A TL;DR writing about Trail vs Road Marathons

After completing our first trail marathon, and our second marathon this year, I want to take some time to reflect and to compare and contrast these two experiences.  TRex has done a fine job of describing the technical details of these races in his blog posts (Mowdy and Little Rock ) and I highly recommend them for their informational and entertainment value.  But I want to expound on more of the touchy feely stuff that running two marathons in less than 6 months has taught me about myself, my RS, and the major differences and commonalities of road vs trail long distances running.

First and foremost I will say without a doubt, that while trail is by far much much harder than road racing, for me personally, I far prefer it. Mainly because trails are just more fun, at least in my experience.

The trail running community is smaller and a bit more tight knit and supportive. You tend to see the same people at all the trail races and get to know them or at least their reputations around the trail heads. You greet each other warmly and wave and cheer as you pass or get passed by your fellow trail runners.  You begin to really know who you are up against and learn pretty fast who you can beat and who will beat you.

Awards and giveaways tend to be more artistic and unique due to the smaller size of most trail races. They tend to be display pieces or useful in some way (coasters, bottle openers etc). With road you tend to have glitzy mass produced chunks of cast medal that only server to hang on a hook clanking against each-other like bickering siblings. Little Rock’s ginormous medal being the considerable exception due to its size.

And let’s not forget the food!  There is always lots of food on the trail, often homemade food at the finish, and goodies along the way. And let’s face it, food is really why I run. I love to eat.  With road races, they are typically more about speed over endurance, so sustenance is boiled down to essentials rather than provided as indulgent treats. The exception being some city vendors who want to show off their goods to a steady stream of potential customers (like delicious chocolate chunk cookies, grilled pineapple etc.); and those enthusiastic volunteers who supply Jell-O shots, Fireball, and beer at nearly every city and trail race.

Another thing that makes trail more fun is all the wildlife you get to see, such as snakes, spiders, dear, bob cats, raccoon, fox, and even Wild Mustangs; at least in OK where we run. You get to run through things like spider webs, (mostly Trex since he is taller and usually runs in front so as not to take me out when he eventually falls, and he almost always does), creeks and creek beds, rolling meadows, rocky hillsides, densely canopied wooded paths, muddy puddles etc etc. Stuff that makes your shoes dirty and you don’t see/do every day. It keeps things interesting and requires you to focus on the terrain instead of the crazy thoughts that tend to roll around in your head while you run.

Which brings me to my next reason. The mental break.

I tend to have a few mixed tapes that are my go to mental playlists when I run long distances on paved surfaces which don’t require much external focus. I tend to think about my life, my goals, past, present, and future. This can be very meditative, introspective if you will, and are frankly life saving for me as a time when I can simply sort through the chaos in my head and in my life. But depending on the day, the demands of the run, and my mood (or Trex’s) I may happen upon on a bad loop that runs like a broken record, and those can be devastating for a run mentally and physically.  And there is such a time as needing a brain break, a mental shutdown, when you don’t think too much; when you can’t let your mind wander aimlessly or exert effort to figuring your life out, and those are when trail running comes to the rescue. When I just don’t want to think about sh*t.

With trail you can’t afford to get lost in your mind. You have to constantly focus on the terrain so as not to trip and fall. You can’t shut your mind off completely, but you have to focus it on doing regular assessments of how you are doing physically and then use your mental will power to push yourself when your status check comes back ‘in the red.’  I really became more intimate with this process during our Greenleaf 30K when my legs wanted to give up really early. I had to use my mind to focus on my strengths; to connect my mind and body, in a way, to override the pain signals by sending thoughts of how my muscles feel at their best. It’s hard to describe, but in essence I recall powerful feelings to replace the feelings of weakness I am experiencing when my body is strained. It requires a lot of focus and there is no room for thinking of much else in those moments because when you break focus the pain becomes overwhelming.  It is a brain exercise that strengthens the mind unlike pondering how to solve world peace.

Now this ‘mind over matter’ process is something both Trail and Road have in common (for me). It was my go to process during our first marathon this year as well as during our trail marathon. It is a good skill to hone period. But with road you can also let your mind drift a bit to distract yourself from the pain, whereas you can’t do this with trail. At least I can’t that is, else I end up on the ground like Trex does when he lets his mind wander off the trail. He has told me as much.

