I’d never run a 12K before. I’d never even heard of a 12K race before I stumbled upon one online while searching for a December race to run.
This race was unique for me for several reasons. Not only is the distance new (and why 12K? That comes out to about 7.5 miles.), but it was run on the KATY Trail in central Missouri. The KATY Trail is a rails-to-trails conversion — supposedly the longest in the country — that is popular with cyclists and walkers, but I never knew if runners used it much. I had been eager to try it ever since I took up running, and this race was a chance for me to do so.
The Tunnel Trot was the fourth in a series of races the Missouri Department of Parks had hosted this fall, but I hadn’t heard of the other three until they were over. (Just as well since at least one involved biking and kayaking and trail running, which I wouldn’t have attempted.)
The Tunnel Trot race start (and finish) was in tiny Rocheport, Missouri (population 239). Rocheport is one of those towns that time has forgotten. It’s cute and quaint and picturesque with 19th Century homes, and it was mostly dying until the KATY Trail was established and brought thousands of people to it throughout the year. Now it has a half dozen B&Bs (we stayed in one several years ago), some artist’s studios (we’ve spent some money in them), antique shops (ditto), a couple a restaurants (ditto ditto), and the residents who live their lives and count the tourists’ dollars.
The race was small; only about 125 runners were registered, and I think fewer than that actually showed up on the cold, overcast Saturday afternoon. (I’ve run in smaller races and bigger weather.) But the volunteers and organizers were as committed and upbeat as any I’ve seen at all of the races I’ve run. When I picked up my packet that morning, they were delighted that someone had come all the way from Kansas City to run. They had hot chocolate and coffee as well as fruit and granola bars for everyone at the start. They had a start/finish arch and chip timing (as well as a nice giveaway shirt and a water bottle). What they didn’t have were finisher medals, which is certainly not a requirement of mine to do a run, but they’re always nice.
I was dressed in the kit you see above, though I had added an extra shirt and my running jacket. Notable above are my new shoes. I had bought them only 6 days before, and they had only 6 miles on them at the start of this race. They are Altra Paradigms. They have a wide toe box (for more natural foot action supposedly), are zero drop (meaning my heel is at the same distance from the ground as my toes, which is new for me and will require my legs muscles and tendons to adapt), and thick cushioning (because!). I also wore my running mittens, which convert into gloves and have nicely absorbent material on the back (for runners’ runny noses). Nonetheless, as I stood around waiting for the race to start, I was chilled though it was above freezing. If the sun had been out, I think the weather would have been about perfect for a run.
I was a little concerned about the trail conditions since it had rained in the area for the prior two days. The KATY Trail is paved with compacted pea gravel, and I was afraid that there might be muddy spots or actual puddles along the way. I can run with that, of course, but my expensive shoes were brand new, and I didn’t really want to trash them this soon. One of the organizers had told me he had driven the route that morning (a perk given to State Park employees since motorized vehicles are not allowed on the trail), and he assured me that the trail was dry and mud free. (I had brought a back-up pair of shoes just in case.) Prior to the start, the race organizer chatted us up, telling us where the water stations would be, where the turnaround points were (there was a 5K as well as the 12K I was running), and the usual stuff about courtesy and safety. Then the countdown to the start began. I switched on my watch and hoped it would grab some satellites in the two minutes before the gun (actually, no gun but a vigorously shouted GO). It did, and I was as ready as I was going to be.
And we were off. As these things go, we were a thick pack at the start as everyone sorted out their paces and places. One little boy, who had to be about four years old, took off like a rocket, and his poor momma was chasing after him. I urged him to set an ambitious pace, but his momma assured me she would soon be carrying him. Other runners were passing me, and I’ve gotten used to that. I tried to settle in and find a pace I could sustain for a while. I had a long trek ahead of me, and I wanted to do passably well. (I’d been nursing a sore hamstring muscle for a couple of weeks, so I hadn’t done much running at all.) We were soon out of the metropolitan area of Rocheport and found ourselves before the most interesting feature along the entire KATY Trail.
Along the full 260+ miles of the trail, this is supposed to be the only stone tunnel it passes through. (If there are other tunnels, what are they made of?) The day was not warm, but it was not especially windy there along the Missouri River. Except around this tunnel. The tunnel, and the cut-in area before it, channeled the wind, which then lacerated the skin on my now-hairless face, or at least did its best to. (The picture you see above is from the west side of the tunnel. On the outward half of the run, we came at it from the east side.) Both the 5K and 12K runners passed through this tunnel. Of course my watch lost contact with the satellites while I passed through, so it registered my pace as zero for this distance, but whatever.
The KATY Trail is a former railroad bed, so it is flat and mostly straight. Flat is good (if not challenging) for running, but the straight part can really be dispiriting. You can look at the long, long distance ahead of you and feel the fatigue grow in your heart. As I usually do in situations like this, I kept my head down and concentrated on the three feet before my two feet.
