Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Rachel Carson Trail Challenge 2017 - very long!

I've been attracted to this event for a couple of years now.  It just seemed like a cool challenge and definitely something different than the normal running events.  If you're not aware, the Rachel Carson Trail is a primitive (and that word is totally accurate in spots) hiking trail that spans from North Park to Harrison Hills Park.  The trail has a bit of everything - dirt singletrack, secret parks, gravel access roads, ridiculous steep rocky climbs, even more ridiculous steep descents, farmland and horse pastures, water crossings, and even some road.  It's definitely enough to keep your mind going.

This year I decided to take the plunge and enter the first lottery round for the full challenge (35.9 miles with around 6400 ft. elevation gain).  Lucky me, I got right in.  There's also a half called the Homestead Challenge (17.7 miles) and a shorter Friends and Family challenge of around 8 miles.  The event is promoted as a "trail challenge" and not a "race" - the objective is to cover the distance from point to point from sunrise to sunset.  This (at the time of my signup) was cool for me because I had intended on doing a 50K in May and then just lollygagging through this as something to do and laugh about.  That was until I dropped to the 30K in May and I decided I would train up to actually give Rachel a run for her money.

Every year the direction of the challenge flips.  2017 had the challenge going from North Park to Harrison Hills.  In 2018, it will go the opposite direction, and so on.  Most people say that NP to HH is the hardest direction because all the bad hills are toward the end of the challenge.  Having never gone the other way, I couldn't tell you.  Honestly, one of the things that drew me to want to do this event was the fact that I suck at directions.  Seriously.  I have to use my GPS to get me pretty much everywhere, including places right downtown.  So, my big hurdle was going to be learning this trail since I've heard tons of stories of people getting lost and the trail just being naturally hard to follow.

The good thing is that the Rachel Carson Trails Conservancy hosts a series of training hikes in the weeks before the challenge.  I decided it would be in my best interest to attend as many of these as I could and I am very glad I did.  I did not attend the hikes the week of GRT or the week that they went in the opposite direction of this years challenge because I thought that would just confuse me.  In the early weeks of the hikes, I stayed with the big main group and just followed along hiking, but as the weeks went on and sections were connected together and I'd learned the trail, I pretty much signed in and then went off on my own to run as much as I could.  Other people did this as well, so it wasn't out of the ordinary.  At times I'd find a small group to run with, but other times not.  And that was ok for me.  I was feeling good and my confidence was booming.  I got to the point I was spending 2-3 days per week on Rachel in some way training.  One day (either the day before or day after my longest run) was a hike with my daughter.  She was a real trooper taking on those nasty hills, stream crossings, and the bad heat we had there for a while.  She kept me going too - and helped me burn those directions into my head.  I felt really positive about this event.  I learned the trail, I tested my gear, and really was shocked to find that I am quite good at climbing.  This was going to be a fun run.

That being said I can tell you that I now know the Rachel Carson Trail (at least in this direction) like the back of my hand.  If you ever need a trail guide, I'm your girl.  That's probably my biggest, proudest accomplishment of this whole thing.

Well, let's get to the nitty gritty about the actual day of.  June 24, 2017.  Saturday.

The Challenge has no official start time.  All they say is that you can start any time after there is "sufficient light" until 6:30 am.  (Sunrise was at 5:50 am, btw).  Supposedly, this is to help with trail congestion.  Also, this year was the first year they started having two lines at the start - a runner line and a hiker line.  Again, this was to help trail congestion and ensure safety... one thing I learned while on the first couple of training hikes was that being all clustered up with people swinging hiking poles around was dangerous!  The trail marshals said that they wanted to start the runners by 5:30, sufficient light depending.  Oh, would this come back to bite me...

I gave myself a hellish wakeup of 3:30 am to give myself enough time to eat, digest, get all my stuff together, get gas, and head up to North Park around 5 ish.  This worked well, however, we couldn't get close to Harmar pavilion at all and my husband had to drop me off in the pitch black dark so I could walk over.  I guess I assumed that traffic would be allowed in to the parking lot by the ball field, but yeah, that's what happens when you assume.  So, already I'm frazzled because I had to grab my things really quick out of the car, and scoot over to the pavilion alone.  My husband is in a walking boot right now (he tore a tendon while on one of the training hikes - I'm not kidding, people, Rachel is no joke) and just can't be walking all over creation that much, especially in the dark.