Another major common factor I have found to be pretty much universal in trail and road long distance races is the ‘Wall’. Any time I have set out to complete a distance not yet run, (race or training) there always comes a time when I grapple with the question of my ability to go further than I have already known.  Whether it be 1 mile more or 6.2, the added distance seems to boggle the mind.   It’s seem also to coincide with when all the aches and pains scream loudest. The place when the battle of ‘mind over matter’ is at the pinnacle.

Now I have read this described differently, more as a generic point in every run where you simply think you can’t go further. But for me it always seems to come when I am in ‘unknown’ territory. With my very first 3 mile run as an adult, so many years ago, it was around mile 2. With my first Half Marathon it was at mile 11, (I had only trained up to mile 10). With my first marathon it was at the typical mile ’22ish’ when I was 2 miles past the furthest distance I had ever run, and felt like I had nothing left to give the next 4.2 miles. At these points all the pains seemed to mount their offensive and bombarded my senses to the point where I wanted to quit even though I had just a few miles left. It’s that point, or points in some races/training runs, where you decide you are going to finish and not quit in spite of the pain.

With trail I tend to bout this foe off and on throughout the distances, simply because the terrain is usually so very unknown. With road there isn’t much variance in what to expect. A road is a road is a road. This weekend I hit a wall very early around mile 3 when my calf decided it was not prepared for all the uneven surfaces since we hadn’t run trail in several weeks.  It wadded up into a loose ball that tightened over the course making each step painful.  I had to constantly send forth thoughts to try and relax the muscle groups and recall how my calf feels normally to endure.  This took a ton of focus.  I hit another wall at the usual mile 22, when I realized just how abnormally long it would take us to traverse (walk in this case) another 4 miles in the heat. But there was no way in hell I was giving up after so far come and knowing I had done it before, so I pushed on, and so did T.

With both Mowdy and Little Rock, battling the elements was another challenge. For Little Rock it was cold rain. For Mowdy it was the exact opposite… oppressive heat.  Each made the runs far more challenging than had the weather been ideal, but for sure the heat was a more toilsome foe as it got stronger as the day went on.  We had to constantly replenish water and fuels and find means to cool our core temperatures.  It added nearly two hours to our road marathon time. Both races were hilly, but the added heat and rocky uneven surfaces of Mowdy made it a far more difficult race over Little Rock.

A key lesson from both.  I learned during our Little Rock race just how hard the ‘walls’ can be to overcome both for myself and my partner. Mowdy was no different in that aspect, however I did learn how to avoid getting “shushed” when my partner is in the throes of his battles, and I think I was better at reading his queues as well as my own as to when to offer/ask for support.  This is crucial when running with someone else. Sometimes you are the much needed voice of reason and encouragement, but sometimes you just have to know when to STFU and quietly be a source of strength or keep your whining to yourself. It is a balancing act throughout the journey to the finish, one that I believe has been my hardest but most important lesson thus far. I can’t say I have fully learned my lesson but I am well on my way.

 

Sacrifices & Rewards

Finally I have (unofficially) broken my 12-year-old Half Marathon PR. Today, thanks to the creative planning of my RH, we Raced The Dawn and I managed break my record by a whole 1:01 for a total finish time of 2:15:15. This was no easy task, and it surprised me just how difficult it ended up being given how confident I was in my abilities to break this record.

What made it so difficult you ask?  (You probably didn’t ask, but I will tell you anyways.)

For starters, in order to make this happen it required extra hydration over the last few days which resulted in numerous trips to the bathroom, including in the middle of the night; eating when it’s rush-hour at Luby’s (5pm); going to bed before 8pm; getting out of bed at the early/late hour of 2am; and leaving my house 45 minutes later, so T-Rex and I could meet at the half way point, stash a vehicle and water reroute, with just enough time to spare to start our “race” at 3:57am (PR time – Sun Rise time).  As previously mentioned in another post this was a re-run of The Golden Driller route, at which this year I failed to break my PR; and at which last year was cancelled on account of torrential rains, gale force winds, and considerable lightning in the area. This resulted in our not getting to run the half marathon we were trained and ready to run, and the decision to plunk down the premium last minute entry fees for the OKC Memorial race the following day, and we know how that race ended up now don’t we?

The official race conditions this year were near perfect for a PR, but it seems our re-run was not able to escape the ‘Curse of the Golden Driller’.  As we arrived at the park, much to our amusement, once again we were met with a torrential downpour, strong winds, and lightning. As we sat in the car watching the sheeting rains there was nothing to do but laugh and check the radar again. Luckily the worst of it passed quickly over us and we were left with steady light rains and winds with cloud-to-cloud lightning far enough away not to be of danger, and just enough time to make our official start time.

