“Run your own race.”
You’ve probably heard that old adage before. If your hypothetical running coach tells you to run your own race, they want you to run within yourself. They want you to block out any distractions, apprehensions, or fears that may be pinging around inside your head on race day. They want you to banish your doubts and stick to your preset race strategy. Don’t go out too fast, even if some fat guy who you know you’re faster than decides to run his ass ragged out of the gate….don’t worry, you’ll pass him soon enough. Run your own race, and everything else will take care of itself.
Run your own race.
It’s a catch-all phrase that covers a lot of different subtexts and implied meanings, but when someone tells you to run your own race, they don’t mean for you to just run around on whatever the hell course and distance you feel like running on race day, right? I mean…right?
PRESENTING: “The Inaugural Paleozoic 25K-ish/50K-ish Trail Runs,” or “Wait a Minute, Where Was That Turn Again?”
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I actually had a pretty good time before/during/after this race, which reflects well on the running community that came together for this event. But the race certainly had some problems, which we’ll dive into a bit later.
Unlike my good friend Dan Solera (a recurring character in this blog), I don’t have too many rules for racing; yes, I do have some semblance of a race-day routine and I try to practice proper race etiquette, but that’s mostly where it ends. One rule that I do try to follow, though, is this: If you are looking for a race to run seriously, it’s probably best to avoid any inaugural races.
There’s a reason that bars & restaurants always go through a “soft opening” before they host their Grand Opening, and there’s a reason that a theatrical group will always go through multiple dress rehearsals before opening night — everyone knows that they’re going to fuck something up the first time, and they want a chance to work out the problems before they have to put their reputations on the line for real.
Unfortunately, races don’t have the option of a soft opening, which means that any inaugural race is essentially going to serve as a dress rehearsal for future runnings of the event.
If an inaugural race goes well, that’s great! If the race has a bunch of problems with it, well, that’s actually pretty normal! You have to go into the race knowing that you won’t be seeing the finished product yet, and you just have to hope that the problems won’t big enough to impact the overall enjoyment of the event. I still remember an unbelievably disastrous inaugural half-marathon that I ran in July 2011, where people were collapsing because the Race Director (RD) didn’t plan ahead to get enough water out to crucial aid stations on a 90-degree day. That one was by far the worst, but any new race will have kinks to work out.
And so it was with a bit of trepidation that I registered for the 25K option of the inaugural Paleozoic Trail Races, but this was never meant to be a “serious” race. The aforementioned Dan Solera and I both signed up with the intention of familiarizing ourselves with the trail racing experience, and I really didn’t care about how fast I finished. At some point in these last few months, Dan and I went temporarily insane and signed up for TWO upcoming trail ultra-marathons in 2013, with the first one being a 50K taking place exactly 8 weeks after the Paleozoic 25K. We’re both road-racing brats, and neither of us wanted to go into our upcoming ultras without having at least some trail running experience, and so the Paleozoic 25K seemed like a good place to start. It was close to Chicago, it was relatively inexpensive, and on a completely superficial level, I kinda/sorta geeked out at the race’s dinosaur theme (“FINISH OR FOSSILIZE!”).
No matter what went down, I was going to have a good time.
RACE MORNING — Friendly Faces Everywhere
On race morning, I felt strangely relieved that I wasn’t running with a certain time goal in mind — this would be my first race of any kind since Thanksgiving 2012, and my relatively casual attitude going into this 25K helped block out any pre-race jitters I may have otherwise felt on my first race back. We’d had some snow and rain in Chicago in recent days, and the temperature was expected to stay in the high-30s/low-40s with an overcast sky, but the reasonably gloomy weather forecast did nothing to quell my excitement to be racing again.
I picked up Dan on my way out of Chicago, and within half an hour we made it to the rather chilly packet pickup location in the Wolf Road Woods of Willow Springs. This was a small race (capped at 200 runners), so the packet pickup area was all of about 20 feet from the Start/Finish area. After picking up our race bibs and dropping off our bags at the car, we returned and I was surprised at the number of friendly faces I saw. Dan and I have recently been attending some weekly Wednesday runs with the New Leaf Ultra Runs (NLUR) running club, and we saw a lot of New Leafers scattered about the starting line. Most notable among those that I saw was Jeff, the crazy bastard whose seminal post about running a 50-miler largely inspired me to start training for trail/ultra races in the first place. Also at the starting line were Paul, Siamak, Von, Jennifer, and a handful of others that had been complete strangers to me as recently as 2 months earlier.
Weirdly, everyone seemed to know each other — the smaller field sizes of a lot of these trail races helps foster a certain bond & familiarity among runners, since individual faces are more likely to stand out in a field of 200 than a Rock ‘N Roll event field of 10,000+ runners. As I watched and marveled at runners hugging, high-fiving, and bantering about in a jocular manner even in the moments right before the start of the race, I remarked that the whole thing felt more like an uber-athletic family reunion than a competitive event.
