For a temporarily pruned long distance junkie still unable to run much past 6 miles without any run-stopping lateral knee pain, a short, fast trail race in the city seemed to be a perfect match. Of course, when I originally signed up for the Universal Sole Trail Challenge 5.25 mile race, I did so thinking of it more as a social event. Several of my fellow New Leaf Ultra Runs club members signed up at the same time (as evident by our ascending numerical bib numbers) and I wanted to be a part of the action. Homemade chili and a bountiful supply of Goose Island’s 312 beer were also calling.
Besides, who knew there were actual trail races in the city?!?
Schiller Woods on Chicago’s northwest side was the venue and the sparse city field of runners was a welcome change from the typically annoying and inappropriately overpriced short distance races that seem to get all the attention. Hanging out at the start/finish area prior, the atmosphere was very similar to that of a small high school cross country meet, which caused me to lament not opting for my short shorts.
The race started and 148 of us took off into the woods at a blazing pace. I couldn’t help but feel like I was doing something wrong running that fast. The trail race setting and my association of it with ultras has always dictated a long and slow strategy, so throwing down right at the start felt like sneaking out of my house late at night when I was a teen, hoping I didn’t get caught.
Unfortunately, in the race, I was getting caught. There seemed to be a good mix of fast, tall and lean guys at the front and I was happy to let them by me. While my only real goal was to put in a hard effort for the entire distance, my watch told me I was maintaining between a 6:40 and 6:45 pace and I was completely at peace with that. Knowing the race would be over very soon, I reserved to admiring the barren trees, to jumping over logs with a spartan step, to ebb and flow with the trail as best I could, like I was the trail.
About halfway through, as I was contemplating the supreme simplicity in the wide open Schiller Woods trail, a short, stocky dude crept up and passed me who, in my in-the-moment cocky opinion, did not look like a fast runner. What the…
Oh well. Let him go, I thought. I’m still gonna get beer and chili at the finish. That’s all I care about right now.
Except, I kept the dude in my sights. I couldn’t help it. That inherent competitive spirit I have kicked me in the ass and I was moving at its mercy. The guy was in my sights as I twisted and turned, as I slipped (but saved a fall), as I scrambled up one of two tiny little bumps reluctantly called a “hill”.
He was in my sights and getting reeled in as I passed the little aid station not far from the finish. And as we dumped out of the woods and back out onto open grass, I slammed on the gas, intent on catching him. I came up short. By four tenths of a second.
My time was 34:58, 6:40 pace, 16th place overall. I was happy with that.
But when I found out the guy I was gunning for was Peter Sagal, I felt like I could have — should have — would have done better. Had I known. Or not.
Who is Peter Sagal, you ask?
Wait, wait, don’t tell me! <—- Lame but obligatory throwaway line that you will forgive me for using. I hope.
All NPR jargon aside, I am reminded by Universal Sole’s Trail Challenge that short, fast races are fun too. And the hangout session after with my friends was great. As was the chili and beer. Hopefully, someday chili and beer will be as much a staple of the post-race vibe as salt-crusted foreheads and quartered bananas.
In the February 2012 issue of Runner’s World, the featured celebrity runner on the back page is Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard. In this brief interview, he mentions that he “hit the wall” in the L.A. Marathon and “had to walk a little.” He then offers this quip of philosophical brilliance: “How you transcend the wall, as a runner or a musician, defines who you are.”
Well, Mr. Gibbard, I hate to sound like an asshole, but if you think “how you transcend the wall, as a runner” is what “defines who you are”, then you are a complete idiot.
THE WALL IS AVOIDABLE! IT’S UNNECESSARY! PLEASE, STOP THE MADNESS!
Maybe you can tell already, but let me reiterate just how tired I am of hearing people talk about this “wall” as if it were some mystical obstacle that every runner must hurdle. It’s not! Hitting the wall is bonking, that’s all it is. It’s when glycogen stores are depleted and you don’t have any energy to continue doing rigorous exercise. And as all responsible runners know, if you bonk, it’s usually your fault!
I bonked once. And it was my fault! That day was hot and humid and the idea of putting any sort of food product in my mouth made me want to hurl, so I didn’t, and I paid the price. Thing is, I knew it was coming. Instead of slowing down or stopping, I braced myself for the experience and dealt with it the best I could.
I learned a lesson that day: if I can’t get gels down — if I can’t get ANY carbohydrates in my system — then I need to stop (or at least sloooow down considerably), or be ready for the consequences. Nowadays, I make sure I’m regularly taking in gels, drinking Gatorade and, in ultra races, taking the time to eat real food (cookies, bananas, whatever looks good) to avoid the unpleasant bonk experience.
I weigh 148 pounds and I know that if I’m running for more than an hour, then I need to be taking in 50-75 grams of carbohydrate every hour after that to ensure glycogen stores do not reach depletion level. Individual rates vary, but that’s what my body needs.
Every single marathon training book I’ve ever seen provides ample information on this valuable precaution, yet it seems that “hitting the wall” remains as some valiant badge of honor among those in the running community.
I see it as just being stupid.
*For more information on how to avoid hitting the wall, see Sunny Blende’s masterpiece from Ultrarunning Magazine.