I ran, and won, this marathon last year but due to heavy snow and rain in the weeks proceeding it last year it was moved to the roads. So, while I ran it last year, this year was truly my first "trail' marathon and I had no idea what I was in for.
So my plan was maybe 7:30 for the first half and 7:15 for the second if I felt good. That is a minute slower than my marathon PR and about 25 seconds slower than I have been doing long runs in this cycle. This goes to show my inexperience with trails.
We started right on time and in fact it caught me a little off guard. I was just kind of hanging out chatting with Hannah, who was running the 24k, and all of a sudden I see the front of the pack start to organize and we are off. I'm a Pearl Izumi ambassador, know as a ChamPIon. As part of the deal we get some gear to wear at races. One of the shirts we got is super visible and very recognizable and I spot 1 near the front of the pack. I make it my goal to catch up with this guy and find out who it is.
The first and last 2 miles of the race are on the road getting to the trail from the start and getting back to the town of Grand Rivers for the finish. The rest of the course is an 11 mile trail called "Canal Loop." While I am no trail runner, I would expect that this trail would be considered "technical" since switchbacks, tree roots, rocks, creek crossings, and dead fall were in no short supply.
I cruised through the first 2 miles to the trail steadily picking up the pace. I ran right around 7:00 for the second mile and felt great. I got to the trail right around 2 miles and the pace dropped as expected. once on the trail it was 95% or more single track. I fell in line behind a couple of other guys that were also running the marathon distance. In the first couple of miles the trail was hard packed and I felt like I could have run faster but it was hard to pass and with my inexperience I wasn't sure if I should so I just sat tight in that position trying to figure things out.
After a few miles I started getting frustrated with the pace and wanted to pick it up some. I found a decent place to pass, called it out and went around off the trail. The trail hadn't been super difficult to this point and I was still feeling good plus I knew I wanted to catch up to Pearl Izumi guy.
The trail seemed to constantly ascend and descend with no real flat sections and after 4 or 5 miles on the trail i realized that 7:30 would not be a conservative pace and I start lowing my expectations and doing math. As I said I think the trail would be considered technical and as such I kept my eyes mostly on where my feet are landing trying to avoid rocks and roots and making sure I clear any dead fall. In the early miles of the race I was trying to keep my shoes dry by being precise with foot strikes near puddles, muddy sections, and creek crossings. I would give up on that entirely in the latter miles.
|Around mile 7.5 and still mostly clean|
In a road marathon I am cognizant of every mile. I always know were I am. With most of my concentration being on trying to stay upright on the trails though my awareness of the distance was more vague. I think somewhere around mile 10 I finally catch Pearl Izumi guy and we exchange names and talk a little. He is Troy from Louisville. He seems to be a pretty experienced trail and ultra marathoner and I find out he's running the 50 mile race. I comment on the fact that his pace is pretty nice especially for a 50. (Troy ended up winning the 50 mile race in a little over 7 hours)
|My wife recognized the shirt and got a picture of Troy, another Pearl Izumi Champion, who went on to win the 50 mile.|
I run behind him for a few miles but notice that I am really getting on his heels on the ascents. My pace just keeps slipping and I again grow frustrated. I find a decent place to pass, call it out and try to slide by without contact. My inexperience shows again though as I bump into him.
We reach the second half of the loop and the trail seems to get more difficult. The footing is not near as good, the inclines seem steeper, the switchbacks more frequent.
Its not long before I realized the pass was selfish and a mistake. While on any thing resembling flat or uphill I am fine, I don't have the skill to bomb the descents and he apparently does as I can hear and feel how much my hesitation on them is messing with his rhythm. He's very cool about it though and doesn't say a word. Finally I ask him to please pass and he does.
We hit the beginning of the second loop and I could tell that the footing had gotten much worse after everyone had been through once. My legs were starting to get pretty fatigued and I knew it was going to be a long second loop. My mind started to look ahead at how far was left. I knew that was a mistake and this is where the trail really helped. It was much easier to refocus my mind on the here and now with the ever changing trail, the challenge of landing my feet on the clear over and over again and whatever scenery I was able to take in.
I was still behind Troy but now when I got close to him on the ascents I was happy to just back off. I didn't want to get upfront again because when we hit a descent he was flying down it while I was taking it very cautiously.
Not much to say about the second half except to emphasize how bad the footing got in some places. Also, my Garmin was really having trouble measuring accurately and as such had my pace much slower than it actually was. I say this because I really was getting mentally beat up seeing paces as slow as 10:00 and 12:00 minute miles. The prospect of a time greater than 3 hours and 30 minutes just really beat me down. At this point that's where I thought I would wind up.
About mile 20 (according to my Garmin so really more like 21 or 22) we hit a humongous patch of mud. Running was a real struggle and it was all I could do to remain upright. Again my inexperience showed. I couldn't get through this patch running and actually had to stop and walk just to stay on my feet. Troy, on the other hand was able to blast through and that was the last I saw of him.
My metal game was gone at this point and I was feeling pretty defeated. It looked like I was looking at 3:45 if I could even get back into it somehow. Then, all of a sudden I'm back at the road with a sign pointing me back toward town to the finish line. From the course description I should have only had 2 miles to go but my watch is right at 23 miles. So I must have read the course description wrong. Another metal beating.
My mind was shot, my legs were shot, my spirit was nearly defeated. I saw my wife and daughter at this point and it lifts me a little but I was struggling bad and the boost didn't last. All I want to do is walk but I couldn't let them see me walk. They drive past toward the finish and I think "once they are out of sight, I'm walking." My wife pulls over and get some more pictures. My legs die and I walk anyway.
|On the roads heading to the finish. I was really struggling here.|
Hannah knew what was going on with the Garmin since she had run the 24k and yells out the window that my turn is right up the road. I find the strength to run again and hit the turn. It was about a minute after the turn until I could see the clock. That was the most welcome sight in a long time. I can see enough to know I'll get in under 3:30 and I am happy and pick up the pace as much as I can to try and somehow finish strong.
3:27:26 and 4th overall. My slowest marathon by over 13 minutes but given that it was on a trail with mud and hills and roots and hard passing and given that I am just really getting my marathon strength back after an injury sidelined me for 8 weeks completely and various other issues minor injuries have kept me from training consistently since the end of September, I'll take it.
I learned a lot. Trails ain't roads, descending is harder the ascending (at least for me), a Garmin can't be trusted in the woods on trails with lots of switch backs. I also learned that while I do love running fast on the roads, there is a part of me that loves the trails too and I'll be looking for more trails to run.