Sunday, August 26, 2012

Dirt Inspires Trail Half Marathon

Oh, trails! Trails.  What can I say about my first true trail race?  I can say that for me, trails will probably remain for hiking.  Maybe I will run another trail race someday, but  I definitely didn't catch the bug today.

When I say this was a "true trail race", I mean it involved 2400+ feet elevation gain, four creek crossings (wet shoes suck!), miles of skinny single track trails where I almost fell down a cliff to my death, and a required BYOW--bring your own water.  I missed that memo.  Which played a big part in making this trail half significantly harder for me and my body that it needed to be.

The steep climbs were actually nowhere near as terrifying as the steep descents

I showed up to run the Dirt Inspires women's half marathon in Nisene Marks State Park.  It is a beautiful park just next to Santa Cruz, with miles and miles of hiking.  Or running if you're crazy.

We went hiking in Nisene Marks State Park the day prior, which I knew wouldn't lead to fresh legs, but wasn't concerned

Poison Oak everywhere.  Poison.  Poison.  Poison

This tree was called the Advocate Tree, because Vagina Tree was too obvious

I showed up and my game face was not on because A) I was frankly afraid of the 2400+ ft climb and B) I had to wait around for an hour.  The race was delayed due to some parking issue, and I had shown up 30 minutes early to register.  By the time the race started, the caffeine had worn off and I was ready to go back to bed.

The Gentleman asked me for an action shot, so I lifted my leg.  

For shoes, I went with my Mizuno Wave Riders 15, a pair I occasionally wear, won them in a race last November, no strong feelings for them.  I thought my "meh" attitude towards them was good (knowing they would get a good beating), and hoped the tougher design of the shoe bottom would be able to handle the slippery dirt and twigs and general death traps that were awaiting me.

They worked fine enough, except I partially blame them on my quads seizing up at mile 3 due to squeezing my legs to brake on the downhills and sharp switchbacks.  Without the traction of a trail shoe to keep me from tumbling down the hills doing somersaults (I was...running too fast), I was tensing up my legs.  Quads frozen, I stopped and gave them a good stretch by a tree.  Some guy out for a run was like "get your shit together and run" and I was like "wah wah wah, I suck at trails!" but went on.  By slowing down significantly, my quads seemed to slowly release themselves.  Felt okay by mile 6.  They will be sore tomorrow.

So that happened. Other highlights include:

1) taking many-a-wrong turn.  I didn't realize til halfway through that there were bright pink ribbons tied to plants to direct us where to turn.  Just give me a break ok, I usually zone out when I'm running;

2) failing at walking on rocks while crossing streams.  Other girls made it seem so easy, and I swear a couple volunteers were heckling me -- "just run through the water already, you're getting your feet wet anyway" -- to which I responded, "I don't want to fall and get all of me wet," which was perfectly valid and very like to happen.  My balance skills are not impressive;

3) Cramping up like never before out of thirst.  I learned before the race started that there would be "water refill stations" but no cups, no bottles.  We were supposed to run with our own water.  Everywhere I looked, everyone had either a hand-held or those little pods of water that you wear like a fanny-pack.  I don't own either of these.

I considered running with a regular bottle of water, but decided it was too big, had a terrible grip, and would probably make me do something crazy like extra somersaults down the hill since I'm not used to the counter-balance of holding anything while running.

So while waiting around for the race to start I saw trail runner champion Caitlin Smith, who in her resume has qualified for the Olympic marathon trials (with a 2:41 marathon), won the Nike Women's marathon, and won the Northface Endurance Challenge, and basically wins every. single. trail run, from 13.1 miles to 62 miles, that she enters.  And sets all sorts of course records.

Caitlin didn't have a handheld.  Before the race started, I said, "I noticed you aren't carrying water.  What's your plan?"  And she said, "I don't need any water."  So I thought, I'll survive.  Caitlin Smith doesn't need any water, I don't need any water.

Caitlin Smith in the front in the bikini.  Whatever you call it.  I'm behind her in the blank tank.

I did survive, so I guess I didn't need any.  But, Caitlin Smith is a little bit more of a major elite badass than I am and has a camel stomach that hoards water for hibernation or trail running.

The problems arose when I stuffed some food (gatorade chews, dried cherries) down at mile 10. The food mixed with NO water led to these crazy stabbing cramps under both sides of my ribs.  Miles 10-13 were misery.  Yuck.

In case you're wondering, I did consider cupping my hands under the fill station kegs (whatever they're called) but my hands were very dirty (climbing up roots and rocks) and I suspected they may have had poison oak on them, so I chose not to.

4) My Garmin didn't work half the time.  I figured that would happen in the hills, so it goes without saying I paid no mind to pace or what mile I was at.

Not sure of the results, I do know Caitlin Smith won, a source (the Gentleman) said she finished in 1:35, and I counted five women ahead of me to put me in 6th place overall.

