Aussie running legend Scotty Westcott said to me a few times when I queried his non-attendance at the NSW Cross Country Championships at Cambewarra over the years, that it was a “mountain man’s course, much more suited to someone like you, Chinny…” and I guess his analysis proved true – with a few victories to my name there over the years. But today I really proved him right…I think!
I’m in Park City, Utah in the USA for some high-altitude training before I have a red-hot go at the Chicago Marathon in October. My crew here includes pro triathletes Ben “Benno” Allen and Jacqui Slack (The King and Queen of XTerra Triathlon if you haven’t heard of them), and we will be training at 2000m+ for a few weeks before consolidating our efforts in Boulder, Colorado late September. I was tinkering about the Instagoogle when I arrived and chanced upon a local race called the Mid-Mountain Marathon. It is a classic trail race, starting at 2400m, peaks out at 2500m+ a couple of times before dropping to the finish line at 2100m. The terrain is up and down like a yo-yo (as you’d expect from a high-altitude environment) and single trail pretty much all the way, with the surface varying from pine-needle cushioning, treacherous loose stone and hard-packed gravel.
My coach had me down to run 42km for Sunday long run that weekend anyway, so I thought “What the heck!”, and entered the thing (with his blessings of course).
The race morning dawned clear but pretty fresh, although not as fresh as the morning before, where it dipped to an unseasonable -3 degrees. Frost everywhere! There was still a bit of frost around this morning however. As the race was a point-to-point event, competitors were bussed to the start. I hopped on among a crowd of Camelbak-wearing trail runners and tried to sus out the competition. I had no idea who the guns were though, as the trail-running scene is sort of detached from the road-running scene, obviously. I eventually worked out that the guys who weren’t wearing Camelbaks or carrying water flasks were probably the good ones. They obviously didn’t plan on being out there long enough to require constant water!
I didn’t have any specific trail-running shoes or equipment for the race, just a standard pair of ASICS Gel-1000s, a pair of ASICS sprinter (yes sprinter, that’s what it says on the label…) tights with a pocket for a couple of GU Roctanes, and a Garmin 210 with HR monitor.
As I said earlier, the race started at 2400m next to a chairlift in a ski resort called Deer Valley. We gathered for the pre-race instructions and were told the normal warnings that all Aussie trail runners are used to, you know, bears, moose, elks and…er, bees? Yep, we were warned about rogue bee swarms. And I thought the Australian bush was the dangerous one! The only other danger (which they failed to warn us about) on this run were the spectacular views of the valleys and distant mountains that appear when you pop out on a ridge or ski trail. If you spend too long drinking in the scenery, chances are you will go arse over on some rock or tree root.
Off went the start horn and I settled in behind my tips for the race leaders. The first km was a 3:50, but it was downhill and on the road! The trail started soon enough. My race plan was pretty simple. After a chat with rising trail star David “Byrney” Byrne the night before, I decided to take it pretty easy for the first 10 miles (16km), at least. The two reasons for this were:
- I hadn’t ever done a real trail race before, so needed to find my feet (so to speak) in this type of event before attempting anything heroic;
- I learnt oodles more respect for the marathon distance at Townsville earlier in the year, and combined with the elevation and terrain, I wanted to make sure I could finish the race, let alone feeling good enough near the end to have a crack at winning!
The guys up the front were pretty relaxed and obviously knew each other. They started talking almost immediately..! “How’s your training going?”, “You finished renovating your house yet?” etc. From my dropping of eaves, I learnt that there were a couple of pretty experienced and top trail runners, and some elite cross country skiers that made up the seven or so other guys in the lead pack. I settled in at the back of this little group, which had quickly formed the single file one would expect for a trail run. The pace was quite relaxed, pretty normal for a Sunday long run actually, between 4:00-4:30min/km. It actually felt like I was on a long run with the gang from Sydney Running Academy, doing laps of Centennial Park, cruising along following feet and listening in on the various conversations. At about 4km I stopped to retie my shoelace, as it felt like I had done it up too tight. I also made sure I stopped at each aid station for a mouthful of water, which was a bit different to a normal race, where I barely slow down and try to grab whatever I can! The only other voluntary stop was for a Phil Liggett “natural break” at 17km.
