Several years ago I lost a race by 11 seconds. It was a trail half marathon, and I thought I was in third place, so when a woman came sprinting by me about a quarter of a mile before the finish, I wasn’t particularly motivated to try to stay in front of her. It turned out, though, that the two girls who had been in first and second place were only there because they had taken a shortcut. They got disqualified, I was bumped up to second place, and the woman who sprinted past me just before the finish was the winner. If this doesn’t sound like a big deal, keep in mind that the prize for first place was a free night in a luxury ski lodge. The prize for second place was…a t-shirt.

I wear that t-shirt often when I race, to remind myself of the lesson I learned about always giving 100 percent on the basis that you truly never know what will happen until the race is over. And I thought I had a solid grasp on that lesson—until this past weekend at the Mystery Mountain 12 Mile.

Mystery Mountain is a fantastic race in the north Georgia mountains. It’s a loop course of technical, hilly singletrack trails. The race is extremely well organized, the volunteers are great, and there’s a great post-race atmosphere complete with a delicious lunch.  If you’ve never run the race, it’s definitely worth putting on your calendar for next year.

Normally I don’t set particularly aggressive goals for myself, but this time was different: I wanted to win, and I wanted to beat the women’s course record of 1:50. No pressure, right?! But I had won the race last time I did it, and I knew that while I had been five minutes off the course record then, I’m much faster now than I was at that time.

Race day brought perfect weather (cool and cloudy), though the rocks on the trail were still very wet and slippery from the previous day’s rain. I normally run longer distance races, so the speed of a 12-miler was a bit of a shock to the system at the start of the race, but it didn’t take long before I started feeling comfortable and enjoying the hard work. I forced myself to be disciplined and to stick to the heart rate that I wanted to run at, even when another girl, Elizabeth, took the lead about a mile in. With the tight switchbacks and dense tree cover, GPS watches aren’t very accurate on this trail, so instead I was relying on heart rate and planned time splits for the aid stations to tell me whether or not I was on pace.  I trailed Elizabeth at maybe 20 yards back for the majority of miles two and three. We hit the aid station at mile 3.5 exactly on pace for 1:50, and I felt like I was being conservative enough to keep up that pace for the next nine miles.

One of the mysteries of Mystery Mountain, though, is how the course manages to be uphill on the way up the mountain but also uphill on the way back down the mountain! The race hits the top of the mountain around mile 4.5, and I pulled into the lead on the following downhill. But the course immediately goes back up another large hill, and then another, and then another…by mile 7, I could feel my pace lagging. I gave myself a stern lecture and picked it up a bit, but I still arrived at the mile 8 aid station over a minute behind schedule. This was not good at all, since miles 9 to 11 are very hilly and technical, and I knew I would have a hard time making up the extra minute on that terrain.

When I hit mile 11, I was still in the lead but also about a minute and a half behind course record pace.  There was no way I was going to make up that much time in just a mile, so although I kept pushing myself right to the finish. I didn’t quite work up the motivation for an all-out finishing sprint.

When I got to the finish line, though, I learned I’d missed the course record by only 30 seconds.  I finally realized what had happened: just like I normally do in ultramarathons, I’d pressed the start button on my watch when we were about to start the race, before the start gun actually went off. I do this in ultras because in a long race a few seconds generally don’t matter, and this way I can avoid forgetting to start my watch at all, which I’ve often done. But at Mystery Mountain, starting my watch early (and then forgetting that I’d done it) left me unaware that I was 30 rather than 90 seconds off the course record. Could I have gone 30 seconds faster?  Maybe, maybe not!  It would have been tough, but it also might have been possible. It was certainly a reinforcement of the lesson I thought I had learned several years ago at that trail half marathon—you never know what will happen, so keep trying until it’s truly over.  I know I will be a repeat visitor to Mystery Mountain to try to get those 30 seconds back!