But there was a race to be run, and with very little preamble, we were off. Looking back, I feel that those 25K-ish of trails that I ran could be divided into 3 distinct sections:
- Relative Normalcy;
- Wait, What the Hell Just Happened?; and
- Welp, Let’s Just Get This Over With
So without further ado…
SECTION I: RELATIVE NORMALCY
There was no gunshot to start the 25K race; in fact, if I hadn’t been paying attention, I may have missed it. The pack was set on its way around 8:20am, and within a 1/4-mile, we had run through the parking lot and onto the paths of the Palos trail system.
The first 10 miles of the race consisted of wide, crushed gravel path. This normally would have made for a pleasant running surface, but the trails had been hit with precipitation in various forms over the course of the previous week, and the trail conditions had been described as “challenging” in an email that the RD had sent out the night before. There was snow and ice buildup in places, and where there wasn’t snow, it was a good bet that the trail would be soggy from snow-melt.
My only goal coming in was finish this damn thing, so I just ran at a pace that felt comfortable to me. I lost sight of Dan within a few minutes, but I was surprised and encouraged by the fact that I logged both of my first 2 miles at a sub 09:00/mile pace — I didn’t think that would be in the cards this day. The footing was a bit unpredictable, but the hills in the first few miles were firmly in the “rolling” category rather than “steep,” and so they didn’t offer much difficulty. It was somewhere around Mile 2.5 where I stopped caring about where I stepped and accepted that my feet would be getting wet one way or another.
Right around Mile 4, I linked up with a small group of runners who had been running consistently about 20 feet behind me for the past 2 miles or so, and I was happy for the company as we glided into the first aid station at Mile 5. Everyone seemed to be enjoying the day despite the weather, and my talkative new mates confirmed that they weren’t exactly looking to set a course record, either. After a minute’s pause at the aid station to grab some food and re-fill my water bottle, our merry band set out to tackle the remaining 10.5 miles of the course.
SECTION 2: WAIT, WHAT THE HELL JUST HAPPENED?
Upon leaving the aid station at Mile 5, there was a bit of confusion regarding which way the course led next, until a kindhearted volunteer pointed us in what we assumed to be the correct direction. We followed after a long string of runners, and at the time, we had every reason to believe that we had been directed to follow the correct path. Hold that thought for a minute.
After exactly 10K of racing (6.2 miles), we approached a ‘T’ intersection that was completely unmarked. Now, the race directors had advised that any turns/decision points would be clearly marked with color-coded plates, but there were no plates to be seen — no flags, no spray-painted arrows, nothing. I took this as a bad thing. Not only was this intersection unmarked, but there was also the unsettling presence of at least 10-15 other runners we’d caught up to at the intersection, who also didn’t know which way to go. With each passing minutes, more runners arrived. Everyone was just waiting, looking in the direction of 2 poor bike marshals who had also reached this point of the course with no direction on where to turn. One marshal was on the radio with the RD, trying to figure out where we were, and it was apparent that all of us had somehow gone off-course.
A small pack of bib-wearing runners suddenly appeared from the right side of the ‘T,’ telling us that there was nothing but single-track trail off to the right…we weren’t supposed to encounter any single-track until the last 5-6 miles, so they figured that was the wrong direction. Well, that was good enough for me and the few runners I’d been chatting with, so we followed that small pack of runners to our left. We had no idea if we were going the right way, but at least we were running. I guess I wasn’t going to win any age-group awards this day.
Thankfully, about a half-mile later, we reached a road and were greeted by volunteers who had ranged north to figure out where the hell all the runners had gone. Apparently everyone had missed a left turn just after the aid station at Mile 5, which means that the kindhearted volunteer that we saw just after the aid station probably pointed everyone in the wrong direction. Fortunately, we weren’t too far off-course — the wrong turn had “only” added a shade under 1 mile to our race distance, plus that 5 minutes or so where we’d been standing around and waiting for some instructions from the bike marshals that would never come.
Inaugural races, amiright???
Over the course of the next 5 miles we ran on true course, we came across no less than 3 more unmarked trail splits where we had to guess on which way to go, and sometimes we guessed wrong. The only thing that kept us on course was a girl in our pack named Elizabeth, who had pre-loaded the course’s GPS coordinates onto her Garmin GPS watch (the RD had provided a link to do so on the race’s website). Elizabeth’s watch provided feedback that told us if we were on the right course or not — if our GPS position ventured off-course, her watch would beep loudly, and we then would return to the last trail split. Elizabeth had ignored this beeping when we missed the turn after the aid station, because she’d assumed that with EVERYONE going the same way (and no markings telling us to go anywhere else), that her watch must have been wonky. We wouldn’t make that mistake again, and her watch became an overly-important part of our race experience.
