Don't Fence Me In 12k - Race Recap

This weekend Sara and I journeyed to Helena for the Don't Fence Me In trail race. The event was hosted by the Prickly Pear Land Trust is "committed to the belief that open space is essential to the well-being of all communities" and strives to protect the natural diversity in the area around Helena. The race was also part of the La Sportiva Mountain Cup; a multi-state series that brings out some stout competition.

Sara opted to do the 30k, which was the premier race and part of the series, while I ran the 12k in the hopes of working on shorter term, higher intensity racing. We sprung for a hotel the night before so we wouldn't have to pack up a camp and get Sara to her start super early. This also allowed me to go back and zone out with SportsCenter for a couple hours before returning for my race. I still get anxious hanging around the start line commotion so being able to relax between our 7:30 and 10:00 starts was huge.

By the time I got back to the race site Sara had already been racing for about an hour. I went through all my normal warmup routines, and let the dogs out of the car for a final pee break, before I jogged over to the start. A ten minute delay forced me to try to stay warm and loose, but mostly gave me time to keep staring at the hill that was the start of the race.

The course started just out of downtown Helena and ran uphill a couple blocks to the trail system. With a huge trail system accessible from downtown, there is a plethora of options for race courses, training runs, mountain bike rides, and general recreation, as long as you are willing to go up and down. And the course certainly did that.

Looking at Mt. Helena (30k course) during my warmup
From the start we climbed for the first 1.5 miles or so. Sometimes it the grade was gradual, and sometimes steeper, but we were ascending the entire time. From the gun I felt awful. By the top of the first 100m pitch I was feeling a burn in my legs. This wore off after a quarter mile only to be replaced by an overall sluggish feeling. Despite this I forced myself to close back up to the lead pack, although it quickly turned into the chase pack after one guy distanced himself from the rest of us.

The first set of switchbacks separated us down to the one guy off the front, my group of three, and a fifth guy quickly falling off the pace. I decided I would attempt to stick with a guy (later found out his name is Mike) decked out in Salomon gear and looking a lot like Kilian Jornet, just without the tree-trunk legs. He was climbing strong and seemed to be on a long term mission of chasing down the leader. The two of us slowly distanced ourselves from fourth place, Shiloh, and tried to keep the leader in sight as we switched back farther and farther up the mountain. As we crested one little ridge the trail splintered into five different trails and we both momentarily paused to locate the next course marking. I spotted it and led us off onto a long gradual traverse.

I tried to keep gently pressing the pace to reel in the leader because the last time I had seen him he looked a little strained. Despite my efforts we had lost sight of him so I shifted focus and ran through a systems check of my own. I still felt sluggish and my breathing was much louder and more rapid than it should have been at this point in the race. I began to have serious doubts about my ability to hold the pace, hang with Mike, the value of the my last workouts, my eating and sleeping habits, and just about every other negative thought I could have. And I was only two miles into the race!

Our first major descent arrived just in time. I was able to open up a bit on the long switchbacks down to the bottom of the gulch and realized if I needed to I could put a gap on Mike descending. This gave me a bit of confidence for the later stages of the race, if I could hang on, because the finish was at the end of a long descent. My confidence was bolstered even more by the sight of the leader. We had gained a lot of ground on the descent and were only 20 seconds or so back of him starting the next climb.

But fourth place, Shiloh, wasn't out of the picture yet either. I was hoping that it had turned into a three man race by this point, but Shiloh kept hanging around enough to make me nervous. In trail running "out of sight, out of mind" is a reality. Once a competitor is our of sight in front of you, it is significantly more difficult to rally enough to close the gap. Shiloh hanging around meant that he still had a good chance at closing.

Still leading our duo at the beginning of the climb, I quickly realized I didn't have the legs to close the last 20 seconds on the leader. I hoped Mike did so I stepped aside and let him take the lead up. It was all I could do to hold on. He put 4-5 seconds on my up the climb, but didn't quite bury me. The leader was gone again after probably redoubling his efforts to get out of sight of us. Shiloh had also closed a bit more and was now only five seconds behind me. The race was on!

