Not Just Another Race
The miles continued, with escalating hills, several creek crossings, and mud, mud, everywhere, mud! Just as the shoes were drying out to a crust, the orange flagging would force us through yet another slime pit, typically followed by an uphill “scramble” so steep that hands were either required for balance, or at times, needed to grasp at branches and trees trunks to prevent a downhill slide. The Garmin now showed 8:20 per mile average, but I didn’t throw the watch away, continuing to defy the race director’s instructions. There must be some flat sections or downhills to average out the slow pace of what was now becoming nothing less than a grueling struggle with nature. Finally, at 4.5 miles, the course wound gently downhill, then opened up onto a tame, gravel road. The pace quickened, and the hearts of my nearby competitors were visibly lifted. Then it came into view…..an 8-feet deep natural pond surrounded by wetlands, perfect for hikers, photographers, nature lovers, and triathletes, but somewhat disconcerting for runners..and what was that dock for?. Although I was initially planning on taking the 1/3-mile penalty lap around the pond, I was overcome by peer pressure (how silly of me at my age), and took the icy plunge into deep water, estimated at below 60 degrees, or at least well below comfortable swimming pool temperatures. Fifty yards later, gasping for breath, yet strangely refreshed, I heaved myself out of the water, once again stepping in mud up to my knees. My nearest competitor, also in my age group, comforted me with “that wasn’t so bad, was it?” Fortunately, after the “swim,” there was a brief respite from the topography, with a moderately gentle incline to the next swath of forest, including the only civilized and paved section of the run. This allowed for about 200 meters of drying time before the next phase.
More of the same followed for the next two miles: scenic woodlands, hills, single-track trails, navigating through brush, straining to see the next piece of pink or orange flagging, and taking a wrong turn (but correcting it before too much damage ensued). Then came the final mile, when the legs had already been beaten to a pulp. Another steep climb, mostly walking, but strangely, no runners gaining on me from behind….everyone was in the same condition at this stage of the race. Now, at about 7.3 miles, the race began! After a welcome downhill in a meadow-like setting, the trail veered sharply back into the woods, up a steep hill, and then over two military-style pole barriers, the first only about 5 feet high, and the second over our heads. After the barriers were successfully scaled, breathing a sigh of relief, a downhill provided a needed rest, but then a sharp left turn was required, taking runners off the trail and straight into a rocky creek bed. “Yes, stay in the water!” yelled the spotters, almost joyfully. I looked at the Garmin….over 8:50 per mile now. Then another spotter shouted “aha, another victim!” followed by “get down, don’t hit your head on the bridge!” I found myself crawling on my knees through the cold water of the rushing creek, under a footbridge barely 1 ½ feet high (and I did hit my head), then was promptly attacked by tough briars that wouldn’t let go of my legs and running shorts, and cost me some blood and another precious few seconds. Over 9 minutes per mile on the watch now, and still concerned about time and pace…..yet I didn’t throw it away.
The last ¾-mile was deceiving, appearing rather open, gentle, and inviting, but what was gentle at the beginning of this odyssey was no longer after the quads and hamstrings had been hammered to a pulp by hills, creeks, hay bale climbs, water, swamps, mud, and various barriers and obstacle devised by cunning race planners. Finally, into the horse corral near the finish, the spectators were enthusiastic, although they insisted and cajoled each runner to jump the barriers (intended for horses, not humans), not just step over them. There was thunderous applause as I complied with their wishes, and from there, it was easy….through the horse barn, with large curious eyes staring from the stalls, maybe retired racers themselves……..8:56/mile on the Garmin at the end, but I no longer cared.