Yesterday morning I ran the White Tail Trail Half Marathon at Caesar Creek State Park in Waynesville, Ohio! My 2nd trail race, my 1st trail half marathon, my 3rd half marathon overall, and the hardest race I've done yet (even harder than that crazy EcoThon 5K last spring that broke me!). Caesar Creek makes Darby Creek and Highbanks (the hilliest trails near my town where I trained) look like bunny hills. The only trails I've run that are harder are at Clear Creek in Hocking County. Although, at Clear Creek, at least there are opportunities to catch your breath atop ridges or at ravine bottoms. There were no opportunities to catch my breath at Caesar Creek. It was ravine after ravine after ravine interrupted midway by a windy run over the dam.
Before I get into a play-by-play report, let me quickly describe my training prep going into this race. Living in a flat city and accustomed to road races where you don't have to look down constantly while you're running, I ran some occasional trail runs with longer, hillier ones closer to my race. I also upped the frequency and mileage of my weekend long runs (lots of 10s and even above) and did more speedwork to be sure that I built up my strength and endurance. What I didn't do, which I discovered in hindsight is necessary, is strength training and more serious hill workouts. (That, or living in a place where I can regularly run killer hills.) This race turned out to be a difficult 13.1-mile hill workout. No breaks. For this Columbus girl who was better prepared for a swift, flat road race, it totally hammered my legs and made me have to rely solely on my mind to get through the last 7 miles. I'm very happy to have and wear my medal to say that I completed this race! To finish was definitely an accomplishment. Around 40 out of 240 didn't finish the race. I never thought of quitting while running yesterday, but I wondered when I was ever going to get to the end!
For dinner the night before the race, I went with my family to Golden Corral. With the increasingly cold temperatures and wind building, I noticed that my head was pounding! I ended up not eating a ton like I normally do before a race. Then, I suffered insomnia from my headache and pre-race nerves, only getting in maybe an hour of light sleep.
I got up on time, ate my oatmeal, got dressed, and packed my gear. I kept vascillating between outfit choices, wondering whether to wear my running jacket due to the high wind. The wind was 20 mph and the windchill was 31 and would get up to 42 by the end of the race. I ended up wearing my favorite running pants, a longsleeve tech top, wool socks, thin headband, thin gloves, and brought my jacket just in case.Fortunately, my outfit turned out to be just right.
The drive there was a dark, rainy mist. Packet pickup and restrooms were at the finish, located at the park's swim beach. The goodie bag consisted of a small black nylon La Sportiva drawtring backpack with little samples: nuun, Aquaphor, CLIFbar, Gore-Tex lip balm, and a RoadID coupon. After taking the bag back to my warm car, I ate the mini CLIFbar sample and attached the little timing card to the top of my shoe. Like a lot of other people, I wasn't sure how many shuttle buses there would be to get to the starting point. So, I got on the first one, especially after seeing many people headed that way. Such a fool! I got there and had to stand in the cold wind for 50 minutes. On the upside, I had fun chatting, commiserating, and bobbing up and down with fellow racers.
Knowing that the trail would be narrow, I made sure to place myself somewhere in the middle to back of the pack of 240 people. I chose well because I only got passed in the woods about 7-8 times, and 40 people (mostly behind me I'm guessing?) got a DNF. My starting pace was too fast, but I figured that people would start to thin out on the road before entering the woods. I reassured myself that I'd slow down and run my pace after the first mile upon entering the woods.
Just before the woods at Mile 1, it thinned out and everybody went to single file. The terrain consisted of rolling hills and small ravine crossings. At the time I was thinking, "This isn't too bad -- as long as it doesn't get worse." Ha! I had no idea... For a few miles, I had people in front and behind, all going the same pace. There were aid stations at Mile 2 and 3.5, and I still felt strong and that things were moving along at a good pace -- my guess, maybe 11:30-12:00. Faster than in training (on trails, that is). The ankle-deep stream crossing not far after Mile 5 turned out to go really well. I only got my left shoe a little wet, and it didn't bother me the remainder of the race -- a relief since I was worried about that. At an open spot that included a short stretch of park road, I came upon a shirtless man in front of me. He looked like he had lost quite a bit of weight and wasn't cold. I wasn't cold either now that I was running, but I wondered how he could stand the wind! Soon after we were back in the woods, I heard a tinkling water sound atop the hill I was climbing and came upon the shirtless man peeing just off the trail. I was glad to pass him and never saw him again. At the end of the first 6 miles was the 3rd aid station where the woods opened up near the dam. I noticed they had Hammer Gel and eagerly took some with water. From there to the dam it was white, finely crushed rocks and dry grass with lots of squishy puddles.
The Dam - Halfway Point
Up until the dam, I still had energy and felt like everything was going well. Then I hit open road in the strong wind atop the dam. Holy moly, that was painful! I tilted my head down and took smaller steps, getting passed by a serene runner whom, in passing by me, I could barely hear say, "The journey of 1,000 steps..." Crossing the dam by car, the time passes by in a flash. While running? Not so much. I was very glad to cross some grass and get back to the trail and the protection of the woods.
