Last Saturday I popped my half marathon cherry. But if, in this metaphor, my legs are a vagina, then the penis equivalent for this race was a 16-inch long, frozen, studded dildo. Simply put, that shit hurt but it felt really good.
Beloved former college teammate Wes Fuhrman drove up from Portland to join me for this year's Hillbilly Half Marathon out in the Capitol Forest. (As a quick aside, I'd like to give a shout out to Guerilla Running for not only putting on such a legitimately grueling and genuinely interesting race, but also for donating over $2000 to local trail-related services.)
Going into the race my training had been solid for an old, cubicle-dwelling borderline alcoholic like myself, but I would consider it suspect for a man of my pride and expectation. After six months on and off struggling to run more than twice a week in Seattle, I had put in two months of relatively consistent 30-35 mile weeks complete with a handful of runs over 10 miles and even a few track and hill workouts.
My training was nothing amazing, but enough to slowly bring my average training run pace from 8 minutes in December down to a smidge over 7 at the end of February. Highlights included an 11-miler at 7 flat pace and a 4.5 mile tempo run at 6:25.
Complicating things a bit further, I came down with strep throat the Tuesday night before the race and began a 10-day dose of antibiotics late Wednesday night. I stayed home from work Wednesday, Thursday and half of Friday, but thankfully felt significantly better on race day.
A couple of grizzled vets gear up for race day
Wes and I arrived a little over an hour prior to the start so we could sign a waiver, adapt to the morning weather, and poke around the area. After about 2/3 of a mile of walking, we discovered that the course didn't fuck around. There was a steep incline from the get-go, time to get mentally prepared for a march.
I knew I wasn't completely over my illness about 100 steps into the race. While we started out at a fairlyly pedestrian pace, the moment we turned up the hill I was gassed. Every step up was way harder than it should have been. I was exposed as a fraud by the first 100 feet of elevation gain, and ready to give up on my dream of a top 3 finish about a half mile later.
The logging road continued up and up, with two slight downhill drops, for a mile and a half before encountering an aid station and a right hand turn onto another mile and a half of single-track, the first half of which gained elevation at a sharper rate than the road. The game just kept getting realer.
Fortunately for me, the trails became physically ugly once the elevation gain stopped, flattening out for a little over a half mile and becoming less and less passable. Large, deep, frigid puddles covered the full width of the trail for meters at a time, requiring nimble toes and quick decision making to sneak around them. A decision to ford even one of the puddles risked the temporary loss of feeling to feet, ankles and knees. It was here that my running instincts and muscle memory kicked in, and I passed the two runners who had blown by my on the single track switchback and left them in the dust before turning on to another inclined gravel road, now covered in snow.
The elevation gain continued to kill me at every step, only now I was burdened by slushy traction in addition to the grade, which was only slightly negated by enjoying the beautiful ridgeline views and the fact that I could no longer hear footsteps behind me. I had created enough space between me and (then) 9th place to give me the courage to believe that as soon as we hit another batch of sloppy single-track trails I would be able to start picking people off instead of dreading that each step would just be one closer to being passed myself.
The good feelings continued through mile 5, when the snow kept getting deeper, the puddles more frequent, and my feet more and more numb. Every downhill risked a total yard sale-style fall on my ass and my attack of each puddle became slower and slower as the course curved, the legs fatigued, and the toes became less responsive.
Around mile 5.25 two middle aged guys passed me and, although I hung close to them for nearly two more miles, the leaders running the turnaround began flying by me well before I hit mile 6. I realized here that I was now in 10th place and looking at at least a 15 minute loss. It wasn't getting better.
The "out" half of the course left the trails for a final time a few hundred meters before the turnaround, only to tease you with an aid station followed by a straight-uphill stretch that you ran halfway up before turning around at a cone to head home. I hit the turnaround at 1:00:10. 2 hour pace. Dread.
Besides my slow time at the turnaround, I also realized that the next set of runners had crept on my pretty fiercely over the last mile, and by mile 7 they both passed me, relegating me to 12th overall, 11th for men. One place out of scoring for the La Sportiva Series. A mile later, they were long out of site.
At mile 7. 5 fatigue and cold were settling into my legs like a grizzly bar ready to hibernate--heavy, full and slow-- and even worse I had to dodge all the "going out" runners, who became more and more oblivious to on-comers as I reached the tail end of them.
The two-way traffic on a single track trail conundrum peaked around mile 8 when I was forced to jump full-legged into a puddle in order to avoid plowing into a pack of 6 women who were hugging the dry trail ridge at a walking pace. Against nearly all scientific odds, the depth at that location had to have been the deepest of the entire course, and my right leg went all the way to the bottom of my shorts. The subsequent left foot step was not much better.
Here I was, 5 miles to go, tired as fuck, and now I could barely feel my legs, let alone my feet which I hadn't felt for a whole mile because of the constant puddle fording that the single file trails required. 5 miles to go? 45 more minutes?
Despite the existential dread, I carried on knowing that once I hit mile 9.5 it would be mostly flat and downhill and, who knows, maybe even get a second wind.
The second wind never hit, and the final switchbacks were far steeper going down than I remembered them coming up. It was there, with 2 miles to go, that I achieved the feeling that maybe all marathoners get. I am going to finish this damn thing, and it is gonna feel fucking great!
Every single little step was effort once I turned onto the logging road (1.5 miles to go!) and every single little thought was focused on remaining willfully ignorant of the two remaining hills. When they came, by God it took every ounce to willpower to keep from walking.
But I did keep from walking and I gave the best impression of a sprint that I could in the last 100 meters.
Finishing time: 1:55:02
Derrrty Berrrd Pride
Wes ran a hell of a race, given that he trained even less than I did, finishing 4th in a little over 1:33. The only guys who beat him flew in from out of state and probably run 110 miles a week.
Here I am on March 11, a full 8 days later and I regret to announce that I haven't run a step since Saturday. My left foot and right knee are both ailing, the foot in particular. Better safe than sorry, so I reckon I'll spend a few more days drinking instead of running just to make sure I can have a viable comeback. It was a fun race, and I want to do more. Barring injury, I'm really hoping to do a few more trail races this spring and summer. If everything goes well, maybe I'll even get fit enough to compete for a win.