My Harder ‘n’ Hell Half Marathon Race Report, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Road Running
I recently ran the Harder ‘n’ Hell Half Marathon in Duluth, and realized maybe trail running is not for me.
October 18, 2021 dawned as a gorgeous day. The sun came up over the harbor in Duluth, and the hills were awash in color - greens, golds, reds and oranges.
There was a slight crispness to the air, reminiscent of a really good Honeycrisp apple. I woke up at a lazy 6:30 am and began my preparations for my last race of the year, the Harder ‘n’ Hell Half-Marathon.
I would spend roughly 3 hours running along the Superior Hiking Trail, from Spirit Mountain to Bayfront Park, and every step would be glorious. After working so hard all spring, summer and fall on my road speed, I was ready for some trail epiphanies.
The first 4 miles of my race went well - I felt calm and in control. I managed to keep up with my husband, which surprised and pleased me. We split up shortly before the first aid station, which was ok with me.
He is a better climber than me, and I wanted to take my time, so as to not blow up later on. I was quite pleased with how I was handling the terrain. I even thought to myself,
I am finally running a race on the infamous Superior Hiking Trail!
After the first aid station, things started getting tough. At the top of one of the hills, I looked across the horizon and saw Enger Tower.
It was very, very tiny.
I had no idea how I was going to get there - it seemed much farther than 6.5 miles away! And the trail kept snaking inland! I kept my head down, and focused on the trail, but it was starting to get much more technical.
I let the dark thought enter my mind that I was in over my head, that this race was way beyond my ability. As I started walking more and tiptoeing carefully down the descents, I began to think that perhaps I want to like trail running more than I actually do.
My trail epiphanies seemed to be going the way of a trail existential crisis.
My memory harkened back to the Zumbro 17 mile, where I experienced similar doubt and lack of confidence in my abilities with technical terrain. I was determined to finish, but it was starting to feel a lot like work, and not a lot of fun.
I was very anxious and stressed by the terrain (and those dang descents in particular), and it was affecting my ability to even run on the runnable sections. I really admired the runners who would come barreling up behind me and seemingly dance down the rocks. I could not do that. I was too afraid.
At the second aid station, I decided to take a mental break. I had some water, chatted with volunteers and other runners, and ate some donuts.
I walked out of the aid station enjoying the company of a woman who had just moved to Duluth from Colorado. We talked about the adjustment she was having, the different kinds of beauty you can see in northern Minnesota, and our mutual love of being outdoors.
I was starting to feel better, physically and mentally. I saw a relatively clear, runnable section of trail, wished her well and took off. I checked my watch and saw that I could still potentially finish in just over 3 hours. I felt happy and sure of myself again.
About a mile later, I came to a stream crossing. Unlike previous crossings, there were no boards, bridges or even conveniently placed rocks. This would have to be navigated carefully.
My shoes were already wet and muddy from earlier sections of the trail, and I was worried about slipping. I planned my route and started across.
I made it to the other side, slipped and fell. My left leg bent up behind me, my left ankle twisted, and I heard a definitive snapping sound.
I crumpled down onto a rock and started to cry. The pain wasn’t as intense as the shame and feelings of utter failure-ness. I believe the kids would call this “an epic fail.”
My pity party lasted less than 2 minutes, as the kind Colorado runner and her new friend came bounding down the trail. They carefully crossed the stream and sat down with me to help.
They helped me stand, and since I could put weight on the foot, we figured it must not be broken. For a split second, I considering backtracking to the aid station and dropping out of the race, but I did not want to cross that stream again.
The only way was ahead to the finish, about 2 miles away.
Ressie and Jim walked with me, talked with me and kept me in good spirits. I was in pain, but it wasn’t unimaginable, so I kept going.
We talked about life, running and our love/hate relationship with trail running. Jim loved it; Ressie and I both admitted we wanted to love it, but kind of sucked at it. I was appreciative of the company and distraction, knowing that it would eventually come to an end.
Sure enough, once we reached Enger Tower (finally!!!), Ressie and Jim asked if it would be ok if they ran ahead. Of course I said yes!
I steeled my mind and my quads for the final bit, roughly 1.5 miles of descent. I told myself not to cry, that I could cry when I got to the finish. I willed myself to be strong. Busted ankle or no, I had to get there.
That lasted for about 5 minutes, until about the 20th runner passed me, including many 50K runners. I prayed not to be passed by Gary or Jared, although I would’ve welcomed the sight of their handsome faces.
Runners were kind when they passed me but I started getting angry at them and their trail running prowess. I started feeling like utter crap. My ankle was hurting, I was worried it was broken, the descent was killing my quads, and this all-around sucked.
Acceptance, Part 1
When I got to the final stretch of pavement, I thought,
Screw it. I’m sick of this and want to be done. I want my soup.
(Actually, it was a bit more unprintable than that, but you get the idea.)
So I started to run. I half-ran, half-limped, even passing some people that had passed me before. (Even with an injured ankle, here comes that road speed!) I knew how late I was to be finishing, I knew that my husband was bound to be worried by how long I was taking, and I was so mentally exhausted and defeated.
l kept it together until I saw my husband, Hannah and Allison by the finish line. They were cheering their lungs out, and I just burst into tears as I shuffled by. I crossed the finish line and collapsed on a rock.
My ankle was throbbing, but I was happy to be done. And happy to be with my husband and my friends.
Allison had a great race. It was her first trail race ever, and she was now in love with all things trail running. My husband had a great race, too, despite his concerns about the terrain. He said he rarely walked and felt strong the whole way.
Hannah had a blast cheering and supporting runners and being an all-around awesome person. I started to feel ok about myself again. Good friends and husbands will do that.
Going to Bent Paddle for celebratory beer didn’t hurt, either.
Acceptance, Part 2
I learned a lot of things at this race and during the subsequent hours.
I learned that if you need to go to urgent care in Duluth, go to St. Luke’s. Everyone there was so kind and helpful.
I learned that my ankle was not broken, but very severely sprained, which can be an even more difficult recovery. I will be learning patience in the next 4-6 weeks of not running.
More importantly, I learned that perhaps I don’t quite have the right mindset to be a trail runner. The idea first came into my mind at Zumbro this past spring, but it fully formed during the Harder ‘n’ Hell.
I realized that I have a lot of fear of falling during trail running. I don’t feel that sense of play and exhilaration that others seem to feel on the descents. In fact, they scare the crap out of me, especially when lots of rocks are involved.
I learned that sometimes trail running gets so stressful and makes me feel so anxious that it’s just not fun. In fact, it kind of sucks.
I learned that perhaps I just don’t have enough experience running trails (especially technical trails), and you know what? Maybe that’s ok.
2014 was supposed to be my Year of the Trail
After some modest trail-running successes in 2013, I really wanted to focus on trails this past year and perhaps even run my first trail ultra. Instead, I joined the Mill City Running Race Team (roads) and started working with a coach (who runs track and roads).
So perhaps I set myself up to fail at the trails.
Perhaps I have a severe case of FOMO - Fear Of Missing Out. All my friends are doing trails! All my friends are doing ultras! All my friends are good at trail running and they enjoy it! I can have it all!
But this particular race helped me realize that I personally can’t. I can focus on getting better at trail running, on running the descents with confidence. But I really don’t want to. And that’s ok.
I’ve realized that what I want, running-wise, is to wear that Boston Marathon jacket. And to have earned it.
So heal up, foot. 2015 is the year of the BQ.