By way of background, I’d registered for this race a year ago, curious about the trail, only to find out a few weeks later that it was canceled. Evidently the Knob Hills Trail is maintained by mountain-bikers, and when conditions turn muddy, they close the trails to prevent erosion. The race was rescheduled to January 18, 2020, and my prior registration rolled over automatically.
For barefoot runners, the nature of the trail matters for the obvious reason that smooth dirt or sharp-edged rocks have different implications for speed and thus goals and strategy. Since this race would take place on the northwestern shore of Grapevine Lake, I imagined a mix of sand and dirt with some crumbled limestone strata, which is what I’d experienced on the lake’s southeastern shore, where I’d participated in the Rockledge Rumble….
One month before the race, I found a video of the Knob Hills Trail posted online by a mountain biker. From the perspective of the helmet-mounted camera whizzing along, it looked like all sand and smooth dirt. My heart leaped at the prospect of running fast on such a pleasant surface!
The week before the race, on a beautiful Saturday morning, I drove out to the trail, eager to explore it firsthand. I found it was at first quite smooth, then it curled through some ravines and was strewn with the more challenging limestone gravel which I’d experienced on Grapevine Lake’s southeastern shore, but then there was a mile and a half of wonderful damp but firmly-packed dirt, perfect for speeding along. A little later the trail rose out of the flood plain and offered views of rolling hills and winter forest. In sum, it was a lovely trail: an interesting mix of surfaces through a pretty wooded area. I ran 8 miles on Saturday and had so much fun I came back on Sunday and ran another 10, and this experience left me feeling excited and well-prepared.
Although, the prominent “trail closed” sign I’d noticed at the first trailhead did seem a little ominous, given last year’s cancellation (to be respectful, I drove off and found another trailhead that appeared to be open). And the forecast didn’t look promising, with heavy rain projected throughout Thursday and Friday. Someone had commented online that given conditions they’d wait for more information before signing up.
Three days out, and no word from the race organizers, at least nothing via email. When I checked the Facebook event page, there was a cryptic message: given the closed status of the trail, the race would take place on a “modified” course, but little else was shared.
The day before the race, a comment on the event page from one of the registered participants: “The trail is so nice to run on when it’s dry….postpone or refund please!”
Needless to say, I showed up Saturday morning unsure what to expect. A few pointed questions elicited from the volunteers that the “modified” course would consist of a 5k loop, which for 50k participants would be repeated ten times. At the race briefing, the director acknowledged that they’d put the loop together only the day before and warned us of one section where our feet would unavoidably get wet. This format raised the stakes: whatever this little loop had in store for us, we’d get to experience it ten separate times, or put differently whereas 10 x Good would be great, 10 x Bad might be awful.
To make a long story, short, let’s be charitable and call this little loop “undistinguished.” That’s not to say there were no runnable spots. The first quarter mile was very runnable. It started out along a smooth road of dirt and grass, although there was one tight point where you splashed through a puddle and turned hard right then splashed through a stream and squeezed between two thorny trees. In any case, this quarter mile gave me the brief and mistaken impression that the rest of the course would be similar. I was quickly cured of this notion when the course hit a chunky gravel road.
Needless to say, as a barefoot runner, I can’t complain about gravel, because people would ask, “why didn’t you wear shoes?” It’s difficult in the best of times to explain to the special feeling of lightfootedness that comes from running without shoes, and doubly so when you’re trying to trot through gravel, or even walk across it. In this case, I was able to slink along the shoulder, which was slanted, scattered with a few rocks, and cloaked in scratchy weeds, but otherwise passable.
Then it was onto a narrow footpath through the fields, which was runnable for about ten yards until the path careened into a gully and banked hard to the right – I recall each time coming through, how I’d brake myself by punching my left foot into the far side of the embankment at exactly the same point – and then there was a stream crossing with outstretched branches to duck beneath. From here, the path hugged the bank above a little gully, which meant the narrow footpath was always slanted upwards and to the left, creating a strain for knees and ankles.
The path next hopped up and over a little hill covered with shards of clay and expended plastic wads from shotgun shells, but fortunately no-one was firing today, and then across a gravel parking lot – for the barefoot runner, a cue to bend the knees and pick up the feet – and then back onto single track path alongside the little gully, still slanted upwards and to the left, and only now we were paralleling a nearby highway and listening to the lovely sounds of traffic.
What caught my eye next was the prickly pear cactus alongside the path. Then the path turned hard left and snuck under a row of tree branches with inch-long thorns (the scratches on my arm attracted some attention afterwards) – and now there were trampled-looking prickly pear directly on the path. As you can imagine, I danced through these obstacles as if my life depended on each step.
