Chasing 42

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Archive for the tag “trails”

Maryland H.E.A.T. 50K Race Recap

Our east coast move has been a bit of a whirlwind and my head still hasn’t entirely stopped spinning. There has been quite a bit of “new” in our lives in the past three months, and that including plenty of new running locations and opportunities for me! I held off on setting my fall race schedule until we moved out here and am just now getting things squared away. This meant that I haven’t had anything coming up, which has been a bit of a struggle. I always feel better when I am focusing my training on a particular race, and I’ve been itching to get back to race almost from the moment I arrived in Delaware. So, last week, on a bit of a whim, I signed up for a 50K trail race in Maryland. The MD H.E.A.T. (High Endurance Adventure Test) race was held on August 8th at Patapsco State Park, just outside Baltimore. This meant it was easily within driving range, and I could head down the morning of the race and avoid any need for sleeping accommodations. The epicurean, along with Looper, decided to join me and we made an adventure of it. The result was an immensely challenging and satisfying day!

There’s really only one reason I will ever set my alarm for 3:30AM, and that’s for a race day wake-up. Google told us it would be a 75 minute drive, and the race started at 7AM, so we wanted to be on the road by 5:30 to ensure we had a decent buffer for any directional miscues. I made sure to organize my clothes, shoes, and pack the night before to make the morning as easy as possible, but the alarm was still a painful siren call that I found myself compelled to answer. Looper, our Vizsla, loves the outdoors so we brought her along for the ride. Luckily, she is a wonderful traveler and relatively comfortable in new environments. The race bused folks into the park from a nearby park-and-ride due to the limited amount of parking available on site. We had received permission to drive directly to the park because we had Looper with us, but ended up driving to the park-and-ride first. I arrived at packet pickup around 6:50, which gave me just enough time to pin my bib on, take care of business, and rush to the starting line. This event was technically more of a “run” than a “race”, as they weren’t giving out awards or keeping track of age groups. They offered a 25K and a 50K, with both groups traversing the same 16-mile loop. The 25K didn’t begin until 9AM, so the considerably smaller group of 50K runners (approximately 50) had a solid two hours on the trail before the additional 300 folks started their own trek.

Waiting at the start for the go.

Waiting at the start for the go.

Since the 25K was the main race, the aid stations weren’t going to be fully staffed and set up until the 9AM start. Thus, we had to have enough hydration and nutrition for the first 8 miles with no aid stations to resupply. The park itself runs along 32 miles of the Patapsco River, and encompasses over 16,000 acres. the route took us along beautiful single track, with the occasional access road and paved trail used to connect various points along the way. I mentioned in an earlier post that my legs are still becoming accustomed to the hilly terrain surrounding me, and this race served as my first real test.

Welcome to the east coast hills!

Welcome to the east coast hills!

The first 8 miles of the loop were without a doubt the most difficult, and I became aware very quickly of the elevation gain this race had in store for me. After a fairly calm first mile, several decent hills greeted me over the next few miles as we made our way up and down the river valley, crisscrossing a hilly power line clearing, and navigating switchbacks. We crossed several streams, and the quick splash felt wonderful on a morning where the temps were already in the 70’s and the humidity was approaching 90%. “HEAT” was certainly an appropriate name for the race! It was clear pretty early on that this flatlander wasn’t in Iowa anymore, and my quads were yelling at me for the deception. However, the copious elevation gain I’d been logging over the past few months seemed to have paid off, as I was navigating the highly technical trail pretty well and embracing the climbs. After several sizable climbs, I thought I was well acquainted with the trail and ready to tackle anything that came my way. Then I reached the Grist Mill Trail turn.

Seriously?!

Seriously?!

Around 5.8 miles in, the course took a sharp 90 degree right turn and I ran smack into a rock face. It took me a moment to look up and see the course markers to realize that we were supposed to go up! The 47% grade meant climbing with my hands as much as my feet, and grabbing onto tree roots to pull myself forward. After 100 feet or so, the trail leveled out just enough to stand up again, and I looked up in search of a summit that wasn’t there. The trail seemed to disappear into the woods, and the dense tree canopy nicely shaded the way. This would prove to be the toughest climb of the race, and one of the tougher climbs I’ve tackled in any race, although I’m sure I have more of them ahead of me! At one point, the trail opened up just enough to the left for a scenic outlook and a beautiful view of the valley below. If I had enough oxygen in my brain, I would have snapped a picture but I had to settle for a few of the hill itself. After finally reaching the summit, the trail leveled out and slowly began a calm descent over the course of the next mile, before we eventually ran into a paved bike trail along the river. We took the bike trail for about a mile, and my feet yearned for the rocky, rooty single-track  instead of the smooth asphalt that was guiding me along. We crossed the river on a swinging bridge, and the mile 8 aid station was waiting for us when we got to the other side. I could not have been more happy to see those volunteers!

The roads just don't compare!

The roads just don’t compare!

This was the first race I had run that offered Tailwind at the aid stations, which was a wonderful surprise and convenient supplement to my own supply. I lingered for a few minutes before thanking everyone and heading back out on the course. Almost immediately, the trail made its way up another steep incline but I was feeling much more refreshed after my pit stop and I tackled this hill which considerable ease. After reaching the top, the next 6 miles were relatively easy compared to the first half of the race. The trail continued to offer plenty of rolling hills, stream crossings, and technical switchbacks, but my legs had adapted and I tackled the miles quite comfortably. With less than a mile left, the trail ran straight into a 30 foot stone wall. I initially looked straight up and sighed at the thought of having to scale the enormous wall, which was serving as some sort of barrier along the river. However, I eventually noticed the 8 foot connecting wall situated at a 90 degree angle, and headed over to scale it. Going up was fairly easy, but going back down the other side was a bit more treacherous and I wondered what it would feel like on the second loop. I landed safely on the ground, picked the trail back up, and headed for the clearing and the start/finish area. I finished the first loop a bit faster than I had intended (shocking, I know!) but I was feeling really good. I stopped to chat with the epicurean, rehydrate, and take in some more nutrition, and then I headed back out on the second and final loop.

Heading back out for loop 2!

Heading back out for loop 2!

I knew what awaited me as I ventured out on the second loop, and was encouraged by the fact that I would encounter aid stations every 4 miles for this second loop. My legs were doing an excellent job of reminding me of the first loop as I tackled the early hills on the second loop. My pace slowed some, but I expected that and welcomed it, knowing I had more than enough time in the bank. I was partially dreading and partially looking forward to the Grist Mill climb as I moved along, so everything up until that point seemed more like an opening act before the main attraction. My legs were much more tired the second time around, and I’m sure the climb took me longer, but I relished in the accomplishment, one foot in front of the other. By the time I reached the paved bike path, the popular state park was much busier, and I found myself avoiding walkers, runners, bikers, and other folks wandering down by the river. I was that much more excited when I reached the swinging bridge because I knew I only had 8 miles left and they were quite manageable. A minute or so after I arrived at the mile 8 aid station, another guy came in and promptly called it quits. I tried to talk him out of his DNF and offered to run with him for a bit but he was done. I made sure to maintain my positive attitude as I embarked on the large climb just past the aid station.

