For the brief version, scroll to the bottom!
It was a typical cold December morning and about 300 of us gathered together around a fire, awaiting instructions for the Otter Creek Trail Race. Standing on the outer edge of the group with my buddy Rachel, I struggled to hear the race director but it was difficult with all of the excited chatter that surrounded us. My mind was racing even before my body could begin to—this was my first trail race and I was a special blend of excited and nervous! After completing 24 road races in the last three years, I could tell at this moment that THIS race was going to be different. The people were different, the vibe was different. I wanted to jump up and down because I could FEEL the difference and I loved it.
Fact: if you fuel up 15 minutes before a race, the race will not begin on time. The start time was 8:30 for this race but we didn’t actually start until 8:48. We had a short paved portion to run before reaching the trail and I was so happy to be moving—everything on me was frozen. I intentionally hugged the back of the pack. My goal was to run a conservative race early and get a feel for this trail and how the race is run and if it felt right later, I could pick up the intensity. There was a lot of stop and go early in the race and a lot of people were annoyed by this. I didn’t care at all—I knew I had 8 miles to go and I was in no hurry. It didn’t take long before the field spread and everyone settled into their comfort zone.
We found ourselves running through a beautiful white pine forest and if I hadn’t already loved trail running, I would have fallen for it at this moment.
Despite having such warm and tingly feelings, I was noticing the silence of my Garmin (where WAS that mile alert, anyway?) and I felt like I had run more than a mile so I checked—1.55 miles. I was a little surprised at the time and started to worry that I had gone out too fast, even though I felt alright. I decided to keep plowing ahead at the same speed, knowing that if I needed to walk at any point, I could. Trail runners aren’t as stubborn about that as road runners. We know that power-hiking, especially on steep uphill portions, will get you to the finish just as fast or faster than running—and it gives you a chance to enjoy the scenery a little, as well.
Between miles 2 and 3, I pass a man that I will encounter quite a bit during the race. We chat as I trot by and discover he is running the marathon. He seemed to be in his late 50’s or early 60’s if I had to guess and told me he had turned his ankle too many times on the course already and he wasn’t going to risk injury because he had another marathon to do in Springfield, Illinois the next day! I wished him luck and ran ahead…more on him later.
Soon after mile 3, everyone was well spread out but I could still hear people ahead and behind me. I could tell we were nearing Otter Creek because the trails and surrounding areas were either slick or pooling water in places. I come to one of only two switchbacks that I remember—and it wasn’t nearly as bad as the ones I’m used to running. I look down the trail a bit and I see two cute gals precariously circumnavigating a stretch of trail. I think, “Uh oh, must be pretty dangerous up there” and feel myself tense up, sensing impending danger. When I reach them, I quickly survey and realize it’s just a long muddy patch. I tell them I’m going to go on and pass them and just walk through the mud. As I pass, I hear, “Are you K-dot-Ash?” I turned around, almost stunned! It’s KarenC and M! I was very excited to meet them and they were even nicer than I expected! We run and talk for awhile but I realize it’s time for me to fuel up so I tell them to pass me. As they head on, and I eat my Fig Newmans (which were incredibly cold, by the way), I realize it’s pretty quiet around me. I enjoy the solitude, even while feeling a bit lonely. I also notice that I was starting to feel chilly again—a big signal that it was time to run again.
One thing that I was warned about prior to this race is how easy it is to get lost when trail racing. When you are trail running alone or with a buddy, you are more aware of your surroundings. But in a racing environment, it’s easy to just zone out and follow the person (or people) in your lead. One of my goals for this race was to be very observant and stay aware of the trail markings so as not to get lost. Halfway through mile 3, I made note of a flag and not more than 60 seconds later, I see the group in front of me piling up at the Creek. Before I reach them, I survey the area and attempt to locate the next orange flag but I have no luck. I reach them and some folks behind me appear as well and we all try to find our way back on course. I stop my Garmin during this time and forget to turn it back on after we see the steep climb to get back on course. I don’t notice this, however, until I’ve run more than a third of a mile.
After getting off course, there was a group of 5-7 runners that stayed together, sometimes playing “cat and mouse.” Included in this group was the man I met earlier—the marathoner, “Al.” He apparently does lots of back-to-back races and was a really nice guy. I looked him up after the race and it turns out he either looks a lot younger than he is or I’m a really bad judge of age—he was in his early 70’s!
