After running the Grand Canyon and the Bourbon Chase relay on consecutive weekends I thought it might be a good idea to take some time to recover before running the Monumental Marathon on November 5th. Then after a weekend with no long run I started feeling good and figured I was primed to set a PR for a trail half marathon. So I decided to run the Knobstone Trail Mini Marathon this past Saturday. Recovery is overrated.
I had run this race twice. The first time was in 2005. I was a novice trail runner then and tripped and stumbled my way to a 2:12 finish time. I ran it again in 2007. I was a little more seasoned on the trails by then and ran a 1:56. Both physically and mentally I am in better shape now than I was in 2005 and 2007. My initial thoughts were that I could certainly do better than 1:50 and maybe if all conditions were perfect I might beat a 1:45. This is a fairly rugged trail with a few significant hills as well as an overabundance of roots and rocks patiently lying in wait to ruin your day. A couple of months ago one of my running buddies broke his hand while we were running on this trail. He hit a wet root just right and down he went. He was a trooper though and ran at least another 10 miles with a broken hand.
The weather Saturday morning was ideal; cool, clear, and calm. It seems like it had rained all week until Friday but the trail was pretty firm, virtually no mud and the creeks were low. In the first few miles on one of the downhill switchbacks there were lots of wet leaves on the trail so I was being a little cautious through that section. There was one other downhill switchback with wet leaves about 4 miles in, right before the trail crosses Low Gap Road. I used extra caution in this area as well. Other than those two sections the trail was in great shape.
I was determined to start strong and try to run hard all the way to the finish. As I was standing at the start line, I looked down and noticed the guy next to me wasn’t wearing any shoes. I said, hmm, no shoes. He said something about this being his first time on trails or this trail. Don’t remember exactly what he said. I could tell from the condition of his feet that he was used to running barefoot. I wished him luck. After a long speech by some member of the Hoosier Hikers Council we were off.
As planned I went out fast. Except for the tricky downhill sections with wet leaves I was running pretty hard most of the time. A couple times I would catch someone and then stay behind them for a time, catching my breath and waiting for a good spot to pass. I passed several people along the way. I caught up with Mr. Dino right where the Low Gap intersects with the Tecumseh course. At this point the Knobstone Mini is going the opposite direction along the initial gravel road section of the Tecumseh Trail Marathon. I’m guessing this was maybe 7 miles or so into the race. I still had a long way to go but was feeling good so I really hammered along this gravel road. There is a nice steep climb right after you cross back over Low Gap Road. I thought I might not have any gas left by the time I hit that hill but didn’t care. I was determined to push myself as hard as I could. If that meant burning out early then so be it. Turns out I had plenty of gas left as I powered my way up that hill and started to pick up the pace again as the hill started to level.
Eventually the course turns off the gravel road and back onto some single track. At this point there is around 4 miles to go and it’s in this section I started passing walkers and runners who were finishing up shorter distance races. Most of them were very polite and moved aside to allow easy passing. I was running behind two other guys doing the mini. I sort of wanted to run a little faster but took a few minutes to catch my breath. At about 10 miles the course leaves the Low Gap Trail and crosses over the road to the Mason Ridge trail. At this point I passed the two guys who were ahead of me. My watch said about 1:23 so I would have to run a final 5k (approximately) in about 22 minutes to beat 1:45. I felt good and though I could do it. I could smell the barn and adrenaline was taking over. When we do training runs we never run on Mason Ridge. I had forgotten how many roots there were and how technically challenging that section is. I rolled my right ankle so far around that I almost went down. The ankle felt fine but the jarring my left hip took worried me a little. There is a nice little hill on Mason Ridge and I really hammered it up the hill to work the kinks out of the left hip. As I reached the top of that hill I started to wonder if maybe that was a little too much hammering but by now I was close to crossing back over to the Low Gap Trail where I would retrace part of the trail I had already run over.
By now there were many runners to pass who were going through this section for the first time. Again most of them were very nice and allowed me to pass easily. At this point I was a man on a mission. I was determined to beat 1:45. As I was closing in on the finish I looked at my watch and saw a 1:43. I was still far from the finish and for a moment started to think beating 1:45 was out of the question. Just as quickly I started singing “Don’t Give Up”, a song by Shawn McDonald. I started pushing myself about as hard as I ever had at this point in a half marathon. There are about 4 steps to go up to get off the trail and onto the parking lot and road to the finish line. I groaned loudly as I pushed up those stairs. I could feel my calf starting to cramp. I hit the road and was pushing as hard as I could. I thought I might vomit. After 20 or 30 yards I could finally see the finish line and I thought no time to vomit, run faster. I crossed the line and hit the stop on my watch. I was breathing too hard to even look at my watch. After a few moment, still breathing hard I looked at my watch, it read 1:45:59. I just looked up at the sky, all choked up and silently said thank You, God. I did not beat 1:45 but I didn’t cross over into 1:46 and I beat my previous best time by 10 minutes. What a beautiful day to run through the woods.