Looper enjoyed the river almost as much as I did!

Looper enjoyed the river almost as much as I did!

The final 8 miles flew by pretty quickly, even if I wasn’t moving as fast as the first time around. I had judged my hydration and nutrition well, and my body was feeling good even if my legs were a tad bit tired. Over the next few miles, I began to pass folks running the 25K race, and I did my best to encourage them to keep going. I stopped a few times to offer assistance to folks, but kept myself moving forward. Relentless forward progress was key! The wall climb at the end proved to be much easier than I thought it would be, but I was a bit disoriented when I got to the other side until someone pointed out the exit onto the clearing to me. I emerged from the beautiful, shaded park and ran through the finish line to the sound of ringing cowbells (have I mentioned how much I despise them?), and I had a delightfully exhausted smile on my face. I collected some food at the finish area and headed over to sit down and decompress with the epicurean and Looper. In total, I gained over 5800 feet of elevation, which, considering the distance, made this the hilliest race I’ve run to date. When you throw in the highly technical trails, it became a fantastic test not only of my trail running abilities, but of my hill work as well. My quads were sore, but I was feeling great. It may have been a wicked early morning, but this impromptu race turned into a wonderful mini-getaway. It will no doubt be the first of many in our new east coast home!

Not a bad view on the way home either!

Not a bad view on the way home either!

Mark Twain 100 Race Report: Part II

I believe I last spoke to you as I was returning from my second loop. I had completed 50 miles, was smiling, and my crew of friends, along with the epicurean crew chief, were restocking my pack, bladder, and flasks. My legs could definitely tell that I had just covered 50 miles, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a tad bit jealous of the folks finishing their race at that moment, but I was feeling really good for the most part. I was ready to tackle the second half of the race, and excited by the prospect of having pacing company for the next 50 miles. I was going to treat these miles as just another great run through the woods with some amazing friends! I ate part of a bean and cheese burrito, along with some orange slices, and was ready to roll.

Loop 3- The Darkness Sets In 

The nature of the course and the number of pacers meant that each of the four folks would tackle either 9 or 16 miles with me. Nicole and I headed out back onto the trail, and we were ready to conquer the next nine miles. It was nice to have someone to chat with after 50 miles of relative silence, and our conversations bounced all over the place. As I’ve talked to my friends more and more about the race, I’ve come to realize that I don’t actually remember nearly as many of the conversations as I thought I did. I was still feeling good early on in the third loops, so my mind wasn’t straying all that much from reality. My stomach, however, began to stray from comfortable after about 3 miles. Almost without warning, I began to feel nauseous and acquired a throbbing headache. I shared my discomfort with Nicole, and we spent some time trying to think about where my nutrition and hydration plan had gone wrong at this point. Most ultrarunners know that the stomach is a finicky beast, and I’ve certainly had my share of G.I. issues in the past. However, I felt like I had been taking in solid foods, Tailwind, and water pretty consistently over the course of the day.

Heading out for Loop 3 (photo credit: Lani McKinney)

Heading out for Loop 3 (photo credit: Lani McKinney)

After a bit of discussion, it occurred to both of us…the burrito! How could I have been so foolish?! I was perhaps more hungry than I realized when I returned after the second loop, and the burrito sounded great at the time. It even triggered memories from the race in Arizona and the fantastic overnight burritos they fed us. Those, however, didn’t have cheese in them. I should obviously know better since I’m lactose intolerant. The middle of a 100-mile race is probably the wrong time to add some dairy-induced distress into your system, but that’s exactly what I did. The sun was setting, and my body was diverting resources to deal with the nausea that was consuming me. This, coupled with the declining temperatures, meant that my body was no longer balancing the fatigue that was beginning to overtake it. Our pace dropped off significantly, and Nicole did her best to keep me moving. The first aid station was a bit of a blur but I drank some ginger ale and found a ginger chew to try and calm my stomach. Running became considerably harder as I was constantly holding back the urge to vomit, and I’m still not sure how I managed to not return my dietary acquisitions to the earth. I focused on her voice, feet, and the trail and just kept moving forward.

By the time we reached the small section of black top before the mile 9 aid station and crew access point, I was hurting. It was a struggle to keep moving, and I was at a loss for how to describe the battle my immune system was waging against me. I was convinced that I was being attacked from within, and all I could do was settle in for the overnight siege. I’m not entirely sure how Nicole dragged me up to the aid station, and I don’t entirely remember it happening, but I made it and everyone was waiting for me. I found a chair, sat down, and put my head between my legs. Everyone worked around me to fill my bottles and get me food, and the images in my mind are more like blurry photographs than clear thoughts. The warmth and blandness of a cup of mashed potatoes was the perfect medicine for what was ailing me, and I gladly accepted it. I sat in the chair for what seemed like an eternity while everyone assured me that I was doing great, and Carla readied herself to take me out on the next segment. This was my first moment of doubt. This was the first time thoughts of quitting entered my mind. Everyone lifted me out of the chair, and the epicurean shared her faith in my ability to finish, quietly in my ear, as I left. That small, whispered sentence may have been the only think that got me back out on the trail.

Coming in to Mile 59...who took away the light? (photo credit: Lani McKinney)

Coming in to Mile 59…who took away the light? (photo credit: Lani McKinney)

Carla and I made our way down the trail to the stream-crossing, and I slowly stepped across, trying not to topple over. She helped me across (I think), and we continued on our way. I had picked up my headlamp at the last aid station, and it was now entirely black in the woods, so our lamps were the only think lighting our way. The moon would make an appearance later in the evening, but only in those brief moments when the tree canopy parted long enough for the beams of light to float down to the forest floor. After about 30 minutes, my headlamp began to get much dimmer. This was considerably worrisome, because a) I had fully charged it before the trip, and b) we had many hours left to go in the dark! After a few minutes, my headlamp was completely dark. Fortunately, my intrepid crew had snuck my flashlight back into my pack after I had handed it off. Carla fished it out, and we carried on,

