Possum Trot XV
December 11, 2011
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...
Yes, quoting Dickens during Advent is a bit cliche, but how better to sum up the previous fourteen
editions of the Possum Trot? Rather than attempt an abstract, I'll simply refer interested readers to the
race report archives if they want to delve into my extremely varied fortunes in this race. Suffice it to say
that there is hardly an emotion I have not experienced at some point while running a Trot.
This year's fortunes aren't looking particularly bright for a number of reasons. For starters, I'm out of
shape. Not terribly so, but enough to matter. Normally the Trot is one of my last races of the year and my
fitness is very near peak. Because I took my break in October this year recovering from UROC, it will be a
very early season race for the Spring 2012 cycle and all I have for training is a few weeks of base
mileage. I haven't spent much time on a map, either, though I'm familiar enough with Kansas City's
terrain that I'm not terribly worried about navigation.
More importantly, a scheduling change puts the Trot the day after Pere Marquette. This has happened
once before and the result was a pretty unpleasant race. Goat events just aren't much fun if you don't
have the legs to run with the folks you normally match. And, Pere Marquette will certainly soften your legs
However, as this is the final edition of the Trot (at least under Race Director Dick Neuberger's leadership)
and I've been to all them, I begrudgingly decide I'll toe the line for the finale and hope for the best. On the
upside, even a mediocre performance should close the books with me in the lead on the
All-Time Trot Standings.
As is our custom, Kate, Yaya, and I all head out Friday evening to Pere Marquette to spend the night at
the lodge. Staying there makes race morning much less stressful and it's a really fun place to stay. Yaya
still loves the giant chess pieces and Kate and I enjoy some wine and cheese sitting by the fireplace in
the great hall.
The next morning I go for a sunrise run up the bluff, getting to the top just as the sun breaks the horizon.
The conditions are absolutely stellar, which is actually not good for me, but I'm not upset. Mornings like
this are fair compensation for getting beat by a couple extra road runners who might otherwise suffer in
the ice or mud.
After a light breakfast with the family, I change into my racing gear, opting for orienteering shoes of cross
country spikes because I'm still nursing some injuries on my left foot and want the extra protection.
Because the entire course is trail (albeit a fairly wide one), the 650 runners are started in waves of 25,
seeded by previous results (or 10K time for rookies) which start at 30-second intervals. My seed is 12, so
I'm in the first group off. At 9:30, we get the horn.
As usual, I go straight to the back of the group on the first climb. I don't know what everybody else does
differently for a warmup, but I can never seem to match the initial effort in this race. I don't stress over it
and am pleased to get to the first split (Goat Cliff) in 6:01, a single second off my target. We continue
uphill to the first water stop which comes at 12:20, well ahead of pace for breaking an hour. The footing is
very good; it appears that there has been some trail grooming done over the summer. While that's great
for time, it means that I'm not catching people on the descents like I usually do. By the road crossing at
roughly halfway, it's clear I'm going to be well under an hour (maybe even a PR) but further back in the
field than usual. I decide to keep the pace firm but controlled the rest of the way and settle for breaking
the hour and keeping my position in the mid-teens, which will get me into wave 0 again next year. I finish
15th in 58:17. I fail to win my age group for the first time since 2005, finishing second to Rick Barnes. I
would have liked to make it a bit closer, but I don't think even my best would have got him today.
Meanwhile, I'm happy that I didn't completely torch my legs for tomorrow.
Objectively, the performance is hard to assess. With a median time of 1:23:50, the conditions were
certainly fast, especially when compared to the 2010 mudfest (which had the slowest median ever by 10
minutes; despite missing the hour, I consider my 60:47 last year to be my best run at PM). However, it
only a minute faster than the medians from 2007-2009, which also saw a frozen trail and little snow. And,
while three age group records fell, the other 20 or so didn't. My overall place was only four spots off from
the last couple years. I decide I'm happy with it and move on to thinking about the Trot.
Kate heads back home while Yaya and I join Emily Korsch (who also took second in her age group) for
the trip to Kansas City. We arrive just a few minutes late for the PTOC Christmas Party at Minski's Pizza.
After the party, we head to the Neuberger's for a good night's sleep. The next morning, I go for another
pre-dawn run, noting that my legs are a bit stiff, but feel a lot better than the last time I pulled the PM/PT
double and return to the house for hearty breakfast provided by Dick's wife, Nancy.
As we line up for the start, it is readily apparent that this is the largest field ever for a Trot. No shortage of
quality, either. The clear favorite is Mark Everett (Arizona), who has won four times previously. I'm the
only other former winner present, but Justin Bakken (MN), Tom Carr (TX), Tom Puzak (MN), and Michael
Eglinski (KS) have all seen the podium. On the women's side, Emily will be surely challenged by Molly
Moilanen and Erin Binder (both MN) and, while Sharon Crawford (CO) isn't likely to keep pace on the
open terrain of Shawnee Mission Park (she is in her 60's, after all), she has more wins than anybody, so
she can't be ruled out.
Map with route.
At the word "go" we flip our maps over and are immediately confronted with a skip decision. There are two
skips allowed. Skipping 1 saves a LOT of distance (albeit, fast running) and my legs could use the break.