So into the rain we stepped, found our official start/finish segment of pavement, set our watches to the same race program we used three weeks ago, and then set off at our race pace.

The weather being what it was actually cooled the morning off enough so that overheating wasn’t as big of a problem as it threatened to be, but all the water on the trail eventually soaked our shoes completely, and by the end of the race I was weighed down, drenched in water from head to toes. My soaked clothes and shoes probably added a good 2lbs of dead weight. But the rain made nice sounds as we ran under the trees that canopy the trail in several areas, so there’s that at least.

It being as late/early as it was and pitch black thanks to the clouds, we discovered that the Riverparks trail lights don’t blaze all night. Luckily we had headlamps to light the trail and all the frogs that hopped in front of us.

And unlike a sponsored public race, and because of the ungodly hour of the morning, in the rain, there was no one else on the trails running but T-Rex and I, which has its pluses and its minuses. On the plus side, you don’t have to constantly bunny hop around other runners, forced to weave and dodge around them expending additional energies. Also there is something nice about the quiet of running in the middle of the night in the rain. Meditative. But on the minus side there were no cheering fans, or by-standers, no support, no one to catch up with, and lastly the lack of energy and enthusiasm that comes from the race high. Not that T-Rex wasn’t good company, quite the opposite, although we ran mostly without conversation on account of the harder pace and need to conserve oxygen, which felt scarcer thanks to all the moisture in the air.

Eventually I was given the direction to “go on without me,” and unlike last-time I did.  Right around mile 10 I broke away and hoofed it as fast as I could go at that point, which wasn’t nearly as fast as I had hoped for and squeaked into the finish with just a minute to spare. But my speed vs T-Rex’s gave me just enough time to grab my celebratory supplies, to setup some finish line tape, and open a confetti popper as he crossed the finish. Mission accomplished.

Many things are sacrificed in the pursuit of one’s personal best. Today that sacrifice was sleep, energy, wear-n-tear on the body, and time with family while I mostly lazed around the house in recovery from my run. I was completely deplete of the energy needed to do more energetic activities most of the day, stove up with some muscle knots in my back, and I couldn’t to do much with my family besides sit around and watch movies. Although I did take them to the pool hoping to help them burn off energy and give me a chance to soak in the hot tub, but the latter didn’t happen and I ended up in more pain than when I went in. Oh well, put some mom points on the board for sacrificing recovery for making happy memories with the kiddos, and hopefully this spasming pain in my back will go away with proper rest home treatments.

But, for me, the sacrifices made were worth the feeling of accomplishment that came with finally putting this PR win on the board. And because no race would be complete without bling, separately–unbeknownst to each other,  T-Rex and I both made, and had made, special awards and medals to make official our First Place Male and Female statuses of Race the Dawn, a RunSalty production.

Today turned out to be one our most memorable and fun events, and though T-Rex doesn’t know it yet, I am going to propose that we do this again next year, and turn this into a yearly event. Next year maybe our friends will join us as we try and beat the sunrise again and break the curse of the Golden Driller.

 

Nine Point Three

So tomorrow I have a 15k to run. Technically it’s a 5K followed by a 10K immediately afterwards. The reason I’m doing both is because they forced me as a #JEWELRYCOLLECTOR to do so.

bask in the glow of my double heart medal”

The 5K medal is just a medallion, a small heart. The 10K medal is a twin heart but one heart is set with magnets to hold the medallion.

So if you want a full medal you have to run both. And I run races for medals. It’s the only reason to pay someone to let you do what you can do for free anywhere for me at least. The t-shirts are okay but typically are covered with sponsors on the back and yes I get that the race would cost more, and the profits to the race producer would be less, if there were no sponsors. But the end result is really that we wear our race shirts to work the Monday after the race and probably never again.

But the end result is I’m running both races back to back. Now I’m running with someone who is slower than me so it shouldn’t be hard race for me. But still it’s 9.2 miles.

And the day after I have a 2 hour running session, 10min walk, 50min run, 5 min walk, 50min run, 10min walk.

So this weekend should be interesting by the end of Sunday. On the plus side we have Monday off so I fully intend to do not a damn thing on Monday except bask in the glow of my double heart medal.

Note that I’m using Heart Rate based training and I have no intention of killing myself so I keep a eye on my HR and when the signs of over exertion kick in, I’ll chill it down, walking if I have to.   I’d like to see my kids adults after all before I kick the bucket and return back to the dirt.

And with that pleasant thought I’ll bid thee adieu.