I won my first race of 2017 last weekend, a 5k trail race, coming in first for females and 6th overall. I went in with a goal of placing top three in my age group, but that was before I knew what the field looked like. At the starting line, I looked around and realized that as one of the only women toe-ing the starting line, I would probably place in the top three, but didn’t set my heart on first.
After I moved to Houston, I started researching trail race opportunities, and landed on the Trail Racing over Texas (TROT) website. They hold a number of races throughout the year, including many ultras, and participation in them gains runners points towards the “TROT cup”. I was intrigued by that point system, anticipating that it was a good motivator to both keep me accountable to race often with TROT, and to work hard to place when I did, as points are graded both by distance and by the difference as a fraction of your time over the winning time. The points are also graded for race distance, so the formula they use is
your time/winners time * race factor + additional (volunteer, etc…) points = total
I won my race, but the factor for a 5k is .62, so I gathered a whopping .62 points. The factors for racing progress up to 20, for a 100 miler, so you can see the futility in maybe trying to win the overall points game with low mileage races, but I still feel like it’s a good accountability scheme to keep me racing consistently.
The night before the race I was worried. At this point I wasn’t concerned so much with what my performance would be as I was with the overall safety of conditions of the course. It had been raining all week, and the race director had sent out an email Thursday describing the course conditions, using the word “snot” more than once to describe the terrain, but also letting us know that the race was on no matter what. So as a final deluge assaulted southeast Texas Friday night, I mulled over the probability of falling during the race, fearful of doing something to my ankle again. I put together my race kit, and told myself if things were terrible I would just walk.
Driving south of Houston to the race in the morning, at Jack Brooks Park in Hitchcock, the fog was thick, and marquees along the highway read “Severe Weather Alert” and “Turn Around, Don’t Drown”. I wondered if the weather had left things really bad down towards the coast, and I wondered if I was being stupid by going out at all. It had stopped raining, but reports the night before had also mentioned the possibility of tornados. On I drove. After the race, I would find that the marquees read the same thing for travelers headed north, so it was more so a warning against driving than heading to any particular place.
When I got to the course, a 50k had already been going for a while, and a 25k was just starting. A 10k would head out next, followed finally by the 5k I was running. So the course would be really churned up, as the ultra runners were doing multiple loops of a course that coincided with the 5k loop. Oh, well. I visited the merchandise table, and was pretty impressed with what I found. TROT isn’t stingy with their logo, putting it on all sorts of flattering and wearable pieces, and there was another clothing line presented, “No Fine Print”, which they had a really cool logo/design theme, promoting the freedom associated with integrating recreational life with the great outdoors. My favorite shirt from that line features a cross-section of a tree trunk spliced with a constellation graphic- pretty cool, you can see it here.
As I loitered near the starting line to see the 10k off, I lucked into a chat with someone who had run the course the day before. He let me know about a few things that became really helpful right from the start of my race-
- Just run straight through the puddles. Nothing under there had made him trip.
- There were some steep inclines, and the best chance of getting up them was to build up speed on the approach and shoot up.
- The slickest parts of the race were around the turns, and not to run across the wood bridges and ramps that appeared on the course (the park is used frequently by mountain bikers and there are some ramps along with frequent small hills).
For my warm-up, I knew I wouldn’t be running all that fast, so I jogged a mile on the side of the road, to wake my ankles up to squishy, uneven terrain. I did a couple stride-outs as well. As I was walking back up to the starting area, a young kid asked me if I had run the race before. I told him that I hadn’t, but relayed the information that I had just gotten about the puddles and inclines to him and his father. I asked him about his experience, and he said it was his first trail race, but that he had done triathlons before, which was impressive because he couldn’t have been older than eleven or twelve.
As I lined up at the starting line, I took note that most of the women my age were hanging towards the back, and that not many of the racers were wearing trail shoes. The more competitive and experienced athletes at this race were in the longer distances, which I was fine with. I just wanted to challenge myself this time out, but now knew I had a good chance to place top three and decided to go out strong. I had a trail race a few years ago in which I got trapped into a conga line when the course narrowed to single track, and I didn’t want that to happen again. Luckily when I got on the course I realized that opportunities for stepping off the path to move around runners in the woods is not the same as in the mountains, where you have drop offs and cliff walls keeping you in place.
The gun went off, and 4-5 women raced out and were ahead of me the first half mile, which was mostly open road. I checked my watch and I was running a 7:15, which was fine for my racing normal conditions, and I knew the course would slow me down substantially once I was on it and give me a chance to recover. The other competitors in front of me were still close, so I just kept up with them until I felt comfortable passing.
When we got to the first big puddle of standing water, about 10 meters long, a kid in front of me tried to go around it, and I yelled to him that he could just run straight through without worries, as I had been directed, and he followed suit after I passed him. The puddles weren’t all that bad. They were pretty long though, and the last one I ran through was over 100 meters. What was borderline obnoxious was the thick slick mud that made up the windy path. It was mentally taxing to try and judge how fast you could take a turn without having your feet slide out to the sides, and I began to see people falling. I had trouble with my first bike ramp I came across, because like an idiot I tried to go over it instead of just running next to it. I quickly scrambled off when I realized there was no need to add obstacles to the route, and continued on. The path continued to switch between thick, squishy mud and standing water, with only sparse patches of solid-ish ground. The most exciting part of the race for me was when I crested a small hill, to find another in front, with people struggling to climb up it. As I still had not descended, I took a moment to decide how to proceed, then flew down the first slippery hill as fast as safely possible, and used the momentum to fly up the next hill and past the other runners, who were grasping on to trees and such to pull themselves up. It was exhilarating.
When my watch beeped for mile two, I cursed that I still had a mile left of “this sh*t” but then thought of the fact that the last half mile was out of the woods and less treacherous. I was still running just ahead of or just behind a teenage girl, as we kept switching places. I still thought there was yet another woman in front of us. We emerged from the woods together, on a straight, almost solid path that ran along a canal. Arriving there gave me fresh motivation, and I charged off, leaving her further and further behind. I was wondering if even though I hadn’t been able to run too fast during the race, if I still hadn’t been working hard enough because I felt pretty good. Within that last half mile, though, I realized I didn’t want to take another step and felt ok about my effort. I crossed the finish line and was handed a couple medals, and they told me I was the first female to cross the finish line. I was surprised, and felt good, as this had not happened in my adult racing career.
I checked my time- 40 minutes 20 seconds, over 18 minutes slower than my PR in a road 5k. That’s more than 12 minutes per mile, almost twice my ideal 5k pace. So I don’t really know how to factor that into my overall racing profile, but I took some personal notes on my mental attitude and physical effort, which were what I set out to guage anyways.
Here’s what I found:
- Appropriate warm up
- Didn’t give in to fatigue (slow down or walk)
- Good kick (but this was pretty easy considering how slow I had to run most of the course)
- I DIDN’T FALL ONCE!
- Got a little whiney in my head about the conditions
- Was too timid at first to pass people
- Gear inappropriate- I brought my handheld water bottle out, and it would have been helpful to have both hands available in places I had to pull myself up using trees/roots.
All in all, it was great to win, and it gave me motivation to attack my speed training before the next race I run, which will be a road 5k. I already did an interval workout this week, alternating 5k pace x 1 min + recovery jog x 1 min. It looks like I’m still hanging on to that 7:15 pace, which I’d like to bring down. My fastest 5k is a 22:54, so breaking 22 this year is likely within reach. The next race isn’t until Feb 10th, so I have opportunity to improve.