The Half of Kahn, aka the Xterra Trail Half Marathon

This adventure began innocently enough.  Mike Kahn posted on Facebook that he was going to drive down to Columbia, SC, race this half marathon, then rush back.  Having struggled of late (what I really mean when I say ‘of late’  is ‘always’) with long runs, I thought this might be a good way to get in a supported long run, ala the Charity Chase Half in Hickory last month – long runs always feel ‘easier’ to me when done in a race.  So I registered (or thought I did, more on that later) and told Kahn I was in, along with Dalena Custer and Ben Hovis.  Kahn had managed to assemble a fun little Charlotte Running Club contingency and I looked forward to the trip.

With the race starting at 7:00 in Columbia, we’d have to leave Charlotte around 4:30, which meant I’d need to wake up around 3:00 – ouch.  I succeeded in getting into bed relatively early, but for various reasons had much difficulty falling asleep – I remember looking at the clock and it read 12:25 and I hadn’t slept at all yet.  Very ouch.

After my two and a half hour nap, I rolled into the Dowd a few minutes late.  Other than the obligatory, and expected, wise cracks from Mr. Hovis and Mr. Kahn – Dalena is either too polite or doesn’t know me well enough to participate in the ribbing – we set off for the hometown of the Gamecocks.

The ride down was peaceful, if not downright subdued, but what else do you expect at 4:30 a.m.?  We made one pit stop at a gas station where the restroom light was out except for an occasional flicker, evoking horror movie, strobe-like, images.  That was the first foreboding moment on this trip – there would be more.

When we pulled into Harbison State Forest, site of the race, Thomas and Michelle were running near the entrance.  Michelle hopped in the Kahn family SUV with us while Thomas took off to run a workout (I hope it was a workout – he looked to be flying).

Now is the point in our story where you get to hear more stories about my stupidity (admit it, this is what keeps you coming back, the hilarious hijinks that ensue due to my lack of intellect).  When I signed up online for this race (again, when I thought I signed up and again, more on that to come), I didn’t realize it was a trail race.  I thought I was signing up for a road race.  Someone (Jason Rose, if I’m not mistaken) posted on Facebook that it was the last day to sign up for the Columbia half marathon at the discounted rate and he posted a code  to knock off another $10.  I clicked on the registration link, entered the code, and signed up for what I thought was a half marathon road race, in Columbia, on July 8th (if I ever had kids, I would teach them ‘pay attention to detail!’, something that I clearly do not do well).  Later in the week, I found out that the half marathon we were running was a trail race – uh-oh.

Don’t panic, Allen.  If you’re lucky, this ‘trail’ race will be like the other ‘trail’ races you’ve run in the past – the Bob Potts Marathon, the Salem Lake 30K, the Charlotte Running Club Winter Classic 8K, to name a few, all pretty tame affairs with wide, mostly flat paths and forgiving soft surfaces.  But let’s face it, how often am I lucky?

Friday, after finishing an easy run on the kind of trail I was hoping to race on, McAlpine, I ran into Megan Hovis who I knew had run this same race last year.  So I asked her what the trail was like and she answered, “It’s not too bad, some single track like Anne Springs Greenway or Beatty.”  Again, uh-oh.  These are trails that I specifically avoid because I’m not a big fan of single track running.  She also told me to pay very careful attention – the course had not been well-marked the year before and quite a few runners, including her, had gone off course.  Her half marathon had turned into a 20-mile long run.  Oh man, if I hadn’t been afraid before, I was now.

Back to Sunday morning, Kahn parked the van and we all set off toward registration, where we got in line.  When I reached the table, I gave the volunteers my name and they looked for me on the list of registered runners.  No Allen Strickland to be found on the list anywhere.  The lady had me write down my information on a random sheet of paper and then she handed me a bib.  I grabbed some  pins, my timing chip, and headed back to the van with Mike.

