“Breathe in. Breathe out. Focus. Enjoy it.” I told myself. There I was again, standing on the starting line with butterflies in my stomach, like I had done so many times before, but this time was different. This day had some history behind it…
Exactly one year ago, I felt a stinging pain in my lower right leg while trail running. At first, I brushed it off, and dismissed it to be a twisted ankle. However, over the next few weeks the pain grew and would not go away. An orthopedist diagnosed it as posterior tibial tendonitis. Throughout the next 11 months, I tried resting it, icing it, physical therapy, and countless other recovery techniques. Nothing seemed to work. Over time, my workouts became shorter, and my race plans were cancelled. Unwillingly, I slowly adjusted to life without running. In spite of this, my love for the sport never faded, and a few weeks ago I eventually found my cure: acupuncture!
Within a few strides, I found myself in front running around Shepherd’s Lake. Not where I planned to be at this time in the race, but where I liked to be. As I entered the trail, another runner took over the lead, and I gladly followed. A lead pack of about five runners quickly formed, and continued along until Aid Station #2. It was here, at the start of the green trail, that we hit the first major climb of the course, which strung out the group. At the top, I regained the lead and controlled the pace into Aid Station #3 (the half-way point). Immediately, I downed 1.5 gels and grabbed a fresh bottle and gels from my girlfriend, Christine. I had run the first half of the race at about a 9:40 mile pace, which was 20 seconds faster than my pre-race plan and pretty much blazing on this technical course. Knowing that my fitness is not 100% right now, I knew I would soon be paying for it later.
I left Aid Station #3 in second place, only seconds behind the leader. Just after leaving, I hit my first low of the race, so I took my time catching up to him. My legs felt sluggish, but after about 15 minutes the gels I had taken at the aid station kicked in, and put some spring back in my step. The other runner and I exchanged pacing duties and when possible, ran side-by-side and chatted for the next couple miles. So much so, that we missed a turn around mile 10. Fortunately, it was not long before we noticed it, and quickly back tracked to the proper trail. However, on our way back, I noticed a runner passing us. Not knowing which race he was in, I sped up to find out. I soon discovered he was in the 25K, which mixed things up a little.
Now I had two guys to beat. At mile 12, I had hit my second low, and knew if that one of them tried to pull away now, I might not be able to reel them in. It did not take long for the two of us to move ahead of our new competition, but also not long before taking a second wrong turn, allowing this same competitor to grab the lead once again with less than 2 miles to go. Luckily, we soon realized the mistake, but unfortunately our competition was out of sight before we did. I figured I would not be able to catch him now. My hamstrings had begun to cramp, which caused my pace to slow dramatically.
I decided to focus on my nearest competition, and do my best to preserve second place. On one of the final climbs, before descending back to the finish, I was able to pull ahead and secure a second place finish. As it turned out, I finished 1 minute and 58 seconds behind the winner. Happy with second place, I congratulated the winner. That guy deserved to win. He ran a steady pace, and did not make any wrong turns.
Staring out into the forest, waiting for the race to start that day was my greatest moment. This past year had been rough, and I was excited to start a new one. I will consider this race my return to running. My return to the trails. My return home.
A special thanks to Rick McNulty and the NJ Trail Series crew for putting on another great event. A big thank you to the MPF Campmor Trail Running Team for all their support this year. Looking forward to a strong and injury-free 2012 season.