The next few hours proved to be the lowest point not only in the race, but in my entire running career. My energy never really bounced back, and each step became a battle with my body. We ran a little, walked a lot, and our conversations drifted from topic to topic, becoming more and more random and non-coherent as the miles passed by (from what I remember, and what I’ve been told, anyway!). I struggled from aid station to aid station, and my mind drifted to thoughts of quitting quite frequently. Luckily, Carla kept me talking, kept me moving, and didn’t acknowledge my self-doubt. She maintained such an amazing attitude throughout the entire 16 miles, and I’m fairly certain that I finished those miles with her energy more than my own. This part of the race was such a blur that I seem to be gaining new memories each time we talk about it. I do, however, remember that silent moment in the dark when we heard a rustling to our left. We both pointed our lights on the area, and ever so faintly, we spied the image of a small, spotted cat. At the time, it didn’t register as overly frightful to me, although I’m guessing Carla, who was far more coherent, had other thoughts. We would find out later that bobcats are pretty common in the Mark Twain National Forest, and the story only grew from there 🙂

Somehow, despite my body’s constant onslaught on my movement, I continued to make relentless forward progress and we finished those 16 miles. It took 6 hours, which if I had been asked earlier, would have seemed like a ridiculous figure. Carla had definitely gone above and beyond the call of duty as a pacer, and earned her MVP (most valuable pacer) status for the trip. There’s no question in my mind that I wouldn’t have finished that loop without her. I had plenty of time to plan my DNF speech, but she got me to the 75 mile mark. I walked into Jackson’s landing like a zombie, with a look in my eyes that no doubt gave everyone a bit of a scare.

I remember sitting down in that chair, exhausted, and barely able to coherently utter the words I had been mentally rehearsing for the last two hours. My entire crew could sense my mood, and I whispered hints of dropping, which they expertly ignored as they checked my gear, filled my water, and sought out food to nourish me. My hands were almost numb after forgetting to pick my gloves up off the ground following a pit stop hours earlier, and I needed gloves. My fingers couldn’t function properly, so they slid the gloves onto my fingers comically as the race director watched on with a smile. He made a comment about getting me back out on the course, and was quick to help me remember I’d feel worse if I stopped than if I jumped back on the trail for the final 25 miles. He was right. I knew it, and I fought my body every step of the way so I could get back out there. Ultimately, I was simply too tired to quit. The words didn’t come out, and deep down, I didn’t want them to leave my mouth. They lifted me up, and Lani assumed her role as the next pacer as we slowly made our way to the trailhead.

Loop 4- Let There Be Light! 

The first nine miles of this loop were more of a blur than perhaps any other section of the course. I was unreasonably tired for some reason, and could have curled up on the ground at any point to take a brief nap. Lani’s amazingly positive attitude kept me moving as she announced each and every rock and tree root that my reflexes were too slow to adequately avoid. At certain points, stopping to take a drink of water meant teetering on the brink of sleep, and I spent most of those nine miles on the verge of falling asleep right on the course. My legs were heavy, and she helped lift them over the fallen trees that looked like the walls of Alcatraz, trying their best to hold me in the gloriously open prison of my own making. I’m always thankful for Lani’s positive attitude and energy, but was no more so than during those nine miles. I followed her voice, stared at her feet, and kept moving. The darkness seemed to encompass us completely, and the tunnel vision I experienced was perhaps a blessing in disguise.

I don’t remember making it to the first aid station, but I’m sure I took in some nutrition, drank as much as I could stomach, and kept moving. The nausea was gone, replaced by fatigue as pure as freshly fallen snow, and it took all of my energy reserves to keep moving. These hours represented a very dark point in my journey, and tested me in a way that no previous endurance event had. We were passed by a few folks in the couple of hours it took us to navigate the darkness, but for the most part, we were alone and left to our own thoughts. I recalled later hearing strange noises, but Lani brushed them off as kicked brush at the time, although I would learn later that she felt a shiver of fear at what might be lurking in the darkness. Our saving grace was truly the rising sun, which began to cut through the darkness slowly and gave me hope. I recognized the trail more towards the end of our 9-mile journey as I caught a subtle 8th or 9th wind. However, each time I thought we were close to turning the corner, I’d realize that I had miscalculated. I was running from tree to tree, from Switchback to Switchback, and eagerly anticipating our emergence onto the short stretch of black top. We finally hit that section as the light emerged with enough strength to allow us to turn off our lights, and it was a wondrous moment. Lani looked over at me and said “we did this”, and “you’re going to do this!”, and she was right. I could feel the sunlight coursing into my veins and reinvigorating me as we strolled into the Huck’s Watering Hole and Eric was there to meet us. Lani had pulled me through the darkness and I was eternally grateful!

On the final leg- this was going to happen! (photo credit: Eric Esser)

On the final leg- this was going to happen! (photo credit: Eric Esser)

I stopped to refuel, enjoy another cup of mashed potatoes, and visit a restroom that didn’t involve nature’s toilet paper. Many ultrarunners talk about the importance of getting through the night, and reaching the dawn. If you can reach the dawn, you can do it. I’d always thought this was a nice sentiment, and great for motivation. However, it wasn’t until this moment that I realized just how true it really was. Almost instantly, I felt my energy return, my mood improve, and excitement fill my body. I had just woken up from a walking slumber, and I felt as well rested as when the race had begun 25 or 26 hours earlier. My crew was admittedly surprised, especially considering how I looked the last time they saw me, and I assured them that it wasn’t a fluke. I took a final drink of water, and Eric and I headed out for the final 16 miles.

I was now awake and aware enough to appreciate passing each portion of the trail for the last time. We joked, talked about the previous lap, and discussed my new-found energy as we pushed forward at a much more brisk pace than I had seen in quite some time. I was able to run and power hike the whole rest of the route, and felt like I had extra energy to burn. Eric began joking about how easy his pacing duties were compared to the others, and I laughed with him. It was true, and I knew at that point that I would indeed be finishing this race, and my excitement only grew with each passing mile. In some ways, this segment became like any other early morning run with a wonderful friend. Eric and I have spent many early mornings ticking off the miles before meeting others, and I could think of no better person to finish out the race. We stopped at the final two aid stations and joked with the volunteers, ate pancakes, and I thanked them profusely for their support. Many folks seemed a bit surprised at my energy, but they were ultrarunners so they understood. Heck, we even passed a few people on the way into the finish.

Crossing the finish line...I promise I was very awake, despite my closed eyes!

Crossing the finish line…I promise I was very awake, despite my closed eyes!

With about a half mile to go, we came across a volunteer standing on the side of the trail and she began cheering us on. It was a testament to the dedication of all of the race staff that she had hiked that far down to cheer runners as they entered the home stretch. No matter how hard I push myself and for how long, I always seem to find a little bit of extra energy at the end of a race, and this one was no different. Eric and I rounded the final turn up the hill and into the clearing near the finish line, and I picked up the pace and began running with all the energy I had left. I crossed the finish line in 29 hours 46 minutes, wearing the biggest smile I’d had all day. The immensity of what I had accomplished took much longer to set in, but my joy was immediate. I felt a surge of endorphins rush through me instead of the expected final wave of fatigue, and I knew it had been an amazing race, and an incredible experience. There were plenty of hugs and handshakes, and I took a bit of time to rest and eat before we packed up the car. Our exit was quick due to the 9 hour drive we had ahead of us, but that just meant I had plenty of time to process what had just happened. I’ve never been more thankful for such amazing friends and an incredible partner than during this race, and there is no question in my mind that I couldn’t have done it without them. I’ve no doubt forgotten many moments in this recap, despite it’s length, but that’s the beauty of a 100-mile race. The memories will keep floating in for months to come, and they’ll bring a little smile to my face every time!

