April 12, 2013

Race Report: Grasslands Trail Run

Over 2.5 weeks ago, on March 23, I ran a trail marathon… but I’ve been super slow about actually writing my race report. I suppose that’s fitting, though, since it also took me forever to run the darn thing! Without further ado, let’s jump right in…

I wanted to stay in Dallas for the weekend of Savor the Symphony, and Blake pointed out that the RnR Dallas Half was the same weekend. However, when I heard that was also a full marathon just an hour away (and the morning of Savor instead of the morning after), I decided I’d rather do that. The race was up in the Grasslands, an area of Texas where I had never been, and I thought it would be a neat chance to see something totally different and hopefully see some gorgeous scenery. I decided to fly my mom in for the occasion – she had been wanting to spend a weekend in Texas anyway, and this would be a cool opportunity to see rural Texas as well as the DFW Metroplex area.

Since the race started at 7:15am, and Google Maps estimated a 75 minute drive, I figured leaving by 5:30am would be just fine. What I didn’t anticipate, though, was that Daylight Savings had just occurred the weekend before – which meant that sunrise wouldn’t even be until after 7am. It made waking up and driving a lot less pleasant to be doing the whole thing in the dead of night! The road was also not that easy to traverse – some weird construction at an exit made us get off track for a little while, but shortly after, we realized we had left the DFW Metroplex area and found ourselves out in “cowtown.” It was so different than the downtown and suburban areas where I spend most of my time! On the way home, I had the chance to really look around; for now, though, it was still pitch black and rather eerie.

With the tires of my luxury sedan rental crunching on the dirt road and the body of the car rocking in time to the potholes, I began to see why everyone in Texas drives SUVs. (Although let’s be honest, how often do Dallasites take their SUVs to the Grasslands instead of just the Galleria Mall? Stereotypically, I’m guessing not often.) It started raining on the drive, making it that much more of a nerve-wracking drive, and my mom pointed out how much it reminded her of the awful midnight mountain drive we had done to get from San Diego Airport to the Yuma Marathon back in 2010. Meanwhile, once we got close to Decatur, I discovered that it was so remote that I didn’t have any cell phone service or GPS on my car! I was very lucky that I had already given the directions for the last few turns to my mom and that she had written them down. The area where we were didn’t even have street names, just “State Road #9473” or whatever. As the saying goes, we definitely weren’t in Kansas anymore!

But finally, we arrived at a campground with tons of cars – this seemed to be where people were parking. With the crawlspeed at which I had been driving, I only had a few minutes until the start of the race – so I didn’t worry about the rain (hey, I’d soon be running in it anyway) and instad just hurried to pick up my packet and hit the portapotty. I turned my phone to airplane mode, since there didn’t seem to be service anyway and I wanted to save the battery for music/podcasts to entertain me on the run. Just a few minutes later, it was time to say goodbye to my mom and head off on the run. I felt bad leaving her for several hours while I ran – if it had been a nice day, I thought she would really enjoy exploring the Grasslands, which are a National Park, but the weather had kind of ruined that. She assured me that it was fine, though – probably because she’s the best mom ever 🙂

I lined up at the back of the pack of marathon runners (there were about 50 of us) just as the race started, and lingered for a minute to get my Garmin going. Fortunately, that seemed to have GPS signal – I knew I’d be looking at my watch a lot to get a sense of where I was and how much of the race I still had remaining. Then, since I started in pretty much dead last place, I was faced with trying to pass people on the somewhat narrow trail – playing a game of sticking to the sidelines and leaping over logs, rocks, and other obstacles. I said hello to a few people on the way, none of whom I actually knew, but hey, trail races are all about being friendly and meeting new people, right? In particular, I noticed a few Marathon Maniacs in the crowd. I don’t wear my Maniacs singlet to races (in large part because I think the yellow/red or pink/red is pretty ugly and would clash with whatever I’m wearing), but I do love the cameraderie of looking out for other Maniacs at a race!