The "runner line" was much longer that I'd anticipated.  Heck, both lines were long.  There were a LOT of people here - much more than other trail events I've attended/raced before.  I was standing somewhere in the middle/front middle and was getting antsy waiting.  It was still really dark, though.  I could see people roaming around in the woods with flashlights and I started wishing I'd brought my headlamp, although no one else was wearing one so I shrugged it off telling myself that they really wouldn't start us until there was truly "sufficient light".

5:30 am comes around and a man announced "Runners, follow me, we're going to get you scanned in and started".  Almost immediately the crowd crushing happens like a Black Friday door buster event.  There were two people at the end of a table scanning tags (you had a tag pinned on you that needed scanned at the start, every aid station, and at the finish)- once you heard your number, you could go.  Of course I'd be behind someone that had a tag that wouldn't scan, so I had to wait until they entered it in manually.  Lucky, mine scanned right off, and I was able to start at 5:33 am.

I couldn't see a fucking thing.  Sufficient light, my ass.  I don't know whether I'm just getting old and my eyes aren't what they used to be or that I've never run in the woods this early before but my heart rate went from nice and chill to sky high and effed because all I can think is OMG I'm going to fall right out of the start line.  The ground was wet and more slick than the last time I'd ran here due to the storms of the past days.  I was running with choppy form because really just couldn't see anything more than the reflective gear of the runners around me.  Speaking of, holy crap with the people taking off like it's a 5K road race.  And forget about no trail congestion, those first couple of miles were almost identical to any crowded road race I've ever done.  Only this time it was exponentially scarier because of soggy singletrack trail and darkness!  I seriously couldn't see very well until I hit the railroad tracks.  Thankfully then it started lightening up to a point I didn't feel I was in total disarray.  If I ever decide to attempt this crazy event again I will either say no thank you to the early start time or bring a headlamp for my personal sanity.

Another thing that was wild was the many stream crossings.  They are typically no big deal and you can either trot through on well placed stones or just get your feet a little wet.  Today, every stream crossing on the trail was high and fast moving.  Instead of being no more than ankle deep in places, some were shin to knee deep on me!  It would have been ok if the day was hot and helped dry feet.  But today we were "blessed" by cool weather, which was a mixed bag.  My feet were wet ALL DAY.  They never dried until I took my shoes and socks off hours later.  Having constant wet feet also didn't help with traction on the really muddy parts of the trail.  I was even sliding on wooden bridges.

Thankfully, the coming miles thinned out the crowd a bit and I was calming down and settling into a nice pace and feeling.  Something else I noticed about this event was a lack of comraderie.  People just seemed disinterested in communicating with anyone other than the one or two people they were with, and the "runners" just seemed super serious.  It just kind of took me aback, I guess.  It's strange to be near people who seem like they're almost annoyed that you're sharing space with them.  The training hikes weren't that way at all, quite the opposite, in fact. Maybe it was me.  <<insert my favorite shrugging emoji>>

Anyway, I had some good miles happen (surprisingly even faster than I'd expected too!), but admittedly those early ones where it was dark, then crowded, and when my form was bad it did break me down a bit, even just in the head.  I got to the first Aid station at mile 7 at Shaffer Run Road feeling blah.  I told my husband I was feeling crappy.  But, I know that sometimes I don't warm up anymore until I have 7 or 8 miles on me so the good times were likely yet to come.  I got some water and a couple fig bars, gave Nick a hug, and continued on.

After this Aid station, you're on the road for a bit, and have to run on an overpass with the turnpike below before heading back into the woods (not the most picturesque section of the trail). Then, you climb up into a cornfield and then wind around until you hit a pretty sharp descent that's always overgrown around mile 8.5-9.  Usually, I have a system of grabbing onto the small trees on the side to help me down safely.  Well, it was crazy muddy now and of course I'm bunched up with a group of people and everyone is slipping and sliding all over.  Next thing I know, I'm down.  I can't even tell you what happened.  Just one moment I'm upright and the next I'm on my back and still sliding and I push my hands into the thick mud to stop myself.  I'm still cleaning mud out of the cracks of my Garmin.  It would have been one thing if I just plopped down on my big cushioned rear end and could get back up.  But, I landed hard on my lower back on a root, branch, rock, whatever it was it was hard, and kept sliding.  I got back up and continued on, but this didn't help lift my spirits any, and it legitimately hurt.