Besides being a bit tired, I was probably paying more attention to the conversation than my footing and I found myself losing balance and about to stumble—but NO! I caught myself and felt like a superhero in slow motion! I was very proud of my save and happily took my next step to be on my merry way. And then “BAM!” There half my body lay in the mud. I recovered clumsily and fought the urge to look around to see if anyone saw me.
Beyond mile 5, we were told to follow the course to the “Blue Hole,” where there was an aid station. The two runners that had been behind me most of the race went on without taking this part of the course—this peeved me but I was too worried about finding a bathroom to care for long. I passed a runner who was leaving the area to head back to the course and she informed me that there were no bathrooms. Bummer. I ended up leaving a “donation” for Otter Creek. I also filled my bottle with a little HEED and some water, tightened up my laces and went on my way, but not before seeing Rachel, KarenC and M again!
The trail became multi-track here and again, I found myself alone. I felt decent after the break and tried to keep up the pace, but this didn’t last long. The course became littered with many more hills as we approached the Ohio River. Some hills I felt good enough to power up, others I was forced to hike. A little over 6 miles in, I was totally spent and had completely hit the wall, physically and mentally. Still alone, I decided to pop a GU and keep plowing up the looong hill. My heart was beating so hard that I could hear each “thump” pulsing throughout my body. This portion presented a 376 foot elevation gain and despite the exhaustion I felt, I was aware of my beautiful surroundings and felt it necessary to take a few pictures.
Nearing mile 7, we were met with breathtaking views of the bend of the Ohio River. I remembered hiking this several years ago, but somehow, I appreciated the view a bit more today.
Here was also where I was passed for the first and only time by a runner who had completed the loop once already. I was surprised that this was the only runner to do so. Moments later, I approached the runners that had “cheated” and skipped the Blue Hole. I thought “Ha! That’s what you get!” I looked at my Garmin, realized I had about a mile left (I thought!) and decided now was the time to run trails the way I like to run trails. I took off, zig zagged and had a blast. I was on auto-pilot. I wasn’t thinking about my next step, I was just landing them and I felt amazing. This was my fastest mile of the race and the fastest mile I’ve run on trails in over a year.
I continued on and saw two women who looked exhausted. As I passed them, they asked if I knew how far we were. I told them about my Garmin mishap but estimated we were a little over 8 miles. I had no idea how much further we’d have to go but I kept powering ahead, knowing the finish had to be near. I caught a view of a tent (another aid station) and the volunteer told me if I was running the 8 that I needed to hang a left to finish. LEFT! It was pavement again and boy, that felt strange. I ran past the parking area and saw what I believed to be my Mom’s car but I hadn’t expected her to show up. I kept running in and saw her standing at the last turn. She told me that they asked her to direct the runners to the finish because the volunteer hadn’t shown up! Approaching the finish, I saw my time was nearing 2:09 and I was so happy! My secret goal was to finish 8 miles in 2:00, and I had done that!
The finish was great! Lots of positivity and excitement, even for a slow runner like myself. I was impressed that I didn’t even have to bend over to get my chip—they removed it for me! I was amazed at how much energy I still had, although my legs were aching. But I wanted to get back to Rachel! I waited a few minutes with Mom, cheered KarenC in and then decided to run back up to the aid station to see if I could see Rachel. I caught a glimpse of her turquoise jacket and saw that she was with M, too! They looked great and we ran into the finish and grabbed some beans and rice and some yummy brownies, courtesy of Rachel!
How I felt about this race:
It freakin’ rocked! All I could think of during the race was “why has it taken me three years to do this,” and “when’s my next trail race?”
I heard several people comment that they didn’t want to get their shoes dirty. Really? It’s a TRAIL RACE!
I only said “shit” once. That’s usually my word choice when I trip or fall.
I didn’t think I’d only get “looped” once. I figured several more runners would pass me.
I didn’t get nearly as dirty as I expected.
Though I am accustomed to running faster in road races than on training runs, I didn’t expect that to hold true for a trail race.
What I learned:
When you are running with 200-300 other people and stay at the back of the pack, you won’t see any wildlife. Not even a squirrel.
All of the rumors were TRUE about trail races. The people kick ass, the vibe is laid back but energetic and it truly was the most fun I’ve ever had racing, hands down.