I love being out in nature. However I am also a klutz of major proportions. My friends suggest I should be wrapped in bubble wrap considering how often I get injured. This combination makes for an interesting challenge when examining my joy of trail-running. I love running on trails, but I usually end up falling on trails. In fact, this was what led to my first DNF (did not finish) last August, when I injured myself before the mile 11 aid station at Pacific Coast Trail Runs The Ridge, the last trail race I attempted. And prior to The Ridge, I had only been running trails for fun and for training, with the exception of a few New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day races put on by Brazen Racing.
However, when I heard about Vacation Races Trailfest, being held just close enough to home to be an easy travel experience, and there was a contest to win an entry to one of the weekend’s races, I had to enter. Camping, yoga, speakers, AND trail runs? Sign me up! I had never heard about this event prior to a race ambassador’s post on Facebook and probably never would have been able to afford to sign-up by the time I found out (costs typically rise for race registration as you get closer to the event) – but luckily I won the entry and signed myself up for the Saturday race.
This event runs from Wednesday to Sunday, with registration on Wednesday, races on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and then checking out and heading home on Sunday. There were a variety of events scheduled throughout the week as well in addition to the runs, from yoga to speakers to massages! You could arrive at any point during the week, but I went straight after work to register and set-up my tent (I wanted to stake out a good spot) before I came back down to the valley for my HMR class. For those people who may not own a tent (or who just don’t want to travel with one and set it up), the festival offered free tents already set-up, or you could pay a small fee for a bed in a bunkhouse (or a little more for a private room). But I wanted to embrace the full trail experience, so I opted to do it all myself.
The registration fee also includes meals. Since I was signed up for Saturday’s run, my dinner on Friday and Saturday nights were included as well as breakfast on Saturday morning. I had brought most of my own food but did eat the steamed and fresh vegetables at dinner both nights as well as enjoyed the fresh fruit in the morning.
When I came back to the festival on Friday, I was admittedly nervous. I have some social anxiety, and showing up a couple days late and all alone to a community-oriented event had me a little on edge. But everyone was very friendly from Amanda, the race ambassador whom I had won the entry from, to the runners I met at the various meals and events.
On Friday night we got the opportunity to meet Sarah Lavender Smith as well as to hear her read from her new book “The Trail Runner’s Companion” – I bought a copy and have already started to read it – I’d recommend picking up a copy! She also answered questions from the audience about trail running, ultra running, injuries, and her own experiences. It was inspiring and grounding at the same time.
The next morning was the race itself, through Pescadero Creek County Park – a 13.7 mile adventure with an elevation gain of 2700 feet – looking at the elevation map, there was never going to be a real “flat” stretch.
The race had a rolling start (aka roll out of bed, roll down to the starting line, and start somewhere during this window of time) which made for a relaxing and fun feel at the starting line. It also meant there weren’t a couple hundred people all hitting the trail at once, a respectful way to treat the course itself and it also allowed runners to be spaced out as we sorted ourselves in the first mile or two before setting into the real climbs.
In talking to my running coach, I knew I was going out to have fun. This wasn’t a race for me, just a fun run and hike through the redwood trees. I would run when I could, walk when I needed to, and while I admittedly paid some attention to time (I didn’t want to miss a cut-off), I never really looked at my pacing outside of those mileage beeps on the Garmin letting me know my pace of the previous mile. In my head, I needed to keep it around a 20 minute mile to stay under any cut-off. In reality the race organizers knew this was the third day of racing for most of the participants and the course was kept open much longer, so I knew going into the race if I needed the extra time I could take it and so I didn’t speed myself up, I just played by feel.
Anyone who has been following my running journey probably already knows I was plagued with injuries in 2016 and 2017. I am a regular at my physical therapist’s office (shout-out to Garrett who is AMAZING), bringing him a new injury every few months. But suffering my concussion in November forced my whole body to rest, so while I was hesitant to flare old injuries like my Achilles tendinitis, I also was willing to take some risks I had been avoiding before, like running the inclines when I could instead of forcing myself to walk.
