Wrong way runner
"The ones who miss turns are running fast at the front," race director Jeff Crumbaugh warned those of us gathered at the start of the inaugural Hartman Creek Trail Run this past September. A lot of people laughed a bit too raucously at this, identifying for me all those who had no intention of racing for the win in the 25K.
"I'll show him," I chuckled internally.
Confidence is not something I lacked on the roads and trails in 2010. In my 40th year, I trained harder and ran faster than I ever have. At distances from two miles, 10K and 13.1 miles, I crushed my previous best times. And I would have knocked at least nine minutes off my marathon PR - and nearly secured a sub-three-hour finish - had I not made a crucial error mid race.
But before I explain that heartbreak, let me recount my questionable performance at the Hartman Creek Trail Run, named after the hosting state park a few miles from Waupaca, Wisconsin, where I live.
I rightly predicted most of my fellow runners would be content to leisurely drink in the color-changing foliage along the course Crumbaugh had carefully flagged. Since this was my home turf, I'd had time to appreciate the park in all its glory as I'd run, biked and paddled through it on countless occasions.
That day I planned to run the familiar trails fast and see if anyone gave chase. I knew the course would include some of the singletrack I had a hand in building as well as a lot of hilly Ice Age Trail on which I frequently trained. I knew well where to reserve my strength and where to fly.
I had another reason to feel overconfident. The previous spring, Crumbaugh and I went on a 15-mile reconnaissance run together so I could introduced him to trails he might use come race day. He was impressed, calling the hand-built singletrack "world class" and the ridge through oak savanna on the Faraway Loop "gorgeous."
So I had several advantages over my competitors. And given that the race was a first-time event and a challenging one, the number of starters was bound to be low. (Sure enough, only 30-some people ran the 25K; half as many as ran the 10K option.) I let myself think about the one and only race I ever won, a dinky high school freshmen-only dual cross-country meet 24 years earlier. Finally the stars seemed to be aligned for win No. 2 at Hartman Creek.
Too fast at the front
Adolescents are often advised to "pick their battles" rather than rage at every classmate, teacher or adult that belittles them. Older runners like me definitely pick our battles - preferably quirky races unlikely to attract large fields or, better yet, minimal competition in our age groups. Hey, hardware is either hard won or hardly difficult to get.
But from the gun, a buff guy in a singlet took off at a pace I prayed he couldn't sustain. I couldn't risk him getting away so soon, though, so I hammered to keep him in sight. I quickly became aware we were not heading exactly where I expected. Soon after blowing past the two-mile marker and a mass of flags and caution tape, I started wondering if the two of us were still on course. We'd either dropped the rest of the field or gone astray "fast at the front."
By the time my doubts about our direction stopped me cold, my chief rival had crested a hill, turned left and was out of sight. Turning left didn't make sense to me. The maze of singletrack I knew to be on the course was off through the woods to the right, so that's the way I went. Yes, I should have backtracked to the previous right turn we missed, but I thought I had already lost enough ground.
The problem with this - besides being grounds for disqualification - is that once I intersected with the winding singletrack I didn't know which direction to take it. So I guessed and just went with the flow of that tight, sweeping path local mountain bikers love. Until, that is, I ran head-on into the third-place runner.
"Are you sure you're headed the right way?" I asked - not for the last time in 2010, sadly. He laughed, and said he'd kept the red flags on his right, just as Crumbaugh had instructed. I sighed and turned to follow him. At the four-mile mark my GPS watch indicated I had run 4.15 miles, so my getting lost on my home turf had added distance, not cut the course.
When it was safe to pass, I did. I wouldn't see another runner for the remainder of the race. I followed the course faithfully to the finish in first place.
Because my Garmin indicated I had run 15.8 miles on a course Crumbaugh measured to be 15.6 miles, he granted me the win. The guy who was in the lead at the start said he added at least a mile before rejoining the race in 12th place. He then clawed his way up to around 7th.
Although I was quick to admit to Crumbaugh what happened, I still wonder what else I should have done.
Integrity on the trails
When a mismarked trail sent ultrarunning monster Max King off course just five miles from the finish of the 2010 USATF 50K Trail Championship, he did something amazing. King was in second place behind Erik Scaggs when he realized he was going the wrong way. He took a detour and got back on course, but Skaggs and six runners behind King ran significantly farther before getting back on track.
