Two days ahead of the race I looked at myself in the mirror and asked: Was I nervous?
I remember as a kid, while playing team sports and competing in tournaments, being horribly nervous. I always had such a huge ball of butterflies in my stomach, I could never reach my normal, everyday performance. I hated competing.
Then one day I was invited to run a cross-country race. I don’t remember the distance, 5km probably. I took my bike to the neighboring town and joined the race. No one expected anything, especially not me. I came in second and unseated the clear front runner for this race. I still savor that moment when I ran the final 300 meters or so, on a slide incline to the finish line. I completely maxed out, almost collapsed at the end, but I was just following the other guy and we left the strongest competition in the field clear in the dust. My last and only race I ever competed in, 25 years ago.
Friday night I tried to eat right. No alcohol. I even went to bed early.
My allergies have been bugging me all week. I had slowed down my running routine, but I knew I was ready. The distance didn’t bother me. I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t get hurt. That was my first priority. I wanted to have fun, and really enjoy it. Of course, I also wanted a decent time. Having no idea what the course would be like, I guessed what I would consider a good time for the trail and left it at that.
I am signed up for the Hillbilly Half, which is part of the La Sportiva Mountain Cup Series. The race is for the 5th year in the Capitol Forest. Starting point is the Rock Candy parking lot, just 20 minutes from my house.
I set my alarm early enough to have time to wake up, eat something, and get my gear ready. Breathe. Check again – was I nervous? No. Still not.
The week prior I had scouted out the Candy Rock parking lot which would serve as a staging area/start and finish line. I knew how to get there. The sun was out, and there was still a chilly crispness in the air. It was Go time.
Arriving at the trail head with several hundred other runners, the Guerrilla Running team clearly had things perfectly under control. Parking was organized, bib number pickup was a breeze and there was a long line at the bathrooms.
After I had gathered my stuff, I still had about 45min until the start of the race and I headed back to the car- I didn’t want to get too cold. I brought several different layers and combinations of clothes, but even with the sun out, it was chilly, forcing me to make a decision on what to wear for the race.
A couple last tweets were sent from the car. I anxiously fastened my number on my shorts. Still 15 minutes to race start. Nervous yet? No, excited. Thrilled to be here, with all the other athletes, in perfect weather. Ready for this adventure.
Making my way to the starting line, I tried to figure out how this would go down. How big of a crowd will this be? Will the start be uber-competitive? A few cheers, thanks to the sponsors and a countdown and we were off and running.
I debated how to start the race. I had read that you should start out fast. Given the trail, a wide but climbing forest road, I decided for fast. I finally slowed down as I started to get a feel for the pace of runners around me. I felt great.
While the wide forest roads allowed for enough space to overtake and be overtaken, as soon as we hit the first single track things got a bit more interesting. That’s when the games began. Your challenge was now not just to run safely over rocks, roots and muddy puddles, but also to figure out when was a good time to overtake someone and keep an ear out for someone who wanted to overtake you. The trail made it’s way through the forest, climbing with every turn and every switchback. This was the real deal, and I enjoyed every moment of it.
At the second aid station I grabbed some water and I emerged on another forest road at what looked like the ridge line of the hill we just climbed. We soon made out way back into the forest on another rolling, climbing single track. At around what I assumed was kilometer 7-8, I found myself running with a guy who was super friendly and talkative and he shared brief stories from last years race. The puddles grew in size and inevitably we couldn’t circumvent them anymore. Straight through we went. Cold, wet, refreshed feet and muddy shoes raced onwards.
The race is an out-and-back race, and we soon saw the leaders racing towards us. We ran on a rolling trail, along little streams in a beautiful part of the Capitol Forest. My friendly trail companion ensured me that we would soon reach our halfway point and the steepest sections were over.
The brief cheers of encouragements from the oncoming runners propelled me towards the last harsh sections, a brutal hill that climbed up, up, up until reaching the turning point. I walked it, taking my Cliff Shot just before I hit the aid station. Washing it down with a few cups of water and some peanut butter M&Ms, I felt elated. Food never tasted so good. Water was the live saver and I knew I would finish this race. Now, at the halfway point I had seen the whole route, knew what to expect and it was all downhill from there – mostly.
From the halfway turning point, I started out going downhill fast. I cheered on oncoming runners and really enjoyed myself. I still had 10km to go, but I felt great. I knew that with fatigue setting in, I had to make sure I wouldn’t twist an ankle. Crossing one of the large puddles on the trail I slipped and fell, but I made it down the mountain in one piece. With my last burst of energy, I sped toward the finish, people cheered and I felt my legs cramp up. Not slowing down, I made it across the line.
I waited for my bib tag to be torn off and received my finisher beer stein. Afterwards I wandered aimlessly through the rest area taking it all in. I had made it. My legs hurt, my face was muddy and salt crusted. I was dirty and never felt better. I almost cried.
There was a lot of food, everything my body craved. I drank, I ate and walked back to the car to try to clean myself up and get some fresh clothes on.
Returning to the starting line I chatted with some of the folks, cheered for runners to complete their race and waited for the winner ceremony.
Today is Monday. My legs are sore but I’m doing surprisingly well. My shoes are still dirty and I am allowing myself to take a few days off.
But then I will get back on the trails. There are trails to be raced.
A huge thanks to the Guerrilla Running team for putting on such an incredible event. Yes, it felt different with this glorious weather early in March. But, man, for a first race, this was perfect.
Thanks to all the awesome volunteers who cheered us on on the trail and who manned the aid stations.
Thanks La Sportiva and all the other great sponsors for supporting such an incredible event.
On the trail:
In the car: