I get the impression trail runners aren’t always thought of as serious athletes outside of the trailrunning and ultra community. Undoubtedly, many ‘normal’ runners might wonder, why go for a slower time on the trail when you could be honing your speed on the track and setting a blazing time in a half marathon or 10k? I think this completely misses the point — it takes a different skill set altogether to run mountain terrain well. Still, on one level it makes sense. There’s a lot to be gained from the discipline of a traditional approach to running that includes intervals and tempos runs, and that type of structure is easy to neglect when miles of gorgeous single-track are calling. Sure, being fast is no guarantee of trail and ultra success, but at least at in distances up to 50 miles I do think it carries over and offers a distinct advantage. You can see what I mean if you look at recent trends in ultrarunning, with 2:26 Olympic marathoner Magdalena Lewy-Boulet and 2:32 marathoner Emily Harrison setting blistering paces at ultra distances up to 50 miles. Or take the road-fast, but largely ultra-newbie Nike men’s trail team similarly kicking ultra-butt when they emerged on the scene this year.
I’m going to make a confession. I sort of skipped the road part on my journey to ultrarunning. When I started running, again, after several half-hearted similar attempts over the years, it was on the treadmill. In the garage. Hey, it got the job done while the kids were napping. With my husband’s encouragement, I finally decided to check out the 44 miles of hilly, technical state park trails located less than a mile from our home that I vaguely knew existed. It was such a revelation for this (at the time) full-time mama. That first run, and the countless that followed, were such life-affirming, ‘oh-my-god-the-outdoors-is-amazing!’ and ‘oh-how-wonderful-it-is-to-experience-serenity!’ experiences that they quite literally made me want to dash over and hug the nearest tree. I became an addict. The crack was free, my adoration boundless. Needless to say, the roads barely got a look-in and my dear husband probably wishes he’d never mentioned it.
Soon, with the encouragement of a surprisingly ‘strong to the last’ and reasonably successful 50k debut behind me (5th at the North Face Endurance Challenge 50k Championships in Marin), I moved up to 50-milers. These also went better than I could ever have guessed they would, with top-ten finishes at two national-class Montrail Ultra Cup Races, Santa Monica’s Sean O’Brien (8th) and Sonoma County’s Lake Sonoma (10th). Remember, I’m just a 39-year old Mom who likes to run trails. I never expected that I might actually become even remotely decent at it. Then, the combination of a fortuitous association with half-marathon race company Destination Races via an old book-club friend and a calf tear at my latest 50-miler (Ice Age) invited me to take a temporary step back from trail-mania. I decided maybe it was time to go back to basics and give the asphalt a little love too. After all, I reasoned, any speed I might gain can only help the ultras I have planned for later in the year.
So it is that I find myself training for Destination Race’s Napa to Sonoma Wine Country Half Marathon (July 20), the Ventura Marathon (September 7) and the inaugural Temecula Wine Country Half Marathon (November 15). I’ve done a couple of these race distances before, but this time I’m actually training for them, not just running them on a whim because there happens to be a road race up the street next week and I thought it might resemble a tempo run. I even started thinking I might be able to get kinda fast (this is a relative term, mind). On a really, really good day in my July half-marathon, a top five finish, perhaps?
Then, the press release went out. I mean, the Napa-Sonoma Half has always attracted a strong field, but I had no idea that the likes of Olympian Ryan Hall, his wife, elite speedster Sara Hall, Runner’s World columnist/elite 5000m meter specialist Lauren Fleshman and a bunch of other pros would be lining up come race day this year. Paced by Olympians Meb Keflezighi and Mary Decker Slaney on Elliptigos, no less! That’s a lot of Olympians. For crying out loud, these people have their own Wikipedia pages. And then there’s — you know — me. HA! Humbling, to say the least. Well, maybe it will provide additional motivation to PR, now that my admittedly always rather optimistic hopes of a top-end finishing place have been well and truly eviscerated. Joking aside and much more importantly, it will be a true honor to line up somewhere near-ish, but definitely a wide berth back from, these amazing and inspiring professionals who will leap at the gun and make my pace look like I’m standing still.
With my calf tear healed and a decent chunk of training in the bank, my only question remaining is, which shoes should I wear on race day? Have readers tried any of the racier Newtons? I’m in love with the Gravity IIIs* and the Distance IIIs*, but haven’t tried any of their racing offerings. Alternatively, I’ve had good success with Brooks T-7 racers — well, except for that blister they always give me on my right foot. Suggestions and comments most welcome!
*Full disclosure: I received one comp pair each of the Gravity’s and Distance’s in relation to my role as an Ambassador for Destination Races (with no expectation that they be so much as mentioned here or in any other context). No matter. It doesn’t change the fact that these are hands down my favorite road training shoes ever. I honestly love them about 10x more than any other road running shoes I have tried and fully intend to plonk down my own $$ on my next pairs. I also don’t plan to race a half marathon in either model, since I tend to go pretty minimal on race day.