My spring race schedule has been a bit of a mess since the cancellation of the Kent Island Metric Marathon. By default the Delaware Trail Triple Crown Half-Marathon became my big target race, and leading into it, I had a very good feeling. I was getting my miles in, getting my vertical gain in, and a week ago I had a really really strong 5k run, setting a new personal best by almost a full minute.
But I had been suffering from some chest congestion and some sinus stuffiness/runny nose, so I was not in the greatest health. But nothing too bad.
The night before, I went out for a light trot to loosen up. Felt good, went to bed early. Race morning, a crackin’-good thunderstorm woke me and everyone else up at 4:00 a.m., and hour before my alarm was set. I don’t think I quite got back to sleep, which wasn’t ideal, but I didn’t think much of it.
It’s a bit of a drive down to White Clay Creek State Park near Newark, but at 5:30 on a Saturday morning, there wasn’t any traffic and I got down in plenty of time to get my bib, get relaxed, and get ready.
The terrain for the half-marathon is gently rolling single-track through dense woods and a few small meadows. There are three sections that are somewhat significant uphill stretches, with one significantly steep downhill, and the opening few miles are predominantly downhill. There were two creek crossings.
The trails in White Clay Creek State Park are a series of linked loops, and the course this year followed the loops counter-clockwise before looping back.
The thunderstorms the night before left the trails a little bit muddy, but not terribly so. The footing was in general fine, and the trails were as technical as what I am used to running on…very few rooty/rocky sections. All in all, a lovely course with terrain that was just challenging enough to keep it interesting. This was, after all, a trail race, not simply a half-marathon through the woods.
We started off running across a clearing in the Carpenter Recreation Area. I tried to get in the front 10 or 15 heading into the woods so that I wouldn’t get caught up in a queue on the single track. I did well, landing about 5th or 6th, and then we got into our first real series of short descents. I was going pretty well, I thought. My breathing was fine; my cough was not causing any problems, but my nose wasn’t behaving that well. Anyway, I carried on, the leaders ducking in and out of sight just up the trail. I thought I might be able to hang at this pace, around 8:30, for a bit until the uphills started.
Unfortunately, after maybe four miles, it was becoming clear that it was not my day. Even though the downhills had not been that severe, my legs were starting to go already. There just wasn’t any strength there anymore. I wasn’t gassed, I was just weak. I had a gel a bit earlier than planned, kept taking swigs from the bottle, and soldiered on.
It didn’t get any better. In fact, it got worse and worse. I ran most of the first uphill, but the second two sections, running was out of the question, and even my hiking was getting slow. I got passed again and again, eventually sinking to maybe 35th or so in the field. It was tough, but I needed a good tough-it-out experience, and this was it. On the flats, I got back into my running gait and was able to keep up 8:45-9:15 pace.
It was hot, and I was downing a lot more water than I thought I would. I am certainly glad I decided to run with my bottle, despite there being ample aid stations throughout the course. I probably should have taken on some Gatorade during the race too, but I thought my gels and Cytomax would keep my nutrition in good order. Maybe not.
As the end of the course approached, I got a bit of steam back, and we hit a long, slow grinding uphill, which I usually do pretty well at. I was able to put the accelerator down a bit and pass a handful of guys who looked as if they felt about as bad as I felt, and then, coming across the clearing again in the recreation area, I was able to outkick one final guy into the finishing chute. Final time: 2:04:53, 29th place. For being a target race, that is pretty disappointing. Not so much the pace, which can be so variable in trail running, but rather the placing. I really wanted, and was well-prepared, for better.
What I Learned
I need to run uphill on trails more. I need to run fast downhill more. I don’t mind feeling gassed during a run; I know how to back off the pace and find my groove. I know how to suffer through a bad patch. But having the strength leave my legs? That was no fun. My mind and my lungs wanted to go, wanted to push. There was just nothing there. So I need to look at leg strength and how vertical training plays into that.
I’m looking forward to a trail-running field trip with some new people this coming weekend. We’re heading into central PA to run Pinnacle Peak and Pulpit Rock. It’ll be refreshing to get out someplace new. And then, a week later, it’ll be the Dirty German 25k, on easy trails right here in Philadelphia. After that, some thinking about the fall.
See you out there.