June 9, 2013

Race Report: Inaugural EX2 Fountainhead Off-Road Half Marathon

Over 350 participants showed up this morning to the inaugural Fountainhead Off-Road Half Marathon and 10K, and though the area had several inches of rain in the past 72 hours, the conditions were great for a race. And that was a good thing, because the trail was challenging enough itself.

Having not run a good 13.1 since last year's North Face Endurance Challenge, I opted for the half marathon distance.

The Course

Click to enlarge.
Situated in Fountainhead park in Fairfax Station, VA, the course was very scenic but also very challenging. It featured a lot of inclines, staircase erosion barriers, rocks, water crossings, and root-filled descents. The course started with a half-mile stretch on paved road, and it then entered the deep woods where the fun began. Moving along hiking trails and dirt roads, the course went north on the Bull Run Occoquan Trail and all the way up to Bull Run marina. To increase the distance and avoid two-way traffic (a very nice feature), the course cut over into some side loops four or five times on the out route. Coming back south, the entire course was along the Bull Run Occoquan Trail.

The course design was simply fantastic, and I only encountered a handful of two-way traffic over the entire 13.1 miles. Now, that doesn't mean the course design wasn't challenging. It was a tough course, challenged me much more than any trail race I've completed, and battered runners physically and mentally.

Though there wasn't an elevation profile chart online, I attempted to develop one out of my memory of the course. The following should be accurate to within a few degrees:

Race Day

Up bright and early, I was off to Fountainhead Regional Park with a quick stop at Starbucks along the way. I parked in the main race lot, checked in quickly, and received my race shirt. Arriving early gave me an opportunity to jog a bit down the trail to see how it held up to the monsoon we had in the days prior. Surprisingly, the trail was in really good shape, and other than slipping slightly on some mud while trying to cut, it didn't look like it would impact the race too much. The decent shape of the trail was reiterated in the race director's briefing; it was just a really nice surprise in what I thought would be an accidental mud run.

I went with a quick pack right off the starting gun, going through an internal debate if I take it easier knowing what was to come or if I let the pace go knowing this was the only easy part. In the end, I think I did a little bit of each, taking it easier on the first quarter-mile of pavement and turning up the pace in the second part to avoid too much singletrack passing. As we turned into the woods, I was in a comfortable 10th position or so, advancing to 7th in the early miles. Through the first few miles I was sticking to a pretty simple strategy of running up to a certain degree of incline and quickly walking the steepest inclines and erosion barriers (staircase-like wood beams). It worked very well, as I wasn't losing ground to people ahead of me running and if I did, I was catching up on the next flat section.

However, as the distance crept closer to the second aid station at 3.8 miles, I started to lose contact with the trio of runners I was with. And by the time I hit the next aid station at 5.5 miles, I was all alone. It was about this time that the humidity and lack of base mileage (darn new daddy responsibilities!) started to hit me. I had the Salomon zip top all the way open, sleeves rolled up, and sucking for wind on the climbs. One particular climb up what resembled a drainage ditch had me rethinking my grand idea of catching the guys in front of me. I tried to conserve energy where I could, knowing the back half would be just as difficult, and I cruised into the turnaround at Bull Run marina in around 55 minutes (8:24/mi pace).

There were some lonely moments on the back half, as the challenging course really got to me here. I started walking earlier on the inclines and found myself walking a bit at the top to catch my breath as well. I found less forgiving downhills, and I found more punishing rollers. I think I actually let a few thoughts of "why not walk the rest" enter my head during a long stretch between aid stations after mile 10. And I started answering the volunteer's "water or Gatorade?" questions with an emphatic, "both!"

I was passed pretty easily by a few folks in this stretch, but I was okay with it really. I wasn't going to risk blowing up in the final miles by pushing my pace to keep up and defend an arbitrary overall placing. After the punishing first 10 miles, I was just trying to maintain a steady pace and limit my positive split as much as possible. Unfortunately my form was suffering a bit with my exhaustion, and after almost sliding in a tree on a downhill section, I caught a root on a flat stretch and came crashing down on both knees. Got up, brushed myself off, and around the next curve I didn't duck far enough and managed to knock my head against a tree trunk laid about 5' high across the path, haha.

Thankfully mile markers started to pop up in the last couple miles, I caught some refreshment at the mile 12.1 station, and I was able to finish strong, albeit conceding another overall place in that final mile. The course tried to get one more jab at me, as I almost tripped turning the grass corner into the finishing chute. But I held it together for enough strides to cross the finish line with a gratifying completion but a disappointing positive split.

Completely, 100% exhausted.

The Results

13.1 mi:     1:53:10  |  8:38/mile
Overall: 10th  |  Age Group: 2nd  (M: 30-39)

Not a PR by far, but on this course, and not being in peak personal condition, I was happy just finishing where I did. The fact that I walked quite a bit in the back half and still ended up 10th just meant the course doled out equal punishment to everyone, and supported the concensus opinion that this was a very challenging 13.1 miles.

Age group podium.

The Swag

As with other EX2 races, received a race shirt and rather than a race medal, you're treated to a huge food spread. After that race, warm pizza and a cold Coke hit the spot, no doubt. Additionally, for my age group placement, I received a 2013 EX2 pint glass to go along with my 2012 glass.

In addition, there was free massage, dozens of raffle items, and just a really fun atmosphere of folks hanging out around the finish area, discussing the race, and cheering on runners coming in.

Now that's a food spread.

Something for everyone.

The Verdict

Tough course and tough gut check for me at times, but definitely a course I'd like another crack at next year. The EX2 crew ran a fantastic race, as usual, and I'm sure I'll be back next year for another dose of punishment.

Cruising along the flats.

A nice, dry water crossing.

Heading up the erosion bars.

Trail picture in initial paragraph, age group podium, and all in-race pictures purchased from or courtesy of Swim Bike Run Photography.