Monday, October 27, 2014

A Very Poplar Run Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 9; 18th Edition 
253 miles run in 2014 races
Race: A Very Poplar Run
Place: Boardman Tree Farm, OR
Miles from home: 180 miles
Weather: 50s; Partly cloudy

A few months ago I was on my way to run the Windermere Marathon in Spokane.  Having traveled this particular stretch of Route 84 through Eastern Oregon numerous times, I finally decided to take a picture of this exceedingly large tree farm I passed each time.

 I posted it on my Facebook and mentioned running through the trees would be akin to the GET OVER HERE! scene from the atrocious Mortal Kombat movie. No sooner had I posted this picture then someone said "They actually do run a race there." I felt like Sheila Broflovski. I knew I had to run in this place.

Fast forward the rest of this maddening year of odd pains and aches in my calf muscles/achilles tendon and you have me earlier this week. On a Tuesday I ran one of my best feeling workouts in months upon months. Taking on my Bridge Run in Portland, I breezed through a workout, covering the distance in the third fastest I ever had. I had forgotten what it was like to run pain free.  Then the next day, I cut short and slowed an already planned shorter and slower run as I felt a twinge in my calf again. To paraphrase John Wayne, this whole leg business was getting Ri-god-damn-diculous. So I slowed down my runs the rest of the week and realized that merely experiencing the race was the main point of this weekend. Getting to the finish of the awesomely punnily named A Very Poplar Run was the only thing which was important.

The Boardman Tree Farm where the race takes place (races, actually, as there was a 1 mile kids run, a 5k, a 10k and the 15k I ran) comprises nearly 30,000 acres of space. In this farm, there are roughly twelve million Pacific Albus poplars. Twelve million. Symmetrically planted close together, these trees create an almost optical illusion of sorts with rows and rows of identically shaped and sizes trees roughly 8 feet apart.

Even with my less than stellar preparation, given the niche nature of the race, the fine people both staffing ad volunteering it, and the fact that the race benefited the Agape House, an outreach program whose mission is to provide basic services to those in need in the surrounding areas, I was extremely excited to take part.

The race itself had a rather later starting time of 10:30 a.m.  For this night owl, there are few things better than a completely respectable race time.  Given the weather is almost always cool this time of year here, finishing close to noon is not much of a problem. In addition, we had a special treat from the weather gods.  While it did not rain the day of the race, there had been a fair amount of rain coming into the race weekend.  This water, badly needed in Eastern Oregon also wet down a lot of the sand and dirt we would be running on.  Not only did it keep the dust from flying it made the sand itself much easier to run on (picture a beach at low tide.)

The course footing definitely falls into the cross-country variety.  I was not aware of exactly what running on this would be like as I had never actually done a cross-country race.  I know without a doubt it it totally different than running on road. As I had not had a chance to check out the course prior too racing, I knew I would find out once we started.

The 15k had the lowest number of participants of the 500 or so registered for the races. We milled around in front of plentiful portapotties and a few fires lit to keep people warm.  It was a nice cool morning and I am sure those who were cold greatly appreciated it.  I actually positioned my friend Shannon between me and the fire. She was chilly and I would have burst into sweat rivulets if the fire got to close. I joked that the fires near so many trees were sorta of a threat to the trees to grow well. Sort of like the seafood concession stand at Sea World.

We ambled to the start which we could see was a well-packed dirt road sloping slightly upward. This wasn't the ridiculous uphill start of the Bix 7 mile race but it would be upward nonetheless. I chatted with a few of the people who were in charge with putting on the race and they thanked me for taking part and promoting it.  I thanked them for letting us take part in such an wonderful event on private property.

The proverbial gun was fired and away we went.

First 5k:
A quick look around and I guessed even with a gimpy leg I should break the top ten. How far up that ladder I went depended on how well my legs cooperated. We climbed the first hill and made a sharp left-hand turn, the first of 26 turns on the course. One chap sprinted out to the lead. I knew he was going to do one of two things: completely crush me or blow up. Neither of them required any response from me so I was happy to let him go. Another guy fell in behind him and started chase. Then a cluster of four of us were a few meters behind.

