Yesterday, I ran the half marathon at the Marathon on the Mountain at Seven Springs Ski Resort about an hour and a half southeast of Pittsburgh.
I ran it in 2:34:13, which is slower than my marathon pace from last year’s marathon.
And, yet, I’m still very happy with my race!
If you’re asking why, it’s because this was my first trail race on a difficult and hilly course in far-less-than-ideal conditions. With race-time temperatures of 34 degrees, drizzling rain (which was light snow up on the mountain) and heavy fog (I couldn’t see much more than 100-yds in front of me for most of the race), it would have been difficult for any race, but add in the rocky, rooty, muddy, wet-leaf-covered terrain with over 3700 feet of total elevation changes, and it began to feel more like an adventure race than a half-marathon. Let me walk you through it, mile-by-mile:
Mile 1 – Slight downhill to start and I’m trying to run at a comfortable pace with the pack in order to not go out too fast on this paved portion. After a little less than a half-mile, we begin our ascent up the mountain up a 5% grade on a crushed limestone trail, and people are already starting to slow down and walk. I’m feeling good still and sticking with my slow-and steady pace. We reach a turn at the first mile marker and…
Mile 2 – Continue our ascent. No reprieve here. Sticking to the crushed limestone trail, we cross a pond on a land bridge and begin to enter the woods. I slowed a little on the continued ascent, but so far, so good.
Mile 3 – As we get into the woods, I begin to get an appreciation for the course. In my mind, I had envisioned trails like this:
Instead, it was more like this:
Except wet, with more leaves and fog.
Everyone is running in single-file here, because that’s all the room there is. At least twice along here, I stepped on a root or rock and thought how much that was going to hurt the next day. Footing was at a premium, and I was heads-down running to pick out every step. Plus, there were plenty of collecting pools on the trail, so occasionally it was slowing down to find the driest way across.
Mile 4 – Still on the trail, putting one foot in front of the other. At this point, even my GPS is lost, as it’s nearly a half-mile behind the course markers.
Mile 5 – Finally get out of the woods and hit a stretch of blacktop that takes us out to the former airport at Seven Springs. Pick up a quick pack of Shot Bloks at the water station, and keep myself from getting hungry.
Mile 6 – Just running in the fog down the runway at the old airport. Fog is everywhere, and the midpoint timing mat pops up out of nowhere and we pick up a trail heading back around the airport.
Mile 7 – Clearly, nobody anticipated rain when designing the course, because there are large pothole puddles everywhere, and it becomes more about navigating them than speed. I’m keeping a decent pace, but running anything but a straight line. At least I know I’m more than halfway done at this point, and a descent in front of me before another big climb!
Mile 8 – I take a double-black diamond trail for the first time as we begin to make our descent. This is difficult on foot, and people ski on this?!? There are a few points where it feels like a misstep could have me sliding down the hill among the trees. I’m beginning to realize that I’m probably not going to make up any time going downhill on the trails, as the footing is probably more difficult than it was on the ascent.
Mile 9 – We make our way down to the bottom of the trail and finally get back on crushed limestone after a half-mile. The only problem is that it’s an 8% uphill grade. Everyone is walking up the hill. I managed to walk a little faster than some others, which is somewhat encouraging, even though the hill just ascends forever into the fog in front of me.
Mile 10 – We reach the top of the hill, and a lacrosse ball has appeared in my left calf! I grimace as it takes a few hundred feet to work it out, and I continue plowing ahead.
Mile 11 – Just two more miles to go! We take a turn past a course photographer, and…
It’s another 8% grade hill stretching endlessly into the fog!
Everyone is walking again, except for one brave soul (who wasn’t me).
We take a turn, and the hill continues into the fog…
Mile 12 – Finally, we reach the big lake I had seen on the map. The “lakeside trail” is probably too generous a name, as “grass at the edge of the lake” is probably more appropriate. We’re at the highest elevation on the course now, the wind is whipping and I’m actually getting chills while sweating.
Mile 13 – Just as I’m beginning to wonder if there really will be a descent to the finish line, we find it. I was looking forward to opening up my stride and pushing to the finish, but it’s a “dirt” (read “mud” road lined by grass. I try both the mud and grass surfaces, but on this pitch, I’m mostly lucky to stay on my feet. Others weren’t so lucky. In the grass of one of the ski slopes heading to the finish line, it’s so wet and muddy that they put down hay, but that doesn’t keep everyone from sinking in it down to their ankles. Managed to keep both my shoes.
Mile 13.1 – Finally find pavement again and manage a quick sprint to the mat!
Yes, the course was brutal, and very challenging. In fact, after having run a Tough Mudder last year, I’d put this on par with the challenge, especially in these conditions. And, I definitely had more fun!
In the end, my finishing time mattered and it didn’t. It did, because I had a time. It didn’t matter, because I ran a solid feeling race in conditions that were far more difficult than I had anticipated. And it did, because if I knew what the course would be like, would have been pretty close to my goal. And it didn’t, because I had a blast anyway!