Canyon Meadow Trail Marathon (reprise)
After doing well at this race two months ago, the main goal I had was to do better.
The sun was already up and it was almost warm by the time we got started. I seemed to recall shivering at the start last time around. Still early in the summer, I better get used to the idea of dealing with heat.
Canyon Meadow is a favorable course, with the exception of a strong hill for the first half-mile. Some people go ahead and start walking first thing. I had lined up at the front and only a few people followed me at my pace, and by the end of the hill, only one remained, actually a little bit in front of me, managing to take long steps even going up a hill like this. He looked like a teenager. As the hill flattened out at the top, I started passing him.
"What race are you doing?" he asked.
"Oh, wow! I'm only doing the half!"
The rolling hills for the first five miles were a bit of a nuisance. They weren't too hard, and I was still holding a great pace (especially considering those miles are generally uphill), but it was hard to get in a groove. At mile 2.5, where the five-mile course splits off, it wasn't clear where the course went. There were no ribbons, and only an ankle-high sign marked the marathon course, though it pointed diagonally, halfway between straight and a right turn. If I hadn't run the race before, I might’ve gotten confused. I continued straight.
Remembering my experience at Cinderella, I got nervous anyway. I kept looking for ribbons and didn't see any. A couple minutes later, I found a couple hikers and just to be sure, I asked them, almost desperately,
"Have you seen any pink ribbons?"
They looked confused. "Any, uh, what?"
"Pink ribbons! Have you seen any on the trail, or on trees or bushes?"
I could tell they were wondering what the hell made me so interested in pink ribbons. One of 'em suddenly had a light bulb facial expression, "Yeah, I did! I saw some a few minutes ago."
The aid station volunteers acted like I caught them by surprise when I showed up. "We don't even have every- uh, what do you need?" I couldn't tell what they were talking about; it seemed like they had their typical full spread to me. I just took a couple cups of Clif Shot and headed out, but first asked,
"What mile marker are we at?" Sometimes my GPS watch is a little off, so I wanted to know. It currently read 4.6.
"Uh, I forget exactly, between 6 and 7."
"OH! I mean, 4.7."
"Yeah, I know I'm not that fast..."
As I left, I figured we were probably between 6 and 7 kilometers out.
Right after the aid station came the second-hardest hill of the course, short but nasty, followed by an almost-nonstop downhill for almost six miles. A guy could get used to this. Did my best to hang tough in the few flat spots, and the one random short hill in the middle. Bottomed out at mile 10. One last hill, then a flat out-and back section to finish off the first loop.
What's funny was the last hill wasn't nearly as hard as I remember, but the out-and-back was not only harder, but seemed like it went on a lot longer than I remembered. And this time, there were several people camping along the out-and-back section. I hadn't realized you could. Every so often, there'd be a clearing with half a dozen tents in it, each time it seemed like it was one large group. For the most part, the folks seemed calm and friendly, didn't seem to mind that a race was going on through the middle of their campground. Except for one group. It's not that they were mean, it's that I could hear them literally from half a mile away. In either direction. So I had to listen to them for a full mile. Their kids were out of control. The entire woods had this beautiful serene tranquility, except for these little balls of noise running around, constantly screaming about as loud as they could. The parents were watching all this and appeared to not only tolerate it, but were amused.
"God damn," I said aloud as I ran past the parents. I wanted to stop and ask, "Are you gonna be here in an hour and a half? Because I have to run through here again." I kinda get the idea that you wanna give your kids a chance to do that kind of thing somewhere, and in crowded urban settings, around a bunch of people, isn't good either, but how about a playground or something? Most people don’t go out to the woods for the noise.
Finished the first loop in about 1:30, ahead of any and all half-marathoners. I still felt good and wondered if I could run up the entire first hill this time. Only one way to find out. I started up the thing and deliberately took small steps, planning on walking if I felt like I had to. And I never did! At the top of the hill, I smiled. Not only could that be the difference that makes me beat my previous time, but this could be a no-walk marathon.
On the big hill, I managed to catch up to a mountain biker that had passed me just before the start line. I always feel bad for mountain bikers on these courses; they're probably just trying to go out for a normal quiet Sunday morning ride, and they wind up having to deal with 500 people on the course. This guy gave me some encouragement up the hill, then rode alongside me for a minute when he passed me again after the trail had flattened out a little bit.
"So how many loops are you doing?"
"Two. I'm doing the marathon, so you do a half-marathon loop twice. But some people are doing a 50K."
"Well you're doing it in style, man, racing up those hills. Are you the leader?"
"Yeah. Was there anyone close behind?"
"Nnnoooooo-ho-ho-hooooo!! Naw, not even close. You're winning by a mile."
Good to hear. He was starting to pull away from me. "Have a great ride!"
"You too, man, good luck!"
When I arrived at the aid station this time around, there was only one volunteer there, and a half-marathoner, just leaving. As I did my best to quickly chew Shot Bloks, the volunteer explained that she'd arrived late to the start and was having a frustrating day. I forced the sticky blobs down and headed out for the last tough hill of the course.
After the short, steep uphill, I had some trouble maintaining pace on the downhill. There's always a part of these races that's much harder than you remembered the second time around, but it's almost always a minor hill; I'd never expect it to be a downhill section. Still, I was making good time, even if I felt like I was starting to run outta gas. The scary thought was that when that happens, you're usually able to think about just getting the tough part over and making it to the easy downhill section. Problem was, I was already on the easy downhill section.
On the flipside, the last hill of the course wasn't as hard as I recalled this time either. As I was approaching it, still feeling pretty good, I kept hoping it would show up so I could get it over with. "Hill, reveal yourself! I want to dominate you!"
I crested the last hill, came around a corner, and found the final aid station before the finish. Two miles to go. I looked at my watch. 15 minutes to spare if I wanna beat my own record. Yeah, I got this.
Even more so than on the first loop, it felt like the out-and-back went on forever, and the short hills in the woods seemed tougher than ever. On the profile map, they basically don't appear at all, but I get the impression that's only because they don't go on long enough to be measured. In any case, that section of the course is hardly flat. I felt enormous relief when I hit the turnaround, knowing there was less than a mile to go, and the path back was much flatter. I looked at my watch again. It's in the bag.
Six minutes later, I crossed the line in 3:07 and walked over to hang out in the shade. By now, it had gotten warm out, but thankfully, almost the entire second half of the course is in the shade. When the results came out, not only had I beaten my previous best by four minutes, but I beat the second-place finisher by 43 minutes. A while later, I realized that by Boston's old standards, this would've been a qualifying time, had it been a certified course. It’s not, of course, trail runs almost never are.