I found early on that I learned as much from reading other people’s race recaps as I learned from pretty much anything I read on running, probably because many of the recaps are written by ordinary folks like me. So in that spirit, I’m going to dedicate a section of my blog to race recaps. Each time I race, I’ll post a bit about the course, my experience, and my take-aways (if there are any). Hope this proves educational in some way to some of you…
Knickerbocker Canyon Half Marathon Recap
On March 26th I ran the Knickerbocker Canyon Half Marathon in Auburn, CA. The race was part of the Inside Trail race series and was the third Inside Trail race I’d done since November. Because I’d experienced their support before, I knew this would be a good race with plenty of fuel at the aid stations and plenty of fun at the start and finish. As before, Inside Trail didn’t disappoint. This race was a good time from start to finish.
The race was a small one, with less than 300 runners in the four respective distances – 5k, 10k, Half Marathon, and 35k. While I normally would have gone for the longest distance to get the most bang for my buck, so to speak, I chose the half knowing I had a Ragnar six days later and an upcoming 50k. I was being cautious, I guess. Or so I thought.
Race morning arrived and the weather was perfect. I and my companion headed up to Overlook Park in Auburn, the start and finish of the race. We arrived early, found a place to park, and grabbed our bibs. I was pleasantly surprised to see the race volunteers, as most of them were from my local running groups. I took a few minutes to have some breakfast – an iced coffee and a PB&J sandwich, my go-to race breakfast – and chatted with a few people I knew. Everyone I encountered was doing the half or the 35k, and as we all train up in the area where the race was held, we knew there would be a fair amount of climbing.
Fair amount turned out to be an understatement.
Soon, it was race time and we all headed out. As I mentioned, we train up in the canyons quite extensively so I knew the first four miles or so was downhill on some really fun trails. The only drawback to this part of the race was the single-track crowding which made it difficult to get ahead much. I was running with two friends, however, so we chatted a bit and made our way down to No Hands Bridge at the confluence of the American River, which was where the first aid station was.
The aid station was fully stocked with electrolyte (Tailwind), water, soda, and all manner of food. I grabbed a cup of Tailwind and some orange slices, still feeling pretty full on my breakfast. I chatted with the volunteers a bit and then headed up to the first major climb of the race.
Major is an understatement.
The climb is known as “Training Hill” or K2. It’s a beast. Roughly 1,100 feet of climbing in .9 of a mile.
It feels like it goes straight up, and it pretty much does…except when you think you’re near the top, and it flattens out only to give you a false sense of accomplishment. Then it goes up some more.
I’d run K2 before.
Well, to say I’d “run” it would be a gross misstatement of what I’d done. I climbed it. At a slow pace.
That’s what I did again during this race. But I made it to the top in one piece, sweaty and gross and pretty proud of myself, to be honest. I took a minute at the top to reflect on my effort. While there were certainly those who had climbed faster and with more grace, I felt pretty good to have simply arrived there and been able to enjoy the beautiful scenery. After that brief moment (in which I failed to snap a pic), I headed out.
I’d seen the elevation map, and I knew the next 3-ish miles were going to be my kind of trail: fast, downhill, technical, and a heck of a lot of fun.
I love running downhill. I’ve always had a pretty good sense of myself when descending and I can fly through some technical trails. Even when it’s pouring rain and mud is everywhere, I tend to have a fairly good go of it. Some people love climbing, I love bombing downhill.
I picked up the pace and, true to my expectations, enjoyed the downhill portion. Before I knew it, I was back at No Hands Bridge and the aid station. Once again, I fueled up, chatted a bit, and then headed back across the bridge to the trail heading back out to Overlook Park. Again, having studied the elevation map, I was prepared for a different trail back up than the one we’d come down, but I somehow underestimated the drastic ups and downs of the last 2 ½ miles of this course.
We ran up hill slightly for about two miles, then sharply downhill until the trail came to the bank of the American River. I realized I’d never been on that portion of the trail and stopped to just enjoy the river. It was running high and, as the area has been in a drought for years, it was a welcome sight.
