Tuesday, April 23, 2013
The Stellar Night Trail race series had been going on each Wednesday for over a month. My training schedule and race preparation plans kept me from participating but I put April 10th on my calendar, thankful to partake before the final opportunity passed.
There is most definitely a uniqueness to trail running, and trail racing, and I had done very little of either here of late. I ran a short cross-country series the previous fall and a few of those courses were challenging, off-road adventures that I never quite felt prepared for. Then there were a few wonderful, blissful ventures out on our local trails with John over the winter-time. Those were great ... except for the endless hills. What is it with trails and hills around here? When someone mentions a trail run, what registers in my mind is a 4000 foot elevation gain in 10 miles.
The Stellar nights 5K (oh, and let me be clear here, it was farther than a 5K), is what I would call a "killer" course and I mean that in both ways. I was indeed lucky to come out the other end mostly unscathed, but it was mere luck. There were plenty of opportunities to fall off the mountain, suffocate in the sand pits of hell, pop an ankle in a ground squirrel hole, inhale a big bug, tumble down stairs, slide off embankments of bark chips, and exactly how many sports fields did we have to traverse, because every time I thought we were done, there was another soccer field in the way. But most everybody eventually finds their way to the finish unscathed.
I intended to run with moderate effort because I didn't have enough in me for much more than that. Oh, and I was hoping not to paint the trail with my recently eaten salmon patty. But I soon discovered that it is impossible to run this course with moderate effort. It required everything. I discovered that my Hoka's were a bit on the loose side and rounding all the hairpin turns caused some unauthorized movement inside my shoes and my feet took some kind of insane battering. It was not a course for the faint of heart or the weak knee'ed. What were all these kids doing out here? Are you kidding me? This is a grown-up course. Or maybe the reality is that it is a kid's course - kids run for fun, grown-ups run at your own risk! The kids are crazy and fearless - perfect for such a race.
The starting line was upon one of the sports fields (a softball field I think), and we gathered in a
The top was my favorite part of the whole course. It was a spine along the mountain and we followed what became a narrow single-track trail which compassionately sloped slightly downward. The spine became treacherous though as it narrowed and descended along a down-ward switch-back pattern. There was the incessant need to slow your pace in order to stay on the trail when you hit the turns. My feet were in pain and I feared my knees would not make it through the next mile, and this was the "easy" part. Down, down, down we wound, and I had trouble staying on that single-track. Toward the bottom, where spectators had gathered to watch the suffering, I almost launched myself into the crowd like a drunken concert-goer (although I've actually never been drunk). The trail turned but my body had a delayed reaction. Then it was back up again, not quite to the spine and then back off the trail onto, ahhhhh, pavement. That was loop #1.
I desperately looked at my watch. Is it 3.1 miles YET? It almost was but not quite. Back down off that beach loop and then it was back up toward the sports fields again. I caught up fairly even with the guy who had been running just ahead of me and I focused on what I thought must be the finishing stretch. According to my watch, we were past 3 miles so the finish line had to be just up ahead. He grunted out something like, "great job. Now all we have is heartbreak hill." Heartbreak hill? Aren't we mostly done with hills? And before the thought fully formed in my mind, there lay before me some sort of embankment of loose bark which was worthy of being crawled up, and above that was the "stairway to heaven." I would rather refer to it as ankle-break hill, and not only that, but also we were running up while other runners were still running down. Collisions were eminent. I managed somehow to drag my body up the bark, up the stairs and back onto the nearest sports field. Ah, this is the field around which must lie the finish line. I picked up my pace, seeing as how I was already over 3.1 miles, and prepared to gut it out around the back of the softball field. When I came around to where the finish line was SUPPOSED to be my every bit of strength fell flat. There was no finish line around this softball field. Wrong one. They all look alike to me. I had another one to go around before reaching it and I had totally misjudged the entire finale. By the time I reached the actual finish line, my legs were barely functioning and I might have staggered a bit after stopping. I'm not sure what words came out of my mouth but I don't think they were pleasant words. You want to be always appreciative of the volunteers and organizers, but as I wrestled to rip off my race tag (I had accidentally removed it before the race, so had to pin it onto the rest of the race number) I was looking for someone to strangle. MUST HAVE OXYGEN. And an Americano.
And people do this race week after week. They think it's fun. I limped around, breathing as much as possible, reminding myself that I ain't gonna be back next week. Yah, that's what I said after my first Camp Pendleton Mud Run, and I ended up doing at least 10 of them after that. That's sort of what I said after giving birth to my first child, but somehow I managed to have another. It's funny how we soon forget the pain and begin to see all the beauty in the challenging things. It's like a cream that settles on top after the agitation stops. That was a Stellar race on a Stellar night and as I cooled down in the warm sunset I was so glad I'd done it. I began to wonder ... what if? I knew the course now, what if I did it again - could I do better? What if I gave it a go on rested legs in tighter shoes? The Stellar Nights Trail Series gets under your skin. I think I'm going to get a Stellar Nights tattoo. It would say something like, "I lived to tell the story."
Thanks to Zack Bertges and Nancy Kaplan for all your work and effort in creating this event and offering such a unique opportunity to our running community. You and your many volunteers did an exceptional job week after week and with such a great turn-out of runners, it's clear Stellar Nights is here to stay, etched into running history and a new tradition. I'm going to be back next year and take back the part of me it claimed.