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Trail Running - Mountain Man Machismo
When you stop and think about it, running is really quite a diverse sport. This past Sunday, I had the opportunity to participate in a unique niche of the sport known as trail running, at the Nipmuck Trail Marathon in northeastern Connecticut. Believe me when I tell you, there are no pretty boys out there - only tough guys and women who don't mind getting dirty and spending a good part of a day risking life and limb running over trails better suited for a slow hike.

Trail Running - Mountain Man Machismo

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By Don Allison
Posted Wednesday, 5 June, 1996

When you stop and think about it, running is really quite a diverse sport. This past Sunday, I had the opportunity to participate in a unique niche of the sport known as trail running, at the Nipmuck Trail Marathon in northeastern Connecticut. Believe me when I tell you, there are no pretty boys out there - only tough guys and women who don't mind getting dirty and spending a good part of a day risking life and limb running over trails better suited for a slow hike.

About 150 hard bodies, including about a dozen women, turned up before 8 am this past Sunday morning for this annual race. For those of you who ran cross country in high school, a 26.2 mile run through the deep woods may appear a bit extreme. In actuality, Nipmuck is not even that far in terms of trail races. Many races of 50 and 100 miles are held on trails, and the true devotee will tell you - the further, the better. The first thing an interloper notices upon arriving at the race site is the relaxed camaraderie among runners. Everyone seems to know one another, chatting amiably minutes before the start. I am not exactly a novice at trail running, having run Nipmuck and a couple of other trail runs a few years ago. My traveling companion Jim Garcia won the Nipmuck in 1994, mostly off of his pure running talent. Make no mistake however, there is skilled technique to trail running that requires a combination of speed, dexterity, foot to eye coordination, guts, and fearlessness - not necessarily in that order.

Craig Wilson from Maine is the poster boy for trail running, at least in these parts. An accomplished runner of many years, Craig can hold his own on any surface. But it is off road where Craig truly excels. And it's in the out-there- in-the-middle-of-nowhere events in which he has few peers. He has run in Kentucky's Barkley trail race several times. Barkley is a 100 mile "race" consisting of 20 mile loops. In reality, it is a raw survival contest. Until 1995, nobody had ever even FINISHED the Barkley. A plucky Brit by the name of Mark Williams finally succeeded last year, but it took him 58 hours. That's 36 minutes a mile, folks. Wilson runs the Barkley every year, and is always among the last to succumb to the course. This year he and Williams were the only runners to reach 60 miles, and it took them 34 hours. Obviously, this race is not for the weak willed. Craig and I are pretty even in a road marathon, but I knew on Sunday he would be on his third beer while I was still dreaming about the finish line.

Despite the relaxed attitude of the runners, I knew what was coming as we lined up for the start on a narrow paved road. A hundred yards along, we turned right onto a two foot wide dirt path covered with leaves, rocks, and tree roots. Although the runners ahead of me seemed to be jogging along comfortably, I found it difficult to negotiate the trail, having run almost exclusively on the roads in training. The first "trick" to running on the trails is to stay light on your feet, never really planting completely on the ground. This way, you are less likely to encounter obstacles when lifting off the ground. The most expert of trail runners skim over the ground like deer. O.K, so maybe my size 10 1/2 EE feet are a liability in this regard.

Time takes on a strange dimension on the trail. The Nipmuck course took us out 6 miles, then back on the same trail to the start, then out 7 miles in the other direction and back to the start. With few mile markers, and one's concentration focused on the immediate obstacles ahead, elapsed time is a secondary consideration. Anyway, without really knowing how many miles have passed, it doesn't really help to look at your watch. As we ran on, I realized I's once again overestimated my ability level. Several runners passed me in the early miles, scooting by on the right and left. It wasn't until we reached the turn around at mile 6 that I had found my proper level. At least the time meant something here. 53 minutes for the first six, just under 9 minutes per mile. I was breathing hard, but feeling ok. A similar pace on the roads would be quite slow. Here it felt like race pace.

