This is always my favorite and most anticipated race in the South County 4th Season Race Series. Like all the races in the series, I have an intimate knowledge of the trails and the course. Further, the longer distance, tougher terrain, and hills all cater to my running strengths. I couldn't really guess what place I might finish in this year's version, but I knew that I would run well. Last year I was third - a couple minutes behind my brother Greg and Bob Jackman, and just ahead of Muddy and Steve Brightman. All four of them would be in attendance, as well as road speedster Eric Lonergan and trail/ultra champ Ben Nephew. Theoretically, I could run a fantastic race and still finish behind every single one of those guys. However, it was slightly possible that my trail training since the snow melted, coupled with my winter running miles could propel me to the top, even finishing ahead of my brother (not running much) for the first time. I was excited to see how the race played out.
I spent the afternoon before the race helping Mike mark the course with Muddy. The course had to be rerouted in the places that were still holding a lot of snow. A lot of the trails were dry and in great shape. After two and a half hours, Muddy and I called it a day. Mike spent another few hours out there, and seemed very excited about the new course. He added more up and down on the technical ridge trails. I couldn't wait to see what it was like.
Finally it was race day. The usual suspects were in attendance including all the guys mentioned above. The weather was excellent - low 50's, sunny, and windy. I did a short warm up with Greg, Muddy, and Seth. I made sure to pay attention to Mike's description of the course, since I wasn't exactly sure where it went. Mike ended up using about a thousand flags, and numerous signs. This was going to be great. I ditched my singlet at the last minute (knowing my body was still not acclimated to "warm" temperatures). Mike gave me the honor of starting the siren on his command and the race was off.
Sidebar: By now, you probably know what happened with the race. There is a great article on Level Renner here explaining the goings on of the day. Luckily, I was familiar enough with the course to keep some people on track and maintain some semblance of a race.
At the start, an unknown tall young runner took off way faster than everybody else. Maybe he was doing the 10K (same start and same course for the first few miles). No one seemed too threatened, and the rest of us all hung back. I found myself in second as we jumped onto the single track 1/4 of a mile in.
Photos by Scott Mason
This is where the only patch of snow remained on the course. The lead guy was already slowing down, and Greg quickly pushed by to take the lead. He was not messing around. He immediately got a lead and no one tried to reel him in. I also passed the tall young guy and found myself leading the chase pack for the next mile. As we crested the hill and finished up the trail known as Foster's Folly, I was passed by first Bob Jackman, and then Eric, Brightman, and Ben. I guess I went out a little too fast and was temporarily paying the price for it. I stuck with them and continued on. As we approached the wider double track along the pond (2+ miles in), there was Greg confused by which way he should go. Oh no! Sabotage again. This happened last year. Mike had run the course right before the start and everything was fine. This was very recent. I was furious. I shouted go left, but because of the confusion, he opted to wait up for us (he had a 30 second lead). Fueled by adrenaline I led the group along the unmarked course. I took a left I had helped mark and clear just yesterday, and it was littered with branches and small trees dragged across it. This was intentional and I was really pissed. The good news was that the top 7 were all together and going the correct way. I could only hope that maybe Seth and Jeff were close enough behind to see which way we went.
I was now leading the way for a very talented group of runners. I was running hard (hoping not too hard). Greg was always right on my heels or shoulder. I knew if he could count on the trail being marked, he would go past me. No one else made the move to either. I continued to just push the technical single track, working the hills to the best of my ability. Finally, we reached the one aid station. I was thirsty and opted to stop quickly and drink water. Some followed suit, but others took the sharp icy turn without pausing. I scrambled to get back with them, sprinting hard on some gnarly terrain. I was now in 5th or 6th position, but we were still all together. At the large puddle, Scott Mason was there snapping pictures and little did we know, a fascinating video as well. You must watch it. The course goes through it twice (leaders come back through at the 7:30 mark).
