Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Stellar Night

At the waning of the day, the air began to cool.  It was a nice kind of cool, while the sun still hung, rich and gold on the horizon to the west.  I arrived at Elings Park early, an hour before the race.  I was unfamiliar with the park, the course and the routine.  My legs were heavy from a long 14 mile run the day before, and a spirited effort at the Cbad a few days before.  I wondered if there was much wisdom in running the Stellar Nights Trail 5K on tired legs, but a trail always beckons you.  A trail is always a good idea.

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
crowd near there for instructions.  When it was time to start, I wasn't quite sure which way we were headed.  Have you ever gotten into an elevator and instead of facing the door like everyone else, you turn and face toward the other passengers?  Well that's how I felt when all the veterans who had run the race 5 times were facing one way and I was facing the opposite way.  Um, hm.  But I eventually figured it out and we were off.  Watch out for that big hole in the middle - the one with the garbage can on top of it.  It was a narrow area around the field so unfortunately I ran harder than I otherwise would have liked, just to get a clear position.  We headed all the way around the field until we popped out onto the roadway and headed up.  There was a lot of up, and this was just the beginning.  We followed the paved road (I should have appreciated the even ground when I had the chance) up toward a trail-head and of course went onto the trail from there.  The sun was vibrantly bright and shining directly into our eyes as we wound up in one direction, then switch-backed toward another direction, and I think we did that a few more times before finally cresting the top.

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.

The pavement lasted only a short while and then it was off onto more sports fields.  We first ran by the starting line, and then in cruel fashion, we ran past the finish line, around a field (softball again I think), then around another field (soccer I think) and then another field and some kind of BMX bike course.  This part was flat or slightly downhill but the footing was rough.  After the final sports field (more sports fields to come later) we came back out onto the main road, making a sharp right turn (which of course I was unprepared for so I ran way out into the road instead of turning onto the sidewalk) and down a bit until we cut into a final loop.  By now, I was fully fatigued from both the uphill effort and the downhill pounding and my legs were beginning to feel gelatinous.  I thought maybe I had one more hill in me but being that I didn't know the course, I could only hope that it was doable.  What I soon discovered is that there is a beach in Elings Park.  Why is there a beach in the middle of a trail?  It wasn't actually a beach because that implies "flat."  This was more of a dune.  Yes it was a sand dune.  At the base of the sand dune hill I thought "ok, I can get through a little sand.  As long as it doesn't swallow me, I'll be fine, and it will soon be over."  But the base of the sand dune was like the tip of the iceberg.  It was a sand hill that just wouldn't end.  If I had any energy at the moment, I would have laughed.  It was like, "just keep moving because if you don't move forward, you will surely go backward."  Backwards into the sinking sand of doom, mua ha ha ha.  And getting to the top and over the top didn't really help that much because you had to go back down the sand hill and on Jello legs that doesn't work.  My saving grace was my clown sized Hokas.  I swear those shoes were made for sand ... or snow shoeing.

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.

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