Dirt Bag versus Goody Bag, A Trail Runner’s Dilemma

This past weekend I ran the first road race I’ve done in over a decade.

For the past ten years or more I’ve done nothing but trail races. They’ve varied in length from 13.1 miles all the way up to 50 miles. My main criteria when choosing an event is that it must have less than 250 people, be at least 50% on singletrack trails (the rest can be on fire roads), it’s got to be really hilly and be as self-supporting in nature as possible. When I say self supporting, for example, it would mean that a race would need to have no more than two, maybe three aid stations over a marathon length course…and you may actually be required to find them in order to use them.

The people who are usually at the start of these races are definitely a different lot. Most are wearing running clothes that look as if they’ve been slept in for the last week (and probably have), they typically don’t have one piece of material that matches in color in any way and their beefy trail running shoes have multiple layers of mud coating them. And given the typical early starts of backcountry running events, most of us standing around the start have on raggedy looking fleece jackets and are sipping coffee or tea to warm up until right at race time.

Long distance trail running requires a different mentality altogether. Sure, there are people who will torch a course regardless of whether the distance is a half marathon or 100 miles. But the majority of people who run these things are generally looking for something above and beyond the typical gigantic  mainstream road event. I mean c’mon, you have to be a little “different” to go out and run 50 or 100 miles knowing that the bulk of the time you’ll be running alone in the backcountry, have limited access to any kind of support other than your own and know for sure that extreme physical discomfort is as probable as another plastic surgery is for Joan Rivers.

For those of us that choose these events, we wouldn’t have it any other way. Even if we aren’t the first person to the finish line, it’s still feels like a huge personal accomplishment to fight through the mental and physical aspects of long distance trail running and emerge knowing that you can do tough things under tough circumstances. We certainly don’t train for these things just to get another t-shirt and a goody bag filled with hundreds of coupons and race applications. If you do happen to get a goody bag at a trail event, it usually has gloves for cold morning starts, a Clif Bar, some mole skin and a toenail maintenance/extraction kit…which are certainly used from time to time. Many of the trail races here in Rockies involve rocky singletrack trails with insane amounts of elevation gain, stream/river crossings, boulder hopping and a nauseating lack of oxygen for those of us choosing events that take us over 10,000 feet above sea level. It’s why many events will never see more than a hundred or so people.

I saw a shirt one time that said, “Trail Runner’s Credo: If the bone ain’t showin’, keep on goin’”. Sounds funny, but it’s actually pretty true. Pain is a given with trail running. You’re going to fall eventually and most likely where you fall is going to be on rocks. Therefore, scabs and scars are just part of the trail runner’s uniform in many respects. When you run steep hills, up and down for hours and hours, the toenails are going to take a beating and get kind of manky so sometimes it’s better just to pull them off instead of letting them flop around inside your socks. Trail running is definitely a dirt bag sport that requires us to forget about keeping up proper appearances.

The way I kind of wound up doing this road half marathon is that Donna and some of her work posse decided they were going to run the Taste of Louisville 5k. I wasn’t that interested in doing that race per se, but they did have a half marathon option. Since I had planned to go out to run fifteen or so anyhow, I thought it’d be fun to do a “fun run”, then hang out with everyone afterward. So, it was Friday afternoon when I found out I’d be participating and the race was Saturday morning, about 18 hours away. That also meant that we’d need to run down the hill to Louisville that evening and sign up in person because the online option was no longer available.

When we walked over to Pirate’s Park to sign up, it was definitely a walk down memory lane. There was an ocean of tanned and toned, cleanly shaven legs and everyone’s attire was pretty much color coordinated. Many were wearing their corporate athletic logo hats or had on an official t-shirt from their last event. There was also considerable chatter about the difficulty of the course, whether a PR could be attained, how well the latest GPS watch worked, hydration prepping, carbo-loading, racing flats vs. trainers, etc. etc.

Man alive, I thought I was just signing up to run around town for a few miles and have some fun. I really didn’t know I needed to worry about hydration and route finding like I would in the backcountry. I kind of just figured that if things got too crazy out there I could just use someone’s garden hose for a little drink or if I got hungry I could just drop into the Circle K for some Pop-Tarts.

I got in line to register as well as get my commemorative t-shirt, race number and official timing chip. Definitely haven’t used one of those things in a while. Usually it’s just some dude who’ll get out of his camp chair and come tell me how long I’d been out on course. Okay, sometimes there are official digital clock type things but I’m usually so tired when I pass under them that I don’t really look at it. And a good estimate of my time is  generally good enough for the moment. Seriously, after eight, nine or ten hours of running through canyons and across mountain ridges, who really cares about exact seconds or 100th of seconds?

After I filled out the entry form and was waiting for the tanned fella behind the official registration table to collect all the things for my goody bag, I looked around again and saw so many people who totally looked the part of sleek, fast runners. Some of them already had on their sparkly clean racing flats and wearing all those “fast” looking pre-race clothes. I sort of felt like I was Oliver Twist standing in the food line in my tattered clothes waiting for a bowl of gruel…”Please sir, may I have another?” So I got my goody bag filled with “goodies” and we went to dinner with our friends.

The next morning I awoke bright and early and my first thought was that sake probably hadn’t been the best choice the previous evening. Tasty for sure, but wicked stout and not a nice after shock. As I was putting on my well worn trail running shorts, muddy trail shoes, nondescript North Face tech shirt and extremely sweat stained running hat, I was also thinking to myself that the day was probably going to be a disaster. I was totally going to get my ass kicked by all these road racing people. However, the $65 entry fee I’d paid pretty well convinced me that I needed to go.

