Sunday, October 2, 2022

Fire Tower Trail Races 35km Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 16; 11th Edition
149.6 miles raced in 2022 races
Race: Fire Tower Trail Races 35km
Place: St. Croix State Park
Miles from home: 101
Weather: 51 Degrees and 94% humidity

I’m gonna win this race.

A month ago I had no races on my schedule. Next thing I know I had three races in 14 days including a trail 10 miler, a half marathon, and this 35 km trail race at the Fire Tower Trail races. It is funny how things escalate. I didn’t really have have any major expectations when I first signed up for this race. I simply wanted to get my legs going again and try to race myself back into shape. Throughout my running career it’s been the thing that I do best, more so than simply training.

But looking at the registrants for this relatively new small-ish field showed me I had a good chance of winning it overall, given the Ultrasignup rankings. I also  thought that two weeks ago with the trail 10 miler and ended up taking fourth who really knows (Granted two of the people who beat me either were last minute sign-ups or drop-downs.) But I was going to win this race.

Temperatures for the race just a few days earlier looked like they would be in the mid-50s at the start and hit 70° by the time I finished. That wasn’t exactly what I was looking forward to giving this would be the longest distance I had run in almost two years. But when we toed the line for the start of the race it was barely over 50° with a slight bit of drizzle and stayed that way for the rest of the day here at St. Croix State park (larges state park in Minnesota by area!)

We were giving some last minute race instructions by the Race Director and a quick look around me gave me the impression I was in a pretty good position to lead this race from start to finish. In spite of winning more than my fair share of races over the years, I have rarely lead the race from start to finish. But I could tell that I would today. I was going to win this race.

With a quick and quiet "go" from the RD we were off. I decided I would take the lead and see who would even go with me at the start. I felt strong and fast in spite of so much going on in my life. Not only all the races I had run recently but the app I am developing and some problems with the health of a beloved family members. It is a little thing but wanting to win the race was something that I felt I could do from a far to show them I cared.

After a half of a mile we left the trail for two seconds to cross the road and here I noticed I had two runners directly behind me. They were chatting a little bit and one of them I think might’ve asked me a question but I was in a little bit of a zone and might’ve rudely ignored them. But I was not really here to chat anyway. I just wanted to run. About a mile or so later one of the runners fell back a bit and the other runner continued to run either right next to me or right behind me. I wouldn’t have minded if he had simply run ahead. I was looking to run just fast enough to win so it didn’t really matter to me if that meant I had to do it from behind or not.

About half a mile before the first of three aid stations we had a long straight dirt road that was well packed. I wanted to see if I could put a little distance between myself and my pursuer so I sped up here. I was hoping he would slow down a bit and maybe even grab a drink at the aid station. I was wearing a new Camelbak (new to me anyway in so much that I have had it forever but never worn it) and didn't need to stop. Given the surge, I felt like I had broke him until about a mile later when we entered the trail again and I could hear that he was right behind me. Drats.

The trail here was rather runnable in so much that it did not have technical footing but we had long grass with which to contend in some places and some sand/dirt mix in others.  So, it definitely grabbed at the ankles a bit.

Based on some things that I had read about the race I decided to go with regular road shoes and it appeared that might be a bad choice. It wasn’t exactly going to make a huge difference per se but in hindsight trail shoes would’ve made it much better decision. 

A little after the fifth mile high I needed to use the bathroom and I pulled quickly to the side of the trail. The runner behind me shot by with no hesitation which I didn't mind at all as I wanted to run with no one right behind me. He easily put about 20 seconds between us during my break and that is more or less where I would stay behind him for the next five miles.

Twisting and turning, the trail rarely allowed me to see the runner in front of me even though I knew he was just around the corner. I was a little surprised I hadn't caught up to him a little bit more. I wasn't working too hard, but I wasn't going easy either. There were a coupe of obstacles to run through (puddles) or over (downed trees) but otherwise it was just me and the rest of the state park. This is far from my favorite type of racing. I like to see crowds and feel their energy and not always be watching my feet and having nothing but nature around me. Don't get me wrong- this park was beautiful.  But I could do this on a Tuesday by myself. No need to pay an entry fee.

Exiting the trail and once again we were on a hard packed dirt road. I used this opportunity to close the difference between us to just a few seconds. It is always surprising to me how different trail and rpad/dirt road running is. We had both passed some runners doing the 50k and 100k and it always feels weird to be doing the "JV" version of a race when these people are out here running twice as long as you or more.

