This site is about SEO, but I will depart from SEO from time to time to share some things from my life. I am a distance runner, and much like SEO, that involves a lot of slow build. Lots of hard and honest work over time that pays off in the end. This might be rambling a bit because I’m not a writer, especially when it comes to running, but when I was looking for information about trail running, it was hard to find a lot of info to help quench my overly analytical needs. Even with this race, if you are reading because you are about to try your own first trail, it may be vastly different, but hopefully some of the details I share will help just a little bit.
That being said, as a runner, little details is what I look for in these kinds of things, so I am sharing some, and it may make it very boring or too detailed for people less interested in the race logistics. I apologize for that, but this is mostly intended to help first timers and as something for me to look back on. I may edit this from time to time as I remember something I think was important.
Preface and Thoughts on Runners and Running
As many of us runners know, you tell yourself many things when you are hurting in the middle of the race. I create a lot of rules for myself and yell at myself if I break them. I broke a lot of personal rules in this race. If I call myself a loser for walking up a hill or slowing down or whatever, it doesn’t mean I think everyone is a loser that does that. It doesn’t even mean I think I am a loser for doing that, it just motivates me. Just want to get that out of the way.
The beauty of running is that everyone has their own goals and for the most part, out on the race course or trails, everyone is pretty cool about helping each other out to reach your personal goals. Some people do want to win but most of us are just trying to tackle individual goals. I think the only thing that matters in the end is that you end up a better person than you were before you started and that you can look back at it (sometimes hard that day) and remember it as having a good time. There are always people faster than you and there are always people slower than you. Even if you win or come in last. There is likely someone that has done it faster in the past, and there are tons of people that aren’t even trying to do it in the first place. Sometimes I think it is the people at the back of the pack just taking it all in and enjoying it without worrying about pace or time or place that really have it figured out. The only thing that matters is that you get something positive out of it. I think most people out there are on board with that, helping you out, cheering you on if you pass them, or cheering you up when you look like you are hurting.
I chose the Delaware Trail Marathon (great people, great race), also known as the Trail Dawgs Marathon, and run at the same time as what they call the Trail Dawgs Triple Crown, which is a fun and crazy event that links a half marathon, a 10K, and a 5K back to back. Then they let some of us just run a marathon at the same time. There were a few reasons I picked the race. I was coming off of an injury that forced me to pull out of a fall trail marathon. That race would have been less challenging from a hilly and creek crossing standpoint, but a trail challenge nevertheless. I wanted another shot at a trail race, and I wanted a race that I could decide to run very late in the process. This race allows you to sign up the morning of the race. I had experienced some setbacks in coming back from my knee injury and I didn’t want to waste a lot of money on another marathon that I had to pull out of. Oddly enough, I also chose it because I didn’t want to PR. My current marathon PR is a 3:42, and I’m running the NYC marathon in the fall. I think I have a 3:30 in me, though I don’t know if that will happen in NYC. I did kind of want a better shot at getting a PR in NYC to hopefully just make it a great day all around. The last time my wife and I tried to tackle NYC, we had a mid-race injury that led to a very long day.
So though it seems like a cop out, I wanted a slower race to not shave any time off of my current PR. That being said, I went and bit off the most challenging race of my life to date.
So now that I’ve decided I’m running this trail marathon, the research begins. This was probably the hardest thing for me. For the most part I was following a training plan to run a standard 3:30 marathon, but would try to incorporate trail runs more in my training. This proved difficult with the cold winter weather and snow this year. I did most of my mid-week workouts on an elliptical and the long weekend runs with my great Princeton running group, but primarily on the navigable Princeton streets and not as much on the canal path that we prefer to run on.
Being a very analytical and numbers based person, I began seeking out advice from anyone that had ever been in or near a trail marathon. This can get to be a little much as you get a lot of conflicting advice. “run the hills”, “walk the hills”, and my favorite nebulous advice, though probably most accurate in the end, “just run how you feel”. What is a person that obsesses on numbers and pace and time goals supposed to do with “just run how you feel”? Very hard to explain, but that is the best thing you can do. I will get to that later though during the race. Suffice to say, trust your training and, if you are like me and obsessed with numbers, do your best to avoid that. The watch is a good thing to have, but don’t let it ruin you. It led to a lot of negative feelings for me when I was along out there with my watch on the race course.
