Breathtaking Trailfest Half-Marathon Challenge

by Aaron Major

I think this was the first time I've done a race in Thacher Park without a pre-race warning about "slippery bridges." It was only when we started running through the fields around the Horseshoe II pavilion that I really started to appreciate how dry this summer has been. What is usually a thick, spongy carpet of grass and wild thyme was brown and brittle, cracking under our shoes.

The Trailfest half-marathon (and marathon and 50k) course will be familiar to anyone who has come out to race Hairy Gorilla in October: a barbell design with the loop taking you out to the Hang Glide Cliff connected to the second loop at Beaver Dam Road by a long stretch along the escarpment fence. You get to see and experience just about everything that the park, and its trails have to offer: stunning views Southeast into Albany, open fields, wide jeep trails, and twisting single track.

The first loop is the kinder of the two but should not be taken lightly. The first mile seems flat but in reality gently slopes uphill until it enters the Long Path and surrounding forest. There's one decent up and one steep down but it's the terrain that varies more than the elevation. Smooth, wide forest trail turns to rooted, narrow single track, turns to rocky ledge, turns to packed clay, turns to grassy fields. Most years the challenge is to avoid the puddles and thick mud; this year the ground was baked and hardened into deep ruts and undulations. You can cruise along, but you still have to pay attention.

At this point in the race I was happy to sit a few yards behind the leader of 10k, who was setting a solid pace. An out-and-back section at the Hang Glide Cliff lets you see where you stand. I was leading the half-marathon, but not by much with still a long way to go. Like most mornings this month, the air was warm and thick and on the exposed sections of the course the sun was already strong. At just shy of six miles the course splits. I watched Todd, 10k leader shoot up the short hill to loop back through the field we started in to claim his victory. I took a hard left to stay on the escarpment trail and out towards the second loop.

Earlier in the morning, when I was visualizing how my race would unfold, I told myself to keep it easy for the first half in order to be able to work the long climb up to Beaver Dam Road that starts the second loop. Get through this and you're home free. Well, not really, but it's a good thing to tell yourself. Of course the idealized vision of powering up the near-mile climb was not borne out in practice. I had felt comfortably in control for the first seven miles or so but I was also trying to keep second place out of sight (and out of mind) and the heat and humidity were taking their toll. The climb alternates between steep and shallow gradients. About three-quarters of the way up I passed the left hand turn onto the blue trail that was part of the final "baby loop" that the 50k runners complete. I measured my own suffering against what those runners would be feeling at that moment and pressed on.

Once conquered, the trail turns sharply left and you get a long, flat stretch paralleling the road and then a series of twists and turns that give up all of the elevation that you just gained. The flat sections and downhills felt great and every little incline felt spiteful. Just as I would start to get my legs under me the trail would pitch upward and sap my momentum. Having done this many times before I knew what was coming but somehow it still feels like a personal insult. How come the trail gives you no respite when you're going up, but forces you to suffer these slings and arrows on the way down? Surely it has something against us.

After looping and twisting you take a sharp right back onto the road that you climbed a few miles earlier. Your enemy has now become your friend as you  float down this stretch knowing that soon you will be back on the escarpment ridge and then only a mile or so to the finish line. After exiting the Paint Mine parking lot and crossing the field to get back on the trail I looked left to see what I didn't want to see: the flashes of bright color of Alan's singlet. I still had a decent lead, but by no means an insurmountable one and if my competition had it in their legs to make a push to the finish...I had to get moving.

It's on the way back to the finish that you realize that this section of the escarpment trail slowly, steadily, grinds upward. A final labor before you can rest. I was trying to keep the pace high but fatigue and weather put real limits on those heights. Running fast became stumbling fast. A sharp right at the Visitor's Center gave me another chance to check on my competition and it was only here that I felt secure in holding the lead. Looping around the backside of the pavilion you see a vision of your future self: relaxed, smiling, filling your plate with the products of the smoking grill. But that's not you yet. Still about a quarter mile to go. Just one lap around the track, just a couple measly minutes more.

I hit the open field that we had started in, running past spectators and 10k finishers, kids at the playground, visitors and hikers not quite sure what they're witnessing but enjoying it nonetheless. Later I'll be reminded why this is such a great venue for a race, that you're in a place where you would want to be and take friends and family even if you weren't racing. But, for now, a final left through a treeline and then the finish line. A couple of steps after breaking the tape I found a spot of shade and waited for Alan who, as I expected, did not keep me long.

Ed. Note:  Aaron won in 1:31:20 closely followed by Alan Finder 1:32:15 but it took others over  4 minutes to catch up.

Aaron’s wife, Rebekah Tolley, made the awards for the race. When Aaron was presented with first place, he replied, “Had to drive to Altamont and run 13 miles just to bring it back to the place where it was made.  Totally worth it.”

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