Wednesday, September 7, 2011

XTERRA Fisher Farm Park 10 Mile Trail Race Recap

By Charles A. Willimon, aka Chas

This past Sunday was an exercise in spontaneity for me.  It was the day before Labor Day, and XTERRA was holding the finale of their 3 race trail running series at Fisher Farm Park in Davidson, NC, which happens to be 10 minutes from my house.  I had seen this event on the calendar in several different places, but among my fairly active running community, it wasn’t really showing up on anyone’s radar.  I registered for the event only 2 days in advance, which is pretty last minute for someone like me.  Therefore, I had no real plan to train specifically for it.

Fisher Farm
The race was a nice departure from my comfort zone.  There were 5 mile and 10 mile events from which to choose.  Having just raced in a 5 mile road race a couple weeks prior, I registered for the 10 miler.  Besides, I had designated Sundays as my dedicated long run day, and I wanted to get at least 10 miles in to keep up with my marathon training schedule.  I figured that 10 miles at a hard race pace would be as good for my fitness as 14 or so at an easy pace.  I would turn out to be right.  Also, this was my first real trail racing experience.  I had run many workout runs on the Davidson College cross-country trails, but those trails are nice, wide, plush, well maintained fine gravel trails with just a few rolling hills, and minimal twisting and winding.  Here at Fisher Farm, we would be running on the hard-packed red clay dirt of the mountain biking trails, with lots of profound elevation changes, drop-offs, tree roots, and a predominantly single-track course.

I usually like to have a pace and total race time in mind when competing in road races, and I usually have plenty of time to set some goals, but I was a fish out of water in this race.  First, the terrain was such that I figured it would add at least 30-45 seconds to my minute/mile pace.  Second, 10 miles is an odd distance for me.  I feel I can pace myself pretty comfortably for a half-marathon, and I can run a 10k at a hard pace from the gate and finish strong.  These are two different approaches I have for two very different distances—and 10 miles is smack-dab in the middle of them.

On race morning, I showed up at Fisher Farm Park very early.  As often happens with me, I was the first runner on site.  Volunteers were setting up the finish arch and setting out clipboards for race-day registration.  Even though it was 6:40am, and packet pick-up was to start at 7am, the nice folks at XTERRA waved me over and checked me off so I could pick up my goody-bag.  Inside, along with the usual promotional fliers, there was an XTERRA pint glass, a nice technical running shirt, and a couple of GU gels.  The goodies almost made up for the race fee alone.  Shortly after I arrived, fellow DARTer Todd Hartung drove up.  His participation was one of the factors that convinced me to get off my rear and run this race.  Todd’s training schedule was such that this race would be quite a taper down for him, but his race calendar was a lot more packed than mine.

As dawn broke, it turned into a beautiful morning at Fisher Farm.  The open meadow just past the parking lot had a thin layer of fog that was slowly retreating.  The temperature was still cool enough to give me goose pimples, but I knew that would not last.  After chatting with Todd about our respective training schedules and upcoming runs, I took a few easy laps around the meadow, more out of boredom than the need to warm up.  Other runners started following my lead and doing the same.  After about a mile of slow warm-up run, I munched down some GU chomps and did some strides and dynamic stretches.  Tim, the race coordinator from XTERRA, ran the event like a well oiled machine.  He explained the route and the spacing process several times over the PA system as the clock approached the start time of 8:30.  The route was to follow a 0.45 mile loop around the open meadow for spacing purposes, and then the length of the combined green circle and blue square mountain bike trails with about 1/8 mile worth of the advanced black diamond course just to throw in some extra technicality.  The five mile racers would complete one lap and then turn back into the open area for the last 100 feet to finish, while the 10 milers would do two full laps of the trails.  There were water stops at mile 2.8 (which also was mile 7.8), and 5.2, right before the second lap would begin.

Todd and I found starting spots close to the start line.  At precisely 8:30, Tim blew the starting horn and set off into the clearing on his mountain bike as a trail blazer.  Here is where I committed one of history’s classic blunders.  No, I did not start a land war in Asia…but I did shoot out of the gate at way too hard a pace for a long distance race.  Out of the field of nearly 200 runners, I strode around the meadow and into the woods in 4th position.  I knew from my first 100 yards that my pace was too fast, but my own hubris kept me from slowing down too much.  The first half mile of the trails was generally downhill, but there were plenty of ups, downs, loose rocks, and tree branches.  At my given pace, I felt at times like I was in more of a controlled fall than a downhill run.  I kept the 3 front runners in view for the first 1.5 miles, but it was clear that at least 2 of them were pulling away.  I could notice from the tight switchbacks on the course that I was at the head of a small pack of maybe 20 runners, and the rest of the field was farther back out of my view.  I tried to maintain my pace for as long as I could, and prolong the inevitable fade from the front of this pack.

Shortly before mile two, the track took us into the challenging black diamond section of the trails.  I scampered up some rocky hills to keep within reach of the speedsters, and I turned a corner to find a rather dramatic drop-off that was pretty much a hop from a boulder.  It was too late to slow down, so I thought my most sincere mountain goat thoughts and hopped right into the path.  An especially brazen shirtless runner in orange shorts and neon green shoes flew nimbly by me on this drop and set out towards the front runners.  I was just happy to make it down without incident…this time.
With Orange-Shorts out in front of me, I knew I was in 5th position overall—still a lot farther ahead than where I am used to being in a group this size.  However, I could feel the breath from the small pack of runners at my heels.  Most were just waiting for a convenient time to squeeze by me on the crowded single-track.  One of the front runners had fallen back within reach, and I swerved around him to open up some space ahead of me.  Many runners behind me did the same.  At about 2.5 miles, the pack began to disperse.  3 very fast looking ladies passed me in rapid succession.  They appeared to be racing as a group and keeping pace with one another very well.  A handful of men passed me shortly thereafter.  At this point, I had to remind myself that some of these runners were probably racing the 5 mile event.  There was no use in trying to keep ahead of them.

