A View From The Top – Racing Torreya
By Gordon Cherr,
I’ve run the trails of Torreya a time or two, you know. Swampy lowlands bathed in emerald green grasses even in the dead of winter, uplands so high you can look north and see the foothills of the Appalachians sweeping away like so many incoming ocean swells. Magical red limestone bluffs that will fool you into thinking that you have been transported to the red rocks of Sedona in your sleep. Today it was Indian Pinks blooming in wild red and yellow profusion that left me breathless. Or maybe that was just the big hills. Or the wild screaming call of the pileated woodpeckers, or even the hooting of the barred owls, who couldn’t possibly be louder: “Who cooks for you, who cooks for youuuuuuuuuu?”, that’s just what their calling sounds like.
The big muddy Apalachicola River runs by silently but fast, recent spring rains have swollen it well into its broad, wide floodplain, much to the delight of a soon to be bumper crop of green tree frogs and toads, wood ducks and, whether you like it or not, dive bombing mosquitos. The beauty and distinctiveness of Torreya once lead locals to claim it was the original Garden of Eden. Now, I don’t know about that, but a few hours running the trails of Torreya will make a believer of you, perhaps just until the endorphins wash away, but a true believer nonetheless.
A 25K/50K trail race is scheduled for April 19, a long overdue event in my opinion. I once tried to convince the powers that be that a late winter/early spring ultra out here would be well received, but state officials never paid that request any heed. However, other, wiser heads have finally prevailed and the race is now scheduled. The field is limited to 40 runners and the field has filled quickly. I ran the trails today to remind myself about them. Or maybe to remind myself about myself. Let me share some thoughts with those of you who have not previously run Torreya or who don’t regularly run the trails, in favor of the roads.
1. Bring insect repellent! The mosquitos will descend upon you, they are fearless, they are voracious, and you are the biggest Welcome Wagon they have ever seen. The stuff will wear off after an hours’ worth of running anyhow, but cut yourself a break for a while. If you bring family and friends, they will definitely thank you because they are at risk too. When you stop to whiz or whatever, expect to be a pin cushion for a few moments. Normally, when you are moving, the mosquitos are not a problem. However, a few black flies are out already and you will not outrun them. I know that you do not want to wear a hat or even a shirt and it will be hot and humid out there, and this is Florida and it is April, right? Give serious consideration to wearing them both.
2. If you are more a road runner and less a trail runner, you are in for a rude but honest introduction to real trail running. Road runners can ratchet it up to just below red line and race. Or just run. And zone out. That’s the nature of running the roads. But Torreya’s trails are not like Lake Overstreet or Phipps Park or even Tom Brown Park. In contrast, the trails at Torreya are gnarly, rooty, slick, slippery, dangerous and demand that you pay attention to every step. There are few really runable stretches, you are going up or down almost constantly. Some of the uphills and downhills are steep, by anyone’s standards. The footing is always uneven. You may need to walk some of the uphills. You will need to walk many of the downhills. The downhills are much more treacherous. Learn how to stop yourself by grabbing onto trees or saplings that may line the trails, they can arrest your fall. Or you will wipe out. A lot. Don’t grab onto fellow competitors or you will all fall down together. You will fall down on these trails. When you do, just pick yourself up and keep on trucking. Try to pick up your feet. That is hard when you are tired and your concentration is flagging. Stobs and roots will jump up and grab your foot, and try to pull you down. It just happens.
3. Wear trail shoes. Do not wear road shoes. You want a deep, aggressive tread pattern to help you stay upright. You want a toe bumper to protect your toes when you slam them up against a root or other debris on the trail. I ran Torreya on Sunday (4/6), and there was a downpour there the day before. Some of the trails were still coursing water like a mill race. Even if it hasn’t rained you have several stream crossings on each loop and your feet are likely to get wet. Take care to Vaseline your feet and toes to avoid blisters. Or use Body Glide or Boudreaux’s Butt Paste (really!). Nothing will kill your race faster than a blister. When you are out on these trails, no one is coming out to save you. There is no meat wagon. You are on your own.
4. It is slippery on the trails. The roots are slick. The clay muds are slick. If it has rained, this will be exaggerated. There are some steps on the trail framed with pressure treated wood. The wood is slippery. It is covered with mold or some sort of totally unidentifiable alien life form. If you step on it, you are a goner. Worse yet, there are about 10 little foot bridges you will need to cross on each loop. While picturesque, they are covered with some green slimy stuff that you don’t ever want to touch your body. Or you will become the Swamp Thing. Seriously, try to mince your steps or walk across the bridges, if you hit them at full stride you are likely to fall down very hard.
5. Have I mentioned the footing? There is a lot of debris across the trails, from big branches to large trees. I don’t believe that the race director will have a clean up crew in there between now and race day.
6. Think about your race strategy. A tough run like this will bring out the best in the better runners. To do your best and to finish upright, this race course demands patience and persistence for a long time. It is tough to keep your mind focused on watching each step for long stretches of trail. Let me give you another example: I missed nearly 6 months of running after several surgeries and a post surgical infection this past summer (let’s not get into that). I have been running again since January. I have been able to get my road miles down into the 8-9 min/mi. range at this point. Two weeks ago I accompanied Gary Griffin to Brooksville, where he raced a fast 50K. While he was out racing I took the opportunity to run 15 miles at a “leisurely” pace, commensurate with the shape I was in, on some great trails. I ran for about 2:49, a pace of 11:20/mile. Nothing to brag about for sure, but I got in the miles and that was the idea. Just for comparison, this morning at Torreya I ran 10 miles in 2:46. I was jogging to get a look at the trail and I did get lost several times, but the fact of the matter is, that the trails at Torreya are tough because of the footing and the hills and drops that are constant. Beyond that, 90% of the trails are single track and passing other runners will be a chore. If the 25K (15.5 miles) is won in under 2:45 and if the 50K (31.1 miles) is won in under 5:30, then I will be pleasantly surprised. Try to not compare road times to trail times because there is little basis for comparison on a challenging course like this.
7. “The only way to discover the limits of the possible is to go beyond them into the impossible.” Arthur C. Clarke.
See you there!