The challenge of running 12 miles on the MST

I’d been trailing the woman for a few minutes when she decided to let me by. As I passed, she did a double take. “If I’d known you were a guy,” she said, “I would have let you pass sooner.”

Her comment backed a thought that had been developing over the past 10 miles: Women trail runners, as evidenced by the number who were reluctant to let me pass, are competitive. Very competitive.

The real race was to those two little green boxes upper left.
The real race was to those two little green boxes upper left.

Yesterday’s inaugural Mountains-to-Sea Trail 12-mile Challenge was my first foray into trail running. New event (to me), new opportunity to observe a different fitness culture. A thought or two.

  • A surprising ratio of male-to-female runners, with 96 males and 55 females. Not sure why I found that surprising, considering the number of women who run, but I did.
  • The bulk of runners were in their 30s, accounting for 56 of the 151 runners who showed up. 42 runners were in their 40s, 20 were in their 20s and 19 were in their 50s.  Youngest runner: Bobby Willix, 17, of Raleigh; Oldest runner: Frank Empire, 65, of Raleigh.
  • At first blush, two porta-potties at the starting area did not seem like nearly enough to accommodate 151 runners, especially 151 runners eager to rid themselves of every unnecessary ounce before running 12 miles in the woods. However, with just 20 minutes until the 8 a.m. start and at least 30 runners ahead of me I learned that runners have remarkably fast and efficient digestive systems.
  • A good psychological trick for running long distances: Don’t think of it as one long race, think of it as several short races between aid stations. The MST 12-mile Challenge had stations at the 3-, 6- and 9-mile marks — or roughly every point at which the trail came into contact with a roadway. Run three miles in the woods? No problem. (There was also an unauthorized aid station around mile 11, serving an amber liquid in paper cups.)
  • When starting a trail race, position yourself with people you think you’ll be comfortable running with because you’re going to be with them for a while. Unlike a road race, where there’s plenty of room to pass, on a trail race you’re quickly funneled into a narrow single-track trail. Though the pack did separate itself somewhat at the start, I found myself in a conga line of 30 runners running in step until the first aid station. A few runners did attempt to pass, but that involved running off trail in the leaf litter, which was capable of hiding any number of ankle-twisting obstacles.
  • Or maybe the real race is to the feed at the end.
    Or maybe the real race is to the feed at the end.

    How big a deal is tripping and falling over a rock or root in a trail run? For one, it’s presented as inevitable, not possible. In the “Important Runner Briefing” emailed to runners before the race, was this line: “You may fall — in fact you probably will fall. So, just get up and keep running.” And in her post-race Facebook comments, Lisa Garrity didn’t mention that she won her age category. Her most notable feat: “two sprawling falls and at least two dozen good saves, whew that was fun!!”

  • How fast can you run 12 miles in the woods? In 1 hour, 17 minutes and 14 seconds, as demonstrated by overall race winner, 22-year-old Duncan Hope of Chapel Hill. (See full race results here.)
  • “And the winners are …” . At the awards ceremony following the race, four of the top winners were announced. Then there was a pause. “You won’t believe this … “ began race organizer Kim Page with Bull City Running Co. in Durham. The battery on the official race laptop had died. The drumroll for results lasted until they were posted Sunday morning on the BCR Web site.
  • Runners were given the option of wearing top-of-the-line, albeit used, trail shoes. Montrail offered its Mountain Masochist, La Sportiva its Wildcat. Sounds funky wearing shoes that other people have worn for hundreds of miles on the trail, but what the hey. I tried the Mountain Masochist and for my efforts got a free pair of merino wool socks made right here in America!
  • The best thing about running 12 miles? Having no qualms about what you eat at the finish-line smorgasbord, including fist fulls of bite-size cinnamon rolls washed down with hot coffee.

This is a fitness culture I could get used to.

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