One evening, several weeks ago, I was sitting in my basement under the influence of lack of sleep, debit card in my hand, and my wife was safely at rest upstairs. Glowing in front of me was the holy website of trail running; ultrasignup.com. The date was December 1, 2016 I do believe, and as the time rolled around I started to scroll through the different races to look at going into the new year.
One stuck out to me; The Hawk. Now, previous encounters with this event have left me dazed, confused, and at a loss of words for what aid stations look like and operate as. Needless to say it was fun, but could you imagine actually running in the event? I know I couldn’t!
That’s when the debit card possessed me.
That’s when I found “The Hawk 2017”.
That’s when I clicked “register”.
That’s when I fought back with all my might! And against the grains of muscles in my fingers I did not choose “The Hawk 100 Mile” race!
…I chose the 50 mile instead.
Now, nine months from now, I’ll be lacing up and heading out for my first 50 mile trail race (no take-backs in the trail running world). This course, as noted before, is maintained by a local trail running group; the Trail Hawks.
It has been 5 months since my last brush of
death fun with this group in the wilderness of Clinton Lake. Without a doubt I had forgotten what was wise, and with The Hawk looming in the near future, I had to get to work training. Over the past several weeks I have slowly been inching up my weekly mileage. The weekday miles stay relatively the same, but the Saturday long runs are getting…well…longer. Mix that reality in with the fact that it is in the dead of winter in the middle of God’s frozen tundra, and the desperation to train outside has been rather dismal to say the least.
This is when the Trail Hawks came to my rescue. Knowing the new year was upon us, many of us eating in a way that would make any aid station blush, without necessarily the miles to support it, the Trail Hawks devised a unique plan new to me.
They called it the LTH Frozen Ass (FA).
I kid you not, this is a real thing.
The concept of the FA is simple. The group rented a cabin at Clinton Lake, along The Hawk course. They would start running at noon and would stop running at midnight. You could come as you’d like, log as many ‘loops’ as you please, eat some “100 Mile Chili”, crack a few jokes, freeze a few body joints, and head home for the day.
This was not a race. There was no ‘swag’ to receive. There was no reason to sign up.
I signed up. I thought that I could head out on Saturday, log a few loops, hit my mileage goal, and head home. The group is kind and caring, plus it is cold enough outside that no one would smell my rotting corpse for months.
Then it snowed.
Also, as noted prior, running in the snow and my own existence is not a safe combination. It has resulted in injury and near-death experiences*. However, I am a trail runner, miles have to be met, and I don’t want to be the person being made fun of on the Trail and Ultra Runner’s Facebook page for not being able to handle the weather. My wife and I, armed with research, our wits, and 36 3’8 #8 screws, screwed our shoes in a way that would impress even Pinhead and the rest of the Hellraiser crew.
After straining a neck muscle, throwing a screwdriver, and crying about the neglect I witnesses as a child in my shop class in high school, my wife assisted me with getting the screws into my shoes. With our new android gear in tow, we departed to Clinton Lake.
When you show up at a FA there are a few things to note:
With our life’s signed over; my wife and I took off for our first loop. At just under three miles, the loop is a nice rolling format with snow, ice, and eery silence of death lurking behind you. Not to mention Gary is hiding in the woods taking random pictures of you for the Trail Hawks….just to keep you on your toes. We walked/jogged the first lap. She went to the cabin to warm up. I kept moving. The reality was, due to our late start, I had to get six loops in on Saturday. By 2:00 PM I had completed one. This meant, knowing my speed, that by the sixth loop I would be in the dark.
Thankfully, during the second loop I noted that it was ‘warm’ by Kansas standards. 24 degrees with the sun felt great, thawed the snow, and turned part of the course into mud. Again, I can’t express how grateful I am for (my wife) putting screws in my shoes.
At mile six I noted something strange, a whip like pain was searing across the back of my right Achilles. Because I had runners brain already at this point I didn’t stop to look down, I just kept running. Unless my Achilles shreds apart, I can still move and get in my loops.
After completing my second loop I looked down and found one of the most fascinating, evil things my shoes could have ever done. As an amateur I run with my shoes laces out. This means that the ends of my laces accumulate snow and ice as I trudge through the snow and ice. Momentum and gravity, two wicked things in the world of running, would have those laces swing like a possessed Skip-It (where my 90’s people at?), and smack the back of my leg over and over and over. Not to mention, like a debris field from a tornado in a trailer park, these little ice balls of Satan would gather leaves, sticks, small children, and almost got Gary twice and would just add to the torment through the woods.
I think I have a bruise.
By the fifth loop my wife had called it a day and was wisely sitting in a warm cabin, eating warm chili, having warm conversations with other warm people. I was outside. As I approached the halfway point of the fifth loop I noticed what science had cautioned me about all day. The sun was beginning to set. Based on my thermometer; I started that loop at 24 degrees; I ended that loop at 14 degrees. The buff that I wear around my neck to keep cold air from freezing my chest in motion? Frozen to the scruff on my neck that I had been too lazy to shave off earlier.
The sun was going down. There were articles of clothing frozen to my body. Even Gary had gone in for the night. Everything in my body told me that I shouldn’t go out for another loop.
That’s when my wife motivated me. Stopping in the cabin, she looked at me, in front of the awesome Trail Hawk runners, and said, “You’re not going out, right? I figured you’d be done by now.” She said it with this slight glimmer in her eye, a smile almost formed, my body reacted with, “She thinks you’re done. She thinks you can’t go again. Remember when she abandoned you at the aid station? Go get your headlamp, son!”
Equipped with another layer of clothes, moving around like the little kid from A Christmas Story, and head lamp lit I took off for the final, sixth loop of the LTH FA. I was the only person on the loop. No one could hear my cries if they ever would have came out of my frozen vocal chords. The temperature was down to 10 degrees. There was no breeze, no movement, no life. The land of Narnia had to gone to bed for the night. Through the course I had memorized at this point, I just kept moving through the woods. Pushing the fear of certain death to the back of my head, I tried to enjoy the reality that it was only me and the woods on this snowy eve.
Just under a half mile left I noticed that the moon was out that night. The end of the course ran into a clearing along the shoreline of the lake. I did something that allowed me to feel more like I belonged as a trail runner, and less about me trying to be a healthy person going out for a workout.
I turned off my headlamp.
While possibly one of the dumber things I’ve done while being alone, in the woods, in winter, in the dark, with a dead cell phone (I learned that later); the experience was mystical. Almost traversing back in time hundreds of years, trekking through the woods being aided by nothing but the moonlight from above was clearly a soul awakening experience.
Kicking a frozen hedgeball (Osage Orange) shortly after brought the headlamp back on.
After six loops, five hours, and layers of frozen clothes I bid farewell to the woods and made my way to the cabin. The “100 Mile Chili” by Gary tasted amazing, the local college basketball team was playing, and the cabin was full of laughter and great stories…and a surprising amount of grapefruit.
Did I get a shirt for participating? Nope. Did I receive a medal? Nope. Was there even a race that took place? Not at all.
Instead, there was just community, the creepy darkness in the woods, and a moment allowing me to learn how far I am willing to push in order to grow.
*Actually had nothing to do with running. Only had to do with trying to walk down an icy sidewalk. Read at your own discretion at my personal website.