What I saw was the packed gravel of the trail bed. Except it wasn’t always well packed. There was a lot of loose gravel on the surface, which made the running a bit more tiresome since it gave a different action beneath each footfall. (And remember I was running in new, unfamiliar shoes.) I am used to running on streets, sidewalks, and asphalt trails. I tried running in places where the gravel was better packed, including the higher center of the trail and in the tire tracks of the organizer’s earlier drive. But I couldn’t always do this because the good parts would start and end abruptly. Plus there were runners who wanted to get around me and other runners I wanted to get around myself. So I did my best and pushed on.
The first water station was at mile 1.5. It was also the turnaround point for the 5K runners. I think I was at about mile 1 when I saw the first of the 5K runners already coming back my direction. These were the speedy folk, and they had determination on their faces. I slapped hands with the first runner who came my way (and who would earn the overall winner medal), but I just kept to running my own race after that.
I should say that most of the runners that afternoon were ahead of me. I had started near the back of the pack, and I hadn’t passed many other runners by this point, so I was among the last third of the group on the trail. I have no ego problem with this. After a while it’s all about me against myself anyway (and usually after a while, it’s just me for a quarter mile in each direction too). But the closer I got to the water station, the more runners I saw coming my direction. I suspect two-thirds of the runners that afternoon were doing the 5K. Good for them. Anyone out there on that cold, overcast day got my respect. But when I passed through the water station and didn’t turn around (because I had the 12K distance to run) I was very suddenly alone. Nearly all of the runners who were close to me before this were doing the 5K and so had turned around at that water station. I was on my own.
Which seems to be my preferred state anyway.
Somehow I had calculated that a 12K was equal to about 8 miles. Thus I was expecting my own turnaround point to be at mile 4. I try hard not to look at my watch when I’m running. It just disappoints me to find out how little distance I have covered or how slow I am going. But I didn’t need to since I knew that I had just passed mile 1.5 and had 2.5 miles to go to my halfway point. I wasn’t even halfway to halfway and I was already really tired. (I attribute this to my lack of running lately because of the sore leg and to my new shoes and to my pathetic willpower.) Somewhere along this middle distance I began to feel my right hip hurting. It wasn’t a crippling pain, but it was part of what had been bugging me for the last month. I had taken some ibupropen prior to the race in anticipation of this, and maybe it was working, but the pain was coming through. In the tiny back pocket of my skimpy running shorts I was carrying four low-dose, chewable aspirin. I wondered if it was time to take them and stave off anything worse in my hip. I didn’t. I decided to wait until I was closer to my turnaround point where there would be a water station. Chewing the pills and then chasing them with water would, I imagined, hasten their effect on my poor hip (actually, I think, on the poor muscles running from my hip).
I ran, and I was passing other runners. A group of young women had been trading places with me up to this point. They would walk for a while then run for a while then walk. And so on. I was doing the same, and so we were keeping more or less together. But in the long trek to the turnaround, I finally passed them and left them behind. (In runner talk, this is called a “kill.” And since there were four women in this group, I had scored four kills. Of course, I had been killed by scores of people prior to this.)
Far, far ahead, I could see the water station that marked the turnaround point. I had to run across a spongy wooden bridge and pass under a highway bridge and then eat up what seemed like a thousand miles of straightaway to get there. But I did. And I ate three of my four aspirin in anticipation. (The fourth had fallen from my hand onto the trail.) The water station was set up just before the turnaround point, which was marked by a yellow painted stripe in the gravel. I was given my cup of water and told to cross the yellow stripe just ahead before turning around. And being an obedient runner, I did as I was told. And then I fell to a walking pace as I pulled a packet of GU from inside my shorts (pinned to my waistband) and devoured it. (Root beer flavored — not bad, actually.) I was on the return run now, and I learned from my watch that the halfway point was at mile 3.65. At this point, most of my brain was concentrating on throwing one foot in front of the other, but I did manage to find some band width for calculating the distance 1K was. I came up with six point two-tenths of a mile, which meant the full 12K would be about 7.4 miles, or thereabouts. So the turnaround point had come sooner than I expected but apparently exactly where it needed to be. Once I had this resolved in my head, I returned to what had puzzled me before. Why 12K? Why not a simple 10K? The course was an out-and-back. They could have had us turn around at any point along the trail, and where they did turn us around there was no road access or other apparent reason for it being there. But all of this was beyond my mental ability at this point, so onward I plodded.
I was on familiar ground now, and since I was going back the way I had come, I had the chance to see how many runners were still behind me. I didn’t do an actual count, but it seemed that about 20 people — including the four young women I had “killed” — were behind me. As long as I didn’t let any of them (all of them) pass me, I would have a respectable finish and not be in last place (a position I had defended for much of my first year running). It looked like this was going to be possible. I was well ahead of the 20, expect for one women in bright yellow who was not too far behind me. Each time I slowed to a walk and took the chance to turn around, she was closer than before. I was not competing with her. Of course I was not. It didn’t matter at all that she was closing on me and would “kill” me if I didn’t hustle. Didn’t mean a thing to me. Not at all.
