There’s nothing quite like an alarm clock going off at 4:45am, huh? That’s when I had to wake up on Saturday so I could get to Malibu Creek State Park. I was competing in my first trail race, and I was nervous. Good thing the park was in the mountains,with plenty of pretty scenery to distract me.
So there’s a wee bit of backstory here: My friend Jeff (a frequent figure on this blog, often featured in posts about long or unexpectedly challenging physical outings) is a champion trail runner. He has oodles of medals from trail races. He’s been bugging me for years to do a trail race. And I’ve always said no. Even though I have a few 5k and 10k races (on pavement) under my belt, I’m not the biggest fan of running, and I’m just not that excited by the thought of racing up, down and around mountains on narrow, uneven, rock-filled trails.
Last month, Jeff and I had dinner with a mutual friend, Mike. Mike had a very frightening medical scare a few months ago, which landed him in the hospital for a few days, but even that won’t deter him from doing a certain upcoming trail race. Jeff chimed in: “David, that’s the one I was telling you about!” Later, via email, Mike invited me to the race.
Well, crap. Now there were two friends egging me on! Maybe it was time to bite the goddamn bullet and do a trail race. So I signed up.
There are actually three races at Malibu Creek that day: a 22k (which Jeff did), a 12k, and a 6k. I decided that 6k is plenty, and plus, that’s the distance Mike was doing. Oh, and if you’re wondering, there actually is a creek at Malibu Creek State Park:
The 22k race started first. In addition to Jeff, three other friends competed: Veronica, Steve, and Esteban. Mike and I stood off to the side and watched them all start. A little while later, the 12k runners took off, and a little while after that, the 6k runners lined up. Here’s Mike and I at the starting line:
They broke the 6k runners into two waves: the competitive runners went first, followed three minutes later by the more casual runners. Since I’m new to the sport, I picked the second group, since I wasn’t sure what to expect. I got into position right at the front of the pack, and took off when the air horn sounded.
Here’s something I definitely wasn’t expecting: I had the lead for the first 300 meters or so! I wasn’t trying to go out that hard, but it felt good to lead the pack for a little while, until a handful of guys passed me (but only a handful!)
The first part of the course was on a fire road. It’s unpaved, but as wide as a two-lane road, so it’s easy to pass and there’s plenty of room. Then, we veered off the fire road onto a single track trail. This was a true trail in every sense of the word: only a couple feet wide, lots of curves, some switchbacks, and plenty of rocks, tree roots, and other trip hazards.
I was already nervous about tripping – Veronica fell in this park during a race here six months ago, and had to get stitches on her knee – so my eyes stayed glued to the ground in front of me (and I made it out without losing any blood at all!)
There’s etiquette for passing on a single-track trail. You have to announce yourself (“Passing on the left!”) and you’re supposed to wait for a verbal OK from the person you’re passing, as a safety precaution. While I was passed on the fire road, not one person passed me on the uphill part of the single track trail. In fact, I passed a ton of people – well over a dozen, including two of the guys that passed me earlier.
It was super cool to realize that I excelled during the uphill climb – the most challenging part of the course. Thank you, years of stair training! There was a sizable elevation change, too: nearly 700 feet. To put that in perspective, imagine a 1.85-mile long ramp to the top of a 50-story building. This race was similar to running up and down that ramp.
A little while in to the main ascent, I realized the guy behind me was using me to pace himself. He stayed 10 feet behind, without ever passing me. His presence pushed me to go faster. I liked it.
The downhill part of the single track required a lot of focus. If I was gonna fall, it’d be during this part. There were some sharp twists and turns, and I managed all of them without even stumbling. Near the end of the downhill part, our trail converged with the 12k course, and a bunch of speedy 12k racers started passing me, and of course it was always at treacherous moments – when the trail was particularly rocky, or when I was precariously close to a sizable precipice. But everyone was respectful of passing etiquette, and I never felt unstable or unsafe.
The dude that was pacing off me flew by me after one of the 12k speed demons passed us both – he clearly was ready to pace off someone faster – and I grew determined to catch up to him and beat him to the finish line. Establishing that goal mid-race turned out to be smart, because it provided a nice distraction from the fact that I was getting tired and achy. But the goal soon evaporated as the guy got further and further ahead. After a while, I couldn’t see him at all.
Eventually, the trail connected with the fire road, and the final part of the race was running back along the same fire road we started on. Because the road was smooth, I was able to look around a little more, and take in the gorgeous views. I even managed to work my phone out of my pocket and take a picture while running. And it turned out OK!
I kept chugging along, even though I knew I slowing down. I was determined to finish strong, even though the fatigue and soreness were increasing. About two hundred yards from the finish line, I guy I recognized passed me. He was one of the first guys that passed me at the beginning, and then I passed him on the climb. And now this mofo was gonna try to beat me? NO WAY. I kicked it into a gear I didn’t know I had, and started running alongside him. I was gonna put up a fight until the very end, and cross the finish line first.
That didn’t happen. I just didn’t have enough fight left, and couldn’t keep up. He crossed the line before me, but I forgot all about him as soon as I crossed the mat. And that’s because…
…I did it. I finished my first trail race!
I guzzled a bottle of water, and started walking backwards along the course, along the shoulder of the fire road. After about 100 yards, I saw Mike coming around the corner, and I ran alongside him as he crossed the line.
A little while later, they made an announcement that the leaders in the 22k race had only two miles left. I knew Jeff would be one of the top finishers, so I staked out a spot at the final curve, and snapped a nice pic as he ran by.
Mike, Jeff and I well after the race was over:
The results were posted pretty quickly, and I was thrilled with my time: 43:57! Plus, I was 5th in the Men 35-39 division! TOP FIVE! (It’s a little less impressive after I mention that our division only had eight guys in it, but let’s keep that our little secret.)
I’m glad that did this trail race, and I’ve told Jeff that I appreciate him pushing me for so long to give trail running a try. It was a good morning for me, and I’m proud that I did so well at something my first time doing it.
Will I do it again? I don’t know. I’m not scouring the interwebs looks for my next race, but as they say, never say never. And you know what else I like to say, right?
Keep it up, David!