Today was my first attempt at a trail race, running the Wildcat 10K, put on by Brazen Racing. It fit nicely into my scheduled trip to the Bay area, and my friend Bem had often said great things about Brazen, so I decided to sign up. The main question for me was whether to run a 5K or 10K, since although I can easily run a 10K on flat land, the hilly course here was going to be a challenge. I decided to follow the rule of "when in doubt, pick the more challenging option" and signed up for the 10K.
I ordered breakfast in my hotel to come between 6 and 6:30, figuring this would wake me up in time for the race. After breakfast, I drove to the race location, where I met up with Bem and some of his racing friends, and eventually with Alex and his friend Mark. Bem and Alex were running the half-marathon, while Mark was doing the 10K with me.
Bem explained to me that the key to this type of race is to walk up the hills; the announcer at the start also recommended this approach. Emotionally, it felt kind of disappointing, because being able to run long distances without having to walk feels like one of my biggest accomplishments over the last year, but rationally, it was obviously the right strategy. The race started with a big uphill climb and it was obvious that everyone was walking rather than running, so any bad feelings about walking quickly evaporated.
They were quickly replaced by bad feelings from my legs, which were complaining about having to lug my body up hills for the second day in a row (on Friday, I went on a two-hour bike ride from San Francisco to Sausalito and back). The first mile had about 450ft of climbing (according to RunKeeper); this was definitely not the Midwest! Despite walking, my heart rate stayed in the 160s the whole time.
What goes up must come down and soon there was a descent. I made up a lot of time here by switching to a super-fast cadence and holding on for dear life. Things flattened out a bit and I got to see some cows!
I stopped at the first aid station long enough to drink two cups of water and the continued on my way. My stomach did feel a bit unsettled for a while and I wondered whether eating breakfast and/or having so much water was a mistake. I also felt like my muscles weren't responding very well and I was barely moving, but whenever I'd look down at my iPhone, it showed me running around a ten-minute mile, which I thought was pretty good considering.
By the third mile, I settled into a comfortable rhythm, with a nice 3-2 breathing pattern. The course was fairly flat for a while and I felt much more in my element. By the time I got to the second aid station, I was feeling pretty optimistic about the race: I was halfway done, and my average pace was somewhere around 12 minutes / mile, which I thought pretty respectable given the hills. This line of reasoning had just one flaw. See, I had in my mind this elevation profile for the race:
So I had finished the easy half, with all of the hard work still ahead. Even though I wasn't feeling super thirsty, I drank a cup of Ultima Replenisher (which actually tasted pretty good; not too sweet, like I feared), which turned out to be a very good idea given what lay in store for me:
I started hiking up the hill and watched that average pace drop to 13 minutes, then to 14 minutes, then to 14 and a half. I kept having the experience of reaching the crest of a hill, settling into an easy trot on the downhill while catching my breath, only to turn and see more climbing ahead! It was kind of demoralizing. The only consolation I had were the gorgeous views of hills (and more cows!):
After an hour, I had only made it through about 4 and a quarter miles, and I felt mentally ready to be done. At one of the final crests, there was a nice bench where you could sit down, take a load off, and take in the views and man, was it ever tempting!
Finally, it was time to start the long descent. By this point in time, my legs just didn't want to move, so I ended up having to go much slower this time. Probably a good idea, too: another runner passed me on a downhill and then ended up falling not too far ahead. (She was OK.) There were a couple of small upticks nestled in the descent, and I ended up nearly crawling up them. Somewhere in my mind I thought that it would be nice to finish within an hour and a half, or end with a sub-14-minute pace, but not enough to do any real sprinting to the finish. It did feel nice when the announcer called my name as I crossed the finish line, but it was even nicer knowing that I was finally done!
I picked up my finisher's medal and saw Mark, who had finished about 8 minutes ahead of me and looked to be holding up much better. Then I started the replenishment cycle. I am off my low-carb diet this week so I got to pig out on all of the tasty post-race treats. I saw Bem finish his half-marathon, looking salty and happy. I did not stick around to see Alex finish since I needed to go check out of my hotel.
1:30:42 (14:10 pace, since the course was 6.4 miles)
11/16 age group, 91/161 overall
Overall, I'm not sure how I feel about this experience. Dragging your body uphill is a pretty different feeling than pushing your pace while racing on flat ground; they both involve fighting through exhaustion, but I think you get a much better endorphin reward with the latter, and the fact that you are moving rather than crawling makes it emotionally more satisfying. Then again, it could be that I'm just not used to going up hills at all and my body is responding in kind. So I'm not ready to write off trail racing yet, but I think next time I'll try to find one with less elevation gain and get more rest ahead of time.