This race should be like a home course for me, as it starts just a few miles from our house, but in truth, until the previous weekend, I hadn't run here in three years. (It should also be noted that the last time I raced here, I took a wrong turn while leading the race, losing a spot to Greg Hammett, only to have him wait for me at the finish line, as described here.) So, I wasn't exactly feeling any advantage. Fortunately, a warm-up over much of the new (to me) course, led by Jonny, had me more confident about the directions. There was also no chance I'd be leading the race this time around, so I was looking forward to having guides for much of the race itself.
Race Part I: Stalking
This course, both the old and new version, entices nearly everyone into an overly eager pace right off the line. Even those of us who prefer more conservative starts are forced to comply or risk getting cut off from our natural position in the pecking order by eager interlopers. Having experienced the drawbacks of a too-fast and too-slow start on this course, I decided I prefer the former to the crashing and thrashing the latter requires.
[Looking at most post from three years ago, here's what I wrote about a similar starting strategy:
My typical race plan, especially on trails, is to run patiently and trust that I'll be able to catch the fast starters before the race is through. This is a nice, safe strategy that has served me well. It's also terribly boring. How boring? Here's Jeff's description of this approach from his blog post:
"Normally, prudence dictates a conservative pace at the start to save some endurance for later in the race."That's right, it's so boring that words like "prudence," "dictates," and "conservative" are used to describe it. Oof, that's boring. I decided to use this year's OMF race as an experiment in aggression. ]
This is a long way of saying I went out uncomfortably hard yet again. Still, I found myself behind a dozen runners with maybe 50 meters to go before entering the woods. I begrudingly surged past half of these, eventually landing in fifth place as we hit the trail. I was behind the four who beat me last time, which, after all that starting drama, is precisely where I'd hoped to be.
Lonergan led, with Greg hot on his heels, and they were flying. Brightman was next, and he'd smartly let the two leaders gap him. Jackman was a step behind him, and I was a few seconds back from there. I had a tall guy in a blue jersey ("Ronald McTall guy," as Jackman put it) directly behind me but figured he'd eventually drop. I was also sucking wind pretty hard, thanks to the quick start, so I had no plans of making any moves unless absolutely necessary. But I also wouldn't let the two guys in front of me pull too far ahead, no matter what it took.
We had a few obstacles early on in the race. The first was a totally unexpected dual-dog encounter at the bottom of the rock jump. They were well behaved but did an incredible job of just standing directly in the middle of the single-track. We also came across a group of walkers right before the stream crossing; they were much more courteous than the dogs were.
I stayed five or so meters behind the two in front of me, glad to have a little space to watch my footing. When Jackman went by Brightman in the first mile, I started to close the gap, as I didn't want to lose touch with him. I pulled directly behind Brightman, thinking I'd hang there for a bit, but Jackman's gap had grown, so I spontaneously made a move through the muck and briers around Brightman. He accelerated to hold me off, and I recklessly crashed through some branches and rejoined the trail just ahead of him, keeping the pedal down to discourage a comeback. Despite this big move, I soon sensed someone right behind me again and realized it was Tall Man, who was evidently here for the long haul.
Race Part II: Stalked
I tracked Jackman through the Jonny-coined "zero-track" section, watching him wipe out around a muddy turn, only to pop back up seemingly without losing a step. I went under the awkward diagonal downed tree and wondered how Tall Man dealt with that one. As we came to the rock wall section, I opted for the right side of the trail, which essentially turned out to be a bog, nearly sucking my shoes off. I recovered in time to almost take a digger on the stream crossing (right after seeing the dogs again!), narrowly avoiding a major catastrophe.
We headed up the hill, and I tried to find a way to ask Jackman to let me pass, saying something to the effect of, "I'll take the lead for a bit; you can take it back whenever you'd like." It was unnecessarily polite but did the trick. Tall Man followed, and I got the feeling he was biding his time before making me his next victim. Sure enough, he went by on the descent and quickly got a gap on me as we headed for the reservoir loop. This section turned out to be the trickiest yet. The lugs on my trail shoes acted like ball bearings when treading across the wet wooden bridges. I tried to avoid making any sudden lateral motion, but this proved difficult on the many bridges positioned at the start or end of a curve in the trail. I'd managed to make it across nearly all of the bridges when, on the penultimate one, I slid on one foot across almost its entire length, stopping awkwardly with my other foot to prevent a fall.
Race Part III: Surviving
It was a relief to exit onto the grass/concrete section, getting my feet back under me, and charging into the woods once more for a final loop over the "mountain" and through the switchbacks. I was only a few seconds behind Tall Man and seemed to have plenty of space on Jackman and Brightman. I was also surprised to see Greg not too far ahead, having been dropped by Lonergan, who was nowhere to be seen.
The little hope I'd held for catching Tall Man was dashed as he pulled away up the last big hill. I did what I could on the slalom section but to no avail. On the final straight, I could see Greg finishing, with Tall Man about half the distance between us. I came through in 19:57 (results), good for fourth place. I was surprised to see Brightman come next, just ahead of Jackman. Jonny, Muddy, and Jeff all finished in the top 10. With Greg donning a WTAC jersey, we easily pulled off the win. Turns out, we would have won even without Greg, but I'll take the big win over the narrow one any day.
From a Series standpoint, I'm in a three-way tie for 3rd with Jackman and Brightman and will need to make something special happen at the longer upcoming races in order to pull ahead. Should make for a fun six weeks.