Stretched out in front of us was a ribbon of muck, sprinkled liberally with puddles of water. Our shoes, when we’d pull them up out of the mud, made a sucking sound that would make Ross Perot proud. “This,” the starter told us,” is the best-groomed part of the course.”
And he wasn’t kidding. We stood at the start of the Quivering Quads Trail Half Marathon in Cuivre River State Park in Troy, Mo. As he said, the first 1.8 miles of the race was on what would be, in drier times, a one-lane dirt road. But Troy had seen some rain in the last few days, and the dirt road had dissolved into the goo pit that lay before us.
The race, with 400 entrants, was divided into “waves” of 25 runners that would go off every three minutes, fastest first based on road half-marathon times we provided when we entered. I was improbably in the third wave, even though I’d estimated a relatively slow road time on my entry form. No matter; when I entered this event eight weeks ago, I swore to myself it would be a run, not a race. My training has been notably inconsistent since Thanksgiving, and although I think I’m in decent shape now, it ain’t racing shape.
After the first two waves took off, the clock counted up toward six minutes, our starting time. I tried to keep my heart rate under control, but I was frankly pretty nervous about this race. The last time I had pinned on number was also a trail race, the Pere Marquette Trail Run in December, and it was a disaster for me; my calf was in flames within two miles, and I spent the last five miles of the race alternatively limping and limp-running. The calf is better now, but my trepidation was palpable. At least the weather wasn’t as bad as expected; as late as two days before the race, the forecast was showing heavy rain and possible snow on race day. When we lined up, though, there was no rain, and the temperature was in the upper 30s.
But there was plenty of mud. I spent the those first 1.8 miles dodging puddles as much as I could, letting most of my wave sprint out ahead of me. That was fine; after all, I was running, not racing. That stretch was out-and-back, so after a while we met the first wave—which included my friend Al, who had car-pooled with me on the way up from St. Louis County—coming back toward us, so the rest of the “road” portion was two-way traffic and we had to confine ourselves to the right side.
Those were the good times, though. Because after that 1.8 miles, we cut off into the woods, where it was basically single-track for the rest of the race. And by single-track, I mean a path of mud at most a foot wide, generally less. Sometimes there was room to run on the grass next to the path, sometimes not. Like any good path, it was full of twists and turns, so concentration was vital, lest you would miss a step and go headlong into a tree or a rock.
In the course description when we entered, there was reference to a stream crossing that could have ankle-deep water. The course map showed us crossing the Big Sugar Creek at about Mile 9. When I picked up my packet two days before the race, I asked about that, and the guy said some people had been out a couple of weekends earlier — a rainy weekend — and they said the creek was about waist-deep at the crossing. As race weekend was also predicted to be rainy, this was cause for even more trepidation. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what I would wear, something that might survive wading across a swollen creek without soaking up 25 pounds of water. I ended up going out and buying a pair of tights, which served me pretty well during the race.
At about three miles, we came to a stream to cross. Not a big deal; one well-placed step in the water got me across, so only one shoe got slightly wet. A quarter-mile or so later, another stream, and then another, and then more. It got so that if you were running downhill, you knew there was going to be another crossing soon (followed, of course, by another uphill).
At about five miles, there was a crossing that was a little deeper than the others. The thing about trail runs is that you don’t really have a whole lot of time to think: you have to make a snap judgment about where to step, and then go there. And at crossings, the decisions are multiplied — step halfway across and get wet, or try to leap across and risk utter failure, inundation and embarrassment? This crossing was way too big for the “leap” option, but there was one little rock that looked like it might be a good halfway choice. Wrong. The rock was slipperier than I expected, and my right leg was suddenly in the icy water up to my knee, and my left about up to my ankle. Oh well, maybe it washed off a little of the mud. More than anything, though, it was disconcerting; on the subsequent uphill it seemed a little harder to find the orange ribbons that marked the course every hundred yards or so. There was a woman running a little in front of me, and she was worried that she’d lost the trail too, but then we spied a runner in red, a quarter mile up ahead of us on the right, and we struck out that way.