I got race ready, pinning my bib to my shorts, putting on my visor, and doing my one trail-race preparation, spraying on bug repellant.  Seconds later, a mosquito lighted on my shoulder and starting sucking blood – foreboding moment #2.

Shortly, we were lining up at the start, on the same dirt road that we drove in on.  The race director gave us a few instructions, ‘follow the red flags’, and someone played a recording of the national anthem.  Near the end of the recording, about where the lyrics should say “o’er the land of the free’ (it was an instrumental), Kahn trilled a blood-curdling battle cry.  I think he expected the crowd to join in, or laugh, but there was only silence, except for the last few bars of the anthem.

Then the race director announced, “Runners, on your mark, get set…” and a little girl fired an air horn and we took off up the dirt road.  In a quarter of a mile or so, we turned onto a trail and I was pleasantly surprised.  The trail was relatively wide and covered in soft, blessed pine needles – it was like running on air.  Ah.  I relaxed and settled into a comfortable low-8 pace, careful to watch my heart rate (low 140’s).  It was still relatively cool, we were in the shade, there was a pleasant little breeze and the trail was flat – I got comfortable and started envisioning maybe a sub-1:40 finish.  Trail racing, piece of cake.  Oh how very wrong I was – this was a set-up, the pine needles, the flat trail, the cool breeze – these things were the Sirens luring me closer to the rocks.

Some guy ran directly behind me and chatted for a second, asking me a few questions.  My first sign of trouble was that I had a little difficulty responding – I was more winded than I should be at this early stage.  When I told him that this was my first experience racing on single track, he stayed directly behind me and kindly offered up advice for a while, “It gets rooty through here – keep a close eye on where you’re stepping…long uphill straight ahead, throttle back…”, that kind of thing.  But soon he passed me and I was left to fend for myself.  And the trail got narrower.  And rootier.  And steeper.

I know that Garmin watches are notoriously inaccurate on trails, so I mostly ignored pace, focusing more on heart rate.  But I noticed that my pace kept getting slower and slower while my heart rate kept climbing higher and higher.  By mile 5, things were getting eerily reminiscent of my Boston marathon.  I began stopping at the water stops and drinking multiple cups of water, making sure to pour some over my head.  I walked up many of the hills.

Here’s what I perceive as a huge difference between road racing and trail racing.  During a road race, you can essentially lock into a comfortable pace and then zone out and just run with minimal conscious thought – usually only needing to ‘check in’ occasionally to monitor your pace, heart rate, effort, that kind of thing.  During a trail race, you must incessantly focus – jump that root, dodge that rock, shift weight to this side to dodge that limb, shift weight to that side to avoid that rut.  And so and so and so on – it’s not only more physically demanding than your typical road race, it’s much more mentally exhausting as well.

I never had any intentions of ‘racing’ the Xterra half.  I was hoping for a decent, somewhere around marathon pace, effort.  I abandoned that plan very early and simply focused on making it through this race, on finishing without too much damage incurred.  I quickly lost count of the times I turned my ankle, of the times I stumbled and nearly fell (it’s a miracle that I never actually went down).  I begged to see the mile markers click by but they seemed so very far apart.

Just past mile 6, things got downright surreal. Shortly after my Garmin beeped to indicate that I had finished my sixth mile, I heard a crashing sound and then a familiar female voice ask, “Are you all right?  Are you sure?”  Then seconds later, Dalena and Michelle came running up from behind (some guy had apparently tripped and fallen right in front of them – he was fine.)  Now I remembered the start when Michelle and Dalena took off in front of me and I never passed them.  How was I ahead of them?  I asked them, but they seemed as confused by this turn of events as I was.  “What does your Garmin say?” asked Michelle and I answered her, “A little past 6.”  They told me they were over 7.  Part of me thought, “Damn, I’m somehow off course” while another part of me thought, “Oh thank God, I skipped a mile!”  I wasn’t sure what had happened as the entire race I had been diligently following the red flags.  Oh well, after our brief interlude, Michelle and Dalena took off and left me.

