RACE REPORT: Grasslands Trail run 03/21/09
Wow! I learned something today. I am not a trail runner by any stretch of the imagination. Today was my first trail race (Grasslands Half Marathon Trail Run) and the only time I have run on a technical trail. It's also the only race I have ever run with a stress fracture! Click here for the race photo album.
The funny thing is that my average pace was much slower than my long run pace, but the perceived effort was more. Apparently most people run trail races much slower than road races. When I looked at the times from last year, I was surprised at the number of 3-5 hour finishers for a half marathon. Now I know why. I placed 102 out of 238 with a finishing time of 02:19:15, my slowest time ever for a half marathon. I stopped and walked during the really technical parts (e.g. rocky, craters, creek crossings with steep climbs) and when several of us lost the trail (couldn't find the yellow trail marker).
I realize now that what I called trail runs at the Solana Trail and on the crushed limestone in Fort Worth were actually just soft surface runs. Solana and Trinity were more like sidewalks made of packed dirt/crushed limestone. They were even, wide, and didn't have ruts, large rocks, or roots. The only reason I could do low 9 minute miles on the Solana Trail is that 85% of it is packed dirt and very groomed. And that pace at Solana is with a lot more effort than on a road or harder surface.
Here's the reason road runners have a hard time getting up speed on trails: When you drop a tennis ball on concrete or asphalt, you get more bounce than if you drop it on dirt/gravel/sand. The Evolution Running DVD says that the calf, achilles, and plantar fascia all help your lower leg to act like a spring, storing kinetic energy which is then used on the next pushoff. With a softer surface, you can't store as much kinetic energy. I wondered why I had such a hard time running fast on softer surfaces. However, even though it takes more effort on the softer surface, it is something you can train your body/neuromuscular system to do. There are some really fast trail runners. I noticed from looking at the photos that many of the fast trail runners actually ran on the packed/cratered part of the trail rather than the smoother, sandy part of the trail. That allowed them to get more pushoff. The rest of us stayed on the actual trail, which had us sinking in sand in many places.
The Grasslands Trail Run was well organized and all the volunteers and event organizers were great. It was a lot of fun! It was refreshing to run a race without trying to PR. I treated it as a fun run and had a great time! I was supposed to run 13-14 miles for my long run this week and my doctor was recommending soft surfaces, so this race fit in perfectly.
There is actually a lot more logistics involved with trail runs than I realized. Since there weren't "parking lots" with marked spaces at the Grasslands and we were parking on grass, the volunteers were there directing us how to park so that no one became "boxed in". They also had everyone check in at the beginning of the race. They were being careful not to lose anyone out on the trails. I had read that horseback riders would sweep the trail afterwards looking for runners. There were lots of horses, campers, horse trailers, and even small corrals at the beginning of the race. They also had the courses marked with colored markers for each of the distances (1/2 marathon, marathon, and 50 miler). I wasn't sure there would be Port-a-potties on a trail run. I figured I would get laughed at and pointed towards a bush if I asked about bathrooms. But they actually had Port-a-potties at the beginning! If you had to "go" during the run, you did need to find a bush or tree to hide behind. There were a couple of aid stations during the 13 mile run. The volunteers were all helpful and friendly. As an avid animal lover, I was happy to see some dogs running the trail run. They always look like they're having the best time! I hope they received a finisher's medal too!
The first part of the course was 2.8 miles that looped back to the start, at which point a volunteer would take your pull tag to make sure you didn't 'skip' that part of the race and just start on the 10.3 mile portion. The announcer (shown in the header above) was trying to make sure everyone did the loop right. Apparently some of the marathoners/50 milers who had started earlier were accidentally running on the gravel road rather than veering off to the trail at the start.
As you can see from the photo at the left, the race started on a wide, flat, dirt road. I remember thinking: 'This is a little soft (lots of sand), but not too bad'. We moved from the road shown at right to the trail and it became much more difficult. Most of us had to walk the first mile because it was a single wide trail with 500 people.That part also had some larger rocks and was uneven. My proprioception and balance aren't that good, so I just stepped aside and let people pass me. I had no desire to twist an ankle and I knew if I tried to hurry over the technical parts, I would end up falling.
The 2.8 mile loop at the beginning was marked with blue and red colors on trees or posts. After that we would follow the yellow markers for the next 10.3 miles. Probably only 15% of the trail was 'packed dirt' where I could get up some speed. The rest was a layer of sand (about 3-5 inches deep) and uneven dirt with craters and rocks.