However, I hate skipping early because it's easier to chase than to stay off the front. I confirm that none of
the favorites are taking the skip and join the stampede towards 1. The leg is long enough that by the time
we get there, things are already stringing out. That and the use of electronic punching (first time for the
Trot) means the usual jam up at the first control is avoided. I try to stay with the lead group heading to 2,
but the legs simply aren't there. By the time we enter the woods, I'm losing contact with the pack and by
3, I'm pretty much on my own.
That's always a good time to slow down a bit and get your navigation settled, but instead I boom 4, losing
around 90 seconds. By the time I get to the control, another pack has come up and it's starting to look like
I might get mired mid-pack. Not really the way I want to wrap up my Trot career. Fortunately, I have
enough experience to not panic in situations like this. Run your own race, keep errors to a minimum, and
let the length of the race work for you. If they're still ahead of you at the finish, then they deserve to be.
The next few controls go well. I take the high route through the field to 8, which I'm dismayed to find
contradicts the claim in the course notes of no tall grass. It doesn't slow me down much, though. In fact, I
have the second fastest split (though that must be tempered by the realization that some of the leaders
skipped 7 so they didn't have a split for that leg). I lose some time leaving 10 when I can't find a good
crossing of the stream.
The next six legs are running through fields. I'm clean here, but so is everybody else. I can see others
ahead and behind; I don't appear to be gaining or losing much. I have no idea of where I am (given that
some have skipped and some haven't, it's not particularly useful information, anyway), but I'm still feeling
that I should be moving faster. Minor bobbles at 18 and 19 cost me a couple more places. Turns out I was
the 14th competitor to punch 19. I don't realize it's quite that bad, but I know I'm looking at a dismal result
if things don't change soon. Fortunately, things are about to change.
None of Shawnee Mission Park could be described as "technical", but at least the course is
predominantly in the woods for the next ten controls. Open woods on mid-sized ridges at that; pretty
much my best terrain. I'm not aware of making a conscious adjustment to pace, but pretty soon, I'm clear
of the folks that had been near me in the fields. I skip 23 (obvious) and 27 (OK, but 21 would have been
better). Heading to 28, I see Andrei Karpov coming back. He's usually about my speed, so that's
encouraging. Unfortunately, I boom 28, which is pretty inexcusable when I misread which contour it's on
and end up on the hillside below the control. I get back to the control just as Tom Puzak is leaving and
Tom Carr is coming in. It appears I'm back in the hunt with just 3K to go!
Puzak and I both miss 30 to the right, which give Carr a chance to catch up. The three of us punch within
seconds of each other. The last 2K is back in the fields and I want to get some idea of how the other two
are running, so I push a bit over the ridge to 31. Neither Tom attempts to match the surge, but they aren't
dropped either. The descent to 30 is steep and loose. I take it easy since there isn't much point in risking
a nasty fall to defend a lead of just a few seconds. Approaching the control, Carr blows by me at a rate
that indicates he's spotted the flag. I latch on and pick it up myself moments later. Carr keeps the
pressure on as we get to the fields and Puzak begins to drop back.
I'm not very optimistic about my chances against Carr in a footrace, but there's no need to give up just
yet. I match his speed to 32 but give away about 10 seconds when I misread the approach and turn up
the embankment too soon only to have to go down and up to cross the stream just north of the control.
Tom takes the low route out of 32 whereas I go around high. I'm not sure if my route was better or if I was
just pushing harder but we're back together again when we cross the bridge to 33. Tom surges again out
of 33 and gets a few seconds. That expands to about 10 when we hit the trashy woods right before 34.
Just as I'm thinking the gap is getting too large, Tom trips and goes down hard. He's back up right away,
but it brings his lead back to just a few seconds.
I know that if Tom gets to the top of the dam ahead of me, he'll beat me in. My only chance is to take him
on the steep climb up to the road. I pump as hard as I can and am surprised at how well the legs respond.
Halfway up the hill, I pass Tom who takes one look at my stride and concedes. I take no chances,
sprinting it all the way in to register the fastest finishing split by a healthy margin. The finish is a
respectable fourth behind Bakken, Everett, and Karpov.
Missing the podium by 63 seconds is a little frustrating, but I'm really quite pleased with the result. It was
much better than two years ago when I simply had nothing in the legs after running Pere Marquette and
finished seventh. More than that, I'm happy that I didn't give up mentally when it appeared I was headed
for a lackluster finish. I ran the last third of the course as well as I've run anything and found some speed
at the end when I really had no reason to believe it was there. I've been worried that I've developed a
habit of jogging races in. Finding a big push, and on a day when a big push wasn't easy to find, is a very
While I go home empty handed, Emily picks up her first Dead Possum. Yaya also posts a win as fastest
individual around the White course. It's a happy ride back to St. Louis, made even happier by a stop at
Shakespear's Pizza in Columbia. Along the way, I state that this is actually a pretty good result to go out
on. It's not so bad to leave a need for redemption, but it's not great either. It's the sort of thing you can
just put behind you and move on.