I of course looked at historic results and they were all over the place. Last year the winner was the only person that broke 4 hours. I run under four hours, and I knew this would be harder, but this also made it clear that I was going to have to lower time expectations significantly. This would be a tough one. Looking at other historic races, the 2013 race had a number of people that broke 4 hours significantly. This just added to my confusion. I did learn after the race that they don’t necessarily run the exact same course every year, but it is essentially the same I think. I was just attributing the big differences to weather. I found this great blog post about the 2013 race. Looked like the weather was nice that year and it was looking like the weather would be similar in 2015, so I figured they would be similar in times. This was the year that several people broke 4 hours so in my head, I had no shot at finishing near the top. Not that I usually do, but from my experience in a lot of big road races, I like to be in the top 20%. I have placed in a few smaller races from time to time, but it is never an expectation or really even in my goals.
Warning: Major geeky activities ahead. In my even more obsessive analytical mind, I began taking finishing times from this race and then searching for the runner on athlinks.com, which is a site that finds public results and shares them with people. Good way to go find your past results if you don’t remember. Anyway, without being too geeky, I will just say I tried to use other finishers general road marathon times compared to their trail time to figure out a formula and determined that I should run about an hour slower. See how obsessed I become with my numbers goals.
So I set my goals for the race. I always have sort of a step up system of goals with several that I’m pretty sure I can meet and getting harder.
- finish the race
- break 5 hours
- break marathon PR + 1 hour (4:42)
- break goal marathon + 1 hour (4:30)
- break 10:00 pace
That was essentially it. In the back or your mind you have crazy lofty goals like to break 4 hours anyway, but those aren’t reasonable. I should say that a 3:30 marathon pace is averaging under 8 minute miles the whole race. There was only one time in this entire race that I looked at my watch and I was running that fast, and it was going straight down a somewhat paved logging road (I think) that had fairly navigable terrain.
Some other important things from research that I won’t go in to detail with (this is already too long I’m sure). There is some great research on the elevation, etc. done by John Mackenzie found here. My numbers craving mind found that useful. You can at least know when the biggest hills are coming and not be too shocked by them.
Also, on two separate occasions I drove down to Newark and tested the course. One was in lots of snow and I walked it in my boots (there was a woman running on it that day though) and the other was a scheduled trial run with some locals, but they had to reschedule last minute and I was on my own. I ended up going about 10 miles and I missed big chunks of it, including the biggest and toughest hill. It gave me a basic idea of the general course feel though and where I though the water crossing was. Also, the night before I took my amazing wife to some spots on the course where she could get to to cheer me on. Every cheer helps, especially on the second lap when I was pretty much alone. If I hadn’t already gone down a couple of times I wouldn’t have known where to point her, or at least with any confidence. Which brings us to….
Race Day: The First Half
Race day arrived. It was supposed to start in the 30’s and finish in the 50’s, so in a bit of a freak out I went to the local running store the day before and got some running sleeves to keep my arms warm the first half. It was a chilly start. Got my bib and sat in the car to stay warm a bit. Eventually Karen headed out so she could be at the first spot she could cheer me on. We had a trumpeter play the national anthem, which was neat, and then we were supposed to have a staggered start. Half marathoners start and then marathoners start ten minutes later. I don’t mention this out of a complaint, but out of setting up the story a bit. They were running late, so at the last second they just said everyone start together. I was kind of in the back and my GPS watch hadn’t found satellites, so it was a bit of a jolt of a start for me. Watch kicked in about two tenths of a mile in so I was fine. The trouble or blessing, depending on how you look at it, is that I started behind everyone, so was behind people of every pace, and on a trail race, there isn’t much opportunity to pass. I also learned that I may be too polite for trail runs, though I say again, I think in the end it helped, because if forced me to stay a little slower the first few miles and keep within myself.
