This morning’s race was by far the best running experience I’ve ever had. No PR’s. No hardware. This was merely an enjoyable and exciting time out on the trails.
Race Director Bill Gardner has his thumb on the pulse of trail runners. Without hesitation I would be happy to register for any race he directed. The parts of the race that should be simplistic were, and the usually neglected items were diligently managed. Great job, Bill!
A general sense of concern loomed over me running this morning, because we have all three kids with us this weekend. Having the kids aren’t the issue, but taking them out in 33 degree weather IS AN ISSUE. The kids showed an authentic interest in attending my run, so we kept our plans and prepared accordingly. Andrea went to great length to dress everyone in multiple layers of clothing for maximum warmth, which worked perfectly.
I was shocked to realize we were loaded and actually on our way a few minutes BEFORE schedule. Being early or even on time is a rarity. Maybe that single act set this perfect day in motion.
We arrived at Lake Houston Park about 45-minutes before the 9am start. Registration and packet pick-up was easy to find. The volunteers were as friendly as much as they were efficient. Earlier in the week I had corresponded via email with Bill Gardner about my returned race registration, so I needed to explain my case to them. Even with my little issue, I was completely done in less than five minutes.
Once we left registration we walked a quarter-mile to the race start/finish line. The first thing I noticed was the huge camp fire, complete with benches around all four sides. The radiant heat from the fire was greatly adored by the race participants. Initially, there weren’t many runners congregating around the fire, but as the race time neared the real estate closest to the fire became extremely valuable.
Between the camp fire and the start line was a nice looking jeep, which was the power source for a simple, yet impressive music/PA system. When we first arrived most of the runners were happily listening to the music, while only a few people were socializing.
As I was warming up next to the fire, I also attempted to “warm-up” to the other participants. I asked the group a series of questions, which included; “Have you ever run in this park before?” I felt somewhat special, because I have run here on plenty of occasions, most recently earlier this week. For those willing to listen, I gave information how the trails were holding water BEFORE the last big rain. I also gave them a brief insight to the ownership of the park (LHP was a State park before being purchased by the City of Houston), and why they should try to avoid the low ground bridges. Most of those bridges are in dire need of repair and I find it safer to run next to them rather than risk injury by running on them.
Several people were talking about this being their first trail run. I offered tidbits of information on what to expect at this particular park. It’s a neat feeling to finally be the one with a little experience. Again, this added to my feeling of being both “at home” and confident.
In the pre-race announcement the RD warned of two-three cumulative miles of ankle deep water and mud. I knew we’d see water, but I assumed his wording of “ankle deep water” was an exaggeration. I didn’t let the fear of running in water bother me, because honestly, I didn’t believe it would be as bad as stated.
I’ve never understood why so many races are unable to start on time, but that wasn’t an issue today. We heard what Bill called his, “Cold weather National anthem”, which was a beautiful and respectful 1:45 minute version of the US national anthem. At 9:00 sharp we were on our way.
The first thing I noticed was the sharp left turn once we left the starting area. I imagined the race to take place in the back of the park, which would have required a right hand turn. With all the running I’ve done in this park, very few miles have been west of the power line easement.
Before the race started I was standing around the camp fire with a great deal of confidence and probably acting a bit cocky, because I knew the layout of the park. One mile later I found myself running a section I’ve never seen before. I love karma and how it always has a way of bringing me back to reality.
Miles one and two were fun and fast. My pace was hovering around 10:00/mile. I felt smooth as I glided through those first miles, but I wondered how long I could hold the pace. My question should have been how long the trails will allow me to hold the pace. By the time I reached the second mile I was running in cold muddy sloop. The trails were holding an abundance of water, much like Bill Gardner warned us of. The runners before us had tried to run to either side of the water only to turn the entire section into a swamp land.
For the first hundred yards I was able to keep my feet dry. I knew it wouldn’t last and it didn’t. The water was so cold my toes were almost immediately numb. I remind you, it’s still 35 degrees in the park and now I’m wet. There were stretches of water and mud that lasted for a mile. Okay, maybe not a mile, but a long damn way. As soon as I left the water behind I’d make a turn on the trail and see another long stretch of what I just left. I watched a couple women lose their footing and take a nose dive into the water. There is no way for me to image how cold or disheartening that must have been. After seeming Karen’s friend fall in a pool of water, I made my number one goal to stay upright at any cost.
The bulk of the mud and water was behind us as we approached the five mile mark. By this time we were finally in a section of the park I was familiar with. I was running alone as well. No complaints from me though, I like running solo on the trails.
