When Mike suggested a few months ago that I sign up for the North Face Endurance Challenge race he had already registered for, I laughed. The race has the following course description on their page:
“Runners can expect technical terrain and rocky footing that cuts to the chase, with some trails heading steeply uphill rather than zigzagging at a gentler grade. Descents end in wooded hollows before the next rapid climb exposing breathtaking views. Make no mistake; this will be a true test of off-road endurance.“
I knew when I read the course description and saw the elevation profile that this wouldn’t be a pretty race for me if I ran it. I am the furthest thing from being a trail runner. I am the person who manages to trip and fall while running on the flattest section of roads. I am the person who accidentally steps on whatever random object happens to be sitting out in the middle of a sidewalk, rather than expertly avoiding it. I am clumsy. Putting myself in a technical terrain is asking for trouble.
But a few days before the race, I found myself warming up to the idea of running it. I was already travelling all the way to New York for the race and I knew that the only way to gain experience running on trails was to… well, run on them. So I signed up for the 5K race before I could change my mind and tried not to worry too much about it until Sunday.
We woke up bright and early at our hotel on Sunday morning to make our way to Bear Mountain. Thanks to little traffic and Siri’s help, we made it there with enough time to pick up our bibs, and go for a 20 min warm up jog before the race started.
I’d like to take a minute to mention that Mike did exactly what he came out here to do – to dominate the trail running scene and really shine in his element. Since his race started 15 minutes before mine, I was able to grab a couple shots of him starting. He really blew this race out of the water and I’m so proud of him! But, I’ll let you read about his experience here.
Not long after the 10K racers were off, it was time for us to line up at the start line as well. I tried to stay close to the middle, but in retrospect, I think I should have lined up even further back.
My race experience
The race started out on flat grass, which was great. I tried not to go crazy, but also told myself to take advantage of the flat areas to make up for the technical areas that would slow me down later. I made it maybe 500m or so before the “scary rocks” started…. basically, it was an entire downhill filled with large rocks and a stream of water running down it. I tried to lightly hop/jog around it but instantly freaked out and kept envisioning myself slipping and falling. So, I walked. I wasn’t happy about it, but I did what I had to do to feel safe. Lots of people started to pass me there… that was also not fun for my ego.
When we finally made it down that part, I (silently) rejoiced when we started our ascent. At least I feel like I have more control going uphill, even if it can do a number on your quads. I focused on keeping an even pace uphill and for the most part, I was challenged, but happy to be away from the scary rocks. Those rocks!
Just as I was starting to feel comfortable, we turned a corner and began our descent. That’s when I fell apart, mentally. It was pretty much my worst nightmare: a mix of large rocks littered all over the plunging downhill. They.were.everywhere. I stopped and stared at it, feeling really overwhelmed and wishing there was a way I could exit the race.
I took a deep breath and focused on putting one foot in front of the other. My heart was pounding at this point, not from exhaustion, but from fear. I was getting more frustrated with every step I took. Was this a trail running race, or a hike? While I tiptoed my way down the massive hill, people continued flying down the rocks on both sides of me, as if it was no big deal. I kept watching them skip from one rock to the next and felt a mixture of awe and annoyance at myself for not having enough courage to pick up the pace myself.
I kept waiting for the downhill portion to let up, but it felt like it was never going to end. When we finally reached the bottom, we took a slight detour on the road before immediately heading back onto the trails.
That’s when we hit the mud. It had rained pretty heavily the week leading up to the race, so the trails here were completely covered in mud. I gave up trying to keep my legs clean early on in the race and instead of dancing on the edges of the mud, I took a deep breath and plowed right through it. It was fun, but it wasn’t by any means any easier and I still couldn’t pick up the pace because I was so busy marching over branches and holes. I kept wondering if and when the terrain would even out again and we’d be back on flat ground.
When we hit the same rocky section with the streaming water from the beginning of the race, I knew we were closing in on the Finish line. I found running up this rocky section a lot easier than going down it. Even though I wasn’t going fast, I was determined to do something that resembled running more than walking. When we finally hit the flat section, I tried to pick up my speed, but it was kind of pointless because it was maybe 500m to the Finish line. My official time was 37:15… the slowest I have ever “run” a 5K.
Logically, I know you can’t compare road and trail times, but man, that time was hard to swallow! There is something about running in a timed environment that makes me want to do better than “just surviving”. It’s why I’m hesitant to just run races for fun. I know there are a lot of people who routinely do it. I know it’s good practice. But, I’m not one of those people. Maybe it will be me someday, but not right now. If I’m going to pay money to run a race, then I damn well want to put some effort into it! Otherwise, I could just run the same distance casually on my own. So, yes, I was disappointed that I had walked / marched / tiptoed throughout the entire 5K race and wished that I had gone into this more prepared. I don’t like walking into anything blindly, and that is exactly what I did for this race.
But it’s amazing what a few days can do for clarity. I can’t be disappointed in myself for trying it out. Realistically, I have never finished a trail run without feeling a little on edge. The price of beautiful scenery is uncertain footing less-safe-than-road conditions. Roads, for the most part, are predictable. And sometimes that can also make it boring. There’s something about the unpredictable terrain of running on the trails that terrifies me. This is definitely something I struggle with in my daily life as well. I want to take risks, and I want to try new things – but it is always a challenge for me and it is always scary.
Life is messy. Running is messy. And road running fitness does not equal trail running fitness. But damn it, despite feeling terrified throughout most of this 5K course due to my clumsiness and inexperience, running through the forest and splashing away in the pools of mud was pretty damn fun. When else do we ever really have an excuse to run outside with abandonment?
I didn’t fall in love with trail racing on Sunday. It still scares me. I don’t have a burning desire to become competitive in trail racing. But, I do see trail running as an opportunity to become a more versatile and stronger runner. At times, it has given me a sense of peace similar to what my yoga practice gives me.
And I kind of like that calm.