Read or listen as you please!
Last weekend I took off my road racing shoes and swapped on my trail shoes…for an actual race. And not just any race either, one of the iconic races in the Leadville Racing Series, the Leadville Heavy Half Marathon. Here’s how my debut trail race went…
I’m a Road Runner. Trails Are For Snails.
To preface this whole thing, I have been so vehemently against trail running for the longest time. “Why do they need to wear backpacks for just a 10 mile run? How is running a 12 minute mile a ‘run’? Why doesn’t anyone wear a crop top? If I start trail running, ‘those people’ are going to make me grow a beard.”
HARD CORE TRAIL RUNNERS, PLEASE DON’T TUNE OUT JUST YET, I SWEAR MY OPINIONS HAVE CHANGED!
The truth is, I think I was so opposed to trail running because I was simply terrified of nature. Yes, this Colorado native is afraid of snakes, dirt and apparently all life forms other than the growth of manmade structures in downtown Denver. I know, world’s worst Coloradoan.
Anyway, since I had been recouping from the London SI-joint debacle, Coach Jenni recommended (or politely demanded) that I get off the road and onto softer surfaces a few days a week. So, one morning I put on my trucker hat (a dead giveaway for trail runners), dorky vest filled with water that I couldn’t believe I was carrying for an adorable eight mile run especially since it was overshadowing my neon Nike sports bra, packed one measly packet of Hoppy Trails GU, and put on my brand-spanking-new bright white Nike Terra Kigers. “We’ll be back before the Today Show is over,” I thought, “This is great!”
Fast forward, the trail run took over an hour and a half, the hills turned out to be mountains, I was starving and out of water, my heart rate was through the roof due to animal paranoia and altitude and…I freaking LOVED it! That afternoon, I signed up for the Leadville Heavy Half Marathon taking place in just three weeks.
Quirks & Perks of Leadville, CO
Three weeks later, a crew of us arrived for the very first time in the little mountain town of Leadville, Colorado just 90 minutes from where I’m from and still live now. (I told you guys I’m like the world’s worst Coloradoan). Just a few blocks from the starting line, we stayed in a house that had an octagon tower, super strange wedding photos from the 1990s, and bubble bath photos of children that we hoped were the owner’s grandkids…otherwise, mountain people have an even stranger sense of humor than I do. Obviously, this house was the exact opposite of a luxurious road race hotel and basically the perfect resting zone for a trail race.
The morning of the race, I did my warm up run and felt my heart borderline burst through my chest as my body adjusted to the 10,000 feet of elevation. Contemplating bailing, I spotted the dirty change motherload: 2 quarters, 2 dimes and 2 pennies — a new record! I couldn’t deny that today was going to be epic.
Ten minutes until showtime, I meandered my way towards the front of the starting line where I conspicuously tucked in behind some dudes. This was already forty times less stressful than my road races of late. I peeked in between the elbows of two trail males and spotted the alpha trail male wearing a cowboy hat, gigantic belt buckle and a freaking shotgun. “What the heck is going on?” I asked a Kentucky man next to me. “Oh that’s Ken Chabadaba,” he explained. “He’s the race creator, and he shoots the shotgun signaling the race start. He does it every year.”
A true mountain man shooting a shotgun to start the race?! This NEVER happens in road racing! I was so stoked and ready to go.
Note to self: approach ALL races with this much stress-free joy! Add hat, buckle, and/or shotgun for enhanced joy.
Small Little Steps
The race began, and we took off up an incline of paved road. I felt at home with the asphalt beneath me despite how much I was already sucking wind. And then the road kept going up. And the best part is, it curved and kept going up. And just when I thought it would go downhill, it kept going up. For literally almost three miles. Super.
Just when I was certain that I was the biggest wuss on Planet Trail and going to die, I saw two running angels cheering me on with cowbells on the side of the road. It was Coach Jenni and our friend Amy. “What do you need?” Jenni asked. “I literally have no idea how I’m going to get up these hills,” I panted back as I ate a Huma goo-ma like a neanderthal. “Just take small little steps,” Jenni said.
