You see, those 36 hours of gorgeous weather weren’t enough to dry up the Potomac Heritage Trail. And so, we leaped, skidded, and ran 13.1 miles through the mud.
I met up with my running partner Rohan before the race. While we stretched at chatted, he said, “This isn’t about winning, it’s about survival today.”
We assembled in the starting area, got a warm welcome from ultra man Dean Karnazes, and set off. Less than 200 meters into the race, we splashed through a long, thin puddle of muddy water. I could feel the muck kicking up onto the back of my hamstrings and the mud seeping in to the small hole at the top of my shoes. That set the tone.
We had about a mile of dry land from there to tamp the water from our shoes. A pack of six surged to the front, quickly separating ourselves from the pack. The 6:15 pace elicited no more than a whisper from our mouths. “Twelve more of those,” I said to Rohan, as everyone’s watches beeped one mile. I hoped the pace would feel that easy the entire way. Our group rode the golf cart path until it made a hard left onto a gravel trail, which would ultimately turn to single track.
We filed in behind one another and got our first true taste of what the course would be like. A smooth path of soft trail wide enough for one wound through the woods like a ribbon. On either side of it lay thick piles of mud with sodden footprints from yesterday’s races. It made it near impossible to pass so we tucked in for the long haul. I gave the runner in front of me a little extra room so I could find the trail. Instead of watching up ahead, I had to lock in on his shoes and hope I could react fast enough to any puddles, rocks, or roots.
The pack sloshed through stream crossings and we made both good and bad decisions on course directions depending on the man in front of us. I fought to keep my footing while skating through slick patches of mud. The pace had begun to get to me and I tried to relax and find a smooth stride but the terrain made it difficult. We ducked under limbs and hurdled fallen trees that sent my heart rate up…
… but not like the climb at mile 4. I knew it was coming. I’d seen the course profile and still remembered it after tackling this course two years ago. The path suddenly pitches up and continues to climb. I went up on my toes and picked away at it all the while my heart burst from my chest. Chuffing to the top, I shot down the backside and hoped not to catch my foot. The second hill, we began hiking up but this is where the pack separated. Rohan bolted with two other guys. I hung back unable to hold the pace in the muck and tucked in with the fourth place runner.
I hung on him to the turnaround point. A funny thing happened around mile 5. We started chatting as though we were two runners strolling through the woods on a training run. We talked about the course, about training, about hiking. The plunge into the stream pulled us from the conversation, immediately followed by the high grass that raked our shins and thighs.
Rohan flew by coming the other direction with another runner hanging with him. We hit the turn around, a man sitting in a chair with a highlighter to mark our bib, and turned to cover the distance again.
The most challenging part of this race in my mind is the return. The out and back course sends the “back” runners into the “out” runners, creating two-way traffic on a one way trail.
Calls of, “Runner up!” went out…but sometimes it didn’t. So we brushed shoulders and elbows with the out runners. Sometimes that neat ribbon of trail wasn’t available and I took to the soft shoulders nearly turning my ankle or taking a tumble. I lost my buddy and watched two other runners catch up and eventually pass me. It left me in a familiar trail running position: alone.
Once the last of the out runners went by, I settled in to a smoother stride. I clawed my way back up the four mile marker hills and felt the energy leaving me. I retraced the last of the single track and took a quick glance over my shoulder to see four runners in pursuit. I made a decision here to dig in. If I could just make it to the gravel and golf cart path, I could tap into those road running roots.
And that’s exactly what happened. I found my stride again and watched the pace on my watch fall steadily to 7:00, to 6:45, and eventually finishing hard at 5:53. I kept my assailants at bay and came through, hands on my head and mud up both my legs.
Rohan found me and gave me a pat on the back. “Did you do it?” I asked him. He held up one finger. “Ha! Where’d you drop him?”
“With one mile to go.”
We found a bench and peeled the soggy shoes from our feet and drank in the sunshine and chatting with the other runners while we waited for our other friends to finish.
Something about a race in the woods that leaves you empty of energy yet full of life.