09/23/2017 UPDATE: For clarity purposes there needs to be an adjustment to this story. I believe that I have not been faithful with the full essence of this race. Locally there have been a few questions that have floated around in terms of my final six miles of the race, and for the sake of a weighing conscience, and for the transparency being known in the community the adjustment is near the bottom of the story in bold. I apologize to the trail running community for delaying in the transparency during the The Hawk…
God allowed others to compete in a relay race with my life…
Somehow, I came out the winner…
It has taken me days to find ways to unhinge my metaphorical jaws in ways to make sense, make light, make fun of the events that transpired over the past weekend. Against all things that should exist in life, I managed to finish my first 50 mile trail race. I went back to where so many of my adventures started a year ago; The Hawk at Clinton Lake, Kansas.
Reflecting back on the adventure that started Saturday I almost chuckle and laugh out loud at the vicious, voracious cycle my life has taken since I started to ‘play in the dirt’. A year ago I wound up volunteering in an event in which I knew one person. I did not know who I was volunteering with, I did not know who was running around in the middle of the night, I just knew that I was supposed to serve and watch as my one friend completed her first 100 mile race.
I know jokingly I had talked about one day being on the same course also doing something similarly stupid.
I had absolutely no idea it would come so soon, and emotionally it would wind up meaning so much to me.
I apologize in advance if this lacks humor. Just go warm up some leftover spaghetti, and let my brain attempt to crank away at this race recap, in the format of one of the craziest, symbolic relay races you’ll ever read about.
The week leading up to The Hawk started in possibly one of the worst ways. It started with a sneeze, a student who refused to use a tissue, and by Wednesday I was shaking with a throbbing headache. The week leading into the biggest race of my life, and somehow I managed to pull the straw of becoming sick with a seasonal cold. Naturally, I contacted Kristen, who has kept me from dying on multiple occasions over the past year, and her response was exactly what I feared…
Running will help clear up your head a bit.
I was not getting out of this race. Realizing that my attempt was futile I settled for second best; I called into school that night and took my first ever sick day the Thursday before The Hawk. Between old school anime seasons and wadded up tissues in the corner, I laid in my bed, heaped in blankets and sweat; cursing in my mind that this was going to be hard. The first hurdle had been set, and I had managed to do my best in trying to clear it…I smashed right through the thing, fell face first, licked the rubber with my tongue, cried in my heart, and knew my life was soon going to be over.
When Friday rolled around I left school immediately, snagged my wife and camper, and took off for our campsite. It had been decided that with a 6:00 AM start an hour away from our house, camping may be a solid option. We pulled in, swallowed approximately 500 gnats, and made our way to packet pickup.
Packet pickup looked like a mix between Woodstock and a Sunday morning Garfield cartoon strip. People with long hair, no hair, pants, short shorts, tank tops, throwback shirts to a 100 they ran 5 years ago, and lasagna permeated the air. The race directors gave us a quick preview of the exciting race that was coming in less than twelve hours and stepped away for us
prisoners runners to enjoy our last meal. The veterans were laughing, the rookies were shaking, and overall the atmosphere had the makings of a Normandy invasion.
Deep down everyone was secretly scared to death.
After talking and crying to “The Legend”, I slumped into my camper, listened to my wife’s fear, swallowed nearly another gallon of water, two NyQuil, and set my alarm for 4:30 AM.
At 2:00 AM I awoke in a NyQuil fog to silence, minus my wife’s calming, soothing, methodical snoring. The world was still, I world had paused, the world knew that the end was coming for me and it was offering up all of what little time it had left.
I STAYED AWAKE FOR ANOTHER TWO HOURS IN MY BED SNIVELING WITH THE REALIZATION THAT I COULD NOT ESCAPE MY OWN DESTINY.
By 4:30 AM I stepped into the bathroom to brush my teeth one last time, and prayed that last night’s lasagna would shift through my bowels. In almost comedic fashion, while brushing my teeth, the door kicked open and a man who I can only assume eats pre-workout for breakfast busted in the restroom.
WOO! It’s go time! You ready man! Let’s do this!
He didn’t even brush his teeth, he just yelled and stepped back out of the restroom into the starry night.
Shaking from fear of such neighbors I swallowed some toothpaste, rinsed my face, tried to punch the mirror, and started to get my running gear on.
Execution day was here.
First moment of excitement; wearing a speedo with actual pant legs. Being as how I
refuse to go into a single race without breaking at least one unspoken rule; I chose trail running rule #32 to ignore; do not try new gear on race day. I had just received a pair of experimental compression shorts that swore by their ability to not chafe*, and also had no seams. Sucking in my gut, praying to God, I hoisted these leggings onto my torso. Adjusting into my best impression of Michael Phelps I threw my singlet on, grabbed my pre-packed…pack, and headed to the start/finish line.
The moment I stepped near the start/finish line was the minute God handed off the baton to the first competitor; Rick. Rick, photographer with Mile 90, who has seen me way too much this year, pulled me aside to grab a quick photo. It has almost become tradition to somehow get a photo with him no matter what race or state I am currently in. Rick looks
like an American assassin whose glare would make a bullet to the brain seem more desirable. He is terrifying…and then he talks. You listen to him, see him smile, listen to him laugh, and even though he’s a photographer there is something about him that just puts your mind at ease.
Rick had an effortless handoff to Misty at the sound of the horn. For the first 13 miles Misty, one of the first people to hang out with me in the dirt last year…EVER!…stayed with me through the woods. We nailed our aid station, stayed for 30 seconds, grabbed our food, and were out. Misty and others who I had spent countless Saturday mornings with, kept me moving at a perfect clip in the early morning hours. I managed to achieve a personal record in time on the first 13 miles.
At the second aid station, West Park Road, Misty flipped the baton to Ben. Ben came through Psycho Psummer earlier this year, and exclaimed to me (volunteering at the time)…
Stop doing that crazy mountain s*#!
He pulled up next to me along the highest climb of the race, and we just moved in the
same motion. Make no mistake, Ben is 500% faster than I am. He is an ultra runner, but he chose to stay with me for a few miles. We talked about our love for the mountains, love for running, and how great the trail running community really is. I was feeling on top of the world; I was keeping a comfortable pace with a real runner! I was finally doing it. We were running and talking together, coming back up on another group of runners, when Ben said something that caught my ear.
Oh yeah. It was just a small heart procedure.
Why was I running so well with Ben? Because he had just had a ‘minor’ heart operation! Here I am trying to keep pace with this guy, and he’s just grateful his ticker is still ticking. Humble pie truly tastes so, so bitter at times.
After Ben and company moved forward I was able to hang out in the woods with myself while keeping my eyes on three ladies in front of me, as strange as that sounds. Ben, unknowingly, handed off to a trio from the local Trail Hawk organization that I had spent time running with, time volunteering with, and just time listening to them share their stories. They are the definition of ‘love for running’. They run and do crazy things because they just love to move in the woods. They are not extremist, they do not hang out in the mountains, they just run for the beauty of it. They kept my soul calm and occupied for a solid six miles heading into Land’s End aid station. They may never know it, but just knowing they were in front of me and laughing, that kept me moving one step at a time.
At Land’s End I sat down for the first time; 20 miles into the race. The aid station crew, including a crazy man I had once watched run into an aid station like an airplane on his 100 mile race, grabbed my pack and like a pit crew worked on my bladder because it had managed to get stuck shut. I enjoyed the ability to catch my breath, refocus, and just take in the moment. It is a strange sensation when you’re the runner and you’ve been so used to being the volunteer. You almost feel guilty, until you try to open your pack and realize your fingers are covered in so much sweat that you can’t get anything open. Volunteers are the angels runners don’t always deserve, but definitely need in order to survive.
From the trio of ladies, to Gary at Land’s End, the handoff found its way into one of the stranger hands of the day; Dan. Dan was a man from St. Louis that I found in the final two miles of the first loop. We both hiked it back into the start area. What was strange about Dan was the fact that Dan knew of me. He had volunteered at Shawnee Hills 100 a few weeks prior at an aid station along the course. While pacing a random runner, I went through his aid station twice. Somehow, through poor choice, we both wound up on the same trail together in the middle of Kansas. We were both grateful for the opportunity, and also understanding that what we were trying to accomplish was not an easy task, and potentially very stupid.
From Dan at the start line, the baton finally found its way into the hands of one of the most prolific, monumental people in my life; Leia. I found her at start/finish manning the aid station. I could have cried. The temperature was getting a lot warmer than many of us had predicted, runners were struggling, and I was extremely nauseous; something I had never experienced in a race. The only food I could have kept down at that point was gels from Honey Stinger…even the mandarin flavored ones. Even Tailwind was making me sick; resulting in just Ginger Ale in my UltrAspire flask like a hungover frat member. I looked at her, and I am sure I looked absolutely pathetic, and…trying not to sob…said…
My stomach hurts. I can’t cool down. I’m really struggling and I don’t know what to do.
Part of me was so relieved to tell her, because Leia would know exactly what to do in this situation. Part of me was devastated to tell her because I was struggling, and I was failing my mission to run 50 miles. Leia, if I am being brutally honest, is on a very short list of people that I so desperately want to impress. She is the runner I want to be like, the human I want to mimic, the goal that I want to strive for. Partly because I saw her run her first 100 the year prior (to the date), and partly because she has been a huge part of my running success. The baton of this relay race was in good hands. After a cheese and bread sandwich, some ‘junk ice’, and my pack refilled with water and food; Leia was sure to kick me out and send me back for my second loop.
The world needs more Leia’s.
