Apparently trail races have become somewhat of a theme for me this year so far. In some ways, this is not a bad thing. What better way to break up the usual road race routine than to get out in nature and run through the woods for a little while? Plus, the ground is softer and is supposedly better for your joints. A win-win situation.
Though all of this is true, part of the issue for me when it comes to trail running, which became abundantly clear to me in Delaware back in March, is that my usual training routine is grossly inadequate. Add on top of that an ankle injury that still isn’t 100% healed, and trail racing becomes an exercise in mere survival. When it comes to training, though I try to throw in some hill sprints and stretches of beach running to break up the monotony of running through the flat, concrete jungle of Chicago (lovely as it is in its own way), the reality is that I’ve yet to find a good way to train for the particular set of challenges posed by trail racing. There just doesn’t seem to be a substitute for practicing the kind of footwork needed to navigate a rocky, root-littered wooded trail, or a substitute for steep uphill (and downhill!) stretches, at least that I’ve found.
For my Alabama race, the Trussville Trail Run 6K (that is not a typo, it was actually a 6K), it wasn’t really the distance or the hilliness of the trail that got to me, though. In that respect, despite the humidity and somewhat slippery trail conditions, the race was completely manageable, even despite the race director’s admonitions that the previous day’s rain had rendered the rockier sections of the trail “slick as a snot-covered doorknob.” I took the warning to heart, and ran a good 2 minutes per mile slower than I might have expected otherwise. At that pace, distance and hills hardly felt like an issue in and of themselves.
Unfortunately, slowing down and proceeding with caution still didn’t help me too much in terms of my ankle issues on the more uneven parts of the trail, and no matter what I did, I felt like I kept landing funny on it. Though it didn’t stop me from running (save for the final time it happened and I walked for a short stretch to avoid aggravating it any further), I felt as if landing on it wrong one more time would result in a nasty sprain, or worse. Mostly my ankle just didn’t feel stable, and I found myself growing increasingly frustrated as the race went on. I couldn’t really get into a groove, and though I finished more or less uninjured, I ended up taking two weeks off from running afterwards in the hopes of letting everything settle.
Long story short, that’s where I’ve been since checking Alabama off the list. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve continued walking (sometimes absurdly long distances, thanks to the encouragement and conversational abilities of a very good friend from work). I’ve also kept up with foam rolling, tennis ball massaging, and my PT exercises. I learned following the race that at least part of why I had so much trouble out on the trail was because (fun fact!) once a sprain or tendon injury heals, it messes with your proprioception, i.e., your perception of where your body is in space, making it extremely easy to re-injure yourself. So, I’ve added some moving balance exercises to help with that. As the cherry on top, my aforementioned work friend challenged me to a 30-day “Squat Challenge,” progressing from 20-150 squats per day, so I think I’ve covered all of my bases in terms of continuing to build my leg strength and balance back up.
The good news is that it all seems to be helping. Today I ran in the local YWCA Race Against Hate, and though I can’t say I’ve yet achieved painlessness, I definitely felt better after finishing today than I did after the Alabama race. I also managed to run under 30 minutes for the 5K despite the heat and humidity this morning, so a win all around! My hope is that by the end of the month, if I continue with my self-massage and PT exercise routine, my ankle will be significantly less cranky. Given the last few weeks, I may avoid trail races at least for the remainder of this year, but hopefully, given enough time, I will be back out there to give it another go!
Not much has been going on in my day-to-day running life since my October updates, and with the holiday season in full swing plus some other projects I have going, I haven’t been updating as much as I would like. But, I did get to run two fun races in the last few weeks. First was the Grove City Thanksgiving Wattle 5K on Thanksgiving, which I ran back in my home state of Ohio (alas, I have done several Ohio races already, so it didn’t count toward the state tally). Second was Saturday night’s Festivus One-Miler in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which did indeed count toward the state tally. Race recaps below.
About two weeks before Thanksgiving, I got a text from my sister.
“Are you running a 5k in cbus for thanksgiving?”
Thinking nothing of it, I answered, “8k but yes planning to!” (At the time, I was fairly certain I’d be doing the Columbus Turkey Trot 8K in Upper Arlington).