Just before the 3rd mile was a water station.  I have never been good at grabbing water during a race.  I snatched a cup, managed about half a sip, and then tossed the rest as near to the garbage bag as I could.  For all the good it did me, I probably should not have bothered.

I was relieved to no longer have a small pack of runners chasing me, and I enjoyed nearly a mile of setting my own pace, even though I could sense a tall figure gaining ground from behind.  At about mile 3.5, I was passed by all 6 feet, 4 inches of Todd Hartung, who was very polite as he nimbly squeezed by me on the closely wooded trail.  I was not surprised to have Todd pass me; he is a very efficient and versatile runner for someone with such a broad-shouldered frame.  “Tear it up, Todd!” I cheered to him.  He encouraged me to keep up with him, and I did for quite a while.  At the 4th mile, the winding trails gave way to a spacious straightaway.  Todd and I each in turn overtook one of the men who had passed me a couple of miles back.

What goes down must go up.  The early drops in elevation along the course meant that there would be some pretty painful climbs before we started our second lap.  I kept pace with Todd, and even closed on him a little, but he began to pull away from me as we started climbing the winding hill up towards the trail exit/entrance.  The climb was tough, so I focused on Todd ahead of me and tried to forget the fact that I would need o complete this climb again in 40 minutes or so.  I kept Todd in view as far as the end of the first lap (mile 5.2).  There I took a 20-step walk break at the water stop to make sure I got a whole cup down.  There were a couple of other runners closing in, so I decided not to dawdle and I plunged back into the woods for a second round of trails.

Like the first lap, my second go-around began with some faster-than-comfortable rapid descents on tired legs.  Having run one lap of the trails, I knew how to pace myself and what to expect.  I also knew that there were a lot more people behind me than there were in front of me, and I was determined to keep it that way.  The difficult black diamond portion of the lap loop definitely slowed my pace on this lap.  As gingerly as I tried to handle the big boulder drop-off, I ended up taking a spill and scraping the fleshy part of my shin.  I was up and on my feet again in no more than a split second, and the adrenaline kept me from any distracting pain, but I was sure my shin would be stinging later.

The wages of trail running
There was no further sign of Todd ahead of me, so I focused on the approaching footfalls from behind.  A younger runner in a black shirt and red shorts was closing on me, or so I could tell from my sideways glances on the trail’s many switchbacks.  When I reached the mid-lap water stop, I did not want to slow down for want of keeping my adrenaline up.  As a result, my last water take was about as unproductive as my first.  At 8 miles, Black Shirt closed to right behind me.  He still had gas in his tank, and I was waning, so I figured he would fly by me right away.  He certainly had plenty of opportunities for an easy pass.  Instead, he stayed behind me and kept me within arm’s reach.  Maybe he was more tired than I thought…or maybe I was keeping a faster pace than I had anticipated at this late stage in the race.  His being there certainly drove me to push harder.  It was almost a mile later before Black Shirt passed me and darted ahead.

There were others who were within reach of catching up to me, but I was determined not to lose any more positions in this race.  From here on out, the track was uphill and very technical, as it had been at the end of the first lap.  I dug into the hills and tried to milk every breath for what it was worth.  While I could not get a good look at my next pursuer, I was pretty sure I was putting distance between me and him (or her).  No one would pass me from here on out.  As I emerged from the wooded trails a final time and made a hard left toward the finish arch, I noticed my fiancée on the sideline cheering me on.  Since I did not know she would be showing up, it was a huge boon to my energy.  I caught her hand briefly as I made my final sprint through the finish line.  Todd was there at the finish to congratulate me on a good run.  Final time: 1:20:56.  Average overall pace: 8:05 minutes per mile.

Chas at the finish
I was pleased with my time and pace, especially considering my lack of experience with a real trail race.  My time was good enough to earn me a medal for second place in my age group.  Todd finished the race very strongly.  His 1:18:09 time allowed him a first place medal by a nice margin in his age group, so we represented DART very strongly that day.  Thankfully, Todd and I are in different age groups.  The black shirted runner who passed before mile 9 had made a nice finish and passed Todd in the last quarter mile of the race…much to Todd’s chagrin.  Todd and I both remarked on how well he must have paced himself from the start.  As we hung around to listen to Tim present all of the awards, I noticed that the sure-footed mountain goat in the orange shorts was the overall winner in the 10 mile event.  I did not feel so bad having been passed by him in such an acrobatic manner.  More power to him!

Chas (L) and Todd (R)
Since I am writing this recap a couple of days after the race, I can say that there are three take-home messages I gleaned from the event.  1) I need to pace myself appropriately for distance and terrain, or I will pay for it on the back end.  2) Trail running teaches me—through soreness—about muscle groups I never knew I had.  Also, a scraped up shin for my part, and a turned ankle for Todd at mile 9 are reminders of the unpredictability of the trail.  3) Most important of all: trail running is fun!  I still love to road race, but it’s exhilarating to get out of town, get dirty, and run through the woods on variable surfaces.  I will be running more trail races very soon.  Up next on my calendar is the Andrew Lovedale Access 2 Success 5k on the Davidson College cross country trails.  Should be a breeze!

1 comment:

  1. Wow, that's an impressive pace on a tough course! Nice job!


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