Ah, yes. Humbled by the hills.
That was somewhat of the theme this weekend during my first race of the year, the Post Oak Challenge 25k trail race. I’ve done Post Oak once before – last year’s 10k. And my thinking was I was in better shape now than what I was a year ago.
This much is true. But after slacking off in December, getting pretty sick in January and training hard to regain lost endurance ever since, I was definitely not where I was in the fall when I PR’d the Tulsa Run 15k by 15 minutes and finished my first marathon. Not even close.
But that’s OK, and here’s why: I knew when I signed up for Post Oak that if I went with the 25k, it would be a struggle but would also be a jump-starter run for me. I could have backed off and done the 10k, and I might have shown improvement over last year’s time. Or I could step up the level of difficulty and push myself harder. I chose the latter.
This would give me a good idea where my conditioning is and possibly answer some questions as to where I go now. There are several more races coming up this spring, and I’m still eying that marathon in Oklahoma City at the end of April. Anyway, here’s the lowdown on the Post Oak Challenge…
This is a multi-faceted, two-day event held on a large rural property just northwest of Tulsa in rolling, hilly countryside. The first day has 10k, 25k and 50k events on trails; the second day is mixed road and trail races of quarter-, half- and full marathons. Some people run on one of the two days, others choose to do a doubler by running events on both days. I’m not that crazy. I just stuck with the 25k.
There were a couple of things that stuck out to me. First was just how hilly the course was. The 25k is estimated to have somewhere between 1,400 and 1,500 feet of elevation gain (that’s like climbing to the top of Tulsa’s tallest building, the 667-foot BOK Tower, twice, and still not being done), and about half of that shows up in the final 7 kilometers. What does this mean? It means the undulating first 18k saps you slowly, then the final 7 does you in.
Second was the level of athletes who showed up. A friend of mine ran a 2:46 in last year’s 25k and was second in his age group (same as mine). This year, he ran a 2:25 and was in the middle of the pack in that same age group; the winner busted out a 1:55. That guy also won the whole thing.
And how did I do? A plodding 3:25. Hey, it is what it is. But let’s consider a few things. My showing put me in the back of the pack in my age group, something like 18th out of 24. But in November’s marathon, I was middle of the pack, and in the Tulsa Run I was in the top third. That right there speaks volumes of how different trail running is than road racing, and how competitive the field was at Post Oak.
I kept a decent pace early, but wore down. I’m coming in a bit heavy right now (180 pounds), but muscularly, I’m good. Cardio is what did me in. By the time I was near Holmes Peak, I was taxed.
Still, there was some fight left. A couple fellas made moves to pass me, so I ended up stalking them on the winding path up Holmes Peak. Then I passed them. And to put a stamp on it, I blasted as hard as I could up the final, steep pitch to the summit. By the time I topped out, I put a quarter-mile between me and the other guys who had passed me a couple of miles back.
But the cost was high. I would like to have bombed downhill and caught my breath, but neither really happened. I kept up a decent pace going down, but when I hit the bottom of the hill I was still winded, and I still had one more equally big hill yet to climb.
The last hill is dubbed “The Hill from Hell.” It’s wooded, somewhat rocky and steep in spots. What makes it particularly cruel is that once you’re about 40 feet from the top, a switchback takes you halfway down the hill and you have to regain all that elevation before reaching the top and the last, gentle half-mile to the finish.
Normally I have some kick at the end of a race. Even in November’s marathon, as beat as I was, I had enough in the tank to hustle across the finish line. But not this time. My hamstrings and glutes were done. My calves were tight. Cardio-wise, a quick sprint to the end was not going to happen. All I could manage was an even, slow lope.
But there are so many things to like about this race and its course. It’s beautiful out there. Those rolling hills offer spectacular views of the surrounding prairie. Even in their winter state, the woods are handsome. On top of Holmes Peak and the Hill from Hell, you can look down upon the skyscrapers of downtown Tulsa.
And the aid stations. Oh. My. Word. Trail race directors know how to do it. We’re not talking just water, sports drinks and energy gels. Sure, that stuff is present, but we’re also talking trail mix, fresh fruit, salty snacks, and, at the last station (at the base of the Hill from Hell), chocolate-covered bacon, beer and jello shots. Yep, you heard right.
Two days later, I’m still a little sore. I’d like to have run faster and made a better showing. But this race did exactly what it was supposed to do – shock me back into shape and launch me into spring race season. And my, what a beautiful way to do it.