Hard-earned hardware!

Hard-earned hardware!

 

Mark Twain 100 Race Report: Part I

There are some experiences that you know from the beginning will stick with you for a lifetime, and that thought creates equal parts pressure and excitement. The Mark Twain 100 was just such an experience, and I couldn’t have been happier with how the trip turned out. The lead-up to the weekend seemed like an eternity. I’ve been preparing for this race all summer, targeting it, and planning all of my training around this weekend. Some folks say it’s never good to put all your eggs in one basket, but this was my “A” race. No matter what happened, my hard work this year was leading up to that starting line.

This race was a series of “firsts” for me. I spent the previous two weeks working out the logistics for the trip, which was far more time than I ever remember spending on that side of race preparation. The beautiful epicurean and I would be camping near the starting line (you can’t argue with free camping!), so not only was I thinking about packing for the race itself, but also our camping needs. We also decided to bring Looper along for some outdoor time, which added another level of preparation. On top of that, I was going to have pacers, in the form of 4 amazing friends, for the first time in a race. I figured I should probably decide how to work with them as well. Even though this was my second time tackling the 100 mile distance, my previous adventure in Arizona was quite different. This would be my first true 100 mile trail race. Needless to say, I had a lot on my mind leading up to our departure.

Rustic camping in Berryman, MO (photo credit: Lani McKinney)

Rustic camping in Berryman, MO (photo credit: Lani McKinney)

We got everything loaded into the car (it just barely fit), and headed south for Berryman, MO around 8:00AM on Friday. The all-knowing Google told us it would be about a 7 hour drive, which didn’t seem that daunting, although I wasn’t crazy about spending that long cramped up in a car before running the next day. The drive ended up taking closer to 9 hours, and we arrived at the campground with rain falling on our heads. This was not a good sign! We set up camp in the rain, and then hopped back in the car to head to packet pick-up. Check-in was incredibly smooth, I collected my materials, along with a really nice hooded sweatshirt, and we stuck around for the pasta dinner. There was a brief race meeting at 7:00PM, and then a raffle for some great Salomon (one of the sponsors) swag. I ended up winning a pair of Salomon gaiters, which was a nice perk. By the time we got back to the campsite, it was dark and still drizzling. Crawling into the tent in the dark, with temps in the 40s and rain, didn’t exactly make for the comfortable evening I was hoping for but we made it work. Our 4 intrepid friends were still on the road, and would end up rolling into camp around midnight, by which time the epicurean and I were long asleep, albeit restlessly.

I woke up around 4:30AM to give myself time to eat a light breakfast (Cliff bar, banana, water) and get dressed. There was quite a chill in the air, but I knew I’d warm up pretty quickly once I started running. The darkness was still consuming the everything around us for the beginning of this 25-mile loop through the Mark Twain National Forrest, so I mounted a headlamp, slipped on arm warmers and a long-sleeve shirt, and waited for the 6AM start. This was a small race, with perhaps 60 people starting the 100-miler (4 loops), and another 100 beginning the 50-miler (2 loops). I anxiously awaited the start, sure that I forgot something, and then the clock ticked down to zero, and we were off. The course itself is a counter-clockwise loop and is 99% single track, so I fell in line with some other runners near the middle of the pack, and we made our way in the dark. Everyone was in really good spirits, and I was content to push forward and listen to the conversations around me. Many of the runners appeared to be from the St. Louis area (the race is put on by a St. Louis running group, the Slugs), and folks were talking about previous experiences on this particular trail. I knew going into the race that the course was single track, but it became clear pretty early that I had under-estimated the technical nature of the trail. It was certainly not as rocky as Flatrock, but I was not going to escape the constant bombardment of rocks and tree roots, combined with endless rolling hills and switchbacks. There was only one larger than average climb early in the race, but the route still managed 2,500 feet of elevation gain per loop.

Shivering by the light of the headlamp at the start! (Photo credit: Lani McKinney)

Shivering by the light of the headlamp at the start! (Photo credit: Lani McKinney)

Loop 1: Miles 0-25- feeling the adrenaline

In some ways, the first loop went by in a bit of a blur. We spent the first hour in the dark, so all of my concentration was focused on keeping my footing. We made it to the first aid station, around mile 5, as the sun was coming up, and I was able to briefly stop and take in my surroundings. It felt good to take the headlamp off, and my core had warmed up nicely, although my hands were still a bit cold. Aid stations are perfect for breaking up large groups a bit too, and I found myself with a bit more elbow room for the next segment, which was nice. I was feeling really good, easily running the downhills and flats, and tackling the hills with plenty of energy. I told myself I was not going to go out too fast, as I am oft prone to do, and at the time, I thought I was doing a really good job of holding back and remembering I needed to do this 4 times. The first 9 miles were definitely a technical challenge, and it became clear by the end of the loop that these miles were the most difficult on the course. Just before the aid station, there was a 3/10 mile section of asphalt which felt incredibly strange on my feet after they had taken a rocky beating for so long. This strange sensation only became more pronounced as the race went on.  Luckily, the epicurean and the rest of my crew were waiting for me at the mile 9 aid station (Huck’s Watering Hole). It was great to see them, and they gave me the once over to see if I needed anything, and I headed back out to tackle the remaining 16 miles. This was the only crew access point, other than the start/finish area (Jackson’s Island), so I knew I was on my own for a few hours.

There was one stream crossing on the route, and I came up on it almost immediately after leaving Huck’s Watering Hole. Luckily, the water levels were pretty low, so I was able to mostly step across on rocks although I still got a bit wet. My Altra Lone Peak 1.5s drained and dried pretty quickly, however, and I knew I had made the right choice with these more protective shoes. It was clear early on that my Dirty Girl gaiters were a good choice as well! I made my way to the Tom’s Canteen aid station at mile 15, still feeling good, and restocked on water. Each and every one of the aid stations was incredibly well stocked, and the volunteers were amazing! As soon as I arrived, they were asking what I needed, filling my soft flasks, and offering me a wide array of sweet and salty foods to keep my energy up. The last 10 miles, with another aid station in between, went really well. The trail in this section was quite runnable, and I was able to make good time on flatter and more open terrain, although the switchbacks continued. In all, the final 16 miles of the loop was somewhat easier to tackle, and much more open than the first 9 miles. Soon, of course, it would all blend together pretty thoroughly. I emerged from the forest and ran comfortably into Jackson’s Island, and everyone was waiting for me. I had covered the 25 miles in about 5 hours, and my legs were feeling really good. I shed my long sleeve shirt  and arm warmers, and my amazing crew restocked me with Tailwind, Honey stinger chews, and bodyglide. The sun was out, the air was warming, and it was an absolutely perfect day to be out on the trails. I couldn’t have asked for a better day as I waved goodbye to everyone and headed back out for loop 2.

