“A race on my home trails? Piece of cake.” That was my thought going into the race. It didn’t quite turn out to be true.
Like most trail races, the start of the Dirty Half was fairly informal. The group of 80-90 runners just kind of huddled around the base of the Albuquerque Tram. I positioned myself near the front, since I knew the start of the course was a short and steep incline. I didn’t want to fight through people on the single-track so I figured it was worth the initial effort. The race director gave a brief introductory speech and gave us a short countdown to go.
When the race started and we hit the dirt, the lead group put the hammer down in a big way. I watched about a half dozen guys run up the initial steep incline like it was a track meet. I didn’t try to match their effort, but I did succeed in staying in front of the main pack and out of any traffic. For the first three or four miles I stayed in what was kind of the second breakaway from the main group. After losing sight of the leaders on the very first hill, I never saw them again. My goal for the first half of the race had been to push myself and try and stay in the front of the pack. I was counting on pure willpower to overcome tired legs during the second half.
Part of that plan worked.
I did run the first four or five miles at a very fast pace. I traded places with one other runner a few times, but other than that was only passed once. I still didn’t see the lead group nor did I ever have to worry about the main pack catching me. The course had a turn-around point at about mile 5, where it looped further into the foothills instead of just having us head to the finish as a normal out-and-back course would have. This portion of the race was rather challenging, and was the only part where I did some hands on knees power-hiking up a few short hills. Around mile 8 I could start to sense someone behind me and when we both went off course (95% of the course was well-marked) he went sailing past me when we found our way back on track. It was a man with about a decade on me and he looked really fresh, especially compared to how I was feeling.
I shuffled through miles 8-12 without seeing another racer. I was hurting badly, trying to hang on to something resembling a race pace. Just after mile 12, the course ran up and over a small boulder field and transitioned to a gravel path travelling down to the finish of the course. What should have been an easy downhill cruise to the finish was a miserable mile of checking the distance on my watch every thirty seconds. I could hear the race volunteers cheering on a runner behind me so I forced myself to shuffle along even faster, eventually reaching the finish line.
After taking a front position at the start of the race, I knew only two people had passed me so I was relatively sure I was in the top ten. Once I was able to limp over and check the results, I found out I had placed ninth overall and had sneaked my way into third place for my age group, despite my worst ever half-marathon time of 2:02:28. The overall winner finished under 90 minutes, a crazy fast time considering how technical and hilly the course was. He described it as “a training run for Mt. Taylor” (a 50k trail race later in the month). The man who passed me around mile 8, didn’t even place in the 40-49 age group, meaning that four of the eight men ahead of me were older than me. That’s encouraging for my own future I suppose.
Overall it was an enjoyable race. Despite the miserable second half, I’m not sure I would’ve changed my strategy to start out fast and out of the way of single-track traffic. I did, per usual, do a terrible job of hydrating and fueling. I completely ignored or forgot about the clif blocks I was carrying and only stopped to take one drink of water the whole race.