Saturday, May 21, 2016

Highland Loops Trail Race 2016

I can't remember when I first caught word of this new race, but I am so glad that I did.  I suppose it must have been on the RunMichigan calendar as I looked for trail race opportunities that I first learned of it and immediately it looked like something worth trying.  I soon figured out this was an inaugural race and so an opportunity to join the fun on the ground floor.  

From the moment I first set eyes on the website and began to check out the course I was pleased with what I saw.  The thought of running 16 miles in the Highland Rec area, which I'd never been to, looked like a very pleasing place to be.  

As the months and then weeks rolled by towards May I certainly grew anxious to give this race a try.  Two weeks prior I was able to find an opportunity to stop by and give the trails a test run.  I ran the A-loop with the possibility of also running the B-loop.  I was amazed at the tight corners and the overall winding nature of the trail.  I ended up only running the A-loop that day but I felt at least I knew more of what I was getting into for race day.

I was also impressed with DJ the race director from the beginning.  He was really good at putting out information to the runners and was also very active on the race facebook page and twitter account.  This race just had that good vibe that most trail races do in which it was inviting, laid back, and going to foster an appreciation of good outdoor fellowship.

The morning of the race it was in the high 50's which was close to perfect for running.  I was up real early so I could make the drive up to Highland.  Although I did give myself a scare as I slept through my initial alarm, and ended up miraculously waking on my own about 25 minutes later, realizing my error.  I grabbed a banana and quickly made a few Eggo waffles to eat up for breakfast. 

I arrived at the trailhead just a few minutes before 7am, just as I had initially hoped.  It was my goal to have plenty of time to get a good parking spot but unfortunately that didn't quite pan out.  The main lot was full as was some of the grass along the road by the lot.  Nobody had started parking along the road though it had been implied this would be the eventuality.  If I were to make one big constructive criticism for the race, it would be to have some clearer guidance as to parking.  I had some hesitance as to where to appropriately put my car once the lot was full.  I drove around hoping to see a solution present itself and finally found a few cars starting to park on a shoulder.  I eventually followed their lead.

All that being said, once parked I still had plenty of time to get checked in, get my bib and begin to prep for the race.  Being such a long race I opted not to do any pre-race running.  My strategy today wasn't speed but rather strong endurance.  I did do a bunch of walking around and stretched a bit and hoped that would be sufficient.  I spent the remainder of my pre-race time just enjoying the music and the atmosphere as well as saying hi to a handful of runners and new trail friends.  

As 8:00am near DJ got on the mic and everyone was gathered up.  He did a nice job of acknowledging a number of runners who had travelled great distance to make it to this race.  He also acknowledge the youngest runner of the day and the oldest runner of the day (73 years) who happened to also be celebrating his birthday that day.  Of course, we had to sing to him.  DJ explained that the race's profits were all for the Motor City Mountain Biking Association which maintains the trails and for Team Huron Valley Special Olympics.  He also introduced his son to everyone and gave him a neat opportunity to have everyone join him in speaking the Special Olympics pledge before things began.

As race time neared we were invited to prepare for 3 different waves at the start.  About 20-30 people got into the first wave with each wave being separated by about 3 minutes.  This was wisely done because of the single-track nature of the trail.  I decided to hop into the second wave.  I figured I didn't want to go out too fast and I would rather have the potential of catching people in front of me than risk being passed by more behind.  In the end I think this plan was fortunate to work to near perfection.

It was 55 degrees at the start which was just perfect.  The skies were overcast which meant no sun to start cooking us out on the trails.  I wore my typical race outfit of the black mesh shorts and my blue salomon running shirt.  I also wore my Osprey Rev6 hydration pack with water, a first aid kit, and some Gu in it.  I did carry my phone as well as was suggested by the race director since parts of the trail are a bit of a distance from any rescue.

Nutrition Strategy
In hindsight I think my nutrition plan worked very well for this race.  I had a couple of Eggo waffles, a banana and a granola bar for breakfast.  Pre-race I popped a handful of Clif Shot Bloks and was sipping on some Gatorade.  I took a pair of Endurolytes capsules about 10 minutes before the race and then was on them about every 45 minutes while running to hopefully stave off cramps and that seemed to be a good plan.  I was also taking Gu gels about every 4 miles to keep the energy flowing.  At the aid station back by "C" loop I grabbed a banana first time through.  Upon entering "D" loop I had also packed a small packed of butter twist pretzels.  After my cramping issues on North Country last year I wanted to test whether it would work to carry some salty pretzels on trail to help.  I tried a handful as I entered "D" loop.  I found it a little hard to eat them while also running at pace as they would very quickly dry out my mouth.
    In terms of hydration I put just over a half liter into my pouch and was sipping on it the whole way.  I would also get gatorade sips at the aid stations.  I ran out of water in my pack with about a mile and a half to go which wasn't too bad a thing.  Overall, I can't think of any obvious changes I would make to the overall nutrition and hydration strategy that worked today.