From the start line back to Land’s End the heat finally got me. The rocks around me were spinning, I could not get my eyes to focus like a busted iPhone camera, and I was severely hurting. On top of that there were these footsteps that I kept hearing right behind me that were driving me absolutely insane. The heat does that. In the first opening I stepped to the side to allow the crazed runner to pass, and what do I find?
I found Michelle.
Michelle had been hiking behind me since the start line on our second lap. I knew Michelle from another hellacious run; the GOATz Gravel Classic. Michelle was a GOATz runner, and had come down to hang around in the woods for a few fun filled hours. Michelle talking about her life, children, job with AAA, and moving to Omaha years ago kept me sober enough to make it back to Land’s End. Upon reaching our destination Michelle continued her trek of greatness.
I saw Gary at Land’s End and I sat down.
I still do not know how he knew it. But Gary Henry knew immediately that I did not have enough calories in my system. My bottles got filled, and then the next thing I knew there was a bowl of boiled potatoes in my lap. I started to slowly eat them, thinking of how many of my students would be laughing at the Irish guy eating potatoes**, and I started to feel better. I must have crashed on my calorie plan because food, while sounding terrible, continued to wake me up, wake me up, and wake me up with each aid station. Upon sitting at the station and watching runners come in, I saw the next person to step up to God’s relay with my life.
The same soul that got me to Texas, fixed my feet, and filmed me finishing my first ever ultramarathon in February of this year at Rocky Raccoon 50K, wound up next to me at the same aid station along the shoreline of Clinton Lake. I had this sudden realization that Megan is strong and kind enough that she’d keep me moving if I got out of the chair. I asked her if I could go with her, and she said that I should go ahead and start and she’d catch up.
I ran my fastest two miles of my second lap after that aid station. However, miles into the stretch Megan was nowhere to be found. I blame long legs. I turned on the music on my phone, and just enjoyed running God’s relay by myself for a while. My stomach was calm, my legs were fresh, and the breeze was blowing. I wasn’t fast, but I was moving. Megan caught up with 13 miles left in the race.
With 5.5 miles left before our final aid station; Megan and I trekked through the dark woods, hoping that it would start to cool off. It never did. My black shorts were now two tones of white from the amount of salt that I had lost. In five miles I had managed to eat two cheese quesadillas, learn about the band M83, and listen to a runner belch in a way that middle school boys would clap…yell..and blush in awkwardness. Megan brought joy to my life, and got me six miles from the finish line.
Then, in the stillness of the night, sitting at Land’s End, the anchor of this mindless, eternal, 50 mile relay showed their face.
The lady I saw crush a 50 mile race three weeks prior, the lady that I nearly died on gravel with in the early summer, the same runner that I almost drowned with as her pacer…as a complete stranger…in April, was there for me. God could not have picked a better anchor out of the entire bunch.
I didn’t have the energy to hug her, but I wanted to. Brandy, who had already completed
her 50 miles, found me at Land’s End with ginger cola (thank you Pepsi). She looked exhausted, but she smiled, was so kind, and gave me what I needed to journey through the hardest six miles of my life. Additionally, Brandy laced up and in one way or another ‘carried me’ for the final six miles of the course. I am thankful that my wife had trumped my level of intelligence and had checked with the race director on allowing this to take place, as this would be something outside the guidelines of the race rules, and I had failed to take the appropriate steps prior to the race to ensure that this would be allowed. If it had not been for my wife thinking clearly (after running her first marathon previously in the day) myself and Brandy could have been facing disqualification because I had not followed the race rules. Graciously the race directed permitted “The Legend” to join me for the final miles of the race. At mile 46 I started dry-heaving; another first, Brandy reminded me that we were not starting the ‘vomiting game’ this close to the finish line. At mile 48 I was doubled over, trying to catch my breath, and hearing my heart nearly explode in my right ear. “The Legend”, although being completely exhausted, never walked away. She found ways to find laughter, find dancing, and find ways to compare which of us were more stubborn in the September evening heat.
At mile 49.9 “The Legend” broke away from me at this point
of this of the relay and yelled, “Runner coming!”, as I started to painfully jog my way into the finish line. At mile 50 Rick yelled, “SMILE!”, as he snapped a final shot of me ending this race. The night was old, the day was gone, and my first 50 mile race was in the books.
Upon reflection; there is no way I could have ran this race by myself. Ironically, this is the first race that I have spent the majority of the mileage with at least one other person. That has never happened before. Realistically, I don’t deserve the community that I’ve been given. I don’t deserve the legs that I have, and I definitely don’t deserve to be able to have these kind of adventures to share with other people.
I thought, going into The Hawk 50, that this race would destroy me in a way that would cause me to want to stop for a prolonged period of time. In a way, that was the plan. Moving from a 10 mile race in July of 2016 to a 50 mile race in September of 2017 is reckless. How I managed to walk away (barely) from The Hawk with zero blisters, very little chafing, and no serious injuries is completely beyond my understanding. Furthermore, what is even more baffling, is the fact that I still want to go further and I want to go faster. It isn’t necessarily because I have something to prove, it truly is because I have found a niche within my own culture that is so much to fun to be a part of.
It would also be noted that towards the final months leading up to The Hawk I changed my training pretty significantly. I tried to focus more on strength development then necessarily getting mile after mile after mile. I am convinced that if I had not had the guidance of strength training I likely would not have finished The Hawk this year.
This race truly showed me how we are all connected, and for some of us, we really cannot be successful unless we allow ourselves to rely on others to give us strength.
*Chafing began at mile 40, only after being soaked with junk ice
**Currently my students are learning about immigration, stereotypes, and the Irish potato famine
I envision this magical moment in the kingdom of Ida Grove where a woman suddenly awoke with a revelation…
Yes! I see the challenge. I understand the goal. There must be a way to achieve 1000 feet of elevation gain in a single loop at a trail race in Iowa. Ida Grove must be the location. This must happen!
And so…I see sleepless nights of hand drawn maps, course outlines, and endless days of Strava information of one weaving through the maze of Moorehead Pioneer Park.
Thus, after time of toiling, sweat, and blisters; like all good mythological beings the Mazathon and the Trail of the Dragon was born.
Pan would have been proud of this devilish delight…
Somewhere along US 59 highway between Des Moines, Iowa and Sioux City, Iowa is the sleepy town of Ida Grove. With a few thousand people, it is mostly noted for its unique architecture. The town is made up of castles.
This is no joke.
Someone with too much time and money decided to build facades of castles throughout the city. Factories? In the castle. Housing? In the castle. Dentist office? In the castle. Knights Inn? No, not in the castle, in fact there isn’t even a Knights Inn in Ida Grove.
Just to the west of this special, little community is a small, historic park. Old buildings, graves, and a strange wanna-be ski lift, litter the lush area. This is home to two of the newer trail races in the flyover world.
The Mazathon and the Trail of the Dragon.
Now, to add an element of confusion, the two races are ran at the same time and on the same trail (more or less). There is a delectable flavor of distances for you to choose from. Embracing her inner Baskin Robins, race director Susan Knop offers a fun filled day of the following:
Originally, knowing of this event, I was going solely to support and crew “The Legend” on her ’50-mile-it-is-a-warm-up-for-the-next-50-mile-race-in-one-month-because-I-am-a-super-strong-runner-race’. However, as I began to look at my own training spreadsheet I noted that this day also called for 18 miles for myself.
The exact distance of the 2/3 Mazathon.
So, with some leftover change and plenty of room for poor choices, I paid the fee and signed up for the race. The concept would be simple; I would run my race two hours after seeing “The Legend” leave for her 50 mile. I would finish in a few hours, and then I would assist her as crew for her final two laps. My wife would be there the entire time, and this would be a flawless race for everyone.
After spending the evening in a hotel in Denison, Iowa that would have made Cheech blush*, my wife and I traveled to the start line of the race early Saturday morning. “The Legend” was wound for sound with her running buddy Angel. They were representing the entire state of Missouri on the 50 mile race.
There was no gun, no horn, no whistle, no lit cigarette, just a “Get going!” from the race director, and the runners were off. Myself? Pulling a High Lonesome, I jumped back into my car and went back to sleep for 90 minutes.
At 8:00 AM I began my adventure. The course was advertised as having a few climbs,
plenty of elevation, and being very pretty. With “the mist”-like fog rolling around in the trees, our group also took off into the woods for a delight romp in the wilderness.
Usually, I have something tragic to say that would foreshadow impending doom during a race, but truthfully this course was so well marked with perfect weather that there really was no room for problems on this beautiful day. I flew down the root-wrapped hills, enjoyed some single track, and finally started to approach the meadows.
You run through meadows.
Meadows equals mowed grass.
Mowed grass in meadows is equivalent to Satan, himself.
Soaked shoes on a bank of grass that mimicked only turn four at Daytona greeted me, and slowly but surely my body started to give out. It started with a few needles of pain in my feet, a slight cramp in my hips, and eight…count them…eight miles into my race I was absolutely wrecked. This is unfortunate because the course was so beautiful. Winding, like a maze, through the woods you see everyone countless times (and they offer you salt because you look hurt countless times as well**), you climb a hill to a cemetery from the 1860’s, and you get to listen to manic runners from Omaha scream about clowns being up at the top of the hill.
After meeting the only aid station on course, I hobbled through the final miles of my first loop.
Like any other good looped race that involves my wife meeting me at the start/finish, she smiled, talked a little bit, then proceeded to kick me back out on my second loop. By five miles in my feet were starting to ache. They were starting to ache in a way that I had not really noticed before. I was moving at a staggering 25:00.00 minute per mile pace, and deep down I wanted to just be done.
