Marathon and Beyond Monday: Trail Running Highs and Lows

March 14, 2011
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In this episode of Marathon and Beyond Monday, we learn about one runner’s trials and tribulations with trail-running races, including the obstacles she encounters and the mind games she endures. To get a free PDF file with pictures of this episode’s story, click here. Or, scroll down for the full text of the story.

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Trail Runs

Who doesn’t love blackberries and spiders?

by Holly Hight

The fall, like all trail-running falls, caught me by surprise. I was 11 miles into the Hagg Lake 25K Trail Run, leading the women’s field by an unknown amount—tiring but determined—and then I hit gravel, literally. One moment I was on my feet, as the trail turned onto a gravel road, my hand poised to snag a cup full of glucose for the final leg of the race. Then I was tumbling, banging my knee, and winding up flat on my back as my feet skidded out from under me on the turn. Chagrined, and more than a bit shaken up, I levered myself to my feet and wobbled over to the aid station. So much for the smooth grab-and-gulp maneuver I had planned. Even with my lead evaporating, second by second, it was going to take a moment to get back on the trail.

“Are you OK?” one of the volunteers asked.

I looked down. My knee was bloodied, probably already starting to swell. It didn’t hurt—yet.

“Yes,” I said, but I still didn’t start running. Sipping that cup of glucose seemed like a really nice way to spend the rest of the morning.

“Are you going to run?”

There wasn’t much answer to that. I handed her back my empty cup. “Yeah,” I said, and hobbled off. As long as you’re in the lead, you might as well stay there.

A mile down the trail, I slipped at the bottom of a muddy ravine and fell again—this time into a blackberry thicket. I heard a guy behind me gasp and whistle.

“You OK?”

“No. But I will be.” I lurched to my feet, trying frantically to disentangle myself. The clock was ticking, more seconds lost, as the thorns clung to my clothing (and skin) like Krazy Glue with teeth. Blood stained my socks.

When I had decided to do this race a month before, it had sounded pleasant. Friends called it scenic, though there were complaints about the mud. I ignored that part, ignored all of the stuff about it being a “difficult” course, ignored all of the abysmally slow times from typically fast people and dove right in with my enthusiasm and my $55.

 

For some reason, it slipped my mind to tell my coach about my entry into the race or to consult him about how to run it. I had my own plan . . .

I would cow my competition by blowing out like a bat out of hell. I wanted everybody to think I was uncatchable, and the more distance I put between them and me, the better. I could outlast anyone. I could hang on. Other people were faster, but I was fitter. And if that didn’t work, I would rely on sheer determination.

Race strategy—or close to it

I began at 5K race pace. I knew this pace and was comfortable with it. What was 12 miles more? By the end of my “5K,” though, I started to think that extra 12 miles might be something of a wrinkle. I did the math. This was equivalent to being 1,000 meters into a 5K and wanting to quit. I wasn’t deterred. I slowed, but only slightly. I clung to the thought that I had put a lot of distance between me and the rest of the women’s field. If I needed time, I had it in the bank.

But I was starting to hurt. Who bonked at eight miles? I had always heard of the phenomenon as a facet of running long—I mean, really long, like 26.2 miles long. This was only a 25K, and I was only halfway through it.

The problem was that I had never run 15.5 miles in my life, let alone raced it, not to mention the mud. How could I have failed to think about what a February race might be like in the Oregon Coast Ranges? I weigh 90 pounds. I don’t do mud, at least not the type of stuff that turns your shoes into 2-pound bricks.

I probably had lost only a few seconds in the blackberries, but now my stomach felt like I had produced a gas bubble the size of an orange.

I altered my stride and leaned forward, hoping that might alleviate my symptoms, but all that happened was that I got a better look at the mud. This is what happens when you turn a 5K into a 25K, I told myself.

But I had been running nearly two hours; I had to be close. Convinced that I was finally within striking range of the finish (and certain victory), I pushed the pace as hard as I could and daydreamed about my win. I imagined myself crossing the line, arms thrust upward, a smile pointing skyward as I closed my eyes against the brightness.

