February 17, 2009

Lovin the Hills...as told by a novice trail runner

Bert Tyrone Guinn

I drove my good friends and fellow outdoor enthusiasts, (Kyle, Ben, Kristen, and Dominic) to the race in my van, so I had the CD player loaded up with familiar, well-aged tunes that I thought would be perfect to fire us up....the Pixies, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Stone Temple Pilots, and Pearl Jam. I was feeling very anxious when I picked everyone up at 6:45 AM in the Highlands before the 30 minute trek out to Jefferson Memorial; I think we were all downright giddy and acting silly talking about how many times we pooped that morning and whether we needed to force out another one before the start. I think all of us could have thrown up at the slightest waif of rotten eggs.

Last year, Louisville’s Lovin the Hills (15 m) was my first trail race ever. I recall that I didn’t start training until about six weeks prior, so you can imagine the race was quite a shock to my 37-year old system. This year at 38, I had trained more and felt better prepared. Over the last year, I had also learned more about nutrition, pre and post preparation, clothing management, and trail running in general.

I decided early on that my plan was to hang with Ben (the best runner in our group) as long as I could. The dude had a fire raging in his eyeballs right before the start of the race. Off the block, I ran an eight-minute first mile then a nine-minute second mile. Of course, soon enough, those monster hills hit you from no where like the sound of shattered glass in the night and you find yourself immediately thinking, “why am I doing this?” and “what if I don’t finish?” Then, you proceed to fight all those negative thoughts with self-encouraging ones for the duration of the race.

Another thing I learned this year is to sprint all the steep down hills. I used to be concerned about twisting an ankle or falling so I would fight against gravity and slow down to a fast jog on the down hills, now I go balls out, stretch out my pace and take off flying. Doing so provides the following advantages: 1. It provides a leg up on all the rest of the runners who are afraid to do so. 2. It provides momentum getting up the next hill. 3. It’s exhilarating and gives me renewed energy 4. Its fun!

It wasn’t long before I was running alone. The last time I saw Ben in front of me was around the second mile. Kyle and Dominic disappeared out of sight behind me somewhere around mile three, only to re-emerge later around miles five and six. About mile four, I was getting hot as the temperature was approaching 40 degrees, and I found myself regretting my light rain jacket especially since the forecasters got it wrong. There was no rain whatsoever. Unfortunately, my race number was safety-pinned to my jacket over the zipper so I couldn’t just take it off. Determined to shed the jacket, I decided to engage in the hard work of removing each of the 4 safety pins and repining them to my shirt while I was jamming up the big hill on mile five. As hard as this was to do while still maintaining a strong forward momentum, I managed to pull it off. I knew I would be going past the van around mile six, so time was of the essence.

As I approached the van (near the start/finish line), a bystander said, “I’ll take your jacket.” But, I declined because I had a bottle of Gatorade waiting for me at the wheel of my van. My plan was to drop the jacket and grab the Gatorade in one quick motion while continuing my stride. I guess I didn’t realize how fast I was running. It must have been a hilarious sight. About 20 feet past the bystander, I leaned my head and my right hand down to drop the jacket and as my hand was picking up the Gatorade, my body caught up with my head too fast, and I rammed my head into the hood of the van. I said a four-letter word and kept running not looking back to see who all was laughing.

Kyle was again out of my sight behind me somewhere as I then proceeded out onto the road for about .75 miles to get to the Yost section. Just before entering Yost, I heard heavy breathing and steps behind me. It was Kyle. He was back along with Dominic closing in. Kyle made the comment that I smoke him on the hills, but he catches up with me on the straight-aways. Kyle is a good runner and his legs are longer than mine, so I think this makes perfect sense that he can do that when he really stretches them out on the road. Once we started hitting the insane hills in the Yost section I again pulled away from Kyle until I couldn’t see him anymore...though I could still see Dominic trailing only about one minute behind me. I was feeling good and strong, so I kept focusing on going as fast as I could up and down the hills.

