Wolf River Trails
November 4th, 2023
2:21:30 watch time
First, a little background. In high school I was a decent runner (4:52 1,600m; 10:21 3,200m; ~16:10 3mi XC). I ran road race PRs in college of 36:19 (10k), 1:24:58 (half marathon), and 3:09:32 (marathon) and ran the Boston Marathon twice. However, I stopped running regularly around the time I started graduate school in 2007, and quickly gained ~30 lbs. Over the years I tried to start up again several times, but only in 2018 was I able to lose significant weight and start running regularly again. These days I am much slower.
I ran the St. Jude half marathon at the end of 2022 in 1:51:27 after being on pace for ~1:45 through 11+ miles. I had (and have) rather little desire to run road marathons again, but I have always been interested in trail races and ultras. The inaugural Mamba races first came to my attention due to the trail signs on the Wolf River trails which were put up in the spring of 2023. After St. Jude 2022, my training had been somewhat inconsistent, and I started over with long runs in the 6-7 mile range over the summer. While 100 mile, 100K, and 50K options were also available, I was fairly certain that I could not reasonably build up to those distances by November 2023. The 25K seemed reasonable.
Training went reasonably well, with 10-12 mile long runs on pavement at ~8:15/mi pace. On the Wolf River trails I managed to work my way down to ~9:20/mi pace, including a full Mamba loop (~14.3 miles) in 2:11 on Oct 21st. I set my goal for the Mamba 25K at 2:20, but I suffered a setback a week before the race on Oct 29th when I popped my hip on my last strong effort trail run prior to race day. I did not run at all from Oct 30th until Nov 3rd, a time period which also included a trip to Washington, D.C. for an NIH study section and about 12 miles of walking around the National Mall and Arlington National Cemetery on Oct 31st. I ran an easy 3 miles on Nov 3rd and felt ok, although my hip was still a little tight and I was still sore from walking around D.C. Nevertheless, I was feeling ok about my chances of running well at the Mamba race.
I picked up my packet on Nov 3rd around 1:00 PM and ran into my University of Memphis colleague Melissa, who was volunteering at the registration table. Race swag included a nice cotton t-shirt, a variety of freebies from sponsors, and a handwritten thank you note from RD James Boler. James did a tremendous job organizing this inaugural race, including exceptional promotion on Facebook for months leading up to race weekend. He and several volunteers also took the time to clear and flag the entire 14 mile loop (including leaf blowing the whole course!). I have run hundreds of races in my career (albeit mostly before 2007) including several very large marathons (Chicago, Boston), half marathons (Indy Mini, Houston), and 10Ks (Peachtree), and the attention to detail and care provided by the Mamba organizers was truly remarkable.
On race day I parked at the remote parking lot around 8:15 AM and walked the ~3/4 miles to the start/finish line. I milled around the fire pit trying to keep warm until 8:55 AM, then stripped off my jacket, pants, hat, and gloves and joined the other 25K runners at the start line. We received final directions from the RD and were sent off a minute or two after 9:00 AM.
The main Mamba loop is 14.3 miles of mostly single-track trails, so the 25K runners ran a paved ~1.2 mile course prior to entering the Wolf River trail system. My goal was to run conservatively in the first few miles, but about 1 minute into the race I looked at my watch and saw 6:30 pace. I tried to pull back a bit and eventually cruised through the first mile in around 7:45. This was still faster than I wanted, and I would end up regretting the early pace later in the race. Race leaders Dustin and Jacob went through the mile in around 6:00, and entering the trails I was in 7th place overall.
The initial miles of the race are outbound on the blue trail, and this is one of the faster sections of the course. My second mile (part of which was on the road) was 7:56, and the next few miles were in the 8:15-8:30 range. At this point I was feeling reasonably good, and my hip was holding up well. I moved into 6th place, passing Alison on the white trail at around mile 4, just before 5-points where the blue and yellow trails meet up. Over the next mile on the blue trail, I gained ground on 5th place.