Photo by Scott Mason
After the puddle, we now were on trails that I was unfamiliar with. Greg and Eric pulled away from the rest of us a bit. I was feeling winded, and worried that this is where we would get strung out, and I possibly might get left behind. This also where the many ups and downs on the ridge began. I hoped that my hill training would pay off, and others would soon get tired too. As I swiftly descended a twisty trail, again there was confusion at the pond double track. Greg and Eric didn't know which way to go (no flags), I shouted to go left, and they did, keeping a lead on the rest of us. But, the course quickly veered left onto a switchback single track and again I had to direct them the right way. Greg was frustrated, and after some more flag trickery, I again was out front leading the way. I was on one of my favorite trails in the park. I again had the adrenaline rush of anger plus the excitement of being in front. I pushed the pace, hoping this exhausting hill climb would derail the train. I couldn't tell what was happening behind me however. Greg was always right with me, which felt comforting in some sort of brotherly way. I could hear others, but not sure if everyone was still together or not. The course on this section was super fun. We ran on ledges, over and through rocks, endless twists and turns, and of course hills. I understood Mike's excitement about his creation.
We splashed through the big puddle again and headed towards the beaver dam. I was nervous because the terrain was getting easier and this would favor the faster guys behind me. Greg moved up along side of me briefly when we ran into Scott Mason again.
Hammetts leading the way. Photo by Scott Mason
We continued on, crossing the tricky beaver dam. I was still leading the way, although that was to be short lived. First, I slipped and was about to fall into a large puddle when my brother caught me from behind and kept me upright. That was cool. But then, he and Eric went by me, soon to be followed by Brightman. Jackman was right on my heels too. The next mile or so was a blur. It was very hilly, but good footing. I can't remember if Bob passed me and I passed him back, or if we just stayed close together for a while. Eventually I was able to create space between us. Brightman was ahead of me by a few seconds, and Greg and Eric appeared to have disappeared. Then we hit the craziest trail in Big River - the mtn bikers call it Nutz.
Bojo had shown me this trail last summer and I had run it again on my own. It is a faint, seldom used, mountain bike trail that winds its way over exposed rock ledges. It is ridiculously twisty and technical, with a few very short steep up and downs. It was getting later in the race. I was feeling tired, but relatively strong. I wasn't worried about blowing up anymore. I caught up to Brightman about halfway on Nutz, and then made a strong move to pass by him. I was very worried about him countering, so I tried to keep pushing hard on the tricky stuff. In the meantime, I was also not only seeing Greg and Eric, but gaining on them. This was very exciting! After exiting Nutz, the terrain was a little easier to negotiate. I realized that I wasn't pushing myself hard, and talked myself into not giving in. I began sprinting, especially when it came apparent that the end of the race was near (I wasn't always sure how much was left). It appeared that I was creating some serious space between myself and Brightman.
A little over a mile left. Photo by Scott Mason
We reached the last single track (Foster's Folly again, but in the opposite direction). There was some slower traffic (lost 10Kers and halfers) to negotiate as well as the tricky terrain. Greg and Eric seemed very close (15 seconds ahead?) and I shouted up to Greg for encouragement and to let him know there was only about a mile left (he didn't hear what I said). Despite not seeing anyone behind me, I was paranoid someone else was finishing strong behind me. I was recklessly sprinting, falling to my knees twice. Finally, I made the final turn onto the wide double track. I could see Greg ahead of me and no one behind me. I sprinted through the finish line in 3rd place, 1:23:52. Eric Lonergan won in 1:23:17, followed by Greg in 1:23:24. Confusing results here. I ended up 14 seconds ahead of Brightman. We were followed by Ben Nephew 1:24:53, Bob Jackman 1:26:58, and Muddy 1:29:19. Unfortunately, no one else completed the course correctly I believe. Luckily, everyone seemed upbeat about a wonderful day in the woods and I was excited to have been able to race with my brother and fast friends. The new course is an absolute blast! I hope that everyone will get to experience it next year.