We both hit the aid station about three seconds apart.  I could see he wouldn't need to grab anything as he had a fuel belt on, like I did. The volunteers were seemingly surprised we didn't need anything and almost forgot to tell us to turn around. Fortunately we knew this was where that needed to happen. The runner in front of me seemed more than a  little surprised that I was right there. I felt really good and was expecting to simply hang in his back pocket until we hit the road again with three miles to go and then turn it into a race. 

I felt something against my leg and looked down to see my shoelaces was becoming untied. Consarnit! I had to stop to fix it. I cursed a little inwardly but by the time we had finished the road section less than a mile later, I had made up all of the difference lost while tying. I felt so good I was finding it hard not to pass him.  I didn't want to do so just yet as I thought he still had some fight in him and appeared to be a better trail runner than me. Best to let him lead the way until I could make a move he couldn't match.

Around the 14th mile I went to pour a water bottle out of my Camelbak and could not get the nozzle opened to drink. I finally just unscrewed the whole thing and took a big swig. I put the bottle back in my front pocket of my pack and then the weirdest thing that has happened to me in running transpired: my energy level dropped like an anchor. Just like that. Like the act of opening the bottle put too much stress on me and it had enough. 

I figured maybe this dip was just my body trying to get the water in it as it needed the liquid and maybe I would soon be ok. But less than a mile later, as I watched my prey pull further and further away from me and soon be completely out of sight, it came to be quite clear that I was toast.

Pushing hard for one more mile was done in vain as he was no where to be seen. Then at mile 16 the bottom fell out. The long grass was now wet with the rain and was grabbing at my ankles and making me feel like I was running in quicksand. It was quite nauseating to go from a 7:16 minute mile to an 8:36 mile but that is what was happening. I had more or less resigned to the fact that I had just somehow lost this entire race and was doing what I can just a hold on to second place. I knew the aid station with 3.5 miles to go had some food and my focus was on getting to it in one piece

I went up a sharp uphill to that aid station and asked for a small peanut butter and jelly sandwich and poured some Coca-Cola into my empty water bottle. I began to simply walk up the hill while my body digested the sandwich and the Coke.  I realized I forgot my cap to my bottle so I had to run back to the aid station. More internal swearing. But in just those few seconds, I felt so much better. It is amazing what a few simple calories can do. And it couldn't have been more than 50 calories. I began trotting up the long hill of the course and couldn't believe this was all I had been missing. I didn’t regain the fast seven minute pace again but I stemmed the tide of pure bonking and desolation for a few more miles. 

A long straightaway on the trail allowed me to at least pick up the pace a smidgen. Now it was simply putting in the miles to get to the finish to see and hope that perhaps maybe the runner I was pursuing had also experienced something similarly taxing. Unfortunately as I got to the last little bit of the course, I could see that that wasn’t the case and had to settle for second place overall in the time of 2:51:54. All tings considered, an 8-minute positive split wasn't the worst thing in the world given how badly I was flagging back at mile 16.

The race winner, Chris, came over and congratulated me and told me he was beyond surprised I was so close at the turn around and wondered where I had went.  He had himself really thrown down the hammer over the last five miles.  Chances are that even if all had gone right, I might not have been bale to reel him in anyway.  I really need to stop looking at Ultrasignup predictions.

I shouldn't be too hard on myself  All but one week of the last seven has been a 70-mile training week.  I have been driving all over the country. I have been working pretty darn hard.  I am just now getting back into racing shape. But all of these legitimate reasons still don't stop me from being bummed I didn't win.I hope I am always this irrational when it comes to running races.

I run for may reasons: health, happiness, training, clearing my mind, etc.

I race to go as fast as possible.

The race itself was very well put on with a chill vibe, marked exceedingly well, ultra-generous cutoff times for the races, and free food at the end. The name of the race comes from an actual fire tower that participants of the 50k and 100k have to climb (via stairs) in the middle of their events. There is an alternate version if you are too scared to climb the tower, but why do this race if you are?  My race and the 11km race did not go to the fire tower so I feel like I cheated myself out of that little experience.

The race has a large section about inclusivity which is nice to read indeed and having met the RD, I feel like they back it.  How exactly they would know about it per se is beyond me but it is still a good thing it is listed.

All told it is a solid first race for a trail 50k or more given the ease of running it and accessibility to runners on the course, at least at the aid stations.