In the six weeks leading up to the Free State Trail Marathon by Clinton Lake in Lawrence I managed to sprain an ankle on three successive trail runs. Two (both the right ankle) were within five yards of each other on two different occasions out at Wyco. The third (left) was done on a training run out at Clinton Lake itself and was the worst of the three, putting me on crutches for a couple of days and preventing me from running for ten. When I did get back to it, I stuck to roads, not wanting to risk another twist before race day.
So it had been three weeks since I'd run on any kind of trail and the injuries had also prevented any long runs over about 15 miles since Run Toto Run in February. My overall mileage had been pretty decent though (40-50 per week), so I wasn't as worried about being undertrained so much as I was about another nasty sprain which had me quite anxious by the time the race arrived. The Clinton Lake trails, while nowhere near as hilly as Wyco, are just as technical, possibly more so in some sections, and require a great deal of concentration. My goal was to finish, pure and simple, and to do so without confining myself to crutches once again. Maybe that wasn't a lofty goal, but it seemed plenty challenging enough.
Both my ankles taped up, Jill and I arrived at the starting area at about 7:20pm and milled around for about 40 minutes while other marathoners and half-marathoners gathered. The 100k and 40 mile runners had left an hour earlier. I had toyed with the idea of up-sizing to the 40 miler at one point, but the ankle turns put paid to that, and at that moment, even the marathon seemed quite an optimistic goal. Some of the usual crowd, including Ben, Dick Ross, Sophia, Puccini and assorted nerds were there. The weather was great; cool with a slight breeze but warm enough for t-shirt and shorts.
At 8, the gun went off and me and my fellow marathoners set off on about a half-mile stretch of road before we turned right into a field. The first 5 miles or so weren't in the woods on the single track, rather were cross-country type trails, mostly grass covered. I really felt good and thoroughly enjoyed this section. It thinned out the line of runners, basically eliminating traffic concerns right away, not to mention it was probably the best smelling run I'd ever done, with the sweet Spring scent wafting over everything.
Finallly we returned back near the start line, ran down a small hill and entered the woods for the first time. The first few miles of single track I had not run on before, and, while not the most technical portion, I was immediately on high alert for ankle gremlins. I trod very carefully during the rockiest and rootiest bits and kept my stride length short and careful everywhere.
For the most part, I was on my own to the extent that I couldn't see anyone in front or behind me at all, but occasionally I would catch up with someone or they'd catch up with me. One particularly chatty Michelob Ultra rep was running in front of me and seemed half the time to be talking to himself, no other runners being immediately visible. I passed him after a couple of miles and he jovially informed me of the beer that would be waiting for me at the end.
The aid stations were perhaps more spaced apart than at Wyco, and several were unmanned and just contained water, so it was quite an insulating experience, but other than the slight anxiety regarding my ankles which never entirely left me, I was relaxed and feeling strong. Almost without realizing it, I'd been running for almost 2 hours when I hit the shoreline trail. This is an extremely rocky mile or so of trail right on the banks of the lake. It's almost impossible to go full out here, even on a perfect day, but I was particularly careful on this occasion because of the multiple opportunities for sprainage. It made it rather rhythm-ruining, so I was quite glad when it finally ended and found myself at a big aid station in a clearing that was probably pretty close to the half way point.
I'd had a gel already, but I stopped for a few seconds, drained a little cup of coke and ate a packet of Gu Chomps which gave me a bit of a lift. I headed back into the woods for a relatively flat stretch of trail that I was pretty familiar with from my training runs. I Godzilla-posed for a picture a couple of miles later, then soon after found myself on a steep uphill section of road. A quick dip back into the single-track, then around an aid station, where I was told I had 9.5 miles to go, and I was heading down the same asphalt hill and back into the woods for the final time.
'Final time' meaning I still had 9 more miles of single track trail of course. A fairly technical stretch, fatigue was by now playing its full part. I felt I was keeping a good rhythm, but apparently either I had slowed down quite a bit or those behind me had perked right up because I was caught by maybe five or six people during the next few miles and didn't catch anyone myself. My ego was unaffected, however. I was too concerned with not blowing it by face planting so close to the end to care.
I was checking my watch and felt I was probably on about 4hrs 20 pace, but when I reached the same aid station as I'd passed at 13 miles and they told me I had 3 miles left, I realized I was further from the finish than I realized and had no shot at that. My feet were hurting by now; I knew I had at least two blisters (turned out to be three), which I figured were probably partly caused by me not having run a trail in 3 weeks. These last three miles seemed to last forever, but finally, I made it to the same hill I'd entered on some three and a half hours earlier and climbed it, turned a corner and there, like a soothing warm bath, waited the finish line, Bad Ben, Dick Ross and of course Jill. My final finishing time was 4:47:00. 42nd out of 88. A solid middle-of-the-pack finish, which I was more than happy with given the joints-that-shall-not-be-named that had cursed my previous few runs.
I was absolutely spent, but really pleased. As tough as the last few miles were - and believe me, there were times when I was asking myself why the f**k I'd chosen this sport for a hobby in recent years - it was all worth it. The trails were in terrific shape - very little mud - the weather was perfect, and I had another marathon under my belt. Most happily of all, the crutches weren't needed. This also undoubtedly goes into the books as by far the best smelling race I've ever done.
Wonderful work as always performed by the Nerds at the aid stations and the finish line areas, Bad Ben, Sophia, Dick Ross, Puccini the wonder dog made this another great, low-key and friendly event. While right now I am in awe of those that did the 100k and 40-miler, I have to admit, that pewter belt buckle you get for the 100 would look pretty good on me, so who knows, maybe next year I'll really go psycho. Then again....