The Maze (of Trails) Runner

trails of glory race bib

Yesterday, I did my first-ever trail run…during Desert Dash’s “Trails of Glory” race. It’s the first formal race I’ve run since the Run Away with Cirque du Soleil 5K I did in 2013. Yow. That’s a long time. Much like a lot of other recreational and extracurricular pursuits, competitive running got mostly sidelined the last few years while I tried to build a new business (more on how that went in a future blog post). But now that I’m not working every second of every day, I have time to do things like run around in the desert for a few hours on a Saturday morning.

I ended up signing up for the “Trails of Glory” 12K, which I figured was a decent dip back into the race circuit—7.6 miles seemed like a nice middle ground between a 5K (which is close to my normal morning run distance) and a half-marathon, which I haven’t run since the San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon back in 2012. I had a plan to train for the month preceding the race, increasing my distance endurance and getting some trail time in. (I normally just run flat roads or park trails, with minor elevation changes.) But I got sick earlier this month, which put me out for about a week, and although I was able to get a few decent runs in, I never hit a true trail, and I ended up walking half of the last “long” road run (about 6.5 miles).

Regardless, I showed up yesterday morning at the Late Night Trailhead in Cottonwood Valley with a relatively positive outlook…and no idea what I was getting into. The weather yesterday turned out perfectly—sunny, calm and warm enough by the 12K start time (8:15 a.m.) that I didn’t even need the light zip-up I brought. I fueled up earlier that morning with toast and almond butter, scrambled egg whites and about half a Clif Bar. Somewhere I read an article suggesting consuming 1g of carbohydrates per pound of body weight prior to an endurance race, but I really didn’t have it in me to eat 160g of carbs at 6 a.m. (nor any idea how to do that).

The race started off well, but it was an entirely different experience than the road racing I’m used to. First, the obvious: On a natural trail, you have to really pay attention to every step. Even though there’s a clear pathway, it’s peppered with rocks, ravines, broken steps of caliche, etc. So keeping your eyes on the horizon—like you’re supposed to do when running—is all but impossible. But the other unexpected aspect was just how narrow these trails were: maybe a foot wide in most stretches, maybe two feet at most if you’re in a “wide” patch. So not only does it make it hard to pass any other runners, but it also makes it very difficult to catch a stride. Your pace and rhythm are constantly shifting.

I did fairly well the first three or so miles, but I might have pushed it a bit hard early on. I wasn’t trying to go crazy and expend all my energy or anything, but I was trying to find a decent pace I was comfortable with (which was, as mentioned above, kinda difficult). I started to tucker out just before the first aid station at mile four, where I was able to catch my breath and grab a sip of endurance fuel.

That recharge propelled me for all of maybe a quarter mile. There was a “moderate climb” between miles five and six, and honestly, I ended up walking most of it. I wasn’t alone. The other 12K entrants ahead of me were also hiking at this point. My energy was almost completely drained at that point, and my legs were getting shaky. I spent a lot of that time thinking about how I should have eaten way more carbs before the race, as advised. But once we all got past that climb and the final mile approached, the “end of race” adrenaline must have kicked in, because suddenly we were jogging again, striding confidently into the finish line (that I thought would never appear).

Surprisingly, today, I’m not sore in the least bit, not even my feet, which took some abuse bouncing off of rocks and things in my regular running (not trail) shoes. Even after my 6.5-mile run last Sunday, my calves were sore for several days after. But today, I feel pretty good. I have no idea how I performed in the race; results haven’t been posted online yet, and I had to leave yesterday before the 12K results were announced. But I finished, unscathed, and I guess that’s all that matters.

Will I do another trail run? Probably. Will I be better prepared? Hopefully. The folks at Desert Dash were nice, the event was well-run, and the scenery was beautiful…even if it was mostly the ground I was watching all morning.

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