According to the date on the bib, I signed up for the BNP Trail Jam on December 30th. At the time, with only 5 weeks until Hallucination 24 hour race, I certainly should have had the foresight to realize that this was one of those “you’re gonna regret this later” decisions.
But I didn’t.
I didn’t realize how far I’d end up running during the 24 hour race. I didn’t realize how long recovery was going to take me. And I certainly underestimated how short 2 weeks really can be when your body is demanding rest. But none the less, two weeks after finishing 84.24 miles in one day, I was toeing the line for another 18 mile trail race.
The wisest decision would have been to sit out this race. But it was already paid for, and the race swag included a hoodie. A HOODIE! I can never turn down the warm comforting hug of a fleecy, brand new, hoodie… recovering legs be damned.
So Saturday morning Geoff and I made the hour drive north to Brunswick Nature Park in Town Creek, NC, and I said the all too familiar words…
“Here goes nothing.”
I had promised myself that I would take this race “easy”. It would be a fun kick start to get back to my training plan for the Knock on Wood 100 miler in May. But I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that the thought of my competition crossed my mind more than once. Hell, just the night before, my friend Sara had inadvertently encouraged me to stalk everyone else on the participant list in my age group’s ultrasignup.com race results. As someone who has spent the last few years shunning GPS watches and competition, and instead promoting the zen “run because you love it” lifestyle, I have no idea why this side of me has decided to resurface. But there she was, her voice not shouting, but instead whispering “you know you’ve gotten pretty strong on trails over the past year…”
She is relentless.
After a quick safety rundown from race director Brian Bohrer, we were asked to line up in the corral based on minute per mile pace. There were 3.5 mile, 9 mile, and 18 mile events going on that morning, and we would all be starting at the same time. The 6:00/mile runners lined up. Then the 7:00/milers, then the 8’s, and then the 9’s. When Brian said “anyone planning to run under a 10 minute mile, please line up now” I made way to the corral. Geoff gave me the side eye, suggesting that was too fast to start, and I replied “It’s single track, I just…don’t want to get caught up behind anyone, you know?”
The National Anthem played, Black Sabbath followed, and then we were off. The course took an immediate turn down a dirt road. Of course, Geoff and I are running too fast. Everyone is at this point, I’m sure. The combination of start line adrenaline paired with the fact that you know you’re about to hop on a single track so you have to get ahead of your competition NOW can make runners do crazy things. I point out that we are going too fast (sub 9’s..not recovery pace on trail) and we immediately slow our roll.
About 1/4 of a mile into the race we take a 180 degree turn and head into the woods on single track. It is as coastal Carolina single track trail as you can possibly imagine: relatively flat, surrounded by pine trees, and covered in brown pine needles. I picked off a few runners immediately, yelling “on your left” and quickly zooming by, Geoff in hot pursuit. I felt good. Sure my legs were still relatively fatigued, but I was thrilled to be running a new-to-me trail on an absolutely gorgeous February morning (it must have been at least 65 degrees at that point). I mention to Geoff how fantastic this trail is, with very long and straight sections paired with actual climbs, a stark difference from our local mountain bike trail that is chock full of hairpin turns and sharp, manmade “hills”.
I notice that while my effort feels good, I’m likely running far too fast…especially considering I have another 16.5 miles to run. No sooner does this thought cross my mind than Geoff knowingly but casually says from behind me “I know what you are doing.”
“What, who, me? What am I doing?” I say, even though I’m pretty sure I know exactly what he is referring to. I’m racing. I’m trying to constantly catch up with the person in front of me. Once I pass them, I work on running down the next one. I didn’t even consciously realize what I was doing until the subtle call out.
“I know what you are thinking. Slow down.” he replies. Busted. I slow down significantly.
The first section of trail winds along side a gorgeous river and eventually came up a steep hill to the first aid station at about a mile and a half. I was running with a handheld bottle full of tailwind, but with the heat already quickly climbing, I was craving cold water. So I stopped, grabbed a cup, and took time finishing it.
We head back out on the trail, and I once again promise Geoff that I’ll behave myself. And for the most part, I absolutely do. I keep my pace in check, running along at what feels to be a very casual, easy effort. At one point, we hit a nearly 180 degree switchback, and which allows me to see that there are nearly a dozen runners behind me. Immediately I felt pressured to run faster, but I remind myself that if they want to pass, there are plenty of opportunities to do so.
We pass a few people, a few people pass us, and so it goes for the rest of the first loop. I find myself enjoying the course so much more when we are alone, spaced far enough between runners that I cannot hear conversation…nor worry about holding anyone up/catching up to anyone else. I enjoy the sunshine, the warm air, the gorgeous trails, and the solitude with my husband.
