As I was running through the woods and up mountains during the Chilly Cheeks 7.2 mile trail race yesterday, I was thinking of all the things I would say about it in a blog post. Now I sit down to write said blog post and the first thing that comes to mind is ‘omg what was I thinking?’
When Jen and I signed up for the Chilly Cheeks race, we didn’t read the course description. The Pretzel City Sports website wasn’t the most user-friendly, but we both figured 7.2 miles was a short enough distance that it would be pretty manageable. After registering, we found the race description and started to get an idea of what we had gotten ourselves into.
“The Chilly Cheeks is 7+ miles that will make you see stars (REAL stars, not people like Jessica Simpson, Rob Kardashian or anyone who has ever appeared on Celebrity Rehab). While it may be a little shorter than you would expect for a major challenge, by the 5 mile mark, you will be wishing it was even shorter still. Flatter, too! It tours the mountain overlooking the Pretzel Capital of the world and has rocks & roots, dirt & debris, maybe snow & ice and more rises and falls than most 401k plans in the past 3 years.”
After seeing that, I knew it would be tough, but what I had pictured wasn’t half of what it actually was.
I have a tendency to overextend myself when it comes to scheduling. This weekend was no exception. So I went into this race with very little sleep, and feeling very nervous. The fact that the temps were in the single digits also didn’t make me feel more excited about running 7.2 miles in the woods. The race was scheduled to start at 11, in Reading, so we bundled up and left Philly around 9. Reading is where my college is (so weird to be back there, by the way), so I thought I would know my way around a little better than I did. But I ended up getting a little lost trying to find the venue. Luckily, Maggie and Jen are both very laid back and weren’t freaking out about being late. If I’d been in the car by myself, I probably would’ve been panicking. We ended up arriving at the clubhouse (which was a super cute German-style club with a bar) in just enough time to register, use the bathroom, and throw our stuff in the car and make it to the starting line. It helped that the race started a few minutes late. It also helped that I made a parking spot for myself in the lot after the guy directing traffic had told me to turn around. No time to mess around looking for parking!
While huddling for warmth at the starting line, the race organizers instructed us on how the course would be marked, and also took a moment to humorously ask us all what the hell us first-time trail racers were thinking signing up for this thing. There was a system of flags used to mark the trail, and arrows chained to trees noting upcoming turns. I will say it was much easier to navigate than I had anticipated. But that’s the only thing about this race that was easy. As the race started, my toes, fingers, and face were all completely numb. My lungs were stinging from sucking in such cold air. Then I got to the first “hill.” Picture 500 runners clawing their way up an almost vertical mound of dirt, roots, and rocks. Having a lot of other runners in front of me was both a good and bad thing. The good part was being able to watch their footing to see what the easiest path was. The bad thing was being petrified that someone would fall and slide into me. While I was busy worrying about someone else falling, I lost my footing a bit and fell onto my hands. Seeing as I was almost crawling anyway, it wasn’t a tough fall. My gloves kept me from getting any cuts. I got to the top already gasping for air, but at least my blood was pumping and my body had warmed up quite a bit. I considered taking off my gloves, but knew they’d come in handy if I fell again.
After the first hill, there was a very brief downhill portion on the open road, before coming to another climb. Every climb in the first couple miles resulted in a rubberneck traffic jam leading up to it, which was eased up after the runners started to spread out a bit during the course. The trail continued in a series of awful climbs and scary descents, with somewhat flatter breaks through the woods where you could actually run a bit. I definitely could have run faster during the flatter parts, but it was difficult to do so because of all the rocks, roots, and logs on the path. I’m not the most coordinated girl. I had to keep an eye out every step of the way to make sure I wasn’t about to faceplant. I had a lot of close calls, but was able to stabilize myself on landings, which I will attribute to all the leg and core workouts I’ve been doing with Maggie.
The course was very scenic, with nice overlooks of Reading and a lap around a reservoir near the end. I ran without headphones and wasn’t bothered at all by the lack of music as I was so concentrated on the trail and everything around me. Even though it was tough, I felt like I was handling it pretty well throughout the race. I wore my camelpack, but the water in the tube actually froze, which rendered it useless. I grabbed water at the second stop, around mile 4.5. There was also an “alternative beverage station” at the stop, which was Yuengling. I did not opt to take the beer, which Jen said was frozen anyway.
