By R.L. Bynum
I’m always eager to try different sorts of marathons to enjoy the experience, even if the challenges might be high.
Those have included a race that started at midnight (the Loonies Midnight Marathon in Livingston, Tenn.), one run entirely indoors (the Indoor Insanity Marathon in Winston-Salem) and another that started and finished at a NASCAR track (the Darlington Marathon).
For a few weeks, I had my eye on the Northern Trails Marathon in Greensboro. I was going to be in Greensboro anyway the night before to cover North Carolina’s game against Florida State in the ACC Tournament semifinals, so I decided to get a motel room and registered for the Saturday race Friday.
The single-track trails were beautiful but so narrow that it was very difficult at times to pass slower runners or to allow faster runners to pass me.
I knew full well that I have a classic marathon shuffle with my feet never getting too high from the ground and only mildly wondered if that would be a problem in a trail race. I greatly underestimated the challenges given my running style.
I’ve run the Grandfather Mountain Marathon twice, but this was the toughest, most challenging marathon I’ve ever run.
About 90% of the course is over single-track trails with plenty of tree roots to deal with, a few streams to leap over and tree-root packed short hills that stop you in your tracks. I never imagined the challenge.
The sage advice for hockey players is to keep your head up so that you are prepared for (or can avoid) a hard check. For this trail race, the advice is quite different. I stopped looking too far ahead and kept my head down to inspect the trail for roots that might trip me up.
This was different than any of my previous 47 marathons and I was was embracing it as we left the area of Northern Guilford High School and started onto the trails. This was going to be a neat experience and maybe single-track trail marathons are fun.
But this shouldn’t be confused with other trail races I’ve run. I’ve run the Salem Lake 30K and Frosty 25K on the Salem Lake Trail in Winston-Salem multiple times. That trail is wider and there are few roots to avoid.
Most of the route of my favorite marathon, the Tobacco Road Marathon, is on the American Tobacco Trail, but this also is nothing like the Northern Trails Marathon course. Much of the ATT is paved and very wide, without the same elements.
It took about four miles for me to stumble and hit the ground. A fellow runner asked if I was OK and I said yes, adding that this probably wouldn’t be the last time that happened.
That turned out to be quite an understatement.
I lost count of the number of times I hit the ground over the 26.2 miles and I have the scrapes on both knees and both arms to prove it. There were also several other times when I thought I would hit the ground but managed to regain my balance and avoid falling.
On a fall at about mile 10, I hit the left side of my head and was woozy for a few seconds.
That wooziness subsided quickly and I went on my way, but noticed that blood was coming out of my left ear. At the 13.1-mile aid station, there were some concerned looks from the volunteers, one of whom took a photo of my ear to show me what it looked like. After using some wipes, the bleeding finally stopped and I was on my way again.
I think my Powerbeats ear buds were pushed into my ear and scratched my ear canal. After that fall, I got no sound from the left side of my Powerbeats. After the race, I had to use wipes to get clean all the dried blood out of it and the left side worked fine after that.
I found myself rejoicing when there were short stretches on highways because I didn’t have to worry about stumbling on roots.
At one point early in the race, I turned my right ankle slightly stepping on a root. For a moment, I thought my race was done. But the ankle felt fine in seconds and I never had any issues.
My legs felt fine over the last 10 miles or so but I got paranoid that I might stumble and fall on a large stone or something else that would cause an injury. So, for most of those miles, I would only run in stretches that looked fairly free of roots and walked most of the way. Even when I walked, I tripped a few times but never hit the ground.
The main photo at the top was from the early, pre-scrape miles. It’s a different story for the below photo as I’m running on a grassy field toward the finish.
The result was the worst time of my 48 marathons at just over five hours, more than 24 minutes slower than my previous personal-worst time (4:36) on a steamy November morning last year at the Battleship N.C. Marathon in Wilmington.
Obviously, stopping for 10 minutes to stop the bleeding in my left ear at that aid station isn’t going to help your time any more than walking a lot.
Thanks to being old, I managed to finish third in my age group. It was just a matter of finishing, though, since there were only three runners in my age group!
I was chatting with another runner after the race and pointed to my skinned knees and arm scrapes and quipped that I got the full trail experience. She quickly deduced the obvious and said, “you don’t have much trail running experience, do you?”
The folks who put on the race did an excellent job. They had a non-contact packet pickup in which they placed a bag with your name on it within your wave start location.
But, given my running style, this isn’t the course for me.
I’d consider doing a midnight marathon again and would run that indoor race again (unfortunately both of those races were discontinued). I’m one and done with a single-track trail marathon, though.