This Labor Day weekend I was looking forward to a little trail time at Coopers Rock State Forest. Last year I didn’t have a great performance at this race, ultimately blowing up in the last mile. For such a small event (61 racers this year), the fellow competition can be pretty stiff. I just remember it hurt more than the average 10K. In 2015, my speedy high school cross country running neighbor exclaimed “that’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done” afterward.
No doubt, the course is difficult, primarily because of the elevation changes. At nearly 800 feet of gain, no one is going to set a new 10K PR. Additionally, the easiest section, Roadside Trail, is along the first mile and then it becomes more technical from that point.
I expected that the switch to an early morning race time (9:00 a.m.) from last year’s afternoon time would be beneficial for performance. And it was. Sweat volumes were down 43% (exact figure gathered in a very scientific manner). The weather for running is fantastic in the forest now that September has rolled around and the humidity is dropping a bit. Fall can be the best time to run. Go outside!
Through my typical warm-up running I couldn’t seem to make my legs feel very powerful. This is entirely my fault for pushing them a little too hard earlier this week with weight training. They were not recovered and the soreness made that obvious. Not an “A” race but a slight bummer, nonetheless.
After the start, it didn’t take long for one racer to go hard off the front. Since he looked young, I opted to let him go alone at that quick pace, hoping he would explode on the brutal climb at mile 4 known as “The Wall” or “Vomit.”
I lost sight of him by mile 1 and promptly rolled my left ankle off the side of a small rock. It popped and hurt a little but wasn’t the worst roll ever, so I kept running. Maintaining a higher turnover cadence minimized the damage, thank goodness. Yes, I hurt myself on the easiest section of the course.
Tip #1: Look at the exact spot where you want your feet to land. Don’t look at anything you don’t want to touch. If you look directly at that slippery root or rock, you are probably going to step on it. That can be both good or bad. Set your gaze just beyond the bigger obstacles.
My splits were more consistent this year than last because I conserved in the first mile, so I tried to focus on an even effort now that I was alone in no man’s land. The legs were just not getting it done and never did come to life.
The descent that begins after mile 2 is lengthy, as it lasts until mile 4. It’s not super technical but it is long enough that it will take a toll on the leg muscles. But it is fun and there are a couple of logs and streams to hop. Think I jumped a stump in there too.
Tip #2: A course like this does not lend itself to obtaining even mile splits. You have to be good at reading your effort level or learn how to use a heart rate monitor to control your effort. With technical trails, you are likely to run at least 1-1.5 minutes slower per mile than a road 10K. And that’s just on the flatter or rolling sections. Hill climb miles will take an extra 2-3 minutes per mile, if not more.
At mile 4 the real climbing begins. Now that the descent has deadened your quads and so many miles have passed, we head up The Wall, where I always remember being unable to ride on a mountain bike as a teenager. That’s because it’s between 15 and 20% grade for the first tenth of a mile. But the whole climb is nearly a quarter of a mile long.
Tip #3: Nearly everyone walks on the steepest climbs of trail running. Anytime you choose to walk, walk with a dedicated, driven purpose. The walking is still going to allow a little recovery from running, even if you push your pace. So many folks hunch over, give up, and can’t even take a deep breath when they decide to walk.
There’s a moment of rest to be had while descending Rhododendron Trail, but it’s short-lived as the final 1.5 miles of the course account for at least 400 feet of the course’s elevation gain. This is where I was really suffering last year. I had conserved better this year and could actually push the effort a little bit.
Tip #4: Save a little something extra for a course that is known to have a large climb near the finish. You will always be more tired at that point than you think you should be.
Tip #5: Wait, you didn’t know there was a climb at the finish? Doing a little research can go a long way. Just ask around the group. Someone will be familiar with the area and course. I knew there was a long climb last year but I didn’t realize it would be so persistent and unforgiving.
About a half-mile from the finish the course drops into an awesome area known as Rock City where sandstone boulders are a gigantic 20-30 feet tall and large enough to contain a trail network. It’s a favorite for runners and hikers, as well as the average passerby.
A couple greenbriar snags later, at the finish, I was thrilled to cut a big chunk of time off of my attempt from last year. I would have been more happy to run this as a 20K since my old man legs haven’t done any speedwork lately.
Standing at the finish line, I saw many racers completing the event with blood on their legs, on their arms, and even on their faces. These trails are no joke.
Tip #6: You can catch a toe on anything that sticks up in the trail, at any time. Many accidents happen when you tire a little, let your guard down, and aren’t picking up your feet as high. But even with excellent vigilance and balance, falls are common to trail running.
Big thank you to Mark and Eleanore Jones who always do such a great job of directing these endurance events at Coopers Rock. As runners themselves, they get it done right. What a great way to support the Coopers Rock Foundation.
The 2016 results are over on iplayoutside.com at http://iplayoutside.com/Events/2016/09/16190r.html
The 2015 results are at http://www.webscorer.com/race?raceid=50270