When I think “Delaware,” I’m not really sure what comes to mind most of the time. First state in the Union? Joe Biden? That time when I was nine or so and my grandfather took us flying in a Cessna out of a tiny airport somewhere in the state? Basically, it’s a state that I know exists, but despite its proximity to my birth city of Philadelphia, I’ve never spent a whole lot of time there, except the aforementioned time when I was nine and occasionally when I’ve passed through on I-95.
At any rate, I certainly don’t automatically associate Delaware with outdoorsy sports like trail running, so when I did a search for Delaware races on St. Patrick’s Day weekend, when my sister and I would be visiting family in Philadelphia, I was somewhat surprised to come across the Beau Biden Foundation Trail Run. Huh, that sounds fun. How bad could it be? I thought. Sure, it wouldn’t exactly be my usual fare of flat road running, but my philosophy is that you can survive just about anything for 3.1 miles, and this was only a 5K. Besides, it would be for a good cause and would be a good challenge to look forward to post-physical therapy. So, I signed us up.
Training required a bit of creativity, as Chicago is not exactly known for its rugged, mountainous terrain. Mostly just happy to be back out running again, I made do with my usual routine (intervals, tempo runs, and long runs, plus strength training on my off days) with some “hill” repeats thrown into my long runs. I use the term “hill” loosely, but Cricket Hill over by Montrose Beach does provide a slight elevation change and, at least strictly speaking, qualifies as a hill. It was going to have to get the job done; I really didn’t have much else to work with. Besides, the race was going to be in Delaware, not the Rockies, right? Again I thought to myself, How bad could it be?
Turns out, I underestimated the difficulty of this race a tad. I got my first inkling of what we were in for as my sister and I stood atop the hill by the starting line, taking in the beautiful panoramic view of fields, rolling hills, and woods. Scenic for sure, but whoo-ey, this was gonna be rougher than expected!
Fortunately, I didn’t have much in the way of expectations going in. My main concern was finishing without rolling an ankle and ending up back in physical therapy. Besides, it had already become abundantly clear that any “hill” training I had done was woefully inadequate for the terrain at hand. So as we set off from the starting line, we had no real time goal or goals around if/when we might want to walk.
The first mile or so of the race was about what I expected, mostly rolling fields, a couple of hills, nothing too wild. Where things got exciting though was around 1.5 miles in, where the trail entered a wooded area and narrowed to the point where we had to run single-file. I already hadn’t been running full-blast, but I really had to slow my pace here to avoid slipping in the mud as we scrambled downhill, and to avoid tripping over tree roots and rocks along the way.
As I uttered aloud after a particularly gnarly stretch, “Chicago did not prepare me for this.”
Little did I know, it would get EVEN GNARLIER. We emerged from the woods only to be faced with a massive, almost-literally-impossible-to-run-up hill. Well, probably the people who actually won the race could do it, but those of us bringing up the rear definitely ate a slice of humble pie, with most of us slowing to a walk on this portion and the subsequent steep downhill portion. Again, much more important not to break any body parts than to set speed records!
Following that portion, my legs felt like rubber. Though we hadn’t yet finished even the 5K distance, exertion-wise I felt more like I had already run at least a 10K, if not further. I willed myself back into a run for the last flat portion and for the last stretch of woods. Figuring that we had to be close to the finish line at this point, I more or less held pace on the hill as we emerged from the woods, turned the final bend, then headed up the last hill to the finish line. Despite having to slow down considerably for much of the race and even walk a fair bit, I finished in just under 39 minutes with my sister right there with me. Champs!
Though I am now back in Philadelphia and will sleep exceedingly well tonight, thanks to the combination of post-race exhaustion (and let’s be real, post-race cheesesteaks and hoagies), I had a great time checking off Delaware off my list today. Even better? My new associations with “Delaware” are “shockingly beautiful scenery,” and “a gnarlier-than-expected trail race.” Lesson learned: never underestimate unfamiliar terrain!