A few weeks ago one of my good friends from grad school invited Ben and me to come up to Ithaca for a visit and to race the Danby Down & Dirty, a 10K/20K trail race. I don’t need an excuse to go up to Ithaca to see her and her lovely daughters, but the 10K trail race sounded like the perfect training run for the trail half marathon that we have coming up. Neither Ben and I had ever done a trail race before, so we were looking forward to having a change of race from our usual road races.
The morning of the race, it was steadily raining. It wasn’t a downpour, but it was steady light rain. My friend didn’t feel up to racing, but Ben and I were still game, so we went off to Danby State Forest. It was a damp and chilly morning, so we tried to stay in our car as long as possible. Reluctantly we left our car a few minutes before the 9 am start time. I met up with L., my friend’s friend, who wasn’t deterred by the rain. We stood around and shivered a bit while listening to the directions. I actually paid attention because I didn’t want to get lost while running. I had no real strategy for running this race because I had no idea what to expect. I planned on taking it “easy” and tentatively planned to run 9 min miles if possible.
Although we all lined up near the start line, Ben zoomed off with all the other front runners. L. and I hung back and started easy. The first mile was quite easy because it was slightly downhill and on a gravel road. I really liked this because it was a nice warm up for the rest of the run on the trail. Then you make a sharp right and the trail running begins. L. and I stuck together and ran the first few miles together. I lost her when the serious climbs began. Most of the race was on Abbott Loop, which is seriously hilly. I’m not a bad uphill runner and I’m not afraid of hills, but some of the climbs were so steep that I had to stop running and walk, rather climb, up the hills.
As bad as the uphills were, the downhill sections were my Achilles’ heel. I really can’t go downhill, especially when it’s steep, all that well. I’m rather clumsy. My natural klutzy tendencies, plus the mud, slick leaves, and other natural obstacles of roots and stones ensured that I was going down VERY SLOWLY. I could keep up or catch up with several runners while going uphill, but they easily outpaced me going downhill.
I quickly realized that there was no way that I could get a “good” time, so I didn’t bother trying to kill myself. I slowed myself down to a pace that I could easily manage while running a rough terrain. A few times I tried to run a little faster, but quickly I would trip over something and almost face plant. Deciding that it did no good for me to break a leg, I stuck to a slower, more modest pace. That day was no day for egos.
Because I wasn’t trying to maintain a really fast pace, I enjoyed the run in a way that I hadn’t in a long time. I love trail running. It was what I did when I lived in Berkeley. I hadn’t gone trail running in several years, so it was a real treat running in the woods. Running in the rain wasn’t a problem at all. It kept me relatively cool; I did get warm enough that I no longer needed my fleece when I was about halfway through. The visor on my Headsweats kept the drops out of my eyes. Because of the course was in the woods, the leaves and the branches of the trees shielded the runners from the full brunt of the rain. I loved the technical nature of the run. Usually in a road race, I’m busy thinking of how much pain I’m in, how tired I am, if I’m keeping up the goal pace, and so forth. Because I was relieved of meeting a goal time, I concentrated on where I would place my feet, admiring the views of nature, and the solitary nature of the run. I enjoyed being left alone to my own devices.
My first trail race time is an unimpressive 1:22:52’ish. The race is so small (just over a hundred runners including the ones doing the 20K option) that they don’t bother using timing chips. Time is recorded the old-fashioned way – a person with a stopwatch clicking every time a runner crosses the finish line and another person getting the perforated tag off the race bib. The Danby Down & Dirty 10K/20K is a very technical trail race with lots of serious steep climbs. Along with the additional obstacles of a trail race (tree roots, stones, and fallen trees), you had to pay attention to the slippery mud and fallen leaves. Ben came in under an hour, but well past his usual 10K time. I had lots of fun, but Ben less so. He’s not much of a trail runner and prefers his road races where he simply concentrate on going fast, rather than worrying about slipping and getting lost. His favorite part of the race was the first mile, where we weren’t on a trail at all. A part of the reason why he doesn’t care for trail runs so much is that you can’t compare between races easily. Because the terrain can differ so greatly, it’s difficult to say which race was a better one. He did come away from this trail race with far more respect for trail runners.
The next day the three of us decided to go for a Sunday morning run. My friend took us on a running tour of Ithaca and Cornell. The fall colors were beautiful. Because she lives on top of a hill, our run was mostly downhill. We ran past farms and horses grazing in paddocks, over gorges, along side lakes, and once more through the woods. We ended up running about 6.5 miles in 1:06. After we had breakfast in town, we stopped off at the farmer’s market to take a look at what they had there before Ben and I drove back home to New York City.
I’m really glad that we had a chance to go up to Ithaca for the weekend. Fall is a wonderful time of year to see upstate New York.