First race report of 2014! Hooray!
Before the season really got started, I had pipe dreams of trying to do a super early season half ironman, but Jen snapped me back to reality (reality being I'd not done rides longer than 2 hours and was still eating cookies for breakfast) and I opted instead to do a half marathon in January and a half marathon in February. There aren't a whole lot of half marathon choices in the mid-Atlantic in January. I found a trail half marathon in Charlotte, NC. Charlotte is a town neither Mr. Sweetie nor I had ever visited (airplane layovers don't count), but it has been on our list. Add to that our good friends and former neighbors Lindsay and Andrew recently moved down to Charlotte and we had set of perfectly great reasons to visit this weekend.
The Charlotte Running Co Trail Half Marathon was held at the US National Whitewater Center on their extensive trail network. In addition to the 13 miler, they also had a 9 miler and 4 miler. The website advertised all distances as "approximate" and at the end of the race, my Garmin registered only 12.25 (but I was pretty thrilled to be done and - at that point - I was hoping the course would be a bit short given how shot my legs were feeling). So, whether it was truly short or my Garmin's satellite reception was crummy with me being in the woods 99% of the race, is neither here nor there. Everyone is racing the same course and time/distance doesn't really matter but placing does.
The race had a 9am start so I was able to sleep in a little bit, which is always a treat. We arrived plenty early to pick up my packet and get situated. I had only done one trail half marathon in the past - it was on an old railroad track bed, nice and wide, gentle false flat on the way out and a slight downhill on the way back. In other words, it was like running on a soft road, no need to pay special attention to your footing or worry you were going to hurtle into a tree at the bottom of a twisty downhill that spins you out of control. So, having had that experience, it was easy to believe that this trail half marathon would be the same thing. Then, earlier last week, I took a look at the trail map for the race site and it was marked with green circles, blue squares, and black diamonds, kind of like a ski map. My first clue this would be a bit more challenging and require some eye-foot coordination - no zoning out allowed! This also explained why the times looked a bit slower than you would normally see in a road half marathon.
The 9- and- 13 mile racers lined up at 9am, while the 4-milers started at 9:30am. I had debated whether to wear heavy gloves and a heavier lined outer layer in addition to my regular long-sleeved shirt because it was chilly. At the last minute I opted for light gloves and no outer layer because the sun was up and it had warmed up - plus, it's always a good idea to add 20 degrees to the temperature when you are warmed up from running. Halfway through the race, my fingers were totally warmed up and it felt like the perfect temperature. I lined up a few rows back from the front - with there being 9 milers mixed in, I knew some people would start off fast fast and I didn't want to get in their way. My plan was to start off at a reasonably sustainable pace, especially since I didn't know how hilly or technical the trails would be, and then try to pick it up halfway through, terrain allowing. At the very least, I didn't want to go out too fast and then get passed by everyone and their grandmother, that's always a bit embarrassing.
The first three-quarters of the race went around a gravel parking lot, up and down a hill, and then out towards the entrance to the single-track trail. I went a bit faster than felt comfortable, to get myself in the best position I could going into the single-track because it would be trickier to make passes there. The single-track was immediately full of ups and downs and bridges and tight turns. It kind of reminded me of the Backyard Burn race held at Hemlock - though these hills were shorter and a bit steeper than Hemlock's and it wasn't quite as rocky as Hemlock. People were really nice and let you know when they were passing and would move over when you made a pass. It felt really crowded for the first 3-4 miles and I often couldn't tell if the people I was passing were part of the 9 or the 13 mile race and I eventually just gave up trying to guess and just ran like they were all in the 13 miler. Often I'd find myself on the heels of another runner and need to assess whether I wanted to stay at their pace or surge ahead at the next opportunity - I feel like trail racing is more tactical than road racing, at least for us age groupers, because it requires quick assessments and decisions and not making the right choices can impact how many seconds you lose because you are stuck (or how many minutes you lose because you decided to go for it and blew up your legs in the process, trying to skitter around all of your competitors). I quickly stopped looking at my Garmin to see my mile splits or do the math to figure out my potential overall time - there's no use comparing a trail race to road race times, especially on single track and technical trails. It was around mile 4, going up a hill, that I had a "holy cow, rein it IN" type-of moment. I stopped trying to sprint up the hills to pass people - steady consistency wins the race. Little steps up the hills and then pick up the pace on the flats and on the downhills as much as possible.
I had passed a few girls in the beginning, as we entered the trails, and after awhile I wasn't seeing too many of them. After a particularly hilly section, I reeled in another girl and I saw she had the same color bib as me. As we started going by water stations, I'd hear from some of the volunteers - at the first station, they said I was 4th female. I didn't know if they meant 4th half marathon female or 4th female in general, including the 9 milers. At a later water station, I heard I was the 2nd half marathon female. And then at another station I couldn't tell if they said I was second or sixth female. It didn't really matter - I had seen one other half marathon female ahead of me by a few minutes and I kept my focus on her, even though it was highly unlikely I was going to catch her. There seemed to be a sizable gap between me and the girl I had passed earlier in the race, so I wasn't running scared - it was more just try to hold onto the place I was in and reel in the girl ahead of me. She would have to have a spectacular meltdown for that to happen, as she had a good 3-4 minutes on me, but it still didn't hurt to put forth the effort. The last 3 miles of the race were flatter and the trail was wider - THANK GOODNESS. My legs were tired and almost-wobbly feeling by that point, after the hills in the earlier sections. I am eternally grateful race organizers put the more technical stuff first - I would've been a hot mess careening down hills and scrambling up inclines later in the race. We went around a small lake and at times I was totally by myself (and hoping I hadn't taken a wrong turn). Once in awhile I'd catch a glimpse of the guy ahead of me, which was reassuring that I was still on course.
Around 11 miles into the race, my watch was well past the 1:30 mark and I felt a bit disappointed about how slow I must've been going and felt almost positive that the volunteers who said I was 2nd half marathon female were completely wrong. As I wound my way around the lake, I could hear the finish line announcer's voice get louder and closer and it seemed like maybe I was going to be done sooner rather than later - maybe the course was short or my Garmin satellite reception was off, but when I emerged from the woods at Mile 12, and could see the finish line in the distance, I did not care. I WAS ALMOST DONE. There was one more uphill between me and that finish line and I crossed the line in 1:46:17. I ended up finishing 2nd female OA, taking home a mason jar AND a pair of armwarmers (win!). Lindsay, Andrew and their adorable daughter came out to watch the finish and we spent the rest of the day catching up with them and eating yummy food. It was a great weekend.