This past Saturday my running partner and I took on our biggest running challenge since the marathon last year... a trail race! We wanted to see what it was like to switch from road to soft surface and give our minds and bodies a bit of a tune up. I looked online and found the Instant Classic Trail Race which was being run right up the road in Pocahontas State Park. It looked well mapped, relatively easy elevation gains, and seemed like it would provide a fun challenge and opportunity for us to take our racing to the woods! We signed up for the half-marathon length (there is also an option for the full) and began training. On a side note, ALL proceeds from this race benefit the Fisher House which gives housing to veterans and their families while they are going through treatment... amazing cause and something totally worth supporting!
So here we go, just like all of my other race reviews I'll be breaking it down into: Expo and Packet Pick-Up, Travel and Accommodations, Course, Ease of the Start Line, Swag, and Post-Race Party. Now, let's talk Instant Classic Trail Race!
Expo and Packet Pick-Up: No expo for this one! This is a very well organized, but "no frills" event and I'm totally cool with it! I'm not a huge expo-goer anyways and always seem to go by the same one or two booths before picking up my packet and heading out, so not having a big expo is A-OK in my book! Packet pick-up was super simple and smooth. Located at Lucky Road in Willow Lawn, I simply walked in Friday afternoon, gave them my name and picked up my bib, shirt and packet, simple as that! I loved that the ladies helping with pick up were engaging in conversation with race participants coming through! It was really refreshing to have someone on the other side of the booth that wasn't so robotic and was taking the time to answer questions about the course, injuries, etc. Literally took me five minutes and I was back out the door, but I could have stayed and chatted with them for hours!
Travel and Accommodations: Pocahontas State Park is located in Chesterfield, VA and about a 30-35 minutes ride from the City of Richmond. It's a super easy drive and with a start time for the half of 7:45, you shouldn't have any issues staying in the city and driving to the race that morning. There are plenty of great spots in Richmond to stay (Air BNB is an awesome option) as well as great restaurants and things to do prior to and after the race! This is a much smaller race than most of the staple races in Richmond (think the Richmond Marathon and Monument 10K which bring in tens of thousands of participants) so you won't be fighting the crowds getting to the start line parking or finding a great place for brunch afterwards! Keep in mind that you will be a bit outside of the city. I haven't done too much exploring in Chesterfield, but would definitely recommend coming back to Richmond for your post-race festivities of brunching, shopping, and sight-seeing!
Course: If you're like Samantha and I and have never run a trail race before... you're in for a surprise! It's definitely a LOT different than road racing, but honestly so much fun! I loved this course for our first trail race as I think it was challenging, but not overly difficult... a very nice combination of feeling like a badass trail runner but also not falling down a cliff and breaking my leg in the process! The entire course is through the state park, with only two or three small sections where you'll be on asphalt running through a parking lot (literally for about 50 feet, if that, each time). You'll be on all kinds of trails including grass, gravel, mud... and even a little water as there were a few creeks and giant puddles to navigate through (it had rained the night before so I made sure to wear my older pair of shoes because I'm a diva and really didn't want to ruin my brand new pair of Saucony ISO Triumph 3's!).
Now for the fun part... elevation! There were hills. Lots of hills. The good news is, you won't really be up against any long, slow climbs (those are exhausting), but you WILL be taking on multiple quick and steep hills throughout the course. You know, the kind where you turn the corner and it's straight up and you have that moment of "should I walk it or should I sprint up it?" (always sprint up it, just do it). However, the course does a fantastic job of spacing these hills out and really clustering most of them within the first five miles. There's a very nice flat stretch in the middle before finishing up with a few more smaller hills, but you'll be able to get the majority of them out of the way at the start.
Altogether, I REALLY enjoyed this course. It was fun to run through the woods and the course provided a mixture of moderate and easy trails. At some points we were running on the side of cliff-like ledges, at some points we were able to run six wide down a service road! The biggest thing for me was to get over the mental hurdle of trail racing pace vs road racing pace. For the past few 13.1 races, we've been well under two hours with a PR of 1:53. My finish time for this race was 2:17... a full minute slower than my very first half marathon! But I placed 33rd out of all female finishers... so I had to take a step back and evaluate what it means to be "fast" on a trail race.
