With all my Achilles issues of late, I was thankful just to be able to run. But I still had a shitty race. Weak mind, weak body. Bad all around.
It started the night before.
Maura and I offered to babysit for some friends, and while we had a great time vegging out, I didn't get to bed until after midnight and after a couple too many glasses of wine. The alarm went off with a 5-handle and it just didn't feel like race day. After so many great race mornings at our old house, it's going to take a while for race day to feel like race day at the new house.
New trails, new mountain. Pre-race was a mess, and no cash meant I had to park about a mile from the start and jog in. Fine, nice warmup. But it just didn't feel right. My Achilles felt fine, but my legs didn't. I had run Twin Peaks two days before, and while I didn't go fast, it's still a lot of up before a race which was basically nothing but up (then down).
I checked in, hit the bathroom and started stretching, but I never found those race day jitters. Even jogging up a little hill, my quads burned. I started losing confidence. Bad mindset.
All distances started together, but it was easy to pick out my half marathon competition from their similar numbers and the fact that vast majority of the strong runners were in the half. I picked out the two strongest looking runners and when the "gun" went off, they jumped out in front. I had already decided they were faster than me, so I hung back. Weak mind.
Sure enough the rest of the pack settled behind and I followed them about 50 yards back up the gentle incline. The first two miles are along a fire road up Mitchell Canyon, gradual and a great way to start a race. I knew the real hill started at mile 2, so was happy to hang back and see how the leaders fared when it got steep. They fared better than I did.
As we began to rise, I settled into a grinding pace I thought would be sustainable all the way up. I knew the race wouldn't be won in the first half of the climb, but much like Pacifica in July, as soon as I lost contact with the leaders, I lost that edge. I forgot I was racing.
After a quarter mile, I got passed. I didn't care. I rationalized: I'm saving it for later in the up, I'll wait until the front guys start to fade and then I'll catch them. They never faded. I did.
Several other runners passed me on the way up, and I felt nothing. I wasn't so much tired as I was scared of going any faster. I wanted to have something left later on.
As we rose, the valley floor dropped away. It was quiet, nothing but my plodding feet to break the silence of the wind.
The trail was relentlessly steep. And it just kept going. A winding fire trail, flat sections were few and far between. Up ahead, I saw runners starting to walk. Rather than seizing on an opportunity to pAA I told myself it was OK for me to walk as well.
Part of trail running, more mental than physical, is figuring out when to walk the ups. You can do perfectly fine in a race by hiking the steep sections, but knowing how steep is steep enough to walk and when to start running again is the art. The science is that you've been climbing for almost five miles and you're starting to really run out of gas.
And as soon as you break, as soon as you relent, you almost cease to be able to control it. The leap between tired and walking shrinks and the next thing you know you're walking again. You didn't even realize you made the decision. Body starts taking over from mind.
We crested a ridge and looped west, reeling in the breathtaking Diablo views for the first time. I didn't care. After that much climbing, the view almost didn't matter. You can't appreciate it. Or I couldn't anyway. I tried -- tried to suck in the crisp air and derive strength from the expanse. I whiffed.
I breezed through the aid station -- inconveniently placed about 20 yards off the trail, and joined several runners ahead of me lost getting onto the single track summit trail. We found the trail and for a second, I regained my strength. I felt good -- back on single track and off the fire trail, I surged. I ran strong. And then I faded.
In hindsight, I think I had it in me to make a push there, stay in what was then third of fourth place. But I just didn't have that killer instinct you need to climb the last mile after an hour and 3,400 feet up without any down -- balls out as hard as you can go.
I hit the top and caught my breath. Winding through construction and a parking lot, the summit is uninspiring -- the opposite from my experience riding up the winding road on the opposite side. As I started down, I took it easy to let my legs rest and see how my Achilles felt. I knew the down would be harder on me than the up, and the last thing I wanted to do was injure myself.
This was my first race in my new trail shoes, the Saucony Kinvara Trail. I wanted a minimalist trail shoe, and this certainly is it. Only my second time on trails, I am still getting used to them -- especially down. They are a far cry from my burly, rugged Salomons, but more inline with my current running gait. I'm excited to break them in, but for now I'm taking it easy going down. Dancing more than running.
Several more runners passed me on the single track as I picked my way down hill and around runners coming up. Hammering it here just seemed stupid, although on more than one occasion I've been that guy. These were runners who should not be in front of me -- I had lost it.
When we hit the fire trail, I was breathing hard. I was more tired than I thought I'd be, and any time the trail flattened out my legs reminded me of the climb I'd just finished. So I took it easy and mailed it in. No sense in hurting myself, coming in 6th vs. 8th vs. 10th didn't really matter.
Typical of my attitude that day. As my brother commented later, I think I've become too focused on racing, and not focused enough on running. Its a spectrum of course, but the more fun I have the better I do. The more serious I make these casual, fun trail runs, the less fun I have and by extension, the less well I'll do.
And having never really had to fight through an injury like this, I didn't appreciate the impact it would have on the mental aspect of my running. When you don't trust your legs, when you're focused on every little pang and twitch, you never really lose yourself and fine that zone.
I was really gassed as I ran the final two miles back down the gentle slope, and I could feel my Achilles tightening up. I've never checked my watch so much when it mattered so little.
I cruised into the finish line, grabbed about 15 slices of watermelon and chilled on the bench, listening to the leaders swap stories, chat about Ledville, Western States and other races that at the time, seemed very far away. I longed to be one of the guys who had earned the right to expound.
I left quietly, a mellow walk back to the car. It was a beautiful, crisp morning. Birds sang, wind rustled the trees. It was fitting that the most enjoyable part of the day was the 1-mile walk along the road back to my car.
Weak mind, weak body.