Based my pre-race, the day could have gone a lot worse.
Maura and I have been packing, painting and moving all week. I've barely run, barely slept and eaten like crap. I skimped on pre-race eating and visited the bathroom more often than usual.
It wasn't looking good - and for the first time in my running career, I stuffed some TP into my pocket, hoping it wouldn't prove to be a prescient decision. And to top it all off, I had tweaked my back earlier in the week and this was the first morning I could stand up straight.
Which all could have been quite disappointing, since I had pegged this race as a possible winner. I know these trails, love these trails, and can grind up Mt. Montara in my sleep. But life is good -- my wife and I just bought a house, ducks are settling into a row at work and I really have nothing to complain about.
So despite all possible negatives going into the race, I had a great attitude and no expectations. And to top it all off, not only was Maura running with me, but so was my dad. His first trail race in recent memory, 64-years old and ready to tackle the hills. I was a proud son.
As we crowded around the starting line, I glanced around and picked out the competition. At a small race like this, it's not hard. Only seeing a couple strong looking runners, my confidence grew.
When the pack set off, a few over-eager runners hopped out into the front and set an unsustainable pace. I settled back in the middle of the pack, waiting for them to drop off. And they did.
For most of the single track section of the climb, a young guy set a brisk pace and I followed at his heels (although not too close, having learned my lesson last year in Woodside). I liked the pace, so decided to keep up. About a half mile in, a tall guy blew past us all and disappeared up the mountain. Really strong, impressive climber, but we caught him on the downs.
The Mt. Montara climb is runnable almost the entire way. Invariably, about a half mile in my legs begin to burn and my breathing labors. I wonder how I'll make it all the way up. But there is a flattish section about a mile in where your legs get to rest a bit, and for whatever reason from there on my legs stop complaining.
When we hit the fire road, there were three of us in the pack. I was in the middle and feeling good, so I backed way off the pace to catch my breath and see how the guy behind me reacted. He immediately jumped in front of me. After 30 yards or so of jogging, I picked it up again and settled in behind him.
Shortly into the fire road, you hit the steepest part of the course. In a longer run, I'd certainly walk this. But I know its runnable despite the pitch, and when the guy in front of me began to labor, I made my move. In hindsight this was perhaps a stupid place to pass, on the steepest part of the course. But I wanted to set the tone -- I had sized this guy up and knew I was a stronger runner, and wanted to make sure he knew as well.
Trail racing is in some ways more mental than road racing. There is so much pace variability, speeding up and slowing down, jockeying for position along the single track, passing and getting passed, and as you tire its easy to convince yourself that you're not as fast as the guy in front of you, so you can ease off your pace without feeling guilty. So I figure why not use it to my advantage. As KJ would say, crush his spirit.
I also passed the guy leading our pack on this steep section, wanting to test him a bit. My legs felt strong and I knew I could run well to the peak. While he seemed strong, I wanted to know. He kept with me stride for stride all the way to the top.
We hit the turnaround and I flew downhill. I opened up a lead as I leaped down the fire road I knew so well. It's craggy, steep and slippery -- not an easy descent. But I knew I had a technical advantage and wanted to give myself some breathing room. The single track is a great grade for descending fast, but with the rocks and switchbacks, its not rest. Even if he caught me on the way down, I wanted to be fresh for the next two climbs.
And catch me he did, almost immediately onto the single track. Which was OK. He was a polite runner, passing with respect, encouraging other runners. And while we didn't exactly chat, it felt like a hard training run with a solid running partner. Midway through we caught first place and opened up a gap. Another friendly guy, an excellent little lead crew. Overall, a really enjoyable 3.5 mile descent.
We hit the parking lot, almost took a wrong turn and pulled into the aid station. With my lack of pre-race eating, I wanted to make sure I took in enough food to push me through the climbs ahead. In hindsight, I took too long here. I should have been carrying more food if I had wanted the calories, but more importantly first place spent almost no time in the aid station. By the time I left, he was a good 50 yards ahead of me.
In a road race this is no big deal, it's easy to keep contact. But 50 yards may as well be 50 miles in a trail run. I lost contact, and when my legs screamed out at the incline, I couldn't use him as motivation to push harder. Every time I didn't seem him on a switchback ahead I kept convincing myself that I could let him go, he was a strong runner and I'd be happy with second place. Definitely a loser's mindset.
I really labored up Valley View Trail. It ground on longer than I had expected and my legs felt like they weighed a thousand pounds. I glanced back and could see third place, the strong climber, gaining on me. It spurred me on, but my legs didn't respond.
I hit the top and tried to push it downhill, but even that was a struggle. I landed at the bottom and turned left up the fire road to Horseshoe Trail. I tried to push it up the gradual incline, but wasn't moving fast. A few minutes after turning right onto Horseshoe Trail, the climber passed me. "Don't worry, you'll pass me on the way down." He said. "We'll see," I replied.
The rest of that climb is a blur. It's a narrow, overgrown single track with no vistas. It's repetitive and long, but not that steep. It's totally runnable, and on a good day I could run it quite fast. But today was not that day. I struggled up each switchback, continually hearing someone on the trail behind me. I try to never look back (shows weakness), but on this climb I must have looked back 20 times. I literally kept hearing footsteps. But there was no one there.
I finally hit the top and as the slope turned, gravity took over and my leaden legs were dragged downhill. I tried to turn it on, but had nothing. Midway down I was able to pick up the pace, but my stabilizers were shot. I kept overshooting turns and dancing along the shrubs. Lets' not get hurt.
Around every turn I hoped to see the climber, but unsurprisingly I never did. I just didn't have enough to catch him.
I hit the bottom and turned for home. Results aren't posted yet, but I think I missed the top spot by a few minutes and second by one or two. But I felt good about the run. I lost to a guy who was stronger than me on the ups, and just as strong on the downs. The guy in second crushed me on the climbs and I didn't have enough to catch him on the last down.
So it goes. I finished third in 1:52, a positively respectable time.
I grabbed some water and a beer and waited for Maura, my dad and Maura's friend Nicole to finish. I chatted to a few runners, including the two guys who beat me. We all complained about different parts of the course -- especially the endless switchbacks up Horseshoe.
Maura and my dad came in almost together at 2:40. My dad looked like he had barely broken a sweat. Not bad for the oldest guy in the race and winner of the 60+ division.
Maura had a good race too, and also came in third for the women! Two white ribbons and a blue -- not a bad day for the Jeffery family.
Lessons learned: Keep contact -- mind is more important than body. There is no training for hills other than running hills (or leg strengthening exercises). Even on a short race, have an eating plan.