I’m still a trail runner, dangit! (Clint Green photo)
Leave it to me to play the stupid card.
Sometimes I try things just because I can. You know, that whole “I do what I want” attitude that all the kids playfully throw around when they do something they know is kinda dumb but still get away with it.
I’m no kid, so I don’t get away with it, at least not very often.
I spent the winter focusing on strength and dialing back my running. Gaining strength and keeping up a high volume of miles don’t mix well. Most of us must choose one or the other. So for this winter, strength won out, with decent results. It also made it to where I was running nine or 10 miles a week.
Going back a year ago, my running volume was higher, but still not high. On a lark, I decided to enter the six-hour event at the annual Snake Run in Tulsa. No real goal, just get out there and run some trails for awhile to see how many miles I could log before the gun went off. Keep in mind, I hadn’t trained to run that long on my feet or for any significant distance for months. Even when hiking the last big loop, I still logged 25 miles, just short of a marathon. Not that impressive by that race’s standards, but hey, a little extra effort would be a pretty easy way to snag another 26.2 without having to bother with 18-21 weeks of training. My kinda plan!
It got me to thinking about things. I hiked the last loop of that race, chatting it up with another runner who was also done running but wanted to finish one last lap before calling it a day. When we finished, I managed to have plenty of energy to do a few short loops to get my total mileage to 25. Had I not shown up late and maybe ran at least a part of that last loop, a marathon and change was in the bag, right? So that was my plan for this year.
Or more like my experiment. Knowing the course, the event and a few tricks of slow distance racing, I figured it might be possible to get that distance or more with minimal training. Never mind that I am also about 10 pounds heavier than last year (gotta eat to get those gains!) and was running less.
The Snake Run had been going on in Tulsa for 10 years now. It has two events: The 3-hour race and the 6-hour. The race director designed a course on the easiest trails of Turkey Mountain, meaning that the course is built for speed. Runners try to get as many miles as they can by running on a 3.75-mile loop, and if time is almost up, they can switch to a half-mile loop to finish up.
The catch: If you don’t finish a loop before the final gun, that lap doesn’t count, even if you were within sight of the finish line. So there’s a lot of strategy in this one, banking miles and knowing when to peel off the big loop and start doing laps on the short course.
I did my first 25K distance on this race a few years ago in the 3-hour event and improved slightly the next year. Last year was my first shot at the 6-hour event, and I enjoyed the heck out of it. What would happen if I pushed it a little harder?
I knew that no matter what, I wouldn’t be anywhere near the leaders. The top male runner logged 40 miles. The top female, 36.
The starting gun sounded and I took my place in the back of the pack. No sense feigning greatness here. I was experimenting, and my weird goals didn’t need to get in everyone else’s way. The first lap went OK, the temps in the mid-50s and plenty of sun.
But there were some early problems. I found myself tripping a bunch, which is stupid, because I know these trails. “Keep your feet!” I yelled at myself more than once.
Normally, that’s not a big deal because trips and falls happen when you run trails. But a couple of weeks ago, I hurt my back twice in one week: Mid-back doing cleans and a few days later, lower back doing deadlifts. It’s been twitchy ever since. Stumbling forward to catch myself before face-planting got my back angry. Not good when you’re less than four miles into something projected to go much longer.
Also around that time, the familiar burn of a blister started making its presence known on the arch of my left foot. And maybe about 10 miles after that, my right knee was barking at me. I think the two may have been related.
The temps began to climb, my body ached and griped and moaned and pitched a world-class fit after the third lap was done. I popped some ibuprofen and decided to break things up between speedier running and power-hiking.
The fourth lap went like a charm, and I finished it with two hours and 45 minutes left on the clock. I told myself that if I could finish Lap 5 by the 4:10 mark, I’d have a marathon in the bag. Score one for the lazy runners!
Sadly, things started falling apart. My body wasn’t used to going this long and this far. Those pleasant temps raced through the 50s, the 60s and the 70s – pretty hot for a long-distance event. Every muscle around my hips was screaming. And by the time Lap 5 was done, the clock read 4:20. The race director, Ken “TZ” Childress, told me jokingly, “I’ve got bad news: You’re probably not going to win today.”
Best quote of the day, and great humor to take the edge off the facts.
I was trashed and getting slower by the minute. My left foot was barking loudly. So was my right knee. The temps had crossed 80 degrees, and the trees were still too bare to provide any meaningful shade to blunt the sun’s rays. Seven laps weren’t happening. No 26.2 that day.
Yes, even back-of-the-pack, untrained runners get a little bling when it’s over.
I finished my sixth lap, ate some barbecue, and with some time still left on the clock did one last half-mile loop to finish things off at 22.5 miles. Squarely back of the pack. They gave me a medal anyway and didn’t make fun of me, which was awful sporting of them.
That’s not to say the day was a bust. After all, this was an experiment. And the results showed me that no, you can’t run marathon-length races without a passing attempt at training. Your body needs the pounding of miles and time on your feet to perform, something no amount of squats, deadlifts and cleans will give you.
Additionally, I got to see a bunch of running buds. My friends Tyler and Miranda were there, with Tyler cheering on his bride as she gutted out her first-ever half-marathon in the 3-hour event.
Another running couple, Steve and Brooke, were slaying miles together, also on the 3-hour race. Both did well, fighting off the heat and running strong. Runners I don’t know, whether they were fast or slow, would say “good job!” or “great work, keep it up!” when we passed. Lots of high-fives were shared.
Clint took photos of all of us while helping Ken and the gang with the logistics of the race. Bryan and a bunch of local trail runners kept track of people’s loops and times.
And those aid stations. One of the best things about this race is they don’t mess around with the aid stations. They do them right, stocking them with plenty of drinks and food.
I met some new faces, and even got a lift to the parking lot when it was over so I didn’t have to stumble down the hill to my car. Good souls, these trail runner types.
Oh, and I got a sweet dirt tan line.
The dirt tan line. And if you look close, you’ll see the mondo blister I ran with for about 19 miles.
So what do I make of this?
Well, if you’re going to run long distances, you should prepare accordingly.
Running in the heat sucks.
And as I write this, I’m a hurtin’ unit.
But it’s tough to beat a day running around in the woods. The fact that I can do that is more than a lot of people can say, given health problems, time constraints or something else.
And you can’t top the crowd at a trail race, or a group run, or even just a couple of friends who decide to go pound out some miles in the dirt. I’m gimpy today, but I’m good.
Next year, though, I should actually train.