Finishing up loop 1 (photo credit: Lani McKinney)

Finishing up loop 1 (photo credit: Lani McKinney)

Loop 2: Miles 26-50- Oh right, I have to keep running! 

My momentum continued to carry me into the next loop, and my legs were holding up nicely. I began to feel some fatigue as the miles ticked away, but that was to be expected regardless. I knew that the 5 hour mark was not sustainable for 25 miles, so I began making a more intentional effort to slow down even further. This became easier as I had more of the trail to myself, although I was still happily crossing paths with plenty of other folks. Slowing down meant I needed to be even more careful of my footing, as I wasn’t going at a normal pace. I managed to kick a few rocks and tree roots, but nothing too substantial. However, I was happy for the more structured Lone Peaks to protect my feet a bit. I knew the rocks and roots would be having plenty of other conversations with my toes as the day wore on, and although I’d never lost a toe on a run, I figured I stood the strongest chance yet in the Mark Twain National Forrest.

Ok, time to go again! (photo credit: Lani McKinney)

Ok, time to go again! (photo credit: Lani McKinney)

I rolled into Huck’s Watering Hole still feeling good and excited about passing the 50K mark. The trails were certainly beginning to make their mark on my feet but my legs were feeling good. Everyone was waiting for me, and filled up my bottles and nutrition. At this point, they had everything down to a science and it was fun to watch! They knew exactly what they were doing and all the right questions to ask. I drank some ginger ale and ate some pretzels and M & Ms, and was back out on the course in about 5 minutes. I hopped from rock to rock over the stream again, although I did manage to submerge one foot in the water before making it to the other side. The following 16 miles were all about patience, attention, and consistency. I had a much firmer grasp on the trail itself, and was comfortable being out there. However, I did manage to catch my right foot on a rock and in falling forward and catching myself, hyperextended my right hamstring. This definitely caused some pain and would end up giving me problems the rest of the race. I pushed through it though, and it didn’t slow me down all that much. I made my way back and forth on the constant switchbacks yet again, and by this time, they seemed to all bur together in the woods. I found myself thinking I knew where I was on many occasions, only to realize I was wrong. In the last few miles, I fell in step with another guy running the 100-miler and we had some nice conversations, which helped the time roll by that much quicker. He had gone out faster than he had wanted as well, so we were both in the same boat and focusing on slowing things down a bit. The added walking breaks felt good on my legs, and I was happy for the company.

Part of an amazing, attentive crew! (photo credit: Carla Danielson)

Part of an amazing, attentive crew! (photo credit: Carla Danielson)

I arrived at Jackson’s Landing around 5:00PM, which meant the second loop had taken me about 6 hours. This was a much more manageable time and I was still really happy with the progress I was making. Additionally, I was excited about being able to pick up my first pacer, and to have someone to run with and push me for the next 50 miles. I took a few more minutes at the aid station this time, ate and drank a bit more,  and chatted with everyone about how I was feeling. The first 50 miles were tough, but I was in good spirits. I restocked on nutrition, water in my bladder, and Tailwind in my soft flasks, and headed out for the third loop, accompanied by my first amazing pacer. Little did I know that those 9 miles would be the start of a battle with myself, and prove just how amazing my friends are…that, of course, is a story for the next post! Stay tuned 🙂

Finishing the second loop strong! It's a tad blurry because I'm clearly moving so fast ;) (photo credit: Lani McKinney)

Finishing the second loop strong! (photo credit: Lani McKinney)

Mandatory Rest

This past weekend was one of highs and lows. I began the weekend on Friday with a long morning run. The epicurean and I were heading up to Minneapolis early on Saturday morning, so I knew I needed to get my long run in beforehand. I met up with a friend and we tackled the pavement at 6AM. On our way back to drop him off before I kept going, we ran into another friend, so she hopped out of her car and joined us (I love running friends who are always up for some miles!). After dropping her off, I continued on for my remaining miles and finished quite content with my 30 miles for the morning! There’s no better way to start your day than with an energizing run and a cup of coffee to follow 🙂

Definitely an upgrade from my days at the Metrodome!

Definitely an upgrade from my days at the Metrodome!

On Saturday morning, we headed up to Minneapolis to catch our first live European futbol match! Manchester City was playing Olympiakos in the International Champions Cup at TCF Bank Stadium. As a U of M alumni, I had early access to tickets so we jumped on the opportunity! It was strange being back on campus after so many years (I’ll keep you guessing as to just how many) and the changes were a bit shocking. This was also my first time in TCF Bank stadium, which was truly exciting. It is a gorgeous outdoor stadium, and truly a stellar environment for U of M football, as well as a variety of other events. The stadium will be even busier this coming year, with the Vikings playing their home games there while their new stadium is being built. In some ways, it was a bit ironic that my first visit to the stadium was to watch a European futbol match, but I loved every minute of it. The sun was beating down on us, but it couldn’t have been a more beautiful day, and we were only a few rows back from the field. Both teams put on a fantastic show, and Olympiakos eventually won on penalty kicks after a 2-2 draw during regulation. It was an amazing experience, and a great way for both of us to ease the despair over the World Cup being over!

I hope this match is the first of many!

I hope this match is the first of many!

We stayed with my parents that evening, and then headed back early on Sunday morning. We needed to get back so we could pack and prepare for our yearly camping expedition up to the North Shore of Lake Superior. We look forward to this trip every year, and this year is especially exciting because we reserved a rustic, isolated hike-in campsite right on the shore with beautiful lake access. We stumbled across it last year while on a hike, and completely fell in love. Well, once we finished pulling out the camping gear and got most of our things organized, I packed up the items we wouldn’t be using and began to bring them back down to the basement. Then, as I was lifting a tub of gear, I felt a sharp and instantaneous pain in my lower back. I cringed in pain, and almost immediately was unable to stand. The epicurean rushed in and helped me to the living room, where I laid down on the floor with my legs in the air and felt wave after wave of pain rush over me.

