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As a runner, I obviously enjoy some degree of pain and suffering. But a trail half marathon was a whole new kind of enjoyable and unbearable pain and suffering. My first trail half is definitely on the list of the hardest races I’ve ever done.
The Kansas City Trail Nerds hosted the 8th Annual North Shore Trail run on September 7, 2013, at Clinton Lake near Lawrence, KS. This used to be an 8-miler and 5K race but has now become a 5K, “10K,” and “Half Marathon” distance event. I use quotes because the 10K (6.2 miles) turned into 7 miles, and the half marathon went from 13.1 miles to 14 miles. Rumor is the Clinton Lake State Park got the race date mixed up so the Trail Nerds had to use a different loop of trail than usual – and that loop was 7 miles.
Now another mile doesn’t seem like no big deal, especially if you’re a long distance runner who thinks half marathons are the best distance ever, and I was training for my first full marathon. Not for trail running. Trail running is brutal. And it takes FOREVER. My 8 to 9-minute miles become 11-minute plus miles. Depending on the terrain. Depending on the weather. Depending on how tired I was by that point.
To set the scene: it’s September. A cool, crisp morning – perfect for capris and a t-shirt ensemble or perhaps shorts and a long sleeve tech shirt. The leaves are changing. The breeze is blowing. The woods are just begging for you to traipse through them the next few hours.
THIS IS KANSAS.
IN SEPTEMBER (also known as Another One of Those Endless Summer Months Round These Here Parts)
By 9am start time, it’s already well into the 80s, probably will be a heat index of almost 100 by the time we’re done. The sun is beating down. The lake breeze is as dead as my feet will soon be. The gorgeous wooded trails are what they call “technical trails.” Technical being the Trail Nerd term for “lots of freakin shit for you to climb and trip over.” The inviting shade is suddenly a suffocating canopy of humidity. Rocks, roots, branches, uneven terrain, and giant spiders are out to get you. Every muscle in your lower body will be used today. And maybe your arms too – brushing a branch out of the way or hoping to God that spiderweb was empty.
My first trail run was the year before in August 2012 – the Trail Nerd’s Psych Night 10K. So that gave me plenty of time to forget HOW FREAKIN HARD A RUN IN THE WOODS IS. (read “How to Look Good While Running: Run a Night Race” for more about nighttime trail running and how to avoid being eaten by raccoons) I knew I’d be slower, knew I’d be sorer, and knew it’d be hard, but by mile 3, I was starting to really, really reconsider having signed up for a HALF MARATHON of trail running.
It took me over an hour and a half to complete the first 7-mile loop. I emerged from the woods gasping for air and dripping sweat. I’d been soaked since about 10 minutes into the race. I found water at the aid station and something else I’d never experienced at a race before – Coca-cola.
I’m clearly a Mountain Dew girl, and I can’t stand syrupy colas, but ice cold Coke on a hot ass day was THE BEST THING I’D EVER TASTED IN MY LIFE. I was amazed. Apparently the soft drink is an easy way to get easily digestible carbs (sugar) back into your body. I didn’t care the science behind it – I just felt like life had been breathed back into my body.
I started the second 7-mile loop feeling refreshed and had a fellow runner to talk to. He’d run the Portland Marathon, which I was training for, and he gave me some tips. We exchanged race stories, but I soon had to leave him behind. He was run/walking a lot, and I just wanted to be DONE. So I kept my slow but steady jogging pace and wished him luck.
Then it was just me. And the woods. And the raccoons? Do raccoons eat people? Maybe only at night? What’s that sound? Is there anybody out there? Will I survive this? Is this gonna last forever? I started stumbling bad. Zoning out is dangerous because that’s when you miss that rock or don’t see a branch coming. I started walking every so often. I’ve NEVER walked in a race.
I kept drinking water. I ran out of energy chews but was more worried about water. I filled up when I found a water tank. I even gave some of my water to a girl with a Camelbak. A Camelbak and she was OUT of water. THAT is how HOT this damn run was. My Garmin wasn’t helping either. It kept saying I had a LOOOONG way to go. Are you sure, Garmin? Can you read accurately in the woods? Why are you being such a bitch today? Where’s the end???!!!
Everytime I saw a person, I kept asking if the end was near. They kept saying it was just up ahead. I was pretty sure it was in the next ten seconds when I’d melt into a puddle. Finally, the steep hill that lead me out of the woods was there. I wanted to run up it, conquer it in my usual Hill Master style, but I was so. tired. and. couldn’t. breathe. anymore. I looked up, and there was Jason, my fiancee.
“Hey, you! How are you doing?”
“Don’t look at me!” I cried, ashamed he caught me walking up a hill. But then I didn’t care. We walked up the hill, and I mustered a last little jog past the finish line.
That race was exhausting. But I got my AWESOME finisher medal. The medal was the only reason I didn’t switch to the 10K like Jason. Was it worth wandering the woods in a hot inferno for 3 1/2 hours? HELL YEAH. I’d always wanted a Trail Nerds medal and here it was. In my hand. My sweaty, sweaty hand. We also got sweet shirts with the race poster illustration on the back. I wasn’t a big fan of the yellow color, but that’s probably because it so loudly announces my position to the raccoons.
I remember getting a really delicious lunch with Jason and my friend Michelle who also suffered through the half in Lawrence afterwards. She is an awesome inspiration when it comes to trail running. But I was so tired I wasn’t really noticing my food. I even got a Coke to go, but it didn’t taste the same as during the race.
I was so tired we ended not going to the KU football game that night. But I didn’t care. I had survived! The difficulty of this race – both the terrain and weather – definitely helped my marathon in October seem easier. I had my struggles during the marathon, but they were much easier to work through. Especially without the eminent threat of death by raccoon.
*Thanks to Mile 90 Photography for the cool pics!