If you’ve done that section, you know how brutal those hills are. I was committed to my pre-race decision of not stopping at any of the water stations. Thankfully, there was a volunteer around mile 11 who handed me a cup of HEED as I ran past. That was just what I needed to make it up the grueling mile-long hill just afterwards. I made it to the top feeling good estimating that I was a good four minutes in front of Dominic and maybe as much as 14 minutes in front of Kyle. I had no idea where Kristen was. I had not seen her since the starting line which I was unabashedly feeling good about. Kristen is a very strong runner and a lion-hearted athlete. She had made the comment that we would all have to work extra hard to beat her because she wasn’t going to just let us. This was her first Lovin the Hills race, and she did awesome. I think she will kick butt next year. If I was Ben (her husband), I would look out.

I proceeded out onto the road to head back toward the finish line....just as I was entering mile 13, I was thinking about how glad I was to be beating Dominic, Kyle, and Kristen, and bam! It was similar to getting an electrical zap from an outlet in the house. My left foot, big toe, and calf all locked up, and I froze in my tracks. I stood there unable to move as 1, 2, 3, 4, then 5 unknown runners who were on my heels passed me. The pain was excruciating. I knew I had to do something, yet every time I went to move, I felt a shock wave up my spine. I knew I had to unlock my foot, but I didn’t know which way. I reached down and began to pull on my toe and no luck, still locked...about three minutes passed. Then, Dominic suddenly appeared at my side and asked if I was okay. I said, “I can’t move.” He said, “What do you want me to do?” I said, “You need to GO!”, and he took off. I reached back down pushed my toe forward and back until all the muscles finally popped lose from contraction.

I proceeded to start jogging not wanting to force it. I knew I had another Gatorade waiting by a tree along with a gel just about another .3 miles away. I continued to jog until I made it to the Gatorade. At that point, I knew I had to be careful. I was getting fluids, so I knew that would help, but I could not risk any more Charlie Horses or I would lose all the momentum of my previous gains. My legs were mildly cramping, and I got my jog up to a light run as I passed the crowd before going down by the lake near the lodge to finish out the last mile and a half. It was straight down and straight back up. I felt good mentally, but the leg and foot thing was still a big concern. I looked at my watch and it said 2:50. My dream was do this thing in less than 3 hours. My time last year was 3:38. I was excited by the idea that I might actually accomplish my goal, but my heart was also aching over the idea that I might not make it if my leg and foot locked up again.

Determined as ever, I gave it all I had to finish out that last mile. I crossed the finish line and Ben was there giving me high-fives. I asked him if he won, and he laughed, then I looked up at the big race clock. My overall time was 2:59 and 10 seconds. I did it.

As you can see below, all of us who did it together last year improved dramatically over the previous year.

  1. Ben 2:31:21 (last year 2:44) *Ben got 16th place overall.

  2. Dominic 2:54:18 (last year 3:32)

    1. Bert 2:59:10 (last year 3:38)

    2. Kyle 3:06:01 (last year 3:35)

  3. Kristen 3:06:05 (her first year!)

Another friend of ours, Ryan Matteson, whom we can all give kudos to for introducing us to LLTH, finished an amazing 6th place overall. Another friend who rode with us to the race, Matt Russell finished the race in 9th place overall. And, we were all sad that Daniel Montgomery couldn’t make it out this year due to a bum knee, but he will be back.

I for one can’t wait for the chance to improve even more next year. This race must be getting more high profile as I talked to another runner who had flown in from another state to compete. Last year, the overall winner completed it in 2:10. This year, the 1st place winner did it in 1:59, so it the competition is getting fiercer.

I only trained up to about 13 miles this year. Next year, I plan to train past 15 miles in the hopes that I won’t have the cramp problem again. The other thing is that there are only so many opportunities to get out to Jefferson Memorial during the training. It’s a good four to five hour commitment on a weekend day. With little kids at home that can be tough to negotiate with your spouse at home. But, running at Cherokee Park or Briar Hill Park doesn’t even compare, so next year, I need to find a way to train at Jefferson Memorial more often. And, next year, Dominic will fall. I don’t care if he is only 25 years old.

Louisville’s Lovin the Hills is a fantastic adventure, and you cannot beat the beauty of Jefferson Memorial Forest. I highly recommend it to everyone. The 2009 race was very organized and the efforts of the volunteers were amazing in light of the ice storm and subsequent power outages.

Great job to all!