A mixed bag

It started out about as perfect as anyone could hope for.

Early on Saturday, I 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 I 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, I 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, I ended up lost. Soon I 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. I stopped to look at his map, as I 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 I didn’t drink soon. Ironically, I 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 I 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 I talked to during and after the race had been lost – I 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 I would have gladly gone too far if I could have gotten to the aid station to rehydrate. After crossing the finish line and grabbing some water, I 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 I 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.

6 thoughts on “A mixed bag

  1. The course was a nightmare, but the fallen trees were actually part of the course. Rest assured that trail races are generally much better organized than this and the scenery is almost always spectacular. Hope to see you on trails again!

    • Thanks SteveQ! I will be out on the trails again and probably will find myself migrating to them more and more. It was still fun to be in Itasca, cruising the trails and getting a chance to chat with other runners. That’s always the best part. I will have to keep reading your blog too. Happy trails!

  2. Thanks Craig, I will take a look at your writeup of the Wildwoods race. I spend weekends at Walker usually, and I love the trails there. And they just cut the grass along the main trail, which means it should be good running. I’ve been wanting to run in the North Country marathon or half for the past several years, but timing has been an issue. It looks like a great event and I’ve heard terrific things about it.

    Thanks for the note, I’ll keep running trails and will sign up for more trail races.

  3. I had run this race both last year and this year. Not sure if you will believe me but the trail markings this year were far better than last year.

    I’m pretty sure that there was not one runner that ran the actual course last year. I finished the race at about 12 miles total. This year, while there were better markings, I still got lost. I missed the right turn after all those downed trees. After that I managed to run on the rest of the full course with my total mileage about 16.5 miles. I have a write up of my experience at http://www.isakson.info if you are interested.

    I have ran in many different trail races and Itasca’s Wildoods is by far the most unorganized. Don’t let your experience in this race diminish your desire to run trail races. They are a lot of fun. If it doesn’t conflict with you Chicago training you should give the Walker half a go. That one is always a good time and I have never been lost in that race ;-)

  4. It wasn’t the greatest race experience, especially since I was hoping to really push the redline and get a quality run in for marathon training. With that said, though, it was a beautiful place to run and I’m absolutely going to return to Itasca to run the trails – solo or with friends.

  5. Sorry to hear it seemed to be a cluster for you and everyone else.The Organizer sounds like his name is “not me”! Itasca is a fun place to go, love it there. Hopefully your next adventure there will be awesome for you! :)