All of a sudden, horrible thoughts came rushing into my head. What about our camping trip? What about our hikes and my trail running plans? What about my race in September? I have a training schedule to stick with and my race is so close! The emotions were pretty strong and I felt horrible for potentially ruining our yearly camping trip. For the rest of the day, I laid on the couch, and dreaded having to get up for any reason. I would gingerly shuffle across the floor, and randomly collapse into the epicurean’s arms to support myself because my back pain wouldn’t allow me to stand. I haven’t had many injuries in my life, running or otherwise, but this was definitely the most intense pain I had felt in quite some time. On top of that, I realized very quickly just how critical this area of your body is to all normal functioning. You can still get around with an injured foot, arm, wrist, or knee, but your back really holds everything together (duh!). I tried to avoid the pity party and think about worst-case scenarios but my mind has a way of conjuring up some rather elaborate images and scenarios. It was bad enough that I wasn’t able to go for my Sunday run, but I was worried about running at all in the next few weeks, as well as stressing out about our camping trip.

Enough said!

Enough said!

The rest of the evening was an exercise in minimalism. I focused on breathing, moving as little as possible, and being present in the moment so as not to send my thoughts into a tailspin. I slept on the couch that night since I clearly couldn’t make it up the stairs (better that than getting banished to the couch, eh?), and slept very little. I woke up the next morning, and my back had relaxed some, and I was able to walk, although quite gingerly. I made an appointment to see the doctor and kept my fingers crossed that it wasn’t as bad as I had considered. In the lower back, it seems that it is typically one of three things. It could be a pinched nerve, a slipped or herniated disk, or a muscle pull/strain. I was hoping for the latter of the three, and my own self-diagnosis suggested a muscle strain as well. Luckily, the doctor confirmed my suspicions. He prescribed a month of physical therapy, as well as some muscle relaxants. Over the last 24 hours, I have steadily improved, and have been able to get around much easier, so my progress has been steady. I’m still committed to our North Shore adventure, so I’m hoping my body will agree with me!

After today, it will have been 4 days of “rest”, or at least no running. This is the longest I have gone without running all year, and I’m certainly starting to get antsy. I’ve been saying for at least a month that I needed to scale back my training miles a bit, so perhaps this is the universe telling me to take it easy and not overwork myself. I’m hoping this period of mandatory rest will be just what I need to finish my training schedule strong and conquer the Mark Twain 100!

Flatrock 101K Race Report: A Tale of “DNF”

I’ve run quite a few races in the past few years, and many of them have been what I considered to be rather difficult. They included varied terrain, elevation changes, and weather conditions, and they all managed to challenge me in different ways. I’ve tackled everything from a 5K up to 105 miles, but I managed to skip over the 100K distance. My plan was to rectify that fact as I drove down to Independence, Kansas with a good friend for the Flatrock 101K this past weekend. I’ve had a solid spring training season, and my legs and endurance were ready to tackle just about anything. However, I’m not sure that any amount of training in Iowa could have prepared me for the most difficult trail course I’ve hiked, let alone run. Thus, this is a tale of my very first race DNF, and I couldn’t be more happy to call it just that.

Randy and I headed out from Ames on Friday morning, and after a few directional “miscalculations”, found our way to our campsite in Independence. We were both eager to stretch our legs after 8 hours in the car, and we met up with Randy’s brother, Ryan, at the site. He made the trek down from Colorado Springs pulling a trailer, so I guess we couldn’t complain too much, right? The race was located along the Elk River Hiking Trail and our campsite was just down the road, which was incredibly convenient. We headed over the start/finish area to check in and pick up our packets. This was a small race (49 registered participants), so we made our way to the aid tent, picked up our packets, and sat down for a pasta dinner provided by the race staff. We had a chance to chat with some of the volunteers and other participants, and get a bit more information about the trail itself. Things were looking pretty dry, and there were no huge hills but we were warned about the small but repetitive elevation changes. Folks mentioned that it was fairly rocky, but still runable, and we left optimistic and looking forward to the challenge.

The storms from the night before were still lingering at the start.

The storms from the night before were still lingering at the start.

We relaxed after dinner, and prepared our packs and drop bags for an early wake-up call. I decided to wear my Salomon pack, including hydration bladder, and carry a handheld bottle that I could keep full of water with electrolytes so I could rotate between the two. The pack is perfect for distances up to around 100 miles, as long as there are some aid stations in between. I decided to leave a drop bag at the start/finish area with my Hokas, a change of clothes, and some extra nutrition. The course was a double out-and-back, with manned aid stations around miles 3, 10, and 15, and unmanned stations with water in between.

The alarm went off at 4:30AM after a stormy and windy night, and the darkness and cool temps definitely made getting out of bed more of a challenge. I was happy we had the trailer to sleep in though, because tent camping would not have been ideal! The three of us slowly and quietly went about the business of getting dressed and having some breakfast before heading down the road to the start. I decided to run in my Altra Lone Peaks for the first 50K and that proved to be an excellent choice. We got to the starting line a little before 6AM, with a scheduled 6:30AM start. It was cool, and not terribly windy in the morning, but the forecast was for a hot day with temps reaching close to 90 degrees and plenty of wind. The time before the start gave us a chance to wake up our legs a bit, and do our best not to psych ourselves out. Although I’d never tackled the 100K distance, I felt pretty confident, and was excited for the challenge.

 

Dropping off our drop bags before the race.

Dropping off our drop bags before the race.

Just before the start, we were joking about the anti-climactic start of most ultras as the gun goes over and everyone begins to slowly shuffle and try not to head out too fast. Sure enough, that scene played out a few minutes later, and the 40+ runners shuffled down an access road about a quarter of a mile to the trailhead, and we were off. I’ve struggled with going out to fast before, and I was determined not to make the same mistake today, so I took it pretty easy from the get go and tried to stick with the pack. As soon as we hit the trail, it was clear that the “rocky” description was quite accurate, and perhaps a bit of an understatement. We hadn’t rolled along the rocky trail more than a mile when we reached a drop-off that forced the pack to stop and slowly descend, one at a time. This was followed by even more rocks, both protruding from the ground and flowing along it like a stoney river hiding the age of the land. I reached the first manned aid station around mile 3, and I could already tell that this course was going to be more difficult than any trails I had encountered, and certainly more treacherous than anything I’d found in Iowa. You could have mistaken the trail for a dried up-stream bed through a rock quarry. Little did I know that I was still underestimating the journey ahead.

Do we have any idea what we are getting ourselves into?

Do we have any idea what we are getting ourselves into?

We weaved through cliffs and bluffs that had been carved out of the land over millions of years, and it was visually stunning to constantly disappear around a rocky corner and not know what to expect. The nearby lake followed us on the left, the sound of waves crashing on the shore faintly echoing along the trail as the wind whistled through the trees and rocks. I have no doubt that this was a visually stunning trail and there were a multitude of places to stop and enjoy the views. However, the technical nature of the constantly shifting rocks, tree roots, and stones hidden by leaves meant that my gaze was firmly directed at the ground, never more than a few feet in front of me.

All smiles before the trailhead!

All smiles before the trailhead!