I wanted to be done. I was terrified of The Hawk 50 coming up because of the pain, how slow I was moving, and how much I struggling to just complete 18 miles. I got upset about how I looked, how I was moving, how I wasn’t ‘growing’ like other runners, and how I was fearful of injury, stress fractures, pushing too hard, messing something up, letting others down, letting myself down…I was out in the woods and I was not having fun.
Yet, through the stillness of the August air, I heard it…it came sharp. It came swiftly. It came up right behind me, and nearly scared me to death.
Low and behold, in my darkest hour, here comes the knight to save the day. “The Legend” caught me on her third lap. To no surprise there was laughter, smiling, and all sorts of randomness that followed. I did not want to be alone, I wanted to be with someone, so I figured I would risk the injury and follow her out to the aid station.
Holy mother she was fast! The faster I moved, the harder I breathed, but also the better my body felt. My feet still hurt, but my body was feeling looser with each step I was taking at a quicker pace. We rolled into the aid station together, and I did the only thing I knew how to do…
Brandy, what do you need? Give me your bottles.
Knowing that my movement was a joke, Brandy had informed me that she was in first place female for the 50 mile. Reminiscing on the last time she was leading a race, I realized getting her out was more important than myself trying to ‘be fast’. After all, technically this was just a ‘training run’*** for me.
By the time “The Legend” left the station, in comes the second place female, Angel. Instead of taking off, it was talking to her, filling bottles, grabbing food, and seeing her off also.
Finally, being out of excuses to stay, I left for my final three miles.
They turned into a walk.
A painful walk.
A walk full of tears.
I’ve done pain. I’ve done stupid. I have never done stupid pain like my feet experienced towards the end of that 18 miles. It hurt to walk, it hurt to apply pressure, just unreal pain through all of the bottom of my feet. Both. Feet.
I hobbled through the finish line, ripped my shoes off, and just sat at the table near the start/finish. I suppose overall I felt fine, much better after the beer, but I could not get over the pain/fear of what had happened to my feet.
Sitting at the table I was able to take in the entire event, while trying to put my feet fears to rest. This race is incredibly relaxed. The race staff all knows one another, the local cross country teams help out, and along the main building is a list of sponsors that helped make this race happen.
While moving down the list of sponsors I saw it.
I saw my answer.
I saw the reasoning for all my problems.
That same, darn organization that has tried to kill me at “Kaci’s Training Course” and…A GRAVEL ROAD IN THE MIDDLE OF NOTHING…had been supporting this race also. It all made sense! The curse of GOATz found its way to me in Ida Grove, Iowa.
Laughing in a style that only my wife would understand, I danced in my head for finding my answer to all my problems. I ate another cheeseburger, and just like Free State, where legends were made, I began the wait for “The Legend” to return.
When she came in to start her final loop; I saw something very interesting in the makeup of the 50 mile women’s race. She was still in first place. However, Angel and the 3rd place runner came in ten minutes behind her. Meaning, in the ultra world, the women’s race was going to be close. Personally, remembering the race in April, I selfishly wanted her to win. She earned it. Deserved it. People needed to see what I saw; they needed to see how Hulk-strong this runner really was.
My wife and I waited
…and waved at a drunk wedding party…
…and fought off locals who were trying to eat the aid station food…
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The conclusion of the women's 50M from the Trail of the Dragon Ultra. Brandy "The Legend" (aka: the lady that helps me make really poor choices) taking 1st place female on the inagural 50 mile event in under 13 hours! #trailrunning #ultrarunning #running #runkc #ultramarathon #health #fitness #fit #gainyourwings #friends
“The Legend” finished her Trail of the Dragon 50 mile in under 13 hours. She placed first female, and fourth overall. Angel, the other runner from Kansas City, placed second female, and fifth overall.
Even though I felt beaten to pieces; seeing those two finish was so motivating. It gave me the ‘like Mike’ sensation of “I want to be like them when I grow up”. As for my award? I am proud to embrace the acknowledgement of receive my first DFL award.
Curious about my feet? I did some research, talked to the owner of the shoe store, went to my physical therapist, and then I also looked back at all my data from the miles I had logged.
450 miles on the same pair of shoes. My feet issue came from the fact that I had worn my shoes into nothing inside. Knowing this I switched out shoes, and wouldn’t you know it, I haven’t had any issues since.
If you are looking for a fun, challenging, chilled race you have to check out Ida Grove, Iowa. The race fees are low, the environment is great, and I have never seen a course so well marked in all the places I have visited.
It wasn’t necessarily my best race, but of man, I got to see a legend return and show no mercy on a course.
And it was epic.
*I now know what that smell was in Colorado…
**I made it to mile 6 before someone asked if I needed salt…new PR
***18 mile training run…I hate my life…
My car, a Mazda3, is currently moving at approximately two miles per hour. I have been on the same county road for just under twenty minutes. The temperature is 44 degrees, it is pouring rain, and I have not slept in 20 hours. I ask myself, “Is a volunteer for a race going to become its only casualty?”
Several weeks ago my wife and I had an amazing idea. We rarely go on vacations, like I don’t think we actually have ever gone on vacation. This year we settled on a fun adventure. A friend of ours, the one who is solely responsible for the majority of the expeditions into trail running for both of us, had signed up for a race in Colorado. How cool would it be to surprise her at the finish line? We checked with her coach, everything sounded good, so we started planning our trip.
A week into the planning we learned that my wife and her new coffee shop would be opening a week earlier than planned. Meaning, the vacation was a no-go. However, that still left me with a car full of gas, a beard that was being called back to the mountains, and a strange desire to serve chicken broth at 11,000 feet. I contacted the race director and filled out a form to volunteer for the race. He approved, and the email exchanges began. At one point I was to serve at one aid station, later I was moved to another, and in the end the simple question was asked, “Why not do all of them?”
The stage was set. I was heading to Colorado for the inaugural High Lonesome 100 as a volunteer. I would work the aid stations for 24 hours; collecting information, sharing stories, and serving fried eggs to a very hungry runner at 2:00 AM.
So eerily similar to every trail race I have ever been a part of; I truly had no idea what I was getting myself into.
To fully understand the trip, allow me to give you a few little pieces about High Lonesome. It takes place in the Sawatch Range of Colorado near Salida and Buena Vista. The entire course is a single 100 mile loop, with a 12 mile out and back journey at St. Elmo.
Climbers Runners will reach as high as 13,200 feet as they cross several peaks stretching through the continental divide. Cutoff for this race is 36 hours, and the fun begins at 6:00 AM Friday morning. 12 aid stations, seven of them being accessed by crew.
Heading in as a volunteer I had multiple sets of clothes to change into, a cup for coffee, some snacks, more weapons than necessary (bears, you know), and a handy rain jacket that had been delivered to my house an hour prior to leaving for this journey.
Going into High Lonesome I had assumed that it would be wise to apply all volunteer knowledge to practice; runners need everything; food, water, vaseline, sleeping bags, beer, and hugs…lots of hugs. Upon arrival my day had been set with three primary aid stations and a fourth one “just for fun”.
Aid Stations #1: St. Elmo
Elevation: 10,000 ft
St. Elmo, Colorado
Theme: Bears and Chipmunks
Time: Friday 8:00 AM MST to 4:00 PM MST
The first challenge is getting to St. Elmo. Like all mountain areas of Colorado, St. Elmo is not real. It is a ghost town, a figment of our imagination that is adorably haunted by chipmunks who rule the area with their tiny, cute fists. There is a convenient store that is open “9ish-6ish”, and the entire plot of land is privately owned. Because St. Elmo is a tourist destination (15 MILES OFF OF ANY NORMAL ROAD GOING TO WHO KNOWS WHERE IN THE MOUNTAINS), parking was crucial. St. Elmo allowed access to crew members, so I was placed with the daunting responsibility of dividing up three types of drivers heading into town. Crews for the runners, town visitors for the chipmunks, and ATV/Jeep/Motocross/Tanks/Optimus Prime for all the ‘Colorado roads’ to explore.
Thank goodness humanity decided to be kind on this day because aside from nearly being ran over by the local heating and cooling guy that deemed my life less important than a 9/16 pipe wrench, everyone was amazing. All visitors were encouraged to feed the chipmunks, but not to feed the runners. They would eat all the visitors food, I knew it. The crew would park their vehicles along the side of the dirt road/cliff/river, and begin the mile hike to the actual aid station. What did end up becoming fascinating for the day was the amount of visitors and crew members of other runners that would stand along the road and cheer in the runners as they arrived into town.
Nearing noon the sky began to cloud up, the lightning began, and the rain started to fall. The runners, humorously, seemed to enjoy the light shower as they came into town. I, thankfully, had my trusty rain jacket that I had put on at roughly 11:00 AM (this is an important detail). At 1:00 PM I was starting to become hungry, and with the aid station a mile away, I decided to just chill and drink coffee at St. Elmo.
The face of hunger, like a pitiful child, must have been across my skin because a woman, far more athletic than I will ever be, was kind enough to offer some food out of her vehicle. This is when I discovered the joy of fried rice. Out of a ball of aluminum foil came the joy of sticky Jasmine rice with quinoa, red peppers, scrambled eggs, bacon, and a bit of cheese. She went on to explain how this balanced food item was great for fueling, along with cooking instructions. I had no clue that I would learn about what to eat while watching people punish themselves along the mountains.
