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An Armchair Trailrunner No More: My First Race

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Chris Chaney · · Stanton, Kentucky · Joined Aug 2006 · Points: 1,713

I saw the sign next to the trail:

Mile 12

Ever fiber of my being wanted to begin my kick. I was on a downhill with a short creek crossing and insignificant climb out, then a gradual downhill, a short bit on the road and into Gladie Creek historic site to the finish. I wanted to kick. Actually there were some fibers of my being that didn’t want to kick. My energy was gone. My engine was boiling over and running hot; ready to ‘splode.

I was off my goal pace somewhat. Two hours and thirty minutes was what I wanted. When it was obvious I couldn’t make two forty-five I decided there was no way I was going to be over three hours. But then I had nothing left to push with. I could keep running but only just.

I passed a slower runner who was standing beside the trail. He then fell in right behind me and hung right off my heels. My brain didn’t have the energy to deal with someone passing so I pulled off to the side. He stopped in the trail.

“You can go on; I’ll follow you in.”

Exasperated I took off again. But then I realized I didn’t have to worry about him passing me. And when I came out of the woods at the Bison Way trailhead he was nowhere to be seen. I ran across the finish line alone. At 2:57:22.

I started in the first wave right on the dot at 8:00 am. It was almost anti-climactic. The bus ride up to the start from Stanton was long and stiffening. We only had twenty minutes to loosen up before the start. Three hundred people cued up for five porta-johns and hoped to void their bladders before their wave was released upon the sloppy trails of the Red River Gorge. I did the math. My bladder had no hope.

It’s good knowing the area. My warm up involved heading a few hundred yards down the unofficial Half Moon trail to a sizable tree, then a slow jog back doing high-steps, skips, and high kicks. I stretched some in the starting corral (somehow I had ended up in the first wave), and then we lined up. Before I had time to let my gut churn we were off.

My rigid plan went out the window as I ignored my first fueling cue when I turned onto Rough Trail. Nothing was settled in my gut. I grabbed a cup from the water station and sucked it dry. Then the singeltrack part of the race began. I stayed ahead of the second wavers who almost overtook me before the water station. The first big descent comes right away and I quickly caught up with some of the faster second wave racers before the initial steep part was behind us.

The field was bunched up until we reached Cuss Joe Hill. The fastest went on, running up the steep terrain, while the mere mortals like me who had been fortunate enough to fall into the early waves struggled with the ridiculously steep lower section of the Koomer Ridge Trail climb.

A steady effort seemed prudent so early in the day. It was already warm, I was already lagging, and the field had proved to be formidable enough to dash any hopes I had for accidental glory. When I reached the easier ridge section of Koomer I had finally sorted into a gap in the field. I was all alone as I raced toward the Buck Trail junction at my 11:00/mi pace.

My chest was heaving as I turned onto the familiar descent. Two runners had caught up with me, but when I dropped off the ridge the gap between us opened far enough that I didn’t even hear them behind me. Finally I my legs had loosened up, I was hitting my stride, and it seemed like there was some hope for me to finish strong.

An old acquaintance from my rock climbing days was the course marshal where Buck crosses Chimney Top Creek. She gave me a high five and said I was doing great. That actually put a spring in my step as I leapt deer-like from the cool waters of the stream onto the short flat section before the second gnarly climb of the day to gain Pinch Em Tight Ridge.

While Buck-U is technically easier than the Koomer Ridge climb it feels more brutal as there is little recovery between the two. And then after the crux low section was behind us the long gradual ridge climb to the Sheltowee junction was a relief and a strength-sapping deceiver. I knew this though, and only ran hard enough to slowly recover and slowly increase the speed.

When I heard Tomahawk in the distance I knew the next turn was close. He was marshalling at Buck Trail and Sheltowee/Rough.

“Hey Tommy!” I called before he could see me. I heard his cowbell clanging and smiled to myself. Then I heard other voices calling and more hands clapping. Tom had a lot of company at his station. The local SAR was there as well.

Anyway, I moved through just shy of a 12:00/mi pace, but I had a solid three miles of significantly easier trail ahead of me. Others knew it too. Along Pinch Em Tight Ridge I began getting passed by more and more people. They all looked fast. I knew they must have been from later waves.

I carved out a niche for myself just before the descent. I didn’t want to have to pass or be passed by anyone coming down from Pinch Em Tight. I knew I could make good time but it’s also a tight and tricky section. It went well. Near the bottom I caught up with a young lady and we actually chatted for a bit through the lower limestone band and out to the second crossing of Chimney Top Creek. That’s where the long flats begin and I took advantage of her hesitation at the second crossing, took the lead, and opened my throttle wide open.

It felt good to put out s strong and steady effort. No one passed me in that section and I felt like I could go on at that pace indefinitely. I reached the swinging bridge at mile 8 feeling solid.