Before we had even hit the first mile marker, we came to an intersection in the trail. A few runners had already headed left, but the well-equipped guy in front of me who had a headlamp said that he thought we were supposed to go right at this turn. Shining his flashlight on a few trees, he spotted a white trail marker – which was exactly what we were looking for on this first loop. We yelled back to the others turning left… but now found that the two of us were leading the pack. I guess that was our reward for paying attention and looking at the course map in advance? (Or – well-prepared guy’s reward, my good luck for being near him.)

We continued crashing through the brush, and since I was slightly faster than Well-Prepared Guy, I soon found myself in the absolute lead. As in, winning the entire race. I knew this situation wouldn’t last long, but I wanted to enjoy it for what it was, Within another mile, a few speedy (and tough, experienced-trail-runner-looking) guys passed me… but there were still no women nearby. Was it possible that the field of women in this race was so small that I might finish in the top three? Commence delusions of a Sweaty Emily-like trail run victory dancing through my head.

It was raining like crazy at this point, but since we were running on sand, I was actually grateful – it helped pack it down a bit more. (Imagine running a marathon on the shores of a beach, with all that loose sand? No fun.) Although I hadn’t fallen yet, I was sure my time would soon come, and I knew I was going to get covered in mud when that happened. Despite the fact that I usually think of myself as a nature-hating woman, though, I found that this thought didn’t upset me in the slightest. So I was going to get covered in mud… so what? Nothing a shower (or continued rain) wouldn’t take care of. It completely surprised me to be thinking this way, though. Perhaps more trail runs are in my future?

It was several miles before the first woman passed me (with #2 hot on her heels), but pass me they did – and I can’t say I was all that surprised. Meanwhile, I was just enjoying the scenery at this point. The rain was still coming down, and the sky was an ugly gray by this point (yes, the sun had risen, but no, it was no shining). And yet, the landscape was so different than what I normally see in Texas that I found it really beautiful.

(Here is where I would insert pictures if I had stopped running long enough to take them. Oops.)

While I’m normally a pretty social marathoner, I was running on my own here – but that only made me appreciate the scenery even more. Sometimes it’s nice just to be remote and unreachable, and what better way to accomplish that than running out in the middle of nowhere, where there’s no cell service, and you don’t even have any clue where within the giant national park you are? Again, usually not at all my style, but I was pretty content.

Around mile 6, though, my solitude got interrupted by a weird sound coming from my phone. Although I had plugged earphones in, I wasn’t yet listening to anything – and yet there was music coming through my speakers. Somehow, despite being in an area with no phone service, and despite my phone being on airplane mode, I was getting an incoming call from my dear friend Blake. Huh?? I was so totally confused, though happy to talk to her if she had indeed managed to get through those barriers. Tentatively, I answered: “Hello? Hello?” But the phone told me there was no mobile service to answer the call. Well, obviously, because I had turned it on airplane mode. And yet, Blake had still managed to get through…? I gave up on trying to figure it out, instead chalking it up to her being such a great and important friend that Verizon had gone into “airplane-except-for-Blake” mode.

However, that call brought me back to reality a bit, and since my phone was out (out meaning I was peering at the screen; I actually held it in my hand the whole time anyway), I decided to switch on a podcast to entertain myself. Jillian Michaels, motivate me! I ended up listening to old Jillian Michaels podcasts for the entire rest of the race, and have decided I rather like doing so. I’m looking forward to catching up on more at my next marathon, Big D Dallas.

In the meantime, though, I was finally coming to a milestone: the first aid station! (Note: there were no actual mile markers on the course.) I greedily pounced on the ultra-style setup of Gatorade, soda, and (YES!) candy, scarfing down some gummy bears and M&Ms instead of the boring old gels I had packed. Why on earth do we waste hard-earned race calories on crap like gels and shot blocks? Would you eat that stuff as dessert/treats if you weren’t running a race? I get the convenience factor, but I think I’m turning over a new leaf and refusing to eat stuff I don’t enjoy before, during, or after a race. Life’s too short to spend calories on unsatisfying food!

In addition to providing some great refueling, the aid station volunteers were incredibly nice and sweet, which is another thing I love about small races. You just know that the volunteers are either the race director’s or other runners’ friends/family, and they’re extra supportive and attentive, wanting you to have the best race experience ever. Without my asking, they told me that I was actually the third place woman at this point – well, at least until I took too long eating candy and two more women came and went. At that point, I decided to get a move on. Maybe I could overtake them to place!