What I didn’t also consider was the realization of eggs, cheese, bacon, and other goodies mixed with coffee in my digestive track would begin a brew that would push the limits of life, liberty, and the cleanliness of my pants.
At 4:00 PM, while it was raining, I was relieved from my post and informed that the Hancock aid station was only 5 miles away from St. Elmo. I packed up my soaked lawn chair, my coffee, and said farewell to rodents and rocky mount riders alike and began my ascent to Hancock.
Aid Station #2: Hancock
Elevation 11,000 ft
Time: Friday 5:00 PM MST to 12:00 AM MST
The first amazing challenge of this aid station, as a volunteer, was just getting to the darn place. Hancock doesn’t exist, it’s a relative of St. Elmo. Like a washed up high school quarterback, it was a has been and is no more type of railroad town with an attempt at cabin building. How do I know? Because the remnants of said cabins are slowly sliding down the mountainside to the only road to the actual location of Hancock, or in my case, the aid station.
I had asked one of the race officials if my Mazda3 could make it to Hancock. The response…
Drive slow. Watch out for the potholes. You’ll be fine.
Trusting a Colorado native on road advice is like trusting a Texan on neutrality of state pride…it is very ill-advised. Hancock was a 1000 foot climb from St. Elmo on a rain soaked gravel “road”. You can watch for potholes all you want, but the reality is they make up 96% of the road. The other 4% is left to collapsing cabins. It was 5 miles…5…miles…to Hancock on that road. It took me a total of one hour to get to my destination. While I’m putting around with my 4 cylinder gas sipper, four wheel drive monstrosities straight out of Jurassic Park are flying the opposite direction (had to be velociraptors…I’m convinced). Naturally, like all good things involved with rules of the road, this required me to hug the right side of the road a little bit. And by a little bit, I mean another two inches would have resulted in my car tumbling down the mountain and revisiting the St. Elmo ghost town (likely as a permanent resident).
Finally through the light sprinkles of the sky, I arrived at Hancock. I was greeted by two mustache wearing ladies who showed me where to park.
My first job? Parking.
This is about the time the night started to turn entertaining. Crew members were rather perplexed as to why they saw another red jacketed ogre directing traffic where to park. This came with laughter amongst the rain increasing. It was while standing in the rain that I met John. John was also volunteering and somehow had grown up in Kansas City,
small world. We shot the breeze, talked about our love of trail running, spoke to Canadians (first time I ever met Canadians in real life), and tried to keep warm. I started to notice that as 8:00 PM MST arrived I was starting to get cold. The temperature was dropping along with the rain at 11,000 feet in the air. After adding another layer of clothes I walked up to the actual aid station, roughly 400 meters away, to spend the rest of my time at Hancock.
Upon my arrival to the actual station I witnessed possibly one of the most amazing acts of sportsmanship out of the whole race. From the photographer…
A runner came in well before his crew. He needed his rain shell jacket before leaving, but it was 400 meters in the opposite direction of where he would be traveling. I witnessed, mark my words, the lead photographer from Mile 90 Photography offer his rain shell to the runner. Naturally, the runner politely declined and still grabbed his own rain shell. That moment though; that captured what trail running is all about. The photographer, someone without a horse even in the race, was willing to give his own rain shell to a random runner he has never met until that one moment.
This was a very busy station. There were so many things going on all at once. Hancock was full service, plus drop bags, plus runners could grab their first pacer, plus crew access, plus…and this is a good one…a mandatory gear check prior to leaving the station.
Remember that line from Enemy at the Gates where the Russian official is yelling out orders about the first man grabbing the gun, second the ammunition, when the first is killed the second grabs the gun? Alright, Hancock had nothing to do with rifles, but the dialogue within the aid station in the late hours were just as intense.
The rain was pouring down in buckets, the temperatures was now in the 40’s and still dropping. NOAA has put at a weather bulletin for the area that we were sharing with crew and pacers…
A chance of 40-50 mph winds. 1/2″ hail. Frequent cloud to ground lightning.
It was not a scare tactic, but it was a reality for the runners leaving. After Hancock they would be in the dark going up the mountain side to a 12,500 foot ridge. The weather is extremely unpredictable, and the models were throwing out alerts left and right. Somehow, someway at 10:30 PM MST I wound up with the gear list/pacer/time in/time out sheet checking with runners and pacers for a brief spell. I could barely hear the
runners over the rain. The aid station was churning through broth and coffee at an alarming rate, and the medics were doing an amazing job keeping the runners warm. Not to overdramatize the event, but there were a few moments where Hancock was much more reflective of trench warfare of WWI instead of an ultra marathon. The difference? We weren’t dealing with artillery shells from the enemy, we were having to fight with mother nature. This is the first aid station where I think I did a little bit of everything. At one point I was checking pacers, another I was trying to talk a runner through their options of dropping, running, or waiting for their crew, and another moment I was standing in the pouring rain with my headlamp like a lighthouse just trying to spot runners coming up the boulder path to our station.
It. Was. Intense.
At 11:45 PM MST I had received my next set of orders. I was to leave at midnight and travel to Monarch Pass. There I would find some rest, warmth, and time to recover a bit. However, that also meant that the only way I could get out of Hancock was back down the same road I came in on. The same road that had been dealing with non-stop rain for over six hours. Pitifully I looked at John and asked if he was leaving at any specific time. Realizing that my poker face is pathetic, he said he would leave around midnight. I asked him, this is a true story, if I could follow him out because I was that afraid of the road.
Of course John was ready to rock, and I had placed my faith in him. Surely, a Colorado man of his stature would whip through the road quickly in a stylish, tall, AWD vehicle. Ensuring that I would be taken to safety.
He showed up in a Honda Odyssey.
Nothing against the van, it is a great vehicle, but my faith in humanity (and my own life) slipped slightly at that moment. However, John was not playing around. We cleared that road in less than 20 minutes.
Knowing that I was free from the clenches of death, I started my journey to Monarch Pass.
Aid Station #3: Monarch Pass
Theme: The Devil
Time: Saturday 1:00 AM MST to 7:00 AM MST
The good news about Monarch Pass is the reality that it is directly off of US 50; there is no Colorado road to fight. The bad news? It is an hour drive on the highway from Hancock to the pass. It is a trip. Halfway through the journey, it hit…the eggs, bacon, coffee, and other colorful items that I had ingested. Naturally, I am terrified of porty-potty’s (I know all the runners are laughing at me now, it’s alright, I ate lunch alone in school), and I sure as heck am not taking the gamble of leaving my own choices 6 inches in the ground, while realizing I could be tracking in a bear to my untimely demise.
Between the cramping and the stench of the car; I saw it like a beacon of hope. Some small town 24/7 gas station with restrooms on the outside of the building. I hopped out of the car at 1:00 AM MST and marched up to the guys side.
SOMEHOW IN THE MIDDLE OF NOTHING THE MEN’S RESTROOM IN ONE STOP GAS STATION WAS BEING OCCUPIED AT 1:00 AM MST!
A polite woman and I used sign language to figure out what was going because our language barrier at that time of night was not going to achieve anything. Being panicked, feeling the doomsday clock ticking inside me, and replaying that image of the inmate exploding in The Dark Night caused me to fly into the women’s restroom at the horror of the kind lady in the van watching.
After coming back to life with my second wind (hehe) I finished my journey to Monarach Pass. St. Elmo was special, Hancock was rough, but Monarch Pass had an element of fear and creep that only Steven King could whip up. On top of Monarch Pass sat this aid station in a parking lot in the middle of nothing. There was no traffic, there was no movement, just the slow creeping of the fog, and the local aid station workers wearing devil horns*.
Remember learning about coal mines? Remember that image from October Sky or The Hunger Games in which the miners would come up the elevator. All you could see was their headlamp? They looked like worn corpses just trying to find eternal rest?
Welcome to Monarch Pass.
Even after Bryce Canyon I have never seen so many half-dead runners in my life. From the aid station, if you looked across the highway, you could see the runners coming down the ridge. The bouncing lights would take another twenty minutes to find the actual station. When they crossed the road, mixed with the fog, all you could see was their headlamp searching for sanctuary from the elements. The tap, tap, tapping of their trekking poles for many of them were their only ways of expressing life.
This is where aid stations become hugging stations.
I’m so cold.
That was a lot.
Do you have something warm?
I got lost in the fog. I could not find a #@^! thing.
That was hard.
Every runner came in with a different thought as the early morning pressed on. At 2:00 AM MST the aid station was cooking up fried “Waffle House” eggs for one runner. At 3:00 AM MST another runner came in convinced that the race director had lost his golf clubs on the ridge behind us. The crews were wearing down, the aid station was calm, the runners were cold…realistically…we all needed daylight. At 4:00 AM MST after eating a wonderful scotcharoo that painfully reminded me of my ex-girlfriend from college, I sat down in my chair. That is when I started to notice the shaking. It would come and go, and eventually it just came to stay. My legs were shaking, my upper body was shaking, the world was shaking. Without causing alarm of my own internal earthquake I walked over to my Mazda3. I turned the car on, cranked the heat up to 90 degrees, and grabbed my pillow.
The exact thought in my head…
I’m just a volunteer. I should not feel like this. I should be helping. I have to warm up. I am so embarrassed.
At 6:00 AM MST I woke up to the strangest, borderline hallucination I have ever witnessed. Standing in front of my car was Leia. Leia was the runner from Kansas City, Leia was the one that got me into all of this a year ago; Leia is unstoppable.
Why the hell is Leia in front of my car?
