Running fast is really hard. For me, it is much more challenging than running far. The shorter the race, the faster you run, the more it hurts. When I tell people I am running anything less than a marathon, their reaction is often to assume that it will be easy for me. On the contrary! I am suffering on a whole different level when I race shorter distances.
In early May, I dropped out of the Ice Age 50 Mile due to an SI injury. I held on until mile 37, but ended up bowing out to avoid doing more damage. This uncompleted race gnawed at me for weeks. I decided that the only way to get over it was to get a strong finish in my next race. I only feel as good as my last race. But that didn’t leave me with much time. There were 28 days in between Ice Age 50 and my next race, the Blue Mound 20k, on June 6. I rested for 13 of those days so that left me with about two weeks of actually running time.
I have a history with the Blue Mound Trail Race. It was my very first trail race ever! Back in 2013 I ran the 9k. My first child, Paavo, was 6 months old and I wanted to get into marathons so I signed up for the Blue Mound race to start my training. I don’t even remember what my time was – back then I didn’t race to compete, I just wanted to run the course with a group. The following year I ran the longer distance, the 22k, while I was pregnant with my second child, Mischa. I had two marathons under my belt so it wasn’t too big of a deal. In 2014 I ran the 19k when Mischa was 7 months old and I was the 4th place female. This was the race that built up my confidence enough to start trying hard. That next month I ran my first 50k and got 2nd place.
Blue Mound State Park is a 7 minute drive from our house so this is where I do most of my trail training. I have these trails memorized. I have run them in the dark, I hike them with my kids, I snowshoe them in the winter. Going into the race I decided I would place in the top three women. I needed to in order to feel better about dropping from Ice Age. But it wasn’t going to be easy because half marathon-type distances are not a strength of mine and I had done absolutely no speed training.
I ran a grand total of 5 times following my SI injury in May. My longest run was 6 miles. If I wanted to try to lead the race, I needed strategy. There was no course I knew better than Blue Mounds. When I looked at the map of the race, my stomach sank because I knew how agonizing the hills and prairie would be for me. But I also knew where I could run fast and where I needed to hold back.
In shorter races there is nowhere to hide. If you are trying to be competitive there is no time to stop and assess your situation. Longer distances break me down slowly but I have time to stop and think about how my body is managing the stress of the race. In one ultramarathon, I even slumped down against a boulder on a steep climb and wept into my salt-crusted elbow. No one was around to see me in this pathetic state because the racers were spread out over the 31 mile course. I feel periods of doubt in every race but in the shorter ones, even 30 seconds of hesitation could cost me a leading place.
I did not hesitate at Blue Mound. I actually lead the girls division for the first half mile, not really on purpose but because I needed to stay at the head of the pack to avoid getting stuck behind runners on the first single track section. Runners bottleneck when the trail narrows, and if you are behind someone going slow, you either need to request to pass or wait until the trail is no longer single file. Negotiating a pass wastes precious time when you could be marching ahead at your desired pace. It also uses bursts of speed to move past the person you are passing which is not a good use of energy.
About a third of the way through the race my body was begging me to slow down. This early in the race, the leading group of girls was running pretty closely together. One girl fell away on a hill climb and I didn’t see here for the rest of the race. The racer who ended up in 4th was running really close on my heels. I wanted her to back off so I took a big risk by gunning it up one of the longest climbs of the race. This was just before the half way point and I never saw her again. Accelerating up that hill was risky because I didn’t know how long I could hold onto the intensity of my pace or how my under-trained body would handle the next six miles. That move put me in 2nd place and I was a woman alone for the rest of the race – I never saw another female. My strategy was to put as much space between the girls behind me while hopefully closing the gap on the first place girl. My opponents might not have been too far behind but the visual barriers kept me hidden in the woods so they didn’t have the immediate hope of catching me. One of my strategies was not to let anyone see me walk. I did all of my hiking in private, as to not let them see that I was struggling. Switching from a run to fast walk on hills saves precious energy while covering ground pretty quickly. But it is a telltale sign that a runner is concerned about energy.
The second half started with a huge decent. I thundered through the prairie, into the cover of the trees and down to the bottom of the valley without looking back. I launched off of rocks and roots with pure muscle memory. I was alone in the forest I knew so well. Being alone in a race can be a misleading comfort, like no one will ever catch me. When I saw a flash of movement on a switch back or heard voices in the distance, my heart skipped a beat. I teetered between exhilarating speed and desperately fighting for breath. I stayed focused and was able to allude the 3rd and 4th place girls all the way to the finish.
The Blue Mound Trail Race is special to me because it is on my trails. I feel lucky to live so close to such a beautiful park with so many challenging running opportunities. Another advantage that I had that day was that my family was there. My mom and Jesse were in the race, my dad, my mother and father-in-law, and my kids all were there to see me finish. I actually thought about this a lot during the hard parts of the race. That is one of the components of home field advantage – having your fans there and not wanting to let them down. My experience on the Blue Mound trails got me 2nd place in a race that I wasn’t sure I would even be ready to run. Well, I guess trying really hard was part of it too.