I began asking (nagging?) Mike Galoob back in September if he was putting on his winter trail race series again. Yesterday, the wait was over, as it was the day of the first race - the Old Mtn Trail 5K. Mike had been working on a new course this year, one that had more single track in the woods, and less open fields. I even got to help out with some of the trail work the past couple of weeks. The end result was a new loop course that was really challenging and extremely fun. I ran it a few times this past week to get a feel for it. Basically, it's two miles of slowish technical trails followed by a hilly twisty final mile. The course definitely runs slower than last year.
I didn't have any concrete goal going into the race. I didn't really settle on a strategy either. Last year I jetted off the line to try to get to the trails first and suffered the rest of the race. This year I had a better idea of the competition (I would not be first or even fifth probably), but I still wanted to not get stuck in a trail bottleneck. I needed some sort of balance.
I arrived early with my family so that my wife and I could help out with registration/set up. I was given the duty of marking part of the course with a couple of other familiar trail race faces, and my kids enthusiastically tagged along. Once completed, I managed to run the course as a warm up with some of my teammates. We got back with minutes to spare. I stripped down to my shorts and singlet, and then jogged some more to stay warm. The weather was fine - overcast and mid 30's. It felt like winter.
At the siren, I took off at a good clip, but I was behind a few others. After the first turn in the fields, I could see DJ the young fast Turtle up front with another youngster or two, and last year's series winner Derek J closely in tow. Bob Jackman went by, and I briefly tried to stick with him, not wanting two Turtles up front. I was in fifth position entering the woods. I was hoping that I would catch a couple of inexperienced trail runners on this rooty section. I also was already huffing and puffing after the quick start. Uh oh, not again!
I kept running as hard as I could, and after the wooden bridge, I was able to pass a tiring runner to get into 4th position. There was a 5-10 second gap between me and the top 3. I really wanted to close and daringly pushed the tricky spots to do so. I also really wanted to widen the margin between myself and whoever was stalking behind me. Best guess was Justin or Jeff, but I didn't recognize the breathing or footsteps. Maybe it was last year's race winner Tom G?
I was losing ground on the leaders as I passed the Mile 1 sign in 6:05. This was the first and last time I looked at my watch. The second mile begins on a twisty squishy new trail. I was working hard, but I had company on my heels. The fear of being chased willed me to not slow down. I was able to nimbly sprint across a long rock garden (way faster than I've ever dared) and I momentarily gained some space. But as soon as the trail got easier, my lead shrank. I didn't feel optimistic about maintaining my position. Soon, the course was gaining elevation, and I again dug down. After the long climb to the ledges, I had trouble recovering, and definitely slowed down. I did increase my advantage, and I was able to get a glimpse of who was behind me - someone in blue, not a teammate or a Turtle.
I reached the summit at the large boulder and looked forward to getting my pace back up and my breathing under control on the next downhill section. What I didn't account for was how tight the incredible amount of switchbacks were, and how hard it was to run these fast. I couldn't stay in rhythm. When I reached the bottom, I could see the guy in blue close behind me with Justin and Jeff right there too. Ugh. I felt tired. We ran by the crowd near the parking lot, and then began the switchbacks up the hill. Usually, this hilly spot would be an advantage for me, but I was struggling. Getting caught seemed inevitable. I was still fighting though.
I made the sharp turn onto the wider trail that descended out of the woods. I assumed this was where my race would turn ugly. I managed to hold my position until at last the guy in blue made his move with a 1/4 mile left. I mustered up the energy to counter his move, by passing him right before a small hill around the final curve. This was my only chance. As soon as we hit the final straightaway (on grass), he sprinted by me and there was no catching him this time. I looked back to see if Justin was going to run me down as well, but I had enough space to not worry at that point. I crossed the line in 19:33, one minute faster than last year, even though this year's course was slower. I was really excited and totally exhausted. Not the smartest way to race (going out fast), and it's unnerving to feel like you're being chased, but the result was satisfying.
The guy in blue introduced himself as Chris G - a fellow Charlestown trail runner. I remembered his name from Li'l Rhody. I then saw my coworker Dan finish. It was going to be another close call on the team competition between the WTAC and TNT. Just like at the Christmas 10K last week, it was two Turtles followed by three WTAC, and then another Turtle. The top 3 times would be added for scoring. Eventually I headed out for a shorter cool down with my teammates as we chatted about our races. Everyone seemed to have a great time and enjoyed the challenging Mike G course. We then returned for the awards where TNT again was victorious. That's okay, four more races to go and we're getting closer to the return of Tommy 5K! Much thanks goes out to Mike for putting on such a great event. I love seeing such a turnout for a local trail race.