This past Saturday found 350 nature-loving, trail racers celebrating Earth Day running the trails of Veteran Acres and Sternes Woods in Crystal Lake, Ill. The event that brought this group together was the 7th annual Earth Day trilogy of races which included a 5 mile, 15 mile, and 50k race. All three races hosted by Ornery Mule Racing started simultaneously at 8 a.m. and shared the same 5.2-mile loop.
I hadn’t run a trail race in quite some time and was looking forward to running this course. I’d heard it was challenging and unique. This course took trail running to a whole new level for me; the race starts off on a modest downhill and across a bridge where runners start to thin out as they approach the steps to a steep climb that leads to the famous “Totem Pole.” From there runners meander their way into the woods for what I’d call a truly interesting and formidable Earth Day experience.
Runners traverse a narrow course that for the most part puts everyone in single file behind one another. I now see why the race field was limited to only 350 participants. We crossed various terrain including a small patch of thick mud while climbing steep hills, navigating sloping downhills and slowing down at times to climb over or go around fallen trees. There were low-hanging branches, slippery surfaces, some deep ravines, loose stones, ditches, and plenty of tree roots to contend with.
I took a tumble over one of those many insidious tree roots as part of what I laughingly now call my initiation to true trail racing. I flew forward after tripping over an exposed tree root and landed onto to my side with my shoulder absorbing most of the impact. Luckily, we were moving slower as we approached another steep incline and the fall was just a wakeup call to stay alert.
The one thing that stands out running this trail race is that unlike a road race where you can just follow the runners in front of you and zone out while listening to music or a podcast is that you really need to be in the present at all times. You need to stay focused, alert and aware of the footing ahead of you. It’s much more mentally as well as physically demanding. Overall, I loved the experience of running this race. Even with the fall and occasional stumble I had a really great time.
After completing my 5-mile race I talked to race director Michele Hartwig. Her enthusiasm and excitement for trail running was immediately evident as we talked about racing and the course. She was genuinely happy for me, high-fived me and asked me what I thought about the event when I told her that this was the my first time. Michele told me that she had been running the trails in this area for some time and noticed that there were not many other runners out there. She wanted other runners to enjoy the scenery and experience these trails as well. So, Michele came up with the idea of creating the Earth Day trail races. The first year brought 75 participants while the second annual event brought out 125 participants.
After the race I walked along the course with a group of other finishers, and we cheered on those who were still running the longer distances. As I talked to some of these runners who mentioned words like Hennepin, Kettle Moraine, and Ragnar I could tell I was in the company of hardcore trail runners. As one of the runners told me, “Trail running is a whole other mindset. You haven’t run until you’ve run trails”.