Race Recap: Crazy Desert Trail Race

I decided to sign up for the Crazy Desert Trail Race because it was part of the Trail Racing Over Texas (TROT) series, I had already achieved a first place in their Horseshoe Trail Race, and I found the event really well organized and supported. I figured I should keep the momentum going, and see what I could do in another of their trail races. My one hesitation was that it is about a 7 hour drive from my home in Houston to San Angelo, Texas, where the race was being held at San Angelo State Park. I knew I wouldn’t be ready for a half-marathon, not an enjoyable one anyways, so I selected the 10k distance to make the long drive worth it. The other distances available were 100k, 50k, half-marathon, and 5k. I really like that TROT usually makes a variety of distances available.

 

My training for the race was not extreme. I did a couple of trail runs in the weeks leading up to the race, but I mostly just did easy runs. My overall focus right now is to build up my running base while escaping from the muck of chronic tendon & knee pain brought on by muscle imbalances. So, I run and foam roll, and I get sports massages, readying myself for some more intense speed work in the spring. The week leading up to the race I only ran twice, once on Monday, and I felt some nagging tendonitis trying to rear up. So on the recommendation of the trainer teaching my personal training course with NPTI, I took the rest of the week off until Friday, when I jogged a two slow miles to shake off some pre-race jitters.

 

Although I went over the race course that was sent out, even saving the route to my Garmin profile, I failed to note that the actual length of the course was 5.7 miles, not 6.2. This was not a big deal, but I’ll get to that later. The elevation climb looked mild, and I’ve been doing a grip of core work so I felt prepared to run the whole thing. If you aren’t used to running hills, the strain of keeping your torso relaxed and upright can be surprising, so make sure to do work that stresses the endurance capabilities of your core muscles.

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The Race:

Warm up: ½ a mile and some stride-outs. I decided to conserve energy instead of doing an overly thorough warm-up  (and as you can see, I consumed it as part o the process, too)

Gun & First Mile: 8:25

1592CAAA-D75D-4AA4-9539-EC44217E8B0CI lined up in front and went out strong. There were maybe 6 people ahead of me after the first mile, and only one woman. As I watched her take off, I debated trying to keep up with her. She was moving fast, and I kept my eye on her but let her go, swearing to myself that she was the only female runner I would be behind. I fell into a line of runners, with about three guys ahead of me. I made my way past one, then another, until I was behind just one guy.

 

Mile Two: 8:32

This mile was a game-changer, and made the whole race more thrilling for me. I was still closely following the one man ahead of me. I wasn’t paying attention, and clearly neither was he, because we ran off course, missing a turn off. We realized our mistake about a 100 meters from the right path, which doesn’t sound like a lot, except to get to where we were, we had been navigating a dry creek bed and ducking under not one, but two barbed wire fences. Something didn’t feel right, yet we probably had taken five other runners with us. We heard commotion from where we came, looked to see people turning back and realized our mistake. When I saw the right path I felt furious. If I hadn’t been following so closely I probably would have seen it, but my eyes were on the runner in front of me, not the course. So 200 wasted meters later, with about ten new runners in front of me, I got back on course.

Mile Three: 9:05

I caught up to and passed the women that were in front of me, and most of the men. There were still two ahead of me, and one was not keen on letting me pass. At a place where a photographer was stationed, I had the opportunity to pass him, as there was more space, and I charged around. I’m eagerly awaiting the results of that photo! Right after I passed the guy, we reached a significant incline. There was another guy ahead of me, and he was walking. I decided to run it. The guy behind me was still on my heels, and though running up the hill didn’t give me a significant advantage as far as putting distance between us, I thought maybe it might tire him out and give me more space later. I’m very confident and efficient on hills, and after we reached the top he did wind off dropping back significantly while I pressed on.

Mile Four: 8:55

I kept up my pace. I was almost shocked at how good I felt. My calves were burning, and my breath was labored, but as I scanned my body I only felt like running faster. With two miles left to go (remember I didn’t know at this point the course was half a mile short of a 10k), I was running a sub-8, unprecedented on trails for me. I felt like the only thing I was racing was my own capacity for pain. The guy who had been walking on the incline in mile three had taken off, and I let him go. I was doing the most I could. Another runner approached me, and was on my heels the rest of the race, but he never made it around me. These last miles were my favorite part of the course, there was more technical running, and having someone on my heels was keeping me focused on the task at hand.

Mile Five: 9:22

Go-time. Believing I had a mile and a half left- the 1.2 plus the extra distance I had run when we went off course, I decided it was time to shake out everything I had left. This wound up being my slowest mile, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. There was some more technical footwork required, and including multiple cattle-guards, which I swung off fences and stepped over rather than jumped over- trying to avoid rolling an ankle.

Mile 5.8: 7:23 (8:23 pace)

At 5.7 miles I saw the U-haul that TROT had parked in the lot, and realized then that either my watch was off or the course was short. It was bittersweet, as I realized I had more gas in the tank, but as I crossed the line, and realized I had averaged an 8:48 pace for a trail race that I really hadn’t trained to I was pretty proud. I hadn’t lost my placement after the detour after all, coming in 2nd for women.