There were a number of more aggressive and experienced runners passing and sometimes I would jump out behind one of them for a pass or two, but didn’t really move up much in the early going. These are like trails you hike on and some of them have nowhere to go but a single lane. Passing can be risky and definitely involves stepping off the trail in most cases. Internally I was frustrated because we were going over 11 minute miles and I thought this was going to hurt me. It is somewhere between two and three miles of trail running to get to the creek crossing. There are two water stops at road crossings and one maybe unofficial water stop at somebody’s house. There were a bunch of kids on a wagon or something. I’m not completely sure what was going on there but they were gone the second time I went through. The first few miles are for the most part downhill and ease you in to it. I found a lot of polite runners once we got a mile or so in. A few offered to let me pass and the group had sped up a bit. There was a part that was a dirt road and I passed a number of people there, though I didn’t really keep track of how many and didn’t really have any idea, because of the bit of confusion at the start, where I was in relation to leaders, etc.
I settled in behind a couple of guys that seemed to be friends and chatting together. They offered to let me pass and I said I had no clue what speed I should be running and this seemed good so I would settle in behind them. They were joking and having fun and it actually reminded me of listening to my weekend running group chatting away. Helps take your mind off of things. I ran with them until the second water stop where Karen was standing and rooting me on and took a picture of me still feeling pretty good.
I think the woman just behind me here is the woman who finished third overall. We ended up sort of crossing the creek together. Because of my running it before and walking it, I knew the creek couldn’t be too far ahead. The temperatures were in the 30’s so I had built this up in my head as being a pretty difficult experience. I felt good so I passed the guys I was with coming through the water stop. I carried my mix of water/salt/calories, so don’t use the water stops as much. I settled in behind another person. He also offered to let me pass and again I said I didn’t know what pace to run. He said he was running 4:20 marathon pace and I knew I didn’t want to go faster than that, so I settled in behind him for the next half mile or so until we hit the creek.
As you approach you can hear people screaming as they hit the very cold water of the creek to run through. We end up crossing this creek four times throughout the race, but nothing really prepares you for the first time, except hopefully reading this. The woman I mentioned earlier, and I, sort of approached it together. I think at first you think you can somehow hop the rocks and get over without getting that wet. It isn’t going to happen. I tried it at first but it just slowed us down a bit and we eventually just ran through it as if it wasn’t there. This is how you approach it. Forget staying dry, just run through it as if it is part of the trail. It is definitely cold, but you can’t avoid it. The next three crosses I just ran right through. Each time had fewer people involved. The last time I crossed it I felt like I was the only one out there.
Once across the creek, you basically are running challenging, but manageable hills for the next five miles or so. Again, it is mostly single file, so I would get behind some of the more aggressive passers on occasion and pass, but never really attempted a pass on my own other than when we were in fields or something very wide like a road. With this race and the way it is set up (lots of half marathoners and fewer marathoners), you are pretty much running with people all around you the entire first lap and then almost completely alone the second lap. It is truly like two distinctly different races even though it is the same 13.1 mile trail. I was running pretty solid and within myself. I was starting to understand the “run how you feel” mantra. You don’t really get it until you do it. I was running around 9:30’s or so, but that felt good. This is an overall average. On some hills, and believe me, even when I say manageable, there are lots of hills. My strength is probably hills, but they still hurt. There were some hills where I was running over 12’s and there was one downhill that I was running under 8’s. You are all over the place and can’t expect any kind of consistency with your pace. Some downhill’s are so technical and steep that you almost have to run them slower than uphill’s. I saw Karen again and that ignited me a bit, but it was general course running until about mile 8.5 or so.
This is the Great Good Place Loop. This is pretty much straight up hill knee to chest running on a single file trail with bushes and trees all around. This is the first (definitely not the last) place I had to walk a bit. People were moving over and letting me go by. I was making noises that I hadn’t heard before. I have run the Camptown races a few times, and that is actually decent preparation. There is a hill on that trail like this, but on this trail, it is even longer. Towards the top, one man let me pass him, I think because he heard my noises coming from behind him and thought some sort of beast was chasing him. I told him I was just loud, not fast. He said you are going pretty quick too. Just want to say again how great this community is and how wonderful everyone was. Had little friendships with several people as we ran that day. Only person I didn’t was one woman I chatted with and she didn’t respond. I was briefly offended until I realized she had headphones on and no clue what I was saying.
