The Perils of Trail Races

I have done a number of trail races.  They are rarely enjoyable but always memorable.  My worst trail experience was a 10k where I got so lost that I ended up giving up and walking towards traffic noise until I was out of the woods.  Once I was on the road I figured out where I was and walked back to my car.  Of the 100+ races that I have run, this is the only race that I did not finish.  The race director did call my house several times since I didn’t cross the finish to make sure I was alive.  That makes me feel a little better but I would have preferred that he just do a better job marking the course. I ended up doing at least an extra 3 miles that day.

My best trail experience was the Half Wit Half in Reading, PA.  This is a very steep rocky trail race but the course is well-marked and there are plenty of runners of all paces so you are never left alone out on the course.  This course has a cut off at the 9 mile aid station.  If you don’t make it to that point by the cut off time you are not allowed to finish the course.

I had only run a couple of half marathons at this point so I wasn’t sure I could make it to the cutoff in time.  Luckily I made it with time to spare.  The last 4 miles of the race were fantastic.  I was riding this amazing runner’s high and all the other runners around me were too.  Runners are rewarded for making the cutoff with ridiculous snacks and beer at every mile from 9 miles on.  I took handfuls of m&ms and Oreos at the nine mile mark ( I think the sugar rush was a big part of that runner’s high).  For the beer drinkers, there is a separate competition for runners who finish the fastest while drinking the most beer.  I can’t imagine doing anything like that but it was hilarious to watch a bunch of guys (no ladies tried the year that I ran) get hammered.  It was especially funny to see elite runners with very low body fat drunk at the finish.

I participated in one trail race where a woman pulled down her pants and squatted right in the middle of the course to pee during the first mile of the race.  She didn’t seem to care that dozens of people were staring at her bare butt.  I guess she really had to go and didn’t think she could make it a few extra yards for some privacy in the woods.

There was the course where one of my contacts fell out early in the race so I pulled the other one out with my dirty hands and threw it on the trail.  I had tried to run with one contact but had a raging headache after a few minutes.

There was a half in Delaware where I had to cross a river several times.  Every time my feet were almost dry they got wet again.  By the third time this happened I was so frustrated I stopped running.  My feet were sliding back and forth in my shoes and I knew I was going to have a lot of blisters.  I met an equally frustrated runner who had also moved off to the side of the trail to take off her socks.  We started walking together and ended up walking the last 5K of the race.  This was years ago when races didn’t attract a lot of slower runners and walkers.  Not only were we dead last by at least 10 minutes but we were holding up a high school cross country competition because they couldn’t start until we finished.  We didn’t know this as we casually walked along the course chatting.  When we crossed the finish line 100+ high schools boys and their parents roared with applause and then moved onto the course for their competition.

There is a popular trail fun run south of Syracuse every December in Highland Forest County Park.  Runners can choose one of several trails to run anywhere from 3-10+ miles.  All of these loops cross each other so you pass runners going in different directions and running different distances throughout.  At the completion of the course there is a pancake breakfast.  This sounded like it might be fun so I decided to participate in this race my first winter in Syracuse.

I started out following the blue course planning to run 6 miles.  After a few miles the spacing between the blue markers increased until I stopped seeing markers completely.  So I decided to follow a different trail.  Of course after a short time on my new trail I started seeing blue markers again.  I wasn’t sure how long my new trail was so I switched back to the blue trail.

Once it was clear that I was running a lot longer than 6 miles, I started asking runners that I passed how far they were from the finish.  I figured I could follow them if they were only a couple of miles from the finish and knew where they were going.  I was wrong.  Most of the people were just as confused as I was and weren’t sure if they were heading back to the lodge or running further out.

After 10 miles (and several direction changes) I found my way to the finish.  The course was extremely muddy and slippery so I was caked in mud up to my waist.  The only thing that had kept me going for the last few miles was the promise of the pancake breakfast.  Of course there were hardly any pancakes left at this point.  There were empty pans that used to hold sausage and bacon and a couple of drops of orange juice in the bottom of empty pitchers.

I choked down some cold pancakes and managed to find one piece of sausage.  I went in the bathroom to get a swig of water from the faucet and found that not only was there mud in my hair but there were polka dots of mud all over my face and sweatshirt.  I cleaned up as best I could and then got in my car and drove to McDonald’s.  I don’t know what was funnier, the look on the drive-thru cashier’s face as I pulled around the corner to pay or the mud outline that I left on my car seat after the 40 minute drive home.  What a waste of a Saturday.

This is what they call a “fun run” so there are no medals or t-shirts.  No aid stations.  No time clock and absolutely no one at the finish line to cheer you on.  So you do all that work and have nothing to show for it?  Not my kind of fun.  Obviously 11 years later I have not made the mistake of participating in this event again.

I don’t like running on rocks, weaving through trees, crossing water or jumping over tree roots.  Blisters are pretty much unavoidable either from getting your feet wet or from your toes bunching in the top of your shoe from the constant climbing up steep hills.  The courses are rarely well-marked for the entire course so if you break off from the pack good luck.  There aren’t any spectators or volunteers along the course outside of the aid stations, if there are aid stations, and there will be little to no fanfare when you finish.

ISo of course, a lot of the races that fit into my schedule this year are trail races or races that warn there are some off-road portions.  Let the adventure begin.





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