Two years ago, I became a Race Director. The race had been around for a while and was one I loved. In 2016, it had permit problems and other issues and had been cancelled. When I was approached to resurrect it, my trail group already had a course ready to go, plus a race roster of eager participants and volunteers. We were golden, right? Not so much.
When we did our first orientation run, the race’s previous “regulars” were not happy. What kind of course is this? This is dangerous! Do you have permits?? It’s not even runnable! We’re all gonna die! (The latter might have been their inside voice, but some were definitely thinking it.) After one especially long orientation run with a few frustrated and very vocal participants, I turned to them and suggested – Perhaps this isn’t the race for you. They heartily agreed.
There was a lot of pressure to re-design the course to something like what it had been before. But, I had my own vision of the type of course I wanted, something that showed off not only how beautiful our natural river valley could be, but that could also hold its own amongst the toughest of races: gnarly, rooty, edgy, breathtaking and beautiful. Being married to someone who thinks a lot like Lazarus Lake, also the course designer, I was certain (hopeful? nervously optimistic?) that even if we lost previous participants, we would attract those looking for what we were offering. The risk paid off. In just 18 months, the race tripled in size and has been featured in every major Canadian and North American trail running magazine.
One of the things I learned from this experience is that there are races that are right for some and not right for others. Knowing how to choose the right race for you will help you get the most out of that experience. Below are four “trail secrets” that every runner should know when choosing their fit.
Trail Secrets I Wish I’d Been Told
When you decide to do a milestone race, choose the race wisely. Think beyond the training plan to what you want to get out of the whole experience.
- Do you want support or anonymity?
For my first marathon, I did what I’d done with all my previous races: I told hubby to stay home and watch the girls while I did my own thing. It was “me time” and I loved the solitude of the experience, even in a crowd of runners. I didn’t realize the importance of a first marathon – that sense of accomplishment – until I was at the finish line with nobody to hug but strangers. It was a let-down. That said, I know those who prefer to be alone for milestone races, traveling far enough away from home to be guaranteed anonymity. Know yourself.
2. What kind of energy do you want the race to have?
For my first ultra – a 50-km race in the mountains – I invited Todd to join me. Marathon lesson learned. But, I also made the mistake of choosing a race whose energy wasn’t my fit, at least as a soloist. It was a hyped-up relay race where solo runners could get lost in the masses. Teams of cheering crowds hardly noticed fatigued soloists crossing the finish line as their own relayers did a fresh-legged sprint and clicked their heels for the camera. Worst of all, my solo medal was identical to that of the relayers. In a later moment of good-humoured reflection, I used a permanent marker to scrawl “50” on the back of the medal. I have never gone back.
Two subsequent ultra races that I thoroughly enjoyed had the type of crowd energy I was looking for: specifically, they did not have relay teams. Somehow, knowing that every person I saw was doing the same mileage as me had the feeling of camaraderie and support that I had been seeking.
I know a lot of runners who prefer to run as a soloist at large relay events. They like the hype and energy, returning year after year. That I prefer a “true” solo event is really about how I like to race. Know yourself.
3. Do you want others to read your race report?
There is nothing more exhilarating than recalling in fine detail every high and low of our race experience. Race reports are the best…and the worst.
The most important question you can ask yourself when you are writing a report is: Who am I writing this for? If you are writing to remember the experience, learn from it, maybe provide insights for others who decide to run it, the more detail the better. But, if – and this is usually the case – IF you are writing the race report to share an epic event as broadly as possible, keep it short and sweet. Simple, like an orthopedic surgeon explaining a blunt-trauma compound fracture: “The bone is broke.” My rule of thumb is, if I have to scroll down, I stop reading. And I like running! Imagine how our family and friends must feel.
I wrote my first race report years ago, shared it with my husband, suspecting he would be in awe of what I’d been through. This was his comment: I’m gonna need the Reader’s Digest version of that – as he handed me back my masterpiece. Shocking? Yes! Am I over it? So much. You can thank him for my last race report, which went something like this:
Occasionally, I read long, detailed race reports. Either the content is useful, the person is meaningful, or the author is an amazing writer (rarely the last one, including my own reports). So, decide why you’re writing a race report and who you want to enjoy it, then go crazy within those parameters! Otherwise, expect skimming and lies.
4. Which race will set you up for success?
There are rarely race reports by those who didn’t finish. If you want the medal, you need to maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses in the race you choose. Not to say that you should do the same race year after year. Push your limits, challenge yourself, chase the white whale. But, a lot of things can go right and wrong between the start and finish. The more you choose a race that matches your skills, the more you can push your limits.
The last race I did was two and a half years ago. I was going into the race with an injury but was in denial, never good. Even more significant, I was taking on a race that was going to make me work in areas of weakness for 50 miles. There are things I do well: uphills. There are things I’ve learned to do well: downhills. All things athletic I have learned that I have to work hard to do well, period. I’m a runner, not an athlete.
So, I went to this race, in a different province, on unknown terrain, to discover that I was not ready for it. An athletic person like Todd figured it out in minutes. He had a blast, whooping and careening down crazy mountain sides. To date, it’s his favourite race. It took me about 62-kilometres and 13 hours into the same race to realize that I didn’t have the athleticism to learn on-the-spot and nothing else could prepare me for the tough course except time. The one thing a race does not give you is time. I timed out and that sucked. But, I learned something valuable: That was not the race for me. Yeah, yeah, if I wanted to prove something, I could train for the conditions and return to finish it. For what? Pride and ego aside, I didn’t enjoy the race, I struggled, I was frustrated with my hesitations and nerves. It maximized my weaknesses and minimized my strengths. Not my fit.
Find what you’re good at and do that race, and other races like it, as many as you want. Occasionally, you may want to try something that frustrates and drains you, so go for it. But, if you’re going to pour time into training, money into racing, and effort into finishing, find your fit. Train your weaknesses and race your strengths.
Above all, and in case you missed it, in any milestone race you choose, the best trail secret is this: Know yourself.
Feature Photo Credit: Angie Zee Photography