“Noo I was gonna say we should do a 5k together”
*cue record scratch sound effect*
For a brief moment, I thought to peek outside in case there were pigs flying by my window. My sister, who hates running (although she is a fitness buff in all kinds of other ways), and has complained vocally to me every time she’s had to run for any reason, was asking me…VOLUNTARILY!…to run a 5k. Could this actually be real?!
She was not kidding, so I delightedly scrapped my plans for the 8K and found us the Thanksgiving Wattle 5K in Grove City, and my sister began a two-week Couch-to-5K redux training regimen to get ready for the big day (the rest of you, don’t try this at home).
Race morning dawned a tropical 30 or so degrees, but sunny. Mom agreed to put Thanksgiving prep on hold for a couple of hours to watch the live comedy show that was about to unfold, Dad packed up the camera, and at around 7am, the family schlepped over to Grove City for packet pick-up. I definitely miscalculated here. Being used to the chaos and bedlam of Chicago traffic and parking, when the organizers sent an email cautioning us to get there early in order to find parking, I took it to mean REALLY early, lest we end up parked a gazillion miles away from the starting line. Alas with the giant mall parking lot available by the AMC theater, it turns out I catastrophized way too hard in my time estimates. So, we all ended up sitting in the car for about an hour and a half after my sister and I picked up our packets, waiting for the race start at 9am. Oops. At least the car was warm?
Pre-race, my sister and I decided we would try to run it together. Her “dream goal” was to break 30 minutes, but her more “realistic” goal based on her two weeks of training was to finish between 30-35 minutes. We agreed that we’d start off a little easier than my usual race pace, which would put us just under 30 minutes if we held it, and see how that felt. If we had to slow down, no big deal. It was a turkey trot, not the Olympic trials.
About 15 minutes before the race start time, we made our way over to the starting line across the parking lot, marveling at the runners braving the frigid morning in shorts and tank tops as we pulled on our gloves and hats (pretty sure the tank top- and short-clad runners were the ones who actually won). Even just standing outside for 15 minutes made my feet go numb, so once the race started and we took off, I spent a good quarter mile feeling like a particularly uncoordinated Bigfoot.
Once I got the feeling back in my feet, though, I had a great time. The course itself was a quick out-and-back route, and featured a couple of rolling hills back through the neighborhood behind the mall. I ran what I gauged to be a medium-hard pace, about what I would do for a tempo run (certainly not slacking), and my sister kept up like a champ. I checked in every so often to see how she felt, but she never wavered in her insistence that we keep the pace, even on the tougher uphill stretches.
With no expectations whatsoever, we made the turn onto the final straightaway. I spotted the finish line clock, and much to my surprise, it had just ticked over 28 minutes. Not bad…a time that once required nearly an all-out, PR pace was now apparently just “medium hard” for me, effort-wise…hooray for improvements!
At that moment though, I was more excited that my sister’s dream goal of breaking 30 was solidly within reach. “Yo, we’re gonna break 30!” I said, hardly able to contain myself.
She immediately perked up out of her mile-3 drudgery.
“Feel like you can sprint to the end?” I asked.
“YES!” she exclaimed, and gleefully took off in a sprint.
Following her lead, I dashed as quickly as my feet would carry me for that last tenth of a mile, and the two of us finished in just slightly over 28.5 minutes…a fantastic first 5K time for my sister. Mom and Dad met us at the finish line to celebrate, and the best part? Getting our pumpkin pie “finisher prize” to take home for dessert!
Festivus One Miler
You could say that from my home base of Chicago, checking off a race in Wisconsin is relatively low-hanging fruit, and you would be correct, especially for a race in Milwaukee, which is only about an hour and a half away. That said, sometimes it’s nice to throw in an “easy” state, so I figured I would end my 2017 season with a December race in Milwaukee.
When I came across the Festivus One Miler on runningintheusa.com, it immediately jumped out as the race to do. I’d never raced just a straight mile before, and was curious what sort of time I could post. At the same time, the spirit of the race was fundamentally lighthearted, featuring a ceremonial “airing of grievances” before the start, and a beer stop at the half-mile mark. So really, my goal became seeing how fast I could run a mile while stopping for a beer halfway through (and ideally not puking on the way to the finish line).