It was a welcome relief to hit the next full aid station around mile 10, and as with every stop, the volunteers were absolutely fantastic! We had heard some talk of the trail becoming more “runable” after this aid station as we headed towards the turnaround point at mile 15.7 or so, and this upcoming leg of the trek boosted my spirits. The first two or three miles out of the second aid station proved to be just as rocky, hilly, and treacherous as the first 10, but things did open up at bit after that, and I was able to gain a bit of speed on some flatter and less rocky sections. Mind you, “flatter and less rocky” is quite relative, and even these sections were still quite technical. I rolled into the turnaround point (1/4 done) aid station in around 3:20, and was quite pleased with the time I made considering the terrain. I took a few minutes to fuel up, rehydrate, and pack some more nutrition for the road, and then turned back around.

flatrock101-2014-1780

I spent the next five miles running with a guy I met just as we were coming into the aid station turnaround. We had some fantastic conversations about various other ultras, and he became clear very quickly that he was much more experienced, both on this trail, and in ultra-running as a whole. He kept our pace brisk and I think I felt some energy return as we made our way back to the start. It was great to pick his brain about other races I’ve been thinking of taking on, and the conversation was the perfect example of why I love ultra-running so much. It doesn’t matter if you’ve known each other for years, or you just met. You become friends quickly, and everyone is so giving of their time and knowledge. I let him go on after we stopped at the next aid station (ok, he took off and I couldn’t keep up), and it became very clear that navigating the loose rocks was becoming more and more difficult. At around mile 20, I could feel myself hitting a wall, and I slowed down a bit to conserve more energy. As I was working my way around the bluffs, I tripped on a rock and cracked my right knee pretty hard. I was actually quite surprised it took me that long to fall, and I paused to shake off the pain and make sure I didn’t do any permanent damage. The remainder of the journey back to the start and 50K mark was a bit of a blur. As I rolled into the starting area, I couldn’t help but think that this would have been a great 50K race. Unfortunately, I still had another 50K to go!

flatrock101-2014-3065

Ryan rolled into the starting area a few minutes after me, and we exchanged an initial look that told us both everything we needed to know about how the other felt. The first 50K had been hellish, and there were already points where the only thought that comforted me was pretending that I was done. I spent about 20 minutes at the aid station, eating some more substantial food and getting some more fluids down. The first 50K had taken about 7:20, and the midday sun was now out in full force, along with the almost 90 degree heat. Ryan and I begrudgingly agreed to head back out for the second half and stick together to push each other. We were both really feeling it, but still left determined to finish.

One step at a time!

One step at a time!

The remaining 15+ miles were a combination of short running bursts and power-hiking through the ridiculous terrain. By this point, it was clear to me that calling this a trail run or race led to some pretty lofty assumptions about the ability to actually run. There was definitely more walking and power hiking happening by everyone at the race the brief conversations and passing glances made it clear that everyone was suffering just as much as I was by mid-afternoon. We got to the mile 10 aid station in pretty good spirits, but feeling extremely fatigued. My knees and ankles were throbbing, and I might as well have strapped sharp rocks to the soles of my feet by that point. We charged out of the aid station, and pushed each other into a few decent miles. Then the rigor of the day began to set in.

In any ultra, a run/walk combination is necessary for a majority of participants. Thus, walking is to be expected, and I’ve come to embrace it as a part of the sport and the experience. However, as we pushed onward, our walk breaks became longer and slower. We seemed to alternate discussing various levels of pain or localized discomfort, and cursing the course in about as many ways as we could. Then we started running the math on projected finishing times. The race had a very generous 24-hour cutoff, but that meant running through the night, obviously. We were still well ahead of the cut-off pace, and had plenty of time to get the race done. However, our legs became increasingly sore, and our knees screamed louder and louder. Most of all, we had already been out on the trail around 12 hours, and the sun would be setting soon. Based on generous calculations, this meant we had about 7 hours of hiking this trail in the dark to look forward to moving forward. This trail was dangerous in broad daylight. Even with a headlamp, the thought of navigating it at night didn’t sit well with me!

This...over and over again!

This…over and over again!

Around mile 46, the comments we were exchanging aligned and we made the decision to drop from the race. As we were crossing a barbed-wire fence via a set of metal step, I may have even uttered “next stop, the DNF station” without even realizing it (as opposed to “aid station”, of course!). We made it to the turnaround point, having completed 3/4 of the race, and let the volunteers know we would not be going on. They were nice about asking us several times before sending the official word, but I was definitely done. My legs had taken quite a beating, and the thought of going back out there in the dark brought no joy to my mind. Above all else, I run and race because I love to be out there. I love running and taking in the environment around me. I love sharing the experience with others when possible. I probably could have headed back out, and slogged through the 6 or 7 hours it would have taken me to finish, but it didn’t have that joy, that appeal, anymore.

Ryan and I- relentless forward progress!

Ryan and I- relentless forward progress!

Every ultra runner needs that first DNF feather in their cap, and I knew that it was only a matter of time before I earned mine. I enjoyed (almost) all of my time out on the trail, made some new friends, and still managed almost 50 miles. When we arrived at that final aid station, that volunteers laughed that we were calling it quits out there, as most folks had apparently pulled the plug at the 50K mark. In all, only 22 of the 49 participants had finished the race, which was the ultimate testament to the difficult of the course and the day. I’m not going to lie and say that I haven’t had brief moments of regret for not changing my mind and suffering through the last chunk of the race. However, this was first DNF I feel like I can be proud of, and I’ve got plenty of other races coming up to keep my motivation high.

The “Flatrock 101K Trail Race” was anything but flat, ALL rock, and more power hike than race. The finishers buckle alluded me, but I walked away with some amazing memories and a great first-DNF story. Now, I can turn my focus to a busy month of races, including my next stab at the 100K distance at the end of May. Bring on the miles, and bring on the trails, but keep me out of Independence!

I think he had the right idea the whole time.

I think he had the right idea the whole time.

Random Pre-101K Musings

It’s been a bit of a whirlwind spring! My training has been going really well, and my mileage has stayed close to my self-assigned schedule. I’ve kept my mileage up, and added in some additional strength and conditioning activity that will hopefully come in hand later this year. However, I have yet to toe the line at a race. For whatever reason, my schedule just worked out this way, and it seems like an eternity ago that I lined up in Arizona. This is my round about way of saying that I’m itching to get back to “racing”! As I watched the live coverage of the Boston Marathon yesterday and yelled at the computer as Meb made the final turn down Boylston, I realized just how much energy I get from the race environment. I never go out to win a race, but there is just something about being surrounded by other like-minded runners, all setting off on an adventure, that brings me a sense of joy that not much else can equal. This coming weekend, I’m heading down to Independence, KS for the Flatrock 101K and to kick off my spring race season, and I couldn’t be more excited. However, a few other thoughts have been rumbling around in my head, probably because I’ve had the time to let them rumble!

