Mental Training or Just Plain Mental?

[Note to Mom and Dad: Please don’t read this post.]

My good buddy and trail patrol partner, Keith (aka “The Governor”), asked me if I’d like to participate in a trail race called “The Great Silverado Foot Race.” It was a private, underground, uninsured event that began 11 years ago — the brainchild of a former professional mountain biker.

I should preface this by saying I’ve been in some reasonably tough running races in my life. I ran cross-country with the boys for four years in high school, a couple of marathons, a few Camp Pendleton mud runs, and a bunch of hilly races from Maine to Massachusetts. I thought this would be an excellent training run for my upcoming X-terra off-road triathlon.

It was supposed to be just 7.5 miles. How hard could it be? First, scroll back up to that picture. See those two little bushes? Now remember when your Mom, Dad, big brother or sister used to say, “If a friend told you to jump off a cliff, would you do it?” After years of not succumbing to risky peer-pressure behavior that’s exactly what I did. It was the only way to get to the finish line.

And believe me, it took some coaxing. “The Governor” was waiting by the street. I recognized his voice, but he looked like a tiny spec down there. “Where’s the rest of the trail?” I asked. “That’s it!” he replied. I looked to the right around the bush. “No, to the left. You’re there,” he tried to explain. “That?” I asked, completely perplexed, “You want me to go down that?” “Just go down on your butt, you’ll be fine,” he assured me — and every other baffled newbie in the race who reached that point.

It took about three efforts to make it all the way down. I felt like I was flying out of control, desperately grabbing at brush for an emergency brake. Then all I had to do is run down a stony brook, through the dirt parking lot and up to the finish line.

It was the most humbling race I’ve ever done in my life. It took 3 hours and 59 minutes. Wow, that seems darn slow, doesn’t it? I needed to put the whole thing into perspective. It helped when I came across a clipping about L’Alpe D’Huez, the hardest stage in the Tour de France.

The Great Silverado Foot Race:

4,000+ feet of climbing
4,000+ feet of descending
23.5% average ascent grade

L’Alpe D’Huez:

5,905 feet of climbing (the infamous last climb is 3,707 feet)
7.8% average ascent grade

At the start of the race, I learned Annie Hall was there — someone who has actually done the Eco-Challenge. This was my first real clue that this was no ordinary foot race. The second came from the race director, Dave, “Whatever you do, look up for the orange ribbons that mark the course.”

About a half mile into this single-track race, I realized, whatever you do, look down or you could really injure yourself. Okay then, keep one eye up and one eye down at all times. Or you might need Orange County Search and Rescue or a Medi-vac to get out of here.

The first half hour was a very polite affair. I heard people saying things like, “Do you need to get by?” “No, that’s okay.” And, “Gee, I haven’t done anything like this since I was 10.” As the time and elevation progressed, it felt as though we’d been dropped down into some cruel reality show. And I understood why Lloyd’s of London didn’t line up to insure this event.

The race director, Dave, asked me over the nice New Orleans style lunch, “What was your favorite part?” There was a looooong pause, I couldn’t come up with an answer. Laughter ensued around the picnic tables. He finished for me, “Let me guess, the last 10 yards?” Yup.

I chided him relentlessly, “I have to admit on the last loop, I actually had thoughts of picking up some of those loose rocks to pummel you with later.” (Seriously I did, but it was only for a few seconds.)

Being a writer, I thought the race deserved a better title. “Just because this race doesn’t involve pedals, doesn’t mean it’s a foot race.”

Here’s why. I’ve never been in a foot race where I felt like Indiana Jones avoiding the fast-moving loosened rocks from the competitors ahead of me. I’ve never had to crawl through so much brush like an Army Red Beret. I’ve never had to scale shale rock that disintegrated beneath my feet as I climbed. I’ve never had my progress impeded by so many branches getting caught in my hair or Camelbak (which I had to refill completely half way through). I’ve never had to climb up a rope to stay on the course. I’ve never had to swing from limb to limb like Tarzan (I mean Jane). I’ve never seen so many competitors finish with their clothes in tatters (and their derrieres exposed). I’ve never reached the ends of so many trails, spinning around winded, dazed and confused, looking for little orange ribbons — and looking like a dead woman walking. I’ve never finished a race with my shirt covered in blood and Gator-aid.

And I’ve never, ever heard the words of George Bailey in my head (from the movie It’s a Wonderful Life), “Clarence, I want to live. I want to live!”

Although the race was incredibly difficult, all our efforts went to a great cause. The race raised money to help Katrina victims. Dave and a few of the competitors will be making their way to New Orleans to help firsthand with the rebuilding efforts. (See? He’s not all bad!)

Actually, the guy obviously puts his heart and soul into this race every year. He admitted that this was one of the toughest ones they’ve had to date. (Lucky me.) My GPS pegged it as closer to 8 miles. I’m grateful those little orange ribbons he strung out for us did keep me on the trail. Kicking myself for not turning on my watch for the first six minutes of the race to get an accurate reading.

The race was on Saturday. The recovery was painful to say the least. I had blisters in places I’ve never had before. I felt like I’d gone through a complete quad augmentation until the following Thursday. Next year, instead of free t-shirts, I vote for a bottle of Epsom salt, Ben-Gay and liquor.

There were two loops. I found out later that most people never finish the whole thing. There were 91 competitors and 47 finished. I placed 42nd. I didn’t break any PRs. I’m just glad I didn’t break anything.

Magazines left to read: 13
New ones: 2