For one, you're not in the open and there are several sections that are narrow as well as obstacles like creeks to maneuver across which will slow you down. Second, unlike most of the road races we run in, there are hills on a trail course! We trained for hills, but it really does affect your speed when you're out there! And finally, and what I'd argue is the biggest reason for slower times in trail racing, the course itself and the hazards along the way. A trail through the woods isn't nicely paved and maintained like a busy city street. There are roots, and stumps, and giant rocks, and big holes, and incredibly large mud puddles, and all kinds of things that could cause you to take a serious fall at any point throughout the race. I wanted to make damn sure that I finished this race injury and incident free (mainly because we leave for Mexico in two weeks and an ankle cast would not look cute on the beach), so I took my time navigating the paths... and I was TOTALLY alright with that!
One of the coolest things about this race was that I ran without my watch. Now it wasn't actually on purpose... my watch was just being really wonky and kept cutting off after a few yards. But after two stop and starts I decided to say screw it and turned it off completely. It was incredibly liberating to not be worried about pace the entire time and something I would absolutely recommend for those getting ready to run their first trail race. You will be slower, and it will be completely fine! Not running with your watch can actually help you get over that mental block of "oh my God why am I running so slow?!?!". And if you're worried about not knowing what mile marker you're at along the course, do NOT worry! This course is literally the most well marked course I've ever raced on! I'm serious, every single turn there's a sign saying "Mile 4.68" or "Mile 9.32"... it's amazing!! And don't stress about potentially getting lost in the woods and ending up as bear dinner, it's literally impossible to get lost with all of the course volunteers and signage along the way!
Ease of the Start Line: The start line was super easy. Parking was provided by the race director (normally $5, so that was pretty awesome of her!) and there were plenty of spots right near the start line. Unlike with the bigger Richmond races, you weren't having to get there an hour early just to make sure you didn't have to park two miles away, which was a nice change of pace! There were two indoor bathroom facilities at the top of the hill before you walked down to the start line which was nice, but with only three stalls in each facility, it got a little crowded. So make sure to go as soon as you get there as the line can get a little long. There were no corrals or seeded waves for the start, you basically just lined up with the haf-marathoners in front and the full-marathoners behind and off you went! Again, no frills, but incredibly functional.
Swag: For being a smaller race... the swag was AWESOME!! The race shirt was a long sleeve technical jacket (with thumb holes... my favorite) and it was literally better than any race shirt I've even received! It's thin, fits like a glove, and it's pink! Packets also came with a koozie (as if we didn't have enough of them already) and some great coupons including $20 off any service at a great spa in the city! The finishers medals were also on point. Large, fun, and great colors. I was thoroughly impressed with the amount of attention to detail the race director put into the finishers items!
Post-Race Party: This isn't where the Instant Classic shines, but I was definitely impressed with what was available for after the race. They have a shelter reserved at the top of the hill from the finish line (brutal walk up those stairs for sure) with cold beer, hamburgers, hotdogs and grilled sausages available as well as muffins, coffee and water/Gatorade bottles. There are no bands and booths and big parties like at other larger races, but it was really nice to be able to sit down on a picnic bench, have a hotdog and a cider and hit the road back to the city! There's something to be said about a smaller race without all the hoopla, it's really nice to get back to what it means to really get out there on a Saturday morning and just run with others who truly love the sport!
Final Thoughts: Would I run this race again? Absolutely! In fact, I'm going to be making it my new spring race yearly now as a way to give my body a bit of a rest from road racing after the winter! The organization and attention to detail was incredible, swag was great, and the course itself was just so damn FUN!! If you're an experienced trail runner, or a beginner like we were, this is a race that all skill levels and paces can enjoy! Have you run the Instant Classic Trail Race before? What did you think??