We found out the day before the race that we wouldn’t be allowed to swim in the lake this year. I was more than a little disappointed. Jumping in the lake after crossing the finish line is one of the reasons this is my all-time favorite race.
Luckily there are other reasons as well. I love love love the course. The mountain laurels are always blooming, the elevation is challenging (I love hills!) and the trails are mostly not too technical. Although this year there was a lot more mud and many more river crossings than usual. It was the first year I remember having to get my feet wet. They also always have the best post-race food!
The Blue Ridge Double Marathon was my big spring race. It was the race I had focused on and trained specifically for. I knew I wanted to run Conquer the Cove. I always want to run Conquer the Cove, but it wasn’t my “A” race. Which meant I didn’t have a time goal and I didn’t put any pressure on myself. My plan was just to see what I could do. I did want to take advantage of all the training I’d done for Blue Ridge and planned to start out a little less conservatively than I usually do, though.
The course begins with about a mile and a quarter of pavement and then abruptly starts climbing as soon as you hit singletrack. I’m a strong climber and always get stuck behind people walking much slower than I want to be going on this stretch.
My plan worked well. I was surprised that the group I was following kept running almost all the way to the top of the first climb.
And then it was time for the first big descent.
I’d been working on my downhill running since the Blue Ridge Double and was concentrating on “flowing like water” instead of “bouncing like a ping-pong ball.” Still, a handful of people came barreling past me. And a lady who stayed close on my heels for a while told me that I looked like a ninja. I took that to mean I was doing a fair amount of flailing about.
The lady who told me I looked like a ninja running down the hill stayed close behind me for the next few miles. I think it was one of her first trail races, if not her very first. She kept saying she felt like a forest sprite or fairy and seemed delighted when we splashed through our first river crossing. She reminded me of myself on one of my best days. I enjoyed her company but worried I was pushing the pace a little too much on these roller-coaster miles. We chatted for a while and I found out she had recently moved to Richmond from Washington state and that her husband (boyfriend?) had thru-hiked the PCT and CDT and was getting ready to start the AT. She was reluctant to pass but eventually did. We then played leapfrog until the aid station at mile 8 where I left before her and didn’t see her again until after the race.
My legs were pretty tired by the time I made it to that aid station and I worried that maybe I had been going too fast. Mile 8 was early in the race for tired legs! Uncharacteristically, I decided to just go with it and see what happened. After all, my plan had been to see what I could do. Now I would just see what I could do with tired legs.
A few miles of more forgiving terrain later and I was surprised to find that I was feeling really strong again. This was fun!
It was starting to get really hot, though. When I hit the last aid station before the second big climb, I filled my hydration bladder and asked for a cold washcloth. I was ecstatic when a volunteer handed me one. It felt so good to wipe the salt from my face! I held onto it for the climb.
Near the top, I caught up to a guy who told me we should be able to finish in under 5 hours. That didn’t seem right to me, but it did motivate me to keep powering on.
I passed the next aid station without even stopping.
This last big descent is called the gauntlet and I hate it. My quads were tired, but I did my best to “flow like water.” I caught up to another guy and stayed behind him for a while. He didn’t offer to let me pass. I thought about staying behind him, but then remembered what the other guy had said about finishing under 5 hours. I knew it would be really close if it was possible at all. And why shouldn’t I run faster, if I felt like I could? I asked to get around him the next time there was room. He let me, asking, “Still feeling good, huh?” I told him I was really close to beating my own course record, which was true. The fastest I had finished this race was 5:13 back in 2017.
After the descent, there are a couple of miles of gradual climbing, which at this point in the race feels like torture. I was no longer feeling good. The heat and miles were getting to me and running was a struggle, but I kept pushing. I wanted to beat my PR.
By the time I hit the last aid station I was seriously craving a cup of Skratch. I was disappointed when I got there and remembered it was water only. Meagan (turkeyrunnerhttp://turkeyrunner.com) was volunteering though and it’s always nice to see a familiar face. Especially at that point in the race!
I had a sip of cold water and pushed on.
I crossed the finish line in 4:56:43. A course PR and sub 5!! And almost a full hour faster than I’d finished last year.
Gina had me wait at the finish line because she thought I might have won first place masters. I did not. I missed it by two minutes.
I did win a cowbell for placing first in my age group, though.
My feeling of accomplishment was slightly diminished when I later checked the results and realized there were only two people in my age group (and there would have been three, but the female winner was 45, which took her out of the age group category).
I still ran a great race, though! I thought the days of beating my PRs were behind me.
I placed 7th out of 23 women and 31st out of 77 overall.
Plus I got to run my favorite race and there’s talk of us being allowed to swim in the lake again next year.