A few months ago I heard of an all women’s half marathon trail race and jumped at the chance to enter their registration lottery. Not because I’m feminist or need/want to make some kind of political statement, but because (1) the distance fit perfectly with my 50k training, (2) it was trail race which is always better, and (3) it was super cheap! I’m also a huge fan of races that make women and girls feel more comfortable trying something new. A lot of the woman at the this race were new to trail running–some were out there in the dirt for the first time. I picked my first triathlon because it was all women. Sometimes being with your own gender just makes things a little easier to step outside of your comfort zone so I was happy to help support any effort to introduce women to running in the woods.
At 8:15 we gathered at the Start line for our pre-race briefing but before our Race Director started, we were serenaded by the men of the VHTRC group…twice. I’m not sure if their rendition of “Happy Trails” was meant to inspire us or encourage us to run quickly away, but it was awesome regardless.
Our race director, Tracy, gave us a few notes about the course but also gave us the head’s up that the aide stations had special…let’s call them ‘gifts’…for some of the runners. Runners handed a gift needed to bring it with them to the finish line in order to earn a special prize. Some of the ‘gifts’ to carry included Care Bears, fairy wings, sombreros, oven mitts, and the gift of all gifts, the five foot tall race mascot–Furbutt, the (stuffed) brown bear.
Finally it was Go time and we headed out through the parking lot and up the hill to the first trailhead. When we got there, I was the seventh female. I wasn’t sure how to play this race when we lined up–I wanted to keep it as a training run, but I also wanted to push the pace a little and see what happened. But once we hit the single track, where it’s difficult to pass people, I was content to settle in and do my own thing.
I ended up behind one woman who was a demon on the downhills. Watching her was like watching a gazelle race down the path. She seemed to know where to put her feet three steps before she got there, and she flew down the course as if she had wings. I managed to catch up to her again on the uphills and we spent many miles doing this accordion style racing up and down the terrain. During a particularly long uphill, I passed her and tried to emulate her fleet footed downhill dance for the rest of the race. I’m sure I was never as graceful or fast, but she did inspire me to tackle them more aggressively than I typically do.
The trails were gorgeous. Well maintained and with beautiful scenery, they were also challenging–roots everywhere, a constant shift between packed dirt and loose large gravel, stream crossings and tons of elevation changes. It was everything I love about trail running. Plus the ever-changing terrain kept my mind focused on where to put my feet instead of those gentle muscle aches that tend to creep up in a race. Bonus points for whoever hung the American Flag for us in the woods. That definitely put some extra pep in my step!
This first part of the course, the Do Loop, circles back onto itself and we took the same way back to the trailhead again. By the time we got to the road, I had passed two more women. Both looked like strong runners and I was amazed I caught them at all, but each time I passed them on the uphill and managed to build a gap.
Our next aide station was at the Start/Finish line. The woman directly ahead of me, who I thought was in third place, stopped for a quick drink. When we headed back into the trails, I let her take the lead. I didn’t want to ‘pass’ her at an aide station stop that lasted less than three seconds. I had also followed her closely for about a mile and got the sense she was a strong runner. I wasn’t certain I could pass her legitimately on the trail anyway, so we headed onto the second half of the course with her back in front.
This part of the course could have been gorgeous. There may have been unicorns out there. It’s possible the trees had fairy lights twinkling and actual gnomes cheering us on. But this trail was so technical and treacherous I only had eyes for the ground three feet in front of me. I tried to keep up my charge down the hills but some stretches here were lethal if taken too aggressively. I ended up skip/hop/bouncing down most of it. Once at the bottom we crossed a bridge (Thank you! I hate rock hopping!) and charged back up. This particular uphill was nicely groomed, packed dirt with no roots. Awesome, right? Wrong. Someone, who probably has a perfectly evil laugh, decided to put bike bumps throughout so we were going up hills on the uphill. Now, I love me some hills, but this was brutal.
I marched up instead of ran and I’m glad I did. Though I kept the same pace as the woman running ahead of me, my effort was far less. When we reached the top I had the energy to get back to pace a little faster than her and made my move to pass.
There was no ‘easy’ part of this section. Every step was a challenge either because the footing was tricky or the terrain was punishing. But eventually we hit the next
party aide station. Their cheers echoed through the trees and their encouragement was just what was needed. One of the volunteers offered me tequila, and as good as that sounded, I was too focused on the mission (not tripping and crashing head first into a tree) to investigate if the offer was legit. Besides, the trail was hard enough while sober. I couldn’t imagine what they’d be like even slightly intoxicated….though come to think of it, maybe it would have made them easier after all.
Just beyond this party zone was another downhill, which elicited some swear words from my quads (if quad muscles could swear), and then the turn around. Now I braced myself to retrace this treacherous trail and try to maintain my pace to hold onto third place. I saw the first and second females after they made the turn around about five minutes earlier. They were way to far ahead to pass and they each looked like these hills were no big deal to them. With high knees they charged up the inclines seemingly as easily as a diesel train engine pulls a line of freight cars. It was clear from their still fresh looking faces that this was going to be a close finish for them.
I, on the other hand, did not feel as perky as they looked and needed to hunker down and push myself to stumble my way back to the Finish line.
This is where racing with a field of all women helps a lot. As I retraced my steps I got to see the rest of the racers coming down the path for the first time. Though we were all tired and struggling in our own ways, everyone offered a cheer, a word of encouragement, a high five, or even just a head nod. I got to see the women who had been ‘gifted’ and were diligently toting their assignments with them. I wondered who ended up with FurButt and wished them well…it was not going to be easy to haul him out!
As I neared the finish line one women shouted that I was going the wrong way. I’m not sure if she knew it was a down and back course and that at some point we’d all be going ‘the wrong way’ or if she was playing some kind of a mind game with me. Either way, I knew I had followed the generous course markings, had checked in at all the aide stations, obeyed the volunteers at all the turns, and had no reason to suspect I’d gone awry so I dismissed her call and charged on. I sprinted out of the trees to the finish line, stopping my time at 1:52. Third place overall. I was thrilled.
First, second, and fourth place finishers were all in their twenties. I’m calling my third place a victory for team Masters Runners!
This race and course were new to me and I’m so glad I did it. It was everything a trail run should be–a wonderfully challenging trail, a well marked course manned by energetic volunteers, a lighthearted and festive atmosphere (Here! Run with a bear! Have a shot!), great food at the finish, and homemade granola as prizes (top three finishers also got a sweet Patagonia vest!). And the best perk of all, they served smoothies instead of beer at the end. Perfection. This race is on my calendar for next year for sure. See you there?