It was just after this point though, at around 19km that disaster struck. I had already rolled my ankle about 4km earlier, but not badly. This one was a decent effort at it. I heard something snap, but convinced myself that it was probably the bush I ran into in the process. It did hurt, however, and I was forced to slow to a hobble. A dude who had been running behind me asked if I was ok, I said yeah, and so he took off. I walked/ran for about 150m, and as the pain slowly faded my confidence returned. I was in the middle of nowhere anyway, so what else to do but keep on going! Eventually it felt all good again and I started the chase. I had to smash out some 3:40min/km to get back on! I made contact at around 21km, at a time of just over 90min, bang on the time I had hoped for to give me a finish time of about 3 hours.
Back with the leaders once more, I recovered from the surge, and got to 22km feeling pretty good (ankle complaint aside), which was great because this was the point I had thought about making a run for home. Being a novice at this type of event though, I was a little trepidatious about just busting past the group of three dudes in front of me, who were the owners of this sort of event and all pretty chummy. So I called out “Hey guys, I don’t normally do this kind of race, so I don’t know the etiquette – but do you mind if I come past and roll on please..?” They were most obliging, though a bit taken aback methinks. I felt like a weirdo, but at least I was a polite weirdo. At the next safe spot they pulled over and I went past. I picked up the pace a fair bit from then on (probably a bit too enthusiastically) but, as it was predominantly downhill for the last 12km, I was sure I would be able to get away with it.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, I went through some of the same sort of stages as a normal marathon in the final kms of the race. Not heaps of fatigue or bonking, but every time there was a climb, the heart rate definitely went up a notch and I was hoping the guys behind me were enduring the same thing. The downhill sections, which were now coming thick and fast as I approached the finish, were very welcome. The only thing that was concerning me was that my Garmin and the mile markers were not matching up.
At 10 miles (16km) the watch had said about 15km. By the 20 mile marker it was over a mile out. When I passed the 25 mile marker, the distance was around 39km. I asked the lead cyclist about this and he said something about “2 *indecipherable* to go!” “What did he say?” I thought to myself, “Was it 2 LAPS to go? I surely hope not!” Happily, soon after that exchange, I popped out on a ridge and saw the home valley stretching out below. We left the Mid Mountain Trail and I was suddenly on an even thinner downhill mountain-bike course, complete with berms, and descending as quickly as possible to the finish line, which I could now see. It was a welcome sight that’s for sure! I crossed the line in an official time of 2:59:32 (Garmin – 2:58:12), and I was pretty stoked to have dipped under the 3 hours. More surprises were to come however, as the announcers then let me know that the course “had to be extended by 0.8 miles to 27 miles due to construction work by the resort on the normal finish” So I’d actually gone well over the 26.2 miles. Do the math…Apparently I’d sort of broken the course record, but it was hard to say by how much due to the extra 1.3km…
As for the after-effects of such a rigorous “long run”, well, I felt pretty good. Especially after the chocolate milk they had at the finish chute (please note this, all Australian race organisers!). I was a bit stiff I suppose, but after a stretch and a 2km plod warm-down, everything settled down quite well.
I hung around for the presentation, and was glad I did, as they gave me the biggest apple pie I have ever seen. Probably the biggest pie I’ve seen in my life, full-stop. Only in America! It took me, Benno and Jacqui and the family with whom I am staying two nights to eat the thing.
Thanks go to ASICS for the non-trail-running trail-running gear, GU Energy Australia for the nutrition and to Brad for lending me his All-American Ute (the size of a dump truck) to get out to the race. Lastly, here’s a question I’m sure will ignite debate – even though this wasn’t on the road, and was a long course, should I count this as my maiden marathon victory, or not?