As we worked our way down the giant hill toward the creek crossing again, another guy offered to let me pass. I declined. I actually think he helped me navigate down the hill because I basically just took the steps he took. Lots of roots and leaf covered rocks. It was treacherous. We reached the bottom, which is pretty close to where we cross the creek going back the other way. I should also point out that on Great Good Place Loop, there are a lot of trees crossing the paths,etc. Definitely the most challenging and technical individual chunk of the course. I knew when I saw those logs again, it would be much harder to jump over them.
I learned from the first time across the creek and just ran right through. I actually passed several people here and ended up alone a bit coming out the other side for about a mile or so. I guess I’m a good creek crosser. Not sure if that will ever come in handy again, but it worked that day. After you get out of the water, your legs are literally numb for about half a mile. It is a strange sensation. I still had tingly sensations and it almost felt like sunburn on my legs for a couple of days after the race. There was no sun this day though, so that was all the icy water.
The last few miles of the loop, from the creek to the finish/re-start, are possibly the most under-rated miles on the trail. They are loaded with mostly uphill pieces, thick mud, etc. I think part of this was just that I knew Great Good Place was coming and mentally prepared for it. These hills I hadn’t put as much emphasis on and took me by surprise a bit. I was starting to tire and legs were starting to hurt. This isn’t good news when you aren’t even half way through. I passed a few people in this stretch, but I also walked again on a couple of hills. This was tough for me. I kept trying to motivate myself and say you can’t walk. You are better than this. One guy passed me running up the hill. He asked if I was a marathoner, and I said yes. He said, “That’s smart then, walk the hill”. Thank you to whoever you were. That actually made me feel better because I was being pretty hard on myself. I’m not even half way through and I stopped to walk twice now. He was running the half and was trying to finish strong. I think if I was just running the half I probably could have run that part. Not sure though. Guess we’ll never know. It was tough.
Karen met me about 100 yards from the half finish and my re-start. If you bring loved ones, it is pretty easy to have them there to help you with changing clothing choices, etc. I got rid of my sleeves and winter hat and she gave me a lighter running hat and another bottle of my fuel drink. I had enough to last me four hours, but I was thinking I was running five hours so just wanted to have that extra boost. She had sunglasses for me too but it was very cloudy so I decline on those. I was averaging 9:36 pace at that point. I told Karen I was 9:36, but that I was hurting, and the second time around I would probably do at best 11’s. I started off again, this time pretty much alone.
Race Day: The Second Lap
I separate these two laps because they are so drastically different, or they were for me. Perhaps I went a little too fast the first time. I was already hurting starting again and the seeds of self doubt were already in my head. This is a life lesson and I think can help other runners the most to just fight through it. All things shall pass. I was barely half a mile in to the second lap and I took a tumble. Once your legs tire, you don’t quite lift them as much as you think and some of those roots you thought you were clearing easily, you catch with your toe. I kind of rolled through that fall and nothing was hurt that much other than my pride, so I got up and kept going. My first thoughts of quitting came in my head. I was only a mile or so from Karen and the nice comfy car and a burger. I could just turn back and life would be easy. There is a field section with really the only sharp uphill in the first few miles that goes through a farm or something. This is where the kids were sitting the first time through. They weren’t there this time. I had to walk this hill. I was hurting and I still had 12 miles to go.
You will walk on a trail run. No doubt. Don’t let it make you feel like you are failing.
To be honest, the only thing that kept me going was me making little deals with myself to get to that next mile. I knew that was the last big hill for a bit, and I was counting on a second wind. I did finally get a second jolt and quickened my pace. In case I forget to say it later, I didn’t see a single other runner the second loop around until mile 25.22, and they were 10K runner. I saw people at the water stops and Karen in her spots. I saw a marathoner once at a place where we loop.
I had no idea where my standing was in the race. I didn’t pass anyone and I didn’t get passed. I didn’t know if they were all way up ahead of me or if I was middle of the pack. I just had no clue. It was me and me. Karen said she mentioned to me that I was in second at a couple of the stops, but I either didn’t hear her, or that idea was such a foreign concept to me that it didn’t even make sense. I was failing. I was hurting. I was breaking all of my rules.