At this point we started a steeper descent with a few tight switchbacks. I got my legs turning over again and closed the gap down to Mike and then passed him going into a tight turn that required swinging violently around a tree to prevent a fall off the steep edge. Another couple switchbacks dropped us onto the Waterline Trail, which from a conversation I had had with a local just before the race (best race beta ever!) I knew to be about a mile or so of an ever so gradual descent.

At this point we were just over halfway into the race. My legs felt much better about turning over after the descent so I figured if I was going to do anything this race I needed to do it now. Over the course of the next mile I tried to slowly ratchet up the pace on Mike and Shiloh. There were still a few tight turns as the trail traversed in-and-out of gullies, but overall it was smooth straight shot. I found a rhythm and went for it.

I hit the next climb with a 5-10 second lead on Mike and another 5-10 on Shiloh. At this point we had just over two miles left in the race and two significant climbs with this first being the largest. I caught sight of the leader on a switchback way up above me, but he was still moving well and I figured he was too far gone to be caught unless he took a wrong turn. It was a race for second now and it was time to go for broke.

Focusing on quick feet and driving my arms and knees (quicker in my mind than actuality), I tried to keep the pressure on. The climb was long and kept getting steeper. The second to last pitch I felt like I was crawling and was sure I was about to be caught. A quick glance behind me showed that I had opened the gap a little, but I couldn't back off. I really needed the hill to be done. The sound of cheering from the leader going through top drifted down and let me know that I was about a minute from the crest. One more surge propelled me up and over and then I was descending again.

A series of 30-40 yard sections were broken by tight switchbacks as I launched my way down the slope. Every turn I came to pounding halt, rounded the corner, then took off sprinting again. I wanted secure second place on this descent. Each switchback gave me a chance to glance back uphill and I wasn't able to see either 3rd or 4th. but I knew they were coming.

Back on the Continental Divide after a morning of racing
The switchbacks ended and the trail began traversing back North towards Helena. As I started the last big climb I caught sight of Shiloh charging hard. He had passed Mike somewhere and was still running strong and had me in his sights. So once again I had to climb hard to not get caught. At this point I was fairly certain I could still take second because of the final descent, but I had less confidence in pulling away from Shiloh, and I don't like to leave things that late if I can help it. I managed to get to the top before I ran out of steam and press the pace on the last traverse.

We jumped on a gravel city road for a short descent before hitting the last section of trail. At this point I knew I had second place wrapped up as long as I didn't fall. I still kept the pace hot, but didn't cross into the out-of-control stage. I wanted to stay upright. I hit the bottom and charged the last quarter mile to the finish, while racing little kids who were finishing the 5k.

Overall I was pleased with the race. Despite the sluggish start I stayed mentally stronger than I have in the past and made a move when I didn't feel that great. For the future I think I need to do a harder warmup, longer strides, and generally get my blood pumping a little more. Hopefully that will take away the sluggish feeling so I can race from the start. If I had felt good enough to go with the leader early there is a chance I could have competed for the win.

The course itself was spectacular. For a 12k it was a great mix of climbing, descending and just plain running. There wasn't a spot where I could let up if I wanted to hang on to second, or third, or fourth.

Sara had a great time running the 30k. That course had significantly more climbing as it summited two mountains, but she kept it controlled, didn't blow up, and finished with a huge smile (before stiffening up in the car)

After hitting up the Big Dipper for ice cream we journeyed back to Missoula with a short hiking detour at McDonald Pass on the CDT. Being back on the same trail we had spent so long hiking brought back a lot of memories of trail miles and left us both wondering what our next trail adventure will be. Whether it's a trail race or a thru hike, Sara and I both love being out in the mountains so a day like yesterday is very satisfying for us.

My next race will be the Double Dip here in Missoula in early June. It's a lot of climbing, a lot of descending, and promises to be extremely competitive this year. For now, back to training.

Happy Trails,