I competed in a very unique race a couple weeks ago. It has taken me a little while to get a summary writen down. The race took place at the Virginia Explore Park off the Blue Ridge Parkway, just south of route 24. The starting time was what made this race different. The start times were just after 7:00 PM. That meant that all runners had to carry a light source to use on the trails while running in the dark. The race is one of the Mountain Junkies races and I think the purpose is to get more people running on trails, even if that means at night.
Luckily I already had a decent Petzl LED headlamp that I got for Christmas about 10 years ago. I probably should have tested out the headlamp on a trail prior to the race. I just verified that the light worked and replaced the batteries with a fresh set. I also decided to carry a small flashlight, just in case my headlamp went out while I was in the middle of the woods. Other than these lights, I didn’t carry any additional equipment. The race was only 4 miles, so there was no need to bring any water.
Anna and the boys were taking Anna’s mother out to dinner for her birthday, so I was solo on this race trip. It was sort of weird to run in a race with 500 other runners and not knowing anyone. Since I was alone, I actually go to the race earlier than I usually do. I had time to go for a little warm up run. I was sort of worried about not knowing the course at all. I had been to the Explore Park about 15 years ago. My cousin Doug and I went to a mountain bike festival there, but we didn’t even get to get on the trails that day because there were multiple races being run. So, I was definitely going into this race blind.
Once under way, my only thought was where my next foot step was going to land. I quickly regretted not testing out my light on an actual trail prior to the race. Apparently they have greatly improved LED headlamps in the past 10 years, because my light was about half as bright as everyone else’s. This probably wouldn’t have been an issue if I was on the trail alone and my eyes could adjust to my single dim light. But with so many other runners out there with bright lights, my eyes were constantly trying to adjust to a number of different light brightness levels.
The first mile of the course was mostly downhill on a somewhat paved road. There were some major potholes in the road, so I had to be very careful with my foot place during this part also. The path of the road went down close to the Roanoke River. Of course, I forgot to start my watch at the start line. So my plan of adjusting my pace as finish line approached was blown. Now I was not going to know exactly how far was left. I had an idea when I was on going to be on the last mile, but that was going to be about it.
From that point the path turned to a somewhat wide dirt path for another 0.5 mile. Since there had been so much open room at the start of the race, the group had shuffled itself out pretty well. I found a couple runners whose pace was very suitable to mine and they had good headlamps! I think I actually watched the path through other’s headlamps more than mine. By this time we had made it to some more difficult single track. There were lots of rocks and roots that made it very tricky to get good footing.
All of the sudden a root jumped out of nowhere and tripped me. Luckily I was able to catch myself with my hands before my body made an impact. I was not as lucky with the second root that decided to hide from me. I tripped and hit the ground pretty hard on my right shoulder. I was able to sort of barrel roll back on my feet pretty quickly. I lost about 10 yards on my pacers in front of me. I decided to check out my knees because I could feel liquid running down my legs. This was a bad idea because I immediately was taken down by another root that decided to jump out in front of me. I hit ground again! I rolled once again to my feet pretty quickly and decided that I would just wait until the end to assess my damaged knees.
The next 2 miles went by very quickly because I was so concentrated on no falling any more. I was not running at my fast possible pace, because I didn’t know how much more hill climbing was left. Since my watch’s distance was not really any help, I decided to just stay at my current pace until I definitely knew how much was left in the race. The finish line really snuck up on me. At the top of one of the hills, we popped out of the woods and back onto an asphalt road and I could see the finish line about 50 yards away. I definitely had a lot left in the tank because I was able to sprint the rest of the way pretty comfortably.
I finished with a time of 36:16.51. That time put me 81st out of 513 runners and walkers and 12th out of 31 in my age group. I was pretty happy with this time, even though I knew I could have done a little better if I was more prepared for the course. After doing a quick check on my knees, I only had a few scraps and scratches. I must have only been feeling sweat running down my legs and not blood. I later found a nice large bruise on my left hip. I didn’t even notice it until the next day, so it was not hurting too bad.
All in all, the night trail race was a great experience. I would greatly encourage people to take part in one of the Mountain Junkies races. They really put on a well-organized event and have plenty of good food and drinks afterward. My next race will be the Richmond Half Marathon in November. So I need to start getting some longer runs in until then. My trail racing is finished for the year, while I turn my attention to the road races I have left.