When we got to the race, there were lots of people sprinting up and down the road getting warmed up and primed for the big race. Others were in the park doing various forms of stretching and yoga-type things. I, on the other hand, was sitting on a picnic table about half way through my Starbucks coffee, wondering just how savagely that sake was going to backfire on me later in the race. But to my benefit, I did manage to bring my little single bottle hydration belt.  I assumed the late-ish 08:00 start meant it was going to be pretty hot toward the finish. If I drained that bottle, I always had my garden hose and Circle K back up plans in place.

When the starter’s gun fired, everyone took off at a full sprint. It was complete mayhem as everyone charged down Main Street through Old Town Louisville, jockeying for position at the front. Still having the slow-out-of-the-gate trail running mentality as my only strategy, I ambled down the street wiping the eye boogers out of my eyes and tried to shake the sake cobwebs out of my head. Why bother running fast? I was going to get totally smoked in this event anyhow.

Then a funny thing happened, something I remembered about my old road marathoning days. At the first hill (a very small one) the enthusiasm shown at the first of the race started to collapse. I heard one guy already saying that this was the toughest course he’d ever been on. Huh? Isn’t this only mile two, with about eleven still to go? I heard a lady say that the first aid station should have been at mile one instead of 1.5 miles because it was  very important to hydrate every mile. There were several people walking the hill and huffing so hard that you could see their heart beating through their sweat soaked shirts. As I casually passed some 20-something guy while climbing the “hill” he said in a half out-of-breath voice something like “good work man, you’re looking great”. Again, this was mile two.

The next few miles brought more of the same. Most all the people who had sprinted away at the start had now begun to walk or at least be slowed to a quasi walk/jog. At least one person had even thrown up on the bike path. Then, at mile 8, when I finally got to a real hill that rose maybe a full 200 vertical feet, it looked like a massive train wreck. A couple of people were standing around with their hands on their knees, gasping for breath and in my opinion, sweating a dangerously large amount. I heard one person who was struggling up the hill tell his partner that this was the “monster” hill he’d been warned about. Those were his words, honestly.

I just knew that someone was going to have a heart attack out there. I actually asked a guy, who didn’t really look all that unfit, if he was okay because he was red-faced and looked in real trouble. He assured me he was, but I had my doubts.

At mile eleven I had to cross back over the “monster” hill and a volunteer high-fived me and told me “to pace myself because this was the tough climb”. He was right, it did take me a little more than a minute or two to climb it so it was indeed the toughest climb of the day.

From there the last mile and half was downhill to almost dead flat so I just relaxed and let it fly. When I got closer to the finish I saw Donna standing out in the park so we waved and chatted as I ran by. When I crossed the finish line the race worker quickly cut my timing chip off and told me to stick around because I may have been one of the top finishers. Yeah, right.

So Donna and I sat around for a while and ate some of the food the race officials had provided, the best thing being oatmeal cookies! As we did, it was interesting to listen to other runners coming off the course talking about how “brutal” the course was, how it didn’t lend itself to setting PRs, how it was the toughest course they’d ever run, etc. etc. A couple of guys were intently discussing which post race hydration mixes each used and which energy bars worked best. I was pretty much content eating my oatmeal cookies. Oatmeal cookies always make things better by the way.

In the end I did finish first in my age category, and 14th overall, although my finishing time was very pedestrian in the grand scheme of things. There were some really good runners there who did in fact totally kick my ass. A couple of those people I found out later were some pretty studly trail runners who had won some recent long distance trail events. I’m always amazed at how fast some people can run, including the roadies!

When I got home and looked at the little trophy I’d won, I got kind of a bittersweet feeling about it. I really didn’t work all that hard, in fact I kind of coasted, and in the end I kind of felt cheated on a personal level in that I wasn’t as physically demolished as I maybe should have been.

I’ve never gotten a trophy at a trail event but I’ve always felt like a “winner” because I know I’d worked insanely hard for several hours and accomplished something personal that was really tough. For some reason I didn’t get that from this race. On really tough trail runs I sometimes find some sort of deep place in my mind during the race and need some time afterward to reflect on the experience. After this one all I wanted to do was get the yard mowed before it rained and then go have a margarita at the Rio.

I don’t know, this was pretty fun I guess but it just wasn’t all that satisfying in the end…at least not $65 worth of satisfying. I also realized that I don’t really fit in with the fast paced, color coordinated road crowd anymore. And I’m pretty sure I caused a stir amongst a lot of hard core fitness folks with my post race oatmeal-cookie recovery program. I’m also sure that the fact that I meet the Boulder Trail Runners Club over at Sherpa’s on Thursday nights from time to time because they have $2 Sherpa Ale would totally blow my credibility as a true fitness type! That’s another beauty of trail running. You’ll burn an insane amount of calories so pretty much anything and everything can be on the training diet…within reason of course.

As I mentioned, it’d been ten years since I last ran a long(er) road race, now it looks like it could be another twenty or so before I do another.

The goody bag thing was cool I guess, but I think I’ll just stick with the dirt bag races.


3 responses to “Dirt Bag versus Goody Bag, A Trail Runner’s Dilemma

  1. Barry!

    This is so hilarious and so absolutely and completely TRUE!!!!

    I felt EXACTLY the same way at the handful of short road races I ran. Despite being a definite back-of-the-packer at ultras (sometimes even a dead-f’n-last place ultra finisher) and doing pretty well at the only 5k and 10k I’ve ever done (7th and 2nd place overall respectively), I’d never ever want to be a road runner.

    Yep, I much prefer hanging out with other dirt bag trail runners. Torn tech shirts with old blood stains impress me more than color coordination! Cold pizza tastes better on the trail than energy gel!

    • Hi Tom. Yeah, it felt so bizarre after all these years to turn up at a road event and realize I don’t fit in. Sort of like when I switched from road biking to mountain biking (about 20 years ago).

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