It was a GORGEOUS day. The course was a mixture of dirt/gravel roads (about 21 miles) and technical steep hills covered in about a foot of leaves. Some runners called it a "hybrid." The course looked fairly flat on the elevation profile, but in reality, it was hill after hill after hill. (And one mountain.)
I started the race with my friend Andrea. We had trained together and hoped to stay together for most of the first half. We started off down a long gravel road with large, loose gravel, then turned off onto a rutted dirt road. Is this the BLUEST sky or what? I really enjoyed the scenery.
Part of the fun of this course was avoiding all the giant mud puddles that were sprinkled all over the course. We settled into a nice pace and chatted as we ran. Around mile 3.5 or so, we turned onto the real trail portion and started going immediately downhill. It was the steepest downhill I've ever attempted to run. I used the "Ryan" (Ploeckelman) technique as I ran down the hill--arms out, airplane style. He had showed me this technique once at Rotary Park. I only slipped in the leaves once. They were a little damp! It got much steeper than this. Here is one of the two trees down that we had to hurdle.
At the bottom of this steep, leafy hill was a creek and some feeder streams. We had to hop across two tiny streams and the larger creek. There was a small log on the edge in the creek, so we stood on it and jumped. Of course, it rolled on lift off, but that made it fun. Dry shoes prevailed!
After that, we ran across a large, open field. See that hill in the distance?? Yeah....
Then it was time to go up, up, and up. For what seemed like the next three miles, we climbed out of the creek bottom. I power hiked the hill above. Finally, we arrived at mile 7, which also happened to be race headquarters. From there, it was just a 3-ish mile out and back down a gravel road. This section was definitely the hardest for me. It was a little boring, and I felt like I was fighting the rocks and loose gravel. This was a rare flat portion on the home stretch.
Andrea and I stayed together for 12 of the 13.1 miles. It made the first half so pleasant. I finished the first half around 2:38 or so, but stopped to refuel at headquarters and drop some unneeded gear and hit the one bathroom. I headed out SOLO for loop two at around 2:40 on the clock. There was one runner way in front of me whose shirt I could see occasionally.
The first time around, I hadn't been paying attention and that first segment down the long gravel road made me sure I had missed the first turn. (I hadn't.) Just before panic officially set in, I saw the sign marking the right turn onto the dirt road. Whew! At that point, I knew I just followed the road to the trail. During that stretch, a guy and a girl both passed me. It made me feel relieved that I wasn't out there totally alone like in my first trail marathon last April, but I didn't try to strike up a conversation with either of them. I was enjoying being alone.
It was at that point, around mile 15 or so, that I noticed how BLUE the sky was and really began to appreciate the beauty of the day. That first picture up above was taken then. I just felt happy (though tired) and blessed to be out there in the country doing something I enjoy so much. I enjoyed the leafy downhill once again (tripped twice but didn't fall!) and had fun crossing the creek and streams the second time around. I passed one of the more cautious (smarter??) runners on the downhill. At one point flying down the hill, I said, "I'm running like Ryan" and then realized I was talking to myself. OUT LOUD. It happens.
I climbed out of the creek bed again--a little faster the second time-- and finally got to mile 20, which was headquarters. I quickly refilled my two water bottles and headed out for that last portion. I was still smiling though. As I entered the aid station, someone said, "I love to see a runner still smiling at mile 20!" I had on my Run Happy shirt, so I couldn't very well frown.
However, soon after that, it hit. THE WALL. About mile 21, I just had a sudden loss of energy. My legs felt heavy and wanted to walk, not run. I was already power-walking all the hills, and I had to make myself run the flats and the downhills. I always say, "Downhills are a gift from God! Never walk them." So, in 21-23, I had to dig fairly deep. I caught up to one of the runners who had passed me earlier. We chatted a little and he was struggling a little more than I was, so I went on ahead. I got to the turnaround and knew there was just a bit over 3 miles back to the finish. I was feeling very DONE. I was tired of fighting the gravel. My right shin hurt. My lower back was tight. I could tell that the longest training run I'd done on similar terrain was 10 miles. I had outrun my trail fitness. It was just up to mind over body. But, honestly, when does it not feel like that at mile 23?? I was determined to get to the finish as quickly as possible.
At mile 25.5 or so, I saw someone coming toward me on the trail, and it was my friend and neighbor Jeff, who had come out to run me in. I appreciated that so much! Jeff and I ran/walked that last uphill mile, and I finished at 5:26:50 officially for about 26.4 Garmin distance.
I was proud of that time. It got difficult (they always do), but I never got discouraged. I made my time goal. I enjoyed the day.
Overall, I'd say it was in my top 5 marathons. It was my 3rd trail marathon, 11th marathon overall, and 13th marathon or ultra. It is hard to beat the PERFECT day I had at the Kentucky Derby Marathon in 2012 and the perfect night I had at Run Under the Stars ultramarathon last June. Might be 3rd though!