One of the exciting things about endurance racing is you never know what will happen during the day. There are some days where everything goes as planned and you have the race of your life. Then there are days that are the complete opposite – everything that could go wrong does go wrong. The XTERRA Big Elk Half would be placed in the later category.
I arrived at Fair Hill for my first off road race – the XTERRA Big Elk Half Marathon. I was reluctant to register since I have a history of twisted ankles and extravagant tumbles on even the most solid terrain. Luckily, I had an awesome group of buddies to help wake me up at the ass crack of dawn and get me to the start line. We arrived at the race site at 0700 to pick up our race packets. XTERRA and AdventureGeek events did an awesome job with the swag this year. Awesome shirts and a badass hydration pack were waiting for us at the start. After hitting up the bathroom, we made our way to the start where we were told not to go off course, watch our ankles, and trips and tumbles were almost guaranteed. Somehow, I managed to accomplish all three during the day.
The gun went off at 0800 and we were off. The course was marked pretty well with pink ribbon and duct tape. Easy task – follow the pink to the finish. As most people know, I suck at following any type of direction and was off course before the first mile marker. Unfortunately, about 5 people followed. We ran for 2 miles until finally we decided we weren’t going the right way. Awesome start. We back tracked our way onto the course and completed “mile one” in a whopping 35 minutes. As we slowly made our way back into the pack of runners, I realized my goal of placing overall was out the window. Although frustrated, I came to terms with the situation and couldn’t have been happier. For the first time in a long time, I was really enjoying myself – not worrying about pace, placement, who’s ahead of me. I took time to stop at each aid station and actually thank and talk to the volunteers. I walked with some of the walkers and talked to them about where they were from and found out about the several charities they were running for. I talked to a man, 72 years young, who said running trails are the only place he feels in touch with both himself and God. Looking back on it, the 4-mile detour allowed me to meet people who really opened up my eyes to a new side of racing.
After a couple of miles, I started to push ahead and pick up my pace. I took in the open marshland, the stream crossings, the natural bridges, and the beauty of the course. There were challenging switchbacks both up and down the hill sides that really forced you to focus on your foot placement and be aware of where your body was. It was a different feel from what I’m use to with road running, where your mind tends to drift, focusing on what mile you’re on or how far you have left. On the trail, I was more focused on where I was on the trail and where my next step would be. It actually the made the day a lot more enjoyable and the distance seem less painful.
After several miles, I started to catch up to the runners and began passing whenever possible. I never realized how hard it was to pass on trails, and I think I need to practice my trail etiquette a bit more. I guess it’s frowned upon to scale trees and logs in attempt to pass people. Lesson learned. After a few more ups and downs, I hit a rock section where I managed to twist both ankles causing me to gracefully tumble to the bottom.
After I hit mile 8, also known as mile 12, I started to get my competitive edge back and started to pass the runners. “Man, it really sucks being passed by someone named Captain Booze,” someone called out. I forgot I had worn my SigEp jersey right side out for the first time, which I usually turn inside out to race as to not reveal my not-so-frat-star nickname from college. The jersey got a couple comments, but mostly laughs. It was a good conversation starter for the guy wearing a shirt that said “The more I stop, the better the time – Bar Crawl 5K”. (To all my running buddies, we need to do it one day. It’s in Annapolis.) Finally, after 17 miles, I hit the 13-mile mark. With blistered feet, sunburnt shoulders, and burning calves, I ran uphill to the finish line.
With a time of 2:06, I managed to finish third in my age group, despite the 4-mile detour. I didn’t win my AG, and I didn’t have a PR, and I didn’t even come close to placing in the top 20. But it was the best race I’ve ever run. So what if I didn’t accomplish any of my goals, and managed to do everything I was warned not to do? I learned so much during this race. I learned to have fun and not take racing so seriously. I discovered the true beauty of trail running and being one with nature and the course. I got to talk to the volunteers who are out cheering and supporting the runners, which, without their help, these races would not be possible. All in all, I learned sometimes those races where nothing seems to go right, are actually races where everything turns out to be right.
AdventureGreek and XTERRA did an awesome job with this race. It was on the smaller side, but those are usually the best ones. Also, a big congratulations to my buddy Jd, who destroyed not only his first off road race, but his first half marathon. He also supplied us with the quote of the day:
“I so proud of you, man. You got a medal!”
“Jd, everyone gets a medal. You can pick yours up over there”