Saturday, June 04, 2011

Slip, slide, sprint

The rain was hitting the window so hard that I could hear it over my 5:45 a.m. alarm. I slid out of bed and slumped through that sick feeling I get when I only sleep for four hours and rise before proper sunrise. Only there was no sunrise this morning, at least not in the Bay area. I asked for rain, and I got it. Record rain.

I gathered up my unusual race equipment — unusual for June in Oakland, at least: Soft shell jacket, tights, arm warmers, hat, gloves, and Brooks Cascadia shoes with Drymax socks. I do about 90 percent of my running in Hoka One Ones. But in sticky mud, the Hokas have about as much traction as a pair of skis. And today was going to be a mud day if ever there was a mud day.

We were halfway to Oakland when Beat asked, "Did you remember your poles?" And I realized with a tinge of dread that I had forgotten my hiking poles. The night before the Canyon Meadow 50K, Beat and I discussed the weather forecast and the typical condition of Redwood Regional Park trails when wet. We both agreed I would probably need stabilizing devices to help prevent me from breaking my clumsy bones. Then the record rains came and I managed to forget my main safety net. Shoot.

Despite the dismal weather, a fair number of people showed up for the multi-distance trail race. At the start, Beat and I agreed to go solo. Both of us assumed I'd be quite slow in these conditions. I promised to be careful and watched him quickly pull away from me.

The initial climb was steep and slick — the kind of trail conditions where every step forward resulted in a half step back. The mud was like wet glue — my shoe would slip and the resulting friction would nearly pull it off my foot. I'll be honest and admit I felt a thick sort of dread churning around in my stomach. Thirty-one miles of this? No way.

Rather than taper off as one might expect, the rain only picked up velocity and volume with each passing mile. It was difficult to take photographs because my camera lens became instantly soaked. The thick fog closed in and the slippery trail demanded unwavering attention. The already monotone shades of the surrounding landscape faded into an all-encompassing tunnel of focus. I fell into a meditative, quiet mind sort of rhythm. Step, slide, catch, step step catch, step slide catch.

The only thing that seemed to break my trance were the aid stations. During 50K races, I've developed a habit of choosing a single, seemingly random aid station offering and consuming only that for the duration of the race. Once it was PB&J sandwich quarters, another time peanut-butter-filled pretzels, and another time brownies (bad choice, that one.) Today it was Clif Shot Bloks and Coke.

At the mile 18 aid station, I caught up to Beat. He was surprised to see me, and possible even more surprised to see that I wasn't completely covered in mud. "I've had some slips but I've managed to catch them all," I said. This sudden awareness of myself broke my quiet-mind rhythm and I felt a lot more herky jerky as I tried to keep up with Beat. He disappeared down the trail but I managed to catch up to him again several more times. After a few more miles, we just naturally settled into running together.

The Canyon Meadow 50K consisted of two half-marathon-legnth loops with a five mile third loop for the 50K runners at the end. This meant we had to climb the same horrible 1,000-foot mud slide three times. Overall I felt good, but the constant negotiating of spasmodic terrain was slow murder on my IT bands and hamstrings. By the third loop I was hurting and slogging a bit, but still felt fairly strong.

About a mile from the finish, I heard the loud sloshing of footsteps from behind, moving faster than mine. As the runner overtook me, I noticed she was another woman with a 50K bib. Beat nudged me and pointed to her. I just shrugged my shoulders as if to say, "So what?" Beat and I had joked about winning Coastal Trail Run races so I could hold my lead in the Ultra Trail Blazers awards, but I seriously doubted I was in front of the women's race. So what if I got fifth place instead of fourth? But as I watched her pull away, a more primal sort of rhythm settled in. I quickened my stride and surged toward her. I caught up to the woman and accelerated past her, legs pounding the pavement, jagged breaths searing my throat, sprinting for all my little legs could sprint at mile 30.5 of a 31-mile race.

"Wow," I thought. "I'm actually racing! This is what it feels like to race!" Honestly, during all of the competitive events I've ever participated in, I've never had to face an outside competitor so directly (since I'm usually mainly "racing" myself and there's no one else around for miles.) I fluctuated between worrying that this woman thought I was an deluded aggro type, and strategizing my attack if she managed to pass me again. But the sprinting itself felt amazing. All of the soreness in my legs drained away and a warm rush of adrenaline filled my blood. This must be the beauty of a sprint finish — all of the fun of running fast without having to pay for it later.

I never looked back. I crossed the finish line and turned around to watch Beat, followed closely by my competition, 45 seconds later.

As it turns out, I actually was leading the women's 50K race thanks to a few faster gals dropping out at the 30K mark due to the heinous trail conditions. Perseverance pays off. So I earned my third win from Coastal Trail Runs. Three for three. Thanks to the sprint finish, I also set my own 50K PR, 6:10 (my old one was 6:12.) And I got all of the rain I could possibly wish for, another confidence-blostering training run and another cool coffee mug. Good Saturday. Garmin stats here.