"You won't find reasonable men at the tops of tall mountains" - Hunter S. Thompson
Well, at the beginning of this week, I realized I had reached Al's official beginning of Fall. Oh sure, some folks signify Fall with when the sun shines through Stonehenge in a land far away or when the stars are lined up just right. Nope, my Fall is when I finish my morning run in exactly the same amount of darkness that I begin it in. Unfortunately, I know then that it won't be long before the wind will be blowing from the North and I'll be whining like a little girl about the cold. Well, if Fall is here, Spring can't be far behind, right? We just don't recognize Winter in Al-World.
Once in a while a run will come out of nowhere and just be much better than you were expecting. This happened to me last Saturday. I had planned to meet my good friend, Moha, at the South Trailhead of Oak Mt. For the past couple of years, the technicality of trail running has done a number on my achy-braky ankles, but by cautiously babying them on easier (sissy) trails, I've been doing better for the last several months, even venturing onto what would be the equivalent of a hard green rating trail (as in skiing). Still, I'd have to be super cautious with my foot plants. But, on this Saturday, I felt like I was running at least a little offensively, rather than completely defensively. One of the best purchases I ever made was to buy a pair of Merrell High Top Mountain Racers. They're a little heavy (like small cinder blocks) but I've gotten used to them and they keep me from turning my ankle over like a short-order cook doing pancakes. Going up hills is still a chore and going downhill is just mildly better, but I just absolutely love to run trails. There is nothing, to me anyway, that comes close on the road. Running on a dew-laden trail at the first hint of daylight just a pure joy. You can feel that you belong with the trail in the woods.
I ran my first trail ultramarathon in 1998 outside of San Diego. It was in the "Apple Capital" of California, Julien. Now, it's true that apple growing probably doesn't garner a whole heck of a lot of competition in the Wine State, but they have two things there that are etched forever in my poor, fading memory - the best warm Apple Pie EVER with ice cream, and the best post-race stew...big hunks of veggies made with the tenderest beef. I'm breaking out into a sweat just thinking about it!! Whew! Anyway, for the next decade, I fell in love with trail races and found they differ tremendously from the roads. For instance:
When you start a trail race, don't expect a gun to go off. I've been sent forth by a guy in flip-flops either lighting a cigarette, blowing into a conch shell, or dropping his hat, and yelling "Go!"
No mad dash off the line to get to the front of the pack. No, we take off over a line drawn in the dirt to a lot of laughing and a slow jog There is no applause or cheering—just the soft patter of the runners' shuffling as they disappear into the woods.
No trail runner is anal about the distance like a road runner. A race's stated distance is more of a guide rather than any actual measurement. Our own Oak Mt 50k is actually closer to 33 miles per my Garmin measurements, rather than the 31.2 miles you'd expect on a road. I suspect most trail race directors get a kick out of the occasional surprise mile or 3. As a matter of fact, it's frequently said a race is measured in "Horton Miles", named after a friend of mine, David Horton in Virginia. He directs several races and you can pretty much count on a Horton mile being probably at least 10% long.
In a hilly trail race, walking early in the steeper sections of technical trails is not only an accepted part of the sport, it is considered wise racing strategy. It's not like a run/walk strategy of road races, but it's a "walk the up/run the down" process. Actually, not to use this strategy is usually suicide.
A trail ultra is like a 31 mile (50 mile, 100 mile, etc) buffet table in the woods. When you're spending 5, 10, 20 (or more) hours running, you're going to need more than a handful of energy gels. So, I've seen not only more candy than Hersheys has in Pennsylvania, but I've gulped down everything from whole peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, to potato wedges to pierogies to turkey & cheese to bagfuls of crushed potato chips. Many a runner, I'm sure, has gained weight during his several hour jaunt.
Two things you need to know about trail runners: They're a laidback bunch, and they love their food & beer. The draw to the finish line is not the medal (there seldom is one), but expect an after-party with a lot of good grub. There's always burgers on the fire, fresh baked cookies, pizza, and loads of beer in the coolers.
While Birmingham is not the trail mecca of the southeast, we are making some pretty cool strides. A few months ago, the Oak Mt trail system was named by Runner's World as one of the 25 best trails in the country...whoa!! That's quite a feather in anybody's bonnet. And recently, I read where the "Red Mountain Park Trails" will open soon. This is an area of Southwest B'ham along Red Mountain that is being developed over 1200 acres. When completed, there will be dozens of miles of new trails to run.
And slowly, the Birmingham area is getting more trail races every year. At first, the Xterra series were the only trail races around. Couple of years ago, me & Moha were doing an Xterra Half Marathon at OM. When we came out of one of the trails to a road crossing, the race sentry said "turn right for a straight shot to the finish" - well, it was the finish alright...if it was a 9.2 mile race!! Never got a straight answer from the Race Director as to what happened, but even in negative Horton Miles running terms, 9.2 is WAY different from 13.1. Anyway, another trail system is getting more and more attention as it develops is out at Ruffner Mountain in East B'ham. In November, there will be the very challenging Ruffner Mountain High Crusher Ridge 21K. My good friend, Vanessa Stroud, is directing this race if you are interested in trail running and are in the area, I very much recommend this race. For info and a race app click here. Oh, and Xterra has announced a 21K at Oak Mtn the very next day so we really want to get folks out to Ruffner. Both races are trying to put together a Slim Slam Challenge – complete both and get some good swag. That's the sucker punch kind of thing that ALWAYS gets me!!
I'll see you all on the roads (or the trail) - AL
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