And that became my mantra for the next twelve miles. “Just small little steps,” I told myself with each step up each hill. My other mantra that drove me absolutely insane was the name of Hawaii’s state fish: “humahumanukanukaapuaa”. For twelve miles, these two phrases rotated in my head.
Note to self: bring your Disney songs on the next trail race to avoid insanity.
“You’re Flying!” Said My Running Angels As I Mall-Walked
The race spread out pretty quickly, so I was running alone for the majority of the way out. Thank God I didn’t hear about people spotting a bear on the full marathon course until after the race or I legitimately would have flight-for-lifed outta there so fast.
I knew that mile eight was the turnaround point to come back down the mountain and also the highest point (probably a pretty redundant explanation for trail runners but stay with me). On the dirt path after mile seven, I couldn’t yet see the turnaround or any of the other trail males that were ahead of me, so I convinced myself that the race directors must be moving the turnaround point to play a trick on me. “This has gotta be some sort of sick trail joke,” I told myself.
FINALLY, I saw the first guys flying down the same hill that I was using every piece of energy I had to power-hike up. Yes, I power-hiked a.k.a…I walked with my arms in a commanding swing, like the mall walkers with purpose you see on Saturday mornings.
I had no idea where the number two and three female trail-ers were, so when I rounded the highest point, I turned on the jets. I was so thankful for this downhill relief it wasn’t even funny.
Here was the coolest part of the race that typically doesn’t happen in a road race: as I flew down the hill, I got cheers, high-fives and kisses (only from my Jusband who had a mouth full of PB&J) from all of the other runners, including the other female runners!
Note to self: bring this camaraderie to the road world because we’re all fighting the same fight!
Two Apologies I Must Give
The majority of the rest of the race was downhill (thank the running gods), so I let gravity do most of the work. However, at the bottom of the last hill, I was over it. My legs were spent, I was tired, and I was grumpy. I growled at two spectators on bikes, “How much further until the top?!” (Like it was their fault I was in misery). Politely they said, “sdlfkjdljf.” “HUH?!” I said like a barbarian. Again, they politely said, “It’s less than a quarter mile.” I scoffed and shuffled on.
Apology #1: Dear Super Cyclers, I’m sorry I was a grumpy mess. You were right, it was less than a quarter of a mile. Thank you. Love, The Grumpy Runner
Headed back into town, I knew I was about a mile from the finish line. There was a fork in the road to go right, but in my race daze, I wasn’t sure if I go left or go right. So, instinctively, I barked at the five police officers guiding runners to the right with an aggressive, “LEFT OR RIGHT?! LEFT OR RIGHT?!” Once again, politely, they smiled and pointed right. I’m positive that I rolled my eyes at them.
Apology #2: Dear Leadville Law Enforcement, I’m sorry if you have a bad taste in your mouth about the lead runners of races who get annoyed at you personally for being unsure of which direction they need to go even though it’s clearly marked and impossible to miss. Love, The Not-So-Funny Runner Who Rolls Her Eyes at The Officers of the Law
Axe Me My Favorite Leadville Pun
At one point on the last two miles of the downhill, the half marathon course converged with the full marathon course. As I was on my way to the last miles of my race, Kara Goucher was tackling her miles like a beast. I have looked up to Kara as a runner for so many years, and the fact that this was her first trail race too and she still was crushing it in her full marathon, gave me the energy I needed to power to the end. I steamrolled through the finish line tape as the first place female trail-er, ecstatic at what I had just accomplished.
I feel like a real trail runner now! And here’s something you’ll NEVER be awarded at the finish of a road race: a full-sized pickaxe and a mining pan! I’m hooked on trails and already signed up for my next race.
My road shoes are not hung up, though, don’t worry! I’m still fully chasing my goals for the Olympic Trials next February by training on these unbelievable mountain trails in my backyard. Guess it’s a good thing the trials course is hilly.
What I’ve learned is, the trail world is ridiculously supportive, friendly, quirky, and welcome to all. They don’t even require you grow a beard to participate! I get to eat full-fledged snacks on trails, take headshot photos of SMALL animals (let’s not get too far out of our comfort zones here), and get a booty-whooping workout while mall-walking uphill.
Trails make you tough as nails, so get out there!