“Gatorade. Gatorade!” she gasps at the aid station volunteers. They’re slow to react.
My bottle is already open and by the time she finds her Gatorade, I’m full. A little voice whispers into my ear, “just go.” I throw back a banana and take off. I snap the elastic. Charging the short climb leading back to Huddart, I get into the orange then red for the first time today. I ran within myself all morning, ran smart. I ran to win.
She never saw me again.
The gun goes off and the pack races across the dead summer grass towards a skinny gap in the wooden fence. A narrow single track leads half a mile down to Richards Road, the first real chance to make a pass. I zoom ahead and find myself in the lead. I go through the gate first thinking, this is weird.
I pick my way down the twisty trail and try to take it light, adrenaline surging. I never go out in front. In fact, just before I broke the plane of the fence, I glanced back as if to look for someone else to go through first.
We plunge into the redwood canopy and out of the steadily rising heat. Richards is a wide, pine needle-laden path that winds along a creek for almost a mile with some gentle downs, flats and very few ups. It’s a great way to start a race.
I chat briefly with the other front-runner, only to find out he’s running the 50k. I sheepishly admit that I’m running “the short one,” the 35k (22 miles). As the rest of the pack catches up and I start getting passed, I remind myself “you have a plan, run the plan.” Race plans are meant to be broken, but if you torpedo yours before mile 1, what’s the point?
The first person to join our pair is a thin brunette, white singlet and blue shorts. She runs well, with an efficient road-runners gait. She isn’t very talkative but said says she's also running the 22-mile. I peg her as competition, along with a shirtless, Hoka-wearing super fit guy with a white running hat.
The trail winds uphill for the first time and several more runners pass me. I let them go. We dip back onto single track and wind into the redwoods, emerging briefly into the sun as if to remind us that it may not feel it, but its going to be hot today.
The next four miles are a steady climb 1,400 feet or so to Skyline. There are a few steep parts, especially in the final half mile, but for the most part the trails are soft and runnable. Switchbacks give you good vantage ahead. The elastic is long, but fragile. Ease up for too long and you’ll quickly lose the group in front.
I settle into my climbing rhythm, which isn’t going to win any speed awards, but I’m consistent and can now handle reasonably steep grades without too much strain. Training mostly here and Mt. Montara, another long grinder, I can hold this pace for several miles of climbing and preserve valuable energy.
All of a sudden it’s raining. As we rise into the mist, droplets appear and land pleasantly, cooling my warm face. I look up and sunbeams blast between the trees, reflecting off the pockets of rain. This is why I run. This is why I run out here, for these tiny moments, these snippets of perfection with which every once in a while nature blesses us.
I cruise into the King’s Mountain aid station in sixth place, grabbing a banana and nothing else. I’m sticking to the plan. I have plenty of food and water to make it the five miles to the next aid station. These few saved seconds are the first step to reeling them in.
It happens sooner than I expect. In almost no time I pass one guy and have fit Hoka guy in my sights. But the plan doesn’t say reel ‘em in the first two miles of the ridge trail. The plan knows the first two miles are actually uphill and going too hard here is a really good way run out of gas while you’re still on the ridge. The plan says wait. So I wait.
But the plan doesn’t know that before I’ve gone much more than a mile, I’ll come around a corner and catch a glimpse of the lead pack. I’m thrilled. I took it easy on the ascent and now after not that time spent in my next gear, I’m within striking distance. The elastic hadn’t broken and I’m back in the race.
A moment to explain the elastic. KJ tells me that this is a cycling term describing your connection to the rider or riders (in our case runners) you’re chasing. If the gap is small enough, you can pace off the group in front and catch up with a short burst of speed. Visualize a rubber band pulling you along the trail. But the rubber band is only so long. Don’t let it break. If the gap grows too large, the elastic snaps and you’re all alone.
In other words, you just got dropped. You lose the mental benefit of chasing and the group ahead can break away and you won’t have any idea. If the elastic snaps, you’re then forced to either chase them down or just hope you can catch them later. Hope is not a viable race strategy.
That’s when you’re behind. When you’re in front, you want to snap the shit out of that elastic. But this comes at a cost. Your legs only have so many bursts in them that you can use to try and gap people. Misfire and you just wasted precious energy while they gradually reel you in, expending much less to get to the same place.