I felt like I wore the appropriate clothing as I wasn’t too hot or too cold during the race. I was worried about not having the proper shoes (I wore an old pair of running sneakers), since Maggie had a special pair of trail shoes with extra rubber in the soles to keep rocks from poking her feet. It didn’t end up being a huge issue, though. If I end up doing a lot more trail running, I might invest in a pair.
I was feeling pretty good overall going into the last 2 miles. I somehow ended up leading a wave of runners as the group right before me had pulled ahead. It was nice to be able to go at my own pace and not have to worry about passing people if they were walking, but then I also felt pressure not to slow down the people behind me, or get lost! I did make some friends en route though, and we were all encouraging each other up the hills, which was nice since there were obviously no spectators.
I believe around mile 5, there were some signs warning of the upcoming “Mount Whaddafug.” I felt my stomach drop and wondered how anything could be worse than what we had already done. But somehow, it was worse. My reaction was pretty accurately, WTF. The mountain was no steeper than anything else we had climbed that day, but it seemed never-ending. The first segment of the hill was much longer than any stretch we’d done yet. And just when you thought you were done, it doubled back and there was more hill to climb! It wasn’t quite as bad as I thought it would be, though. With nobody walking in front of me, I was actually able to jog up most of the hill.
What goes up, quite unfortunately, must come down. This is where I had the most trouble. Climbing up things is much easier than coming back down them. Gravity’s at blame, here. You pretty much have to run down the hills as there’s no way to really slow yourself down once you have momentum. A lot of the hills were filled with loose rocks and soil. Not surprisingly, I fell victim to one of these descents. As I placed a foot on a loose rock that shot out from under me, I fell right on my ass, on a large rock, hard. For the rest of the race, every time my foot connected with the ground, a shock of pain shot through my hip. I knew it was almost over, though, so I kept going.
We ran around a reservoir, and I started to recognize that we were close to the finish. There was a quite muddy stretch at the top of a grassy hill, which I almost fell off of a few times. Then you just had to slide down the hill, across the street, over a stretch of somewhat flat trail, and up a hill to finish. The volunteer kept saying we only had .25 miles to go, but my watch indicated we had at least half a mile left. Either way, I was anxious to be done and trucked on. At the last hill, it really was just a vertical face of rocks. But I still wanted to leap over as many of them as possible. Unfortunately, I ended up behind a girl that was walking and climbing quite laboriously, with no plans on letting me past her. I could see the finish line at this point and hear the finished runners cheering and fog horns blaring. As soon as we got up the hill, I sprinted for the finish and through the chute. Unofficial time around 1:46. Who ever thought it would take almost 2 hours to run 7 miles? Not me.
There were some coolers with water/gatorade in the snack area, but no cups, so I skipped that. I grabbed a banana and met up with Jen and Maggie to recap our experiences, and warm up inside. Right after I started running, I could feel my asthma flaring up. And for some reason, I completely forgot to bring my inhaler with me. I spent the next couple hours trying not to hack up a lung on the drive home. Jen and Maggie both kicked ass, and Maggie actually placed 4th in her division and got a sweet little trophy of a naked baby! She’s my trainer at the gym, and just ran a trail marathon last weekend. It makes her 1:15 time yesterday all that much more impressive!
We had been standing around for a while waiting for the awards before we went home. When I started walking again, I could barely move. I realized I definitely pulled something in my hip. I’ve had problems with it partially dislocating before, and figured it was the same old injury. Luckily, my awesome chiropractor was able to fit me in this morning and fixed me up. And I’m getting a sports massage later this week! I am on doctor’s orders not to run for a week, but I can’t say I mind the break too much. I’ll focus on spinning and elliptical until my mandated break is over.
Chilly Cheeks definitely kicked my ass, but I would totally sign up for it again! I would also definitely do other trail races. It’s a completely different experience from road races. It was more of a physical challenge than any other race I’ve done, marathon included. But it was a really nice change of pace from road racing, especially considering I live in a city and rarely see anything close to resembling a forest or nature. I will just cross my fingers that next years’ race isn’t quite as chilly.