Trail Monster Running

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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Laudholm 5k - Race Report

I don’t know the first thing about Dwarf Tossing Competitions, which is why I don’t organize them.

This was supposed to be a race report on the Laudholm 5k, but it's turned into a bit of a rant. When writing I have often bitten my tongue and held back opinion because I don’t want to piss anyone off. But I’ve decided that I should be able to say whatever I want on my blog, if you don’t like it, don’t read it. Or tell me what you think. Whatever. I may not be right, but it’s my opinion. So here's the first in what I hope will be a more open and honest representation of some of my thoughts about trail running.

In the world of trail running I think the 5k distance is totally lame.

1)       5k is just too short
2)       5k is an arbitrary distance
I’d much rather string together a handful of beautiful trails that make for a logical sequence and let the distance be what it is. I hate to see courses that are contrived to meet a specific distance, especially a really short distance. In trail running you can’t really compare times from one race course to another, because of the variety of terrain you’ll find from one course to the next. Coming up with an exact distance matters less when there’s no comparison. Trail runners accept this as part of the sport. There’s no question in my mind that the Vermont 50 is a more difficult race than the Stone Cat 50. I got my 50 miler PR at Stone Cat, but I know it’s an easy course, and I don’t compare the two on an even level. 

There’s also the question of accuracy in trail racing distances, how do you accurately measure down to the 1/10th of a mile on a trail? In my races I like to make sure that the course is at least as long as the advertised distance, and if it’s going to be off it better be long. One of my biggest disappointments in running was finishing a long race, setting a then PR for that distance and later finding out from the RD that the course was short that year. Most runners won’t complain if they find out that they ran 12.5 miles instead of the advertised 12, it just makes you more of a badass. But if you find out that the course was 48 miles instead of 50 there will be a lot of pissed off runners. 

Yet another aspect of the complexities of trail racing distances is how any one course may vary from one year to the next. Things like erosion, fallen trees, beaver dams, flooding, access permission… can all cause a race course to be changed from one year to the next making comparisons within the history of one event difficult. Weather is also a factor in trail conditions, a dry course vs. a wet course can make all the difference in a trail race.

Trail racing is really about you and the course, not so much about the other runners. It’s one person pushing himself against the terrain. Of course in any race runners will find motivation from others, to push a little harder or plan a strategy, but at the end of the day I think most trail runners will agree that it’s a very personal experience based on how you feel you did against the course regardless of how many people finished in front of or behind you. 

My point is that everyone and their mother is putting on a 5k race these days, trying to capitalize on the popularity of running to make money for some worthy cause. While the cause may be worthy I feel like I’m being used. I run because I love to run, I don’t run to support charities. Sure it’s nice to know that a portion of my entry fee is helping to protect the delicate habitat of the arctic tern, but that doesn’t motivate me to run. What motivates me is the thrill of running fast through the woods, splashing through mud, navigating through rocks and roots, feeling my heart pound and my legs burn as I push my way up a big hill, speeding downhill on the verge of losing control… Growing up in Maine I spent a lot of time outdoors and trail running as an adult captures that feeling of the freedom of youth that is often missing from our lives.

But what really pisses me off is when a race is held at a location with miles of great trails, but the course doesn’t take advantage of this, and appears to be set up for the ease of the organizers instead of the enjoyment of the participants. If you’ve got 4 miles of trails, why would you set up a course that’s only 2.5km long, contains more than ½ mile of paved road, and then make runners run the course twice to get in the 5k distance? Because that’s the easiest course to set up. But it’s the least fun to run, especially when you run past half a dozen trail heads that look like they lead to places much more interesting than where you are at the time.

I’m not trying to suggest that every race should be a Bruiser, but part of the joy of trail running is exploring new places and challenging yourself, and I hate to see missed opportunities for this kind of enjoyment. There is definitely room in the trail running world for “shorter” and “easier” races, I have no problem with that. I’d be satisfied if I came away from the race knowing that I saw the best of the terrain that there was to offer, but instead I left feeling like I missed out on the opportunity to really connect with the place, and that I was being used for my willingness to pay to run.

I’m sure that the organizers of this event had no malicious intent, I’m sure they have only limited understanding of the world of trail running, but that’s the problem. I don’t know the first thing about Dwarf Tossing Competitions, which is why I don’t organize them.

If the organizers of the Laudholm 5k don’t lynch me, I’d actually be very interested in talking with them about how to make the best of what they have to offer. They have a spectacular location, beautiful trails, great facilities and infrastructure, plenty of volunteers... It’s clear they know how to organize a fun event, and I think they could have a great race.

