Another Pisgah race is in the books. This was my fifth year in a row and my fourth attempt at the 23K. Last year I put up a time (1:44) in the short race that I was very pleased with, and my intention was to tackle the 50K again. Yet after a summer of great training, but with no long runs (more than 2.5 hours), I opted for the 23K and set my sights on a lofty goal of sub 1:40. I had improved two and a half minutes earlier this summer in a ten mile trail race, so my goal seemed within reach. I knew I was going to have to push myself extremely hard and have a good day. I had done the work.
The excitement of the race really built up the days leading to Sunday morning. I knew that the 23K field might not have any super fast guys this year (according to reports from my brother), but there would be a few familiar faces to contend with including fellow Rhode Islander Bob Jackman and CT's Todd Bennett. On raceday I met up with Clint Joslyn who was doing the 23K, and then my brother introduced me to Stanislav Trufanov who is currently leading this year's Grant Tree Trail Race Series. Plus I was sure there would be others. It seemed like there would be people around me to chase or push me.
The weather was spectacular. The early morning temperature was in the low 40's and probably was just below 50 at the start. There was some fog that lifted and it was sunny during the race. I debated my wardrobe as I was bundled up pre-race, but at the last minute I decided to ditch my shirt, knowing that I would warm up quickly thanks to the early hills. I carried a gel, just in case I needed some energy for the end of the race, but that was it. I've gotten used to not carrying water and I didn't plan to stop at the aid stations. I was wearing my usual Nike Free 3.0's. I was a little nervous about the footing since the area received 5" of rain on Thursday, but those are the shoes I am most comfortable in.
After a great meal the night before, decent sleep, and a hearty breakfast sandwich (all thanks to my brother Greg and sister-in-law Jen), I was ready to race Sunday morning. Greg (doing the 50K) and I picked up our bibs and long-sleeved shirts at registration. We ran into Clint, and then my other brother Glenn (also doing the 50K) and his wife Gina. George Adams and Josh Ferenc were also there (both doing the 50K). Outside I chatted with Bob Jackman and Patrick Quinn. I mustered up about a mile total of warm up just before the start. The body felt good. I made my way up to the starting line and found a spot next to Greg and Josh. There were a couple of other really fast looking dudes up front, but their bibs let me know they were doing the 50K. Runners ready. Go!
I take off at a comfortable pace, but snappy, knowing that I need to run the runnable sections fast. The road dips then evens before two steep, rather long climbs. I had the very odd experience of being out front. I should be running faster than even the top 50K guys, but it just didn't feel right to be in front of Greg and Josh. I kept to my plan, and hoped I wasn't overdoing it. I was in the lead for over a mile and by the first hill. Josh moved up along side of me on the 2nd hill and told me not to worry that he wasn't in the same race as me. We climbed side by side and then he pushed on ahead once at the top. Someone else was nipping at my heels as I entered the woods.
The first trail section is wide double track and declines rather steeply. A runner went by me and I could tell from his bib that he was in the 23K. I didn't recognize him and had no idea about his ability. I figured that the long climb up the Reservoir Trail would determine if I had a chance to stick with him or not. My breathing was taking some time to normalize after the road climbs. Did I go out too hard?
It doesn't take long to reach the Reservoir Trail climb. It's about 300' of elevation gain over the course of a mile, and has a few steep spots. After catching a glimpse of the leader at the start of the hill, I never got another look at him. I was trying to climb smartly - not pushing too hard - just chug along at a decent clip. My breathing was a little erratic and I was again nervous about my day. Still, no one appeared to be that close behind me (I didn't look, but didn't hear anyone). It was apparent that the trails were going to be rather messy. There was plenty of water and mud to contend with and I was altering my line on this climb to avoid falling/getting super wet. When I reached the Monadnock overlook, I picked up the pace knowing I was just about at the top.
Thus began a long tricky descent through dark and wet woods. I felt like I was going fast, almost too fast, as I was having a hard time negotiating obstacles - namely rocks and water/mud. I couldn't stick to a straight line and kept weaving. I knew that there were faster runners behind me and this is where I could get caught. The next two miles are on the "flat" side, with one sneaky steep climb and many sketchy bridge crossings. I felt like the technicality of the trail was holding back my pace and I wondered if I could be working harder. These negative thoughts were tempered by the fact that I still was not hearing anyone behind me. Even if I couldn't make my goal time, I might finish in front of some fast guys.