If I have one complaint about the race, it was that there could have been a few more of the orange ribbons, because there were several times I’d be running for a while and not be sure if I was still on the course. I guess that’s part of the deal with trail races, though; you have to concentrate a lot more than in, say, a road race.
I muddled along. Every time someone came up from behind, I was happy to step aside and let them pass if they wanted to. I’m not racing, I’m running, I would repeat to myself. The last thing I wanted, when I was trying to keep my own pace, was pressure from behind. If you want to lead, be my guest.
The downhills were nerve-wracking, particularly the ones that featured the combination of steep descent, narrow path, sloppy mud and occasional huge, sharp, skull-splitting rocks. And after five or six miles, as my legs began to wane, the uphills got harder and harder, and I began to take strategic short walking breaks on some of them. The flat portions, though, were fantastic, and there were times I felt like I could run forever. At seven miles, the course had just finished a slight uphill and was flat for maybe half a mile. I was coasting along, thrilled to be past halfway, when splat! I was suddenly horizontal. I must have found a root or a rock or something hidden by leaves, and it tripped me up. Fortunately I was able to react in time to get my arms out to break my fall, so no damage was done — nothing a couple of cycles through the washing machine wouldn’t clear up. I lost a little time, but not much, and it didn’t matter anyway, because I was running, not racing. After that, though, I was ever more vigilant, even on the flats.
More downhills, more stream crossings, more uphills. There must have been a dozen crossings that had to be actually stepped in, and a dozen more that could be easily jumped across. At the one crossing the organizers had actually warned us about, there was a rope strung across to hold onto as we waded across the creek. By eight or nine miles, I was feeling probable blisters starting to form on my feet from running in the wet shoes, but there was nothing to do about that at this point. Blisters go well with aching hamstrings. (Quads, interestingly, were never an issue for me, despite the name of the event. One of the few guys I passed told me his quads were trashed, but I never had any trouble. Hamstrings, that’s a different story.)
Every two or three miles there was a very welcome aid station staffed with very friendly volunteers and cold water and Gatorade. I’ve got to shout out to Fleet Feet Sports, the sponsor of this race; they really had it set up well.
Few And Far Between
Miles 9, 10 and 11 curved around the north edge of the park, and also seemed to be a lot more uphill than downhill. Hitting that 10-mile mark is always a highlight in a half-marathon — from there it’s just a 5K to go, and you know you could even crawl home from there, if it came to that. I was starting to get optimistic by then, though; blisters and hamstrings notwithstanding, I wasn’t feeling too battered. Other runners were few and far between at this point — anyone else I did see looked either a lot better or a lot worse than me, so there was no thought of “racing,” which fit just fine with my theme for the day.
In the 12th mile, though, the course doubled back on itself, and we were in two-way traffic again for a half-mile or so, requiring another step up in concentration. It was right after this stretch that I saw a white-tail deer, and then another, and then about three or four more, about 25 yards away, running parallel to me but much, much faster. They looked like they weren’t having to constantly focus on each step they took, they didn’t mind running in a pack, and they weren’t caked with mud. As they disappeared into the woods, I was left wondering whether they were a mileage-induced hallucination.
With a half mile to go, I could hear the noise of the finish line, people cheering for other runners as they came across. I was very happy that there was no one visible either ahead of me or behind me, because the last thing I wanted was a sprint to the finish. I made my way through the last twists and turns in the woods, and more volunteers were there to point me onto the dirt road we’d started on and toward the finish line. An announcer called my number — 71 — and there was a smattering of cheers as I crossed the line. Two hours, 17 minutes, 43 seconds, according to my watch: by far the slowest half-marathon I’ve ever run, but considering the setting it was a time I was very happy with.
Al, who had finished in 2:08, was there waiting for me after I got my medal and space blanket. Fleet Feet had a great spread of fruit and rolls and ‘nilla wafers and water and Gatorade for the finishers, and I partook liberally before we boarded a shuttle to get back to the car and a change of clothes, and then the hour-long drive back to St. Louis. Only as we crossed the Missouri River did the rain begin to fall; we’d been extremely lucky on the weather.
Lucky or not, it was a great event. Thanks, Fleet Feet, and should you decide to put this race on again in 2011, pencil me in!