ECTA Spring for the Trails Half Marathon

For my first official post-Boston event I decided to throw myself a curveball and get off the road, and onto the trails.  The event, which was my first trail race, was the “Spring for the Trails” Half put on by the Essex County Trail Association.  The course featured a 13.1 (they swear) mile loop through Willowdale State Forest in Ipswich, Massachusetts.

My snap reaction — why have I not been doing trail races this whole time?

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Having never run a trail race before I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.  In fact, I wasn’t even entirely sure where Ipswich was.  A week ago if you had asked me where Ipswich was, I would’ve told you “somewhere near the Cape.”  Which as it turns out, is very, very false.  So at 5:30 AM with my gear bag in tow, I jumped in the car for the 90 minute trek East, and North (twist!!) to Willowdale State Forest.

The information that was sent out let me know that there would be a trail head meeting at 7:45 AM, and the race would start promptly at 8 AM.  My experience more often then not is that those times are more fluid in reality than they seem on the welcome email — but I gotta say, the trail meeting started at 7:45, and we were running at 8AM.  So nice work on the scheduling ECTA, killing it right from the start.

The weather was delightful for a run through the park.  I’d guess high 50’s with a stiff wind at the start, but as the morning wore on and the sun came out it got much warmer and the wind died down.  Perfect weather for shorts and a t-shirt, which is a significant improvement over the last time I toed a start line.

As for the race itself, it was an interesting experience.  I had zero frame of reference for a trail run.  I mean I had walked trails with my kids and dog before, but I’d really never run on a trail so navigating the undulating hills, the roots, the rocks, and the rest of nature was a completely new experience for me.  One that I genuinely enjoyed.  Typically when I’m in a road race, I have my headphones in and music (or audiobooks) thumping in my ears, drawing my entire world down to a small bubble.  On this day I thought I’d try something new, and left the phone and headphones in the car, running the race with the soundtrack provided by the nature around me.  It had the effect of expanding my frame of reference to really take in my surroundings, but also I think contributed to my mind wandering a bit at times, which did lead to some less than graceful terrain traversal (i.e., I almost ate in a handful of times).

The first portion of the race included some gradual climbs, made a bit more tricky because the pack was tightly grouped.  I really liked running in a pack early because having no previous frame of reference for a trail run it gave me the opportunity to get comfortable before things stretched out.  After about 3 miles, we hit an extended flat stretch where I was able to go from about an 11:50/mi pace to around 8:30/mi pace and make up some time.  Through the aid station around 6.9 miles I was making what I felt was really good time and keeping a pace that was not much slower than my road pace would have been for a half marathon.  The aid station was a perfectly time stop to grab some Tailwind and a GU packet and then it was off to the second half of the race.

The second half of the run saw the pack thin out considerably, and there were times during this phase of the race where I found myself essentially alone in the woods.  For most of this part of the race I found myself within distance of one other runner who after awhile told me that he was FOURTEEN YEARS AGO!!  Believe me when I tell you that when I was 14, I was not out running trail half marathons at the crack of dawn.  This kid did hit a wall after a difficult climbing and descending section of the trail and had to stop to stretch, but I was very impressed with his performance up to that point.  I would’ve been home on a Saturday morning playing Final Fantasy, or genuinely doing anything BUT running trails.

This was the point of the race where I realized my GPS tracking was out of wack.  I ran past a gentleman who told me I was a “quarter of a mile” from the finish line, and looking down at my watch to see it registering 11.50 miles.  I figured the guy I ran past just didn’t know how much further to the finish, until I came out of the woods and realized I was actually on the final loop to the finish line.  I crossed the finish line at 2:01:38, with my Garmin measuring 11.92 miles.

Now, I am not a GPS expert, so I have no way of knowing if this is true – but I was told that the course was wheel measured to be exactly 13.107 miles.  I was also told that when tracking the course with GPS, because there were so many sharp corners – the GPS cuts off distance for each corner, which is why everyone was measuring short.  I have no idea of knowing if that’s true, it sounds feasible, so I’m going with it.  I know I didn’t cut off the course – of that I am positive, so the only explanation is that the course was inexplicably shorter than measured, or my GPS registered the distance as short (which seems most likely).

At the finish line, the race crew grabbed my bib ticket to record my finish time and placement, and then I ate a bowl of Lentil soup.  So that’s pretty great.

Overall, my impression of the race were very positive.  It was a well organized event, the trail was well marked, checking in was simple, and the finish line scene was solid with a lot of runners hanging around to cheer everyone else on and some good food (always important).  I’m already looking forward to my next trail race, and my next opportunity to participate in an ECTA event.

Gear Check:

Camera: GoPro Hero 6 (Video is coming)

Shoes; Inov-8 Parkclaw 275 GTX

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