And there were a LOT of inclines! So I ran when I could and I walked when I needed to. And that mile 6 stretch to the aid station at 7.2 was all walking. I could hear the aid station long before I could see the top of the hill. And when I hit flat ground and started to run into the staging area for the aid station, a volunteer cheering looked at me and asked “Let me guess, mile 6?” and I laughed and nodded. I could only imagine what I looked like after that climb.
Speaking of aid stations, this aid station was FANTASTIC. The volunteers were so helpful, offering to fill water bottles while runners fueled, as well as any additional assistance runners needed. The fuel options could be described as a “spread” from the liquid fuel Gnarly to various snacks including fresh cut fruit as well as potatoes (with salt to dip them in!). I brought my own electrolyte I had trained with (Nuun) so a volunteer refilled my bottles with water while I ate two pieces of potato I dipped in salt. Seriously the best thing ever at the top of a mountain!
For anyone reading who is following the HMR program, these potatoes were fantastic! I also carried with me a variety of baby food pouches that were all fruits or fruits and sweet potato combinations (every pack had between 40 and 90 calories and 2g or less of fiber – most with only 1g). I had a baby food pouch about every 45 or so minutes (tucking the empty pouches back into my OrangeMud pack).
Then it was back down the mountain and into the woods again. Did I mention the mud and downed trees yet? It had rained on Wednesday night, and although the trails were drier than they had been in the previous days, there were still slick mud pits to get through and trees to climb over and under. It was a fun, but scary, obstacle course for the accident-prone runner. I had a few moments where I had to stop and evaluate the route to pick the best option given some of the communication limitations I am still experiencing between my brain, ears, and eyes after the concussion.
As I hit the portion of the trail that was the out-and-back, I knew the end was near. It was just up one more small climb and through camp to the finish line, where I teared up as my wooden carved medal was placed around my neck. This finish meant a lot to me. It meant I successfully navigated a trail without injury. My brain and body appeared to be functioning well. And I got past mental blocks that had hindered my ability to listen to my body. I enjoyed being out of the trail more than I could explain. And while my body isn’t conditioned enough yet to travel many more miles, my mind could have been out on those trails exploring for a lot longer.
The finish line at Trailfest included fresh fruit, sports drink, chocolate milk, and snack boxes full of healthy refueling options like nut butter and trail mix. I personally enjoyed a banana and an HMR chocolate shake for recovery before stretching and rolling and relaxing. I took advantage of the complimentary massage, I enjoyed some yoga, and I relaxed in the woods before packing up my belongings (I had responsibilities at home that prevented me from staying the final night).
The last activity I got the opportunity to enjoy during Trailfest was the final speaker, Dean Karnazes, an ultra marathoner who is local to the Bay Area but is known worldwide for the mileage he travels on his runs. He told us about his he started running on his 30th birthday, about the history of the marathon (interwoven with stories from his running experiences), and then answered questions from the audience. While I enjoyed that he likes to “run a marathon before breakfast” – it was some of his other responses that left me thinking. From his day-to-day routine (he doesn’t sit down) to his views on suffering (we have become so comfortable in our daily lives that we are miserable – find joy in the suffering), I made some mental notes on my own embracement of suffering and finding opportunities to get a little uncomfortable to improve myself (I am standing as I write this).
Overall, this weekend was a fantastic experience and one I hope to partake in again. While the initial fees were high, they included a lot – from camping to meals to a shirt AND a zippered hoodie, not to mention the race and the snacks and the medal (and if you completed all three races you also got a beautiful pocket knife). Well worth the price (plus you could bring friends and family to enjoy many of the weekend activities at no additional cost!). And if you volunteer at a Vacation Race event, you can earn credit toward their races (as can your friends and family – the credits are transferrable!) – which makes it an even more affordable experience.
Now to get back to my regularly scheduled training (I’m signed up to tackle The Ridge again!) while embracing the positive energy and lessons I gained from my experiences this weekend!