At two different points on the 'yellow trail', it was unclear which way to go. We could not find the yellow course markings and there were two trails going away from these points. So we did not know which one to follow. The people in front of me had stopped to try to figure it out and decided which way to go. So I followed them and hoped they were right. Because the trails were narrow, it was really hard to pass anyone. I would come up on other runners and want to pass, but if I went around, I had to run on the uneven, cratered, rocky part of the trail and risk falling. I did pass 5-6 people on the later/wider portions of the trail but we ended up playing leap frog because as soon as the trail got technical again, I would gingerly walk it and they would pass me.
There were two steep creek beds along the course. One of them was dry at the bottom and the other had a small stream of water and was muddy around it. In this case I was happy to find some rocks to step on to get across the mud/water. A true trail runner would have just run through it. Coming back out of one of the creek beds, I was wishing I had something to hold onto to pull myself up. I also wished I had taken my pocket camera with me. That creek bed would have made the coolest photo!
My fibular stress fracture started hurting pretty bad around mile 8. Even though it was a soft surface, what I didn't count on was all the side to side motion my ankles would be doing while adjusting to the uneven surfaces. That type of movement is actually great for preventing the repetitive motion injuries runners often get from the constant forward motion of road running. However, it really aggravated the stress fracture. I was feeling a lot more pain than I did from the 11 miler on crushed limestone last Sunday. I was still glad I ran it! This will be something I can mark off my 'bucket list': a trail race.
One major difference between trail running and road running is that in trail running you constantly have to be aware of where you are going to be stepping next. I wasn't able to "put my body on automatic" like I do with road running. I had to be aware of every step. The one time I allowed myself to look at my watch, I almost took a header because I stumbled over a rock. One of the volunteers taking photos near the last aid station asked if I was having a good time. She probably wondered because I kept looking down, but every time I looked up, I almost tripped :) I did notice that the better trail runners didn't spend as much time looking down. It's like their feet knew how to react to whatever terrain they would encounter.
I wasn't really sure where the "finish line" was. I came into the clearing where the electronic timer was and a lady with a clipboard. Instead of using string/pull tags/timing chips, they wrote down your bib# and time as you crossed the finish lline. I'm still not sure where that line was :) I probably kept running further than I needed to. The photo at the right is me coming into the finishing area. Since there were still flags, I kept running, but I was unsure where to stop. They had a smorgasboard of food at the end. I wish wishing we had brought our fold up chairs. A lot of people had done that and were just sitting around eating, drinking, talking, and watching the runners come in. Man's best friend was having a good time too (photo above).
I posted a question on the Runner's World Marathon Race Training Forum to the veteran runners that regularly run 60-80+ miles per week and asked what their running surfaces were. It surprised me how many of them ran on concrete/asphalt. They did say to avoid cambers and to slowly build up the mileage before adding intensity. Many of them (including a running coach) suggested staying at each new increased mileage for several weeks before increasing again. That's what I had thought about doing this next time. After Boston, I'll build back up to 45 miles per week, stay there for at least 4 weeks, then build up to 50, stay there for 4-6 weeks, etc. One forumite said it took him several years to increase to 80+ miles per week but by doing it slowly and letting his body adjust, he avoided all injury. I do intend to do my recovery runs and at least one of my medium long runs on a soft surface every week. But since I'm a road runner and I prefer road running to trail running, I need to be able to handle the harder surfaces. Apparently some other runners that are older are doing it (from the posts on the forum), but they built up their mileage slowly. From some of the comments I read, it seemed like the road camber was worse on the body than the running surface itself (concrete, asphalt, etc).
The race was a lot of fun! However, I'm a road runner at heart. Every time the trail crossed a road, I longed to run on the road. And although I will do some soft surface running from here on out to prevent injury, it will be on non-technical trails. I'm as bad at trail running as I am at mountain biking. The few times I took my mountain bike out to the North Shore at Lake Grapevine, the minute the trail would get difficult, I got off my bike and stopped and walked with it. I guess I'm just a chicken when it comes to falling on land.
It's funny - I'm almost fearless when it comes to falling on water. I wakeboard and do the things the 20 year olds are doing (jumping the wake) and landing on my head. But water is a lot softer than land. To the left is me doing a "rail grab" where you bring the wakeboard up and hold it with your hand as you jump the wake. Of course, you're not supposed to let go of the rope (uh-oh). Needless to say, it wasn't a pretty landing, since you can use the rope to control your landing/fall. But water only gives you a bad slap or maybe a sore neck if you do a face plant and your head snaps back. One of these days I may act my age, but I doubt it!