Clean Hands, Muddy Feet

On February 18th, 2017, I was set to run the Redtail Ridge 50k at Lake Chabot. Due to a tremendously wet winter season, the race organizers had been forced to reroute the race, at the request of the parks department, just a few days before race day.

The weather the night before the race was windy and rainy and I woke on race morning concerned that maybe the race would have to be cancelled. Or maybe they would have to make last-minute changes to the course. At the very least I was confident that there would be a few trees down that would need to be navigated.

Fortunately, none of that came to pass.

The sun rose somewhere behind a mass of fog and clouds and a light drizzle was falling as I drove to the Lake Chabot Marina where the race would begin. Slowly but surely, the rain seemed to lessen every minute until it had essentially stopped by race start. The weather was ubsurdly and unexpectedly perfect throughout the race: cloudy, temps in the mid 50s, and really no rain to speak of.

At 8:30am, all us 50k and 30k runners headed out to see just how muddy the trails would be. The course was set up so that we would all run a 30k loop and find ourselves back at the start/finish. Those of us doing the 50k would then head back out and do the half marathon loop to bring our total distance to 31.6 miles.

The first few miles were entirely uneventful as they were on a paved path beside the Lake Chabot. It was mostly quiet except for the pounding of feet and the calls of the coots out on the lake.

It was during this section I noticed a number of runners who were wearing what I would call road shoes. I even noticed a trio of guys running together who looked to be taking their “roadies” outside for the first time. These shoes were just way too clean.

I silently wished them the best of luck in the coming muck and mud. I was afraid that would be in for a tough slog.

We runners cruised easily along this paved path, but once we turned off onto trails the fun really began, at least for me. The first section of trail started with some gently rolling hills. They were wet and they were muddy, but the biggest of the puddles were avoidable.

We ran briefly alongside a flooded golf course to the base of the first real hill, from there it was one long, steady climb up to the highest point of the race. This was made slightly more difficult by the conditions. It was sloppy out there.

Within a few miles of leaving pavement and the golf course, my left foot was soaking wet. Another couple miles later my right shoe was completely coated in mud.

Now THIS was what I signed up for! Perfect!

During that first climb, we hit a long patch of mud that must have had a decent amount of clay in it, because my shoes were slowly adding a thick heavy layer all the way around, making the climbing even more challenging. I found a conventiently located bench and, pounding my feet on its base, removed the majority of the sticky mud. I felt ten pounds lighter!

Not long after, I reached the first aid station, 4.8 miles in. I was feeling great and didn’t need to stop. I shouted a quick thank you to the volunteers and kept chugging along.

From there we had a little more climbing, nothing too intense, just a steady up, up, up.

The course was, for the most part, in decent shape. There were occasions when the mud was deep and wet, completely covering my shoes. There were also times when the water was so deep, I emerged with miracously clean shoes. Fortunately, these unavoidable bogs were not the norm.

For the next several miles, the trail was mostly downhill, but extremely wet. I charged on, hoping that there wouldn’t be any issues due to soaking wet shoes & socks.

The second aid station was up a short, but rather steep hill. I paused long enough to down a cup of Tailwind and thank the volunteers for spending their Saturday ankle deep in mud and muck. It takes an amazing kind of person to do this and, frankly, I couldn’t thank them enough.

We left the aid station, navigated a short downhill section, and then we were climbing again.

Still feeling strong, I paused only briefly at the third aid station (14.1 miles). Now it was a steep cruise back down the first hill, back down to the pavement, back to the start/finish.

Once again I managed to manuever through the varying conditions without incident. My feet were soaked, but my hands were clean.

Many runners were not so lucky. I began to notice the telltale signs of falls. Muddy shorts, muddy thighs, muddy hands. At this point, I was running along with other 50k runners as well as 30k and half marathon folks.

The paved section felt much longer than the roughly two miles it actually was. I am a trail runner. I like dirt under my feet. This pavement stuff…I just don’t know.

While I imagine the vast majority of the field was thrilled to run this paved section multiple times, thrilled to escape the mud and slop for a few miles, this paved section was not my idea of a good time. I attempted to embrace the hard, flat surface below me.

Was I successful? Let’s just say I made it through and found myself again at the start/finish.

I was concerned that reaching the finish only to be sent back out again for another 13 miles would be mentally difficult, discouraging, but I found that I was okay with it. Once I was off the pavement and back in the mud, I began to enjoy the run again.

When I passed the golf course and hit the long climb for the second time, I found myself dropping down to a power hike when the trail hit really steep sections. I was okay with this. I was getting tired and I was starting to hurt pretty good, but I still felt strong.

Upon reaching the next aid station (23.1 miles), I was ready for a short break so I stopped, ate a little watermelon, got a refill on my water, and was informed by one of the volunteers that there was a very steep, very muddy section coming, one that we had not run on our first loop. This was the half marathon course. Runners in that event, I was made to understand, were not coming back with clean hands, or clean anything, really.

I thanked the volunteer for the information and pressed on. After some smaller rolling hills, I found myself at the top of a what looked like something out of a TV gameshow.

Steep and wet, the trail was inescapably slippery.

Everywhere I looked I could see evidence of people having fallen in the mud.

Every step I took covered double or triple the distance I would normally cover.

Step…slide…slip…step…slide…step…WHOA!…slide.

And then I was at the bottom. I had managed to stay upright!

I’ve written before that the highest praise I can give a pair of running shoes is that I never think about them while I’m running. That was 100% true for race day. My Altra Lone Peak 3.0s were more than up to the task.

Did I slip? Once or twice.

Did I slide? Again, yes. A fair amount.

Did I fall? No, no I did not.

My hands were clean throughout the race. In fact, when I reached the finish line someone said, “Wow, you’re really clean!”

After successfully slip-sliding down a ski slope of mud, the race was mostly gentle downhills to the finish. It was entirely uneventful.

After surviving the last two miles of pavement, I hit the finish line in 5:16:57. I was thrilled by this time as it was considerably faster than my goal time.

Also to my surprise, it was also good enough for 6th overall and 2nd in my age group.

The overall winner, also in my age group, finished in 4:18:26. Second overall, and first female, finished in 4:43:16. Such amazing times on a muddy, challenging course!

In addition to my incredible trail dancing shoes, I have to give a hardy thanks to my Injinji toe socks. Somehow, miraculously, I ran 45 of the 50k with soaking wet feet and ended with zero blisters. Magic.

For folks looking to hit the trails in an organized race, I highly recommend checking out Inside Trail Racing. They do a great job. It was a super fun, exceptionally well marked course.

The post run feast was massive. Food, food, food with plenty of options for us picky eaters!

Save me a slot in a future race because I will be back!

 

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