Sunday’s Florida Challenge Trail Run 5K at Alafia River State Park in Lithia is the toughest 5K trail race I have ever done. This year I was defending my overall female winner title. This year seemed tougher than last. Maybe it was the fatigue and soreness lingering from Saturday’s Warrior Dash or the fact that the course was reversed this year or maybe I forgot the course just enough from last year…
The race starts on a paved road and basically you have to sprint a little over a quarter mile to get out fast enough to get in the position you want because once you enter the woods, it is all single track. It is nearly impossible to pass in the woods. The course is run over the most difficult of the mountain bike trails at Alafia. The trails are single track, narrow, winding, zipping up and down short steep hills, covered with rocks and roots, and oh yeah, don’t forget to duck under the low hanging trees!
The trails are so challenging that you really cannot look up to see where the competition is or to glance at your Garmin. You literally have to keep looking down so you know where your next step will go. You are not able to get any kind of rhythm going either. I think that’s what makes it so exciting. You can’t really tell your pace. I did wear my Garmin to record my data but I did not look at it once. My knees were beat up enough from the Warrior Dash that I did not want to risk trail diving. I kept telling myself that as long as I was sucking wind then I was running hard enough. If I let up and the breathing got easier, I knew to press on and pick up the pace. Somewhere in the middle of the trail section, which makes up 90-95% of the race, I cruised down a short steep hill and tried to use that momentum to get up the very steep uphill covered with wet, light colored dirt. This was the only part of the trail that I found slippery, but then again, it all went by so fast. I ran the race in my Brooks Adrenaline ASR trail shoes. I am so thankful that I did! The extra traction in the forefoot is what saved me on that steep, slippery uphill. If I did not have that extra traction, I know I definitely would have slipped; it was that close.
That’s another cool thing about trail racing. It seems more primitive – back to our roots. You race against the clock, yourself, and certainly your competition, but the main competitor is the trail itself. How you navigate the uneven terrain, sharp twists and turns, rocks, roots, and the many short, steep up and down hills will determine your success or failure.
Sunday when we were deep into the trail I felt like I could have been in the middle of the woods anywhere. It was just woods all around us as we twisted and turned following the single track trail. I tried to keep pushing the pace based on effort and breathing alone. I did finally catch up to a guy during the last third of the race, maybe in the last half mile or so, I really couldn’t be sure. But it was single track so I was not able to pass. That is the only frustrating part of single track racing – being held back by others. But as soon as the trail changed from rocks and roots to the more sandy area, it widened slightly so I sprinted by him partly on the trail and the other part of me was crashing through the bushes on the right.
Once out of the woods I was [doing what felt like] sprinting for the finish even though I was not exactly sure how far away that finish line was. I thought I was in second place ever since we entered the woods so I finished strong but not as strong as usual. The TampaRaces.com races offer a very cool trophy to overall and masters and then the top 30-40 receive a nice finisher award like a campfire mug or hat. So thinking I was second overall female, I just cruised into the finish chute and when the finish card was handed to me, the scorer said “first female.” I was definitely surprised and very happy to hear those words, especially since back in the woods I had already settled for second place in my mind. I was thinking “all or nothing” and I am okay with second since I can’t even see anyone ahead of me.
The course was run in the reverse direction on the trails from last year. I don’t know if that made it more difficult or about the same but my time was about a minute slower this year from last year. Maybe it was the fatigue and soreness in my legs from the Warrior Dash the day before. Whatever the reason, I was just delighted to have repeated as the overall female winner. That’s one of the cool things about trail races – time does not really matter. It gives you a chance to just run.
A few years ago at our Florida Athletic Coaches Association summer cross country coaching clinic, we were fortunate to have the featured guest speaker Coach Dan Green of The Woodlands High in Texas. I learned a lot from him but one thing he said about cross country racing has really stuck with me. He was talking about how the terrain varies so trying to compare XC times on different courses was nothing like comparing track times since everyone runs on a 400 meter track. But he basically said in cross country you just get out there and race – try to beat the guy next to you. Don’t get fixated on splits or times, just race. It was so simple, yet with all the technology we have now and the focus on pacing and splits, I think we forget to just race. I challenge you to just race – against your competitors or that voice in your head that tells you the terrain is just too tough. Once in a while, don’t look at the watch or Garmin, don’t figure out your splits, just run hard, just race, and be satisfied with the effort. The Florida Challenge Trail Run or any trail race near you can give you the perfect opportunity to just race.