But, before I do that, let me just give the pen back to Charles for a moment and remember the Trot in all
its varied incarnations:
It was the best of times (XII - first win),
it was the worst of times (V - tiny map of nasty woods; let's do 3 laps of it!),
it was the age of wisdom (III - first edition of Eric's Absurdly Detailed Skip Analysis),
it was the age of foolishness (II - controls WAY up in the trees!),
it was the epoch of belief (IX - curse of the odd trot broken),
it was the epoch of incredulity (XI - curse returns),
it was the season of Light (X - blindingly bright ice),
it was the season of Darkness (VIII - rain and sleet),
it was the spring of hope (VI - first time staying with the leaders),
it was the winter of despair (I - 3 hours of misery),
we had everything before us (IV - birth of the Death Match),
we had nothing before us (XIII - dead legs from Pere Marquette),
we were all going direct to heaven (XIV - second win),
we were all going direct the other way (VII - injured)
- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its
being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Thanks for everything.
And now, the final edition of, Eric's Absurdly Detailed Skip Analysis
As always, this analysis is based on speeds and strategic considerations of those running near the front
of the pack: specifically the top seven men. I've also included skips taken by the top two women.
1: Obviously a good skip for saving distance and highly desirable for mid-field runners
since they may get guided into a few controls by the leaders as they pass later on. For the leaders, it's not
such a great deal. Leaving the pack so early gives away the advantage of group navigation. In the worst
case, a subsequent error results in getting caught by the group and being a skip down with nothing to
show for it. At any rate none of the leaders took it and most got through 2 in under 8 minutes, so the
savings can't be more than 6 minutes. There are equally good skips later in the course.
3: Another obvious skip that wasn't taken by any of the leaders for the same reasons
noted above. 2-4 and 3-4 are pretty close, so the savings is 2-3 or a bit over 4 minutes.
6: Taken by Moilanen and I'm not seeing the upside. It's an early skip and, while 5-7 is a
road run, you really have to hammer it to get the time savings. 5-6-7 is all white woods with less climb and
only about 200m further. 5-6-7 was under 8 minutes and I don't see running the 800m on road much
quicker than 4 given the hill. You still have to nav into the control, so the savings is probably around 3:30.
7: The first skip widely taken among the leaders, including both Bakken and Everett.
Assuming you take the low route from 7-8 (I didn't, but the ridge top route is about the same), the savings
is basically an out-and-back from the trail bend to 7: about 800m through flat, open woods or 5:00.
14: This skip was very popular with the slower runners, and rightly so. It shaves nearly a
full kilometer off the course. However, all that distance is fast running through fields so the savings is only
about 5 minutes for those with the legs. Among the leaders, only Everett took this and it may have been a
fatal mistake. Foot speed is his greatest asset and removing some of the fastest running on the course
doesn't seem to be playing to his strengths. Maybe he saw it as his best chance to separate from Bakken,
who was the only person matching his pace at this point. After the skip, he was less than five minutes
ahead and Bakken got that back and more by skipping 23.
15: A lot like skipping 14,
except it saves less distance (about 600m). Four minutes tops, probably closer to 3. None of the leaders
20: Obvious and OK, but not great. Saves all of 20-21 (4:00) plus about 200m of trail
running. Total savings less than 5 minutes. The biggest upside is that 21 is considerably easier to spike
from above as the reentrant gets very vague in the direction of 20. That said, I missed 21 left and still had
the third fastest split, so it was obviously a place where you could make a mistake and recover quickly.
None of the leaders skipped here, but just slightly further back, Harding skipped and it jumped him up a
whopping 9 places. He only gave back four of them to the finish, so there may have been some valid
tactical considerations to justify it.
21: I like this one a lot better, even though it's practically a mirror image of skipping 20.
Again, all of 20-21 is saved plus about 200m. The difference here is that the 200m isn't flat trail, it's
grunting up the ridge leaving 21. That raises the savings to around 5:30. For such a good skip, it wasn't
very popular among the leaders. Only Karpov took it.
23: The best skip and taken by all the leaders except Everett and Moilanen. 22-24 is a
no-brainer leg running right up the stream through white woods; most of the leaders were around 3:30.
It's difficult to assess 22-23-24, since Everett was the only really fast runner taking it, and presumably he
was running very hard here since this was do-or-die time to justify his earlier skip at 14. He ran it in 9:11. I
think most of the leaders would have been closer to 10:00. At any rate, whether you call the savings 5:30
or 6:30, the bottom line is that Bakken got to 24 a minute clear and was not threatened the rest of the
27: I was the only leader waiting this late to skip and it wasn't really worth the wait. It was
better than my splits would indicate as I boomed 28, losing about a minute there. All of 26-27 (3:30) is
saved, plus a little extra distance. Maybe 4:00, but certainly not any better than that.
So, it appears that 23 and 21 are objectively best. They're nicely placed from a strategic standpoint as
well. Full marks to Karpov for getting it right. Slower runners would probably do better to skip 1 or 14
instead of 21. As much fun as this post-race analysis is, the best strategy, as usual, was to pick 2 quickly
and then get back to navigating. A single error would cost more than a sub-optimal skip.