Teaching an old dog new tricks


Matt checking his splits after the first lap – The time is off because we started with 20 minutes on the clock.

As we arrived at Eagle Creek park on the outskirts of Indianapolis late yesterday afternoon there was definite excitement in the air and it’s fair to say that Julie and I were both a bit nervous. Despite racing 26 combined marathons or ultras last year, neither of us had raced in a long time. Neither of us had ever run a race on snow before nor had we raced a marathon at night. But we’re runners, and if other runners are doing it we figured that we could probably do it too.

It’s fair to say that this race had a feeling somewhat akin to an ultra. Maybe it has something to do with racing outside the normal confines of a road race but there was a sense of camaraderie as we all prepared to embark into the unknown of nighttime snowy trail running.

Pre-race jitters abound

There were three races on the 6.55 mile loop course including the quarter marathoners running one loop, the halfers doing two, and the full doing four. The quarters started around 6:00 pm with the halfers starting 10 minutes later and us starting 10 minutes after that. As we headed back to our cars after the quarter start to stay warm we could see the first bottlekneck forming less than 400 meters into the race heading into single track trail as the quarter runners were waiting to walk into the woods.

It was at this moment I decided my race strategy to go out hard. Our race kicked off and I was quick to the front, trailing only two guys heading into the woods. I learned quickly what it was like to race on snow and what type of trails we’d be running as we weaved through tight and narrow snow covered tracks. Thankfully, I had solid footing and it wasn’t too slick. I needed my headlamp from the beginning as well.

Two laps into the course after 1:36 (clock is off by 20 minutes)

The front two guys were quickly out of sight and I was alone. But by ten minutes in I found myself already catching the back of the half marathon pack and I proceeded to pass people at a steady rate for the next lap and a half. I learned the course on that first loop. The first 1.5 miles were narrow and tough, the next couple were open, flat, and smooth, and the last 1.5 were narrow and challenging due to roots and blow downs. Passing was tough in many spots but people were generally aware and made an effort to allow me space to pass.

Due to the fast early effort to get in front I found myself  breathing kind of heavy as I found my rhythm on the trails.  Once I popped out of the woods and along the lake I settled in and was able to maintain a steady pace for the next couple laps.  It was at this time that I moved into second place, which I would maintain for the remainder of the race.  Everything was going smoothly until my next challenge arrived.

As I finished my second lap, cruising along the trail I had come to know and mentally memorize with all its icy spots, logs to jump, and sharp turns to make, my headlight unexplicably turned off.  We’d checked batteries before the race and while Julie decided to carry back ups, I decided to take my chances.  But my light was out.  I turned it back on.  It lasted for thirty seconds and out again it went.  Each time I’d restart it, it lasted less and less.

Early into lap three as I fiddled with my light, my focus not properly on the narrow, snowy trail, BAMM! I was suddenly down on the ground, knees hitting first, palms second into the icy, muddy trail.  I popped up quickly and made the decision to leave the light alone and go for it in the dark.  I slowed my pace and amped up my attention to the trail.  This worked reasonably well and once back to the open middle section of the course, the full moon provided the light that would guide me the rest of the way.  That, and the runners I steadily passed.  Whereas passing was a chore early in the race, I looked forward to the brief illumination I could mooch from fellow racers as I passed.

Things proceeded well until I neared the end of the third lap and my lack of focus on calorie consumption began to catch up.  As is often the case, this aspect of endurance sports creeps up slowly.  Like many times before, as I begin to tire, I think it’s simply being out there for a long time that is doing it to me, illogically missing the key, refueling aspect of the race.

Heading into lap four I was getting into my pockets for my reserve Gu packs to fuel me up and BAMM! down again.  Nearly the same spot as the previous lap and this time due to not paying attention to the trail again.  This second fall definitely shook me a bit as I was trying to keep myself mentally together and focused on finishing the race.  I slowed again and made it to the aid station around the two mile mark.  There I slugged what was now Heed slushie, ate a nearly frozen salty potato, and grabbed three gels as I headed out for the last 4.5  miles.

After pounding four gels and the aid station goodies, my legs and mind came back and I was able to push the smooth middle portion of the course.  I began thinking about the finish and our warm hotel awaiting me and BAMM! down again!  With under two miles to go I had fallen face first for the third time.  With all my trail hiking and running experience and my normally sound fall-free trail track record, my knees and confidence were bruised and I simply wanted to finish this race up without going down again.

Atop the podium with the 1st and 3rd place runners

I again refocused my efforts on the trail and staying focused, maintained my second place finish and crossing the line in 3:25.59, good for $75 and a cool plaque.

I quickly made my way back to our car where I cranked up the heat and mentally relaxed after such an intensely focused effort.  While I’ve run plenty of races, this one left me with plenty to learn and new challenges to adapt to physically and mentally in ways I’ve not done in the past.

This is a race I recommend to others.  It is well organized, has a fun atmosphere, prize money, and even had warm vegetarian chili at the finish.  I also recommend it simply for the novelty of it.  The newness and challenges presented are well worth the entry fee, as are the humbling diggers in the dirt and snow, even for an old running dog like me.

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