Things changed. The trails that had been clear of snow, dry, and in fast shape the weekend prior, received two bouts of snow the days leading up to the race. I was watching the forecast like a hawk, and hoped that it would be warm enough the couple of days before the race to melt the snow significantly, or at least with some traffic, be packed down. Well, it never got above freezing the rest of the week after the second storm on Wednesday. On Thursday, I ran the course with three other guys. Besides the obvious fact that the parking lot was never plowed, the trails themselves were a mess. The main trails had some uneven boot holes to deal with and the other trails had a thick crust with at least 6" of powder hidden underneath. It took us twice as long to "run" the course as I hoped to race it. Thoughts of returning on Friday to further pack it down were vanished. It was too hard. This goal race was looking to be more of a novelty race. One that I experienced just a few weeks ago in the Old Mountain 5K. One that I had trouble with traction and speed. The snow race.
The morning of the race finally arrived. My thoughts wavered. At times I still envisioned having a strong race if the trails were packed down just enough. Certainly I had the base and the heart to gut it out. Take it out hard and see what happens. Maybe I could win or at worst finish top 3? Other times I felt like it was destined to be a repeat of the snow race at Old Mountain. I would have trouble with traction or just the wrong stride for snow running and I would finish off the podium. It would be grueling, an adventure, and a good story. Which would it be?
My dad and I arrived about an hour early. The parking lot was never plowed, which I wasn't surprised about since I work in North Kingstown. People were having trouble parking, and I barrelled my Hyundai right into an untouched snowy spot. I'd worry about getting out later. After getting my bib and chatting with friends and teammates, it was time for a warm up. Many were avoiding the snowy trails altogether. I at least wanted a preview of the race conditions. Jeff joined me as we tried the field finish area first. My heart sank as the going was incredibly tough. We jogged on the icy roads and then tried the main trail around the eastern end of the pond. The going was much better. It was packed down rather nicely, still slightly uneven, but runnable. My confidence came surging back. Hopefully most of the course would be like this and not like the field section. I knew that I had to take my shot.
Jeff, Seth (he joined us near the end), and I finished up our warm up and I had some time to change clothes and shoes before the start. The day felt cold when I first arrived, but after an easy effort during the warm up, I was very warm. I switched to shorts and one long sleeve layer besides my singlet. I didn't even wear a hat, just gloves. For footwear I took off my trail shoes (and Yaktrax) and put on my lighter Nike Frees with Yaktrax (the combination that worked so well for me last year). I felt light and ready to roll.
I toed the line and waited for the siren. I picked a spot right in front of the only tracked snow. I was ready to go for it. This was going to be hard. I hear the siren and take off. Having the best line, I easily jumped out in front. The first 100 yards was tough going since it wasn't packed down that well. I reached the better trail around the pond and was able to push myself faster. The hope was that an aggressive start might lead to a lead and get out of sight situation. The reality was that I was leading at least two faster trail guys, Chris Garvin and Bob Jackman, and I knew they weren't going to let that happen. But I thought this strategy would at least lead me to a top 3 finish. At least the trails were somewhat cooperating.
Photo by Jana Walker
Photo by Jana Walker
Right away I noticed my left hamstring biting. This was an out of nowhere injury that popped up on Tuesday when I was warming up for a track workout. It continued to be sore to the touch, but it did not bother me with my slower runs the rest of the week. I wasn't sure what was going to happen with it during this race. Would it get worse and I would have to drop out? I just tried to ignore it, and it stayed about the same discomfort level for the duration.
Despite the fact that I was working hard, I believed it was an effort I could maintain. I passed the one mile mark and was still leading. This is where I fell to third place last year, but this time I stayed up front. I kept telling myself to keep it up. You can do this. This is tiring for everyone. You can outlast them.
Right about the two mile mark we veered off the main trail and onto a side trail that only had a few footprints on it. The going was really hard and my pace fell off considerably. The trail was not packed down at all, and there was plenty of slippery powder to step on. I felt the train of runners behind me breathing down my back. I was beginning to panic this was going to be the end of me. These conditions mimicked Old Mtn, and I would not do well in them. I was holding out hope that the upcoming hills would be my only chance of staying out front.
Well, after a couple of short steep hills, things did not improve at all. At the beginning of the Rte 4 trail, Chris politely told me he was going to take the lead for a minute. This move set off a flurry of counter moves. Bob went flying past me to stick with Chris. Seconds later Jeff went gazelling by too. I tried to pick up my pace, but it was useless. I had no traction. There was nothing I could do but work hard to maintain my slow pace. I had a group of runners on my heels. Who would be next to go by?
I reached the field trail, and it brought some relief and increased speed with it's packed down condition. I had Justin behind me, commiserating on this horrible sufferfest. Just as we headed down the hill and back into the woods we were passed by another teammate, Nate. He was moving really well, and got a good lead on us right away. I wasn't surprised since he beat us in the snow at Old Mtn. The trail conditions were again not good. My pace was so slow. I just wanted Justin (and another unknown runner behind him) to pass me, so that I could run alone. I felt pushed. I had the stamina to keep up with the suffering, but knowing that I wasn't going to catch anyone and probably get passed by others before the end, was not motivating.
I reached the more packed down railbed. We could see Nate again, and the huge lead he had on us. I was hoping to increase my pace dramatically, but after a hundred runners had come through on the way out, the snow was rather mushy now. Every couple of steps my momentum would be interrupted by my foot sliding. Ugh! Justin stayed on my shoulder and I joked that we should make a pact to finish together. I knew he is way too competitive and that he probably would make a move somewhere near the end of the race. I didn't have any desire for a battle. We also still had unknown company lurking. I reached the final trail section that was rather runnable. I took what it gave. Justin said we dropped the guy. We reached the parking lot with only the deep snow of the field to finish. I thought Justin would pass here. Nope. The field immediately knocked my pace down to a crawl. It was so disheartening to watch the "dropped" guy fly by us. As we rounded the last curve and had the finish line in sight, Justin made his move. I ignored it, and the encouraging words of the spectators, and sulked to the finish line.
Sulking to the finish. Photo by Jana Walker
I finished my race about 13 minutes slower than last year. I sat down on a bench and threw off my useless Yaktrax. I also noticed both lower legs were bloodied. Then my hamstring tightened and throbbed. After exchanging congratulations I hobbled to my car to get warm and sulk some more. Running a cool down wasn't an option. I made my way back over to the finish area for my favorite scalding hot chocolate. My dad found me and I was happy he finished faster than I assumed. I talked quite a bit with CT runner Todd Bennett. I won some beer thanks to my awesome team.
After I got home, I felt better about the day. I gave it a shot, and I would most certainly do it again. I wasn't going any faster on the beginning trails than I wanted. If the conditions allowed, I would have done my best to maintain that pace for the entire race. I don't do as well as others in the snow. That is a reality. I could (and will) try different traction devices in the future, but it's more than that. Congrats to Chris Garvin on the win, Mike Galoob and family for throwing another memorable event, and the rest of my teammates and running friends for a great day.