This race was chosen on a whim. A last minute decision to dance with the devil and see what fate my feet can bring me. From the off, my approach was a bit nonsensical. Why not just hang back and cruise through the race?
Enjoy the beautiful warmth of fall sun and soak up the scented forest around me. That's all well and good, that's all why I run many times. But when the gun goes off and the rabbits flee, something boils up and simply spurs me on.
So there I was, rounding the castle start loop a mile in and cruising along in around 5th place. A quick glance at the watch reveals a slightly sub-seven minute first mile. I don't recall the last time I've dipped to pacing that fast, so why not try to hold it for another 13 miles? (At this point I’d like to apologize to all my metric unit followers, my running brain still thinks in miles and minutes per mile pacing…)
Pure folly surely but it's a local race and there's nothing on the line. I settle in behind a more or less responsible pacer and click my watch over to the heart rate monitor so that I don't focus on distance or pace for a while.
The Road of Castles is a fantastic trail racing event put on by the Adventure Racing Federation in Belarus. I was originally intending to take on the 100km course between two castles (hence the name) by bicycle. But some last minute mechanical problems with my trusty steed and the logistics involved in getting myself and bike to the starting place pushed me towards a run instead.
And to be honest, I enjoy running races more than biking them. The bike is ideal for touring and seeing the countryside but when it comes to racing, I tend towards the simplicity of my two feet. I had a feeling the course would be fast, and it certainly proved true. Run mostly on dirt roads through farmland and forest, there were no major climbs and the hills throughout were gradual, gentle slopes.
At Mile 5 (of 14.5)
It was time to choose. I had maintained the lucrative starting pace, the leaders were out of sight but several runners were still just ahead. I could dial it back and abandon the wild notion or push on to hold a top-ten finish. But. The pace still felt manageable and once the carrot looms one no longer fears the stick.
We zigged and zagged along the edges of farm fields on clumpy double-track grass paths. I was holding about 20 meters behind a experienced-looking runner who looked to be in good shape. We made a left turn onto a smooth-packed dirt road and were immediately greeted with a cross-headwind blowing strong from the left. I pulled a cheeky move and immediately accelerated to catch him and then stalled right over his right shoulder, drafting as effectively as I could to save a bit of energy and play with his head.
As we ducked back into the shelter of the forest at the next turn I slipped away and finally committed to either holding on or blowing up.
Then it all Blurred
The one and only aid station came after another sweetly fast section of smooth dirt road, I think around the nine mile mark. It was getting harder but my form was still smooth and nothing hurt with any more pain than the effort of the pace. The final few miles through the forest felt sluggish. The road was quite rolling with constant small dips and rises that made if hard to maintain a smooth, fast tempo.
By now we had rejoined the course of the full marathon and the bike races and at one turn of the course an angel on a bike called out to me as I nearly blew past the turn in the haze of dissociating from my efforts.
The race was billed as a half marathon or 21km course but I had read several rumors that the real distance was closer to 24. As I passed the 20km mark I started to dig again and scrape the bottom of my energy reserves. I wanted to be done, to not have to hold on for a full four more km! As we made the final turn out of the woods I realized that the true battle had just started.
We turned onto a long gradual climb up a broad, dry gravel road. At the top I could see a turn and every fiber of my being wanted it to be the edge of town, the finish line, the cool beer I had stashed in my bag. Alas it would not be so, not yet.
At the turn we canted left and I nearly stopped in disbelief. A broad valley stretched out ahead and a fierce wind blew directly into my face. Shoulders hunched from effort and demoralization, I wandered side to side on the gravel road, seeking the firmest line to at least lose less energy to the sandy surface. As I climbed slowly up the other side cyclists passed me, pushing on into the wind.
Finally we hit pavement, a turn and a drop, another turn and still downhill, over a small wooden bridge and onto the finish straight. Still running and not really believing it. Across the line and more alive than ever.
Finally they popped up online and I couldn't believe I had held on for FIFTH place overall!
Next and final race of the year will be a much hillier and slower test of real trail climbing and descending in just over a month's time! Stay tuned and ask me anything!