So on to the race itself...
This summer Emma has been on the lookout for short distance, small, low key races to help her along the way as she recovers from a seriously long-lasting knee injury. I've come along to a few of these, and the latest of her discoveries was the Laudholm 5k at the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve. My first impression of the event based on a flier that Emma brought home was not particularly good, they were offering a 5k run and 2.5k walk, "mostly on the trails of the Wells Reserve at Laudholm." I immediately became suspicious that the 5k course might be 2x around the 2.5k course. It was a last minute decision for me, but Emma was already signed up and I do like going to races together, it's something that was missing from our relationship for a while since she was out of commission for many months. 

We arrived at the site of an old coastal farm which is now the headquarters for the WNERR, the location is beautiful and it immediately became clear that this organization knows how to put on an event. We picked up our numbers, used the bathrooms and had time to run a few miles to get warmed up. The course markings were sparse but after about 1/2 mile of exploring we found the start and then followed the course, but before we knew it we were back at the start again. That confirmed that this was going to be a 2 lap course, and my heart sank a little as I realized that I had already seen everything this race course had to offer and I wasn't impressed.

We joined a crowd of about 80 runners and walkers (inappropriately interspersed) at the start line, at the top of a small hill, and tried to listen to the RD give a description of the course as the wind blew his words out to sea. There was one reference to a second lap, but I think what I heard best was other runners saying "we can't hear you back here". 

The first few hundred yards were a gradual down slope on a grass path and I immediately regretted taking a conservative start position as I was weaving through the people who didn't belong at the front of the pack. The course then made a 90 degree turn onto a paved road and continued the downward slope for another few hundred yards before flattening out. I continued to work my way through iPod wearing runners who were already starting to slow down. My original plan was to run the first lap conservatively, then run hard on the second lap, but for some reason I hate running behind people with iPods so I pushed a little harder in that first mile.

We passed a few trail heads along the road and I wished we had been given the opportunity to turn off. My X-Talon's were craving dirt. After about 3/4 of a mile we finally did turn off the pavement and followed a path along the edge of a field. At this point I was probably in 15th place but once we hit the trail I made a little more effort to pick off a few runners who seemed a little less prepared to deal with the slight irregularities of terrain that the trail offered. We passed more inviting trail heads that headed deeper into the woods, but the course kept us on the short cut grass path of the fields. At about 1.25 miles we turned onto a gravel road and made a slight climb back near the start area and began our second lap.
 Top marks for having the biggest carved pumpkin I've ever seen.

I forgot to bring a watch with me so I wasn't able to get my lap split, but no big deal, I knew what lie ahead and I just had to run hard for another 10 minutes or so. I picked up my speed as I headed down the little paved hill and set my sights on the few runners ahead. I could see Christine Reaser up ahead and new better than to try to catch her, but though I may be able to keep her in my sights. I passed the second place woman and another guy just as we hit the 2 mile mark. I attempted to increase my speed as I turned back onto the grassy trail but didn't have much left to give. It didn't help that I was now catching up to the walkers on the course and when you get two double Bobs side by side it doesn't leave much room for anything else on the trail. The few runners ahead of me were getting harder to catch but I continued to make progress passing someone every couple of minutes.

When we reached the gravel road I knew there was only about 1/4 mile left and it was all ever so slightly uphill. Not enough of a slope to justify slowing down, but enough that I felt it hard to pick up the pace for a fast finish. The last thing I wanted was to get passed this close to the end after running a pretty good race, I have no idea what my splits were but no one had passed me yet during the race and I certainly didn't want it to happen here. One final turn onto the grassy trail lead to the finish and then I was done. I heard the RD call out my time as I crossed the finish line, 19:35.

I was really happy with how I ran this race, I have a tendency with a race of any distance to go out too fast and slow down but I don't think that happened today. Even though I don't know what my splits were I think I ran fiarly consistently considering I continued to catch other runners throughout the race. Emma wasn't too far behind me, finishing in 21:01 which was good enough for third place female overall. We haven't seen the overall results yet, and I have a feeling we may never see them but I did find out that I finished in 6th place overall.

Emma and I grabbed a water and headed out for a cool down run, we wanted to check out some of those trails that were skipped during the race. We followed a nice loop, a little over a mile long that followed a field for a short distance before heading into the woods. There were several wooden bridges crossing small streams, enough roots to keep things interesting and a very tranquil atmosphere. It was a shame not to have included these in the race. 

We finished our cool-down and made it back to the finish in time for the awards ceremony where Emma received a medal and coffee mug. Post race refreshments included fruit, bagels and water, all of which was greatly appreciated. On our way out we spent a few minutes checking out some of the other activities going on as part of the larger Eco Sports Day, there were surfing and golfing demos set up, crafts and BBQ and a band was getting ready to play. There is definite potential to turn this race into something special and I hope the folks at the Laudholm Trust can come up with something that takes advantage of all this place has to offer. 


time: 19:35
distance: 3.1 miles
pace: 6:18

weather: overcast, 50's windy

conditions: dry, grass, gravel, pavement

gear: Inov-8 X-talon 190, shorts, singlet



pathfinder said...