Forgetting that I was at an aid station at the summit of a mountain in Colorado, I scrambled to get out of the car. Smacked my head on the doorframe, lost a glove, cut my forehead, and tried to get to Leia.
I timed out at Middlefork.
I did not know what to do. I was speechless. I wasn’t sure to say, “I’m sorry”, or “you’re awesome”, or “I’m amazed” because I was scared that anything was going to result in crying…by either one of us. I just listened as her crew grabbed her, got her into a warm vehicle, and took off.
That one moment summed up the entire experience. When you volunteer you become so emotionally involved with the people actually running, whether you mean to or not, that when they find heartache. You find it also. It is nowhere close to what they had experienced, but you can still find the lump in your throat. Somehow, someway you want to cheer for everyone. It is not about the person who comes in first, though that is awesome, it is about the survival of the whole field.
At 6:30 AM MST, after witnessing that brief event, I apologized for sleeping in my car and at that moment I saw Chris enter the parking lot, while the rain continued to pour.
Chris and I met at Hancock. Her shoes were soaked, so she slept in our aid station for nearly an hour waiting for dry shoes. We talked about her plan of action, especially since she was doing the course without a pacer. Eventually after some rest, some broth, and some dry shoes she left Hancock. She reminded me of “The Legend” back home. So much mental, but physically so strong.
Seeing Chris at Monarch Pass made my own experience. She came into Monarch smiling. She grabbed some coffee, got some bacon, and I walked with her back out onto the course. Witnessing the energy levels that she had made me so happy. Chris was my ‘feel good’ story of the race. There was a lot, including my ginger-beard brother, my Cleveland twin with the same name, and the crazy Canadian, and so many more.
After Chris left, feeling my age coming before me, I realized that my journey had come to an end. It was time to leave, but I had one last place I needed to travel to…
Aid Stations #4: Start/Finish
Time: Saturday 8:00 AM MST to 10:00 AM MST
I never had met the race director. All I knew was that his name was Caleb and he ‘had legs of a road runner’. The intent was to travel to the start/finish line, say thank you, and head back to my hotel for some rest. Upon arrival what I saw was another aid station. I saw a few runners, already finished, resting at the finish line. However, runners were coming in with cold core temperatures. So, myself and three other people started to build a quick aid station with camp stoves and JetBoil** contraptions. The biggest request was just broth. Maybe I’m thinking too much about this experience, but volunteers should try to make an attempt to visit the finish line when they are done serving. Why? Because that is when you get to witness the most incredible reward. It is not the hat, the shirt, the whiskey, etc…it is seeing people that you’ve been around for split seconds through the darkest parts of the night come across the finish line. Children running with fathers, runners limping into the finish; the laughter, the crying, the cramping, the kissing, anyone who understands what is going on will cry at the finish line. I enjoyed boiling the broth, but I loved seeing the finish of the runners. It was inspiring, but it was also fulfilling. It made me believe that my time out in Colorado was well spent, and that somehow, someway I was able to assist those runners achieve the impossible.
I also burned my hand on the pot and realized that my lack of sleep was catching up with me.
At 10:00 AM MST I took my rain jacket off for the first time in nearly 24 hours***, I shook hands with Caleb (without making any leg comments that some at the aid station volunteers had told me to), and slowly walked along the side of the finish line ‘funnel’. I walked along the road with two recreational hikers enjoying the morning, got into my Mazda3 that smelled like wet dog, took a deep breath, and started my journey to some well needed rest.
It is hard to still be a ‘new runner’ and watch events like this unfold. You are both equally intimidated by being around such high caliber runners that you’ll likely never be like, and at the same time your heart longs to accomplish a similar journey. It is an internal paradox that I have not found an answer for.
That was one of the most exciting, adventurous, exhausting, taxing, rewarding journeys I have ever had the blessing to be a part of in the trail running community.
…and I was just volunteering.
If you find a High Lonesome runner around you; give them a hug.
Don’t ask questions, just trust me on this one.
*Mile 66.6, get it? Devil, 666, Hell’s Hill, etc…I thought it was clever.
**I have now seen enough JetBoil devices to successfully send at least one man into space by one of these aid stations. Probably Monarch Pass.
***Best $14 I have ever spent! Thank you Trail and Ultra Runner Facebook page for the lead! Retail was $130, I’m still proud of myself.
You would think that after the fascinating run that was Bryce Canyon, that reality would have sobered up my punch-drunk drive of insanity in the woods. However, deaf to my own friends, family, and household cat telling me to stop, I swore to the world I could hear the mountains calling me…
…and I had to go.
In May of this year a friend from Colorado came to visit, and run an awesome 5K with myself, my wife, and several of our friends. He had moved from flyover land to the land of the Rockies the summer prior. He had experience with marathons, 5K’s, and all the other road running events. However, in May he informed me that he wanted to try his luck at his first trail race. It was a local event called the Barr Trail Mountain Race in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Mind you, this was before I cheated death at Bryce Canyon. Looking up the information with him sitting next to me, I laughed, passed, and moved about my life.
There was no way in all that is good and holy on this planet, streaming with death and agony, that I would sign up for a race that was 6.2 miles up Pike’s Peak and 6.2 miles back down Pike’s Peak. That is categorized as insane, stupid, and…well…
…I signed up the night after I arrived home from Bryce Canyon a month later.
Feeling like I was winning with the $55 entry fee, I called up my friend, informed him that I would be ‘joining’ him on his journey, and planned out my adventure to the alpine version of my abundant poor life choices.
Some truths about the Barr Trail Mountain Race:
If I could have rolled a Yatzee on ensuring that I made every mistake possible prior, during, and after a race; I was the big winner at the Barr Trail Mountain Race. To start this concept, my wife and I are surprisingly busy during the summer. Because of this, we decided that we would leave at 3:00 AM CDT Saturday morning, drive across
insanity Kansas, arrive in Colorado around 12:00 PM MDT, run the race at 7:00 AM MDT Sunday morning, and drive back home that night because I had to be at school the next day.
Please prepare yourself for the most amazing, mind-numbing 44 hour bender that your running brain will ever grasp.
We left our home at 3:00 AM Saturday morning as planned, by 4:00 AM we were sitting on the side of the highway with an out of state sheriff informing us about speeding down a hill, and that our light was burnt out on our license plate cover. By 8:00 AM we were eating McGriddles along I-70 in Hays, Kansas, and at 12:00 PM MDT we rolled* into Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Mistake 1: Not getting enough rest. Cramming into a Mazda3 and driving across three states the day before a race.
Mistake 2: No matter how you spin it…McDonald’s
Arriving in Colorado Springs you are blessed with the view of the local mountain range; including a brief glimpse at Pike’s Peak. Embracing my new found courage from Utah, I stared down the mountain from within our microcar…and proceeded to whimper while my wife laughed at me. At 3:00 PM MDT I found myself sitting at a local burger joint with our friends eating a late lunch. Lunch? Try a 1/4 pound beef patty, half of Japan’s mushroom stock, all of Wisconsin’s cheese reserve, and two buns. By 4:00 PM MDT I was secretly, discretely running to the bathroom while my intestines decided to mimic The Purge.
Mistake 3: Greasy, delicious meal the night before the race leads to emptying of bowels and more importantly…dehydration sets in.
Afterwards, nearing 5:00 PM MDT we are caught in a freak rainstorm, there is flash flood warnings throughout the city, goats are fleeing for higher ground, and mud is running through the streets**. The temperature drops to nearly 50 degrees in July. How do we recover from this? Easy. My friend, the sadistic, loving person he is, decides to take me to Manitou Springs. This fun, eclectic, buzzed town would be the starting point for the next day’s race. He was kind enough to even show me the Manitou incline going up Pike.
Manitou Incline: Stairs. Stairs for a single mile, straight up, passed the point of oxygen, meeting Jesus, only to have Him kick you back down the stairs in one shot. Visiting? See if you can achieve it all under 45 minutes.
I asked if that was part of the course, my friend laughed and simply said, “No. We’ll be using switchbacks to get to our turnaround. After all, the Manitou Incline is a mile in length to the top, we were to be traveling 6.2 miles instead. Naturally, logically we had to achieve going from the bottom to the top in the longest possible way.
After returning to their home, we enjoyed a dinner of milk shakes, I played Shopkins Bingo*** with their children (you have no idea how frustrating it is to need to roll a “G green apple” and to miss it on three rolls), and prepared for bed. This was only after one last run to the store for my pre-race meal; donuts.
While preparing to sleep, I opened up my packet pickup bag. In it, as a trail runner, I found some things that were perplexing:
All of my trail runner senses started to tingle as I began to contemplate what these clues could have meant in light of my upcoming destiny with God on the mountain top. I continued to ponder these things as I filled my water bottle, climbed into bed, and drifted into my final sleep.
Mistake 4: Not bringing warm clothes in the event the temperature dropped
Mistake 5: Milk Shakes…****
Mistake 6: I love donuts, but let’s be honest. “The Legend” is right, I need to make better life and pre-race meal choices.
Mistake 7: That was the first time the entire day that I had filled my water bottle to drink.
At 5:30 AM MDT I awoke to a chill in the air, and in my soul. Something permeated within my body, allowing me to realize that I was about to do something very, very dumb. At 6:00 AM MDT I was in an F-150 with my friend (Aaron), and his neighbors who were ‘running this for fun’, one of which had a torn ACL (Julie), and one who “doesn’t run much” (Rob). 6:30 AM MDT my stomach is doing backflips (very impressive), we’re getting out of the truck to begin our mile hike to the top of Manitou Springs, so that we could get to the start line. Rob and Julie take off ‘jogging’ to warm up. I realized how doomed I really was.
