Devil’s Thumb Ranch, a beautiful resort just outside of Winter Park, Colorado, set amidst gorgeous mountain views for miles, set the scene for my first post-marathon competition attempt - a 7.5-mile trail race – on a cold, gray, breezy Sunday morning.
How was I feeling about it? Pretty nonchalant when we first left Denver. Shortly after hitting I-70, though, the race was no longer the first thing on my mind. The rain – a few times impacting road visibility – distracted me from thinking about the race at all, really, nearly the whole hour and a half drive. I don’t much like driving in the rain, especially when I can’t very well see the road ten feet in front of the car.
We finally reached Devil’s Thumb Ranch just after 9:00 a.m., plenty of time to check in, hit the potty – sorry, preschool lingo is a regular part of my vocabulary - say ‘hello’ to my friend Julien who had invited us up for the race, and get to the starting line by 9:30 a.m. Or so, I thought.
We grabbed what we needed for the moment – which included changing from flip flops to my trail shoes – and planned to return to the car after checking in. That’s where the first thing went wrong that morning. I realized it as we walked up a few stairs toward check in. “Ugh, I tied my shoes too tight.”
By the time JD and I did get to the start, bibs donning the numbers ’16′ and ’17′ safety pinned to our outer most layers, or layer, singular, in JD’s case – tough guy! - Garmins cued and ready, I was afraid to jog too far and miss the official start since the race wasn’t chip timed. So instead, I bounced in place for a few minutes to warm up for the race and to keep warm, period.
That’s where the second thing went wrong that morning. Bouncing in place is NOT the same quality warm up as my typical jogging-slash-plyometric combo.
Ugh, it’s cold! Why did I register for this race?! Shivering and alternating between knee-highs and butt kicks in place, I was doing everything I could to convince myself that I wasn’t, but I was. . . nervous. “You said this course is pretty flat, right, Julien?” He raised his right hand and moved it from right to left, making a wavy motion like a snake to indicate otherwise. “There’s some up and down.” Damn, I was hoping for more flat.
For what I think was the first time ever, I lined up and took off at the sound of the race director yelling, “Go!” instead of pulling the trigger to fire off a blank.
The first mile was tough, partly because the course was wet and muddy, partly because my muscles were stiff on account of a less than mediocre warm up, partly because I momentarily regressed to my amateur cross country competitor days and fell prey to the adrenaline pounding through my veins and. . .started out too fast. That’s where the third thing went wrong that morning.
It was during mile two that the fourth – and absolute worst – thing went wrong that morning. It was during mile two that the realization FIRST hit me. Yeah. I’m not ready to race yet. You don’t have to be a runner to get that this wasn’t a desirable thought to float through your head when you still had about six miles of a seven-and-a-half mile trail race to go.
Three other runners had now passed me, and I was afraid to look back to see if anyone else was about to do the same.
I decided not to care, only to try to keep the two girls ahead in my sight for the rest of the race – typical of what I would do in a race any other time. But then, I did something very non typical of what I would do in a race any other time. I stopped running and started to walk. What are you doing?! Don’t walk! RUN! Even if you slow down, just run!
was the first thought that came to mind, followed immediately by a second thought, one that validated what I already knew – for being my first one following Pikes Peak exactly one month ago, this race was proving a little too much too soon. Eh. Walk if you have to. But that was just it. I didn’t have to walk. I wanted to walk, as in I didn’t want to run.
I finally did convince myself to start running again a few feet later, but my run-walk pattern persisted for about the next two miles. I thought it a bonafide running miracle that I found myself gaining, and then right on the heels of the girl just ahead of me as we reached the aid station at the three-and-a-half mile mark.
I took my time at the station, actually stopped and chatted with the volunteer manning it for about a minute – something else I NEVER do during a race. “You’ve got one more long climb coming up, then the rest of the course should be downhill or flat.” “Thank God!”
I took off again, this time a little more determined to put forth more effort. The faster I could run, the sooner I’d be done.
Once the course flattened out, I actually found myself comfortable with picking up some speed. The girl ahead of me was still in sight except for a few sharp turns through the trees. I felt grateful that the course was muddy and offered a variety of terrain challenges on top of it – unearthed tree roots, narrow single track - that required focus and made the next two or so miles go by much more quickly than the first few.
It was then that I saw her again – the girl just ahead of me – and noted that she seemed closer. I’m gaining on her! With as bad as I was feeling that day, I couldn’t believe it. The course just ahead seemed to move slightly downhill; so I decided to make my move. So long as there’s no more climbing, I’ll be all right. I passed her and ran a little harder to lengthen the distance between us for the rest of the downhill before a left turn.
When I did reach that left, a race volunteer told me exactly what I didn’t want to hear. “Turn left, and head up the hill.” OH! Insert depleted mental sigh here. Come on, don’t let her catch you!
Luckily, the hill wasn’t all that bad – and for me to think that at this point tells you just how bad it wasn’t. I ran as hard as I could for the last mile and a half of the race. I just wanted to be done. And, of course, the nearer I got to the finish - now in sight as the trail broke through the trees and followed the ridge overlooking the grassy plains – the further away the finish – and rest - felt.
The crowd was sparse enough that I could have easily looked up to see my trail running pals and fellow competitors Julien and JD waiting for me, but I kept my eyes on the trail just ahead and kept trudging on. Finally, I crossed the line. My first race since my first marathon was over.
I saw them just after the finish; and, once I caught my breath, asked how their races went. “Julien, I am so mad at you right now! That course was hard!” “It was not that bad. You made it.” I laughed. I was right. The course wasn’t easy, especially not with the mud. He was right too. I did make it. And I had the mud caked to the back of my legs and sore quads for about three days later to prove it:
It may not look like much, but it took four paper towels and some scrubbing to clean before we got back to my car to drive home.
All in all, it was a hard race, and a cold – but also a good – day.
One tough trail, some BBQ, and a beer later, I was back – back to feeling more like myself than I had for the previous month since Pikes Peak – and looking forward to whatever running was bringing my way next. But, I highly doubt it’s bringing another race anytime soon.
Melissa Mincic, Ph.D., a long-time road and trail runner, conducts applied child development research and works to influence child development policy at the University of Denver. Follow Melissa on Twitter at @nerdinrunshoes.