Monday, April 2, 2012

Backyard Burn Trail Series (Finale), Fountainhead - Redux

Some of the BYB Survivors.
“Pretty much from the time we got off the road to the finish, I was in oxygen debt,” a man, clearly fatigued, said to his equally weary friend.

I nudged my dad as we watched the other runners come through the chute. “Did you hear that?” I asked, turning tired eyes toward him. “That’s how it was.”

Going into the fourth and final Backyard Burn Trail Series race, I took comfort in the fact that I could opt out of the race and still finish second overall. But it did little to calm my nerves, not on the course billed as the hardest and most technical. Not after winning the last two outright.

All week, I kept this race near the front of my mind yet felt altogether Zen about it…until 6:00 Sunday morning. I opened my eyes, glanced at the clock, and felt a surge of energy shoot through me. Whoa, whoa! I pleaded with myself. There’s still an hour to sleep. But it was no use.

With several friends running the race, I spent the 30 minutes before the gun chatting and joking around, which helped to take the edge off. At 9:00, however, there was still a race to be run.

“Ten seconds,” the director called. My fingers flickered at my sides. You could feel the anticipation moving through the pack in jittery arms and bouncing bodies. I alternated glances at the other runners I’d come to know so well over the past four weeks and the dreary sky above us. Then the siren blared. Then we bolted.

We entered into the familiar dance of the past four weeks. Ten of us bolted to the front and began to jockey for position, some burning off adrenaline and quickly realizing they could not sustain the pace, others driving the pace harder, and me, just trying to go with them.

The first .6 miles climbed the park’s paved road. I wanted to separate myself from as many five milers as possible and eliminate the awkward business of trying to pass on single track.

A blue-shirted runner caught up to his friend and said, “Hey! Yeah, I’m just running the five today.” I took careful note of him and wove my way through two runners to get ahead of him before we hit the trail.

The pack strung out into a neat single file line as we descended into the woods. The trees created a narrow corridor that made our road pace feel suddenly reckless and thundering. I fought to hold the pace and my form as I dodged roots, rocks, and potholes. A stray arm shot out here, an awkward foot plant there. I could feel my heart beating in the white flashes at the corners of my eyes.

We came to the farthest point of the loop and began our way back to the road. I took a moment to look up and see the ridgeline high above us. We had some climbing to do. Behind me, I’d gapped the blue shirt but the same had happened ahead of me. Per usual, I ran alone.

The final podium.
Mercifully, I hit the top of the road, waved off the water station volunteers, and crossed over to the next segment of trail, happy to see the “3 miles to go” sign.

Thanks to a friend of mine, I had some inkling of what awaited me. He’d gone and run much of the course the day before and shown me the elevation profile, which looked like a heart attack.
I spent the next two miles rocketing down steep declines and picking away at the seemingly steeper inclines. My ankles twisted and rolled sending scree tumbling down the hills behind and in front of me. I kept blue shirt behind me and used the switchbacks to get a glimpse of how far back (or close) he’d come. I used the white shirt ahead of me to gauge whether the trail rose or fell.

Each uphill felt hard enough to nearly bring me to a hike while the downhills were never quite long enough to recover before having to climb again.

At four points, a stream cut across the trail. My friend and I noted two on his map from the day before so when the third and fourth crossings came, I swore having to figure a way across them. My mind couldn’t map out a route along the rocks fast enough so all four times I went anywhere from ankle to calf deep in the stream, leaving me to tamp out the water as I started to climb.

With less than a mile to go, the trail curved around and ran alongside the river. We had marked this area as a relatively flat part to lead me to the finish. So, with a grin, I opened up my stride and prepared to accelerate the last 600m. Except the straight away turned abruptly and I faced another staggering climb.

The air blew ragged from my lungs. A cemetery came up on my right and I hoped I wouldn’t end up there. Then I saw the blue finish chute and my running partner urging me on. I summoned whatever was left and crossed the finish. Two other runners bent over the picnic table just beyond the chute.

I took third overall and third in my age group for the final race, reinforcing my belief that the 30-39 age group is the hardest to place in.

When all was said and done, I finished first for the series earning a sweet Patagonia bag and another "first place" pint glass, which I promptly used to pour the last of my four-pack into later last evening.


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