Sunday, October 25, 2009

Brush Mountain Breakdown

(disclaimer: I ran this race against the advice of trained fitness professionals who rightly thought I was somewhat reckless to do this three weeks before my first marathon and they are probably right but it was still fun.)

I always say how much I love this race, I thought I should take the time to capture my thoughts about yesterday's event. The Brush Mountain Breakdown is half of a weekend event called the "Rowdy Dog" that features Sunday mountain bike races in the same area. Competitors can do one or both events. Ever since I did this race last year, I knew I wanted to do it again. The challenge this year is that it's three weeks before the Richmond Marathon which is the major focus of my fall training. All I kept hearing was "be careful" and as much as I wanted to do this race, I was nervous about my decision.

I woke up at 5 am to hear the wind howling and rain blowing and must admit to second thoughts about this race, but by sun up the weather had settled and the day brightened. I drove to the race site and parked, which involved driving the minivan down a short muddy steep embankment, through a gate, and into a recently used cow pasture. It was nice that this was the second year for me and I knew a number of people including the folks from Runabout Sports who have sold me countless pairs of shoes to help offset countless aches and pains. The running community, especially at this type of race, is incredibly collegial and supportive. This is a small but cherished race. The mountain humbles us all.

After the 3 milers (7 of them) headed off, the 8 (14 of them) and 15 milers (43 of us) took off down the single track trail. Nervousness was replaced with a focus on the business at hand, and the challenge to run my best race. There's not much use in expending energy here to try to pass so I just kept in line behind my student Leah, who in a last minute change of heart upgraded to the 15 miler. It starts up hill for the first mile and a half, so the heart rate gets revved up in a hurry. When things widened out, I passed a few folks and settled in with a group of guys. Two were VT students, and one was a married fellow with kids who goes to our country club.

After the aid station, we crossed the forest service road and were down in the valley I guess you call it. This meant more level trails, but also the first of many creek crossings. I picked my way through the first trying to keep my feet dry, but after watching the fellow in front just charge through, I decided I needed to do that too. I was amazed how quickly my feet seemed to dry after each of these. We probably had 8 creek crossings in total. At one point, we ran along a beautiful trail framed completely in mountain laurels. The trail is peppered with little mud bogs that force you into a kind of slalom step side stepping and leaping so you are not left running with mud-laden shoes. I was surprised I never pulled any muscles with those acrobatics. The other challenge were the stretches of trail that were just boulders and rocks to pick through. I got safely through those and the ankle-twisters seemed to come on the seemingly groomed trails with the random rock here and there.

Before long we were climbing up Jacob's ladder, represented by the large elevation change on this profile below, taken from my Garmin watch.

In my little crowd, NO ONE made it up Jacob's without walking parts of it. The challenge was to not walk all of it. I made it as far as possible, then with my heart just pounding, backed off a few times. It took all my willpower to pick up the slowest jog and resume the ascent. The topmost part was a series of switchbacks but no one even thought to just head straight up, it would have been too difficult. At the top we were rewarded with another aid station - fully stocked. After about a 45 second stop, a group of four of us headed off again. My glutes were feeling a bit fatigued, not something I was used to, and I wondered if they would bother me later in the race or the next day. Thankfully, they were never an issue.

Last year I ran this part alone and was never really certain that I was not lost. This year I had one guy in my sights and remembered the course so it was nice to not have that anxiety. I needed all my mental facilities to make it back down the mountain. It starts off with rocky, washed out switchbacks that all but catapult you from tree to tree. After making it through that, there is a long stretch of thin but non-rocky trail that is terraced into the mountain side. The guy in front of me bellowed "look at that VIEW!!!" It was incredible to look across the valley to the adjacent mountainside. You can't help but think that this is how mountain goats must feel perched up on a little ledge. It's one of my favorite parts.

Things open up again and you come across the third aid station. This one was unmanned, but well stocked, AND it included a special treat....FIG NEWTONS!! Oh, joy! I grabbed one of those, maybe two, and off I went again. The trail puts you back on Poverty Creek, where you are lulled back into a false sense of "I got this licked!" My legs never really seem to get tired on runs, and this was no exception. What gets me is when my heart rate starts to max out and breathing is labored, that's the thing that backs me off.

Around mile 11 things change when it's back UP the mountain and then into a series of ups and downs, ups and downs, and at that point, the UPS got really tough. I tried every trick in the book, thinking about the laps of lunges, tough treadmill workouts, and hill sprints that had toughened me up. I concentrated on the guy in front of me, but he's an ultra trail runner (runs over 26 miles) and was just a machine. He'd pull ahead up the hills, but I managed without trying to catch back up on the downhills. We caught up to two other guys near mile 14 and I (half) jokingly asked if we should try to take them! He was not interested but offered to let me go, but I said, no they weren't girls so I didn't care. I was feeling strong and good, but ready to be done.

We were cruising down the final stretch, headed back to the road and the finish chute, when out of nowhere, I caught a toe on something and went down hard on my left side. I was completely and totally shocked. That was not something I had prepared for or experienced and I was at a loss for what to do. This is what went through my mind in the .4 seconds that elapsed as I crashed to the ground. (1) I am jinxed (2) everyone who told me to be careful knew something I didn't (3) there are many people who will certainly kill me for doing this (4) am I injured? (5) how do I know if I'm injured? (6) what do I do now? (7) no way in hell I'm not finishing strong.

The fellow in front stopped, but I waved him on saying I was OK. I distinctly recall that my calf and quad felt like they had gone into a massive contraction. I had a knick on my knee that was trickling blood down my shin. I got up, took a few tentative steps, then broke into a run and finished. As soon as I crossed the finish line, I stopped, put my hands on my knees in the exhausted runner pose, and froze. My friend Kim who had finished 6 minutes before me in an awesome performance, ushered me to the hillside and brought me water. I sat there in my own little world for a few.

Finally, I wandered over to check my time and placing (23/43, 3/16 women; 2:20:16), then headed off to my car for the final challenge of the day. I had to get the minivan back up the muddy hill through the gate and out of the cow pasture.

Was it worth it? Absolutely. Will I do it again? Positively. There is something special about this small and intimate race, where ultimately it's not about man versus man, but man versus self and man versus mountain.