Then I came upon a sign: Only a mile to go! I was still a whole mile from the line? It was an incomprehensible distance. Could the straw that broke the camel’s back come in the form of a single step? If so, which one would it be?

And then, the unthinkable happened. Half a mile from the finish, I heard a woman’s voice saying something to some guy she was passing. She was coming on strong, poised to beat me in the last half mile of a 15.5-mile race.

The next three minutes occurred in the paralytic stupor of a dream. Part of my brain said that she was behind me, unshakable and still gaining. It didn’t matter how fast I was—she was faster. I was going to lose. But another part of me said that I was not going to go through all of that—mud, gravel, and blackberries—to lose in the last moments.

Somehow, I willed myself to sprint. Somehow, I barely stayed ahead of her. Then I crossed the finish line, relief flooding through me. I had done it. I had won. And, even better, I had left it all on the course. There was nothing left of me. I was a shell, a tired body, my mind gone, bonked, in another universe.

I also must have looked like a wreck: blood from the blackberries, blood on my knee, a swelling ankle, mud everywhere else.

“What happened to you?” I heard someone say.

I looked dimly into the direction of a human form. “I ran your course.”

* * *

I couldn’t wait to get home, eat ice cream, and slip into my fuzzy pajamas. But fuzzy hurt. Fuzzy caught and pulled on the scabs that extended from my thighs to my ankles. I couldn’t wear the pajamas for a week. My husband took pictures, and we sent them to my parents and to our friends. I showed them off at the track. I was officially hard-core badass.

* * *

It took me seven months to come around to doing another long trail run, the Timberline Half-Marathon. This time I talked to my coach, but I didn’t seem to have learned anything. I had had a wildly successful season road racing and on the track, with PRs at everything from the mile to the half-marathon. I was the defending champion, confident that I was in much better shape than last year, not to mention that this course was in September, which meant no mud. And nobody was going to out-badass me.

The plan was for me to go out conservatively and finish strong. But the start was staggered and no one wanted to lead, so I stepped to the line. Like Hagg, Timberline went around a lake. Race officials started the clock and I was off, down the trail alone.

I felt like I was going around the back of the moon, into uncharted territory. I had never led an entire race; this time I wasn’t leading just the women, but the men, too.

A mile and a half in, the course went over a paved road and continued on a trail beyond. I bounded across toward the trail on the other side, glancing behind to see how close my next competitor was. So far, I was outrunning them all. And then, suddenly, the trail ended. I stopped, panicked. A small trail ran off toward the left. Maybe that was it. But it was just a deer trail, and a moment later it too ended.

There were now dozens of athletes barreling down the hill toward me. As they caught the look of mortification on my face, they realized I was lost. I mumbled an apology as I ran past them, darting back up the hill to the road, where I caught sight of a colored marker a quarter of a mile down. Obviously, I was supposed to go that way. All the way back up the hill, I had been sweeping up other runners, six or seven men and three women. My hard-won lead was gone, especially because the interval start meant that all of these people were now ahead of me on the clock.

Suddenly, it was Hagg Lake revisited. I dashed toward the proper turn, determined to put as much distance between me and the rest of the field as I could—not later, but now, as though I was running a 400 on the track.

Nobody else went with me, possibly because I was faster, more likely because they were smarter. By the time I turned back onto the trail, I was well in the lead. Soon, I was alone, very, very much alone, miles and miles and miles of alone. People were back there, but I had no idea where they were. A quarter mile back? Just behind the last turn? Your head plays funny games with you at times like that.

My watch was suddenly my best friend and worst enemy. I glanced at it every 30 seconds, wondering miserably how much farther?

This was supposed to be a half-marathon. And 35 minutes into a half on a trail meant that I had, roughly, another hour to go. I vowed not to look at my watch, but just to run, purely and without thought. But it’s not as easy as it sounds, so I graduated to the next best thing. A simple mantra would do: just one foot in front of the other . . .

But couldn’t I do that walking?

I gave up on the mantra and went back to glancing at my watch every five minutes. Forty-two minutes in, I felt something sticky across my face and started choking. I coughed so hard that I doubled over, but I wouldn’t drop to a walk, even when I stumbled, nearly turning my ankle while simultaneously hacking and wiping at the sticky cobweb that seemed to be in my face, in my hair, everywhere.