6:55 AM I am surrounded by Colorado locals, all of which have the physic of gods and goddesses. Some local runner named Joe Gray is mingling about the front of the start line, I am positioning myself where I belong in order to be successful as well…the back. I had one handheld with me, no vest, and yes, my salt tablets were back at the house.
Mistake 8: Forgot the salt.
Mistake 9: Did not bring the vest.
Mistake 10: Forgot everything in regards to trail running necessities…
7:00 AM the race begins with not a horn, not a whistle, not a shotgun…no…with a didgeridoo. The group started off in a fast hustle, along the pavement, with a 13% grade. Yes, the locals were running up a 13% grade without breathing heavy. Realization; I was likely to die from heart complications.
I tried to charge up the hill. I successfully pulled a Custer. I failed miserably. By the first half mile, along the exposed, red switchbacks I was pouring sweat, breathing like a labored cow, and listening to the local runners talk about what they did last weekend…
Yeah. I just signed up for a fun. I covered a few 14ers last weekend. I figured this would be a good warmup for the actual Pike’s Peak race. Excuse us, we’re on your left…
Thankfully, praise God for the man in front of me listening to dubstep through his drawstring back while he hiked his way up for the mountain side. The base drops were in perfect rhythm with my failing heart beat. As for Aaron, Julie, Rob? They were all long gone. Personally, I had staged out in my head how I wanted this race to pan out. If I could keep a 5K pace for the first two hours, I would have 90 minutes to get down the mountain. Realistically I thought that the downhill would be a bigger challenge compared to going up. This would get me back down within the 3:30:00 window and I would receive the prized race shirt.
One of the really nice things about Barr Trail is the aid stations; there are seven of them! My head had made perfect logic out of this, if there are seven aid stops then I did not need my vest. The stations would have all the things for me, and I could mooch off of them up the mountain side.
At mile 1.5 I rolled into the first aid station…
The GU products the day prior gave me a hint, and the first aid station confirmed my fears. I had signed up, unknowingly, for a road race! It just happened to be that it was a road race on a dirt path.
I continued to climb. The first mile had slowed me down due to the line of hikers, but I thought I could make the time up. It had put me behind schedule by 15 minutes. If I improved the downhill I would be able to still get in on time. The second aid station came up around mile 3; wax paper cups of water and Gatorade. I smiled at El Paseo County Search & Rescue as I passed by, almost as a non-verbal command that I would see them sooner than later. The climbing, to no surprise, continued. It was covered in trees, the temperatures were cool, and I was rocking out to the altitude as I continued to climb. That guy named Joe Gray passed me around this time, going downhill, but I was having the time of my life. I started to play games, seeing how many people passing me the other way I could cheer for as they flew by. Practically speaking I was in a race and also being like a volunteer and cheering the people that actually belonged there.
Finally, the third aid station greeted me with…water and Gatorade. Five miles up Pike’s Peak and I had no salt in my system, no food minus the donut prior in the morning, and a wax paper cup of Gatorade every 1.5 miles. Physically, I smiled and sang as I moved up the mountain, mentally I was beginning to panic of what 12 miles in the mountains without anything would actually do to me.
Julie was the first to pass me, you know, the one with the torn ACL. Rob was behind her, gave me a pat on my back, Aaron followed suit. The last half mile up the mountain creeped by. I tried to run, but my legs felt like lead. Finally, almost in a last gasp, I found the 6.2 mile aid station. I drank another cup of Gatorade, and made my first attempt on a GU gel; Sea Salt Chocolate. I even asked the high school students manning that aid station:
Me: Which one would be best to throw back up?
Student: Sea Salt for sure! And if you are going to throw up, do it on that kid over there. He’s been a jerk all day and deserves it!
With half the gel back in my mouth, chasing it with my handheld, I began the descent down the mountainside. I was 15 minutes off pace, and needed to speed up. I started hopping over the rocks down the path, and not even half a mile from the 6.2 aid station, I landed on my left foot and I felt the *POP!* right at the top of my left leg. I hobbled to the side, but did not stop, took a mental inventory on exactly what I had done, and decided to just land on my right foot for the rest of the six miles. Eventually I started to learn that all my stupid mistakes were to catch up to me. No sooner that I was hopping on my right foot down the trail, that the cramping started. The knots began in my hamstrings; like I had a rock stuck in the strands of each. Afterwards I began to get tight, tingly sensations in both of my calves, finally the sides of my hips began to tighten up. Five miles from the finish and I was down to a fast walk, and my entire lower body going through spasms and cramps. Though I will never be fast enough to ever earn a free pair of shoes from them, if I had not had been wearing my Saucony Peregrines, I would have not been made it down the mountain in one piece. The rear traction on the shoes saved my…wait for it…sole!
My journey suddenly became a very sad real life version of the movie Speed. If at any point I stopped moving down the mountainside, my body would explode from the potential cramping I was experiencing. Each aid station I grabbed a cup of Gatorade, trying to get something into my system. A lady passing me asked if I was alright, and followed that up by her talking about her dislocated hip. She asked if I needed salt, because what is a race recap without at least one person asking me if I needed salt. Sadly, I cannot run and drink at the same time, and snorted Gatorade like a strung out crack dealer. The burning couldn’t even compare to the horrific feeling of my legs. With two miles left I made the worst mistake out of the whole race; I looked at my watch just in time for it to turn…
I still had two miles left in this labyrinth of doom. I wanted to be done. I wanted to fix my body. I wanted my blankey. I continued to churn through each painful step, dodging hikers and bikers along the way. After a while I looked down at my watch, and it was past 12.4 miles. This told me on tragic truth: I was off course.
Mistake 11: I got lost.
I spent another, extra half mile trying to get to the finish line. Finally, my limp, half-alive corpse dropped out of the trail near the parking lot at the race, but nowhere near the beginning. Aaron was waiting for me.
There was no finish line. There was no cowbell. There was no people.
A year into trail running and I had officially done it; I recorded my first DNF. I did not finish the Barr Trail Mountain Race. Beaten, defeated, and slightly frustrated; I walked another mile back to the Manitou Springs for the awards assembly. There I watched this Joe Gray guy get first place and a new course record. Julie, Aaron’s neighbor with the torn ACL, took second place in her age group. Aaron finished his first ever trail race right around the three hour mark; even after falling around mile 7.
The day ended with a cold, long shower. Still, without taking any salt, I got back into our Mazda3 and embarked on the journey to home. At 8:00 PM CST my wife and I were four hours from our house, eating McDonald’s double cheeseburgers, when I started to think of a fascinating realization. In 2017 I have ran three half marathon races; each being a challenge in themselves. I did not find success at the Barr Trail Mountain Race, at least not in the sense of the actual finish line, but…
Mistake 12: I forgot that I did not fail; I just did not finish
Mistake 13: McDonald’s….
*Seriously. Manitou Springs you are amazing, but good grief you smell like a “skunk”
**Only one of those three things were not real
***I was defeated by children ages 7 and younger…hence why the game is designed for that age…I was outsmarted
June 18, 2017 4:30 PM PST: I’m sitting at the Pei Wie bar at McCarren International Airport. I order a pineapple ginger rum drink. Primarily for the ginger to settle my stomach, secondary for the rum to help wipe away the previous day’s memories. To my left, my eyes catch a man moving towards another gate. He is wearing the same t-shirt that I had received from Bryce Canyon Ultras. He is moving to his gate with a walker; shuffling his feet to freedom after yesterday’s hellscape. Truly, his movement summed up the majority of our experiences. I do not laugh, I do not judge, I finish my drink, let the rum wash over me, and can only wonder one thing…
Why didn’t I think to grab a walker?
I have learned in my own trail running life that there are three types of ideas that frequently cross my mind:
-A bad idea
-A stupid idea
-A deadly idea
Up until this previous weekend, I had lived life on the edge between the first two noted choices. I had no idea that my most recent race, the Bryce Canyon Half Marathon, would teeter between what is deemed stupid, and what is accepted as deadly.
This is my story…
I live in flyover country; that means life is flat, fields are flat, water is flat, and trails are flat. Our climbing? 200-300 foot increases along the mud, rocks, and random raccoon ‘leftovers’. This also means that my mind has a hard time processing the idea of hiking, mountains, and falling to my death. Additionally, altitude? Elevation? At elevation? These terms and phrases meant little to me. After all, after experiencing the harrowing adventures through Free State this year, and the
misery adventure of the G.O.A.T.z Gravel Classic, surely there was nothing on this planet that could match those moments.
However, thinking the above notion resulted in God finishing off His glass of wine, looking at Michael, and saying, “Hey Michael! Watch this! We’re going to let Shawn ring the bell to Lucifer’s house!”
Months ago I had signed up for Bryce Canyon, nearly 20 runners from Kansas City would be embarking on this journey. Everyone had random stories; some were running the 50k, one the 50 Mile, and a few took on the 100 Mile. Personally, under the strong advisement of smart, more experienced runners, I chose the half marathon. The course was to be rocky, it was to be 13 miles, it was to be beautiful, and it would be a unique challenge versus what I had finished so far.
The only problem I had leading up to the race was the cutoff time. A 13 mile mountain race with a 4:00.00 cutoff. Considering that my only claim to fame was a 5+ hour half marathon through the swamps of Kansas, a 4 hour cutoff was a daunting task. However, I had to get the bracelet. People who completed the course were given a bracelet that were locally made, and just an iconic way of saying, “I did it.”