I was in second place until my quads seized during the third mile, at which point I had to tell a very encouraging woman behind me on a single track trail ("You're still good, keep going, I'll be right behind you, we'll push it together!") that my legs were broken and she should really pass me.  The quad issue put me in fourth place for the middle chunk of the run, and once the thirsty cramps started near mile 10 I slowed down into 6th place.   Someone was adamant that I finished in 4th place, but unless women dropped out, that doesn't seem right.  I saw 1:55:xx on the clock when I ran in.  My Garmin was way stupid and said 1:44 for 12.3 miles.

The first and last mile was on a paved road

I had been wearing arm warmers, and I rolled them down and treated them like a sweat band.  (And a snot band).  I wore the compression socks because I am afraid of poison oak.

Put a fork in me

From what my watch did capture, my splits were in the 7:00 minute zone for the first three miles, then between 9:00 and 11:00 minutes for the middle 7 miles, and then back to the 7:00 and low 8:00 pace range for the last miles.  Average pace of 8:33 for the 12 miles that my Garmin caught.  I think the official pace for a 1:55 half-marathon is closer to 8:50.
5) I seriously almost killed myself 50 times.  I had NO BRAKES and was flying down some booby-trapped steep trails (boobied by tree roots and the like).  Thrilling indeed, but I think if there is a next time for me and trail running, I need some great traction shoes and probably need to go slower downhill.

6) This one is the most important thing.  This is the GOOD part.

Even though I started this post by saying how my lesson learned is that I love trails, but love them for hiking and not for running, know this: there were moments, out there in the middle of fern gully, with nothing in earshot but the sound of my feet and breath and some birds having a party, where the narrow trail gifted me a stretch of path that was as close to flat and root-free as a trail will ever be, and I felt like I was riding a horse.  I was just gliding through the wilderness.  It was beautiful everywhere I looked and the shaded woods whipped by like a dream and I felt in that moment like I really was born to run.

Then my pulse spiked as I almost tumbled down a cliff, and I tottered down some rocks and roots and went on my clunky way.

Trails, guys: yay or nay?  Hiking or running?


  1. trail running is no joke. so different from road, in a good way I think. But yeah you can def kill yourself many times. The peacefulness out in the woods is what I love best. I haven't run many trail races, but never have a goal time bc it seems so hard to gauge what your pace will be like since they are so crazy. Congrats on 6th!

  2. I love me some trails. The more elevation gain, the better. Hiking or running, I'm in. Also, nice job! 2400+ feet of gain is no joke, sounds like a challenging course.

  3. I've never run on trails really, except a three-mile race, so no experience here. I don't like running on the dirt streetcar tracks, though,and they're smooth and pancake flat, so I'm guessing I wouldn't love it.

  4. Yay for trails, of course! Though, I definitely go into them with a completely different approach than road races. Road races are all about speed, whereas trails are about grit and determination -- not to mention balance and agility! In general, I like the crowds at trail races better too. Much friendlier than at road races.

    I think I might spend my whole life trying to master running downhill. It's definitely 100x harder than running uphill.

    Congrats on finishing a tough course!

  5. You're a crazy person for running that course without real trail shoes. Madness.

    I just ran my first trail race last week and thought it was glorious. All 200' of elevation, lovely.

  6. I love trail running, but I've never trail raced. I have a feeling it would be very different.

  7. I may be the only person on this planet that doesn't love trail running. Yesi love nature and I love trails, but leave that for hiking. I have no endurance for those hills, and without an ACL on my right knee, flying down hill is not an option either. So, no thanks. I gave it a try, more than a few tries, me no likey.

  8. Was your race in Aptos? I think some people from my running group went up to run that this weekend. Trail running in NJ was very different than trail running in So Cal. Mostly: rattlesnakes. Also: elevation. I like both running and hiking. I do some solo shorter trail running where there's still cell reception, but to prevent me from being eaten by a mountain lion or rattlesnake, I save longer trails for hiking with the hubby. I did a trail half in March and I'm doing another in November in Griffith Park- it's going to kick my butt. Kudos to you for doing so well at your first trail half and in non-trail shoes!

  9. I love trail races. As long as you are realistic and know you aren't in for a race PR then they can be beautiful just like you described. I am TERRIBLE at gliding over river beds and over roots, but it is fun! Some people are built with a fearless deposition so they can run straight down a rocky hill. I am TERRIBLE at gliding over river beds and over roots, but it is fun! Glad you had a great race!

  10. This is seriously awesome. Even though it seems like one of the hardest thing I've ever read about in my life, great work. I could not imagine trying to cross a river in the middle of the bumbling ass would have rolled down the mountain.

  11. This was a really enjoyable race report. I like trail running, but not always trail racing. Unless you're on a princess trail, it's hard to get into that meditative zone-out state, what with all the obstacles, stream crossings, and slippery-ass roots and rocks that are gumming up my momentum. I also do a poor job managing my expectations on trails sometimes. So I like to leave trails for just regular training runs.

  12. I've done three trail races; two half marathons and one full, and I've enjoyed two of them. The other one was listed as a trail race but really it was a fell thing with orienteering required and NO course markings. I got totally lost and had a mini-breakdown in the middle of nowhere. Thankfully another runner found me and pointed me in the right direction. And thank God that was a half and not the full. I really like running on different surfaces (so much better for the ol' bones) and the scenery is a great distraction. I'm also weird and like running through water and mud, plus my chunky quads and huge butt actually have some use on trails for powering up hills and dealing with the descents, whereas on roads all of the skinny speedy whippets kick said butt pretty conclusively.

