notes from a creative writing PhD candidate
Months ago I signed up for The North Face Endurance Challenge series in Washington, D.C. TNFEC is held all over North America, with races in New York, Utah, Wisconsin, California and Ontario. The D.C. race starts off the series each year, and the finish line is at Algonkian Park in Sterling, Virginia (not really D.C. at all, actually). The trail run hugs the Potomac River in some parts, and passes through Great Falls at others depending on which race you’re running. The scenery is lovely, and we were lucky this year to have pretty perfect weather. Over a two-day period runners can participate in the 50-miler, a 50k, a marathon, a marathon relay, a half marathon, a 10k, or a 5k.
I knocked off two half marathons last year–one in May (the VA Wine Country Half) and one in October (the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Half)–and was planning on conquering my third this past weekend. However, in mid-February, right at the midway point of my training, I contracted that nasty flu that was going around. The flu eventually turned into pneumonia and I was sick for weeks. (I’m still coughing a little–it really messed up my respiratory system, and sapped all my energy.)
Two weeks before the race, unable to make my long runs (I hadn’t done more than 7 miles in my training at that point), I decided to downgrade the race to the 10k. Of course I was completely disappointed–I had been looking forward to, and training for, the half marathon for weeks–and running the 10k seemed to cheapen the experience a little. Six miles with little training I knew I could handle. Thirteen miles on a hilly, rock- and root-laden trail would be pushing it. I played it safe, knowing that I have two more halfs to look forward to this fall, one of which is also a trail run.
Much to my chagrin, I had to pay $11.50 to switch my race category, which I understood (but still kind-of disappointed me, although I was clearly more mad at myself/my respiratory virus than the company–but it happens). Included in the race fee (a pricey $80 before taxes and fees for the half when I signed up in December) was a technical shirt, a pair of Smartwool PhD running socks, a finisher’s medal, chip timing on your bib, and a Sierra Nevada beer at the finish line.
The race was extremely well-organized, well-staffed, and just an overall great event. Shuttles took runners and spectators to the start/finish line and were clearly labeled. Always the over-preparer, I arrived at the startling line an hour before the gun went off, so I had a chilly walk around the Potomac and went to the bathroom three times. (There wasn’t much to do since the vendors hadn’t set up yet.)
My goal was to PR on the 10k, but knew it would be difficult since TNFEC is a trail race (my first!) and the route would likely be muddy. Boy, was I right. The first half mile was easy enough, and we tramped happily along on green grass, but the next half mile had runners tiptoeing through a muddy, uneven field. So muddy, in fact, that my shoes got completely destroyed. I felt bed for the runners wearing fancy new kicks that day, and was grateful to have worn my worn-out old Mizuno Wave Creations that I brought out of retirement, thinking they might get demolished since we had tons of rain last week. (They did, but I’m holding onto them for future muddy summer slogs.)
The two halfs I’ve run have both been road races, and after my TNFEC experience I am a total trail running convert. I felt so much more occupied and distracted, but simultaneously more engaged with my breathing and my body, on the run through the park–we had to cross streams, balance on logs, jump across gigantic mud puddles, dodge and pass runners on dusty singletrack, and watch continuously for loose rocks and sticks in our path. I loved it. The hour flew by for me, and after I finished–without breaking my PR, but with a huge grin on my face–I knew I had to sign up for another trail race ASAP.
I carried my Nathan Quickdraw Plus handheld water bottle, very well knowing that there would by hydration and nutrition available at miles 2.1 and 4.2 (the same aid station revisited on a loop). Sure, I took a few sips of my water, but the real reason I wanted to carry my bottle was for the little pocket in front: I knew that Clif Shot Bloks energy chews and gels would be available at the station, and I wanted a few to try. I’ve been a GU girl since I started running back in 2013, but thought it’d be nice to sample some Clif energy products. On my second pass through the station I quickly stuffed a handful of goodies in my zipper pocket and went merrily on my way to the finish line.
TNFEC is an awesome race series that I hope to race in again one day, maybe in a different local next time (California would be cool–haven’t ever been there). Hopefully I can conquer the half marathons in better health this autumn, and I’m looking forward to the Fountainhead Half Marathon and 10k in May…and a new 10k PR.