Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Backyard Burn Trail Race, Hemlock - Redux

“Do you remember the scene in Star Wars – the first one,” the race director clarified. He stood on the flatbed of a muddy pickup truck, a bullhorn cocked to the side of his face. “And they’re in the garbage pile? That’s what it’s like around the river, so be careful.” The herd of runners exchanged nods and knowing looks. “Google it if you have no idea what I’m talking about. You’ll understand after the race.”

Then, we took off.

In the weeks leading up to the Backyard Burn Trail Race Series, my concern lay in my recently sprained ankle holding up. But a catch in my throat on Thursday morning quickly put an end to those fears, and instead placed them squarely on my throat, chest, and sinuses. I decided after a complete day of rest on Saturday, that I had to at least try to race as my cold rattled around in my chest. If nothing else, it would become a five mile hike through the scenic back woods of Clifton, VA.

I used the first half mile to test my legs, my breathing, my head, as I sifted through the crowd of runners barreling toward the woods. The first half mile had us on pavement and crushed gravel. Just before we descended on the trail, I met a short, steep hill that brought me up on my toes and stretched my calves as I picked away. This, I knew, would be the initial test. If I could get to the top of this hill with no burning in my chest, it would be full steam ahead.

Slightly out of breath, I crested the hill, wiped the snot from my nose, and pressed down on the accelerator. It was time to race.

The crowd had mercifully strung out as we entered the first section of single track. My friend Ebo talked about “seeing the trail with your feet” and I did my best to concentrate on where my foot placements would go to avoid hobbling to the finish on another sprained ankle.

The trail twisted and turned through the woods and I found myself steadily gaining ground on my competitors during the uphill portions. I crept up on their shoulder, waited for the hill to level off then shot by them tossing a quick, “On your left,” and a wave that was met with a return wave. Trail racers are so polite.

What I hadn’t bargained for was how bad I was at running the downhill sections. In trying to “see the trail,” I slowed way down and almost tip-toed down the hills, arms out for balance, and could hear the footsteps coming behind me. I thought back to my only other trail race – a half marathon – where a woman came screaming behind a pack of us, yelling, “Get the $%& outta my way. Use the downhills to pick up speed, morons!” I guess they’re not all polite.

At the bottom of the downhill, the Bull Run River rushed by. After nearly half an inch of rain from Friday, the river had swelled and left behind muddy puddles on the trail. I stomped through them, kicking mud up onto my calves, knowing that since we’d come down this way, eventually we’d have to go back up.

Just over half way, I hit the “garbage dump” area and fell out of the rhythm I’d finally managed to settle into. Here, the footsteps grew louder, then voices. Then I slipped hopping to a particularly muddy boulder and nearly wiped out. I grabbed for a tree branch and caught myself, coming to a complete standstill.

“You all right, bud?” the voice came from behind me.
“I’m ok. Go ahead, guys,” I said gesturing to the path ahead, and watched as they nimbly navigated the rocks.

When I reached packed earth again, I could see a red shirt bobbing through the branches and I locked in on him, hoping to gain back some ground.

The trail began to pitch upward and I knew this would be my bread and butter. If I was going to make up ground, it had to be on the uphills. I have one (ok many) quirks, including when climbing a hill like this, I repeat the name of hockey player Joni Pitkanen because for some reason his name makes me think of "picking" my way up the hill. So I muttered this man’s name as the shirts grew closer. At the top of the hill, I lurked behind a guy in a gray shirt to see if I officially had him. When I heard the ragged breathing, I gunned it and flew by him hoping to take advantage of one last flat area to really put some distance between us.

I came by the “Half Mile to Go” sign and ran alone. I crossed the finish line and waited to cheer my wife and friends on. After a cup of coffee, a banana, and a thorough diagnosing of the course with fellow finishers, I came away with a 5th place age group finish, 7th overall, good enough for 26 points in the standings.

Cheers to that!


  1. Doesn't sound as if your head cold effected you to badly...but a daily regime of the vitamins zinc/d3 and the amino acid n-acetyl cysteine will ensure you won't have to waste any energy wondering about colds.

    We're in a tough age group right now, aren't we? Top 10 and we don't even get an age group medal - I feel you. Nice job anyway!

    1. I hear you. They brought the top 3 overall up then told those guys to just stay up there and brought the 4th place guy and me up to the podium to round out the 30-39 age group. Brutal.

      Thanks for the tips on the cold regime.


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