So here I am, at the same place, running at a really smooth, comfortable pace. I consider passing everyone, but for what? They’re generally better climbers than me and there are enough rolling hills between here and when we drop down off the ridge that I’d have to work extremely hard to actually drop them. And this early in the race, a few would likely go with me so I’d have to push even harder.
In short, not worth it. I settle into fifth place, sizing up the competition in front of me. Turns out two of us are going on at the turnaround to run the marathon distance, so I’m really in third. But I don’t know that yet. The guy in front has long spandex sticking out below his shorts and …
BAM! I’m down. I had drifted off into some vignette, probably imagining my glorious descent at top speed, and lost concentration on the trail. My right toe had clipped a root and I skidded into the dirt.
The guy in front of me, the strongest natural climber of the group, whirls around to make sure I’m OK. I hop to my feet, dazed, and catch back up with the group. I’ve started tripping more than I used to, especially in flat sections where my mind can drift. It’s annoying more than it is painful, but one of these days I’ll land on a rock.
We wind along the ridge just under Skyline Boulevard in single file, each of us lost in our own thoughts. The occasional roar of a motorcycle interrupts the tranquility, the long eastward vista popping into view as we wrap south.
As we near the aid station and turnaround, the group starts to spread out. Long spandex guy and Brunette break away, as Hoka-fit guy eases the pace noticeably. Climber and I are behind him and slow down in kind. I don’t mind though, I know we climb up to the aid station and it gets a bit hectic with the out and back. I’ll eat for real here with another quick stop at the final aid station before the descent. I’m ahead of schedule anyway and happy to drift behind for now.
Spandex and Climber continue on ahead, adding the four-mile loop to make a marathon. It’s now just Brunette, Hoka thenme.
I stay within myself, gradually reeling in Hoka as we climb back up to the ridge. I can tell he’s fading, and while I don’t feel amazing I go for the pass anyway. I’m not worried about gapping him here though, since I can tell just maintaining my pace will put space between us.
I now have five miles to catch Brunette and set up for the descent. I catch glimpses of her up ahead as the narrow trail winds through redwoods, poison oak and other runners. Until now we had the trail to ourselves, save the occasional hiker. But now on the way back, we’re constantly having to weave through oncoming traffic.
I pass Tyler, fist bumping and whizzing on. He looks strong and there aren’t many places between us. My confidence grows that he’ll actually enjoy himself and not swear off trail running forever after his first 20+ mile run.
With every turn, every slope, I close the gap. Brunette is running well and I’m having to hustle to make up time. But I can coast on the downs and not lose time. My legs are starting to tighten up a bit and are complaining, ever so slightly, on the ascents.
I come around a corner and there she is. I’ve closed the gap and still have two miles left on the ridge. I know that this is now my race to lose. There’s no way she can keep up with me descending off Skyline and I should be able to get far enough ahead that even if I fall apart on the last little climb, I’ve got this so long as I don’t …
BAM! I’m on the ground again. Another loss of focus. I glance up from the ground and blue shorts sail on, disappearing around the bend. No turn around, no checking to see if I’m OK. Now maybe she didn’t hear me, that’s entirely possible. But I am pretty sure she just kept running.
As we’re milling around the starting line, hopping up and down and calming nerves before the gun goes off, pretty much everyone around me is my friend. I harbor no ill will towards other runners. Until we start and one of them tries to run faster than me. I’m a polite competitor, don’t talk shit and remain respectful, but you also really don’t want to piss me off unless you are much, much faster than me. I express anger, as it turns out, most effectively through running beyond what should be my natural limits.
And now this chick had pissed me off.
I’ve done a lot of trail runs in the past four years, and not once have I been so concerned about winning that it occurred to me unscrew the top to my water bottle before I arrived at the aid station. You know, to save three valuable seconds.
The last of my water sloshes out of the open top as we veer onto King’s Mountain. I am right on her tail and for the past mile have noticed her lagging. She kept pace, but you can tell when someone goes from running easy to running hard. And after 17 miles, running hard is just a lot harder than it was two hours ago.
Her gasping for Gatorade confirms my assessment. The plan calls for a mellow climb to Chinquapin then laying down the hammer. I change the plan.
I almost sprint up to the trailhead, not looking back. I imagine her seeing me leave and either chasing after, leaving before she wanted to, or grabbing more food and losing valuable time. Either way, she’s about to get dropped.
I should know: it happened to me.