After running along the beach for some time we headed back up the canyon. This part was a steep single track with a sharp drop off on the left. One misstep and you’d find yourself head over feet tumbling down into the river below. I was in a line of people six deep with no way to pass.
I went slowly on this section as a result but to be honest, I’m not sure I’d have gone much faster if I’d been in the lead.
Up and up we went and at some point I heard a familiar voice ahead of me.
It was my friend who I’d last seen on K2. We’d lost track of one another, and here she was. Seems she’d somehow gotten lost but had also found her way back to the trail along with two other ladies. We laughed a bit and headed up some more shortly before hearing another familiar voice. It was the other friend we’d started the race with coming up behind us.
With some encouraging words about how we only had a mile left, she blew our doors off.
I resolved in my head to finish strong and gave it a good go to run in the remainder of the course.
Until, that is, I reached a sign that said we had .6 of a mile to go.
That’s when I realized I’d been here before, at another race one rainy, windy day back in the Fall.
This damned race had another climb, straight up, for the last .6 of the course. 700 feet this time, after 13 miles of running (the course was actually almost 14 miles) and a combined 2,300 feet of climbing.
My head started talking me out of it despite my legs being quite able to handle the climb. I began breathing hard and fast not far into the climb and had to stop more often than I’d have liked. I knew what was coming and told myself I was too old, too weak, too…whatever.
I lost every shred of mental toughness I’d developed right at that moment.
Somehow, with my friend Jessica’s help, I made it to the top. As we rounded the last curve to come to the finish, I was spent. I’d walked to catch my breath and figured that was just going to be how I crossed the finish line.
She had other ideas.
“If I can do this, you can do this.” she said.
“No, I’m done.” I replied.
“No, if I can, you can.” She started to run.
I retorted by calling her a pushy bitch and then, surprisingly, my legs listened to her and not to my head.
I started running.
We crossed the finish line running and, I believe, smiling.
Friends waited as we grabbed food and drink and we talked a bit about the course. I waited for my companion to cross the finish line, and we headed home.
All in all, it was a good race. And I’m lucky to have had her at the finish.
Once again, I was reminded of the importance of friends and the support they provide. Today had no mud, but it certainly had sweat and peers.
Ok, now for some take-aways that I hope help some who may be new to trail running or maybe those who are not so new:
- Climbing is hard, but to risk being “punny”, get over it. The climbs were brutal, no doubt, but they were so much worse when I spent time telling myself how bad they were. Back on K2, when I was just enjoying the scenery, the climb wasn’t awful. At the end, when I was busy talking myself out of it, the climb took twice as much time and effort. If you simply look at it as another part of the course (and one you’ve got to get through to finish), you’ll find it to be easier.
- Focus on the ground in front of you and stop looking up. I found that to be true on both hard climbs. The more I looked at the ground a few feet in front of me, the faster the climb went. It was when I glanced up that my inner voice began to tell me I wasn’t gonna be able to do this.
- Take advantage of the fuel at aid stations. I packed an entire Nathan with water and Gu. I carried an extra couple of pounds I didn’t need. If you’re familiar with the race and know the aid stations, don’t carry more than you need. It will just slow you down.
- Practice proper trail etiquette. I can’t tell you how many times I was shoved to the side by someone coming up behind me at a faster pace who didn’t bother to announce their presence. It wasn’t pleasant to find myself pushed into a cliff or precariously close to the edge by someone who just had to pass at that particular time. Follow single file no matter what the pace until the trail is wide enough to pass, then announce your intentions with “on your left” or “on your right” in a voice loud enough to be heard. It’s not rude, and others will thank you.
- Enjoy the scenery. This last one is something I’m personally trying to get better at. Trail runs are most often located in some amazing places. Enjoy what’s around you, take the time to look and know how lucky you are just to be there. These aren’t Boston qualifiers, they’re endurance runs. While your pace may be important to you, just think of all the beauty you’re missing as you fly by.
So that’s Knickerbocker Canyon 2016. I’ll be running this one again, for sure.