Fifty feet before crossing the finish line and being named the U.S. 50K Trail Champion, King stopped and waited for the others to catch up. "They then agreed to cross the finish line as a group in the order they were in at the moment the wrong turn was taken," recounted Scott Dunlap on his blog, runtrails.blogspot.com as reported in Ultrarunning Magazine. Skaggs was named the winner and King runner up.
King not only possesses extraordinary talent and an internal compass I lack, he displayed loads more integrity than I did during my 25K. I can blame only myself for missing that early turn. My shortcut back to the course was at least offset by my subsequent running in the wrong direction,
Although I ran a bit farther than necessary, I still won by an 8-minute margin. Had we not screwed up, Mr. Singlet and I might have finished closer or he may have buried me. So the official results deserves an asterix next to my name - at least until I return next year to, gulp, "defend my title." Just completing the course without getting lost again should be my goal.
What's irritating is I've gone off course at other races. At the Keweenaw Trail Running Fest a few years ago, I (along with several other runners) inadvertently cut short two of the three courses we ran. And last year I had to be redirected three times during the Glacial Trail 50K. I only placed fifth overall in that race because nearly a dozen runners ahead of me got lost.
Most of my missteps have occurred at trail races. It's happened to me so regularly I just shrug it off with a, "That's trail running, folks."
But apparently I'm getting a reputation. When race director Willie Van Haren handed me my age group award after the Black Hawk Ridge Trail Run on November 7, he teasingly congratulated me for not getting lost.
Wrong way on the roads, too
Between those two trail races, I reached the proverbial and literal fork in the road at my 2010 goal race. I was fated to learn nothing from my previous mistakes.
Now I don't expect sympathy for being directionally challenged. I deserve even less when I propose that part of my "problem" is running too fast. But the truth is, I've lately enjoyed a level of fitness to which I'm unaccustomed. Running "fast at the front" has left me with fewer people to follow and trust that they at least know where they're going.
My legs may be turning over quicker and more efficiently, but that doesn't mean my brain is getting more oxygen. Considering my wacked-out thought process over the last few miles of my ill-fated fall marathon, my head was starving for sanity.
To make another long race story shorter (literally), I was running "out of my mind," as they say, at a 2:59 pace for the first 19 miles of the Haunted Hustle Marathon, another first-time event. But 16 miles in I took a wrong turn - a handful of us in the top 10 skipped a short out-and-back spur - cutting 1.5 miles from the course. It wasn't until I came upon the 20-mile marker, with my aforementioned GPS watch reading 18.75 miles, that it dawned on me what had happened.
Still, I tried to convince myself that the mile markers were out of order; that the course was short by no fault of my own; or that the course was a full 26.2 miles but my Garmin was suddenly an unreliable piece of crap.
None of these scenarios would have made sense had I been thinking straight. But I wasn't. And thank goodness for that, because my delusion allowed me to soldier on through cramping in my calves more painful than I've ever experienced. Though I only ran 24.75 miles, truthfully I wasn't disappointed to finish a little early.
I ran that far in 2:50:44. Even with an invisible Sammy Sosa swinging a baseball bat against the back of my lower legs, I managed to rally and finish relatively strong. I project that had I run the full distance, a 3:01:30 is as good as I could have managed. Although that would have been a huge improvement over the 3:10 PR I set in Boston last April, I was spared the disappointment over 90 extra seconds by being disqualified.
What's most unfortunate is that I never should have made that wrong turn. A few weeks before the race, I did a 22-mile training run on the course. My wife accompanied me on her bike while clutching the course map. Sure enough, before she could point out my error, I made that same erroneous left turn instead of going straight. But I was too tired to backtrack just to get in that "extra" 1.5 miles.
Had I done so, I might have had the confidence during the race to redirect my fellow runners or break rank with them. Instead all I could muster was a weak, "Are you sure, guys?" When they nodded, yes, I followed without further questioning them, my competition.
For the record, the intersection was adequately marked but a volunteer assigned to it had left her post momentarily. The race director apologized and has offered to comp us entries to the race next year.
So that makes two races I need to "do over" in 2011. If you see me at these or any other races, be advised not to follow me. Chances are, I won't know where I'm going.
Joel Patenaude is the editor of Silent Sports.