I’d originally planned to run the race with a friend and his wife, but alas, they had to bail last minute due to the dreaded December crud going around. Fortunately, it wasn’t too difficult to make last-minute arrangements to get myself to Wisconsin…I reserved a rental car for later that day, and around 3pm I headed up to Milwaukee, giving myself plenty of time to find parking near the race and pick up my packet.
Truth be told, I spent more time driving to and from the race than at the race itself, but for the short time I was there, the Festivus One Miler certainly delivered on what I anticipated to be its humor and lightheartedness. A couple of minutes before the race start, they played excerpts from Seinfeldover the loudspeakers as an “intro” to the holiday made famous by the show, and true to the promise in their advertising, we then all partook in a collective airing (read: indistinct shouting) of grievances. Then, we got on our way, dashing up Brady Street toward the awaiting libations.
Perhaps my only grievance about the race itself was that at the beer stop, the beer was warm. They had warned us about this ahead of time, but nothing can really adequately prepare a person for the flavor of warm Bud Light, which can only be described as…unfortunate. My original intent was to finish the beer before continuing on, but I got a few sips in before I just couldn’t. But! I thought brilliantly to myself. Maybe I can sip it WHILE I run the last half mile!
So I headed out from the beer stop, warm mini Bud Light in hand. This turned out to be a terrible life choice, because running=shaking, and shaking beer=foamy disaster. My gloves probably still smell like booze. At any rate, I choked down a few more sips of foamy, warm beer mid-run before finally deciding the multitasking involved was not worth the effort, and without missing a beat, tossed the rest into a trashcan that I passed by in the last quarter mile.
Having bailed on the beer, I could fully focus on finishing strong, though I really didn’t have too high of expectations. Much to my surprise, though, I ended up finishing in 7:24, well below my previous mile PR of 8 minutes (which, it should be noted, I had done on a treadmill without trying to drink a beer halfway through). Success? I’d say so!
So, after solidly breaking the 8-minute mile barrier for my last 2017 race, I am heading into the holiday season feeling energized and excited. Wishing you all a happy Festivus/Hanukkah/Christmas/Kwanzaa/New Year’s/etc., and looking forward to seeing 2018 takes us all!
One of the things I love most about running is the people. Though I mostly train solo and wouldn’t have it any other way, on race day, I get such a rush from the camaraderie of my fellow runners, the race staff and volunteers, and the friends and family who come to cheer us all on. Very little in the world compares to that feeling of unity, common cause, and all-around positive energy, whether it’s an 80,000-person race or 80-person race. The race I ended up doing in Arkansas this past weekend definitely fell on the 80-person side of the spectrum, but I have truly never encountered a friendlier, more charming group of people, from fellow participants to volunteers, in any race I’ve ever done.
To start from the beginning, I stumbled into the Hot Spring County Homeless Coalition’s Running for Cover 5K Run and Fun Walk by sheer coincidence. For the past few months, I have been trying to visit a friend of mine in Arkansas, but the trip kept getting derailed for one reason or another, most recently because of my cat being sick and not stable enough to leave with a sitter. Fortunately, by late September Kitty Girl had stabilized enough that I felt ok about scheduling the trip, so we finally set a date for this past weekend.
With plane tickets in hand at last, I did a quick search on runningintheusa.com for races within a 50-mile radius of Little Rock the weekend I was scheduled to be there. My options were either the Soaring Wings of Conway Half Marathon/10K or the Running for Cover 5K. While I am sure the Soaring Wings of Conway Half Marathon/10K is a wonderful event (and I am itching to take another crack at the 10K distance sooner rather than later), the Running for Cover 5K won out for having a 9:00am start time as opposed to a 7:00am start time. When you are Not A Morning Person and ON VACATION to boot, such considerations matter. Especially when your friend, who is also Not A Morning Person, has very graciously agreed to chauffeur and accompany you on your adventure!
After my most recent two hellaciously hot and humid slogs in Pennsylvania and Chicago, I am happy to report that race day dawned 65 degrees and overcast. As I ate my pre-race bagel with peanut butter, I silently gave thanks to the weather gods that I had finally gotten a race day with reasonably ideal weather conditions. Hooray for being able to aim higher than mere survival! I had no idea what course conditions would be like, but if it was flat, I was hoping to break 28 minutes. Barring that, PR-ing would be the next best thing, or maintaining a sub-30 minute pace if the course was particularly hilly. Or at least if I had to drop down to “survival” as my goal, it would be because the course turned out to be something reminiscent of the Leadville 100, not because the weather was too hot. A different kind of challenge!