After flying into Las Vegas on Friday, we took vehicles through the mountains to Bryce Canyon. At one point we piled out of the vehicles and enjoyed the scenery that is Zion National Park. Once I stepped out and something immediately caught my attention, “I was breathing heavier than usual.” Make no mistake, I sound like a serial killer when I run in the woods. I breathe heavy, I step heavy, and I fall heavy. I scare other runners, I am sorry. At Zion though it was different, I just couldn’t catch my breath. I joked about it with everyone else, but in my head I thought, “Wait. This isn’t even as high up as the start point tomorrow. Oh no…”
After a dinner of country fried steak with gravy, I settled into my sleeping spot for the night at the Bryce Canyon Pines Hotel, breathed deeply (and frequently) as I accepted my fate of what the morning was to bring.
The half marathon started at 9:30 AM Saturday morning. The 100 Mile started the day prior, the 50K and 50M had started earlier in the morning. With icing from the honey bun I consumed still fresh on my beard, I stepped out to the beginning of the course. From there, the race director said the following…
Alright! We had to make a slight adjustment to the start. If you’ll follow the wash out under the road, you’ll find the start point.
There was 4 feet clearing for the wash out that I was walking on, and the road I was going under. I am 6’5. Suddenly, I’m hunched over in the mountains, crawling through this tunnel and I can only think of one thing:
“THIS IS JUST LIKE THE TUNNEL UNDER THE PRISON AT THE BARKLEY’S!”
…there was only nervous laughter. No one was amused. Death seemed to permeate the air before we even started. Something was amiss in the masses. It was as if those going towards the slaughter knew so, but refused to inform me because of my innocent pleasantries. They felt pity for what was coming. We all stood along the start point, roughly 300-400 runners towed the line (OH! I used fancy trail running terminology right there!), and before you knew it…the race started.
On me, like any other race, I had the following:
I did not carry a whole lot (i.e. food) because it was only a half marathon. I confess that my nerves got the best of me and when the race started; I took off. The first 1/2 mile felt great…it was on a flat surface. It was only after passing the campground that I made my first grave mistake. I looked up from the course. When I did that I noticed the runners that had been in front of me were no longer there. No, this wasn’t an apocalyptic rapture. No, this was worse. This was our first climb. Staring at me, as the peasant I am, was the first large hike on the course. 1/2 mile into the race and I was walking. We climbed for approximately a mile before dropping back down. That first climb set shockwaves throughout the whole group. Everyone at this point realized that we, collectively, had made a serious mistake.
As the climbing continued so did my fish-out-of-water gasps for air. The race started at 7200 feet, and by the second mile we were easily into the 7900 range and climbing. Additionally…there were no trees. No. No. God didn’t plant trees in southern Utah. He did plant sage and rosemary bushes, but no such luck on the trees. By mile two the sun was 100% on us. I can’t collectively figure out what was worse, the hiking up the massive climbs, or the free-styling, X-Game wannabe flying down the mountain side afterwards. To the runners that were around me; I am sorry for the crazed, nuclear size chicken that was flopping around you going up and down the hills. I mean no harm, I just need hugs. As the insanity sped up through the razor sharp edges of my life (literally), I made my second large mistake: I looked down. I am terrified of heights, I cannot even get on a ladder, it is that pathetic. I had thought going into this race that there would be trees, and large bushes, and everything that would hinder myself from peering of the edge into eternity.
On a pathway, that was no bigger than one of my feet, was two sides; one was the mountain side I was attempting to run down, and the other side…it was 1000 foot drop to my death. And. I. Am. Not. Kidding. The rest of the race, after that tragic mistake, would result in myself watching my feet and leaning to one side or another, whichever was the hillside of the decent or ascent (I just used mountain running terms!). By mile 4 I did get into the thought process of, “Well, it could be worse. It could be like those weird races where there are ladders at the tops of mountains. That would be insane.” It was no longer than 30 seconds after thinking that, that I peered around a corner and immediately in front of me were the runners, slowing to a climb, why? Because in front of them laid a dozen unevenly spaced railroads ties, in the form of stairs, to the peak of one of the mountains.
If I could have caught my breath, I would have cried.
I am grateful for long legs. They saved me during this race. If you were not tall, the spacing of the ‘stairs’ resulted in you having to step between each tie to get to the top. Thankfully, I could at least power through the ties to the pinnacle of this ‘challenge’. It was after that last tie that I noticed something; people bending over, coughing, and sitting down.
We were at mile 4.
The race director, through email, social media, and other forms of communication had emphasized that if you were going to drop, to do so at an aid station. Otherwise, finding you (your body) would be quite challenging, and you (or your loved ones) may be charged for the cost of search and rescue.
I thought he was being dramatic.
With a mile left prior to our aid station, I genuinely thought, “I’m going to drop at the aid station. This is insane.” Unfortunately, the next mile was a flat, smooth (haha!) descent back into the valley. I ran with a lady who hunts elk because she’s awesome, and the company kept me moving to the station.
At the aid station I grabbed water (barely drank any), topped off the Tailwind (barely drank any), snagged a Honey Stinger gel, a banana, and sprayed myself down with more sunscreen. I had so much ‘fun’ on the final stretch that I had forgotten about dropping, instead I pushed on from mile 5 to 6 and eventually from 6 to 7.
Anyone who read the course description, or even the elevation profile, knew that there was a massive 1.5 mile climb straight out of the aid station. It was not a joke! I climbed so much I forgot that places like Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska even existed. Everything was a climb, the mountains, life, hope, Miley Cyrus…everything at that point required my legs to go up. It was through this climb that the weird stuff started to happen. First of all, do you know why the rocks are red out in southern Utah? It’s not because of sandstone, sediment deposits, science, etc…No! It is the saturation of the blood of our ancestors who were also foolish enough to mess with these rocks. Do you know what a wash out is? A
place for water to run through during the wet season…NO! It’s a hot bed that lava rolls through on the daily; I’m convinced. As the climb continued, so to did the temperatures. The average high in June is around 78 degrees. Lucifer looked at his demons, and said, “Hold my Keystone Light*, watch this!”, and cranked up the thermostat. In fact, we would find out later that, that race was held in temperatures that were near 10 degrees above average. I’m surrounded by blood stained rocks, the ground is basically lava, and the temperatures are increasing by the minute. This all factors in nicely with the previous thought of 100% exposure due to lack of…well..life in the desert. Knowing the odds were against me, and the Hunger Games had finally caught me, I started laughing as I hiked. My laughter was quickly interrupted when someone (faster) at the top of the peak yelled, “BIKE!”**
BIKE (verb): Yelling “BIKE” while running on a trail indicates that a mountain bike individual is going down a hill, or around a corner. It is wise to give them the right away on downhill due to physics, gravity, and the probability of eating a tire rim if you don’t…
I have never been so confused in my life. I peered up through the scorch trials of the sun just to see a reincarnate of Evel Knievel come flying down the same mountain I was going up. This meant that I had to get off the side for the bike to pass, but…wait…THERE IS NO SIDE! IT’S A MOUNTAIN! DEATH! After, by the loving grace of God, the bike passed
I continued my journey, right up until I heard…
Someone, somewhere with way too much free time (and not access to an event calendar) had decided to host a mountain bike race the same day as our race, on the same peak. Meaning, I got to juggle my life and faith with a bicycle thirteen times while trying to go up one mountain side.
You would think, at the top of this insane mountain, that there would be a sense of victory for the accomplishment. There really wasn’t because of the realization that there was still five miles to get out of this course. Also, to add flavor, our course had blended in to the same course as the 100 Mile runners that were still moving about. I was fortunate to pass one at the top of the climb; she was decked out in orange, tall socks, trekking poles, hat, neck cover, sunglasses…I mean she looked the part. It was intimidating. I tried my best to converse with her, but after 31 hours on the course, she was merely moving one step at a time. I bid her farewell, counted my blessings that I was not her, and kept moving.
It was only two miles after that, through smell of rosemary, sage, and burnt flesh that something actually, humorlessly took place. I grabbed my hose to my bladder for a drink, and noticed that nothing was coming out of the bladder.
With four miles left in the race, I was out of water. I had a 1/2 cup of Tailwind (blazing hot Tailwind, mind you) that I rationed for another mile. I took one 1 second sip every ten minutes. As time wore on, I started finding runners sitting on rocks, laying in makeshift shade, and puking…oh the puking…throughout the course. Some were assisting others, and the truth was, the path was so small and limited that vehicles struggled to get back there to help someone in serious need. By mile 11 I was asking Jesus to come back, looking for a rock to hit with a stick to bring water, plus my stomach was starting to hurt. All while this was happening, my clock read 4:00.00. I was out of time. Frustrated, sick, and actually very scared, I did something I never thought I would do during a race; I sat down.
I sat on the trail, tried to figure out what I was doing, and tried to cry, only to have salt powder come out of my tear ducts. I did not know what to do, because like any other race I have partaken in, somehow I had wound up completely alone on the trail.
Two minutes into my personal pity party I heard noises from the trail, “click, click, click, click, click…”, and when I looked up, I kid you not, standing in front of me was a girl in orange, with tall socks, trekking poles, a hat, and neck cover. She stopped, looked at me, and I will never forget the words out of her mouth:
Well. This is hot.
Alright, get up, let’s go.
That was it. She would not move until I got up. I tried to explain to her that I was out of water, and her response? She tossed one of her own flasks to me, full of water. I drank half of it. I said thank you, we passed by two medics going back onto the trail to get someone behind us, and we kept moving. She said that we had less than two miles left based on her watch. I would have loved to have kept up with her, but she was so strong, so fast, and so incredible that I never stood a chance. Like life itself in the desert, she was gone with the wind. I rounded a few corners, and saw the road in front of me.
