I set out on my run yesterday intent on doing around 16 miles on the Rivanna Trail. I’m at 6 weeks and counting before the Holiday Lake race, and I’m at the point where I need to be putting in some serious trail miles. Actually I’m probably past that point, but who’s counting?
In any event, my plan was to run out and back on a 4-mile stretch, then do it again for a total of 16. I was looking forward to the run – I really enjoy this stretch of trail, and from what I can tell, much of it is more challenging than what I’ll be facing with the Holiday Lake race, so it’s a good training route.
What makes this trail challenging? For one thing, a good bit of it is singletrack that is extremely rooty and rocky. As long as you stay alert and watch where you are stepping, most of these hazards are relatively easy to avoid (though only luck can keep you from tripping on or rolling an ankle on the roots and rocks that are buried in leaves). After a few miles, though, fatigue starts to dull perception and reflexes, and that is when things can get interesting. You hit a smooth patch of trail, get into a rythyhm as your legs churn along, and WHAM! All of a sudden you have a facefull of dirt. Hence the reason why many trail races (including Holiday Lake) give an award for “Best Blood” in addition to the more traditional prizes.
There are also some significant hills on this route. In fact, there are a few uphill stretches that are steep enough to warrant grabbing the occasional tree to assist with pulling yourself uphill. While tiring, these bits are actually often easier going up than going down – going down is often more of a controlled fall than anything else – maintaining momentum while staying upright, all the while stutterstepping to avoid roots, rocks, and spots made slippery with mud or loose leaves.
I hope this route is more challenging than what I’ll be facing in six weeks, anyway. If not, I’m in for a long day. Yesterday, I ran one out-and-back on the trail and was sufficiently humbled by it that I decided to forego the second leg and finish my run on the road instead. I was fatigued and running sloppily enough that I wasn’t sure that I was going to be able to do another 8 miles on the trail without falling hard at some point. So, off I went to the safe, familiar, and relatively antiseptic environs of the Charlottesville 10-miler course. No roots or rocks to trip over, no branches to whack me in the face, no hidden muddy spots to step in and cause my foot to slide out from under me. I ran the course without incident, bringing my total mileage for the day up to a healthy 18, two over my intended total, but felt like I had cheated somehow. There’s just something about the trail….
A non-runner friend was asking me about the Holiday Lake race the other day, and hit me with a perfectly reasonable question that I didn’t have a ready answer for. “So what do you get out of it?” I didn’t quite know what to say, which probably confirmed his suspicion that the entire concept of running an ultramarathon in the woods in February is suspect at best. What do I hope to get out of it? I certainly won’t win it – my goal with this one is simply to finish within the allotted time limit. I’m not even in contention for the “Fastest Fat Boy” (runner over 200 pounds) award, although a few years ago I was closer than I’d like to admit. The “Best Blood” award is always a possibility, I suppose, although that’s certainly not a goal.
So, I’m not running to win an award. I’m not running for any sort of tangible memento. Some road races are known for having great medals or t-shirts – that’s not a motivation here (I actually just had to check the website to confirm that they even have shirts for this race).
Nor am I running for recognition. Not many people are even aware of the concept of ultramarathons, much less this particular race. Some road races are known for having enthusiastic crowd support – while I’m excited about the prospect of having my wife and cross-country running daughter there to crew me for the race, I don’t anticipate much in the way of crowds. This race is, after all, just a couple of hundred people running for up to 7 1/2 hours through the woods on a cold February morning.
So why? I’m still not sure that I can articulate it, and as it turns out, at this writing it’s really too late at night to do that question justice in any event. All too soon my alarm is going to start beeping, telling me it’s time to wake up and put on my running shoes. For now, suffice it to say that at least part of the reason why I’m looking forward to subjecting myself to seven uncomfortable hours next month is because most people wouldn’t dream of doing so.