I blew through the aid station and confirmed my bib number. The Pisgah ridge was on my mind. This killer hill is the hardest on the course. In total it gains over 400' in about 3/4 of a mile, with outrageously steep grades and very few flat spots that are too short to catch your breath. I settled into a low gear and did not stop running. I thought if I did well, I might see the leader again. I was pretty confident that no one would catch me from behind here. Man this hill is tough. I kept encouraging myself to not give up, which seems so easy to do. Everytime it levels off or briefly descends, there is another steep section around the next corner. Finally I reached the open ledges and was able to let out my Elijah tribute.
The views east are stunning, but I couldn't linger. I now had to make the technical descent as best I could while still recovering from the endless climbing. The mile and a half to the Kilburn aid station are brutal. The trail is technical and it was made worse by the wet conditions. Again I knew that I could be running faster and kept telling myself to push harder. I finally reached the dirt road and quicky picked it up to 5K pace feel. I needed to make up time on these fast sections. I ran by the aid station and was told that I was about 30 seconds behind the leader. This was encouraging, but I then had to contend with a short climb before letting it fly out to Rte 63.
Boj was in the parking lot and told me I was 40 seconds behind the leader. Because he's Boj, I knew he was accurate. He told me to go get the guy and I obliged with a sprint up the first section of Davis Hill. I still wasn't making any visual contact, but I felt like I climbed this hill better than ever. I continued on, knowing this section of trail always feels long and defeating. My attitude was good and I tried not to let the technicality slow me down too much. I eventually reached the turn and headed up Hubbard Hill, the last climb of the day. I again climbed well and the hill seemed shorter than I remembered. I then reached the point in the race where I allow myself to check my time - at the intersection with the Hubbard Hill overlook. Was I on pace for 1:40? Was I going to at least beat my time from last year?
My watch showed 1:26. I knew it would take me 16 minutes to finish from here, which meant 1:42. But then I wasn't sure if that was based on last year or previous year's when I was much slower? Whichever one didn't matter at the moment, it was now the time to not hold anything back. I hammered the trails now and didn't bother with avoiding water and mud hazards. I felt out of control on some of the steeper descents, but never lost my balance or fell. The trail is alot more runnable than most sections in the race. My legs still felt good (somewhat tired). I finally was coming to the end, almost crossing through a very muddy, recently logged section, when my sister-in-law Jen yelled at me to stay right. She said I was about a minute behind the leader. I then hit the road (dirt at first) to the finish. My turnover was as fast as I had ever run in my life. It didn't feel good on the legs, but momentum was doing all the work. Finally at the bottom of the hill (next to Greg and Jen's house) the road becomes paved, and there is one last hill to contend with. It was hard motivating myself to blast up it knowing I wasn't going sub 1:40, but safely under last year's PR. Once at the top, I picked up the pace again, and even had a nice sprint through the finishing chute.
My final time was 1:42:xx. Not quite what I had hoped, but I was pleased, especially considering the trail conditions today. I congratulated the winner - Jerimy Arnold and then met up with Boj. As we chatted a wave of runners finished - all the guys I was worried about pre-race plus others I didn't know. I grabbed a couple of cookies, an apple, a Coke, and a raffle prize. I talked with fellow RI guys Bob, Patrick, and Eric W. Then before I knew it, I was driving down to Kilburn with Boj to see the top 50K guys and run a couple of miles. We never saw the racers, and we ended up going 6 miles! I felt okay, so I was happy to race hard and get 21 miles for the day. We went back to the finish area to see the dramatic conclusion of the 50K and finally Greg come in. I chatted there and at Greg's house before I needed to hit the road back home. Another great day in Pisgah and an awesome race hosted by Gary and Chris. Thank you!
After having some time to reflect on the race, I still feel great about my day. I do think the trails were slower than in previous years, but mostly if I want to go sub 1:40, I need to be able to descend better, and run the technical trails faster. These are two things that I can practice. But who knows, maybe I'll try the 50K again next year....