Let's fast-forward to race day and a slightly different blog format. I'll use the photos (my own and those of the race photographers -- who posted 1500 photos for free online!) from throughout the race to take you through the event.
It was a beautiful and crisp morning, with temps in the 40s, rising into the 50s by race time. I found after pulling into the grass parking area that the week's rain hadn't managed to get very far below the surface. The turf was saturated, and so was my left shoe after stepping out of the car. I was quite early, so I took a jaunt over to the so-called "Million Dollar View," an expansive vista toward the Catskills, which, on this day, were hovering above a valley of fog.
The view was somewhat spoiled by an awful odor, which upon inspection was revealed to originate in my right armpit. This is highly unusual for me, but it seemed fitting, and here's why: As a young runner, I would get dragged along on summer evening excursions in these very mountains with a combination of high school teammates and grizzled local veteran runners (who, I now realize, were probably my current age). They were, without exception, fragrant in a way that only runners can be.
I had never experienced anything quite like that first whiff, and it never got any better. Yet, there I was, 20+ years later, emanating my own brand of the mountain runner's perfume. It made me smile a little...and then scrub with whatever dew I could swipe from the morning grass.
There weren't many familiar faces in the starting area. I'd bumped into a high school teammate during my warm-up and spotted the Vassar coach, whom I know by name but hadn't formally met. Otherwise, the field was a mystery. My A goal for the day would be a sub-65 performance, while my B goal was to beat my 2009 time of 66:50(?).
The race starts in probably the soggiest three miles anywhere in the 100+ miles of Mohonk Preserve trails. This was unfortunate, as it meant we'd be running in wet, heavy shoes for the entirety of the race. I'd already decided to wear my heavy Hokas and ankle braces, and this would just add to the burden. These three miles alternate between open grass fields and very technical single track.
The pace was moderate, and I bounced between first and third place before settling into second as we approached the hill that had killed me nine years ago. This 400' climb over a 1/2 mile beat me up the last time I'd raced it. I'd told myself ever since then that the race doesn't start until that hill is summitted. I followed my advice and didn't make a move until hitting the carriage road at the top.
Over the next mile, after a flat section, the course gradually climbs another few hundred feet. I edged onto the shoulder of the Vassar coach, who'd been leading to that point, but he sensed my move and accelerated as well. We ran astride until a few hundred yards up the hill, when I edged ahead. The third part of our triumvirate, an unknown runner in a NYAC uniform, came right with me and eventually passed me midway up the hill.
I stuck close behind him and passed him back when I sensed a lag in the pace. As we reached the golf course, I was in the lead but hadn't shaken him. I still felt good at this point (less than halfway through the race) but I worried that he hadn't yet shown any signs of weakness. Would he make another move? Would he break?
We wound our way through the course, and I got progressively less confident in my ability to drop him. We faced another big climb up to the 5-mile mark, and then we'd descend for nearly the entirety of the race. Downhills have never been my forte, and trying to win a race down a 5-mile hill would require a genuine miracle. As if sensing my uneasiness, he flew past me just as we started the ascent. I stayed on him all the way to the top, when, as expected, he shot out of a cannon and left me in his wake. Seriously. He was 10 seconds ahead within a minute. If the remainder of his downhill running was as good as he'd just demonstrated, I'd be lucky to finish within 5 minutes of him.
There was a water stop at the intersection near the bottom of the first downhill, and, as I could no longer see him, it gave me a chance to gauge how far ahead he was by the gap in the cheers for each of us. It seemed to me he was 15-20 seconds up at this point, but we still had four miles to go, and I was feeling fine. We turned onto a long, flat trail, where I could still see him on certain very straight stretches. I sensed I was holding steady here, but I'd need to start chipping away soon if I wanted to have a chance. Not taking anything for granted, I also peeked back a few times to make sure I was safely in second (I was).
Turning off the flat path, we descended sharply into a meadow path with views toward Bonticou Crag. This is where my very first XC practices were held as a high school freshman. I fondly remembered my coach (also a rookie) teaching me to run downhill with wildly helicoptering arms. I thought I might try that on the next descent, as my technique couldn't get any worse at it than I had been to that point. After another sharp drop, the course climbs up a steep, long single-track that feels a million times worse than it should, since I'd gotten so accustomed to running downhill over the previous two miles. I really struggled on this hill and started to accept that first place was out of grasp.
After cresting this hill, it's all downhill to the finish, over the final two miles. About 400 meters into this final descent, I started sensing a slight pulling sensation in one hamstring and then the other. I was on the verge of major leg cramps and didn't know what to do about it. I hit the brakes and quite literally began jogging to try to let the muscles calm down a bit. I was in self-preservation mode at this point. A full-on hamstring cramp could end my race and would, at the very least, cost me a spot or two. I couldn't let that happen, so on I jogged. I eventually began to accelerate, but only gradually, as anything more sudden would have surely caused the legs to cramp again.
I got into a comfortable rhythm that was more tempo pace than race pace, but it would have to do. I frequently looked back to make sure I was safe, and fortunately I was. I'm not sure what I would've done had I been forced to defend my position. This was a sad way to end the race, and I was becoming increasingly aware that I might not even beat my time from '09.
Afterward, I enjoyed seeing just how muddy I'd gotten over those first few miles, and was impressed that most of it had stuck with me through the race. The Hokas weren't the most race-friendly shoe, but I wore them to help cope with pounding of the downhills, and from that perspective, they acquitted themselves quite nicely. And, as always, the ankle braces saved me once or twice from disaster. I have an intense love-hate relationship with those things.
The highlight of the day, of course, is the pie-covered awards table, from which I took a delicious apple pie donated by the local Bruderhof community. I also helped myself to two servings of the amazing chili supplied by The Bistro, one of my favorite local restaurants.
Through internet research (Note: NOT stalking), I later learned that the winner was a 9:03 steepler from Tufts. I suddenly felt less bad about losing to him by 1:45.
In the end, I'm glad I finally returned to this race, happy with the course PR, but now hungrier than ever to finally conquer it. I just hope it doesn't take another nine years to get back out there.