But the worst was yet to come. Down and up a gully, and where the runners had torn by, the path was turning slick with mud – and then another gully, followed by a hard right into an area that hadn’t been mowed, where knee-high stems poked up from the trail, and while this wasn’t an issue for the soles of my feet, these stems scratched the poor sensitive tops of my feet and toes as I crashed through. For the record, there were sawbriers growing here, too. Once through, a quick hop over a fallen tree, and then there was a strand of barbed wire lying across the path which became evident when the runner in front of me tripped and fell.
There were a few yards that offered some views across open fields, but then the path started cavorting through pockets of mud, which required close attention. Indeed, mud was about to become the dominant theme. There must have been several hundred yards of deep mud, or if you ran off to one side, matted vegetation on top of deep mud, and then a stream crossing which required a dexterous hop from one slick muddy bank to another. You can run through mud so long as you lean forward and don’t mind each splashing step sinking unpredictably, but it’s hard work hard to keep your balance.
That was the worse part. Afterwards, there was a broad field to run across. The closely mowed vegetation (grass and scratchy weeds) felt prickly to feet that had now been quite thoroughly soaked. Then a gravel patch to dance across (bend those knees, pick up those feet) and then a dirt and gravel road, which was perfectly navigable, it just required careful aim to avoid some piles of rocks, and then a smooth paved road, which normally would’ve been an easy surface, but to wet and scratched-up feet, the asphalt required a lot of attention just to trot along slowly.
It was an undistinguished loop, cobbled together the day before, offering nothing special, and what was most difficult for me was the constant mental effort required to manage myself through the various obstacles. It was, in a word, not what I’d hoped for, not a chance to experience the feeling of lightfootedness that comes from speeding along smooth surfaces and dealing with obstacles here and there, rather it was all obstacles, and only one or two places to run easily.
I was tempted to drop out, in fact, sorely tempted, and as I trotted along, I was preparing a lecture for the race organizers on why you shouldn’t hold events on terrain where the trails are not reliable. For good measure, I was going to explain that out of 82 races of marathon length or longer which I’d completed in my running career, this was the most miserable little loop I’d ever seen. I’d explain that I was dropping out because I wasn’t having fun.
One of the advantages of age is that even if deep down you’re no more mature than a teenager, you’ve learned to not to be so obvious. So I kept my mouth shut and stuck it out for a few more laps, since even if it wasn’t much fun, the course was still good training for feet and legs. Plus, it was a pretty day, mild and sunny, and what would I do anyway if I went back to my hotel?
My spirits sank when I reached the half-way point, since it seemed there was so much left to do, but I figured I could run one more lap, and in any case I seemed to be gradually getting the hang of the little loop. By the point I’d reached the 8th loop, I had a plan in place, figuring this would be the last hard lap, because how can you not have fun on the last two?
So I put a little hustle into my step in the two or three places which were actually runnable, and strangely the gravel got a little easier each time, although the paved road remained irritating and difficult. Elsewhere I hung in as best I could, dancing through the prickly pear with care, and gritting my teeth as I dragged my poor feet through the knee-high stems and briers. At the same time, it was great fun seeing other runners passing by, including some I recognized from other local races.
By the time I finished, it had turned into a great day. After such a rocky start, I was delighted to have made it to the finish and appreciated the friendly volunteers who got me food and drink. Despite the rough course, time had passed more quickly than it felt, and I was astonished to have broken 7 hours, when I’d planned to be out all day. And then surprised again to find that I had finished in the middle of the pack (13th place out of 26 starters), when I’d thought surely I’d be the last one in.
Afterwards, I found the Facebook page for the local running club, where the organizers had posted significantly more information than what I’d seen on the page for the event itself. The race director acknowledged that this was a “small nasty loop,” but the only other alternative would’ve been to cancel the event, which would’ve been a shame two years in a row. Then he made a really good point: “Despite that mucky mess, the briars, mesquites, scrub bushes, and the bushwhacking, there were so many smiles and laughs and hugs.”
Over the next two days, I went through the hundreds of pictures posted online, reliving the event, picking out runners I recognized, and enjoying the expressions on their faces, both the tense look when paying attention to the path or putting out an effort, and the big smiles.
My feet were a little scratched up, especially on the top, and there was one nick on the bottom that hurt to walk on. Two days later, though, all was fine, and I smiled to think about what a great time I’d had at the event.
Knob Hill Trails Race was another lesson that the worst drama is often in the mind, especially when expectations and reality don’t quite mesh. You’d think as a veteran of the sport I’d have learned this point already, but I consider myself fortunate to have had the chance to learn it once again. In any case, I was so happy with the overall experience, I went and signed up for the Cowtown Marathon, which will hopefully be #84.
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