I rounded the bend and could see the glow of the clock just ahead.
But more importantly, I could see my husband, holding Bean’s hand, Monkey perched on his shoulders, waiting for me.
Bean was looking the other way, so I shouted her name and waved at the birthday girl.
She jumped up and down, screaming ‘Mommmmeeeeee!’ while Monkey clapped her hands in delight.
My husband shouted, ‘You can make it under 2:10 Nicki!’
I urged my tired legs forward. The finish line was so close, but after 14.9x grueling miles up and down the mountain, I wasn’t sure I had anything left.
Did I have it in me?
We woke up Saturday morning to perfect conditions. Upper 40s and clear skies.
My strategy for the race was simple. Don’t get hurt! The race was my long run for the week, and while I wanted to do well, it was more important to finish in one piece.
My husband and I jogged to the starting line, shared a kiss, and exchanged words of wisdom.
Don’t go out too fast.
And They’re Off…
Moments later, Mark Skelton, race director extraordinaire, blew the whistle and 113 runners took off!
Unlike road races, it’s easier to hold back in a trail race, especially when you start with four miles of climbing!
You read that right. Four miles of climbing to set your legs and lungs on fire and keep you honest!
After a short start on the fire road, the course turns up Azalea Trail and starts climbing, gaining 400 feet in 1.4 miles.
Rocky and root-y in places, Azalea is quick to humble runners who start too fast. But I felt strong as I picked my way over rocks, passing a few runners and settling in.
At the end of Azalea, the course turns left, leaving the single track for 2.4 miles of undulating fire road. It’s still tough climbing, but as you crest each hill, you’re rewarded with a nice descent to the base of the next hill.
Going up, I shortened my stride and tried to keep my heart rate under control. Coming down, I leaned forward and let my legs fly. You know I love descending!
After a final, long climb, I was met with a welcome sight. Sitting below the fire tower at the top of the mountain was the first aid station. I grabbed a cup of water, took a sip, and kept going.
Gravity Takes Over
After cruising along a grassy stretch, the course turns off the ridge. Indian Pipes is my favorite part of the course and one of the best trails in the park. It’s nothing but downhill for two glorious miles of smooth single track.
Naturally, I let her rip.
I passed a few runners and quickly put distance between us. I had a little train of merry men with me, but no one was going to pass me on the descent.
Quick equipment note: I was wearing my Montrail Bajada trail shoes and LOVIN’ the roomy toe box. When descending, my toes get jammed into the end of regular running shoes. No black or lost toe nails with these kicks!
At the end of Pretty Ridge, two fabulous volunteers enthusiastically cheered as we turned on Kiner Hollow Trail and continued down.
With the train intact, I kept pushing, taking advantage of the descent. I had to slow down a bit, since the trail is overgrown in spots and not as smooth as Indian Pipes.
Back Up Again
After 1.3 miles, you bottom out. The trail turns and you’re met with the toughest 0.4 miles of the race. This hill is brutal.
I ran about half way before giving in and walking to the top. I wasn’t alone. The rest of my high speed train slowed to a walk too.
At the top of the hill we turned onto Pretty Ridge. I started to run again, but not before one guy passed me. I still had two hanging right with me, pushing me every step of the way.
We passed a primitive camp and began climbing up Back Hollow Road. A more gradual and forgiving hill, I was able to keep running, propelled by the aid station waiting at the top.
After a gulp of Gatorade, I continued on Lake Road. I lost my train at this point, as the two incredible runners behind me took off. I wanted to hang, but I had five miles left and didn’t want to push too early.
My legs started to feel fatigued. I was in the 2nd position for women, so I told myself to keep moving.
After running along the backside of the lake almost back to the finish line, you turn onto single track and run the opposite direction back around the lake. It’s tough to hear people cheering , knowing you’re so close yet still so far away.
But, I was glad to be off the rolling road and on the flat lakeside trail. With only a few miles to go, I looked at my watch and knew I was on track for a huge PR.
At one point you can see across the lake to the other side. Somehow I managed to hit that spot just as my husband was crossing the dam. I shouted for him at the top of my lungs.
Seeing him gave me a little boost, and I picked up the pace.
I wound my way around the lake, crossing wooden bridges and climbing the final hills. At one point I looked back and saw two runners gaining ground.
One of the runners was the third place female. I really wanted second place so I dug a little deeper. The finish line was just minutes away.
I crossed the dam onto the asphalt path. At this point I was so determined to hold my position I never looked at my watch.
That’s when I saw my family. When my husband shouted I had 2:10 in the bag, I couldn’t believe it. My previous best time on the course was 2:19:03, way back in 2006.
I crossed the line.
2:09:55, second female, and 20th overall!
My mom, dad, and sister were waiting for me. The girls came rushing over. Bean embraced me for a sweaty hug, and Monkey reached up and sweetly implored, ‘Up please.’
PR or no PR, second place or last place, there’s no sweeter victory than seeing your family at the finish.
Who’s waiting for you at the finish line?
Don’t forget to enter for your chance to win a Kavu Sydney Satchel. Giveaway open until Friday, September 20 at 9 PM ET.