I hope I do this race and this course justice in my description because I do feel humbled by the whole experience.
When I first found this race online I was so excited about a race at Northfield Mountain. This is the place where many of my high school cross country races were held. A place where I experienced great joy and success and also great frustration. A place where more friends and family than I can count all gathered to watch me run my senior year when I placed second at State. It is a ski area in the winter and there’s a reservoir with tons of trails for hiking, walking, running, orienteering, and mountain biking during the spring, summer, and fall.
To say it is hilly would be like saying the ocean is a little bit salty. It is not called Northfield Mountain for nothing. This race was billed as the USA Track & Field New England Trail/Mountain Championship. Originally it was to be a 10.3K race but due to the draining of a reservoir and all the truck traffic along that route, the course had to be changed at the last minute (yesterday) to a 5.3 Mile race. THANK GOODNESS!!!!
Here’s a quick overview of my splits for each mile: 8:36, 10:26, 11:26, 6:36, and 6:25. That should give you a glimpse of what I am about to tell you.
We started on a hill we ran on in our high school races. I was conservative, but didn’t want to start out too easy – it was a race after all. But instead of using any of the trails that flatten out from the high school course, they had us go UP. We kept going up and up and up. My legs and lungs were burning and a bunch of people passed me so I glanced down at my Garmin to see only 0.91 miles. Are you kidding me? My legs and lungs were burning this badly and we had not even reached the first mile marker.
We were blessed with a couple of short declines and flat sections here and there but mainly the first 2.7 miles were uphill after uphill. Not just up hills or inclines, mind you. These hills were so steep that even the speedier runners ahead of me walked up them. Yes, that’s right; I had to walk at least three times up these steep, tortuous hills. We were told that there was an unmanned water stop about half way. I was SO looking forward to water. But that meant stopping, grabbing a cup, pouring the water, then getting to drink it. I didn’t want to stop; I just wanted this to be over. So I skipped the water because I figured it was only 5 miles plus I could see where the down hills started. I had to get to the downhill!
Walking up those steep hills almost made me laugh the first time because I thought about all the “hill” training I did the past six weeks on the Green Bridge and Ringling Bridge at home to get ready for this race. Ha! Who was I kidding? Well if I hadn’t run those bridge workouts at all, maybe this race would have been even more punishing for me. So it was better than nothing I suppose.
So we are more than halfway into the race and have finished the 785 feet of “climb” that the race director emailed us about the day before. I leaned forward a little and just let gravity take me down the hills. The last two miles were almost entirely downhill. And not just a gentle sloping decline. These were steep trails with rocks, roots, grass, and dried leaves. They twisted and turned us back towards the finish. I tried to let go and run them with reckless abandon. Now I felt like I was back in high school! No fear. I was passing quite a few people who passed me on the uphill section. I was flying by runners who were older and I suppose wiser since they did not want to chance falling or twisting an ankle. I didn’t catch the whole thing, but one guy I flew by on the downhill said something like “I used to run suicide down hills like that when I was younger.” For an instant, I thought, “Am I crazy to run them this fast?” I guess I could have fallen. Oh well.
I don’t know if I can fully explain how fast I was running down these hills. I really felt like I was flying. I did hit one soft spot where my left ankle turned a bit and I thought for sure my legs were going to give out and I was going to eat dirt, hard. Thankfully I caught myself and was able to keep going. That would have hurt big time. I continued on, flying down the hills, maybe a tad slower than earlier once I felt my legs almost give out. There were two smaller up hill sections towards the end where I was able to use the momentum of the down hills to power about halfway up and then try to maintain to the top.
A quick turn, steep downhill, sharp right, then probably the only real straightaway of the race, led us to the finish line. I could not sprint to the finish line, I was just happy to be finishing in an upright position at that point. I exited the finish chute then kind of half smiled at how unbelievably wobbly my legs felt. I was exhausted but so happy to have finished and not fallen. I was greeted by my husband and Grandma. What a great day. The weather was absolutely perfect too. Warm in the sun yet cool in the shade. Very little humidity, if any. None that I noticed anyway. We stayed for the awards ceremony because I wanted to applaud those hardcore runners who finished ahead of me. I was not expecting anything today, especially with the hills and those veteran trail/mountain racers, plus they only went one deep in ten year age groups.
I tried to do a cool down jog but after about 200 meters, I could not jog anymore. I had to walk the rest. I honestly could not remember my legs ever feeling as wobbly and spent as they did today. This has to be the toughest race I have ever run in my life. And I have run a lot of races.
As I said before, I did some “hill” training back home to get ready for this race so I thought I would be somewhat ready to tackle the mountain. I clearly had no idea what 785 feet of climb on paper would mean on my legs. So to say that this race humbled me is an understatement. I have never felt beaten by a course before. I have never run a trail/mountain race before. I guess they have a whole crazy mountain series or something. I couldn’t imagine.
Well maybe I could. If I lived near this type of terrain and could train on it regularly, that would be a different story. When I lived in New England, I loved hills – training on them and annihilating the competition on them. But now that I am a flatlander from Florida, I humbly bow to the mountain at Northfield. You trail/mountain racers are on a whole different level. And I respect that.