Not too long after the mud slip and slide there was a downed tree.  And it wasn't a simple "hop over the tree trunk" kind of deal, it was all the bushy branches that you had to go over/under and weave your way through, trying not to get too scratched up.  This didn't feel great after my fall, either. Two guys coming up behind me commented that this was seeming more like a Tough Mudder event than a trail run.  I wholeheartedly agreed.  Soon, we were on the road again, and needed to jump the guardrails to cross and get back on the trail.  The guys who were following me thanked me for knowing where I was going.  This is one of the parts where it's so easy to get lost.  The blaze is on the guardrail and then again on a tree down the hill.  If you're not aware, it's simple just to stay on the road wondering where the hell you are.

After this short section, I let the guys go on ahead because I needed to stop and wipe down my hands.  I had wipes in my pack and I had to try to get some of this mud off me.  My hands were gnarly and mud was caked in my fingernails.  This was not cool when it came to wiping my face/eyes or when trying to fuel and hydrate.  Now, I'm not a prissy girly girl, but I also don't like to eat mud and whatever else I slid in.  With that taken care of, I continued on.  At least I tried to.  There was a short, steep (aren't they all) climb that I kept falling down!  Three times... three times it took to get up and stable on my feet and not slide back down.  I just couldn't seem to catch a freaking break for very long here!  Soon, the trail would come out on the road again and I admit to saying "thank fuck" when I got there and knew I had a nice section of mostly downhill road to run.

The road runs you right into Emmerling Park which I never knew existed until I started training for this event.  It's awesome!  The trail through it is beautiful - albeit challenging with some nice climbs - and my spirits were lifted again, at least for a short time.  Unfortunately the good feels didn't last too long because my back really started to hurt on the next section.  I was hurting from my lower back down through my left hip from where I fell.  The big climbs were hurting more, my stride was a bit off, and I was slowing down.  I stopped to text my husband that I was thinking I had drop out at the next aid station.  Two of the "named hills" (the rule is if the hill has a name, you know it's bad.. and there are 6 on Rachel) were before this next aid station and I was dreading them - Rich Hill and Lefever Hill.

One of the few bright spots of the day - heading into Emmerling Park.
Photo courtesy of Rhett Landry of the RCTC.
I normally don't have too much of a problem with this climbing section, but my butt felt it today.  It was not right and it made me sad and mad and everything in between.  Between my fall and the very slippery steep rocks, I felt awful and my mood just took a nosedive.  I'd had it.  My hip was really achy and I was starting to get scared because this wasn't even the worst section of the trail in terms of slippery terrain and sharp descents.

After Lefever, it's back on the road a short bit and across an intersection to the Log Cabin Road aid station (14.3 miles in).  I took some water and a slice of watermelon and told my husband I wanted to be done.  I hung around that aid station for several minutes moping and wanting to have this day over with, but my husband kept pushing me on.  Really, this just pissed me off, I had a huge hissy fit and left the aid station literally crying as I turned to trudge up Log Cabin Hill.  It was slow, I slipped several times and had to catch myself with my hands before face planting, I was hurting, I cried almost the whole way up.  When I hit a stable spot, I sent my husband a whirlwind of nasty texts.  I was in a terrible spot mentally.  The top of Log Cabin Hill came and something in me found the will to at least shuffle run down the other side.  I did notice that when I'd run, I was starting to feel a jarring sensation that went from my back down my hip and then down my leg.  It was causing me to use that leg weird and that caused my knee to feel tweaked.  The downward spiral continued.

Coming down the back of Log Cabin Road.  Face says it all.
Photo Courtesy of Mike McNeil, running photo extraordinaire.

At the end of Log Cabin hill there is another road section.  Usually this is the time to pick up the pace and bank some time after the climbs before and the ones yet to come.  Not today.  I started walking.  I even stopped and just stood for a while.  Eventually I willed myself to run again and followed the trail back into the woods.  I enjoy this part of the trail any other day, but today it just felt like a chore.  Add mud and more slippery terrain and stream crossings on top of my aching back/hip/leg and I was falling apart inside.  It was then that I realized a few things: This was not fun.  Didn't I start trail running for fun?  To take a break from the monotony and serious gogogo factor of the road?  Was I even enjoying the sights and smells and sounds today?  No!  Why in the hell am I doing this today?

