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Racing Stone Cat

Several months ago, my running buddies at work and I renewed our commitment to run more frequently.  We decided to sign up for a race to assist in motivation.  I’m not sure how we all decided on the Stone Cat Trail Marathon, but some combination of wanting to run trails, the close proximity and excellent reviews led us to sign up.

The first 4-5 weeks of training went well.  I sent out workout plans, we met at least once a week to run at work or on the weekends.  Then work travel picked up, a few nagging injuries crept in for my colleagues, and it wasn’t too long until our group’s training became ad hoc.  Moving to Chelmsford was a big help to me, because there are tons of trails just out our back door, but I too had travel and schedule constraints.  While I had a good base, and my training in the last month was good quality, the quantity was certainly less than I’d originally planned.  I managed a couple long runs on 10/2 (part of the race course) and 10/23 to check that I could actually run 2.5 – 3 hours and feel confident I could complete the distance, but I honestly had no idea how fast I could run.  I had in mind, based on the McNaughton Race in 2010, that I should be under 6 hours.  I figured I’d take it easy, have a good time, and see how the day unfolded.

But I admit, two little ideas had entered my mind.  First, I looked at the 2010 Stone Cat results.  I thought it *might* just be possible to finish in the top 10 women based on my pace and their times.  Second, as I was picking up my race number and T-shirt on Friday night, I chatted with a veteran trail runner.  I picked his brain about what to eat, what to wear, and details about the race.  He asked my road marathon time and estimated I should be able to run a 4:30.

On Friday night I enjoyed a lively dinner at the Hones with their neighbors, giving me some time to relax and be around friends, as well as carbo load on spaghetti.  I got a good night’s sleep, laid out my gear, and followed my normal race morning ritual – oatmeal with raisins, coffee, water, suit up, and head to the race site.  I felt my normal pre-race jitters, especially while packed into the elementary school gym with hundreds of friendly but rather intimidating runners.  The bathroom line offered a chance to chat with other women, I chatted again with the veteran runner I’d met the night before, and then took a quick jog around the school yard to warm up and clear my head.

Then, at 6:25am, we were off!  The marathoners had a 1.2 mile out-and-back on the road to allow time to spread out.  I felt spunky and wanted to get into a reasonable position in the pack before we got onto the narrow trail, but also tried to hold it back a little.  From Reach the Beach I knew that I tend to run faster in the dark.  According to my watch, I hit the fire road at 8min19seconds, and soon we were off down the trail.  I alternated trailing other runners with headlamps to let them select footing, and then passing when I determined their pace was too tentative.  I definitely felt some old cross country instincts emerging as my eyes would sight the next runner ahead and I reeled them in.  Often a backup line of runners would form on the single track, then once the trail opened up people would pass and spread out again.

There were two main challenges in the race.  The first was self-inflicted: fairly early in the race, as I looked up to spot the next turn ahead, I lost my footing on the rocks and roots and took a spill.  My hip, right arm, and right knee definitely smarted as I dusted myself off and walked a few steps.  I determined nothing was sprained, broken, or bleeding, and continued on, with some fresh adrenaline.  I also made a note to get Advil at the upcoming aid station to try to keep the swelling down on my knee.

The second challenge was well known ahead of time – one of the sections of trail was under water.  Even in the dry summer months there were easily 4-6 inches of water.  We heard at the pre-race brief that it was up to 12 inches, and of course it was 30 degrees at the start of the race, so we’d be running about 50 yards through knee deep ice water.   But, other than coming out with numb feet that took a little while to warm up and dry out, that part didn’t end up being much of an issue.  I took it as an opportunity for mental toughness and just plowed through the water both times.

There were three aid stations on the two-loop course, and the volunteers were terrific.  At the first one, “Al Cat’s Lounge” (he’s the mascot for Mercury Brewing Company, who sponsors the race) I picked up some baked potato wedges, dipped them in the nearby bowl of salt, and also got a cup of Coke.  I asked for Vaseline (same issue as McNaughton, needed to protect my lips and drippy nose), which they quickly provided. I picked up Advil and water at the next one, along with a square of PB&J.  At each station they asked if they could refill my bottle, took it, and had it ready to go by the time I had grabbed some snacks. I like to think of trail races as picnics they set up in the woods, where a bunch of people run from one to another as we eat our way across the park.

At the halfway point there was an out-and back turnaround, so I could see the faster runners coming back up the path.  I saw one woman with a red #1 (red meaning she was in the marathon vs. black for the 50M, and #1 typically indicating last year’s winner), and another woman with a black number coming out ahead of me.  I figured I might actually be in the top 5 at this point, and came through with about a 2hr 18 min split for 13.7 miles.  At that point I decided to make it a race (not just a fun run) and see what I had in me.  I kept picking off runners during the first part of the 2nd loop and stayed aggressive on the hills.  I did take an extended break at the next aid station, to make sure I had enough fuel to get me to the end.  I grabbed a pancake, some ramen, a half banana and tried to eat them as fast as I could.    During this stop I noticed that 2 or 3 women passed me.  One I was able to pass back quickly, and headed back off down the trail.

I tried not to think about how many miles I was running, or my pace,  just think about being tough, keeping my balance, and keeping my feet turning over. When my knees started hurting on I drank more water, to make sure I was well enough hydrated to keep my joints lubricated.  When my hamstrings started hurting and bordering on cramping, I opted to walk up the steepest sections of trail to stretch my legs and tax them less.   But, I tried not to walk more than about 30 seconds, worrying it would just get harder to pick up the pace again, and I went as fast down the hills as I could while keeping my balance.  I kept picking off male runners, and got passed by one or two as well.  Finally the next woman ahead of me was within my sights at around 5 miles to go, but wasn’t able to catch her, and then she and her pacer pulled away.  My legs were feeling pretty dead, so I just tried to estimate how long I had left – a 5K, then less than 2 miles, then I was turning onto the last trail and headed back to the school and pushing the pace as much as my legs could handle.  I came through at about 4:27, feeling very spent, but thrilled with my time.

Then I checked my splits.  I deviated less than 1 min per mile in pace (all estimated, of course), between 10 min and about 10:48 per mile, including the aid stops.  I was also really happy to see that I only slowed down 3 minutes between the first loop and the second loop.   Woot!  And the icing on the cake – I asked the race director where splits were posted and he showed me his clipboard.  I came in as the 5th fastest woman.  I haven’t really raced in a long time, and it felt really good.  (I will link the official results and some photos when they are posted!)

Bring on the training for Boston! After I ice my bruises, of course.  They are looking spectacularly red and purple.

PS – I walked to church on Sunday morning rather gingerly, mainly due to a sore knee.  Walking home was better, and then my knee didn’t hurt at all after my short nap, including while raking leaves and trimming back the perennials.  I’m definitely on the mend, and my muscles are feeling WAY better than after a road marathon!

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