When I approached mile 10, I had passed them and was in 3rd place. But then I suddenly slowed: was that my friend Larry Macon?? Indeed it was! It had been a very long time since I had seen Larry, since I haven’t been as active on the marathon circuit in the last year or two, but Larry is a 50 State Clubber/Marathon Maniac who’s known for running 153 marathons in one calendar year. And y’all thought I was crazy! In addition to that crazy feat, Larry is just about the nicest guy you will ever meet – always greeting me with a huge shout and a hug, and never forgetting anyone’s name. I was so genuinely thrilled to see him out there

Over the next few miles, I went back and forth with the two women in 4th and 5th, and they ended up in front of me. It was nice to be so close that I had someone ahead to follow, although the trail was a lot easier to figure out at this point with fewer crossroads. In the first 7 or so miles, we had gone through a lot of cattle-grazing areas and had to open and close gates; now, we were just running in the wilderness with no turns or barriers.

The next milestone I was very much looking forward to was the halfway point, and I was just a few miles away now. The first loop was actually a bit shy of halfway (12.28 miles), but that was actually a nice way to break it up, since switching loops would feel like halfway done, but it would actually be just a bit early. But whether it was 12 or 13 miles, the time had flown by pretty quickly – I hit the end of the first loop in 2:21, which meant if I kept the same pace, I’d finish in about 5:00. (Hooray for mental math serving as a great distraction while running!) Of course, I didn’t expect to run the second half as fast as the first, but I thought I would hopefully finish under 5:15.

When I finished the first loop and saw my mom, cheering like crazy, I was in a fantastic mood. No way was I quitting! Although it was still raining, I actually felt good about running in the rain – it made me feel strong and tough. Again, I couldn’t help but think of what a wussy road runner I usually am, and I was really proud to be out there doing a tough course in yucky conditions. I know so many people do this all the time, but for me, it felt like an achievement, and I was enjoying that pride 🙂

But less than a mile onto the blue loop, I didn’t feel quite as confident. I had two other runners catch up to me around here, and I was especially grateful for the company when they were the ones to realize that we had missed a turn and were now on the wrong trail! I don’t know how long it would have taken me to catch that on my own. We doubled back, having only gone about 200 yards out of our way, and got back on course.

While the first half of the course had been mostly sandy (which had its own challenges, since sand isn’t the easiest surface on which to run), the second half was clay – slippery when wet. As I headed up an incline around mile 14, I found my sneakers sliding backwards, and had to use my hands to steady myself. I hadn’t faceplanted thus far in the race, but I was now more sure than ever that I was going to do just that and finish the race covered head-to-toe in mud. (Versus my current state of knee to toe, from where my feet kicked it up onto me.) However, there wasn’t really any way to proceed with caution – I just had to keep going full steam ahead, and hope for the best. At this point, those two other guys were around to keep an eye on me when I fell, but they left me in the dust (mud?) pretty soon and I was on my own. At least the clay was soft and not rocky – if I fell, how bad would it really be?

Besides, I reminded myself, I was more than halfway done already. 12 miles to go was just two hours and change, so not that long at all. (Okay, maybe a lot of change at the slower-than-usual pace at which I was running, but psychologically, that trick worked.) I started taking more walk breaks than I had in the first half of the race, but I generally just listened to my podcast and counted down the miles. Only a few more till the aid station, and I was looking forward to whatever goodies they would surely have in store!

The next aid station was at 16.9, and I heard it coming long before I saw it. There was a great group of volunteers here who were thrilled for each and every runner that made it this far! The women all exclaimed over how much they liked my fuschia-colored skort (I guess trail runners don’t usually wear skirts?), and one very enthusiastic older gentleman insisted on giving me a huge hug and then wiping off the chocolate I had inadvertently smeared all over my face while attempting to chow down on some slightly-melted M&Ms. The volunteers were adorable, and I almost didn’t want to leave – but they urged me onward. Apparently they cared more about my finish time than I did 🙂

