Have you ever been 60% into something before realizing you’re completely under-prepared for the situation?

Yeah, that was me at last week’s Steep Canyon Ranger 50K Relay. Yet again, the course kicked my ass.

For the past two years I’ve toed the line at Steep Canyon — last year for the full 50K and this year with friends Mike and Drew for a three-person relay.

Both times I’ve been stupidly surprised by what came next.

My inadequacies could stem from the fact that this isn’t just a race, it’s a festival, with music, Oskar Blues beer (we all know I’m easily distracted by fermented liquids), and a completely relaxed, joyous atmosphere.

Or it could be because one of the co-race directors — Pete Ripmaster — is a good running buddy, and just being around him makes it feel more like a fun adventure than a race.

Or possibly because of the unusual start time of 10:00 am (noon for me this year, since I was leg three of the relay), which lends itself well to throwing a few back the night before, but not so well to my tested pre-race routine.

Or maybe because the three-loop course is deceptively demanding. It’s almost entirely runnable — consisting primarily of buffed out mountain bike tracks — but damn if it doesn’t have a few long climbs.

But if I’m being honest with myself (and you), I can’t blame my race struggles on everything that makes this event so awesome. And it is awesome.

The weaknesses that haunt my Steep Canyon experiences are mine and mine alone, and the late summer race is primed for exposing them.

Today, instead of hiding from or ignoring my weaknesses as I so often do, I’m going to share what this race exposed, and what I plan to do about it.

So that when I return next year — which I most certainly will — I may finally get around the course without regrets.

3 Weaknesses … Exposed


Several weeks ago, ahead of my 4-week vertical gain challenge, I shared that exploring and embracing our weaknesses was the only way to make real gains.

You know the saying, you’re only as strong as your weakest link.

The exciting and fun 11-mile Steep Canyon loop — especially during the heat of the day — has a way of exposing plenty of mine.

(If this were a video, a big red EXPOSED stamp would slam down on the screen. Pretend that is happening.)

Weakness 1: Lack of Ability to Adapt My Pre-Race Plan … Exposed

For the past several years I’ve tested and nearly perfected a pre-race routine I can count on.

Everything from what I eat (toast with almond butter an hour and half before, banana 45 minutes later), to what I drink (coffee, water, and fruit juice if I have it), to when I poop (I’ll spare you those details). It’s a routine that works well for me.

But when I move away from a typical race start time, my ability to adapt that plan is terrible. This was one of my missteps at last year’s Steep Canyon, and I made it again this year.

My leg of the three-person relay was to start at noon, but my day started around 5:30 am when I got up early to work. After the first wave started, I helped out by shuttling volunteers to aid stations and delivering supplies, stuffing my face with snacks the entire time.

One mile in, a side-cramp developed that lasted most of the race. It was an instant reminder that I should have been paying more attention.

How I’m going to improve:

Convert my typical pre-race routine into something that’s adaptable for all times of the day. And most importantly, practice.

Weakness 2: Lack of Ability to Pace an 11-Mile Trail Race … Exposed

Pace a mountain 100-miler? Sure, I can do that.

Pace a 11-mile trail race? Yeah … about that.

During the month of July I spent a lot of time hiking up mountains and very little time running hard. In August I spent a lot of time on the beach and very little time running hard.

It’s been awhile since I spent any real time running with any sort of intensity.

So when right off the line I took off at a high effort — hoping to maintain that pace through the entire loop — my body couldn’t compute. Five miles in, just as I crested the highest point of the race, it became clear that I had pushed far too hard from the beginning.

My lack of ability to pace a hilly trail course became obvious.

How I’m going to improve:

I’ll get back into regular weekly speed workouts, including intervals, tempo runs, and long run workouts, and use medium and longer runs for even effort testing.

Weakness 3: Lack of Ability to Handle the Heat … Exposed

In the past, I’ve felt confident running in the heat. I dealt with it at both the Black Mountain Monster and Thunder Rock (before the rain), and my hydration and cooling strategies have worked well enough.

But this summer I avoided the heat as much as possible, waking up early for sunrise runs before the warmth settled into the mountains.

That lack of mid-day heat training became took it’s toll as I panted my way up to the mile-7 aid station, arms stretched, begging for cold water to dump on my head.

How I’m going to improve:

Next summer I’ll take the heat more seriously, training during the hottest times of the day when I need to, and adapting my body to embrace the sun. That may mean days of uncomfortable training miles, but if that’s what it takes, game on.

Motivation to Take Action

Once again the Steep Canyon 50K and Relay was a total blast — I love what they’re doing with this race, and had fun joining a relay time.

But fighting through unnecessary difficulties never feels good.

Instead of getting discouraged like I did last year, I’m using that negative energy as fuel for the fire. Fuel to take action, improve, and come back stronger.

Acknowledging weaknesses is only half the battle. You must act on those weaknesses and over time, make them your strengths.


Header photo credit.

Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

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