I ran long enough on high ground that my feet were starting to dry. I joked with the aid station volunteers and asked for directions to the next mud hole, because my feet were getting too dry. Over the next couple miles we saw small patches of water. Most of these were easy to navigate around.
The seven mile marker was located in an area familiar to me. From that point I was able to predict the last few miles. The start line was 2-3 miles away, which was consistent with the remaining mileage. Again, I assumed we would run along the power line easement then turn on the main camp road towards the finish line.
I struggled with ideas regarding how to finish the race. I had run continuous and a lot faster than expected. This doesn’t take into account I was running on muddy trails! If we followed the roads I mentioned above it would be a fast finish. I had 4-5 runners ahead of me and I eagerly wanted to reel them in. As well, I tried to remind myself that I have a HUGE race next weekend and this might be a foolish move. During the half-mile spent thinking about my options I never thought we would enter the west end trails again. To my surprise we made the dreadful right hand turn for another round of mud and fun.
There was enough mud to last any runner a lifetime. With a smile on my face I ran straight down the middle of the trail splashing water several feet in the air. I didn’t make a single attempt to dodge anything. Quickly I learned the areas with the most water had a solid bottom. Everyone else was still slipping and sliding while trying to avoid the large bodies of water. During this time I was able to maintain my pace and I actually caught all but one of the runners I had in my sights.
Those last couple miles went fast. There was a part of me thinking something was wrong. This race was going all too well. I figured my Garmin was fowling up, resulting in a faster pace than I actually was running.
The course was beautifully marked. There was one small turn at the end I was not sure about. With only half a mile to go I simply turned in the direction of the music. Ahead of me in the last half-mile was a runner who followed me for a couple mid-course miles and eventually passed me. Once I caught up with him, I made the generic comment of “good job” to which he replied, “You caught back up!?!”. In all honestly, it was a combination of his slowing pace and my increasing pace. We were side by side with the finish line in sight 150-yards ahead. He said something similar to; “Let’s kick it in”. I cranked the pace a little and quickly put him behind me.
With a mere ten feet before entering the finishers shoot I could hear Andrea and the kids yelling in excitement. I had assumed the excitement was for me, and only me. What I didn’t know, as I slowed to enter the shoot the other runner was on my heel and was coming around me. I had already stepped on the first timing mat as he passed me, but he passed me fair and square. Of course if I had known he was there I could have easily prevented it, but it’s not like I was fighting for hardware.
Once it was all said and done, I was glad to finish a wonderful experience in such a dramatic fashion. We both congratulated each other as runners always do. That is what I love about running trails; there are never any bad feelings.
The post race party was phenomenal. They kept the campfire burning hot, while the caterer filled the air with delicious aromas. The music was playing, the beer was cold and everyone was congratulating each other and telling their personal stories of THE MUD.
Simply because I’m a vegetarian, doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the smell of grilled meat. When I walked up to the caterer I told him I’m probably the pickiest fat guy you will ever meet. We both had a chuckle and I proceeded to ask about the ingredients of his foods. After a series of questions I was able to feast on sweet corn, a fresh roll, and a rice medley that was to die for!
I saw a lot more people than expected. Most notable was Karen. It’s always great visiting her and I feel faster just knowing her! Sabra and Yong were in attendance as well as numerous familiar faces from Kingwood FIT. I mentioned to them how I’d like to see Kingwood FIT start a trail program much like the Woodlands FIT has. If they are inclined enough to enter a trail race on their own, maybe this will help support my ideas of a trail marathon group with KWFIT.
All morning I carried my Flip camcorder and captured several videos of before, during, and after the race. I’m getting better at recording while running, narrating, and picking parts of my race worthy of capturing.
My chip time was 1:43:15, which was good enough for 13th place in my age bracket. Unfortunately, my knee ached for a couple hours after the run. This is most likely due the down hill kick into the finish. Once again, this was apparently a bitch slap from Karma to keep me in check.
For the first time ever, I wore “dirty girl” gaiters I received for Christmas. I’m not sure they help when running in water, but I know there are comfortable and don’t bother me. This was a test run before running in them next weekends 50-miler. I started the run with a couple s-caps and only used a single Gu during the run. I didn’t stop at any of the aid stations, but I made it a point to thank them for their time.
Of the forty plus races I’ve run, this has been my best overall experience.
I love me some trail running!!!
On last thing; this is the first race I've started under 200 lbs!