After about 11 miles of trail running that should have only been 10, our small group reached the 2nd aid station, where we would then head off in another direction to run a final 5.5-mile loop of mostly single-track trail. We lingered too long, but I didn’t want to go out on my own, knowing what I knew about the lack of trail markings.
After about 5 minutes, we set out to tackle the final portion of the course.
SECTION 3: WELP, LET’S JUST GET THIS OVER WITH
Leaving the 2nd aid station, I saw a few of the 50K runners who were starting a 2nd loop, and nobody looked real happy. I ran into Siamak and asked him, “So, how about these course markings, huh?” He just laughed and replied, “Oh, you mean the lack of them?” In that moment, I was VERY happy that I was ‘only’ running the 25K race….I couldn’t imagine having to run 30+ miles on a shittily-marked trail, especially when all the runners knew after running only 10K that the trail markings would probably be bad for the final 40K.
The next 3 miles we covered were mostly single-track, and this is where we had some noteworthy climbs and descents. At this point, I was running only with Elizabeth and an affable bloke named Patrick, and we came across another 4 points where I would have gotten lost if I hadn’t been around Elizabeth and her magical Garmin…again, I can’t properly explain how poorly this course was marked.
(Quick tangent — I ran the trail marathon distance in the Grand Teton Races last September in Wyoming, and during one stretch, I didn’t see another soul running in my direction for FOUR HOURS. Despite that, I never once worried that I had ventured off-trail, because the course was impeccably marked. The Paleozoic 25K, on the other hand, was a great example of how NOT to mark a trail — even when running in a group that had our own friggin’ GPS guide, we were all nervous that we would get lost.)
We somehow made it through those miles of single-track while staying on course, which is more than I can say about….well, it’s more than I can say about the majority of the field. Both Jeff and Dan accidentally cut out a couple miles of the single-track loop by zigging where they should have zagged, and Dan’s recap in particular does an excellent job of breaking down exactly where things got weird. On a lighter note, Dan accidentally won the whole damn race after running only 14.06 out of the 15.5-ish intended miles, as he was the first 25K runner to cross the timing mat at the finish line. Dan’s decency led him to email a correction to the RD almost immediately, but for a few days, this following screen was displayed on the race’s results page:
Anyway, after my small wolfpack emerged from the woods after running our ACCURATELY-COMPLETED loop of single-track, we still had 1 final mile of soggy running to complete on wet, waterlogged grass. With the finish line in sight, a wave of relief washed over me — there was no more course to fuck up. After crossing the finish line, I was handed my rather fetching 25K finisher’s medal, and I walked to the car to go find Dan.
When I found Dan back at the car, the first question he asked me was how far I ran. “Well, I ended up running around 16.2,” I explained, “because I took a wrong turn somewhere.” That’s when Dan told me that he had run significantly LESS THAN 25K, and when another girl told us that she’d only run about 13 miles, it was then that we all realized that the course was well and truly fucked.
We had all run our own race, literally.
As of April 3rd, 2013, the results still aren’t official, and I don’t know if they’ll ever really become official. In the section of the race’s website where results would normally be found, there is instead a rather humorous list of self-reported distances and times, complete with GPS links from some runners (including GPS data from Dan, Jeff, and myself). The biggest shortcutter of the day ran 13.01 miles, and the longest meanderer who linked their GPS somehow ran 17.55 miles.
Inaugural races, amiright???
After a short drive home and a long shower, I sprawled out on the couch and didn’t move for about 3 hours. I had put in a good shift.
Knowing what I already knew about inaugural races, it’s hard to really be disappointed with how the INAUGURAL Paleozoic 25K/50K Trail Runs turned out. My goal for the day was to get in a long trail run while easing myself back into racing, and that’s what I did. On top of that, I came home with a sweet dinosaur-themed shirt, medal, AND can-koozie for my troubles. With 16+ miles of memories and those goodies in hand, how could I be upset?
The RD sent out a follow-up email 2 days after the race, explaining that the wet weather had washed out many of the markings that they’d laid down pre-race. Part of the inaugural race experience is learning what works and what doesn’t, and I have a feeling that this RD won’t be overly reliant on spray-painted white arrows to mark turns in future races. It was nice to see the RD “take full responsibility for the mistakes” (his words), going so far as to promise that he’s “got a list…these problems will not repeat.” The RD intends to run the race again next year, and while I probably won’t be coming back, I trust that they’ll have most of the kinks worked out by then.
Inaugural races, amiright???