Eventually the trail leads out into Springdale, along Marion Ave in front of the Rachel Carson Homestead, onward to the high school.  The half challenge starts there.  And, unfortunately, they start it late.  A guy running about half a block ahead of me turned around and yelled "do you think we're gonna make it there before they start to get ahead of them".  Up until he said something, I'd totally forgotten about it.  I looked at my watch and said "it's going to be close".  But I knew we were too late.

As I approached the high school, I saw the line of halfers scanning out.  It was a short line... which meant all the others were already out.  My heart sank.  The last thing I needed after kind of running steadily again was to get stuck behind another large mass of people.  But, that's exactly what happened.  I slowed to a walk barely above a crawl to join the rest of the herd single filing down the trail that turns into a teeny tiny barely singletrack behind the school fence.  Thankfully, that section is not long, and opens up into a wide, mostly grassy downhill to the road.  I (and a couple others) were able to get past some of the halfers here, who were happily chatting about their day and then gasping and commenting on how muddy I was as I went by.  The crowd was still very thick, and after a short section of road it was back on the trail for a good climb and more very slow single filing.  Now, there were quite a few people with good trail etiquette who moved over and let me pass when they heard me or when I called out, but I understand too that sometimes there just isn't a safe place to get over for a while.  Happens to me with the mountain bikers at North Park all the time.  But, admittedly, each time I had to walk/trudge made my back and hip hurt more than the time before.  I knew my time on the trail was running out.  I was hurting, I'd been lacking in spirit and motivation for hours, but feeling like I was at the start of the event again having to fight for space and sanity broke me.

After the singletrack part of this section, the trail widens.  The crowd was still massive, and to boot - yep, it's another uphill.  I just gave in and walked with everyone else.  I shuffled myself down the hill and took the spur off to the marked checkpoint/Agan Park aid station (20.3 miles into the full challenge, 2 miles into the half).  My husband and daughter were there this time, and my husband said he was concerned.  I was hobbling and I pointed out the "path of the hurt" so to speak.  I got some watermelon and my husband made me take m&ms and water.  Medical staff got me an ice pack and some ibuprofen and asked if I wanted to just sit for a bit and see how I felt.  I sat, ate, laid down across a picnic table with the ice pack cross my back and hip, and cried.  I was done.  I couldn't even lean from side to side without being in pain in my back.  I couldn't chance the treacherous downhills that I knew lie ahead in the next section of the trail.  I did not want to aggravate something that could turn into yet another major months long recovery thing for me.  And, if I'm being 100% honest, my heart was just not in this.  Not for this. Not for another 16 miles.  And it did make me mad because cardio-wise, I had this.  I wasn't physically tired, I wasn't anywhere near "bonking", I had the stamina to go all day.  But I can't control the weather and how it affects the trail, can't control accidents that happen, etc... pretty much "shit happens".  After an hour of rest and going back and forth at the aid station, I turned in my tag with the trail marshal and said I was heading home.  I took a DNF at 20.3 miles.  It was the best decision for the day I had.

Post-race thoughts:
First off, I just want to say that aside from a few points, this is a fantastic event with great support.  I can't imagine all it takes to put something of this magnitude on year after year.  Everyone that donated time, work, money, whatever into this is just amazing.  My only real complaints are 1) The start - I kind of felt since they made a point to introduce a runner specific line this year and they gave a time that I had to go with it.  Now, this is one of those "my problem" things, I know, but if I were to do this again, I would start probably 15 minutes later and/or in a lull spot of people or if I wanted to go early I'd bring my headlamp.  I didn't realize how bright I like things (like roots and rocks) to be.  2) The half start - why not start them early as well?  I don't understand the point of creating a bottleneck at the halfway point.

I want to give a shoutout to some real MVPs on this day too - all those people who set up their own unofficial aid stations along the course.  I can specifically think of the lady with the ice pops on the top of Rich Hill and the guy who had all the bananas and water in the back of his truck at the intersection of the trail before Springdale, but there were others.  Really pepped me up when I absolutely needed it to keep moving forward.  Much love!!

