On Saturday, January 7th, I, John C. Harris, the Fat Slow Triathlete, participated in my first official Trail Race, the Croom Zoom 25K in the Withlacoochee forest.
This ain’t no triathlon ladies and gentlemen.
All of us here down in the Sunshine State love to brag about our warm weather, our bright sunshine, our ability to train when our northern brothers and sisters are relegated to indoor trainers and treadmills. Every once in a while however, mother nature likes to remind us of who really is in charge. Weeks of nice warm weather turned sour Friday night around 8:00. The rain came in like a beast and decided to stay until, oh, about the time I would be finishing the race. Disney cancelled their half marathon on that Saturday due to reports of lightning and hail, so there was some doubt in my head, as I got in my car at 3:00 AM, if the race was going to happen or not. The temperature at that time was still 72, but the rain was there, and was predicted to get worse. The sky lit up with lightning as I headed the 45 miles north to the race start. Were they going to call this thing? I was not sure how I felt about this. I have never been nervous about running events like I get with triathlon’s, but my stomach was doing flips about this one. The fear of the unknown I chalked it up to, but my apprehension was growing the closer I got to the venue.
I arrived at 4:10 AM and it was pitch black. I found a spot easily though, and could see them setting up for packet pickup, so stayed in my car until 4:45 then grabbed my head lamp and walked over to the group. I didn’t know anyone so I stayed off to the side, not wanting to look stupid or sound stupid. I heard one woman ask if the race was going to happen and the race director, a very nice guy, laughed and said “this is a trail race … we NEVER cancel a race”.
Well, that answered that question.
I got my packet and headed back to the car. I didn’t start until 7 AM so I had a good two hours to kill, so I settled in, rechecked and rechecked again everything I had brought, and watch the groups start to pile in. Right before 6 AM, when the 100 mile, 100k, and 50k’s were due to start, the sky opened up and rain poured down so hard you could not even see 5 feet in front of you. But I could see the headlamps, and they were all there, ready to go. They delayed it until 6:30, but right on cue, with the rain still coming down, I could see them head out into the woods.
It started getting a little better at 6:45 so I grabbed my pack and headed up to the start. I finally saw someone I knew, Beth Shaw, and she gave me some good tips about the race, which made me feel better about the whole thing. I made my way to the start and when the bell rang, headed off down the road on my first attempt at this trail racing thing. The first 7/10’s were on a paved road so I was walking fast most of it, making sure I didn’t get caught up in the thrill of the event, when it hit me.
I had to pee …
I NEVER have to pee during a race, but for some reason while running on trails I always have to go. Not sure why this is … maybe it is because I am surrounded by bathrooms (i.e. trees), or maybe it is because I am going slower so my body is not using the fluid in the same way. In any case, I had to GO. Luckily I was the last one, so I ducked into the woods and did what I needed to do, and then got back on track feeling much better.
I made the right hand turn onto the fire road and settled into a pretty good pace for me. Part of these trail runs right now is finding out what I can maintain and still get through it, so I am going even slower than I normally would. Reader’s know that I have arthritis issues in feet, so I was really attempting to find a cadence, and foot strike, that would allow me to get through the miles with as little pain as possible (there’s always going to be some). I normally start feeling at between mile 4-5, and even though I was feeling OK at this point I popped two Excedrin to see if I could head off anything bad before it happened. I think it might have worked.
The next turn was a crossroad and this was the first time I really questioned if I was on the right path. Here’s a big difference in trail running and road running. In trails there are no people standing at every turn to make sure you go the right way, and there are no nice, neat handmade signs to direct you. No. The instructions were to follow the orange surveyor flags. This worked well until this point when there was a crossroad and each direction had orange flags. To the left was a water stop (unmanned) and two the right just single track. There were hand-made signs but the rain had washed them away. Luckily for me, as I found out later, people started coming from the right hand side, so I figured that these were the earlier racers, so I went left toward the water stop. After about a mile I started to question it because people were coming up behind me constantly. I knew I was the last place 25K runner, so if these were also in that distance I had somehow gotten ahead of them.
Most were really running so I didn’t want to disturb paces by asking them until I saw another walker coming up behind me. I waited to the side and asked him what distance he was running.
“I think I made a wrong turn somewhere. I shouldn’t be ahead of you” I said to him.
“No, I made a wrong turn where the water stop was. I went right and should have gone left. Added 5 miles to my run before I came head to head with other racers”
I had luckily made the correct decision, but only because other runners came down the path. If it had not been for that I may have gone right as well. Beginners luck.
I got back to the beginning at Mile 6, asked once more to be sure I had the correct mileage (I did) then crossed the street to begin the 10 mile loop. two miles in what was a light sprinkle turn into a downpour. I had taken off my rain jacket at mile 3 because it had become too hot, but luckily kept it with me in my pack (Camelbak Ultra 10 … which is OUTSTANDING) so at the water stop at Mile 8 I grabbed it and shrugged it on. It was a good call because what started out as a run at 72 degrees was now a run at 60 degrees. And it was getting colder by the minute.
The last 10 miles were challenging for me, but the good thing was that my feet really didn’t start hurting bad until Mile 11-12, so that was a HUGE advantage for me. I was also slowed a bit because I was stopping a lot to let people by me on the single track. This may actually have helped the foot not hurt for so long. The people on this run were amazing. When I was stopped at a water point two runners came up and started talking to me, and I made the comment that I was pretty slow.
“Doesn’t matter”, he said. “You’re out here”.
And then he asked “Do you have everything you need? Do you need food or something?”
He was about to give me food from his own pack.
Now, I love triathlon’s, you all know I do, but it’s a rare triathlete, especially a competitive one like these guys, are ever going to stop in the middle of a race to offer you food from their belt, which would affect their race time. These runners are out here for the fun, the adventure, the crowd, the ability to revel in the great outdoors. I cannot count the number of times someone went by me, either running or walking, and commented how great the day was, whether it was raining or not. Even when I joked to one guy about it being so wet his reply was “yeah man, but how great is it to be out here doing this right?”
That is an attitude I can be part of, and it was catching.
I came across the finish line at just under 6 hours. My guess was between 5-6 hours so I was right where I thought I would be. I probably would have been in the 5:10:00 range if I had not been caught so much, but I really didn’t care. My goal was to find a pace I could maintain, and hopefully have that pace under the required time for the Infinitus 100 mile run (28:44). I did that (I was at 22:26). 15.8 miles. That is the longest I have run since my one and only marathon in 2012. And the best thing? My feet hurt but not to the point I was limping. I could have kept going.
The atmosphere at the finish was just as great as the whole race. Hamburgers being grilled, plenty of people hanging around and talking. The burgers were being cooked and placed on the table. No one was serving you. You just took what you needed.
I was wet. I was cold (the temperature was now 51, a full 20 degrees colder than when I started). And I felt GREAT.
So different. So great. So … inclusive and accepting.
I think I am liking this tribe.