Ian, I didn't read anything near linchable in this race report. you have always been quite frank about trail running and I think other race directors could learn a lot from you. I realized when reading this, that I havn't run a 5k for two years now. I also think that trail runnings popularity is increasing and we will see many more (at least partial trail) 5k races springing up.

Jamie said...

Dang dude, smoking time!!! Congrats to both you and Emma, very well done.

And I think your intent to help and make things better is very apparent in your post. I would hope most would take it as constructive criticism and nothing more.

sn0m8n said...

Sounds like you ran a cross country race. Not a trail race. And, as you know, there's a big difference. Not that one is any better than the other. My preference is for a trail race, but that's neither here nor there.

My only beef with the organizers would be if they billed it as a trail race because clearly it's not. Looking at their website, it doesn't really seem like they intended it to be a trail race, which is too bad because it sounds like it could have been fun.

You do allude to a very important point: if you're going to host a trail race, make sure you have some trail runners on the organizing committee. That's pretty important. Trail runners know best how to put on trail races. Your a prime example of that.

Just speculation here, but my guess is that they didn't want to make it too difficult because their goal was to raise money. Plus, since it was part of a larger event, there was no doubt the discussion, "Hey, what else can we do?" A 5k is the easiest for the running masses to comprehend. Arbitrary, yes, but well known. And, as you said, every charity and their brother is hosting a 5k to raise money.

My only real complaint could be that you said the course was laid out for the ease of the organizers. That's too bad. Races should be about the runners. If a certain course or time or other factor makes the race better for the runners but more difficult for the organizers. Too bad. Your goal should be to have the best race possible. I think you see this a lot. Too often organizers are worried about organizing and not running. That's why I think it's great that you run your own races to see it from a competitor's perspective.

Trail Monster Running said...

I should perhaps add that, as Ryan pointed out, this wasn't billed as a trail race. I'm just giving my perspective as a trail runner.

Gorio said...

Your description of the race was good. It was a charity event, and the fee was a modest $18. This was my first "trail" race and I didnt know what to expect. The venue was nice. I dont think the organizers realized that it would be so popular. I think they had 39 runners last year.
BTW, I was the one with the Ipod...

Paige said...

Great post all around :)

Great job, too!

sn0m8n said...

I should add (because everything I say is important) that I didn't see this as a rant at all. More of a manifesto brought on by a specific event. It's not as if you wrote about getting "girled," then you might get lynched.

Cougar said...

Ian, I agree with you 100%. 5k's are too short for trail races. As a matter of fact, the Bruiser is too short. Please make it a Double Bruiser next year!

middle.professor said...

Ian -Great race and thanks for the report. It's good to hear there is fun running down there.

Your comments are 100% on the mark about better runner involvement in the development of these races (and trail runners if its a trail race!). I have to add my two cents to the discussion (because everything I have to say is worth two cents). Trail races seem to be anything that is not a paved road with cars. Even events on dirt roads often bill themselves as trail races. Hell, even races on paved (blacktop) paths call themselves trail races. Some XC races are on trails (Craig Cup!), some not. Many classic courses are on golf courses (Stanford). Others in city parks with ball fields (Mayor's cup). I was appalled when I watched my kids running around soccer fields and across parking lots (!) down in York but in thinking about it, cross country means getting from A to B on anything other than a road. So sure - cutting across a golf course or around a baseball diamond is XC (though maybe not one that I'd like to run).

Multiple loop courses are fun for spectators because they get to see the runners multiple times. Not as fun for a runner for the reasons you mentioned above. But all xc races have multiple loops for the spectator reason. The beauty of a Twin Brook type design is that is that all three woods loops take you out and back to a common location so you get to see the runners multiple times while they are running different trails. Unfortunately there wasn't enough terrain there to complete a 5K course without running part of the trail twice. But the Twin Brook model solves both the spectator's and runner's interests.

I agree that there are two many 5Ks. Back when races were created to be, uh, races, 10Ks were the default and there were many non-standard distances like 7 miles or 10 miles or 12K or whatever. But then when races became fundraisers, the standard dropped to 5K because they are easier to direct and more people are likely to enter.

By the way, Blackstrap Hell, which was advertised as a 10K was a little short the first year because I moved the start/finish line. Last year it was a little long and this year I think it will be a little longer still. When it reaches 10 miles, I'll start calling it a 16K.