Race report: CATHalf Trail Half-Marathon

29Oct17

In the year and a half since I last posted, I had Lyme disease, followed by a bout of sinus infections and bronchitis, and had dramatically resigned myself to a life filled with less running, and aging gracefully. I’m through that phase, thanks to the CATHalf.

This past spring, I was still battling bronchitis, and didn’t even run the Ten Miler for the first time in a long time. I felt pretty low about that, but as the weather warmed, my cranky lungs finally settled down. I ran a few 5K’s – the Montalto Challenge, and some others, and just barely squeaked under 8 minutes in the Bruce Barnes mile. Summer is my absolute least favorite season for running. Fall and spring? Of course. Soaking rain? Keeps the riffraff off the roads. Wintry mix? Bring it. Polar vortex? I have layers. Summer? Haha, no. The heat and humidity just aren’t for me. But as summer approached, and I was consistently feeling good for the first time in nearly a year, I knew I needed a fall race on my schedule.

I didn’t want to run the Richmond half. I just didn’t want to deal with a big race, or have to drive so far. I started looking for races closer to home, and they don’t get closer than the CATHalf. One of the organizers is my neighbor, and it’s run on the trails of the Miller School, where my son’s mountain bike team practices. I knew I could roll out of bed an hour before race time and still make it for packet pickup with time to spare. Perfect! I wasn’t going to let a little thing like it being a hilly trail race stop me from putting it on my calendar.

Luckily I have trails out my back door, and incorporated a few miles of trails into my routine. I wasn’t feeling particularly confident about it, though. I’m not a great downhill runner, even on roads, and trails are another beast altogether. I’m (too) cautious going downhill – in the back of my mind, I’m fearful of another big injury, or wrecking my labral repair 5+ years out. And I’m a shuffler – there is not a single picture of me running where both feet are off the ground. I’m apt to catch a toe on a rock or root. Nevertheless, I paid my entry fee, and found October 28 racing ever closer.

With just over two weeks to go, I had almost convinced myself to forfeit the fee. I wasn’t ready. My mileage wasn’t high enough. I hadn’t spent enough time on trails. It was still really stinking hot. The night before my last long run, I felt like an absolute fraud, with no business running any kind of half, let alone a trail half. A friend posted on fb that she was going to run up Jarman’s Gap Road the next day, and in a moment of weakness, I set my alarm for early. At 6am, I set off for Jarman’s.

Jarman’s is a mostly gravel road, that climbs 3000′ in 3 miles. At the top, you can connect up with the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park. I’ve lived within walking distance of Jarman’s for over a decade, but never had the nerve to try it. I’m so glad I finally did! It’s an absolute sufferfest, but starting out in a valley and ending up on a mountaintop under your own steam is surreal. Lest you think that ascending is the only challenge, descending is every bit as tough. As I said, I’m not a confident descender, and going down a steep road on tired legs was enormously humbling. It was so steep I actually walked a few sections. By the time I got to the bottom, with 12 mountain miles on my watch, I knew I could handle whatever the CATHalf had in store.

I eschewed my normal pre-race rest for a day at an amusement park, driving two hours each way and spending 6 full hours pounding the pavement, riding roller coasters, and, uh, carbo-loading. I can’t recommend this approach to race preparation, but it was pretty awesome, and I went to bed the night before the race happy. What more can you ask for?

Race morning, I had three goals in mind. Realistic goal – finish before the 4 hour cutoff. Stretch goal – finish ahead of last place. Backup goal – don’t hurt myself. My 11 year old volunteered to ride his bike as course sweeper, which is a big ask of someone mid-growth spurt, whose main priorities in life are eating and sleeping. He got up before dawn with me, and loaded up without complaint.

We got to Miller, got his bike unloaded, picked up my packet, and waited around for the start. I made a beeline for the “secret” indoor bathrooms, Max got his radio, and before I knew it, I was off.

It was pretty exciting for me to finally see the trails that my son knows and loves, and talks about constantly. I discovered that many places are probably more fun on a bike than on foot. The steep back side of the flyover, the berms of Burke’s run, the banked turns of France’s Loop, the widely-spaced planks of the boardwalks.

Puke hill is probably equally crappy on foot as on two wheels.

IMG_0277 2

I fell only once, on a relatively flat and smooth part of the course. It was your classic “I just finished this very technical downhill and now I feel so freeeeeeoooooooof” scenario. I scraped one knee, and got dirt on both knees, both hands, inside my calf sleeves, and inside my vest pockets, but was mostly unharmed, and entirely grateful that there were no witnesses.

I caught a few glimpses of Max sweeping – I had 3 people behind me nearly the entire race, and every now and then I could see him when the course doubled back on itself. Here, he’s a tiny speck at the bottom of the meadow.

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I must mention the aid stations as absolute high points of the race. Friendly faces, and a wide variety of snacks to satisfy every craving. Even though I carry enough hydration and food to sustain me during races, I couldn’t pass up a few sips of Coke, some salty chips, and an orange wedge – absolute heaven.

Much of the last few miles of the course was a trail called France’s Loop, full of switchbacks, lacking views, and seemingly 100% uphill. And this gem:

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I could only laugh as I wound my way through the tape maze, grateful that I did not entangle myself.

After I passed the 11-ish mile aid station, I knew I’d easily make the 4 hour cutoff. At some point not long before that, I had taken off my long sleeved shirt, and inadvertently shut off my watch for a couple of minutes and had a brief panic attack thinking that I was way behind pace. I checked the actual watch on my watch, and was able to allay my fears. At 11 miles, I had well over an hour to spare. I was really doing this!

I was grateful that the final stretch was on a relatively flat road through campus, and I was pleasantly surprised to see Max roll up to me on his bike (he’d had a flat, and had to return back to the start to deal with it), and Sami jumping up and down and waving. I crossed in 3:35, and made a beeline for the food. Again, CAT really came through – two kinds of soup, infinite donuts, hot coffee, and made to order grilled cheese.

CATs 28oct17 JLooney HIGH-0006

I waited nervously, hoping that the three people behind me would make the cutoff – having come in almost 25 minutes under the cutoff, I had thoroughly cast off my original goal, and now desperately wanted to not be last. Luckily for all of us, they arrived before the clock struck 4 hours.

Today I’m feeling fine – one arch hurts, and I have a blister on my big toe on the other foot. I took a long walk to shake off the stiffness, and am already thinking about which trail race I’ll run next.

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