I’m a little obsessed (among many other things in my life) with glossy magazines. I read them in newsagents, buy them, beg them from friends and surreptitiously swipe left behind ones on airplanes. Fashion, oh yes – but also running , triathlon, health and fitness magazines. Why? I think it’s because it subscribes to my aspirations (and imaginary glamorous lifestyle). It makes me feel like I’m a part of some greater good. Runner’s World, for example, is full of stuff I already know (run a minute, walk a minute?!), food I already cook and gear I already own. But like the fashion glossies, the fitness magazines sell a lifestyle and a community, and I can’t resist.
On my first trip to the REI co-op in Maple Grove (oh hail, wonderful Mecca of all gear adventurous) last week then, I couldn’t resist buying a copy of Trail Runner magazine (“Beginner’s Guide SPECIAL. Prepare for your first trail race.”) Oh wait; I’ve just finished my first trail race already. Never mind, better buy it to check what I did right.
“Practice on smooth trails before progressing to rough trails.”
I signed up for the Spring Superior trail race in Lutsen (May 15th) on the North Shore of Lake Superior as motivation for my move to Minnesota when my work trip was confirmed. I’d been toying with the idea of doing a proper trail race this year anyway – but the reality of training for trail racing in Ireland is pretty grim due to a total lack of suitable terrain to train on. How did I train for my first (horribly technical and hilly) trail race? One run on the old Kenmare road (good), two sneaky advances on the MTB trails in Derroura (not bad) and a bogtrot on the Bangor Trail in Mayo (toughening up stuff of legend), over four months. Plus a romp through the Elm Creek park singletrack in Minneapolis with some new friends the week before the race. The reality? It certainly wasn’t enough but I got around. Oh, but there shall be MUCH more singletrack under my belt before I return to Lutsen for the Moose Mountain marathon in September. Hopefully.
“Trail races are often completely different experiences to big races...a great way to meet new running partners and have a blast running in a beautiful place”.
So I’m lucky enough here to have been parachuted into a six month work placement in an outdoor sports paradise, where I have an insane and talented running friend from work (Helen) who knows lots of insane, talented runners . Hence I rock up to the Twin Cities Running Company (TCRC) in Eden Prairie (a nearby suburb in Minneapolis) the day before the race for a lift. The guy on the till in the store greets me cheerfully with “Hey, you’re Irish! You know Martin Fagan? We’re mates, both sponsored by Reebok.” Yes, I tell him, I “know” Martin Fagan, in that I ran “with” him (i.e. narrowly avoided being mowed down by him despite fifteen minute head start) at the Great Ireland Run in March. But I’m not sponsored by Reebok.
I’m riding up to the race with an eclectic gang of runners affiliated with the TCRC; not officially a club but a pretty select and talented running crew, most of whom are racing 50km, not 25km. They’re great fun, and include Chris (whose road marathon PB is 2:17) and Brian “the Younger” (‘cos he’s only 25!) who has scraped his marathon PB down to 2:37 on third try. We’re taking the megalithic Twin Cities Running Store Recreational Vehicle, cheerfully driven by Adam who owns the store. Ten of us pile into the back, on seats, the double bed and a kitchen chair, because it’s full house. The RV rocks. We’ve got a toilet, a fridge (full of Gatorade and water on the way up and beer on the way down) and plenty of room for trotting around to mingle. Helen, her Argentinian friend Valeria and I make up the female contingent. They both have (literally) thousands of trail racing miles under them. I have none, if you don’t count trying not to fall off the Burren. Listening to the guys banter about their (90 mile weeks) training and racing, I start to feel slightly panicked. I also badly want a TCRC shirt.
“Your pace on trails is usually about 10 to 20 percent slower than on roads.”
Trail running has about as much relation to road racing as mountain biking does to road cycling; i.e. – you use the same muscles and aerobic system, but they might as well be totally different sports. I have no idea how long the race is going to take me. 25km (15 miles) of insanely technical, up-and-down twisty rooted single track. I decide to aim for two and a half hours. The girls agree this should be doable for a first day out. Pshaw! Ten minute miles! I can hold just over seven minute miles for a road half marathon. So that’s nearly 30% slower. Sounds easy, then, yeah? No.
“The secret to even energy expenditure is knowing how to hike....Think tortoise over hare; i.e. RFM (Relentless Forward Motion) is more efficient than blast –and-gasp style”.
The first kilometre takes us off the road and onto the trail; once on the trail, we start running on muddy singletrack – this means there’s only room for one runner at a time. Which leads to a certain amount of angst on my part for the first while; am I going too fast? Not fast enough? Getting in people’s way? (Yes). Swimming pool etiquette applies – if you can’t go fast enough to keep up with traffic, get out of the way. The same applies to stepping out of the way of faster runners on the way back from the out-and-back (more of which later).
