Texas Hill Country
October 12, 2020
Horseshoe Lake Trail Marathon
Atypically, I woke up in my own bed and drove to the marathon shortly thereafter. Very few Coastal Trail Runs have been on The Peninsula thus far, but this would be one of them. In fact, the start line was right on the side of a road that I bike on regularly. My neck of the woods. My stomping grounds. My house. I must defend it.
I showed up in the same warm-ups I almost always wear to these things, but this time, I wasn't cold in the slightest. I kept trying to find shade while I went through my stretches. Considering I had problems with overheating in my last race (and possibly dehydration too), that may not be a good sign for the race today.
I wisely lined up at the front, as I've only recently begun to do, and took the lead less than a mile into the race. If it were a loop, that would signify that it could be a very lonely race (like Canyon Meadow), but this was an out-and-back, which meant I'd be seeing everyone in the race at least once. And since it was a double out-and-back for the marathon runners, I would probably see a few people twice, if not three times.
In the early going, you only get a glimpse of Horseshoe Lake, until you're right next to it, near lake level. Almost immediately after that, you start climbing. For whatever reason, I've always been scenically attracted to water, so I was mildly disappointed that the trail didn't embrace the lake a little more and give us a couple of vistas.
It wasn't until the course turned uphill, only about 1.5 miles in, that I started losing people. A couple miles later, I was able to look back after a switchback and not see anyone in sight, at least a quarter-mile behind me. Early on, there were a few tricky hills, but mostly rollers, nothing too bad. The few steep parts were short, and the few long hills weren't steep. It reminded me of my beloved Hill Country, not only in terms of topography, but other factors of terrain and vegetation: warm and dry, short, scrappy shrubs, and oak trees outnumbered pines, redwoods, and eucalyptus. I felt right at home.
The course took a dramatic turn at mile four, in the direction of up. I was mentally prepared, having studied the course profile ahead of time. About a mile of torture, and then it gets alright. I let myself be OK with slowing down, knowing it would end in only 8-9 minutes. This would be the toughest climb of the entire course. As I approached the end of it, I smiled. Not too bad. This would be a no-walk marathon.
I had thought that the big hill ended at 4.8 miles (I write the mileage of all the peaks on my hands), but it was almost exactly at 5. An unpleasant surprise. The slight decline that followed made up for it. Easy running, the kind a trail runner dreams about. A half-mile later, the course turned onto a fire road, with rolling hills all over the place. None too difficult. But a thought occurred to me. In every trail run I've done, there's some part of the course where on the second time around, you think to yourself, I don't remember it being this hard last time. I anticipated that this would be that point.
6 miles in, a sharp hill took you up to the first aid station. I was greeted with cheering.
"The pink drink," I stammered. Of course, everything was already laid out and easy to grab.
"How ya feeling?"
I forced myself to swallow the sticky first half of a Clif Shot and answered, "Great so far!"
"You're killin' it man! Didn't get lost this time, huh?"
I laughed. Obviously this guy either volunteers a lot or reads my blog. "Nope, not this time! And since it's an out-and-back, I'm not counting on it. Knock on, uhh..." I knocked on the table, "...plastic."
"Hang in there, man, you're doin' great." He gave me a pat on the back. I'm guessing he didn't suspect how drenched in sweat it already was. I headed back down the hill.
Possibly the best thing about out-and-back courses (even better than making it hard to get lost), is that it's easy to tell where your competition is. When you backtrack, you see everyone who's behind you. And if you keep an eye on your watch, you know how far behind. I made a note of my exact mileage as I left the aid station and waited until I saw the first person coming up the trail. 0.3 miles had elapsed. That meant he was 0.6 miles back. Didn't see his bib though; what race was he in? A flurry of runners came later, but almost all of them were doing the half-marathon. From what I could tell, the next marathon runner was almost a mile behind me. And that was only a quarter of the way through the course. By the halfway point, it might be almost two miles, and by the end, three or four. Of course, that's assuming I keep running like I am. More motivation to keep it up.
The rolling hills surrounding the aid station weren't any easier going back the other way, but I kept my head up to enjoy the best vista of the course. Looking west, you got a great view of the piney hills, far enough away to look blue in the distance (physics is awesome!). Beyond that, you could see a fuzzy flat line separating the sky from a deeper blue. The ocean? Or was it just a blue haze on the horizon? Either way, it looked pretty.
Coming back down meant I was passing everyone still coming up. Most of the time, it wasn't a problem, but most of the course was singletrack. Normally, I love that, because singletrack generally puts you in the thick of the woods, and makes you feel so much more like you're running across the Earth on its terms than a fire road does. On this race though, that was occasionally a problem with people who weren't paying attention. Most folks did their best to move to one side of the trail, but a few didn't. In some cases, they had their head down to charge up a hill, and also had headphones in. I'm a huge music lover, and rock and roll helps me do a lot of things, but maybe this run shouldn't've allowed headphones at all. There's already a general rule that they're not allowed on singletrack, but since almost this entire course was singletrack, and out-and-back no less, I think they shoulda been banned altogether, just this one time.
After a mile and a half, I headed down the hill that had been tough to climb. And lemme tell ya, it was one of the finest downhills I've seen in any of these trail runs. The slope was perfect, enough that taking each step required zero effort and your pace skyrocketed, but not so much that you had to make an effort to stay in control, or tap the brakes to keep from going too fast. Towards the end, the downhill got even steeper, and I had to lean back to keep things under wraps, but it was the kind of stretch where you feel better after a mile than you did when you started. I hit the bottom at mile 9. Back to the rolling hills between here and the start. This oughta get interesting.
