The Bramble Scramble: Not your everyday 15k
After completing this year’s Escarpment Run, a course I now know very well and, indeed, train on during the months leading up to the mid-summer race, I got talking to a first time finisher. He lives outside the area, and hadn’t had the opportunity to train on the course. More to the point, he’d had no interest in doing so. He stated that he much preferred running a race “blind,” so to speak. I thought this was daft until I learned that he had finished ten minutes ahead of me – and is approximately my age. Given that I know the course so much better than him, its ups and downs and the points at which you have to climb hand over fist, shouldn’t I have been ahead of him?
I got to thinking about this in more detail while (and, especially, after) running the Bramble Scramble 15k in Vermont in late August. I hadn’t trained for the race, hadn’t even known about it until, a few days before our camping trip to Burlington, I looked up the VTSports.com web site to see if anything was going on in the area. And there was. Over at the Catamount Outdoors Center a few miles east of Burlington, the Bramble Scramble offered the opportunity to run either one or two 15k loops of what seemed, judging by the map, to be incessantly windy but not necessarily steep trails, with a reassuringly lazy 10am Sunday morning start.
It seemed perfect. I didn’t even decide which distance to run until filling out the registration form the morning of the event. By then it had been raining for several hours and showed no signs of letting up until the next day. Though that meant we weren’t exactly sacrificing a day at the beach, nor could I ask my family to stay in the car or huddle under the race tent for longer than necessary. (Given the rain, it didn’t make much sense for them to stay at the campground either.) I signed up for the 15k, did my stretches and ran a warm-up mile on what seemed perfectly comfortable trail. This should be a doddle, I thought.
I was wrong: the Bramble Scramble turned out to be one of the toughest races of my life. Sure it was only half the length of the Escarpment, and the inclines were not quite so steep that they necessitated climbing (though many participants power-hiked them anyway), but it was still what we call “technical” from start almost to finish. Most notably, it was different than I’m used to. The Catskills are mountains. We go up one side, we come down the other. Here, we’d shoot uphill over rock and root for a couple of hundred feet, flatten out for a few yards, turn a corner, descend maybe 100 feet, round a 270 degree corner (treacherous for maintaining balance in the mud), find ourselves faced by a quarter mile uphill lunge and then repeat the whole exercise. Rocks, boulders, tree trunks, mud and sharp rocks under foot – and the rain from above – all added to the fun. (Yes, fun.)
I hadn’t intended to go out strong. But early on, as I tried to find my comfort zone, a group of runners broke away from me – and I remembered this year’s Escarpment. I had been in a pack like this, but I let them all ‘go’ at the top of Blackhead Mountain, just beyond halfway, figuring they were heading downhill too fast, and that I’d catch them all back up on the next uphill. I never saw them again. In the midst of that pack was the person running “blind” – the first-timer who finished ten minutes ahead of me.
Maybe there was something to his strategy, something to the process of just going for it without much forethought and trusting (hoping?) for the best. I decided not to let this group get away from me, after all. Chasing them down, I engaged in brief chat. Almost all of them were local; most of them knew the course from Catamount’s weekly Thursday trail runs. They had a sense of what to expect. I did not. All the same, I started “dropping” the other runners one by one. I was a little surprised, but uphills are my strength, and I find that if you can overtake someone in the middle of a steep incline they’re unlikely to come back at you any time soon. Still, it wasn’t easy: I stayed on one very good runner’s heels all the way up a particularly hard hill and at the top, I was ready to concede and let him take the downhill. Instead, he announced his need to take water, stopped running – and congratulated me, instead.
Of course, he knew the rest of the course, that it was not going to get any easier. I knew nothing of the sort – only that, having come this far this fast, I wasn’t going to let my guard down. I had no choice but to keep going at the same pace.
After an hour, we left the hilly wooded trails behind us and emerged into some fields. I don’t use a GPS watch, but factoring in similar races this year, allowing for the “technical” course and that it was apparently a tad longer than 15k, I figured on somewhere between 72 and 75 minutes for a finish time. I decided to dig deep and hit the home stretch. There was someone off in the distance ahead of me. Let’s see if I could rein him in as well.
We reached the end of the (hilly) field – only to turn uphill and into some trail. Rocks and roots all over again. Then we turned back down and returned to the field, running across it at a different angle. Hmm, I hadn’t expected that. I stayed on pace, or so I hoped; I could feel my legs starting to call my brain all kinds of nasty names. Hold on, my brain responded, we’re almost there. But then, same thing again: across a field, uphill, down hill, back into the fields. And then again! I laughed out loud to ease the pain. Eventually, still closing in on this one runner, we came to the cottage/office where I’d signed up for the race. I knew the building was only 100 yards from the start line and “kicked.” Sadistically, the course instead sent us back through the woods for a final 500 yards of torment. It must have been the longest “kick” of my life.
I didn’t catch the runner ahead of me. But after an hour and nineteen minutes of furious running, I crossed the line in eighth place all the same. Even allowing for the fact that the rain had surely kept many weekend runners indoors, and that some of the more devoted (and masochistic) participants had opted for the 30k, I was still proud as punch.
But personal satisfaction is only part of the reason for running a long race: the post-race buffet provides the real reward! And so, with a few cases of ice cold beer at hand courtesy of Long Trail, our aptly named sponsors, and with a grill firing up some vegan Boca Burgers amongst the usual meat patties (thanks for that!), plus pasta and bagels and a gorgeously decorated birthday cake to boot, we all settled in to eat, drink and exchange war stories. (Oh, and to applaud the 30k runners as they came home an hour and more later). One of the finishers cited the course as the toughest in Vermont for this distance and suggested it should replace some other annual State run as the “trophy” event. Evidence to back his claim came in the shape of two “runners” who hobbled to the picnic tables wearing pained expressions and clutching ice packs. Each had “rolled” their ankles during the tough hilly sections. Both were locals, experienced long distance runners (one particularly mortified because she’d be out of an ultra the following weekend) and knew the course perfectly well. On this occasion, it hadn’t helped them one bit.
Conclusion? Perhaps there is something to be said for not studying a course in advance – as much as anything, for not worrying about it. Perhaps the right thing to do is, as some coaches advise anyway, to go out at full tilt and then do your damned best to stay there. Perhaps I’d be better off not getting to know the Escarpment’s every twist and turn, but rather to set my sights on staying with a group of similarly-paced runners, as worked for me here at the Bramble Scramble. And perhaps, who knows, I just got lucky?