It started out about as perfect as anyone could hope for.
Early on Saturday, IÂ scooted over to Itasca State Park for the Wildwoods Challenge 25K, filled with excitement about my first-ever trail race and optimism for the day. The 30-minute drive was relaxing and the weather perfect. And IÂ had enough time to find a good parking spot, pick up my packet, talk to a race official about the course and chill by reading a bit before my final race preparations.
Right before the race started, I bumped into friends Tim, Jerry and Rick, all experienced trail runners who had driven from the Fargo-Moorhead area for the event. We had a few laughs, posed for a picture and took off at the horn.
For the first few miles, all went well. I was just getting used to running on the single track path and soaking up the scenery. Soon, though, IÂ found myself really looking forward to the next aid station. After talking to the race official beforehand, confirming where the aid stations were located, I chose not to carry fluid bottles.
But I hadn’t counted on getting lost on what turned out to be a poorly marked course. Somewhere along the path, IÂ ended up lost. Soon IÂ found out there were a lot of other lost runners. At one point, I was climbing over huge fallen pines – litarally grabbing onto limbs and hoisting myself over.
At one point, about 5 miles into the run and in desparate need of water, a young runner came running back and asked if I knew where we were at. IÂ stopped to look at his map, as IÂ sensed something was wrong, and a few other runners caught up with us. We forged ahead.
A while later, there were 8 of us huddled around looking at the map, trying to figure out where to go. Some went one way, others went another. I just wanted to find water because I knew I’d have a tough time finishing if IÂ didn’t drink soon. Ironically, IÂ thought that my route would add a couple extra miles onto the run. It turned out that getting lost, and then getting back on course, somehow shortened my race significantly. I eventually found one aid station, but it was too late to do a lot of good for running long distance. By then IÂ had switched from racing mode into survival mode.
When I came to one point in the trail, a guy was sitting on a chair, reading something. At the last moment he pointed one way for 10K runners and another direction for 25K runners. He didn’t really seem to want to be there – much more interested in whatever he was reading.
While race organizers could do a lot to improve markings on the course – virtually everyone IÂ talked to during and after the race had been lost – IÂ loved running in Itasca. My first trail race was fun – the scenery and weather were perfect, I loved the uphill climbs and hammering down the declines, the camaraderie of the athletes. I’ll be back to Itasca to run the trails. But this event probably won’t be a part of my future experiences unless the race director can give assurances that course is marked better.
After the race, he didn’t take responsibility for the markings. Instead, he pointed out where everyone messed up. However, he was wrong – our group of lost runners made the turn – it was clearly marked and our group had stopped to figure it out. Then he went on about the lore of trail running and how people often run too far. But IÂ would have gladly gone too far if IÂ could have gotten to the aid station to rehydrate. After crossing the finish line and grabbing some water, IÂ headed down another trail to tack on 3 miles.
This fall, I think I’d like to return to Itasca, my hydration pack filled, and run some more trails in Itasca. Maybe IÂ can convince some friends to come along and we can make a day out of it. I’ll be heading out the door for more trail running – and the Itasca paths have a lot of inclines and declines to make me a better runner.