I fell in with a couple of other guys on the return trip back to the start area at mile 12. As if on schedule, for the first, but not last time in the marathon, I fell down. Like other aspects of trail running, there is an art to falling down. This is a skill I should be better that at than most, since I seem to get more practice! Falling down is usually due to tripping over an unmovable object on the ground, be it a rock or a tree root. When your legs are strong and loose at the start, you are less apt to fall or at least more likely to recover before you do. But as fatigue increases, a failure in coordination, depth perception, and reaction time can result in your being on the ground in an instant. Sometimes you can catch yourself in mid-fall, but it's best just to relax and roll into it, bounce right up and keep running. The worst falls occur when you tense your body and rigidly put your arms and hands out to break the fall. Something has to give, and can often result in a nasty injury.

In any event, I reached mile 12 all right and headed out for the second half of the course, the more difficult part by far. Thus my time of 1:52 at mile 12 was pretty much irrelevant. About 1/2 hour out, the leaders approached on the way back towards the finish. Garcia was leading, but told me he was " in trouble ", as the second place runner was " three minutes behind. " In actuality Gary Burdick was only seconds behind Jim at that point and gaining fast. It looked like a real battle shaping up for first place. These guys were nearly an hour ahead of me though, and that was a depressing thought.

I was beginning to get quite tired of the entire affair at this point, but still had quite a lot of ground to cover. The trail never lets up, so even as your energy wanes, it is mandatory to stay alert. Especially because as the field gets more and more spread apart, yet another difficult aspect of trail running is factored into the mix - following the route. As an out back course, Nipmuck is certainly not terribly difficult in terms of staying the course, but running alone, it is very easy to slip off the race route. The trail was marked with blue dots on the trees. Trying to keep one eye on the immediate footing ahead, a few times I lost track of the little blue dots. The late Timothy Leary would have loved this course! As the trail was covered with leaves, I found it necessary to stop and look around to decide which direction was correct. I damn sure didn't want to run any farther than 26.2 miles! Only once did I need to back track to rejoin the race course. Working so hard to run the trails, it can be maddeningly frustrating to stand stationary looking for the course while the clock is running.

By the turn around at mile 19.4, I felt fully indoctrinated into the trail. I had spent three hours and twelve minutes in the woods of northern Connecticut, and was determined to get the race over with as quickly as possible. Calculating the splits, I knew that if I picked up the pace just slightly, I'd be able to finish in under 4 1/2 hours. Not a great time for sure, but nonetheless a goal to aim for. The long runs I've done this spring seemed to pay off, as I actually felt better as I went, if only because I knew it was bringing me ever so closer to the finish.

I was hoping my faster cadence would allow me to catch some runners ahead, but I ran a full 50 minutes before finally eyeing someone walking ahead. This was the first person I had passed since very early in the race. These trail animals don't give in very easily! As we crossed the road to the final stretch of trail, a guy told me it was 2 miles to the finish. My watch said 4:05; I knew it would be tight for 4:30, as the these last two miles were hilly and tough. I was really running hard, but boy was I tired. A sign on a tree said 1 mile to go. 4:17. I tried to run up over a tough hill, then down and around the corner. On no - where are the blue dots? I stopped and looked around and saw one over to the side. I got back on course and running again. 1/2 mile to go. 4:24. This was going to be close! I couldn't see the finish, but could hear people talking, so I knew the road clearing was approaching. Up and over the final hill and then I felt my foot catch and just like that, I was on the ground with yet another face plant. I felt like just lying there, but struggled to get up. The sight must have been comical. A final hundred yards down the trail and presto, there's the finish. 4:29:28. Thank god for small miracles. I finished in 27th place.

My body felt bruised, sore, and tired, but at least it was over. Turns out Gary Burdick had indeed caught Garcia and won the race. They both ran just over 3:20. Under 8 minute pace for this route is pretty darned good. By the time I recovered a bit, washed up, and changed, several of the finishers were already lounging around the finish line, eating, drinking, and generally relaxing. Most looked no worse for the wear, like they had just returned from a quick Sunday morning stroll. Beneath this veneer however, lies a tough mountain man (and woman) machismo that I don't think I'll ever get, no matter how many times I run the trails. Give me a nice flat stretch of road anytime.



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