 

My take-away experiences from this race are significant. I really pushed the entire time. I didn’t get discouraged from the set-back of going the wrong way, I used it as an opportunity to challenge myself more. I ran with tenacity and used my head. Philosophically, I thought about how I broke my ankle in a race two years ago, and I’d gladly trade losing my place and some time in a race over that experience ten times over, that I had driven half a day to get here, and a set-back is only a loss if you don’t use the opportunity to better yourself.

Race Recap: Rhythm and Blues 5k

I ran a race last weekend that gave me the opportunity to counteract a mindset that had been holding me back, a mindset that created a belief system that had me giving up too often. I touched on this aspect about myself in a previous post. I had identified an ugly work pattern that exists not only in my racing style, but in my general life approach. The picture: I rush into something and then give up. I might not necessarily leave the venture alone entirely, sometimes I’ll just give less effort. Believing the goal I set is unattainable, maybe because of some minor setback or unforeseen obstacle, I’ll either divert my energy to an easier cause, or lower the bar I was originally reaching for. It’s a self-protecting measure I developed to protect an oversensitive ego. This way of living no longer serves me the way it once did. As I get older, the thought of leaving more undone is colliding with my increasing awareness of mortality and legacy, and how I see myself is mattering more and more than what I think I can prove to others.

 

In the 5k I ran last weekend, and I went out too fast to start. I projected from my workouts prior to the race that I could run a 7:45 pace, and hold it for 3 miles. However, my pace for the first mile was a 7:33, likely much faster than that for the first half mile. Going out with too much intensity meant I didn’t have as much left for the second half of the race, which consisted of more uphill running than the first half. I kept my eye on my pace, and watched it steadily climb, to 7:40, 7:50, and past 8:00 once I was on the uphill. Everything hurt. Aside from going out to fast, I had almost no warm-up, as I overslept, and my only pre-race activity was running from my car to the starting line, where the National Anthem was being sung just as I arrived. So, with less than a mile of warm-up to get me going, I moved to the front of the pack anyways. I could have hung further back in the crowd, which would have helped slow me down to start, but that morning I knew I didn’t want to deal with moving around other runners as the race got going.

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I don’t think I was even at the first mile marker at this point. I’m looking ahead to the top of a hill (or what constitutes a “hill” in Houston)

So that was what was happening on the ground. In my head, mile one felt like it took forever, even though I was running fast. Mile two was even longer. I was actually looking forward to mile 3 even though I was starting to feel like there was lead in my legs, because I knew all I had to do was run to the end. Just keep running. This is where some of my workouts were really helpful. I’ve taken to only jogging or running for rest between working intervals, which has done something great for my mindset- I don’t stop. I hope I never walk in a race shorter than a half again, as I’ve sort of eliminated any excuse for that through practice. I now know that no matter how exhausted I feel, I can pick my feet up and put them back down again at a decent pace until the worst of whatever I’m feeling goes away.

 

In the last half mile, I didn’t want to walk or slow down, but I did really want to stop giving so much effort. It wasn’t getting me anywhere anyways. I’d push harder, only to look at my watch and realize I was still running an 8:06 pace, which was pretty demoralizing. (I may run the next race without the watch and see what happens, on that note). The thing is, I didn’t let up, I still pushed, and at the end of the race, when I heard footsteps behind me, I somehow found a kick. I had been using other runners as benchmarks to keep me moving forward as strongly as I could, and I didn’t want to give up a place in the last 100 meters. The runner didn’t catch me, I’m happy to report, and the photog captured some great images of it all.

 

I finished in 24:31, cumulative pace of 7:53 per mile. I was third for my age group (30-34), and 9th female overall. I was not thrilled about this result, even though I recognize it is far from something to complain about. The more time I’ve had to analyze, the more I see that it was a really good race to start to look at what I can improve on. First and most obvious- prep better. Wake up on time, eat breakfast, do a decent warm-up. That one’s easy. Second, I need to work on my form some, I’m looking at pictures and noticing that my left arm has a tendency to cross my body too much, thought its possible that I could have just been looking at my watch just before the snap. Third- stop relying so much on the watch. Learning to gauge pace from feeling would really serve me, especially for goal four- hold back at the start. And finally, fifth thing to work on is my endurance. I had the heart this race, I know it, but I got to a point where there was just no gas in the tank. I’m surprised I had a kick at all.

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Hurting.
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I hear footsteps and look for some grit.
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Pretending that I’m actually running a 100 meter race and didn’t just run 3 miles.

Here’s the deal, I didn’t give up or in, and putting so much effort in for a time that is over a minute slower than my PR hasn’t deterred me. My goal is to run a sub 22 5k- this is not unattainable, but it will probably be pretty hard. That’s cool. Finally, I learned something pretty neat this weekend- as long as special events aren’t scheduled, Downtown Houston is straight up dead on Sunday mornings, and I look forward to doing some fun and training runs there in the future- running down the middle of an empty urban street a la Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky.

Race Recap: Horseshoe Trail Run: Houston, TX

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:

Positive:

  • 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!

 

Negatives:

  • 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.