When I decided to forego trying to muscle my way through a fall marathon, part of the decision was that I was way more excited about a couple of upcoming trail races than I was a road marathon. To be honest, that’s nothing new — I love trail races. And when I thought back on the races I ran this year that brought me joy, the Backside Trail Half was high on that list. 

The second-annual Harrod’s Creek Trail Bash was Nov. 18, with 5k and 10k options in a two-loop format. Last year I did the inaugural race during a long fall season and ran it at tempo effort. This year, I came into it feeling a little salty about my fall racing season. While I was technically on week two of a recovery block, coach had okayed racing probably because he knew I would do it anyway. 

I love this race for a few reasons. One, it is organized by my friend (and recent OTQ’er) Zack, who created it because this is literally his backyard trail and he wanted to share it with others. It’s a recently-developed trail, created by a small municipal government, and is not well-known. Two, it has that quintessential trail racing atmosphere: a bonfire, chili at the finish, mud, bourbon, unique awards. Three, it’s a great runnable trail with just enough technicality to be challenging.

I feel like I say this often, but running through the trees is my earliest running memory. I grew up on a farm and spent a lot of time in the woods, lost in my imagination. Trail running is elemental; something about it makes complete sense to me. But I also love the surprises trails throw at you. When you race on the roads, you get annoyed at bad paving and potholes and corners that are too tight. On trails, those are just fun obstacles.

The weather was pretty good for this year’s race — a little warmer than last year, around 40 degrees and dry. With recent rain, I expected a good runnable course for the first lap and a mucky mess on lap two. 
I had reviewed my splits from last year and came into the race with three goals:

  1. Defend my win from last year
  2. Run faster than last year 
  3. Negative split the two loops

I did an easy mile warmup with my long-time running friend Heather and her son — we’ve been friends so long that I once pushed said son in the jog stroller; today, she was hoping I would pace him. We talked strategy a bit because if you’ve never raced with a 9-year-old boy … pacing is not their strong suit. Aaron is also used to shorter distances and cross-country courses, which are slightly different beasts.

I tossed all my warmup gear, ready to run in my usual singlet and shorts, plus gloves. Some people were in full winter gear. Heather was making fun of me and I noted that if you race in the same outfit every time regardless of the weather, you never have to worry about what to wear. The race starts, and we head out on a wide, grassy path for the first half mile. Aaron sprinted ahead to avoid being trapped on the single track and also because he’s 9. I figured my friend and former New Balance Louisville teammate Ben would be the eventual winner and I let a group of guys pull ahead.

We hit the first uphill, crested it and found a lovely stretch of fresh sod on the downhill (an improvement over the wet, slick grass from last year). Then we got into the singletrack and headed uphill. There were great volunteers at every exchange and lots of signage, although I heard from Ben they were briefly given bad directions early on. 

Does it get any more beautiful than this?

I cruised along, clicking the first mile 10 seconds faster than last year in a snappy 7:19. Mile 2, much more technical, was an 8:38 (9:02 last year, and I knew these splits so I was tracking how much faster I was in my head). You wind down to the creek and the runners behind you can cheer from the top of the ridge. I noticed another woman not too far behind me but didn’t worry much since we were still on loop 1. Mile 3 flattens back out in the last half mile and you get a brief bit of pavement as you come through the parking lot and back through the start area. 

Now through the first loop, I took a peek back and saw the second place woman a little closer than I was comfortable with. I was with a couple of other guys and caught up to Aaron and another guy by mile 4 (7:26, 12 seconds faster than last year). One guy, another Ben, coaches Aaron’s AAU team, and had been running with me. At the end of loop 2 he joked he was going to let me pace him for the second lap which was fine by me — but I was also hoping to keep him as a buffer between me and the woman in second, so when we got to the single track I went ahead of him. That would make it harder for her to gauge how close she was and if I was faltering, and would definitely make it harder for her to pass. But I was also not letting up on the effort and refocused my intention.

Mile 5 was, as I expected, a hot mess. I was sliding around corners and finding no traction uphill. It also included having to pass runners going the other way on loop 1. The race is limited to just 150 participants to protect the trail, so this bit of overlap is not too congested. But, a lot of the passing section was on rocky, narrow trails and I pushed to create some more distance between me and the next woman. 8:57 on mile 5, 26 seconds faster than last year. I suspected negative splitting the laps might be tough since I went out aggressively and the trail conditions deteriorated, but I was still pushing.

Yes, I am holding the birdhouse upside down.

Aaron had dropped back on the hill at mile 5 and the group of four I was in spread out a bit. The second loop changes direction a bit and you get a nice downhill and a brief respite on the wide, grassy fast part. Remembering the course layout, I accelerated a little more on this part and then held the effort on the last trail bit. I split the last mile in 7:48 (7:52 last year), with the last bit at 8:14 pace (back on the trail) to finish in 50:46. (For those of you trying to keep track … 52:06 last year.)

I crossed the line with a big smile on my face, happy with my effort and my performance. I had fun and raced hard. I wish all my fall races had felt like this one!