Sunday, June 5, 2011

Rothrock Trail Challenge

I am completely flummoxed. Yesterday was the Rothrock Trail Challenge in State College. This is a 30K trail race that certainly lives up to the "rock" in it's name. It is a very technical, rocky course and even a little scary (to me) in the area of the Shingletown cliffs. This year the locals won the day again, beating numerous sponsored runners in the process. Jacob Loverich repeated as the men's champion, while Meira Minard repeated as the women's champion. It was good weather for racing, and while the course was muddy in spots, it wasn't nearly as bad as it was two weeks ago.

The first half mile of the race is on the road, before it hits the relentless mile climb that is Spruce Gap. This climb is not all runnable for most mortals, definitely including me. About halfway up while I was walking, Meira Minard passed me, and I was determined to stay with her as long as I could this year. Even though I had publicly stated that I would never try to beat her in a trail race again (after Hyner), because she is so good on trails, I had secretly harbored ambitions of doing just that if I could put together a good run some day. I did no trash talking this time, but it was on my mind.

At the top of Spruce Gap, I was about 10 yards behind and managed to keep that distance on the downhill on Kettle Trail that followed. I caught up with her on the flat section at the bottom and we ran together through the first aid station until we started to encounter the mud around Bear Meadows. I passed her on a particularly muddy section at about mile 4.25 and actually started to put ground between us in the continuing mud. I thought at that point, "Well, at least I had the lead over her momentarily, through mile 5." Surprisingly, I soon couldn't hear her anymore. I was running well, uphill and down, and felt good. I was at least going to try to make it hard on those behind me to catch up.

At the second aid station (mile 8), I saw Meira and another runner coming up to the aid station as I was leaving. I knew I had maybe a minute gap, at most. There was a lengthy climb after the aid station and my legs continued to feel good and I was able to run most of it. When I trained in this section, I had walked most of it, so I was quite pleased to be running, and by how little time it took me to get up the mountain. As I didn't hear my pursuers, I thought that I must be putting a little time on them, or at least holding my own.

After aid station #3 (12 miles), the climb of the Shingletown cliffs commences. I was able to pass a runner and felt good at the top. Last year this is the point at which I bonked and had to walk a lot of the ridge. My strategy this race was to take a gel at every aid station and my fueling level felt good so far. I passed another runner on the ridge and caught sight of a runner as we were descending to the final aid station (mile 16). I got within about 20 yards of the runner in front of me and was able to hold this on the final ascent up to Little Flat. I ran the downhill pretty hard, but I didn't push it, because the descent is kind of technical and I didn't want to lose it all at this point. The runner in front of me hammered the descent and I lost time on him. At this point, I didn't care. I finished the descent cleanly, finished the last half mile on the road, and broke the line feeling good.

So why am I flummoxed? I put in a performance that I don't understand. Perhaps it was a fluke, an outlier. I was aiming for a time in the 3:30s, about 20 minutes faster than last year, but instead ran a 3:06, almost 50 minutes faster than last year. I would not have believed I could have run that fast on that course. I kept expecting to be overtaken by the runners behind me, but instead I was passed by no one after the first mile, and I passed numerous runners. It was truly one of my best races, certainly the best one I've ever had on trails, and I don't know why. I just ran and kept pushing myself, but not too hard. I wanted to be steady and not blow up like I had last year. I think part of the reason for the good day is that I truly have gotten better at the uphills and downhills of technical trails.

I finished in 8th place overall, second master's runner. There's nothing like a good race to make you feel full of confidence. I'm sure I'll run into trouble again, maybe even in the next race, but for now I'll enjoy the good feeling.

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