Besides the info provided on the registration page when I signed up, I hadn’t been able to find out much about this race ahead of time. All I knew was that we were supposed to meet in the Malvern Taco Bell parking lot sometime before the 9am start time. A colleague at work pointed out that this sounded like the beginning of a murder mystery. My worries centered less on being murdered and more on showing up at this random parking lot in Malvern, AR, and finding no one else there. However, I’m happy to report that (spoiler alert) I did not get murdered, and when we arrived at the designated Taco Bell shortly after 8, a good-sized crowd had already gathered.
Once we got there, I made a beeline for the registration table while my friend made a beeline for a coffee refill at the nearby Valero station. Turns out that I was one of just a tiny handful of non-locals participating. One of the organizers asked where I was from, and when I replied, I also mentioned that this was my Arkansas stop on my quest to run a race in all 50 states. She absolutely lit up, excitedly asking how I found the race, and what brought me to Arkansas?
I explained the story, and much to my surprise, it led to my becoming something of a mini-celebrity at this little race. When they made the pre-race announcements, I got a shout-out from the stage and wild cheers from the crowd when they learned of my 50-state plan and that I had ended up at their race for my Arkansas stop. I usually try to avoid the limelight whenever I can and go out of my way to fly under the radar, but in this case, the reception was so heartwarming I couldn’t help but enjoy everyone’s enthusiasm, friendliness, and the general air of that famous Southern hospitality.
Not long after the announcements, it was finally time to head over to the starting line and get into position, runners in the front, walkers in the back. I wasn’t quite sure how fast the group was likely to be, so I seeded myself just behind the runners in the very front. As soon as the clock hit 9:00am, one of the race volunteers shouted, “GO!” and we all took off, dashing out of the parking lot and onto the adjacent side road.
Out on the course and taking in the scenery, it reminded me a lot of Nelsonville, OH, a town just outside Athens, OH, where I went to college. The route passed by a few roadside churches and a smattering of mom-and-pop stores, but the surrounding landscape was absolutely stunning with its tree-lined hills rolling majestically into the distance.
Ah yes, hills. Did I mention those? While the course was mostly flat and thus familiar terrain for this Chicagoan, we did have one substantial hill to contend with. The fun part was during the first half of the race, when we got to run down said hill. I just went for it, gleefully flying as fast as I could go without completely losing control and falling on my face. I felt like a small child, and it was all I could do to keep from squealing with delight. The simple pleasures in life, amirite?
After the downhill sprint, I dropped back to my normal race speed, which I figured I would hold through the turnaround point until I had to contend with the uphill climb, then I would maintain perceived effort level. It was some time shortly after the turnaround that I noticed, much to my surprise, that I was actually one of the lead female runners. Holy crap! I realized at that moment. I might actually place! I had never found myself in such a position before (and to be real, likely won’t again for quite some time), but it definitely provided a huge boost of energy and motivation going into the final stretch!
At last, I saw the uphill stretch looming ahead. “All right, you got this,” I said aloud to myself, psyching myself up for what I knew would be the hardest part. Yet, I trusted that the speedwork I’d done for the past few weeks would get me through the climb without too much trouble, and it turned out to be true. Once I got to the top, I stole a peek over my shoulder, and realizing I was home-free with no one in striking distance, I sailed for the finish line about half a mile in the distance, crossing the line 3 seconds under my previous PR time (which, I may add, I set on a very flat course!).
But the best part of all? Y’all, I PLACED, outright winning my age division! As someone who is very used to back-of-the-pack finishes, I could hardly believe it, and I got such a kick out of the fact that I actually for once had to hang around for the awards ceremony. Plus, in waiting around, I got to meet some lovely people, with conversations ranging from what states I was planning to hit next to (more importantly) where my friend and I should go to get breakfast afterwards (the answer, as it turns out, is Randy’s City Cafe, in case you find yourself in Malvern sometime and need somewhere to eat).