I bypassed the aid station at around 5 miles without taking any food or water, and got a brief boost after hearing “way to go Coach” from Colton Cockrum. Colton is the coach of the University High cross country team, and this year I started coaching the elementary school cross country team. At this point I was only a short distance behind Vincent, the runner in 5th place, and I moved into 5th by passing him around mile 6. Miles 6-8 were in the 8:40-8:50 range, which is closer to what I was intending. I still felt pretty good at this point, and was especially pleased to be still running sub-9:00 pace on the twisty Banjo trail in the back section of the course.
My pace began slipping right at mile 8, entering the yellow trail from the Wolf River Greenway. There are some small sand hills in this section, and it really broke my rhythm. I briefly saw race leader Dustin flying down a hill on the yellow trail, putting him around 2 miles ahead of me at this point. My pace through the Bandito trail and the return section on the yellow trail to the Greenway was in the 9:30-9:45 range. The Bandito is my least favorite section of the course, and I think it is the slowest portion due to the turns and larger stretches of sandy footing. Somewhere on the yellow trail, I was passed again by Vincent and moved back into 6th place overall.
At ~10.2 miles, the course turns to cross the Wolf River bridge to the bib punch bench, before turning back around to the trail system. Crossing the bridge, I did not see Vincent, who had passed me only shortly before. As I was crossing the bridge on the return, he passed me coming the other direction, clearly having missed the turn the first time. He passed me again around a mile later, and briefly confirmed that he missed the turn initially. This would end up costing him some time but no probably places, as he had a strong run and held 5th the rest of the way.
In my training runs, I typically felt pretty good on the section of the yellow trail between the Wolf River and Walnut Grove bridges. I was still running ok in this section, with miles 10-12 in the 9:30-9:40 range. I stopped at the aid station at just under 12 miles to refill my handheld water bottle. At this point I had consumed two Gu gels and declined additional food here. In retrospect, I probably should have gotten calories of some sort.
Leaving the aid station, I started to feel pretty bad very quickly. Overall,
my cardiovascular system was fine, but my legs felt dead and my upper
leg muscles were starting to tighten up quickly. Mile 13 was still under
10:00 including the aid station stop, but barely so. I went through the
half marathon at around 1:57:00, and this was essentially the last point
I was able to run well.
Soon after, I slowed to a brief walk for the first time. Around this point, I
was passed by Alison, who I had originally passed at around the 4 mile
mark. She had somehow gotten way off course somewhere near the
Wolf River bridge, but ended up running almost exactly the same
distance as everyone else anyway. She briefly encouraged me, but I
had no ability to keep up and she quickly left me behind. Mile 14 was
12:21, and I was passed at some point around here by Brian and
moved down to 8th place. Based on the race results, Brian would
eventually end up 6th with Alison 7th.
Mile 15 was a little better, but not much, at 11:19. By this time my calves were cramping pretty severely whenever I would run for more than a minute or two. I managed to run the last few tenths of a mile and finally finished in 8th place overall. My watch read 15.24 miles in 2:21:30. Initially, when results were posted I was credited with a 2:22:50 finish. A few days later, this would be adjusted to 2:17:50. I’m still not sure what the discrepancy there is.
In the end, I did not hit my primary goal of sub-2:20, but I was comfortably under my secondary goal of sub-2:30. This race was technically my longest run since 2006, and with several races now where I have struggled in the final miles, it is clear that I need to work on nutrition, pacing, and extending my long runs. Nevertheless, I was very pleased with my race and loved the Mamba event as a whole. I will certainly be back next year.
Overall, the Mamba race really sold me on trail running. Upcoming goal races will be the Swamp Stomper 25K at Meeman Shelby in January, and my first ultra at the Big Buffalo 50K on the Tour de Wolf trails in March. Somewhere in the back of my mind is also the idea of running the night race at Mamba 2024, the 100K. Since summer training in Memphis can be unpleasant, we will see. In the meantime, thanks James and his wife Alyssa, Gibson, the rest of the organizers, the race photographer Jenny, and all the volunteers and awesome competitors for making my first real trail race in many years such a great experience.
© Jenny Thorsen 2023 Personal use with permission
© Jenny Thorsen 2023 Personal use with permission