One guy next to me was listening to music (I guess) on an iPhone attached to his arm. He passed me on my right. He and another thin fella with grey hair and some super long shorts moved in step, tied for third. I fell back and just tested the leg the best I could. We continued on this well-packed road making another turn which took us to the edge of this packet of of trees.  This would be the last time where we did not have trees on all four sides of us.

There were a few puddles here and there from the rain but for the most part the footing was solid.  Up ahead I could see first place quickly becoming a ghost. God speed, Senor Speedy!

Another turn had us back into the trees and I could hear breathing behind me. A woman who I had seen earlier and correctly guessed would be quite fast, caught and passed me. At roughly the same time, I passed the iPhone guy. They say you can't judge a book by its cover but I correctly judged his burst of speed would last about 1.5 miles. Up ahead, I saw runners turning into a tree thicket and leaving the road for the first time.  Here was where the real tough running would begin.

We made our turn north and I quickly learned this would be my first ever cross-country race.  In between the trees, the ground was relatively flat but uneven and unpredictable at the same time.  The race crew had painstakingly raked the areas we would run through and it was easy to see their effort.  In the other rows where the course did not go, I could see how much more difficult it would have been to traverse the ground.  their efforts to keep it clear did not go unappreciated. I had wondered if the rain would make the ground muddy or treacherous but then realized that the ground surrounding the trees is actually mostly sand.  The rain actually made it a little more dense and runnable!

I heard breathing behind me again but there wasn't much room for anyone to pass me in here.  After roughly a quarter of a mile introduction to this style of running, we were spit back out onto a harder packed service road between the rows of trees. Up ahead I could see the second place runner just turning into another set of trees like we had just plodded through.  Just two plus miles into the race I was not only winded but frustrated. My calf muscle had protested furiously on the uneven ground and I was very worried.  I have basically one race left this year and then I am packing it in for a while. The last thing I needed was to injure myself here. So, I reeled in the speed and fell back. The runner who had been on my tail easily passed me and fell in step behind the lone female in front of us. As we entered the trees, I dutifully made sure to run smart and easy.

To the 10k:

Fortunately, the next mile was run on the packed roads again.  Here, I could worry less about  in my calf and
just try to catch some wind. I knew it would take me a good four miles until I felt like a runner as per the usual. I could see I was in seventh place and it appeared nothing about that was going to change. No one was catching me from behind as the gap between us and the rest o the pack was already widening. I watched the guy in front of me sit in the hip pocket of the female and for some reason it just bothered me. She would switch sides of the path and he would tail along. There was no wind for him to try and use her as a break. Almost out of curiosity, I picked up the pace to see what his motive was. Also, for the first time, my legs felt pretty fine. Maybe I would have a chance to actually race.

As we wound down through another tree-lined section I noticed I could see every competitor but first place. He was so far ahead that even the out and backs revealed nothing about his overall position. In spite of the overall runner putting distance on me, I had staved off the bleeding from falling further behind the runners. In fact, it appeared I was gaining ground.

During a race it is amazing what you can learn about your competitors in such a short period of time. I could tell one of the men who was in front of me was not really adept at the off-road portions. Whenever we hit the more groomed road he would surge ahead and pass the other runner who was fighting him for third place. I laughed thinking that one of them was going to be very happy and the other really ticked at getting the worst place in sports: fourth.

Suddenly, I found myself right on the heels of the woman who had been in front of me.  She looked like she was flagging a bit and slowing even more. Or maybe I was speeding up. My engine was warm and my wheels were not hurting so perhaps it was a combination of both. Now in sixth place I knew there was approximately four miles left. (The race did not have mile markers but instead had small kilometer markers put into the ground.  It took me until the fourth of these to realize they were there specifically for the race and not markings for the tree farm.) Maybe I could crawl into the top five if I caught the mustachioed gentleman who had been running in the girl's wake previously.

Onward to the Finish:

There is something about "racing" which is truly wonderful.  We often say we are only running against the clock, and most of the time that is true. But sometimes you get locked into an event and it doesn't matter what place you will get or what your time is. You simply have to beat that girl in the red shirt. Or the kid wearing the Vibrams or the Whoever doing the Whatever. They have become the thing you despise most and must destroy. That is, of course, until you finish and then they are like your best friend. Animosity gone, you are now brethren.