For the next few miles, I ran through what were definitively “grasslands” – rolling hills and narrow trails that reminded me of going apple picking at Indian Ladder Farms in upstate New York when I was growing up. (Shout out to the Albany-area people who remember that wonderful place!) I was on my own for all of this, and took advantage of the solitude to sneak a bathroom break behind a tree just off the trail. Nature’s portapotty, right?? 🙂

As if to teach me that I wasn’t quite as much of a nature girl as I thought, though, the sky turned a bit darker past here… and then darker still. It looked like it was suddenly 5pm and starting to get dark. Had I stopped my watch and laid down for a nap? Or – a much scarier thought – was there a tornado in the area? Out there on the course, I wouldn’t have had any way to be notified if there were in fact tornadoes in the vicinity, and it suddenly seemed like a very distinct possibility. Was anyone else even still out here?

But around mile 22, I got passed by a guy and girl around my age who seemed to be running together. I would have liked to keep up with them / pass them back, but just didn’t quite have the motivation. Instead, I watched them staying a fairly constant distance ahead of me, and using that to gauge whether the trail was going up or down ahead. I finally caught up to them at the mile 23 aid station, but again given my penchant for long stops (Candy! Cookies! I WANT IT ALL!), they left me in the dust shortly thereafter.

It didn’t matter though – I only had three miles to go, and the end was (metaphorically) in sight. When my current podcast ended around mile 24, I decided to switch over to my “power songs” playlist and just listen to music for the last two miles – and that really helped me to pick up the pace even further. It turned out that the last two miles had one of the biggest hills of the race: way down a deep valley and then wayyyyyyyyyyyyyy back up. Why couldn’t we just take the (level) dirt road next to it that bypassed the valley? Nope, trail runners don’t do that!

But with only one mile to go, I didn’t really care. Home stretch! I vowed not to take any walk breaks in this section, no matter how steep the hill, and focused on really putting in a fast pace for this final mile. Looking at my watch, I saw that I was going to make it well under the 5:15 goal I had shouted out to my mom at the end of the white loop and I was thrilled. Finally, I burst out of the woods and into the dirt parking lot where the runners and spectators had parked – this was it! I sped as fast as I could toward the finish (because obviously when you’ve wasted minutes at aid stations hoovering gummy bears the smart thing to do is sprint to save three seconds at the end), and crossed the finish line triumphant. I had run through the rain, sand, thunderstorms, and mud – all obstacles that would likely have turned prissy me away if I had known about them in advance.

Despite the race being infinitely cheaper than Rock N Roll or other big races, the finish spread was much more lavish – barbecue chicken and pork, coleslaw, potato salad, some sort of stew, and tons of different pastries. I didn’t even care that I was going to be slipping into a body-hugging dress that night; this is why I run marathons! I had earned that fun food, and I enjoyed every bite 🙂

Race stats:
Distance: 26.2 miles
Time: 5:05:38
Pace: 11:39/mile
Overall place: 40/88
Gender place: 7/30
Age group place (women’s open): 4/13


9 thoughts on “Race Report: Grasslands Trail Run”

  1. Nice job despite the obstacles. That course sounds extremely challenging. But at least it was all worth it at the end! I alos leave my power songs for the end. I listened to Stronger by Kanye on repeat for the last 4 miles of my first marathon.

  2. I told my fellow support members that I was quite certain you would come around at the half and throw in the towel due to that bleak sky that opened up the cold, cold rain. You always prove me wrong and with a smile on your face! You have to be proud of completing that formidable course complete with lowing cattle! Nice job, hon! 🙂

    1. Aww, thanks Zenaida! I have to say, though, it’s easier not to quit when you’re in the middle of nowhere and know that the best way of getting back is just to keep going 🙂

  3. That is incredible! How do you just decide to run a marathon the same weekend? How does your body allow/support you to do that? Are you always in marathon shape and how do you maintain it? Awesome!!

    1. Jessica, for me that is a big part of why I make it a point to run at least one marathon a month – so I can be in perpetual marathon shape. Am I in shape to run a marathon PR anytime? No way! But I don’t always like to go fast; for me, it’s more fun to just see the scenery and make friends sometimes. So it’s important to me to be ready for that at all times!

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