Last Saturday, I did my first trail running event since Hyner in 2013 – the Mile Run Trail Challenge half marathon. Those 13 miles and the training run I did of the same distance a few weeks ago were also the farthest I’ve run at all since 2013.
I rediscovered mountain biking that year so my interests and area of focus shifted. Then I hurt my knee that summer (I’m not 100% sure how – I think backpacking in Japan) and couldn’t run more than 3-5 miles without enough pain to be concerning. I didn’t run much at all for 2 years. In 2016, I was running more, so I signed up for the Greenwood Challenge and then ended up not doing it because doing longer runs still really bothered my knee and I was worried about further injury. Last year, I signed up for two trail running events – Frozen Snot and Hyner – and had to bail on them both (one due to sickness, one due to work travels).
The anticipation and then failure to follow through bummed me out, but I decided to try again this year. I became more diligent about stretching and yoga to help mitigate the existing issues and prevent more. I eased into longer miles slowly. Very slowly. I ran at least once a week consistently to keep up my fitness.
A new friend and running buddy, Melissa, helped me stay motivated for longer runs as we built up mileage together. I was elated when I ran 9 miles and felt good. Then a few weeks before the race, Evan dropped me off at Greenwood Furnace and I ran home 13 miles via the Standing Stone Trail. Body parts hurt and I was definitely sore after that, but none of it caused alarm. A couple days later, my knee still felt fine. I was ready.
The Mile Run Trail Challenge is a half marathon trail race that takes place in Bald Eagle State Forest off the Mile Run exit on I-80, the most remote exit on the entire Interstate. It’s a mix of singletrack and doubletrack, with short stretches of gravel roads thrown in. Going into the race, I set a goal. If I ran it in under 3 hours, I would be happy. That’s how long it had taken me to do my 13 mile run from Greenwood to home (which included a lot of snow and slippery rocks) so I had no other reference point.
I saw a few people that I know at the start. We wished each other well and were off running down the gravel road before quickly ducking into singletrack. I took it easy on the long, winding climb, careful to not burn out too quickly. I had many miles to hit the gas and pass people.
When the two ladies in front of me slowed to a walk, I took that opportunity to scoot by and opened up my stride. I felt strong but knew not to get cocky. I ran hard, but not too hard. Still, I couldn’t help but feel giddy. I felt great!
The first aid station came quickly – 3-something miles in. I took a sip of water, barely stopping before I was off again, up a gravel road for a few hundred feet, onto grassy doubletrack that overlooked an endless expanse of forest and mountains. A long, gradual downhill. More singletrack. Scrambling down to a stream and then back up a short but steep, leaf-and-rock-strewn uphill. Another aid station. More doubletrack. And then the wall, a snow-covered, steep climb that left us all walking, not running.
I hugged the tail of the person in front of me, a boy whom I guessed to be about 10 years old. People moved over to let us by as we steadily moved uphill, taking big steps. I passed him when we got back on doubletrack and had a brief respite of flat.
“Good job!” he said to me as I passed. “You too!” I love that everyone is so nice and supportive at these events.
I knew that the next climb was the last big one, so I made it a point to tell my tired legs to keep running. As I crested the top, I caught a glimpse of a familiar head of hair – Evan and Dinah Dog, who were hiking (and doing some running themselves) while I ran the race, had found the course! I was ecstatic – it was just the excitement boost I needed to get me through the last few miles. He directed me to make a left-hand turn that everyone was missing (hence he decided to stand at that intersection, drink a beer and be an unofficial course marshal). He directed me to keep going, I was in the top 10!
Obviously, he meant women, not overall, but I wasn’t even sure I believed that. But I knew that I was running strong and the thought of finishing strong fueled me to push even harder.
Evan took the shortcut and was waiting for me at the next aid station. I gave him a confused look and he told me he’d see me at the finish as I started down the last section of trail, the winding singletrack that we’d started on. This time we were going downhill.
Running downhill is normally not my strength. I usually am pretty cautious and conservative, mindful of injury prevention. But I felt like I was on fire. I scampered through the rock gardens. I was focused. My legs wanted to move faster and faster.
On the last bit of singletrack, I was behind a group of a couple guys and a gal. When we reached the final stretch of gravel road, I passed them and opened it up into a sprint. I saw the finish line. When I got close enough to read my time I think I broke out into a grin.
My goal was under 3 hours. I ran it in 2 hours and 18 minutes.
Evan wasn’t even back yet. He’d taken the gravel road, which he didn’t realize was considerably longer than the trail. I grabbed a beer from the cooler and hung out awkwardly near the finish, waiting for him, forcing myself to stretch, still in disbelief, shaking slightly from the exertion and adrenaline.
I ended up winning my age group (20-29), 7th overall for women and 60th overall out of 229 runners (see results here). More importantly, my knee held up with no pain and I had a ton of fun pushing myself in a way that I never do when I’m running alone. I couldn’t ask for more.