We entered the last 5k and I knew this was going to be the hardest section.  We had two big hills, another combo hill and then a sloping upward run until the slight downhill finish where we started.  Moreover, for me, I was rapidly catching fifth place who was rapidly catching fourth place. The course was going to be tough but now I had some racing decisions to make.

Right as we hit the bottom of the first big hill, I found myself right on the heels of both men. I did not wish to pass them on this hill just yet but I also did not wish to slow my momentum. Up the hill I go!

As they hugged the more worn parts of the path leaving me with the mushy middle, I had no choice put to pass them here. I joked "Who put this here?" and got a chuckle out of both. I was employing a racing tactic to get them to laugh which would in turn get them out of their focused zone and possibly let their guard down. I slipped by mustachioed man but grey haired gentleman gave me a little bit of a fight.  So I pushed harder to the top.  Once there, I pushed even harder.

Here's a racing tip for you: If you want to crush the spirit of someone you are passing on a hill, do NOT let up at the top. Keep going and put even more distance between you. I cannot even begin to tell you how many people I have left behind me using this tactic. You are welcome.

Now, I just had three miles left to hold off these guys and stay in the place I was: ever-crappy fourth.  But wait. Was I gaining on third? Son of a gun, I was. I can't sit back in fourth place when I know third place might be mine for the taking. Great. Now I have to run even harder. Fortunately, the guy in front of me was the one who was not too skilled at running off-road. Perhaps I had a chance.

Looking at my watch I felt for sure the course had to be long. I had close to 2 miles left but should be finishing in about the time it takes to run one mile. I only later learned that the course itself was so challenging it took nearly a minute per mile longer to run its length. Without a doubt, cross-country racing and road racing are two different beasts.

Right here was also where we joined all of the 10k and 5k runners.  I don't think they were expecting anyone to be coming up behind them and it was maddeningly to try and track down this gentleman in front of me while also dipping and dodging fellow competitors. It is, always, the runner from behind's responsibility to be careful when passing.  But it is also every runner's responsibility to not block the road. If there is anythign I wish all runners would learn, it is to be mindful of those around you.  Take out the headphones, be aware and enjoy the experience without listening to Pitbull.

Even as I closed the gap, I knew I probably was running out of real estate. The legs were feeling better but I wasn't going to risk tearing anything trying to secure third place. If it came to me, great.  If not, I was enjoying one of the most unique and beautiful races I have run in ever.

The trees were awash in colors, but done so in different swatches depending on the age of the tree being harvested.  The sun was filtering in here and there, bathing the forest in shards of light. It was, quite simply, one of those wonderful days to be alive and running ,even if you are sucking wind trying to chase someone down.

As we neared the finish , it was clear I did not have it in me to catch the guy in front of me. I later learned  he was a 2:36 marathoner in his day and a coach of cross-country as well.  I crossed the finish a handful of seconds behind him, taking fourth place overall in a time of 1:07:15.  I had a little kick at the end and was pushed by a couple of guys who thought I was in their 5k or 10k race. I wanted to telpathaically tell them to relax as I wasn't racing them but I figured the short sprint would do them good.  Given my finisher's "medal" I was found by the race director and asked my thoughts of the course. I could not stop gushing about how wonderful it all was.  I then ran out a little ways to cheer on Shannon.  Just a little over a month from having some surgery performed, her running is just coming back. Nevertheless, even on this tough course, she set a huge PR.  The echo chamber nature of the trees made me sound like I had a megaphone when I cheered for her on the way in.

I had the chance to chat with quite a few runners post-race as we stayed to applaud all the age group award winners. On top of the very neat slice of tree each and every runner received for finishing the age group awards were similar but even more top-notch.

The main reason I ran this race was to see if it lived up to my imagination. I wanted to find out if the image in my head of running through thousands of acres of tress would be as enjoyable as it was, even when a run turned into a race. I could not have been more pleased with the experience. If you don't add this race to your list of "musts", you are absolutely missing out.

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