I ran the second race in the York Winter Series yesterday, the Spring Valley 4 Miler. After running the Dover 10 Miler earlier this month, the idea of running “only” four miles sounded rather appealing. Stories about how hard the race course was though served to keep me mentally in check before the race. I didn’t realize that the back way to Spring Valley County Park was only a 15 minute drive from my house. My dad, two running buddies Todd and Armand, and myself arrived with plenty of time to warm up and chat with some fellow runners.
Yet again during my warmup I played the “Do I or don’t I” game when it came to wearing my winter headband and gloves. The temperature felt fairly comfortable so long as the winds were still, but the moment they picked up I was chilly. I’m finding the difficulty of knowing how to dress for these winter races to be just as much of a challenge as the actual courses. I finally settled on ditching the headband but keeping the gloves. One thing I did find is that after washing my winter running socks and pulling them as high as I can up my calves, they seem to be less apt to rub a blister. They’re meant for women’s shoe size 5-7 and given my feet are on the smaller scale there’s just some slightly extra fabric in the corner that I need to make sure is pulled tightly against my foot.
Once again I didn’t have a firm time goal set for the race. I knew I could run it under 40 minutes and possibly run a 36-something. Never having ran the course before and hearing about the hills I didn’t want to set myself up for failure. I’m finding this low key mentality to be the best approach to these races so far; I have general goals but nothing too drastic. It keeps me motivated without allowing for easy discouragement and enables me to surprise myself as well.
At 1pm the race started and the majority of runners held back their pace compared to a lot of 5ks I’ve ran. The reason for this is that upon exiting the parking lot the course turned left up a very steep hill. I think it’s safe to say I hate starting runs on an uphill more than I even hate running in the cold. When I map out my training runs I avoid staring uphill at all costs. It’s hard for me to judge how long the hill was, but I felt winded by the time I reached the top and I passed a women walking it. The course then reminded me of a rollercoaster as once I crested the top of the hill I began a steep downhill. The road then turned left and descended an even longer downhill. I opened up my stride, but ran with caution as I know constantly downhill pounding is one of the worst things for a runner’s legs.
I remember looking at my Garmin at the 1 mile mark but immediately forgetting the time it registered. The reason being the course made a sharp right. I, along with most other runners around me, were hugging the corner only to have the lead bicyclist come from the opposite direction telling us to get to the other side of the road. The top runners were already heading in our direction. I didn’t know how far the course went out the road until the turn around, but it was a little discouraging to see that people were already turned around and passing us. The road was relatively flat, so I focused on settling into a good pace and looking for my dad and running buddies to cheer on.
The turn around wasn’t overly far out the road, so once I made the turn I tried to pick up my pace a bit knowing the last mile of the race would be the hardest and I would need to make up my time before that. As I approached the two mile mark I passed a woman and her young daughter running. As an athlete and a coach I have mixed opinions on elementary aged children running races. Putting that aside, I told the girl how awesome she was doing and she thanked me. My Garmin clocked an 8:48 at the two mile mark.
By this point the course was no longer on actual road but rather a gravel path through the park. I could only imagine how beautiful the area was with fall foliage, but unfortunately I had only leafless trees in my view. I definitely need to visit again next year earlier in the season. The race became incredibly challenging physically and mentally around 2.3 miles. I’m a fan of rolling hills – long gradual grades with plenty of downhill or flats to recover on before the next hill. I did not have that at Spring Valley. Instead the trail became a series of short steep climbs followed by very short downhills or flats. I knew the race was halfway over so I felt compelled to push my pace. It felt like my legs couldn’t recover well enough from each hill, however, to run any harder.
My Garmin clocked 9:33 at the third mile mark. The slowdown, courtesy of all the uphills, had begun. My overall time at that point was a high 25 so quick math said that depending on just how hard the last mile was I could still manage a final time of 36-something. I spotted Armand up ahead; he normally can beat me but hills are his weakness, and I had a feeling I would reel him in until the race was finished.
The trail came out onto the long downhill upon which the first mile was ran. I glanced at the top, swore to myself, and dropped my pace down a gear while keeping my eyes focused only a few feet ahead of me. The mantra I had during the last portion of the Blue-Gray Half Marathon of “This isn’t Blymire” wasn’t going to work this time. This hill, while possibly shorter in overall length to Blymire, was definitely harder. Strength wise my legs were fine, but my lungs hated every step I took. I was grateful those near me were continuing to battle the hill, slowly at times, but not walking. I find it mentally discouraging to see people walk on hills as it makes me have to work harder to convince myself that I can reach the top without stopping. I caught up to Armand and offered him words of encouragement before pushing onward and upward.
I reached the top of the hill only to turn right and run what felt like a few steps before having to push up the final last hill. The young girl who I had complimented earlier in the race passed me, her youthful energy driving her up the hill. I attempted to keep up with her but couldn’t actually catch her. I was happy that the final hill was short and once I started down the other side I opened up my stride as much as possible. I kept up the speed as I turned back into the parking lot and towards the finish line. I heard my dad cheer for me (a perk to him being faster and finishing ahead of me) and I crossed the finish line in 35:47.
I’m still trying to figure out just how I broke 36 minutes in that race. I know I kept a fairly consistent pace despite the hills, but other than the finish I can’t say I truly felt fast at any point during the race. My first mile must’ve been a lot faster than I realized. The course honestly reminded me of my high school cross country course. It had a very fast first mile downhill (though the cross country course didn’t start with the sharp uphill) and kept climbing the rest of the way so that runners could never really recover during the race.
I actually enjoyed the Dover 10 miler more than Spring Valley despite it being a longer distance and dealing with the blister. The course was just more up my alley in terms of what I enjoy running on as well as what I excel on. I know my dad and friends have ran Spring Valley in much colder and icier conditions. I already stated there’s no way I would run it in ice; the downhills would be too treacherous for someone as clumsy as me. I would never recommend it to someone who doesn’t incorporate hills regularly into their runs. Even the hilly 4 mile loop I have in my town doesn’t compare to the difficulty of Spring Valley. That said I would run the race again in the future, and I do think I could run it a little faster now knowing the course.
The next race will be the Wildcat 10k which will be another brutally hilly course. The perk of that race though is that it’s in my town and one of the hills is Blymire which I tackled many times during my half marathon training. I’m actually more concerned with the 9am start for that race than I am the course; here’s hoping for some warmer than normal temperatures December 16th!