Hot. That was the word for the day on Saturday when I ran the Surly Trail Loppet Half Marathon. I had signed up for this race a few weeks ago, since my wife was gone during this same weekend running a Trail Ragnar. I had never run this race before, and had only ran at Theodore Wirth park a few times before. This made me excited to see what more this park had to offer.
However, because of that word I started out with (HOT), this was more than just a simple half-marathon for me. The past week or so, Minnesota has been having a strange warm spell with temps in the upper 80s most of the week. What should have been a nice cool fall race, was shaping up to be one of the warmest I’ve ever done.
Because of the parking situation near the start, I went to a trail head on the Luce Line trail 2 miles away and biked to the race village. As I was biking I could tell that the day was already shaping up to be downright tropical. I arrived at the start and got my bib, and wandered around seeing if I recognized anyone. On the bike ride over I passed Rob H. and said hello, and then as I was waiting near the start line I met up with Kari. We talked about the heat and she declared that she was going to run so slow she wouldn’t even sweat! On a day like this, I personally proved that wasn’t possible.
My wave launched at 9:15 and I started down a simple bike path until we veered off into the woods. My first miles were pretty good, and I was feeling relatively positive, but I could already tell that the heat was going to play a major factor. I stuck around 12-13 minute miles and made sure that I took it easy on the uphills.
Something that I’ve learned in high heat running is that you can sometimes drink too much water. Often times when we are hot and sweaty we want to drink to cool down. However, what can happen is that you flush out all of the salts from your system as you’re drinking. I think that was a direct contributor to the heat exhaustion I got on a race in Vegas a few years ago. Therefore, my strategy was to use my water bladder to drink when I was thirsty, and at aid stations drink a bunch of sport drink. While at the aid stations I would also dunk 2-3 cups of water over my head to cool myself down. This meant that I was staying cooler, but also getting in more than just water. Overall, I felt like the strategy worked out mostly good.
As the race wore on my body started to fatigue severely from the heat. Eventually, I was dragging myself along at a 17 min/mile pace, and just trying to regain some energy by moving slowly. I was savoring every moment of shade in the woods that I could. However, there were long stretches of exposed trail as well. In fact, one of the things that I discovered about this race is that a large portion of it is on paved bike trail, as well as dirt. I’d estimate about 30-35% of the race is on asphalt, which is great for introducing road runners to trails, but on a hot brutal day, I dreaded every moment of pavement.
Somewhere after mile 10 I decided to ditch the shirt, as the black fabric was absorbing the sun. Thankfully I still had my vest to cover my lily-white chest, and spare any of my fellow runners blindness. I started to feel better between mile 9-10 and felt like I was moving with determination. I wasn’t running a ton, but my hiking was solid. I hit the final aid station for a final shower before making my way to the finish. There is a short section of residential road at this point, and it’s all up-hill. Needless to say I was a little bummed that there was no way I could run it. Soon I was back on a bike trail and heading for the end.
I crossed the line, triumphant over the conditions, and with the slowest half-marathon time in my running career at 3:17 (technically Blood, Sweat, and Beers was slower, but it was also a full MILE longer than a half marathon). Given the amount of pavement, and the sub-1000ft of elevation gain in the race, I know I could easily have gotten closer to 2:35-2:45. I was the victim of a circumstance that I know is my nemesis, running in heat. I feel like I should train more for some heat runs, and perhaps I’ll make a point of that next season. Many of my toughest races have seemed to be bogged down by heat related issues.
I looked around at the finish for any friends and spotted Anthony, who I’ve run into a ton at races recently. He came in a bit after me, also suffering from the horrendous conditions. We chatted a bit, I had a half a glass of beer, and then it was time for the very, very slow bike ride back to my car. I had thankfully spent a few minutes just laying and recovering, so by the time I hit the bike I wasn’t doing too bad. Riding with no shirt felt great, as the self-generated breeze cooled me off amazingly.
Soon I was back at my car, and I loaded up to go home and clean up and spend some time in air conditioning. My recovery was swift, which I think it a tribute to how smart I ran this race. I managed my fluid intake really well, and perhaps the only change I’d make is to carry a bottle of some form of energy drink as well. I also didn’t hydrate to excess, and had no signs of any ill effects from the heat when I finished.
As for the race itself, this was the first year I had ran it, and it was a fun time. The race directors can’t do anything about the weather, and so they were as much a victim of it as all of us runners. I was a little disappointed with how much pavement there was on the course, but I understand that they can only work with what they have available to them in the park. Almost all of the bike paths were through tree-lined sections of the park, so they were just as beautiful. There were some short jaunts along railroad tracks which were a new thing for me, but to some degree that gave it a cool urban-trail feel.
I’m unsure if I’ll be back next year. This particular weekend in September always seems to fill up with various races. There’s still In Yan Teopa that I want to get down to, so perhaps Surly Trail Loppet will need to wait a while before I return to it. If you’re a road runner looking to get a taste of trails, I’d recommend giving this race a try. It’s a good time, and well managed. Hopefully, in future years, the heat won’t be such a huge factor.