El Chupacabra de San Antonio is a trail 10k/5k race that begins at 9pm, and so is run entirely in the dark. I’d been looking forward to this it all year! I was last Friday night 7/26/13.
The race is held at McAllister Park in San Antonio which hosts something like 15 miles of trails. There are paved paths, single track style dirt trails, and also wider trails. The terrain of the trails can get pretty technical because it really only has a couple hundred feet of path that go in a configuration that in any way resembles straight. Some sections are very rocky, others are hard-packed (though, not surprisingly, very dry) dirt. The park has just enough density of tree growth that during the sunnier, hotter hours of the day the temperature is very noticeably cooler (less hot would be a more accurate description) than outside the park.
This was the hardest 10k, perhaps one of the hardest races, I’ve ever done. But it was also a bit exhilarating, as I find all trail adventures to be. In a nutshell; take a fairly technical series of trails, then race on them, then do so at night…also make it 90 degrees with high humidity.
I ran a 10k race last summer, Jalapeno Del Sol, put on by the same group (Run In Texas), and the course, I think, was nearly identical, except for being run during daylight hours. Even so, based on my tendency to not have great command over my body’s general trajectory (read: I’m comically clumsy), and the fact that I got lost or off-course in no less than 4 (FOUR!!!) races last year (one of which was an even tougher 10k trail race in San Antonio, and is my only DNF. Read a bit on it here), my father suggested that perhaps I should go attempt to navigate the course on a practice run the day before the race. I did so, and managed to get pretty close to the race route on my 8mi run.
I was also reminded how running on trails is so very different from the pencil straight, pancake flat lakefront trail in Chicago. Specifically, I was reminded when I wiped out in the last mile of the run. I came close to falling on many other occasions, so I was far more fatigued when I finished than I normally would be after a moderate effort 8 miler.
I was in San Antonio for 5 days to help my folks move, so it wasn’t exactly a leisure trip.
But I did make a new friend, I let him borrow my super excellent new pair of running shorts.
Anyway, between looking forward to the new type of race experience, and being ready for a break from the activities associated with moving, I was all dressed up with no place to go hours before the race start.
My father picked up my race packet for me the day before because his office is basically next door to the sponsoring running store, and I was surprised when he said there were over 600 people registered. Which partially explains why there was such a great race shirt.
I’d assumed, because it was made pretty clear that this was a “no prizes awarded fun run” that there would be a very small turnout. But 600 people trampling through that park is a lot! Based on the results posted, I think there were just over 500 finishers between the 5 and 10k events.
As I mentioned, I have a serious deficit when it comes to navigating race courses, especially if I am leading or find myself alone. Therefore, I was really nervous about getting lost during this race. As it turns out, this was perhaps the best marked course I’ve ever run. There were chalk X’s to indicate “don’t go that way”, orange tape on trees, and glow sticks visible from probably 30 meters hanging from tree limbs to indicate “go this way!”. There were also mile markers with blinky lights, and volunteers at the trickier turns (there are several full-on U-turns and such things that could be hazardous when you don’t know it’s coming, you know, because it was PITCH DARK). These course Marshals were excellent, they communicated clearly and simply (when racing I have an IQ of about .4), and they also gave encouragement that wasn’t annoying (no one said “you’re almost done!” for example). I really can’t say enough positive things about how this race was executed. There was a SNAFU with the timing and results, because people downgraded from 10k to 5k without reporting it. But the race director and timing company were super polite and responsive and sorted it out.
Figuring out how to run this race, I mean, how to actually perform the act of running at a high intensity, took the first mile and a half. I tucked in behind a man who seemed pretty stable on his feet and just watched what he did as best I could without wiping out. I quickly realized that running on trails in the dark is a lot like driving a motorcycle (a hobby of mine I don’t think I’ve ever talked about here). When you’re on a bike, if you feel ANYTHING that isn’t normal, you lose traction, you corner improperly, or you shift wrong, your immediate reaction is to pull in the clutch to maintain control (well in some circumstances you actually accelerate, it’s complicated, and I’m just trying to make a metaphor here so go with it). When nighttime trail running if you feel anything out of the ordinary, like your foot lands wrong or catches on something, your knee elevation is like the clutch. So every time I landed weird, or felt off-balance my reaction was “high knees! high knees!” , and it seemed pretty effective. Just before mile 2 I vocalized that I was ready to pass and my unwitting coach let me slip past, but not without saying “I wish you were taller so you could catch the branches instead of me”.
I know I already gushed about the course support, but the other runners were great too, everyone had spot-on etiquette and a great sense of humor, I didn’t witness a single act of jackassary, a totally unknown phenomenon to me!
It really wasn’t possible to look at my Garmin during the race, because doing so meant losing my sight and taking a definite stumble if not fall. Because of all the hazards to run over/under/around, the constant twists of the trail, the tunnel vision caused by the headlamp, and the really hard effort level, if I hadn’t seen the finish line clock I would have told you I’d just run a 38 min 10k (which would be a 2min road PR for me). I think I said to my father that I couldn’t feel my face, or something equally as weird, after I finished. It took me a full 3 to 5 minutes for my breathing to return to normal, so bizarre, normally it takes under a minute.
Not only did I not get lost, I also didn’t fall!!! In the last mile (which merged with the 5k course), I stopped to help 2 different runners who fell hard, paying it forward because I was feeling sore from my own tumble the day before.
In the end, I didn’t get the trail massive 10k PR I was hoping for, but I ran my heart (and legs) out, had a lot of fun, and really hope I can do this race again next year!
I’m not shy about the fact that I dislike gimic races such as The Color Run, the Pretty Muddy Series, and the Glo Run or whatever new attempt at cashing in on the running boom has cropped up this month. But, a night-time trounce through the woods with a mythical beast theme? I’m all over that!