decide to take part in an XTERRA event, at least I’ll know what to expect.  Because there will  be a next time. Oh yes, there will.

3 responses to “The humbling experience of having your ass kicked by a trail race

  1. Trail running is ridiculously hard I’m really impressed you attempted a half marathon. My friend did a trail half years ago while training for the marathon in this part of Michigan that’s absolutely rugged wilderness and the hills, my god the hills. Anyway her and a group of people she was running with took a wrong turn that cost them and additional 4 miles!!! At that point she was ready to quit but being out in the middle of nowhere…you can guess what happened. 🙂

    • Thanks! Yes, it was ridiculously hard and I’m not sure I would have signed up for it had I known what was in store. Of course, now I’m glad I did it, and I would probably do it again.

      I am totally feeling for your friend and her co-runners. I can’t imagine tacking an extra four miles onto a ROAD race, let alone a trail race in the middle of nowhere, with hills and stuff. It’s good that she didn’t quit, because damn, I would have been so tempted had I been in her shoes.

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