At about 6.5 miles in we hit another stretch of trail that is pretty straight and fast. I feel my pace start to naturally pick up, and once again I wonder if I’ll regret this later. We run through the most gorgeous stretch of pines, and then suddenly come out at a picnic area that I recognize from packet pickup. A volunteer shouts at us as we start to approach the road. “9 milers, run through the finish line! 18 milers, take a left!” I look down at my GPS and see 7.55 miles. I’m utterly confused, but do as I am told. We take a left and head down the very dirt road the race started on.
I am no stranger to the desolate feeling of the second loop in a longer distance race. BNP Trail Jam was no different. Out of 151 official finishers, only 22 of us ran the 18 mile course. As we head down the 1/4 mile dirt road stretch, I see two women ahead of me, and no one else. They take the turn and disappear into the woods on the single track before I do.
“Let me stop to pee before you make any moves” Geoff says out of the blue, suggesting that I hold off a bit before trying to pass those women. I have no idea why he suddenly changed his tune on making sure I run smart, but he must have noticed the same thing I have. I haven’t seen many women out here, and certainly none have passed me in a long time. I might actually stand a chance at doing well…maybe even placing in my age group. I reply back that it’s too soon to make a move anyway, and we continue running.
About 3/4 of a mile in Geoff finally decides to stop to pee, and we lose a good 45 seconds. I’m not too bothered by it…after all, I’m not racing. Or at least I keep telling myself this.
Maybe one mile in to the second loop we pass one of the girls that I had seen earlier on the road ahead of me. As I pass her, I feel myself start to surge and my pace picks up a bit more. Still, I’m not racing, I remind myself. I’m not racing, I’m not racing, I’m not racing. We get to the aid station and I see the other girl that was also ahead of me take off. It’s fine, Heather. Let her go. YOU ARE NOT RACING. I stop to fill my bottle with some more Tailwind, and Geoff takes a solid minute to fix his shoes. I’m standing there, admiring the beautiful view of the river, when I hear cheering and see another woman entering the aid station. Immediately, “she”, the voice of unreason, the competitive brat, kicks in. “Are you about ready?!” I shout at Geoff, over my shoulder, as I am already starting to head back down the trail.
OK, maybe I want this more than I thought.
The woman behind me didn’t stop at the aid station…or if she did, she didn’t stay long. She’s on my tail, and I can’t help but keep looking over my shoulder. I have a flashback to a field trip to the Tunbridge Fair when I was in 5th grade. I was playing the game where you shoot the water gun at a target to blow up a balloon. The person whose balloon pops first is the winner. Well, I was playing against a good friend of mine, and I couldn’t help but watch HER balloon instead of my own. Of course, every time I looked away from my own balloon to look at hers, my aim would falter and I wouldn’t hit the target. I lost, of course, and my father who was chaperoning the field trip took that opportunity to teach me a competitive life lesson. “Worry about your own performance” or something along those lines.
I resolve to stop looking over my shoulder.
We are in the section of the trail that reminds me most of our own “Hulk” trails back in Myrtle Beach. It is windy and slow, no matter how fast you run you struggle to get your pace up. Still, we are slowly making progress and putting space between us and the other girl. I haven’t seen the woman in front of me, and I write her off as too far ahead to catch. She’s running in a sports bra and shorts, which in my crazy mind signifies that she MUST be a fast, experienced runner. Yeah, I totally judge a book by it’s cover.
Geoff has to stop to fix his shoes again, but tells me to keep going, he’ll catch up. I don’t argue, and continue down the trails. The second I leave him behind, I am suddenly overwhelmed with silence. I didn’t realize how the very loud presence of my husband, his shoes, and bouncing hydration pack were almost calming to me; likely because they drowned out the sound of my own labored breathing. But as soon as he was gone, I suddenly realized how exhausted I was.
And I still had a long way to go.
It was at this point that all of the trails started to look unfamiliar to me again. Granted, I’d only been on them once before, but I thought for sure I’d remember specific sections. I suddenly began to worry that the reason the first loop was 1.5 miles short was because *I* missed a turn somewhere. And now I’d be running a full 9 mile loop instead of 7.5. The thought of that extra mile and a half became incredibly daunting.