And I’m sure this had nothing to do with my push to finish the race as well as I could. I concentrated on the three feet before my two feet. I tried to shorten my walking breaks as much as I could. I kept going. And there, far ahead down that relentlessly straight trail, I could see the last water station. This was at the 5K turnaround point, so it meant that I had only 1.5 miles to finish — once I got to that station. And I did not at all attempt to calculate whether the woman in yellow behind me would gain on me sufficiently to pass me in the 1.5 miles remaining. Nope. Never occurred to me.
I grabbed for a cup of water at the station and missed. So I tried again and got it, even though I didn’t think I was thirsty. But I’ve learned that this can be — and usually is — deceiving. Of course I asked if they had Bud Light, and the people at this station seemed actually perplexed by my question, as though they may have overlooked that detail or something. But I didn’t linger to joke with them about it. I had a mile and a half to go (and absolutely no regard whatsoever for the woman in yellow still closing the distance behind me).
I ran. I walked. I ran. I puzzled why I was having so much trouble with a simple 8-mile-now-7.4-mile run. I was alone on the gravel. My new shoes were filling with gravel. My head already felt like it was full of gravel. The gravel crunched beneath my feet. And then, up ahead after I made one of the few slight turns on this trail, I saw the tunnel I had passed through before. Once I passed through it again, I would have only a quarter mile to the finish arch and an end to this odd, odd run on the gravel beside the river in the cold under the clouds. I confess I walked about fifty feet before the tunnel. And then I began running again, though I knew my watch would lose the satellites again and plummet my pace. But through the tunnel I roared (or trotted, I can’t be sure). On the other side was a course monitor whose purpose was to keep me on the trail and say encouraging things. Remember, 80+ runner had already passed her, so her encouragement felt a little diluted. Plus, why was she there? How was it possible I could go astray at that point? I could nearly see the finish arch ahead. (I couldn’t, but I knew where I was and where I needed to go.) I nodded and may have grunted some thanks to her, but I pushed on, determined to finish as well as my aching hip and tired legs would allow.
The packed parking lot ahead of me was mostly empty now. Many of the runners who had finished were already gone. Even so, a few people were along the side of the trail, saying encouraging things. I was passing the metropolitan area of Rocheport again, and soon I could see the magnificent finish arch ahead of me. The timing clock was flashing out the elapsed time, but since I had never run a 12K before, I had no idea if my total time was good or bad. (Given all of the walking breaks I had taken, I didn’t expect any “good” to come of it.) I pushed, but I didn’t seem to have any kick in me. I looked around for my wife — my support crew — but didn’t see her. I did see the course photographer, though, and sucked it up to try to look decent as I crossed the finish mats. Which I did. I ran out my “speed” and turned off my watch and gathered my “thoughts” and tried to think of what to do next. A woman approached me and told me she needed to remove the chip from my shoe. (Why do I always forget about this?) I saw a man with a handful of medals, but I knew they weren’t giving out finisher medals, so I realized they were for the talented folk who placed in their age groups. I looked around again for my wife but didn’t see her. Assuming that the 12K was equivalent to 8 miles, I had given her an incorrect estimate of my finish time. I suspected she was in the antique shops a few blocks away, buying holiday gifts. So I tried calling her but never connected.
In the meantime, the man tallying the official finish times had grabbed the microphone and was calling out the age group winners. I thought it polite to stick around for this (given that so many of the other runners had already left). As I waited, for a long time it seemed, the woman in yellow who had been chasing me had finally crossed the finish line. Apparently I had nothing to worry about. She never did manage to close the distance between us. Not that I cared, of course.
I assumed my wife was in the shops in town, so, after a little business was concluded at the finish, I hurried over that direction. My plastic clothes were wet with sweat by then, and the sun had never come out. I was cold, and I was eager to get in the warm car. It was parked about thirty feet from the finish arch, but I had no key. So I hustled across the few blocks to the main street where I hoped to find my wife, or at the very least, a warm shop I could harbor in until we connected.
I finally did manage to reach her on the phone, and we found we were one block apart. I hurried over to her and then directed us to the storefront where they served ice cream. I had a single-dip cone (mint chip) as I sat in the warmth and my wife showed me the many things she had bought while I was pounding on the gravel. I gave her a recount of the run, and then we decided it was time to head the two hours to home. We stopped in one more shop (more warmth) before she offered to fetch the car and pick me up. I had no argument with that. As I waited, several women in the shop noticed the bib pinned to my shirt and asked if there had been a bicycle race on the trail that day. I told them it was a running race and they seemed both surprised and pleased by this news. Soon after, my wife arrived with the warm car. I hopped in and turned up the heat as we made our way to the interstate and turned to the west and home. I tried to sleep as she drove, but I didn’t have much luck.
So I ran the Tunnel Trot. And I satisfied my curiosity about the KATY Trail. I didn’t care for it, at least for running. The gravel was unfamiliar beneath my feet. My shoes were full of it. The long, straight stretches were dispiriting. But I had tried it. I have no organized runs for the rest of December, but I should try to get out and do more training miles.
I said they didn’t give out finisher medals, and they didn’t. But they did give out age group winner medals. I’ve always said that I would only get third in my age group if there were just two runners in my age group. But I didn’t get third.