Friday, 24 November 2017

Racing Again - Punisher Night Trail Race 30km

I have no idea why I felt so nervous about Aravaipa's Punisher Night Trail Race 30km on Saturday evening, but just a couple of hours before the 6pm start, the butterflies were doing somersaults in the old tummy. For the past month, I'd been really happy and surprised at how well my training seemed to be going, and whilst 7 minute miling doesn't feel remotely as easy as it used to do, I was starting to feel much more comfortable running at a faster pace again.

Enjoying some good quality training sessions

The original plan  had been to run the 50k Pass Mountain race that same morning but a clash with Tillie's puppy school graduation day meant I had to transfer to the night race instead. I wouldn't have missed her graduation for the world and I'm pleased to say that the little girl was outstanding on her last training session despite distractions from her ever supportive bug brother and sister, Wilson and Brandy. The furries were also due for their annual checkup and vaccinations, so a 3.30pm appointment at the vets with all the family in tow meant that I was starting to wonder whether I would even  make it to the night race on time.

Tillie's last day at puppy school and her first certificate :-)

Thankfully we didn't encounter any drama and we arrived at Usery Mountain Park in plenty of time, enabling us to give the pups a little walk prior to the race start and witness the most beautiful, amazing sunset.

Beautiful sunset at Usery Mountain Park
There were only around 25 people registered for the 30km race and yet I was still feeling extremely nervous. I had a race plan - I wanted to run around 2 1/2 hours - and having been instructed by coach Adam to "run happy, but fast", I knew what I had to do. I also wanted to practise getting in and out of the aid station more efficiently - having taken a look at past race results, it was evident that I tend to spend far too much time refuelling so I needed to enact a much smarter strategy to get me out and back on course far more swiftly. Thankfully Andy was there to help, and he did an excellent job in making sure I spent minimal time grabbing drinks and gels, so much so that two passes through the aid station and an unplanned pit-stop mid-race only cost me a mere 90 seconds as opposed to the usual 5 minutes plus.

The race consisted of 3 x 10km loops on pretty flat and smooth terrain. There were a couple of sections that were somewhat sandy which made it hard work on tired legs as the race progressed, and there was just one small but steep, rocky climb and descent that really wasn't as bad as I was expecting. I had no idea what pace I was running in the dark, but my breathing and heavy legs told me that I wasn't taking things easy and as I reached the end of each loop and glanced at the timing clock, I was very pleased to see that I was on target to hit my goal.

Being so few entries, I was looking forward to running pretty much solo for the duration of the race - this would allow me to run my own race without any distractions, and to really test my speed and fitness. As soon as the race started, I found myself running out ahead of the field, but a minor error meant I missed the first turn and had to double back and I found myself in the midst of all the other runners. Thankfully the trail was wide enough to allow me to get back into my flow and I found myself running out in front with a couple of guys. We ran together for a short while but as we started a gentle incline under the sandy wash area, one of them pulled away whilst the other chap ran just behind me. After a mile or so, I started to become a little frustrated that the chap was still sitting on my shoulder and appeared to be tracking me - every time I speeded up or slowed down, he was matching me stride for stride, and occasionally he would try to strike up a conversation. I was on a mission and was really not in the mood for idle chit chat, and I found it really hard to remain polite whilst trying to firmly convey that I really didn't want to talk.

As I neared the end of my first loop, the same guy was still right behind me and I ran into the aid station chuntering about him and expressing my frustrations to Andy who was waiting patiently for me with a drink and a gel. But Andy was amazing - in around about way he told me the sooner I stopped moaning and got going again, the sooner I could get away from him and refocus on my race, and within a matter of seconds, I was off on my second loop.

My first lap came in at just over 47 minutes and as I headed out on my second lap, I was feeling really good and strong. But after a couple of miles my stomach started to bloat and I had the urgent need to jump into a bush to relieve myself. Although I soon got going again, I had lost some of my momentum and I ended up with a 50 minute second loop. 

Once again, I started small talk with Andy, going into detail about how I'd just had a bout of the trots and had to dive in to a bush. He asked if  it had made me feel better and at my reply he firmly hurried me on my way, highlighting once again that I'd already dealt with the problem and didn't need to dwell on it.

As I commenced my third and final lap, my legs were starting to feel the distance and the pace. I hadn't ran more than 15 miles since Mogollon back at the beginning of September, and with tonight's faster pace, my legs were clearly letting me know that they weren't quite used to this right now. My calves were starting to tighten a little and my glutes were complaining, but I was still trying to push onwards. As things stood, I had an hour to run the last 6 miles and I was feeling fairly confident that I could still do it. However, the wind by now had picked up considerably and I was finding it hard to maintain my pace whilst trying to battle a persistent headwind.

I'll let you into a not so secret secret - I hate the wind! I can handle pretty much any type of weather that is thrown at me - heavy rain, blizzards, heat, you name it, I can handle it - but give me a brisk wind and I want to give up. Windy weather means putting in double the effort for the same results, and Saturday night was no exception. As the wind picked up, my breathing became more laboured from the increased effort and as my pace started to slow, I was starting to feel frustrated. The wind became even more intense and out of sheer resentment, I started to walk, effing and blinding as I went along. I only walked a few steps before I chastised myself for being so childish and started to run again, but another strong gust stopped me in my tracks as I started to have a grumpy strop at Mother Nature. I fought with both myself and the wind for the entire gravel road section and was so relieved when I finally saw the turning that would take us back up the sandy trail - I would rather deal with an uneven sandy trail than battle with the wind! Besides, this trail offered shelter from the wind and with just under 2 miles remaining, I found my pace increasing again. I made it to the top of the climb and could see the finish in the distance - another 10 to 15 minutes or so of running and I would be done.

I finished in an official time of 2.27.50 feeling suitably tired and happy. The race had panned out pretty well in the end and I knew that I had given everything I physically could on the night, although there are clearly areas where I know that I could have done better.

Awards time :-)
We hung around for a while afterwards, enjoying some grub and a hot coffee whilst sitting beside the campfire. Although it was a beautiful, clear night, it was also quite chilly and even with the warmth from the fire, the cool desert air was still noticeable. Of course, the dogs were with us and they joined us for the fun whilst we chilled out and chatted with friends whilst waiting for the awards.

An evening around the campfire, trying to keep warm
Having now completed a race and proved to myself that my training is starting to pay off, I am feeling more confident about Across the Years in just 5 weeks time and feel that I am on track for a PR. Having done the event a couple of years ago, I know what to expect this time and my race strategy will be completely different. The next few weeks of training will be crucial in making sure I remain on track to achieve what I hope to achieve - I know there are going to be some hard sessions where I need to push and work harder, but I am willing to do whatever it takes to hit my end of year goal.

For now though, I have a few days off for Thanksgiving and I'm looking forward to spending some precious time with the family before Andy heads off to Canada for a couple of weeks. I also have the McDowell Mountain Frenzy to look forward to which will be my next race here in Phoenix until the biggie - hopefully that too will go well, and I will know for certain that I'll be ready to tackle ATY next month.

Punisher 30k Trophy and stuff

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