And then, while I was fighting with the stickiness, I ran into some horses, almost literally. One moment it was just me and the cobweb and the phantom runners somewhere behind me, and the next there were these long faces, some horse, some human, as riders navigated the narrow path. I tried to pass on one side, stepping off the trail, but I was watching the horses, not my footing. I caught my foot on a root, stumbled, and inadvertently lunged toward one of the horses, trying to correct my balance. It reared and for a moment all I saw were hooves. Did I mention I weigh 90 pounds? And I had once heard that an average horse weighs on the order of 1,200 pounds. So much for being the two-time champion.

Luckily, it missed. And as far as I could tell, the rider retained her seat.

“Sorry,” I said, kind of lamely. I didn’t have the breath to add that there were about 300 more runners behind me.

I was now thoroughly rattled. This was worse than mud and blackberries. Those, at least, I understood. And other than horses, spiders, and the odd tree root, I was still very, very much alone. I was starting to feel as though I was in no man’s land. My watch now read close to 1:30. There was no way I could be running a half-marathon that slowly and still not be in sight of the finish. How long was this race?

A few minutes later, I met more people. This time they were hikers, and again, I was the one who had to leave the trail. Again, I tripped, turning my ankle and falling hard.

“Are you OK?”

Why did I insist on running races where people were constantly asking me that?

I nodded unconvincingly as I limped away, my ankle already swelling.

Over an hour and half in and the finish was nowhere to be found. I listened for the sounds of music, cheering, any indication the end was near, but all I heard was the chatter of birds.

I had run a half- on the road in 1:27.50 that summer. Granted, this was a trail, but it still seemed long. Now I had close to 1:37 on my watch. Last year, I ran this race in 1:24 and change. Last year’s course had been short. This one was obviously making up for it.

Maybe I was lost again. Maybe I’d taken a wrong fork (though I hadn’t noticed a fork). Maybe I had been so bonked/focused on getting the web off my face, rattled by the horse, obsessed with the pain in my ankle that I had missed a fork . . . maybe I was somehow beginning a second loop of the lake, turning a long half-marathon into a long marathon. This was it, I told myself, my last race. I would tell my coach I was done for good.

Then, close to an hour and 40 minutes in, I saw a familiar landmark, the paved road I had crossed early in the race. The course began and ended on the same trail, and I was now back on it. I thought about my experience at Hagg and how I had just about given up, a half mile from the finish. I was still leading. I didn’t have to forfeit yet. I could quit racing if I wanted, but not now. As long as I was able, I would keep planting my feet— albeit ploddingly.

Still all alone

As I came up the hill, I knew I had no more than a quarter of a mile left to go. I glanced over my shoulder to see if anyone was behind me. This time there was no doubt—no one breathing down my neck, nobody in sight at all, no need to sprint to the finish.

I came around a bend, and there were my husband and son, waiting for me and cheering me on. I crossed the line in 1:46.27, first overall, and 22 minutes slower than I had run the year before. Amazingly, I found myself smiling, because there is nothing like throwing your whole being, kamikaze-style, into an endeavor and surviving it—not to mention the coolness factor in being able to say you beat all the guys.

And the whole bit about never racing again . . . well, an hour after crossing the finish line, I was planning my comeback at the Xterra Trail-Running National Championship two weeks later in Bend. In conjunction with that, Trey Garman, vice president of TEAM Unlimited/Xterra, would later comment that off-road halves can be as difficult as road marathons, not that I didn’t already know that.

Back home, after the Timberline More-Than-Half, I started coughing again. This time, I couldn’t stop until I coughed something up. I opened my hand to find a dead spider about the size of a pea. Its legs were curled tight like the spider corpses you sometimes find on windowsills.

I tried showing my husband. “I told you it was a spider,” I said.

But he shoved my hand away. “That’s disgusting.”

I thought it was kind of badass, though in the meantime, I’ve developed a taste for road marathons. They really are easier—and there are fewer spiders.