 

Wind Training– I’ve gotten in some good hill training, but more of my resistance work seems to have come from the wind this spring. Winter and “spring” in Iowa leaves much to be desired, but there’s something to be said for gutting out an 8:00 pace into a 40mph headwind. I’m not going to be dealing with any major elevation changes in the coming months, but I’m confident that I’m ready for much of what will come my way.

At least I get to turn around at some point, right?

At least I get to turn around at some point, right?

Hoka One One Decisions– I picked up the Stinson Evo Trail shoes a few months ago and I have over 100 miles on them at this point. I bought them with ultras in mind, and trail ultras at that. They are certainly the most comfortable shoes I’ve worn, but I’m still not entirely sold on them for my long distance endeavors. I’m not entirely sure, but I think the fact that I’ve been running in much lighter shoes (Montrail Fluid Flex, Mizuno Wave Elixir, Sayonora) has left the Hokas feeling a bit heavy. My legs have felt more sluggish than normal on some longer runs. However, I know it’s a different story when you are out on the trail and have been at it for hours upon hours. I’m fairly certain I’ll bust them out this weekend, but timing will be key.

When will I unleash them?

When will I unleash them?

Gear Considerations– I’m always thinking about the best gear choices for the run, and this race is no different. My biggest decision will be whether or not to wear my Salomon race vest, or stick with the more minimal Ultraspire Quantum race belt and a couple of handheld bottles. The course is obviously supported so I’ll have access to water and nutrition choices. However, the additional options that the vest provides might be worth it. I’ll give my Petzl Nao headlamp some work as well, which should make for some interesting trail miles!

Trail Trepidations– I live in the middle of Iowa. It’s been a long winter and there aren’t many accessible trails to begin with around here. This means I’ve spent far less time on the trails than I would have liked coming into this race. On top of this, the course description makes it sound as though this will be a rather rocky and technical course. My road miles will keep my legs going, but I’m going to have to snap into trail navigation mode pretty quickly to avoid spending some quality time on the ground!

This looks like fun!!

This looks like fun!!

This is the second running of the Flatrock 101K. The winning time last year was 12:07, which is not terribly fast. It’s a small field, and I’m sure it’s not drawing a huge crop of elite runners. However, this time still leaves me wondering just how long I’m going to be out there! No matter how long it takes, I’m wicked excited, and looking forward to having a great time doing what I love, and soaking up all of the energy that comes with a race environment.

Race Recap: Living History Farms 2013

I should probably use the term “race” very loosely when describing this iconic Iowa off-road running event. However, what this race lacks in a traditional sense, it more than makes up for in a crazy, friendly, energetic, history-filled experience! This year marked the 35th anniversary of this piece of Iowa culture and history, and I couldn’t have been happier to don my superhero mash-up costume, and toe the line with close to 6,000 of my closest friends!

Nestled on several acres of undeveloped natural habitat just outside Des Moines, Living History Farms was created to as  “an interactive outdoor history museum which educates, entertains and connects people of all ages to Midwestern rural life experiences.” For the last 35 years, folks have been running this cross-country race which resembles many of the trail races I’ve done far more than a high school cross-country meet! This was my 4th time participating in this event, and it lived up to expectations as always. From the beginning, the organizers sum up the race with some common questions:

Will it be cold? Probably!

Will I get wet? Probably!

Will I get dirty? Probably!

Do I need gloves? Yes!

Exactly how far is it? 7 miles

I arrived around 8:30 and parked, with plenty of time for the 9:00AM start. In previous years, I’ve gotten down there earlier for some tailgating, but it’s been a busy fall season, and planning was minimal. I believe it had warmed up to 10 degrees by the time I got there, which was clearly balmy by November standards in Iowa (in actuality, the temps were unseasonably cold, but they seem to do that a lot!). I found some friends on the trek from the lot to the starting line, and took in the scenery as I made my way to the giant corral teeming with costume-clad runners. One of the best parts of this race is the fact that runners dress up to the extreme, sometimes more elaborately than even the most extravagant Halloween parties. The temperature is never a deterrent for exposed skin, but plenty of folks find costumes with a bit more fur for warmth. I could spend an entire post dedicated solely to the diversity of costumes, and they truly make the race. When else is slogging through creek beds and corn fields in a giant yeti costume acceptable? Ok, so maybe filming one of those documentaries would be an exception, but I’m still convinced that Bigfoot is legit!

Cold and ready to run!

Cold and ready to run!

The “gun” went off at 9AM, and the packed crowd surged forward. Now, I indicated earlier that it was a bit of a stretch to call this a “race”, and that is mainly due to the mechanics of squeezing thousands of people onto a very narrow path. Unless you are at the front of the pack and take off sprinting, you are going to do your fair share of walking and dodging other bodies along the route. Needless to say, this would not be the place to be during the Zombie apocalypse!

I warmed up fairly quickly once I started moving, and proceeded along the snow and ice-packed trail. You spend the first few miles winding through relatively open fields, and then the fun begins. As you hit the wooded portion of the course, you are greeted by the first of seven (or eight…I lost count) water crossings. I made the mistake of bothering to try to stay relatively dry by walking on walks across the stream, but the ice-covered rocks had other ideas, as did the next stream, which was wider, deeper, and only about 50 yards further down the trail. In previous years, these water crossings have ranged from bone dry to completely flooded. The water levels weren’t insane this year, but certainly high enough to get me nice and soaked up to my knees or so.

Super Hero Mash-Up!

Super Hero Mash-Up!

Running on cold, wet feet isn’t high on my list of favorite activities, but somehow I always find myself enjoying it during this race. We made our way up and down steep, dirt-covered hills, sometimes moving up under our own foot power and other times relying on ropes to pull ourselves up and help those around us along the way. Part of the enjoyment of this race is truly the friendly environment. Everyone is out there to have a good time, and always willing to lend you a hand to help you up our down, no matter how muddy you might end up in the process. The ground was actually cold enough this year, that even with a light dusting of snow, the dirt stayed pretty solid and held the mud at bay.

The entire route twists and turns for seven miles, but it always seems to be the quickest seven miles I ever run, despite it actually being the slowest seven miles I’ll ever run. This year was no exception. As I reached the last water crossing and pulled myself up for the final stretch, it hardly seemed like I had been out there for over an hour already. Everyone was cheering and reveling in the delight of a wonderful romp through the woods as we crossed the finish line. There were even medals this year to commemorate the 35th anniversary, and then we headed up to the excellent post-race spread for various delicious snacks. The cold reality revisited me fairly quickly and I was ready to take off my soaked shoes and socks and thaw out my hands, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t stop smiling the entire drive home. Another enjoyable LHF off-road race is in the books and I can start planning my costume for next year!

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