I got through the creek again and back on the trail. In road races, the second half is often about taking your mind off of the run and focusing on things. I typically dedicate different miles to different people in my life and think about them and times we have had to try to pass the time. In a trail race, you have to concentrate the whole time. The first time around there were enough people that I just followed. The second time I had to be aware of trail markers, roots, and all of that stuff. I didn’t have to distract myself because I had to be so focused on each step and on not getting lost out there alone.
I approached a nice wooden bridge on the course and thought that was a nice mental break and took a drink, taking my eyes off the path for a second. Two second later, I was on the ground. I landed pretty hard on my knee and two of my little water bottles went flying. I lost one. The other I found. It was still full so I really needed it. I had dropped the one Karen gave me at a water stop so I didn’t have to carry it any more. Shortly up the path I saw Karen again. She had walked up the trail a bit to get a picture of me coming up the trail.
You can’t see my face here, but I was about 10 miles from finished and I was hurting. I told her I had fallen pretty hard on my knee and it may be a long afternoon. Luckily, I guess the adrenaline kicked in. I was run/limping for a little while, but the pain went away and I just kept going. I was still hurting in every other way, but my knee wasn’t anything special.
Not to be overly graphic, but shortly after this was when I threw up the first of two times. I have trouble eating or drinking during a race, which I’m told is bad for trail running, where you have to keep feeding yourself. I had nothing in my stomach but I tried to take a big drink of my mix and more came out of me than went in. Shortly after that I had my third fall. This one I sort of rolled through again. I was getting good at this falling stuff. I kept making deals with myself to push through one more mile. I would basically walk any somewhat steep uphill. I found myself walking on a downhill section in a field with about 7 miles to go and I think I thought I was done again. I shouldn’t be walking downhill. But what was I going to do. I’m in the middle of nowhere. It would be easier to jut finish at this point. I have to get back to the car anyway. I convince myself to get running again and found a pace again for a little while. Fields and less steep hills helped a bit. I had another major fall coming down a hill. There were a group of people mountain biking out there. I hadn’t seen a person on the trail for a while and then I face planted directly in front of this guy on his bike. It must have looked pretty bad because he was pretty concerned, but I told him I was fine. My whole body hurt now so I couldn’t differentiate between falling pain and general pain. He accepted this explanation and kept going the other way. His cycling friends were a little further down the hill and they wished me well and said good job.
Further down the trail I threw up again, but that was getting normal now. I remember a comedian doing a bit years ago about how marathoners could just throw up and not break stride. I actually laughed about that for a bit. I had just become one of them. I knew I still had yet to make Great Good Place loop, which comes at about 21.5. I was hoping to still be at 10:oo when I hit that. I knew I couldn’t reach my goal of doing the whole race under 10, but I thought if I could just get there under 10, it would be a little victory. I got to the bottom of that hill at 9:56 overall average. Sounds like nothing, but that was actually somewhat inspiring to me. The last nine miles had felt like failure after failure and I accepted this mini-goal to get me going. I basically walked this loop. I had even thought, if I could get to 22, it was ok to walk the last 4.2. I was ok with that. I just wanted to finish. Those logs I jumped over the first time were huge obstacles the second time. I would step up on them and then let myself down the other side. Seemed so long ago that someone moved over and said I was fast. I didn’t feel fast now.
When I finally reached the bottom of the hill I knew I was about three miles out, a 5K. I could do this. I had started to lose touch with my goal reality. It was so hard and difficult and I had broken so many of my rules with walking, etc. that it felt like I was doing horribly. I had lost the shot at coming in under 10’s, but I still had a shot at some other goals, and definitely to finish. I had to finish now, or I wouldn’t get back to my car. I ran across the creek. Nobody was there. The area on the other side to get out was so slick and muddy that it took me three tries to get up the tiny little hill. I kept sliding back down. I remembered from the first lap that there are a lot of hills left. I walked again. I was thinking if I walk the last 3 miles, I will end up over 11’s. I’m not even sure how the math would work out on that, but the possibility of that happening seemed more and more possible. There is a section for a mile or so that is basically a little road here. It is uphill at first, but then gradually flat for a bit. I talked myself in to running until I got to 24. Then I was allowed to walk the rest. I ran to 24. I think I actually hit a hill before 24 and walked that, so I failed yet again.
This picture was actually from mile 16ish, but I think the look on my face captures how I felt these last few miles.