If nothing else this was a huge learning experience for me. Hey, this directionally challenged person doesn't get lost on the RCT!  I can be taught!

Also:  I really don't like crowded trail races.  That's one thing I'd like to leave behind on the roads.  I think I'll be more aware in the future of how many people will be starting an event and I'll prefer to choose smaller races.  My best miles on this trying day came when I found myself alone or nearly alone and could focus.  At the very least I enjoy just a handful of friendly people.  Or, maybe I just don't like races at all and like to do things myself?  <<insert favorite shrugging emoji here again>>

My hydration pack sucks.  I've been using the Nathan Intensity for over a year now.  The sad thing is, I like this vest.  It's light, it fits well, and it holds all my stuff how I like it.  BUT - I am bad about staying hydrated with it.  I am obviously terrible with gauging how much I actually drink from it.  I think I'm drinking enough only to find out I barely drank at all.  And I usually find out too late.  Thankfully here at Rachel, the aid stations were close together and I drank at each of those, but if I were reliant on my pack, I'd have been screwed.  I need to find a vest with bottles I can see, I guess.

My husband is right about something he said to me Saturday.  He said "you need to stop running anorexic".  My disordered eating is back.  I'm counting calories and burn based on pace and on this bounce between binging on unhealthy shit followed by not eating at all.  It's not helping my running or my mental state.  I need to get this under control.  Trying to decide what the lowest calorie option is at an aid station is ridiculous.  I need help.

I am so happy about my fitness.  I want to keep going, to find something else to do in short time, but I know I've been constantly training for months and my body needs and deserves a break. I still have some residual soreness and nagging happening from my fall, but even so I'm taking a few more days at least from running and then I'm going to just go light for a few weeks until it's time to train for fall fun.


  1. Ah! So this is why you were on Rachel Carson Saturday! I've heard of this challenge and have been intrigued. I heard that wayfinding is one of the hardest things about it, so congrats on nailing that. In my HHNH recap, I had a long paragraph that I eventually deleted because I didn't want to sound too negative and whiny, but the gist was why do I do races and have to deal with miserable conditions when I could otherwise just run when I want to, for fun, when I can enjoy it. My motto is that life is too short to not do what we love. Sure, there's the sense of accomplishment from toughing it out when it gets hard, but you did that again and again over 20+ miles. I would have applauded you for taking the DNF just because your heart wasn't in it, let alone because you were physically injured and could have gotten even more injured. There's just no point in continuing when it's like that. Awesome job on running a tough course with treacherous conditions! Oh, and I'm happy to hear that I follow good trail etiquette in that during HHNH I stopped and stepped aside to let the faster runners by. I try to do that at NP when mountain bikers come through, but sometimes they come so fast they scare the crap out of me and I have little time to react!

    1. Thanks! Finding your way on Rachel is hard. I did sections over and over again to make sure I knew where to go. I could not fathom never seeing it before challenge day.

      I'm with you on the life is short thing. I think there's a fine line between the aspect of "get comfortable being uncomfortable" and honestly doing something because you WANT to do it. I didn't get into trail running to be in agony or angry. Maybe it makes me weak to some but I am one of those that loves the trails for the critters and the wildflowers and the changing seasons and all that. Yes, the physical challenge of it is wonderful, but again, there's a line. If I'm not enjoying myself being captivated by the sheer beauty of what's around me then I shouldn't be doing it. Especially when it impacts the environment just by my being there. And now I'm starting to sound like an old hippie, so I'll quit while I'm ahead. ;)

  2. I just started looking into the Challenge, and really appreciated your post. Thanks for writing it. I do have a question about the lottery round that you mentioned. Is not everyone that wants to do the challenge allowed to do it? Thanks and have a great day.

    1. Hi Andrew, thanks for stopping by! Regarding the lottery - I think they do it as a precaution so there aren't too many people on the trail (which, if you read my post, you know I already thought there were too many!). What they do is take signups on a rolling basis, and then pull a bunch of names every so often until they fill up for both the full and the half. This year, the challenge sold out in the first couple of selection rounds, and then more spots opened up as the weeks went on after people gave up their spot for whatever reason. I honestly don't know if it was full on challenge day or not.

      If you're thinking of doing this - good for you and good luck! I keep going back and forth on whether I want to attempt it again!