Kipp caught up with me as I crested the brutal steep climb up to the road. We both paused at the water station on the other side. I was running low and wanted my hydration pack to carry me the final five miles so I needed that extra bit of fluid. We dumped our cups and as we started up the trail Kipp said he was going to walk and then we could run after the first hill. I was down with that up until the point when he took off running. I’d found my limit for the day.

The humidity felt heavy on me as we gained that initial hundred feet or so. It’s long and gradual before you get into a nice smooth section of contouring trail that seems to go on forever (FOR-ever). I’d crushed that section a week earlier on a training run. On race day I felt sluggish and weak. I had nothing to throw at the short hills. I kept up with Kipp for a little while, even passed him while he slowed to eat and drink a little, but then he passed me followed quickly by a group of four, and then I lost him for good.

My energy ebbed and surged through that long section. I made myself eat and drink. I kept hoping to see mile 10 and mile 11. Somehow I missed the 10 sign, but 11 was very welcome to see. It meant the last big climb was just around the bend. I held out hope that after the last climb along the ensuing mile and a half of descent I could kick hard.

I labored with a few other runners up the climb. That’s when my head started radiating heat, or gamma rays, or flames, or something. It was almost 11:00 am and the cold front that had been predicted to pass over us about that time had failed to make a showing. The sun beat us down as we climbed out of the still air under the canopy to the more open ridgetops. Even when I began the wicked steep descent after Indian Arch I didn’t feel much relief. Once the trail leveled out around about 11.5 miles I had nothing to give. I could only keep my feet moving in semblance of a race gait.

As we passed under the Frog’s Head overhang I dug a little deeper and found something. I kicked it up a notch. There was a young lady ahead of me that I just couldn’t catch, but I was determined not to lose sight of her either. I chased her for a half mile and then she was gone. When I turned on Bison Way, the final mile, I caught a glimpse of her down near the creek even as I heard footsteps coming behind me. Keeping ahead of a runner behind I knew a passing was coming once I started the super-short climb out of the small drainage to the final contouring section of Bison. I was right.

The short climb with its newly reconstructed steps took all of the life left in my legs and ground it away to nothing. I felt light-headed. After the first switchback I worried I would fall over the slope and back down on the trail below. When I turned the second switchback the runner that had passed me started running. I bore down on my wrung out sense of will and started running for the final push. That’s when I passed the stalled runner and he fell in behind me. That’s when I knew I had no energy left to kick with. That’s just before I could hear the announcer over the PA and the finish line crowd cheering in finishing runners.

Bison Way was slop. I took great care not to slip-n-slide. I just wanted it to be over, to feel the weight of the medal around my neck, and to fall down in the grass at Gladie Creek and die.

The finish was across the stone bridge , down through the grass, and up a loose gravel path with a short hill.

“C’mon, you can do it!” spectators were calling. I walked the hill until I could see the finish a few dozen yards hence. Boone stood grinning off to my left. I saw the finish clock: 2:56.

“Ah!” I gasped. And I ran.

I saw Mandy with the camera. I saw her point it at the finish as I passed her while attempting to grin. That might have been a mistake. I think the grin took the last of my energy. I basically walked across the line as the clock ran past 2:57:22. I was done.

It took everything I had to accept the cold washcloth from a volunteer and walk out of the way of the finish. People were calling out. I saw Kipp off to the side soaking wet from his efforts and I managed to let my grin go as I saw him hoping it would look like I had acknowledged his presence. He nodded at me and waved, banana pausing on its way to his mouth. My mind retched. My body had no juice to retch with.

I was past the chute and didn’t see Mandy. Boone had kept up with me so I sort of hugged him as he bumped into me. Then there was Lily, and Mandy, and we were all together again. I sat down hard on the cool ground by a tree despite Mandy’s protests.

“I have to,” I answered her admonishment not to stop moving.

She kept bringing the washcloth back to me with ice-cold water. And for an eternity that’s all my mind could process despite questions, comments, and suggestions from the peanut gallery. The external world and my internal dialogue was a cacophonous white noise that cancelled out everything I was feeling. I knew I should stretch. I wanted to get up. I wanted to watch others come across the line. I wanted to care about the world around me but I could not muster the energy to care about anything other than the presence or absence of that cold washcloth.

“Are you cooling down?” a voice asked.

Somewhere near the center of the spinning of my mind I answered: “I think I want to stand up.”

I didn’t know if I would cramp, if my legs would buckle, or if I would just topple over as soon as I got upright. Thankfully I was next to a substantial tree and used it to remain perpendicular to the earth until my mind was able to take over that task.

We managed to wander over to talk with Kipp, Dan, and Al—all local rock climbers—and only then did I started to feel like I was in the same time zone with normal again.

I was 75th overall out of 261 finishers. I was the 60th male finisher. In my age group (40-44) I was 6th.
For being my first ever trail race I was pretty happy with my results.

Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

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