None of the rollers were terrible, but in a few spots, they were challenging. I kept that in mind for the second time around. At one point, I looked around. I didn't see anyone. I hadn't passed anyone coming the other way in at least a mile, and my best guess had the closest person about a mile behind me. I turned to the side of the trail and peed.
Coming down the last downhill before the halfway point, I had hit my stride again. I felt like I do on training runs, running like an unbridled horse. On one of the very last switchbacks, I hurried through, thinking I could pivot on one foot. Well, I could. Too much, in fact. I went down on one shin/knee. My first-ever slip in a race.
"Ow!" My knee and shin hurt. I kept running. Half a mile later, I decided I'd look at the damage. A light scrape on my shin, a cut on my knee. I've had worse in a soccer game. Almost glad to get my first badge of honor.
Approaching the halfway point was the first time I felt like I was noticing something that I'd missed the first time around. At one point, we got a fantastic view of Horseshoe Lake, a beautiful, picturesque body of water in the middle of gorgeous, green-dotted golden hills, glimmering in the sunshine. Only a little later, there was one of the coolest oak trees I've seen in a long time; the kind that has about six trunks fanning out in all directions, covering a huge swath of Earth, the kind that I woulda climbed again and again as a kid. It was probably well over one hundred years old. I was almost sad to run past it; I wanted to stay there and look at the oak tree. Maybe it made me homesick without me realizing it.
I made it to the halfway point, devoured some peanut butter, and took in some more water. I was about to run through it when they told me to go the other way. The course had diverged at some point from where we started, and I imagined we did a small loop to start the second half the same way, but not so. Had I gone that way, I woulda tripped the finish line sensor into thinking I'd already finished.
For the first few miles, my pace was already noticeably slower. On the plus side, the first runner back was at least a mile behind me, and he was running the half. For the second time (Canyon Meadow being the first), I beat the half-marathoners at their own game. The first marathon runner was almost two miles behind. Now a little farther into the race, the runners were much more spread-out. I basically hung in there until mile 4, the beginning of the tough hill. For the first time in the race, I was truly being tested.
The first half of the hill, the steeper part by far, tempted me to walk. A win was in the bag. Breaking the course record was likely. What could it hurt? Still, I didn't want to walk unless I had to. I started up at a deliberately slow jog and figured I'd keep it up as long as I could. Annnd….success! Managed the second half at a slow pace, but a little stronger. At mile 18, I finally finished the toughest hill of the course. From here on out, it can only get better.
As expected, the 1.5 miles on either side of the aid station were tougher than they were the first time around. Probably woulda seemed even harder had I not expected it. I did my best to distract myself by looking to the west and taking in the view.
I took in a little extra water at the aid station, knowing it was getting warmer. As I've mentioned, overheating and dehydration likely played a factor in my previous run, so I was doing my best to avoid that today. By this time, I had passed at least four people heading up the hill. In other words, I was three times faster than them. Granted, they appeared to be simply hiking, not running at all.
Just like last time, I made a note of my time and distance at the top and waited to see where people were on the way down. The first came a mile later, or two miles behind me, and he was running the 50K. The first marathoner came almost another mile after that, which meant he was almost four miles back. This one was in the bag. With most half-marathoners done and the trail almost entirely empty, I gleefully ran down the long decline, but in the steep section, slowed to a controlled gentle trot. My legs were starting to get a little too weak to run through a steep technical decline. I hit bottom at mile 22 with sore knees. Four miles of rolling hills and a few steep climbs stood between me and the finish. The adventure begins!
I'd already run this section of the course three times, but this was the first time I noticed how exposed it was. Every corner I turned, I kept hoping that the course went back into the the trees. More than water, rest, or a downhill, I wanted shade. It was a comforting thought to know that most of the last two miles were in cover.
The final hill presented a challenge, enough to give me a second temptation to walk. Halfway up, I strongly considered it. My pathetic jog was slow enough that it wouldn't make a big difference. It might save my legs. But then it occurred to me: save them for what? The last mile? The last 4% of a race? That's like hoping to improve your time by taking it easy for the 96th meter of a 100-meter dash, or slowing down in the last 10 seconds of a one-mile race. It made no sense. To Hell with that "take it easy" crap. This is the finish. Own it.
Over the last hill, I once again hit my stride coming down the other side, running like I really meant it. I noted the switchback that gave me the slip last time and was more careful on this go-'round. All that was left was a little bit of flat, a gentle uphill, and a little more flat. Just then, I almost stepped on a rat. It was dead in the middle of the trail. I wondered if it had been trampled during the race.
Made my way up the last incline, then absolutely charged through the flat last half-mile to the finish. Smiled when I saw that oak tree. The final aid station, just before the finish line, almost makes you wanna stop there for food. As soon as you cross the finish line, though, there are a couple more tents with an even greater spread of snacks. I immediately downed a few cups of water, took a handful of trail mix, and started stretching.
As it turned out, I beat the course record by about ten minutes and also won by 38. The next two finishers were within two minutes of each other. I wound up hanging out for about two hours, grazing off of snacks, and took in a beer as well. I've gotten to know a few of the race organizers, and they're all great people. And it's fun to swap stories with the other runners. Besides, it wasn't like I had anything better to do that day.
It was one of the less challenging courses, but I also think this was one of my better runs. Not getting lost certainly helped, but more than that, I maintained a mental toughness to the end like I hadn't last time. Looking forward to taking on the next one.