Late February in Pennsylvania sometimes means snow, cold rain or, as is the case this year, clear skies and mild temperatures. You just never can tell.
What you can count on is another running of Pretzel City's Ugly Mudder, a self-proclaimed "doggone ugly way to spend a day" on the trails on Mt. Penn.
The trails are plenty rocky and, depending on the whim of race director extraordinaire Ron Horn, full of steep climbs. This year, apparently, he felt the need to add a few more and steeper inclines than last year.
I've been climbing well as of late (and enjoying the hell out of it), so this should have played in my favor.
I can't seem to turn down a good climb, however, and had made the mistake of putting some time in on Mole Hill the day before (though it was good company, Steve). Not the wisest decision the day before Ugly Mudder, not when I recover like the 37 year old I am rather than the 24 year old who's body I sometimes seem to ignorantly think I am in possession of and certainly not when that trip up/down Mole also resulted in a body-jarring fall on an iced-over log.
Anyway, Jefferson and I drove to West Reading on Sunday morning relaxed and ready to run and I was blissfully unaware of any latent fatigue. The weather was perfect. I have no idea what the temperature was but I felt perfectly comfortable in shorts, tights, long-sleeved t-shirt and lightweight windshirt. There was just enough chill to merit the addition of gloves and a hat, but there was little wind (unlike the day before when friends at the FebApple 50 were pummelled with wicked gusts all day long) and the sun was shining.
The Ugly Mudder had been added to the renowned La Sportiva Mountain Cup, a series of a dozen or so sub-marathon distance trail races strewn all around the country each year. This lured out some fast legs from afar (here's a race report from eventual 3rd place finisher and La Sportiva-sponsored runner Jason Bryant: http://lifethroughtheeyeofarunner.blogspot.com/2012/02/la-sportiva-mountain-cup-ugly-mudder.html) and added further interest to an event that routinely draws over 700 participants all on its own. If I understood correctly, there were over 700 pre-race registrants and another 150+ on the day of the event, though the posted finishing times would suggest either a lot of DNF's, a bunch of no-shows or some combination of the two.
Long story short, there were a ton of bodies packed behind the starting line and only a couple of hundred yards before those bodies needed to funnel into an uphill section of singletrack. I'd hit that clogged mess the year before and made up my mind to stay ahead of the fray if at all possible.
I managed to meet that goal and scampered up that first climb somewhere just behind the lead runners and the next chase pack. I hadn't gone far, though, before I recognized that I was working on two tired legs.
The flat in-the-park start and quick transition to singletrack was comparable to last year but, if I'm not mistaken, we actually took a slightly different route up that initial climb than we did in 2011. If anyone reading this can confirm, I'd appreciate it.
Regardless, at some point we were back on familiar sections and I settled into as quick a pace as I could manage in expectation of maintaining it throughout the full 7 miles. I wanted to be going a bit faster, but I was definitely "racing" and pushing the pace any harder at that point was sure to bring on a bonk later.
No more than a mile or two into the race, we hit a road crossing at which runners were receiving on-the-fly course instructions from the Horns, Ron and his lovely bride and fellow person-who-makes-Pretzel-City-happen Helene...the very sound of Helene's voice makes me happy and the smile she always (and I mean always) has to offer only adds to that happiness.
There was a steep 5-foot section of poured concrete that led from the trail down to the road surface and it had three or four runners in front of me drawn basically to a stand still. Determined to keep moving, I scooted by them on their left and leaped almost to the bottom of the "step", fell forward, rolled on my shoulder, popped back up and kept going. It happened quickly enough that my brain failed to process an "ouch". Seeing Ron a few feet ahead, I decided to run behind him so I could give him a congratulatory smack on the butt. In doing so, I gave myself an odd angle back onto the trail and didn't really make sense of his advice to "look out for the cable" before falling to the ground a second time, having struck said cable full on with my left shin.
While my brain FULLY processed the "ouch" and even found some time to go back and address the one it had missed a moment earlier, I mumbled something like "oh, that cable?" and dragged myself back to my feet.
Not only had I fallen off my pace but I wasn't going to get back there right away as the next short section was a relatively steep scramble up to the Pagoda.
A peculiar out-of-place landmark, the Pagoda has loomed high above Reading since just after the turn of the 20th century. The first half of my childhood was spent in Berks County and because the Pagoda was always "up there", its oddity didn't really strike me until later in life. Its constant presence and touch of uniqueness has made it beloved (I think) and I genuinely love the strange touch it gives Pretzel City races and am always amazed by how sweeping a view is offered from its high perch. The image below was taken sometime in the 20's and while it gives some sense of its elevation above the city, it also shows a deforestation that, thankfully, has been replaced nicely by new growth.
The next portion of the course was the most strikingly different from the year before, at least the way I'm remembering it, serving up a fairly sustained and more-than-fairly steep climb soon after leaving the Pagoda behind.
None of it was so steep that it was completely unrunnable, at least not in a 7 mile race (50K+ and I would've considered these sections as hiking required) and, on fresher legs, I shouldn't have had to do any hiking at all.
To say it another way, I did some hiking.
We finally hit an aid station at the mid-way point and while I didn't need any actual aid, I did enjoy the confirmation that we'd made it halfway.
There were other climbs to be had in the second half, but nothing like the first 3.5 miles and, instead, it was a matter of keeping the pace and managing the technical track. To make sure I stayed focused, I drank a beer at the mile 6 aid station. I'm not sure it worked but it tasted great.
As I made the final clamber up Ron's infamous finishing hill, I heard familiar cheers from Erin, Finn, Noah and Helene. Knowing it had an audience, the shameless clown-in-me decided it would be funny to turn around and run a few steps backwards. No, I didn't fall down (yet again), but I did find when I turned back around that my body now wanted to puke.
I really didn't want to puke, so I walked the last few steps and came across in 1:02:47 with 35 runners already in ahead of me. In 2011 I finished 32nd in 1:02:02 and, frankly, was hoping to improve upon those numbers this go round. That disappointment came and went in a hurry, however, as I embraced the victory of not puking when I was sure it was going to happen.
In the end, as is usually the case at a Pretzel City event, I walked away thrilled to have taken part. I met some new folks, reconnected with old friends, finally saw J.C. in the flesh (let's make it a habit, brother), witnessed Jefferson shave 2 minutes off of his 2011 time (!) and was there for Sheldon's impressive trail race debut.
A doggone pretty way to spend a day, I'd say.
Now if I can just stay upright next year....