Small races can be the best races, and the Indian/Celina Challenge is a perfect example. It's the sort of race that lets a chubby slob like me win first in my age group, for instance. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. I have to tell you why this race impressed me even before I arrived at the trail head. A week or two before the race, we received a race manual via email. It talked about what to expect on race day, the gear check process, the shuttle service, and what's available to eat after we finish. Standard stuff, right? The race manual also had very helpful tidbits like that black flies were a big nuisance right now, and we should spray ourselves and wear hats unless we want buzzing company for 8, 13.1, or 26.2 miles. This proved to be invaluable but ultimately meaningless advice, as I will go into soon. Oh hell, let's get on with it.
Leading up to the race, I was afraid I would be running trails in a thunderstorm. Though it rained the day and night before the race, this morning was cloudy, humid, and foggy, but the rain stayed away. Thank gods for that. A muddier race would have been awful. I arrived a little later than I had hoped. I hastily parked, grabbed my gear, and sped to the shuttle that took us from the parking area to the start. I brought with me my hydration belt and my keys. I thought about other things I would need, but I was wise to rush out without this extra clutter. I was burdened enough with what I had. The shuttles were frequent and speedy. We quickly found ourselves in the starting area, and I stood in line for the loo. Like every race I have been in these past couple years, even though I went to the bathroom a half-dozen times this morning, 3 minutes before the start I had to pee badly. No worries. I got in and out and was ready when the race director yelled GO!
This race bragged about how tough it was on its web page. This bragging was warranted. This was tough-going. Up and down like a bride's nightie and tons of mud. Parts of the trail were like chocolate pudding with boulders in it. And little streams and creeks every quarter mile or so. This wasn't what made it so hard though. Hills are hills. But the humidity must have been near 100%. I was soaked within 10 minutes, and I stayed that way until I got in my car later on and blasted the air conditioning. I felt like I was underwater. But life didn't really get unpleasant until the 8-milers [my people] split off from the marathoners and half-marathoners [the god-people.]
After an aid station with delicious, delicious Gatorade at mile 3.5 or so, we split. The eight mile course turned onto an access road, and this was the most unpleasant part of the whole day. When I say it was uphill the whole way, you might think, "Oh, he's exaggerating." But I want you to believe me when I say that it was a nearly constant uphill grade for nearly three miles. On coarse, loose gravel. Honestly, I walked most of it, because I felt like this race had beaten me. The half-marathoners were seeing some country, enjoying their trails, and here I was sucking wind up a goddamn gravel road, orbited by a damned black fly. I hated that fly. And I sweat. And I sweat. [Obviously I had long sweat off my bug spray.] But all good things must come to an end. The gravel road emptied onto a paved road, and we were back on the trails, so to speak.
After a brief road jog, we ducked back onto the trail. After the long walk uphill, the trails were easy going. I still walked up the hills, but I was feeling much better these last two miles than I had felt all day. I was more confident; I felt strong. There's nothing more to tell about this part of the race. We exited the trail and ran downhill to the finish line. When I approached the "chute" [such as it was], the race volunteer asked me to call out the last three digits of my number. When I did, she said I was first place in my age group and handed me a Sigg bottle with the race logo painted on it. Awesome. I walked about a third of the race, and I still finished first in my AG? I'm not asking questions.
After finishing, my first thought was to tear off my shoes. They were soaked and thickly covered in mud, as was everything below my knee. [I ran in Nike Frees. Running in Vibram Sprints would have been a disaster. The Nike Frees weren't great to run in, but at least they shielded me from the endless gravel and tree roots.] After shedding my shoes, I wolfed down a couple burgers. They had a grill going, and that was awesome. If they had beer, I would have been hugging people. I appreciated the cheeseburgers, though. Not many races have that. I hung out for a while, watching some of the marathoners prepare for their second lap around the half marathon course. After my feet dried out for a while, I found myself wanting a bath and home.
This is a supremely well-managed, well-executed race. I loved getting the manual long before race day so I could prepare. I loved the communication from the race director. He was super. The course was well marked. The volunteers [the local cross country team, which the race director coaches] were superb. Even though the gravel part sucked, I still had a great morning. I look forward to running the half marathon next year. You ought to think about it, too.