E is visiting me this week, which reminds me that I am VERY overdue in posting his race recap from JANUARY! Better late than never though, right?!

Holyhead, Wales – Endurance Life Half Marathon Race Report (2012)

For awhile now, I’ve been drawn to trail running simply because it takes you to more interesting places, not to mention the fact that the people who are attracted to these races are an insane and rare breed. Misfits. Maniacs. Mental. We all share something unspoken that no one will ever tell you: getting to the top is important, but sharing the top with others who understand what it takes to get there is what keeps us coming back for more.

Karma runs deep on these trails and when races are small, the journey is hard and the smiles few and far between. It’s the people you meet out there that change you forever.

We’re all looking to find someplace serene and natural to plant our footsteps for the very first time, all in the name of adventure. And of course, there’s the pain, the blood, the guts left all over the earth that make you appreciate being alive – we’re just not satisfied until every ounce of whatever it is you’re made of is left out there in the wild. Just let the coyotes lick it up – we’ll be long gone by the time they arrive. Hopefully.

The Race

While residing in the UK, I’ve run a number of trail races; this was my first coastal race sponsored by Endurance Life. My first impression was that the organization was excellent – very professional setup for such a small race. There were only about 500 people running the 10k, half marathon, marathon and ultra, but they had enough people out there to organize an invasion of Ireland (believe me, we were that close to the border) as well as coast guards for the inevitable plunk in the drink. They also had great sponsorship from CLIF bar with a very cool selection of pre-game food and schwag – both free and for sale (choice of t-shirt, leg warmers, or bandana on the free side). Let’s be honest – it’s ALL about the SCHWAGGG!

Trail races in the UK are really not the same as in the US – in the UK, you have a lot less space to work with so the trails tend to go UP more than OUT. The race course was about 40% fell (i.e. up/down a mountain), 30% trail and 30% road. It felt a lot worse because the trails were also grass/dirt. All of this meant VERY slow going. Most of us doing the half marathon added an average of 1.5 to 2 hours to our road time – that’s to be expected but I really didn’t appreciate just how much harder this would be. Under-gelled and over-lubricated, I scrambled when the proverbial gun went off only to wait in a queue at the first bottleneck. It was then that I realized the field was comprised of a bunch of X-special forces/SAS types and the rest were people like me: those wondering why everyone else was former special forces/SAS type.

First of all, the half marathon was not 13.1 miles – sorry, you didn’t read the fine print – it’s actually 15.5 – well, that changes everything. But WAIT – there’s more. We’re also now going to put a 15 mph headwind into you for about 50% of the race – oh yeah, side-wind too – just in case you felt like getting blown off the mountain and into the Irish Sea. Awesome. Oh, and rain – yeah, you saw that one coming too didn’t you. You betcha, governor. These will sting like bullets. Battling the elements was to be expected – I mean, it’s Wales in January – still, there were periods where after a tremendous slug through the marsh, I broke through a downhill section, the wind died down and the sky opened up to one of the most majestic views I’ve seen in some time – it’s these high moments which I really live for. The trail was also sprinkled with traditional south downs “gates” and up & over passing – which, when trying to move fast – really take their toll on the pacing and quads – a very unique characteristic of England trails in general I’d say. To demolish ones quads to know thou hast lived!

Around the time I realized I did not have enough Power Gels with me (mile 11), I picked up Sam. She was working hard on an uphill and about to quit – so I started talking to her to help her up the mountain. I typically make jokes when I’m having a hard time but as I was feeling pretty good I wanted to give back some Karma. I sent a few jokes her way and we proceeded to slog out the rest of the course – making deals with the devil inside of us as we went.

She was my responsibility now – we were going to get to the finish line but it was my job to get her there. I didn’t want the job, but it felt like the right thing to do – and heaven knows someone’s going to return the favor for me soon enough.

Ok, I’m almost positive there’s a beer at the top of this hill – what, no beer?!?! I’ll kill em – OK, maybe that next hill. I learned she was a 4:20 marathoner so we were probably about in the right pace group, so if I was having a better day I wasn’t going to kill her to push her up the mountain. Ok – we’ll run the flats and walk the uphills – come on, that’s the deal. In the end, we helped each other out – with me leading the pace and her staying behind – we kept that freight train moving – in the final breakaway I ran ahead to finish a few spaces in front of her – but when she finished – WOW! I went in for the high five and she gave me a HUGE hug – “I could not have done that without you!” she said – maybe likewise; sure felt great to lend a hand.

I really am not telling you to pat myself on the back – typically, it’s me needing the help – but it was great to be able to give something back. I can see why Seadog is so good at doing the same thing for me from time to time; it really does feel great when you can help a random (or less random) person through something tough – what a wonderful moment. My friend Clive also showed up to support me – seeing him at the end was an added boost. Truth be told, though, it’s the friends you make along the way that stay with you – I’ve never had an experience like that, where I got strength from being the one doing the pushing.

I finished in 3:09 moving time (3:20 overall); think the moving time is important because sections were blocked on the single track and virtually impassable (like 10 minutes at the start waiting in a queue – “anyone for a cup of tea?”). I didn’t come in DFL (dead f*ing last), but got pretty close. The half marathon winner only finished in 2:10 so I was pretty stoked at not doubling that time – that’s typical pacing against the number one spot for me.

The going was tough but a week later I’m still buzzing from the experience – I also definitely couldn’t have done it without all of the prep in California the week before. Yosemite and Santa Cruz put me to the task! Without that, I’m 100% positive that I wouldn’t have enjoyed the day so much.

Postscript: The Lectures

The other nice thing about the race is that they have a lecture series the evening after the race – ordinary people, doing extraordinary things. It really was an excellent event. I’m not sure if it’s a function of the trail running community or the “stoic Brit” mystique, but the speakers were both inspirational and down to earth.

Gary, one of the organizers, talked about a brilliant event in Sweden called the Otillo. Billy Isherwood gave a great talk on how running saved him from alcoholism. Dave Cornthwaite – who’s done pretty much everything – described his paddle boarding adventure down the Mississippi. John (runningandstuff blog) talked about how/why he ran across the US (apparently his friend called him a wimp for only wanting to run the first 300 miles – yeah…I know…). If you get a chance, I recommend checking out their blogs, books, etc – all of the speakers were amazing.

The best part was that the audience included everyone who had run the race, so you could mingle with other runners in an informal setting, have a drink, and meet some new friends. This was really special given that most of the time people just do a race and then depart. I can’t wait to attend another lecture series – although perhaps I can wait a little while to run another one of these races…