The infamous Bernardo gapped me out of this aid station, at this same race, almost two years ago. I never recovered. But I ran an altogether stupid race that day. I went out and tried to win, but mistakenly thought that trying to win meant trying be in front at mile 11 rather than mile 22. Turns out it’s the guy who gets to the finish first, who wins.
KJ says that when you pass someone, crush their will. Take off hard without warning, leaving them so hopeless, so exasperated, so sure they don’t have a prayer of catching you that they crack. Or maybe it’s me who says that.
I hit the Chinquapin trail head panting, my legs screaming for the first time all day. They can scream all they want, but I’m not letting up. I ease into downhill mode, pass a few slower runners and release my legs.
My love affair with descents are as varied as the trails themselves. Some are steep and technical where the advisable speed is just beyond out of control. Others are gradual and wide where you can really move. This one is amazing because it’s the perfect slope for running. To actually sprint downhill.
I duck around trees, lean into turns and do my best not to fly off the edge of the trail. I’m passing tons of people now, mostly without incident. I’m very conscious of not being the A-hole fast guy blowing past pregnant women and weekend warriors without regard for their safety. I’m too old for that shit.
But that doesn’t mean getting lost in your earbuds and losing awareness of the trail is OK. I actually wish race organizers were stricter about enforcing no-headphone rules on single tracks. It’s as much for their own safety as it is mine.
“On the left!” I yell, in my most pleasant voice. “Coming up on your left!”
Nothing. “Hello!” I scream, not as polite this time. I try again, nothing. I’m now basically right on top of her and have to screech to a halt to avoid bowling her over. Still no semblance of awareness. The trail is narrow, with a ledge on one side and a mountain on the other. I can’t pass safely unless she pulls over – which is trail etiquette when a faster runner wants to come through. But it’s also etiquette not to blow by someone on a narrow trail if they don’t know you’re coming.
I can reach out and touch her now. “Hey! Take out your music!” I’m literally screaming in her ear at this point. Exasperated, I tap her shoulder as delicately as possible while we run in sync and yell again directly into her ear. She jumps, I think more from how incredibly close I was rather than the fact that I was there in the first place.
Blathering apologies, she moves over to let me by. “Pay attention!” I yell, not polite at all, immediately realizing that even though she was in the wrong here, I was still being the A-hole fast guy. The vast majority of the runners here aren’t thinking about winning, haven’t been thinking about winning all week and aren’t in the midst of some adrenaline-riddled sprint down a thousand feet to crush the will of some brown-haired runner they don’t even know. And that's totally cool.
As I go past, I turn around, put my hands up and stammer, “I’m sorry. Sorry. But please pay attention when you’re on the trail.” I turn the corner, not waiting for a reply.
I take it easy for the next few turns and get back to my usual polite passing of usually polite people who urge me on as I fly past. This is the tail end of the half marathon and while no one is in any danger of winning, that doesn’t mean they aren’t working as hard as I am. It’s the beauty of trial running, that no matter where you are in the pack, you’re probably suffering just as much as anyone else on the trail. Sure, as you become more serious about the sport you learn to push past higher degrees of pain and discomfort, but slower times are not synonymous with less suffering. Sometimes it’s actually harder to be out there for longer, going slower, than to just get it over with.
Chinquapin dead-ends and we veer left onto the Dean trail, wide by comparison and littered with half-marathoners. I weave through and prep for the final climb, which more than a few times has been my undoing on this course. It’s not long, it’s not steep, but at mile 20 it’s an easy place to melt down, or at the very least lose a bunch of the time you just worked so hard for ripping down.
It’s over before I know it. “Wow, that was easy,” I think. I definitely have more in the tank.
A few more twists and I’m onto the home stretch, about a mile and a half of a crumbly road that’s part uneven gravel and part pockmarked pavement. For as enjoyable as the first mile of this course is, the last mile is equally unpleasant simply due to the crappiness of this road.
Thankfully its downhill and the road allows wide-berth passing with no sketchiness to speak of. The bottoms of my feet start to hurt, the downside of sporting my lighter, smaller Saucony’s over my bulkier and more forgiving Salomons. But this was race day, and on this track, this distance, I wanted the speed and agility of the minimalist shoes.
The parking lot appears in the distance and I know I’m home. I haven’t looked back since the top, but I don’t need to. If Brunette, or Hoka guy for that matter, had managed to catch me then god bless 'em, I’d deal with it when they passed. But they’re nowhere to be seen. I blend in with half marathon finishers and quietly breeze over the finish line.