“Welcome to pretty much the center of the universe for stupidity. We are proud of that here in Reading, because we have nothing else to be proud of here.”
So said the race coordinator for the Half Wit Half, a trail half marathon just outside of Reading, Pennsylvania. He said this at approximately 9:12am as roughly 500 “half wits” lined up late for the 9am start. We also had to recite the “Half Wit Oath” which began with “I are a half wit…” and got funnier from there.
The Half Wit Half isn’t so much a trail race as it is an obstacle course, and registering for it as my first-ever trail race was probably not my brightest moment; however, it was consistent with half wit logic. I was not alone as I convinced two friends to join me in my stupidity.
Instead of summarizing all of the incredibly difficult terrain we had to navigate, and the ridiculous, jaw-dropping uphills and downhills, which had all of us cry-laughing incredulously by the end, I will focus on some observations of trail racing.
1 – Concentrating is exhausting
I am a road runner. I am decent. I like to “go,” and when I am racing, I have the ability to rest my brain, go on “auto-pilot” and just race. In the Half wit, I could never relax. The course is so rocky and full of hazards, I could never “open it up.” In fact, I had to concentrate so much to stay upright (in which I was unsuccessful – more on that in #2), I was mentally drained by the first water stop at the 5K mark.
2 – Falling down Hurts
I went into the Half Wit with two goals: 1) Finish safely, and 2) Try not to fall or twist an ankle. I finished, and have that going for me, which is nice; however, I lost count at the number of times I turned my ankles, and yes, I fell four times. Falls #1 and #2 were on a steep downhill in which I needed to grab trees to avoid falling. The thing is, it is harder to grab trees while on such a steep grade than you might think. So, I landed on my ass twice. If you have ever fallen during a race, you know it feels like slow motion as it is happening. Fall #3 I will call the “Ironic” fall because it occurred on pavement as I crossed a narrow paved path to resume the wooded path on the other side. Today, the entire left side of my body remembers this fall. Fall #4 was just plain mean in that there were rocks hidden under the brush, and I went airborne into sticker bushes. Ouch. The best part was having to use my hands to get up from this fall, with my hands in the stickers. Did I say, ouch?
3 – Downhills are more difficult than Uphills
With the few times I had run trails, I already knew this, but the reality was more apparent under racing conditions. I felt like I was two different runners. One runner was quite competent and in control going up hill. The other runner had to nearly walk down many of the rugged downhill sections because 1) Gravity forces you to lose control, and 2) I was so uncertain of the terrain. So, I passed people on the uphill, and they passed me on the downhill. In a sense, I became a spectator, watching in awe how the more experienced trail runners navigated the downhill with ease. I just kept asking myself “How do they do that?” I wanted to be able to do that too.
4 – Walking is perfectly acceptable
As I ran passed people that were walking uphill, I wondered “Do they know something I don’t know?” and “Should I be walking too?” The answer was not necessarily yes; however, during the ridiculous verticals, including some crazy switchbacks, it became more obvious that running would be either 1) Stupid or 2) Not possible. So, I learned how to walk without worrying about walking during a race. It was safer and allowed my body to regroup because I also learned the further I got into the race, the more clumsy I became.
5 – Trail runners are a different breed
I mean this as a compliment to trail runners. The majority arrived in casual clothes and flip flops. I did not know this was a thing. In general, they appear more laid back and friendlier. I noticed more beards and tattoos than I had noticed during the many road races I had done. I jokingly wondered to myself: “If I grow a beard or get a tattoo, would it help my trail running competence?” Probably not.
Running my first trail race, I was reminded I am competitive, but it also hit me that I am not a laid back racer. This laid back attitude is worth pursuing some more; however, I am not sure I am wired that way, so I will learn how to become a better trail racer instead.