I knew I was a little under-trained for the mileage in the McDowell Mountain Trail Ragnar. This is a relay event where each runner goes in turn, rotating through the three loops for an individual total of 15.4 miles, making it 123.2 for the team over the course of the race.
Now, with a name like McDowell MOUNTAIN Trail Ragnar, you would think that I would prepare by running trails and hills… you know for the mountain trail portion, which by the way is the ENTIRE race. I chose a different training philosophy though, one where I just ran as I normally do for a road race and hoped for the best. In retrospect, this was not a good training strategy.
So, I had lack of preparedness to contend with, mixed with a pretty healthy dose of night trail running fear. Then added to that, there was the unfortunate moment when I stepped on a bee in our tent before I ever ran a step. The bee was angry that I stepped on it (rightly so) and in retaliation, it stung me right on the bottom of the foot. I’m a big fan of bees and the work that they do; but I gotta tell you, I did not enjoy my interaction with this particular bee. As you can imagine, the thought of running 15 miles on a fresh sting is less than pleasant. It’s more in the range of irritating to painful. So, as you can see, my list of problems began to compound early on.
My first two legs were both night runs, so as it turned out the FIRST time I ever tried a trail run was 6.7 miles in the DARK on unfamiliar terrain up the side of a mountain. Also, just so you know, when they recommend a head lamp with a certain lumens minimum- don’t take that as a suggestion and assume the head lamp you have will be fine. It won’t be. Not even if you also carry a hand flashlight. In fact, it will be so dark that you will stop frequently to attempt to assess whether you are still on the trail or if you have in fact wandered off into the desert. Keep in mind that the brown dirt of desert looks a whole lot like the brown dirt of the trail. I seriously stopped several times and looked around and thinking to myself, “Hmmm… what here looks like an intentional path through the terrifyingly large and spiky cactus.” (Our team volunteer shared the story about how she saw a runner who had a terrible brush with a cactus and as she recounted the tale she kept using the word horrifying so of course, I am suddenly afraid of cactus.) Now don’t get me wrong, the nice Ragnar folks marked the trails beautifully, and they are in fact very nice trails… but when you don’t bring good lighting you are not really prepared for what lies ahead.
Another interesting fact you may not know: trail running is an art. I haven’t had any, but I assume practice would make one better at it. What I can tell you for sure is that if you have not practiced trail running you will not know how to safely place your feet, so when you land on the rocks that are embedded in the trail, your ankle will roll. Again and again you’ll fall for it. And going down hill on loose dirt for the first time, whoah, that’s a ride.
The second trail run (of my life) was the yellow loop, a 4.6 mile run in the DARK on a trail that is actually labeled “Technical Trail.” Do you think the hours I put in on the smooth flat road prepared me for a technical trail? They did not. Now most of our team thought this trail was the hardest, but it was actually my favorite. I had no technical skill of course, but once you throw that out the window, this was the most interesting loop. It was a trail full of twists and turns and steep hills. We even went under a neat little bridge, and then (so I’m told, I actually didn’t recognize it in the dark) later passed over it. For this run, I borrowed a better head lamp from a teammate, which helped a lot. Let me clarify that, helped with seeing the trail, not with navigating it. I started this fun little run at 1:20 a.m. so I was a bit tired and dragging. Literally dragging I wasn’t picking my feet up high enough and kept kicking rocks, which is hard on the toes. Several times these kicks about resulted in me knocking out my two front teeth from an impact with the ground, but I somehow managed to stay upright and I made it through the initial steep climb of the trail. Then about half way through the run, it finally happened… I stumbled and fell. I was once again keeping my feet too low, when I kicked a rock and just couldn’t recover my balance. My knees took the brunt of it, landing on rocks, which did not feel good because they were already sore from my attempts at trail maneuvering. Honestly, I had a brief moment where I wanted to sit down and cry, not because it hurt just because I was having such a challenging time. It took me a few seconds to pull it together, but instead of getting frustrated, I got up and kept running.
unfortunately I didn’t make it too far before another runner passed me and said, “Did you lose a water bottle back there. It’s not too far back.” He was implying that I should go back for it. And I knew I should, one of the big ideas of the race is to leave no trace. Going back was the right thing to do, and yet just turning around felt like losing ground. I did reluctantly head back for the bottle and guess what… another runner had grabbed it and was already running towards me with it. Talk about an angel vision! Thanks to this sweet soul I only had to back track about a tenth of a mile!
All in all, the fall was huge for me. Falling in the dark in the middle of a strange trail was definitely on my fear list, just below rolling off a cliff. To fall, pick myself up and keep
going gave me a tremendous confidence boost. I attempted to explain this to my team mates when I made it back to the exchange, but I’m pretty sure they thought it was just the tried talking. Then again, they know me pretty well, and I’m a look on the sunny side type. (You know, “Only Holly could be excited about falling in the middle of the night on a dark trail.)
Somewhere between the yellow loop and my final run at 10:00 the next morning I got about 3 hours of sleep. Everyone kept saying that the green loop was easy. At 4.1 miles it was the shortest, and had the least to offer in elevation gain. It’s easy they said. You’ll be fast they said. But, by the time I ran it, I was tired and sore. Not just regular running sore, but sore from doing a new activity trail running. All the pathetic attempts I made to maneuver on the trail had worked out some muscles that were not used to working out. I was stiff and sore heading into the green loop, and my calfs immedialty let me know every time we encountered the slightest incline. The good part about this loop was that I did it in daylight. Trails are WAY easier to navigate (or even find) in daylight. Swooping along the trail was a lot more fun when I could see what I was doing.
Belive it or not, I loved this race. You can read about all of the good times in my post McDowell Ragnar = Awesome. I was just disappointed that I wasn’t better prepared, and that’s on me. Our team plans on signing up again next year and I am all in. I want to see what I can do if I actually prepare for trail and learn some trail technique Beside, I’ve gleaned some gems from this experience and I have to put them to good use some time.
Things I learned about Trail Running from the McDowell Mountain Trail Ragnar:
1. Bring a good headlamp
2. Trail running takes practice
3. If you fall, get back up and keep going
4. When you run on the road, you can look all around and soak in the view. When you run on the trail, look at the trail. All the time. For real.
5. Carry band aids
6. Enjoy the ride