In all seriousness, I couldn’t have asked for a better all-around race experience or a friendlier group of folks to run it with, and I will absolutely treasure the memory of this race (and the rest of my time in Arkansas) for a long time to come. To the good people of the Hot Spring County Homeless Coalition, thank you so much for the warm welcome and for putting on such a fantastic event! And more importantly, kudos for the important work you all are doing in your efforts to aid those in need and bring a much-needed homeless shelter to Hot Spring County.
To support the efforts of the HSCHC, mail a tax-deductible donation to: Hot Spring County Homeless Coalition, Inc. P.O. Box 472 Malvern, AR 72104
I am not one of those people who sailed into the world of running, buoyed by endless reserves of natural ability. My first foray into the sport was an ill-fated attempt at cross country during my middle school years. Somehow, I reasoned at the time, getting involved in a sport would rescue my social standing from the depths of nerd-dom, and given that I had absolutely zero ability at any sport involving hand-eye coordination (let’s not talk about the time I accidentally CAUGHT THE BALL during a game of volleyball in 6th grade gym class), cross-country seemed like a safe bet. No flying projectiles to dodge, just me, myself, and I, gracefully galloping through the woods. Or so I envisioned. Nevermind that I had never so much as jogged around the block before attempting this feat, I was gonna be a runner!
Suffice it to say, I started off at the back of the pack during the first day of summer conditioning practice, and really it only went downhill from there. The top runners on our team finished races in times faster than I could even think. Meanwhile, my one and only season as a student athlete was marked with near-constant last place finishes and a whole lot of wheezing. In one particularly egregious instance, I finished (in last place of course) a race on an overcast, 45-50-degree October day. Turns out cold air + asthma + exertion was a pretty gnarly combination for me at the time…I gasped for air like a dying fish at the finish line and could hardly speak, which prompted my parents (thanks Mom and Dad!) to whisk my sorry self straight into the school cafeteria for a 20-minute nebulizer treatment. Remember that part about wanting to improve my social standing and be one of the cool kids? Turns out that “doing a breathing treatment in your school cafeteria after finishing a race in dead last place and nearly collapsing at the finish line” is not generally how you do it, at least in middle school.
Still, I gritted my teeth, toughed out the rest of the season, and got to the end with my dignity mostly intact. Unfortunately with school sports being the overly competitive minefields they have become in modern times, I felt that there was no point in trying again the next year. No one ever said it out loud, but the serious lack of encouragement and ability-appropriate advice from the coaches spoke volumes, heaping an extra layer of shame onto the the humiliation I felt at literally not being able to keep up with my teammates. Perhaps my experience would have been different had I tried again the next year, but at the time I decided to call it a day and focus on other, more promising interests far outside the realm of athletics.
I didn’t attempt to run again for another 8 years, but in college I had a few friends convince me to try the Couch to 5K, and I fell in love with it. I finished my first 5K, then a half-marathon, and a few other 5Ks and 10Ks in the subsequent years, stories which I’m sure will unfold over time on this blog. The world of running I have discovered since my middle school cross country days is so much different than the world of running as an interscholastic sport. It’s a world that’s inclusive of a wide variety of speeds, abilities, goals, and attitudes. Where people cheer each other on, and the person who guts it out for a last-place finish is as worthy of celebration as the person who wins the entire race. I’m not necessarily advocating for “participation trophies” here—winning outright is awesome and shouldn’t be cheapened in any way. But it’s also awesome in its own right when someone who has never run in their life laces up their shoes, trains for, and finishes their first race. Or when people recovering from serious illness or injury get back out on the course, slower but still determined to do what they can, as best they can. Or when people finish a 100-mile race, regardless of how fast they do it.
I hope to capture the best of that world in this blog and as I travel to different places and races across the U.S., with my goal to complete a race in all 50 states. Because I get bored running the same distance and terrain all the time, I’ll be tackling a variety of distances, from the mile to the marathon (and maybe more!). Someday I’d also love to try trail racing. The only rules for a race to count are:
It has to be an official race for which participants register (so, no going for a jaunt around the block and claiming a new state that way).
A race does NOT have to be exclusively running, but it does need to have a running component (i.e., triathlons count, bike races do not).
I have to finish the race, even if it means crawling on all fours across the finish line.
Otherwise, it’s all fair game, and I’ll be documenting my progress on the state map and list of races. Here’s to the start of a wild, wonderful adventure!