This last Saturday I ran my first real trail race, though it was much less a “race” than a “cross country adventure” where the course was designed by a particularly dedicated sadist. The trail snaked through swamps, across and along streams, mud-pits, up near vertical rock mountains, down insanely steep descents, and directly through underbrush. Normally, I could do a 10K in under an hour, but there I was happy to finish the 6.55 mile course in under 2 hours. Tired, bleeding from half a dozen small cuts, and covered in mud, I unfortunately had no idea that I’d just finished the relaxing, fun part of the day . . .
While hunting around a few weeks ago for local ultramarathons, I discovered the “Muddy Marathon.” Advertised on the New Jersey Trail Runner’s site as “the most fun you’ve ever had running so slow,” there were options to do an entire marathon, a half-marathon, or a 6.55 quarter marathon. There was also an option for a “relay” marathon, where you gathered up three other friends and your quarter marathon times were totaled against other team. The latter was what drew me in, because I thought running in the wilderness with a small group of friends sounded like a lot of fun. Besides, I’ve wanted to try a trail run, and this sounded like a great excuse. The quarter sounded like a good distance as well, since I’d read that trail running worked entirely different muscle groups and that jumping into too long a race, no matter how much road-running one does, is a great way to seriously injure oneself.
I initially asked four co-workers who I thought might be up for this madness, but none of them were free that weekend. I then e-mailed a bunch of friends, and while I three who said they’d love to do it, in the end only John actually followed through and joined me for the run. So late Saturday morning, my partner, two kids, John and I piled into a borrowed car and we headed out to New Jersey. It had rained on and off the entire week, but finally cleared up into a beautiful clear day, which seemed like perfect conditions for any event in which mud was part of the title. Soon we’d left both New York City and Northern New Jersey’s over-developed sprawl behind, and were driving along bucolic, rural roads. The change was always startling abrupt: big box-store suburban tracts one moment, then a curve of hill-side and we were surrounded by the budding green of spring and wooded mountains on all sides.
We were running late, so our arrival was somewhat frantic. John and I helped M haul all the supplies for the two kids up to the picnic area, checked in at registration, and quickly pinned on our race-numbers. I had just enough time to hastily change into my race-gear and dash to the bathroom, emerging mere seconds before the start.
Then we were off, in a start unlike any I’d experienced. I’m used to races of thousands, all lined up in color-coded corals and guided along paved paths. This race consisted of a pack of 60 runners, and the trail, marked by orange surveying tape tied to branches or orange paint sprayed onto rocks, started by cutting through a wide field directly into a swamp. As John put it, if we’d had horned helmets on, we would looked more like a Viking raiding party than any sort of organized race.
When I say the trail rain directly through a “swamp,” I am not using any sort of exaggeration or hyperbole. For much of the first mile, “running” consisted of slogging through a mire that varied in depth between ankle deep and knee deep. Every few yards someone would sink up to their waist, flail their arm in the air for balance, and shout “Hole!” as an unnecessary warning to the runner behind them. Eventually we emerged from the swamp, and the trail headed towards – then directly up – a steep embankment that can best be described as a “cliff.” Here we climbed, hands and knees, gripping rock-out-cropping and sturdy saplings for balance; every time we reached “the top,” it turned out to be a short reprieve before more climbing; when we finally did reach the summit, someone with a GPS watch claimed we had climbed 1,000 feet in one-tenth of a mile, which sounded about right. We settled into an actual trail for a while, and for a few hundred yards were rewarded with an amazing vista while the route followed the edge of the precipice we had just ascended, as the entire valley, swamp and all, spread out before us. At some point, I noticed I was bleeding from a number of cuts on my leg.
The rest of the run was much the same: portions of straight-forward trail running, broken up by steep climbs, slightly less steep descents, then slogging through mud, and for much of the last mile, directly up a stream. And like I’d read, trail running was entirely different from road-running. Your attention is needed constantly, though it is oddly-unfocused, as you simultaneously look directly in front of you for your footing, yet scan further ahead to anticipate the trail itself. There is no settling into a strong, steady gait, as every step is gauged on the ground ahead, shortening or lengthening to accommodate rocks, boulders, fallen branches and trees, washed out gullies, and loose leaves. I’ve been working on short, quick steps with a rapid turn-over, so I think I handled myself pretty well and made pretty good time when the trail allowed.
It was a particularly meditative act, this unfocused-focus, since the mind was simultaneously occupied yet without subject. When I’ve written about “the void” that Murikami writes about, this was it in its purist form. Another challenge that makes a trail run different than a road run is just following the trail. I’d always been confused when I’d read about runners getting lost and running down the wrong path; in a road race, you just follow the road. In this race, the “trail” was wherever the orange blazes lead, and while that was often obvious, more than once it was directly into the bushes, up a stream bed, or down what looked to be a sheer drop-off. In the crowded New York Road Runner Races, you just follow the runners in front of you, but for the second half of Saturday’s race I often didn’t see another runner at all. John was a few steps behind me most of the way, and as runners began to spread out, it was often just the two of us for a few minutes, before we would catch up and eventually pass another few runners.
At just over three miles there was the sole aid-station: a card-table manned by a couple handing out water and Powerbar Chews. They told us we were making good time, since we’d covered 3.25 miles in just over an hour! Under normal conditions I can do that in 25 minutes, but this day, that felt pretty good. We pressed on, wading waist deep through a murky lake, then beginning a long, slow climb that lead over one last ridge before dropping back down towards the stream bed, more mud, and eventually the finish. While the hills were taxing, I was happy that every time we reached a flat stretch I was able to break right into a fast run, and still felt strong. In fact, the second half of the race the two of us continued to pass people — one of the advantages to starting near the back of the pack. We splashed up a stream for about a quarter-mile, then passed a photographer who told us we were almost at the end. “How much further?” I asked. “Just one more hill,” her replied. “What do you mean by ‘hill,’ exactly?” I shouted back. He just laughed, but it turned out to be just that, a short hill, and suddenly there was the sound of a finish line with all the clapping and cheering and congratulations.
I came in 28th, in 1:47, which wasn’t too bad. John came in a minute and a half later, then we found M, Nat and Angelica. Nat was particularly impressed with all the mud on us, and after a few pictures there was free barbeque and beer (from a local brewery!), and then Nat found his own mud puddles to jump in.
Since this is my running blog, I’ll gloss over the rest of the day: how we pulled over to change Angelica’s diaper in Hackensack and the ignition key snapped off in the lock on the trunk so we had to wait there for four hours while our friend whose car it was borrowed another friend’s car to drive out to meet us with the spare key; how we still had a 90 minute drive back to Brooklyn, which was prolonged when we had to get off in Manhattan to change Angelica (again), and then I accidentally took us through the South Bronx to get to I-87; how we then came home to our poor dog who, having now spent 13 hours in his crate . . .well, I’ll just end the story there. And if you’re wondering why there are no pictures? While unpacking, I realized I’d left my camera back at the race (luckily the race directors found it).
Needless to say, by the time we collapsed into bed finally, we all felt like we’d run a marathon. I can’t say “it was worth it,” since if I’d known it would take us almost 6 hours to get home I never would have gone to the race, but the disastrous trip home aside, the run itself was amazing. It was just two days ago, but I can’t wait for next year . . .