    So yes to trail running, NO to fell running. And that 'yes' comes with the condition that the course is actually marked properly. I am also weird and don't run with water, so that might help me too I suppose.

    But yes, do use trail shoes if you try again! I can't imagine racing those descents in regular running shoes - you did so well not to fall over, let alone put in a good time!


  13. Did you just want to cross this off your bucket list or were you really itching to race a trail?
    That's an awesome result for all the trouble you had with it. Congratulations!
    I'm way too klutzy to attempt a trail race. That, combined with my zero sense of direction would be a hot mess.
    I do love running on trails, though. However, the ones I've experienced are all (Florida) flat. Roots & cow pies are about the only obstacles.

  14. Trailssssssssssssss!!!! I LOVE them (obviously) and try to do all my runs on them :) but it is different very different from road running. It takes some getting used to, but it's so great. I hope this doesn't mean that I won't be getting you out on them with me sometime soon - we still have a makeup run to go on ;)

    Nicely done by the way! For not being a "trail runner" you killed that race.

  15. I love this post! Especially the paragraph in #6. I absolutely love the way you write about running.

  16. Trail running scares the hell out of me and my too-flexible ankles. Props to you for going out there and hanging on to 6th, frozen quads and all.

  17. I too have experienced the gu-sans-water-there-is-a-demon-beneath-my-ribs cramp before. Yuck. Amazing job coming in 6th though!

    I love trails, but I find it hard to do them for races. In a race, my mindset is compete! run fast! win! which can be kind of antithetical to just flowing into that peaceful run and lapping up the surroundings... which is what most trail running seems to be about.

  18. Gotta say, this was one of your best race reports - very entertaining with tons of twists and turns! For someone who doesn't run trails that often, you killed that race. Bummer about the quads seizing up, seems like you were running great until that point. I'm surprised that you don't have a fuel belt, going a 13 mile trail race with no water seems crazy to me. I wear a fuel belt on pretty much every run: (for half marathons and marathons I simply take out the bottles and just puts gels in the pouch, then get fluid at water stops)

    And that park looked like a great one!

    2400 feet elevation gain for a half marathon is a ton - those hills look rough. About your question on shoes, unless you literally want to fly down the hills and have super good traction the entire time, I don't think you need separate trail shoes. I've done lots of trail races (over very similar terrain that you did), and I don't have separate trail shoes. Though I've never ran through a stream on the course before!

    And yea, if you like zoning out while you run, trail running is not for you. It is mentally draining always looking down at your feet so that you don't step on a rock or off the trail. But is necessary to almost always look down at your feet though!

    The most hills I've done in a race is 1345 feet elevation gain in a 10K, crazy hills lol

  19. Awesine run! Love the action shots...

  20. I am fine running uphill on trails, but have me face down a downhill and I am full-blown legs-shaking panic-attack-ing on the side of the path. I'd really like to get better at that, and actually bought trail shoes in the hopes they'll help, because I pretty much gave up hiking when I started running, and now I miss the peacefulness of the woods.

    Once I took Jelly Belly Sport Beans without water and I thought I was going to actually die.

    Awesome race — and love the pre-race "action shot," too. Enthusiastic!

  21. 1. No zoning out during trail races and you will be happier/not broken.
    2. Don't worry about pace because you don't know how fast you should be going uphill unless you run them all the time AND your Garmin will cut out from time to time. Try the next one (you want to do another one by the way) by feel.
    3. Trail runs can definitely be treacherous and use shoes with good cushioning to help with the down hills. Also the best way to run down hill is to just run!

    I run Brazen Racing trail races about one or two times a month and they are challenging, well marked, have about 4 aid stations for the half distances, relatively cheap ($50-$60 for the half) and they also have 5K and 10K distances to help you build up your trail running. I know you ran their Western Pacific half but that was probably the worst course they host, almost all of the rest are trail runs, beautiful, and awesome.

    I've also had the honor of running with Caitlin Smith at a few Brazen races and she is a beast from what I can tell of her times (I've only run next to her for about a mile and then she dusts me not that I'm anything special...yet).

  22. I love trail running! I swear that it strengthens muscles and tendons that don't get used in road running. Plus it forces you to focus on the trail and you don't have time to think about all the stressful things in your life. And it's an excuse for slower times. Sorry you didn't catch the bug, but you did awesome anyways and your race report was entertaining.

  23. I like running but not racing on trails.

    I'll bet you would havee won if you'd been wearing a sparkly skirt. I have one you can borrow next time. I bet Caitlin Smith doesn't have one of those. Secret weapon ;-)

  24. they always say never say never. well, for my I'm pretty sure that I can safely say the I'll never want to register for a race in the trails. I like the feeling of the road under my feet. YOU did great for your 1st trail race! congrats!! great pics too!! :) :)


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