Just before entering the woods after the dam, I saw an unmanned aid station with water coolers but no cups. If I'd known that the next aid station would seem far away, I would've put my open mouth under a spout and taken some water! ...and so began the two longest and most difficult stretches in the race. This is when the super serious hills began. Earlier in the race when the hills and ravines were challenging but easier, I ran up part way and then would finish by walking to the top. I could catch my breath on the downhill. On this section of the trail though, the uphills were steeper and lasted longer. The downhills were so short and steep that I never had a chance to recover. I even got a side stitch at one point! That never happens! I couldn't afford to stop, so I only allowed myself to slow down by walking all uphills. Even by walking the uphills, I was beginning to tire, and I noticed that constantly scanning the ground was taking a toll. I asked a passing runner how far we were. She checked her Garmin which wasn't working and guessed between 8 and 9. She was the last person I saw for a long time. Near the end of this section is when I finally bonked. Luckily, the next aid station came at this time. Instead of walking while hydrating, I stopped at the table and caught my breath. This station had Hammer HEED. I took that and some water and thanked the volunteers. Sidenote: the Hammer HEED was quite interesting -- it was flavorless and clear!
After the aid station, it got worse. My mantra was "keep moving." Really, I had no choice but to keep moving -- I had to get back to my car! There were lots of steep ravines to traverse, and I was getting much slower on the uphills. No one was around, and it was very quiet. My Achilles and calves were tired and aching, completely punished by the terrain. I started thinking weird thoughts, all silly and movie-related. From The Princess Bride, in Inigo Montoya's voice, I was thinking, "Hills and ravines galore!" Then I started hearing music from The Last of the Mohicans in my head, I guess to pretend that I was being "chased by a war party" to keep me moving. Like I said... weird! After a while my head went completely silent like my surroundings, and I just ran... Looking at my watch, I wondered where in the world the last aid station was! I hadn't seen any other runners since the lady with the non-functioning Garmin. Just when I thought I was close, I'd have yet another steep ravine to cross, many of these without footbridges and requiring some climbing to get out -- yes, climbing. Eventually, I came upon the lady who would finish just ahead of me. She was wearing a bright orange shirt (the official race shirt), and I tried to keep her in sight. When I finally heard sounds of a road approaching, I got excited and then sadly remembered that I had to go parallel to it for a while before crossing it. Crestfallen, this was the point in the race where I significantly slowed down and walked even though I wasn't going uphill. I was nearing the 3-hour mark and realized that I'd be going over it. Darn it... I knew I'd be slower, but really? If I could just get to the last aid station.
Last Aid Station to the Finish
Finally, I reached the 6th and final aid station, forgetting that it was at 11.75 mi, not 11. In my estimation and in assuming that I was only at Mile 11, I'd probably finish at about 3:20. Thankfully, the finish came sooner than expected! After the aid station, at which I was erroneously told I had 2 more miles to the finish, I went down a park road toward a boat ramp and re-entered the woods, soon coming upon the State Route 73 trail underpass. Inspired by finally nearing the finish, I was back to running again! Gotta finish strong and running no matter what! The terrain near the finish was mainly tall, grassy meadows and a kid's fishing pond. The trail took me between two final fields of tall grass and wildflowers, and I could hear voices and music ahead. The final stretch was on the swim beach parking lot leading to the shelter where I'd picked up my packet. The only people still there were the volunteers and family members of those still left on the trail (26 people). I was really happy to see my family waiting for me so that I could celebrate my finish. My kids ran along in the grass nearby yelling like crazy for me when I was approaching the finish. Very cute! A women volunteer congratulated me and handed me my medal and an envelope containing a $15 coupon toward a RoadID. I was absolutely starving and immediately downed several orange wedges, a yummy hunk of raspberry-flavored poundcake, and a mini CLIFbar. Looking down at my pants and shoes, I saw that I had mud splattered up to my knees and my shoes were covered and caked with mud. I hadn't even looked at my pants or shoes the entire race since I was too busy looking at the ground. Good thing I expected this and brought a change of clothes and shoes!
After the race, I met the rest of my family at a picnic shelter in another part of the park where we belatedly celebrated September birthdays and had a picnic lunch: brats, hot dogs, baked beans, fresh berries, Chex Mix, pasta salad, and yummy cupcakes -- chocolate chunk with peanut butter icing or chocolate with raspberry filling and chocolate icing! Next, we got a permit to park and look for fossils in the spillway, which the younger kids loved. They'd scream excitedly every time they found something. It was funny to see all of us wearing light winter coats and accessories in September. Everyone had on gloves, hats, mittens, etc. We even warmed our hands over the cooling grill! I couldn't believe I wasn't sitting down, but I felt that I had to keep moving to avoid stiffness. Later, I did have to site while driving the hour and 20 minutes home. I got sleepy and had to stop for coffee to finish the drive.
The day after wasn't too bad! I took an epsom salts bath last night which alleviated a lot of muscle achiness and exhaustion. My outer/upper quads and my Achilles are a touch sore today, and I'm a bit fatigued -- almost like coming down with a cold. At the moment though, I'm feeling improved. I might even be able to venture out for a short run tomorrow. More likely on Tuesday, though.
Will I ever do this race again? Not for a while, if at all! I plan on sticking to road races or much easier trail races where I can tune out and look at my environment and what's going on around me. Staring downward at my footing, torturing my legs, and not being able to look at my surroundings is not my cup of tea. Final time: 3:09:42 (goodness!), 174/200 overall, 19/24 AG, 14:29 pace (goodness!). I'm almost considering doing a 2nd half marathon this fall just to get a flat road race in to better gauge my level of running fitness. On the road, I'd expect a time around 2:15-2:20.