Now, you would think one would train for such an event. Well, I kind of did. I was training for the Marine Corps Marathon anyway, so I would use it as a training run, a really long training run. I didn't want to go to the race totally unprepared. This summer, I had the chance to do a little scouting when I went on a hike with Missy Kane. It didn't look that bad. So, why not? Why not try it?
A week out from the race, the forecast looked miserable. They were calling for an 80 percent change of rain. On my first trail race, that wasn't something I was looking forward to. I was beginning to think it might not be such a good idea. Ani said there's still time. The forecast may chance. Sure enough, it did.
Saturday morning, I drove from Knoxville to Panther Creek. It was only an hour a way. I pulled into the park before daylight and saw base camp sitting down at the bottom of a hill. I was a little worried about taking my car down there, but I watch another car pull down there. So, why not?
A lot of people were camped out right along the trail. I later figured out they were mostly relay teams and it paid to have your stuff right next to the trail. I'll have to remember that for next year. I picked up packet. #13.....was that good thing or bad thing? I wasn't sure.
One of the things I immediately noticed about trail runners is that they are friendly. I think everyone spoke to me that morning before the race. They seemed like such nice people. Soon it would be race time.
My strategy for the race was simple. Run the first 4 laps to get my training run in for the week and then survive the rest of the day injury free. When the race started, the first thing I heard from someone in the back was they are going out way too fast. Don't they know we'll be hear all day. I slowed a bit to make sure I didn't burn out too quickly.
After a relatively flat start, the trail turned to cross the bridge. I think it was about a mile long nature trail. That's when I met the first obstacle of the day, walnuts. (I think they were walnuts.) I kicked a few out of the way as I ran, hoping they would all be off the trail in the matter of a few laps. As the trail wandered through the woods, it was like being on a hike with Missy Kane. Wait, make that Sharon Spezia where you go at pretty fast clip.
As we were about a mile into the race, we encountered the second obstacle, one I would face two more times during the race. With no warning, a deer flew across the trail, cutting the pack in half. Seconds later, another deer followed. Note to self: Don't get killed by a deer.
After a long uphill, the trail headed back down to the bridge we had crossed earlier. We hung a right and headed towards the campgrounds and across the road. Once again it was a nice trail for a race. It was wide enough to pass and pretty smooth. Eventually, I was mile 2 on the ground. It wasn't long before the trail hung a left to a long straightaway. At the end of that straightaway, we were greeted with a short hill. It was steep, but didn't last long. After crossing the road at the entrance to the park, we went up another hill. At the top of that hill was a beautiful view of the park and a long downhill. I can't imagine what that hill would have been like to run up it which was what they did last year.
I love hills. I flew down it. At the bottom of the hill was a left hand turn back to the flats of base camp. I came around a corner and heard cheering. I had completed my first lap of the dirt circuit.
The laps went by quickly, especially the first four laps. At 3:00:00 into the run, I was feeling good and went on autopilot, running when I felt like it and doing a lot of brisk walking. I couldn't believe I still had almost 9 hours l left in the race. I went with my switching shirts every two hours. I wanted to make sure I felt fresh all day long.
After lap 4, I slowed it down a little bit. There was no need to hurry. It was strange. Most of the time, I was alone on the trail. On the long straightaways, I could see someone in the distance. Every once in a while, I would run with someone for a moment before one of us would leave the other behind. By that time, people started lapping me. I expected that. What I didn't expect was the kind words of encouragement from each of them. It was great.
At the end of each lap, I looked forward to the cheers from Ani and Ryan Roma. I loved it. They made you want to do finish another lap. There was also food including peanut butter sandwiches and hot dogs. I got used to taking a moment each lap to refuel, whether it was food or some Gatorade.
After my eighth lap, I stopped to send a text to my parents to let them know I was still alive. Incidentally, they didn't read it until I got home that night. I was around 23 miles into the race. I was so happy, I set off on lap number 9. I made it around the nature trail. I was heading down the hill to cross the bridge when a heavy downpour came. I started running. What else was I going to do. Along the flats, I found a covered bench. I stood on it for a few seconds until I hear the rumble of thunder. I took off again. At first I tried to dodge the puddles. I soon realized that was all in vain. I was going to get wet anyway. I kept running. I ran past Mile 2. I hoped the rain would let up. It didn't. The trails were becoming rivers. At times I was running through ankle deep water. I ran faster and faster. I just wanted to get back to base camp and my car. The rain didn't let up.
Soaked, I made my way to the starting line. I grabbed a bite to eat and headed to my car. I went ahead and moved it back out onto the paved parking lot. The last thing I wanted was to get stuck. I completely changed clothes, waited a few minutes for it to stop raining. Then, I made the decision to get in a couple of more laps. I wanted to make it over 30 miles. The laps were 2.95 miles. Two more laps it would be.
On lap 10, I started to feel it. My legs were getting weak. I really noticed it coming down the last hill. I was going to quit until Ryan told me one more lap and I would have done my first ultra. Why not? I was already there.
I struggled on lap 11. My legs were getting sore. I had a blister from running in wet socks and shoes. Wouldn't you know there was a road block with about a 1/2 mile to go. A deer stood in the middle of the trail and wouldn't move. Finally, he must have got bored and ran away. I finished that lap and let them know that would be all of me.
I loved running that race. Next time, I'll be more prepared. I'll know what to expect. But 32.45 miles for my first trail race, first endurance race, and first ultra, I will take it. It made me wonder what else is possible.
In all, it was a great race. I loved the Dirt Circuit. It was the biggest challenge I have faced in my running career. Next time, I will conquer it.