I do have a race strategy. Run six kilometres, then another six. Then turn around at the aid station in Oberg and run all the way back without passing out or throwing up (although nearly throwing up is always acceptable and indicates sufficient exertion of effort).
The first couple of kilometres climb upward pretty relentlessly and my heartrate feels sky high (I checked my Garmin profile after and yes, it was). I’ve been warned about not running up the really steep bits of mountain and quite frankly, there is no chance. The really steep bits I hike as fast as possible then get a breather on the way down the long tricky descent on the other side (mentally noting I’d have to return back up later). It soon becomes obvious how this goes: run the bits you can and walk the bits you can’t. As time goes on, the field spreads out. I’ve no idea how I’m doing but only one woman passes me at speed about two thirds of the way out to the turnaround, so at least I’m holding my pace. I’m enjoying the switches between climbs and recovery running as fast as I can; although as I cover distance, my undertrained and overpushed quads start balking at the climbs.
The fifty km race started two hours before us at 7am, so I meet the frontrunners storming back towards us well before our turnaround aid station. These are mixed in with a charge from the 25km leaders. Stepping aside to let these warriors pass (including the unfortunate Chris and Brian who both got lost) and with some more climbing to do, I’m feeling a bit disillusioned. When I arrive out to the turnaround / aid station at Oberg, though, it’s a different matter. We emerge onto a gravel road, into the sunlight, into a cheering crowd where there’s water and snacks, and I trot up to refill my water, taking applause like the superstar trail runner that I am. Somebody bellows “fourth woman!” at me. Jeez. This way exceeds my expectations. After a quick water bottle refill (I’m carrying a handheld one, with electrolyte tabs stashed, as there’s only one water station), I head back towards home. Fifth and sixth women are only a minute or two behind which makes me nervous.
It’s amazing how crucial keeping control over your mind is on a trail run. On the way out I was feeling a bit disheartened, figuring I’d possibly overcooked my goose on the hills. On the first couple of km on the way back, meeting people who step aside to let me through and cheer me on (hey! I’m now a front runner as I’ve passed the turnaround!), plus the fresh water and a quick gel, totally revitalise me psychologically.
Saying that, the ratio of runnable to walkable changes on the way out due to my lack of hill training. Anything bigger than a mogul, I charge at with all of the style and grace of a new born foal (tottering at it then slowing to a walk). I know now there are two significant climbs which have to be hiked (and which have a lovely long descent on the other side). I concentrate on running what I can; keeping up the pace on level and downhills is going surprisingly well. I pass a couple of guys while power walking up a slope. Turns out I’m not the only Bambi on the course. [TrailRunner: “Don’t be shy to power hike the uphills.” Ha!] Suddenly I spot the third woman (who had passed me earlier) ahead. Ironically, I’m feeling trashed again so am appalled at the idea of having to employ wily racing tactics to mow her down. I catch up with her, hiking, and start a feeble trot at the top of the steep descent. As it happens, her goose is pretty much confit at this stage and she steps aside and waves me good luck. I’m delighted and take off with as much speed as I can muster to put distance between us.
I really enjoy the last few kilometres as I’m reaping the benefit of all that uphill on the way out – it’s all level or downhill; I’m mostly running in the woods by myself – twisty cool paths - so it feels like a lovely adventure, and the psychological boost of knowing I’m third if I keep pressing on (a few sneaky glances confirm there’s no sight of my pursuer). When I arrive back to the road, I have a single kilometre to go. My legs are surprisingly good on the flat and I head back to base at sub eight minute miles. Running up the road by myself – I realise one of the great things about trail running is the smaller numbers ; with course difficulty thrown in, most finishers arrive in separately, which means each runner gets their own welcome reception from the crowd (if you’re lucky enough to finish at a civilised time, for ultra runners). I feel like a pioneer running back to base, all by myself. The race finishes behind the Caribou Mountain Lodge in Lutsen and I get my own welcoming committee cheer when I arrive. Two hours 33 minutes.
Helen and Valeria arrive shortly after as second and third woman u/40 in the 50km, in around five hours. Of course, they have just run twice the distance I have, in about twice the time (the faster, hardier runners are mostly in the 50km) – but I’m happy!
My prize is a wooden loon (national bird of Minnesota - see pictures below). [Race money and prizes are small for trail races; Helen has a whole collection of eccentric home-made prizes.] I clutch my plaque lovingly (you know how I feel about hardware). Plus the TCRC guys have swept two of the three u/40 prizes, two of the three o/40 prizes and the two girls have one apiece. So we have a bus full of loons travelling home. The RV stops in Duluth on the way down for micro brewed beer and burritos at Burrito Union, then we load up the fridge with more beer and head home. All expectations have been exceeded.
You can also read all about the race (and check out Helen and my picture and “international runner” namecheck!) at:
If you’re interested in this kind of thing, the men’s 50km report also makes for great reading:
Dee Hassett - June 2010