I slogged along, walking most of the nasty hills between miles 6 and 9, when I heard another familiar voice, this time a man’s, call out, “Strickland?!”  It was Kahn.  Again, I wasn’t sure how I could possibly be ahead of Mike – I never passed him either, but man I was grateful to see him.  We commiserated, cursed, and asked each other, “What the hell were we thinking when we signed up for a half marathon trail race?!  In Columbia?!  In July?!?”  But I think we were both encouraged to have a running friend present and we ran, and sometimes, admittedly, walked, together.  He offered up suggestions on where/how I might have gotten off course.

We encountered another aid station and this one had iced tea.  I might have thought this a mirage had Mike not confirmed it later.  The tea was delicious, and surprisingly helpful.  After drinking a few cups, I suddenly felt better, as did one Mr. Kahn, and we picked up the pace.

A few moments later, we encountered a man and 2 boys, seated in camping chairs.  The man offered water to Kahn first, who declined, then to me – I accepted the generous offer and chugged from the bottle.  Mike changed his mind and drank as well.  We profusely thanked the guy and soldiered on.

Then we came out of the trail to the road where we had started.  I would have turned right and finished the way we began had Mike not been there to show me where the course actually continued.  There was a sign that read “Eagle Trail .8 Mile”.  We stopped and deliberated for a second, weighing the pros and cons of running the correct .8 versus taking the short cut in.  I finally said, “_______ it.  I’m already a mile short.  The whole point of this thing for me was to get a long run.  Let’s go the long way.”  So we set off on the second longest 8/10 of a mile of my life (the winner being the last 8/10 of a mile at Boston).

At least we didn’t take any more walk breaks.  Mike ran and I just tried to hang on to him.  We began devising a comic ending to this tragic play – first we talked about imitating Chariots of Fire, feigning a slow-motion, neck-and-neck finish.  Then we mulled over a racing crawl to the end, ala “The Crawl”.  But just as we were trying to write a creative ending, some other guy showed up and began chatting and before I knew it, we exited the trail into the clearing of the home stretch.

Mike and random guy burst into an all-out sprint.  “Hell”, I thought, and sprinted after them.  I was angry because the peaceful fun comedy ending turned into a mad dash, a mad dash where I finished third out of 3.  It was the s**t cherry on top of the s**t sundae that was the Xterra Trail Half Marathon.

Still annoyed over the day, I walked straight over to the nearest official I could find and DQ’d myself for going off course.  And that was the Xterra Half Marathon in Columbia.  Don’t look for me in any other single-track trail races anytime soon.

Ben handily won overall.  Michelle and Dalena crossed holding hands and were awarded first and second overall woman, respectively.  I was grateful to leave Harbison State Forest behind.

The 3 h’s – heat, humidity, and hills – didn’t bother this crew at all.

I have come to the shocking conclusion that trail racing is not for me.  It’s so different from track and road racing that it seems like an entirely different sport altogether, something more akin to parkour than running.  I told the gang, “That’s not running.  That’s fast hiking.”

On the ride home, Dalena mentioned that earlier in the week, when she had gone to register, the link that I had sent her was to a different race.  I pulled out my phone and looked up my registration confirmation email.  Sure enough, I had signed up for the Columbia half marathon in March – I just ran a race that I hadn’t registered for!  We all got a big laugh out of that.  It was the highlight of my day.

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2 Responses to “The Half of Kahn, aka the Xterra Trail Half Marathon”

  1. lori Says:

    Oh Allen Allen Allen, really? No love for trail running? The headline was so misleading (or maybe there was a little foreshadowing there). You don’t know me, but I now feel the need to convert you…..

  2. Life After the 2015 Boston Marathon | Allen's Road To Boston Says:

    […] tricked, er convinced Laura and me into signing up for the Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon. Of course, as is apparently always the case when Mike convinces me to sign up for a race, I somehow managed to sign up for the wrong race. This has happened to me exactly twice in my life […]

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