Race Results
In short, I was thrilled with how this race had gone.  It was my 3rd longest race ever, trailing only the two marathons I'd run.  With both of them I had struggled in the latter miles.  I even had a half marathon (with some warming temps) in which I struggled at the end.  With every struggled finish comes a blow to confidence.  With Highland Loops I had recovered from a trough training April into a May in which I really felt like I got everything put back together.  I had 3 very solid weeks of spot-on training after recovery from the Trail Half and felt good going into this one.

As aforementioned, I started in the second wave hoping to avoid any temptation to go out too fast.  I was more concerned with finishing strong than finishing fast today.  As I began the race I did trail only one generation in the second wave.  I followed him with a modest pace through the first mile of tight turns and he started to pull away a bit.  As I got into mile 3 and 4 I passed a few runners who must have been from the first group. 

I made it a strategy today to take the hills easy and not over do it.  I even would do quick 10 second walking sections on the steepest of hills rather than burning out.  Throughout the Highland rec area loops it was nice that there were mileage signs already along the trail.  It was also convenient that the course of the race followed the mileage count the entire way (assuming they were accurate!).  The race itself put no mileage signage out so I assume this means we were meant to follow the signage.  

Rolling through the eastern sides of "A" and "B" loops was just twists and turns and hills galore.  As the course headed into "C" loop there was an excellent aid station with good snacks and nice volunteers asking each person how they were holding up.  Here they were also keeping a tally on the Bib #'s they saw.  I would suppose this was both for safety and fairness (read: cheating) reasons.

Coming out of "C" loop I rolled quickly through that same aid station and passed a guy there who had just passed me.  As I made my way towards "D" loop I had passed about 12 more people than who had passed me.  I was guessing between 20-25 had started ahead of me so I knew I was in a good spot.  Entering "D" loop there were more good volunteers to make sure everyone made the proper turns.  As a whole there was never a spot on this race where I had to worry whether I was on the right track.

Even in "D" as I was passing the 12-mile mark I was feeling pretty good and holding pace.  I was seeing fewer and fewer runners however.  I had half expected to still bump into a few of the 7-miler runners here but I don't recall passing or even being near more than 2 or 3 people.  I rolled through the aid station at the south end of "D" and said thanks to more great volunteers who cheered me on.  The twists through the north end of "D" started to wear on me a bit as I kept waiting and waiting to get out of the loop and know I was nearing the finish.  I had run the finishing section of the "A" loop when I was out here a week or so prior so I knew what to expect.

When I finally did make it back onto "A" I was out of water, had taken in all the food I would, and just wanted to catch that finish. I had hoped I might still catch another runner or two but I was pretty much alone.  It was a bit dismaying when I passed the 16.5 miles sign and I knew I still had a bit to go.  I had understood the course was a bit longer than 16 miles but it turns out it may be more like 16.6 or 16.7.  My hopes of finishing in under 2:30 were out but that was okay.  

I finished with a 2:34 and was in 9th place of 81 runners for the inaugural Highland Loops and very thankful for it. 

At the finish line one of the race volunteers greeted me about 20 feet after passing the line and entering the "crowds" waiting.  She handed me a medal and congratulated me.  It was actually very low-key and of course trail-run typical.  I walked around a bit, grabbed a water and then meandered to the car to grab my chair.  I dragged that back to the finish area staked out a spot and then headed to get some food.  

The post-race BBQ was fantastic.  The Milford Spice Company and Village Bar & Kitchen were catering it and they had all sorts of goodies.  I tried the Pontiac Trail Pig Powder Pulled Pork Slides, the Honey Chipotle Sockeye Salmon and the Bang Bang Chicken as well as a half plate of fruit, a choco chip cookie and a Mountain Dew.

A Map of the Loops
There had also been promises of beer which partly came true.  It had been implied in pre-race communications that each participant would have a post-race beer.  Then as we arrived today the race director seemed to imply that they had had problems with the DNR and the beer may not happen.  Well there was a table that was handing out the participant beer mugs and they were offering some small samples of beer.  So I was able to partake of their IPA, I believe it was the River's Edge IPA.  

I hung around 45 minutes after the race to watch a number of other's hit the finish line and then to clap for those receiving awards. Given the small nature of the race there were no age group awards, just for the top finishers.  

Definitely would recommend Highland Loops again and have anxiously put it on my calendar for next year.

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