Trail Race 1: Tahqua Trail Run 25k

Race information

Race: Tahqua Trail Run 25k
Date: August 5, 2017
Goals: Have fun & top 3 in age group

Tahquamenon Falls

Training

This was not a goal race, so my training focus was on just getting me through the race, not on having an exceptional performance. Of course I still wanted to do well. In the 10 weeks leading up to the race I averaged 34.5 mpw. Long runs ranged from 10-14.5 miles. My longest trail run was 8 miles with 283 feet of elevation gain. With the race at 15.5 miles and 984 feet of elevation gain, I was a bit unprepared. I could have done more trail training, but instead decided to keep my focus on a road half marathon in September.

Pre-race

This is a point-to-point race that ends at Tahquamenon Falls State Park and begins in the middle of nowhere. After boarding a bus at the falls, runners are dropped off on dirt road about 1.1 miles away from the start line as that is as far as the buses can make it. We had to walk the rest of the way.

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Race organizers were very organized and kept track every runner that started the race and again at every aid station so that they could verify that no runners got lost or stranded on the course. Maybe this is normal for a trail race, but in general I was really impressed with how organized everything was, especially for a very small race (63 in the 25k, 109 in the 10k).

Forecast for the race was excellent. Temperatures starting in the 50s with some sun. However, in the weeks leading up to the race the area experienced heavy rainfall.

Race

I rarely looked at my watch. I didn’t have a specific finish time or pace in mind. I wanted to push myself enough to be really uncomfortable for the last few miles of the course in order to practice running through the pain/exhaustion. I wanted to be building the mental strength needed to push through the hard parts of running a marathon.

The first mile was fairly easy. We started on a dirt road for a short stretch then turned onto the trail. The trail was fairly wide and grass covered. Nothing super noteworthy. And then we reached the water. Standing water across entire width of the trail extending for several yards at a time. I was really not prepared for this but as it was completely unavoidable I splashed my way through the ankle to mid-shin deep water. There was the occasional boardwalk to carry us over the standing water but still some sections that were a 10-15 yard long puddle. There was one section that was much deeper than the rest and I sunk in up to my knee and was basically stuck in the mud. Fortunately the guy behind me did not miss a beat and lifted me up by the elbow while passing by me. A few more guys passed me during this section, which is not surprising since I slowed considerably.

The trail dried up after a mile or so. I offered to let the guy behind me pass when I slowed to hike up a switchback but he declined. I ended up running almost the entire race with him. We didn’t chat a whole lot, but it was really nice to have company. I never caught his name, but since he was not wearing a shirt, I’ll call him Shirtless. We passed one runner who let me know that I was currently in 3rd, which meant I could lose one position and still be guaranteed an age group award.

I loved the next section of trail. Nice and wide, gentle hills. Only the occasional root to look out for. Shirtless took the lead in this section and I was determined to stick with him. Our pace picked up and I was feeling great. Eventually the trail narrowed to about 8 inches wide cutting through a forest of ferns. Wet ferns that slashed at my legs. Annoying but manageable. There were a couple tricky sections, but I really benefited from following an experienced trail runner and seeing how he tackled each obstacle. Somewhere in this section we passed another runner (Blue Shirt).

Sadly Shirtless stepped off the trail to adjust his shoe and told me to go ahead as we were heading back into the woods and into the hills. Then I was alone. I was starting to get tired but forced myself to keep moving forward. I hiked all of the bigger hills and had to force myself to resume running when I reached the top. I had a disheartening moment around mile 7 when I realized I was not even half way finished.

Eventually we made it to mile 9 and the final aid station. Shirtless and Blue Shirt had caught up to me and we were running as a group. Occasionally trading off the lead and not really talking much, but I was not running alone and that was great. We ran through a campground at this point and that was excellent because it was flat and smooth and occasionally even paved. It gave me a much needed mental boost.

We left the campground and the trail went up, up, up. I mostly hiked this section which was a smart move because I was still keeping pace with Blue Shirt who was running. The trail then lead us back towards the river where we should be able to glimpse some of the waterfalls while running. This would have been a tricky section to begin with because the trail is covered with tree roots. The rain really upped the ante by adding 4-6 inches of thick, squishy mud to everything. I was running walking through mud that completely covered the tops of my feet. Some sections were just trudging through the ankle deep sludge, in other sections the mud was so slick it was like trying to run on ice. This went on for miles. Literally miles where the only respite was the occasional short stretch of boardwalk or a staircase.

I was deep in hatred for trail running at this point. I knew that a twisted ankle from a root submerged in mud would ruin my chances of having a good fall half marathon. And I knew that slipping and falling in the mud would seriously piss me off and I was already in a terrible mental place. I walked for several miles just hoping that the course would leave the river edge and take me back onto dry land. My two running partners had long since left me in the dust mud and several more runners (all male) had passed me as well. I just wanted to be done with the race and never set foot on a trail again.

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This was an EASY section of mud near the finish. I refused to go back down the trail to the real mud sections. 

And then I heard another runner behind me say something to some hikers. It was a woman and she was starting to catch up. Eventually a long stair case led away from the worst of the mud. Instead of constant trudging I was able to run a few short sections between mud slicks. For one glorious moment I even ran on a paved path before being directed back into the woods. There was less than a mile left. A few more mud sections. I had to keep moving it I wanted to hold onto third place. Right at mile 15 the woman caught me. Half a mile left and I was going to lose third place after holding it for the entire race. I didn’t have anything left.

No. That is not happening. Forget about the mud. Forget about how exhausted I am. Dig deep and out kick this woman!

And that is exactly what I did. It hurt. A lot. But I did it. I am so proud of myself for not giving up. I finished just 15 seconds ahead of her. My husband, aunt, and grandpa were all at the finish cheering for me and I felt so great crossing that finish line. I was even smiling!

Splits

My splits looks like a classic story of starting too fast and fading hard, but I think they match the terrain fairly well. Mile 2 was the section with lots of standing water. There were bigger hills starting after mile 7. The downhill in mile 9 was so steep that I remember I’m kind of afraid of heights. The mud started in mile 11 and got a whole lot worse before I reached the finish line.

tahqua splits

GPS came up a bit short. It isn’t a certified course so I am not sure if it was just a short course or if I lost signal in the trees or perhaps the switch backs didn’t get recorded accurately. Official time: 2:49:30.6

Post-race

First and second place were both in my age group, but since first overall is its own category, I was awarded second in my age group. The woman I out kicked at end? 50-59 age group! I can only hope that I am that strong in another 20 years. So impressive! Age group awards were ceramic bowls made by a local artist.

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I hobbled around for a bit after the race getting a bite to eat (all locally sourced) and telling my family about the race. When I told Kendall I didn’t fall, he was amazed! I always fall on trail runs and I was covered in mud so he assumed I had gone down. Eventually I was starting to shiver so it was time to wash off the mud and get into dry clothes. Then it was time to head into the brewery for an ice cold beer and lunch. More races should end at breweries.

My socks should be neon and my shoes should be completely blue.

What’s next?

Immediately after the race I was so sure that I would never do another trail race again. But a few hours later I had changed my mind. It was kind of fun and made me feel like a bad ass. But, I was very, very sore from this race so it will not be until after my marathon in January. Right now I need to focus on recovery and avoiding an injury. I kept my mileage low and slow this week. Now it is back to half marathon training for another 5 weeks!