Geoff caught back up just a moment later, and we continued on. We were pushing, but not too painfully fast yet. We round the corner to the second aid station, and Greg, a cyclist we know from Cape Fear SORBA is standing on the corner on his bike. He bends down to mimic a whisper, but actually yells out to me: “You’re in third place. She’s right ahead of you”. I didn’t think I heard him correctly, so I said “what?” and he repeated : “Third place. Second is right ahead of you. Put on that Myrtle Beach speed.”
I yell back something along the lines of “ughhh I wish you didn’t tell me that” but what I really wanted to yell was “F*CK”. Because now I have to really race, the suckfest is inevitable. I had spent the last 12 miles or so convincing myself that I was NOT racing, but now I am. You can’t be told that second place is within reach, and NOT try to grab it.
At least, that crazy inner competitive side of me can’t.
So I pick it up even more. I’m running at about 85% right now, well past the lactic threshold. I realize that I have just over 3 miles left in the race, and laugh at the irony. I loathe 5K’s, and tell everyone who will listen that I’d rather run 50 miles than race 3.1 miles. It’s such a hard, soul sucking, vomit inducing distance. And here I was, 13 miles into a trail run, with a 5K left to race.
Again, I reiterate: F*CK.
I’m not sure how far we go before I catch glimpse of her, but it couldn’t have been but a half a mile. I notice immediately that her stride looks tired, labored. Of course, I’m sure mine looks like utter sh*t, but in that moment a perceived sign of weakness gives me a boost of motivation. Yet still, I don’t pick up the pace. I’m contemplating how I’m going to do this, we still have about two miles left in the race. So I figure I’ll wait and see how long it takes me at my current pace to catch her.
Turns out it doesn’t take long at all.
I’m not sure if she is tired or simply doesn’t care, but we quickly catch up to her. I make some friendly small talk about the warm weather (it was hot at that point), and offer some encouraging words. I try to play it cool, even though I’m dying on the inside. And once I get around her, I floor it. My immediate strategy, which in retrospect is probably a horrible strategy, is to put as much distance between her and myself as possible. I’m trying hard not to look back (see aforementioned fair-balloon-game story) but I feel like I’m doing a decent job. That is until we come back out of the woods at the same point where we saw Greg earlier. This time he shouts “You passed her! But…she’s right behind you!”
I look back and sure enough there she is, right behind me.
I put my head down and go. We’ve got a short stretch on a dirt road before heading into the last mile of trail. More than once my stomach turns with a feeling of “what the hell are you doing woman, we’re going to throw up!” but I push through. Tunnel vision sets in. My heart is racing and my lungs are screaming. And my legs are running far faster than they should be at mile 15 of a “recovery” run. This section of trail feels so much longer than I remember, and I’m checking my GPS obsessively, watching the distance tick by in 1/10th of a mile increments. I keep reminding myself of the cliché, motivational saying”I can do anything for _____(insert distance left here)”
I finally see the picnic shelter and push with everything I had left to the finish line.
We crossed the finish line and I proceeded to do the 2 minute long “don’t touch me/don’t talk to me/don’t ask me questions/I can’t stop moving or I’m going to puke” tap dance that I typically reserve for the end of 5K’s. But I had done it: second place in a race that I wasn’t supposed to “race”.
Oops. Don’t tell my coach.
I hobble to my car, change out of my tights and into shorts and compression socks. And then we proceed to sit amongst the trees at the finish line basking in the sunshine and waiting for awards.
I took second out of eleven women in the 18 mile category (9th out of 22 overall), that ended up being about 16 miles. My time was 2:38:58.6, just about four minutes shy of first place. I told Geoff that all of the times he had to stop to pee, fix his shoes, etc. cost me first place. Of course I was only joking, I never even SAW the first place female out there.
The course for the BNP Trail Jam, formerly known as the “Run for Ray” was absolutely gorgeous. The course was impeccably marked and easy to follow. After the race, one of the organizers from Go Time came over to apologize for the short course. It turns out they had missed a section when marking the trail the night before. I replied that I didn’t mind in the slightest…because I ended up running faster than I had planned, so a short course worked out well for me, haha. But, mistakes do happen, and for a smaller local race, I’m hoping no one was too upset over the missed mileage.
There were three aid stations across the 9 mile course, with water, tailwind, oranges, animal crackers, and some sort of gel/fuel (I didn’t really pay attention). There were friendly and encouraging volunteers at nearly every major intersection to ensure that you didn’t get lost.
If you registered before a certain date, your swag included a hoodie. After that date? A trucker hat. Both fun options other than the standard t shirt. 18 mile finishers received a medal.
All in all, this course gets an A+ for me. If the weekend is open for me next year (and I haven’t done something like run ridiculous distances a mere two weeks earlier) I will definitely be back!