At the road, we had been told that a makeshift water station had been put up due to the heat. Mind you, this was not an official aid station, it was done due to hazardous weather conditions. It was unmanned. I saw it in front of me, and was so happy that God was allowing me to have water. I moved down the hill towards the table, and suddenly this elderly woman yelled from the road, “Don’t stop! There is no water!”
Sure enough the water stop was bone dry; this was the making of a bad John Wayne western. Again, feeling defeated I just stopped. The elderly lady split half of her water bottle with me and said, “You can do this. It is only 1 mile down the road.”
For the final mile, shuffling, walking, crawling, hallucinating that I was flying; I moved with another 100 Mile runner. He kept me entertained, telling me, “I run this…because of the honey’s” just to get me to laugh. We saw the finish line, neither one of us could run, and I am so proud to say that I walked right through that finish line in 4:50.00***.
I went into the shade, got ice on my neck by the same lady that iced my neck on my first ever trail race last year, drank some ginger ale, tried so hard not to puke, and just rested on the reality that I finished.
Later that night, while waiting for our 50 Mile friend to finish; I saw three fire and rescue trucks, two backpackers, and six ATV’s make their way to the trail from the road to go find runners. Sometimes it is hard to find humor when you are legitimately scared. This was extremely outside of my comfort zone, it was dangerous, and man it made a memory. I don’t regret it, it made all the trails back home seem so, so runnable, and I am
so glad I did not drop.
Most people were behind their projected finish of any distance from one hour to four hours on average from talking to people at the finish line. We’ve seen heat out here in flyover land, but not with the unlimited exposure. I will, unapologetically prompt this one thing, from a man who should not ever be making choices that involve things like this…
BRYCE CANYON ULTRAS I WOULD ADVISE AGAINST IF YOU HAVE NO EXPERIENCE IN TRAIL RUNNING. IT IS POSSIBLE TO FINISH AND HAVE A GREAT TIME, BUT IT IS A VERY, VERY HARD COURSE.
There is something to be said about community. I’ve spent several years of my life in natural disaster zones, assisting broken communities. I am always fascinated by how, in the worse moments, humanity several times has come through by assisting one another. Natural disasters aside (minus the forest fires just outside the range), it was incredible to see so many people, random people, helping one another through the race. One of our runners that eventually dropped did so by the aid of a random guy from Europe, our 50 Mile runner finished because she had someone that had stuck with her through thick and thin the last 20 miles. A dude with weird jokes, a crazy 100 Mile lady, and an elderly woman were incredible in unknowingly ensuring that I got to the finish line safely. The world is a really, really messed up place. I think one of the reasons that I’m so drawn to the trail is because of the people that makeup the entertainment, the support, and the culture.
*You cannot tell me that Keystone Light is not served in Hell
**Note; the bikers were some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. Thank you so much for being patient with us moving up the mountains.
***Nearly an hour faster versus Free State
While reading through the different blogs of trail running experts,
with non-stop envy seeking knowledge, I noticed that so many of them have participated in reviews of equipment, gear, books, food, and shoes. It is only natural that after doing this blogging stuff for around a year, that I too review some gear.
I present to you; the official Flyover review of the Saucony Peregrine 7
This review should be started with the following disclaimer: I have never owned a pair of trail shoes in my life. The Peregrine 7 was the first pair that I ever ordered, and this was only because I was tired of fearing for my life on muddy slopes through ranges such as Lake Perry and WyCo in Kansas City, Kansas. After blowing out two pairs of Saucony Ride’s in a span of one month, it was noted that I had finally arrived to the point of maturity. I needed the big kids shoes.
I strolled into my local running store, Run 816, and I looked at the ever joyful owner (buying shoes will do that) Nick. We had talked trail shoes for some time, but each time I had been reluctant because I didn’t feel that I needed them (keeping from falling to my death) versus wanting them (being like the cool runners). Trail shoes are a different monster, they tend to be more durable, have a bit more traction, and are designed for off road adventures. It is a lifestyle choice. You’re admitting publicly that you make poor choices in the woods, you run with raccoons, and double cheeseburgers tend to be recovery meals (perhaps that’s just me). However, after the month of April I was sick of rain, water, and mud. My hip flexors were toasted multiple times over, and I just wanted to actually stick to the trail, not slide over it like an overweight Silver Surfer.
Nick handed me the Peregrine 7. He made sure to emphasize that these are the trail shoes for trail shoes. Unfortunately he didn’t have any in my specific size, but he did at least have a size small so we could see if the shoe would work…
What I thought a trail shoe was: Rugged, hard, flat without any give. Tread to make it look impressive, but functioning like any other shoe. Trail shoes were an excuse to spend more money for earth tone/neon shoes that only a small percentage of the population uses…correctly.
…then I slid the Peregrine’s on…
What I know a trail shoe is: Trail shoe is love. Trail shoe is life.
Incredibly, out of all the shoes I have ever worn, these actually slid on like a glove. They were comfortable, I could move all of my foot, and they were surprisingly light. Without hesitation I placed an order for the Peregrine 7 in my correct size (that would be 14 Saucony, in case you’re reading this).
While the shoe felt nice, it still didn’t answer the question, “Is there a noticeable difference on the actual trails?”
A week passed and the Peregrine’s finally came home. Obviously my task was to take these things out onto the local trails and give them a go. The weather was humorously dry, there was dirt, not mud, and the stickiness of the summer had begun to cover the region.
Overall, it was miserable outside.
I took off for a quick* three mile run through the woods. Within the first mile the most amazing thing happened…I fell…and I fell so hard. It only makes sense that I fell on dirt; no roots, rocks, or anything else; just a flat section of dirt that scared a buck, and a really fast raccoon out of a tree. The reason for the fall? I completely miscalculated the tread on these shoes. Because of this, where I was used to sliding around like Tokyo Drift, was instead replaced with an ugly single car accident at your local demolition derby (Walmart). Meaning, the shoe’s traction is not messing around. In fact, if you look at the bottom of the Peregrine 7 the
tank tread runs in both directions. The front holds teeth that assists in uphill climbs, and the heel holds teeth that assist with flying downhill like a crazed tour bus driver in San Francisco. Nick informed me that I could climb a tree with these shoes, and he was not kidding (unstable raccoons in the woods have that ability).
After surviving my first three miles with the Peregrine 7’s my soul was sold; these shoes were game changers for me.
Now for the technical talk…
Is it worth it?
I am now able to have cool kid conversations at races when looking at shoes
I am more confident in my downhill (I can at least catch my breath now to scream, “LOOK OUT!” as I careen in harmony with gravity)
I feel much lighter compared to regular road shoes; helps the self-esteem
Overall, they are a win for me.
*we all know what this actually means…let’s be honest…it was 90 minutes…
There are road races.
There are trail races.
Then…in the awkward, isolated corner of society; where it is damp, dark and full of poor choices is the strange, step-child hybrid: the gravel road race.
For the record I am going to make the claim that a demonic spirit, bent on ensuring my death is miserable and lonely, possessed me when I made the choice to sign up for the GOATz Gravel Classic.
Like an apple from the tree of good and evil; I could not resist the realization that this race was free, it was ‘close’, and “The Legend” was also running around in the event. Every piece of poor peer pressure (ironically placed on by myself…and no one else), said that this was a must do in my growing world of trail running.
Even if there was no trail.
I should have seen the apocalyptic signs in the world around me prior to this adventure; a tire blowout the day I was to leave for the
desolate scenic landscape of Blair, Nebraska. I should have turned away when I rolled into a town where everything (minus the Walgreens) closes at 9:00 PM on a Friday night, and I couldn’t find a tube of toothpaste. I should have politely turned down my hotel room, from the kind man in the lobby watching infomercials on his tube television resting on a milk crate, when I realized my Super 8 welcome brochure came with instructions on what to do if the nuclear reactor down the road went into meltdown mode*.
However, like all other trail experiences since lacing up in July of last year, I pushed forward knowing that this was something that would help me in the future. That was also accepting that I would have a future after this experience…
Saturday morning greeted me with 55 degree temperatures, clouds, and a light breeze. I bid my farewell to the quaint farm town of Blair, and drove south to Skinny Bones Pumpkin Patch (I am not making this up) for the beginning of the race. Here I found a
few other hopeless souls roaming through the dust and gravel with race bibs, and…that was it.
Gravel Classic: The Greater Omaha Area Trail Runners (GOATz)** hosts this crazy event each year. There is a belief (must like the belief of a very unstable man in the mountains of Tennessee, looking back this seems fitting) that races should not cost you an arm and a leg to participate in. The Gravel Classic is a 30k/60k race that has no fee. It also has no frills, no medal, no beer (officially), no t-shirt, and no coupons to Canfield’s in Omaha. There is also zero…none…as in nothing…by way of aid stations on the course. Each loop is 18 miles***, so you had best be prepared for the entire duration of fun without bacon, ramen noodles, and Fireball.
The lax sensation of the race was actually a relief. Being naturally slow gives me the peace of mind of knowing that it could be so much worse. Plus, thinking prior to the race,
“I grew up running on gravel! Our high school ‘track’ was nothing but gravel. Surely, this could not be that hard.”
We were informed that we would run three quarters of a mile through a disked field to spread out the field (running field, not the fertilizer in the field) a bit prior to hopping on the road. There was no air horn, no cowbell, just a RD laughing to himself as he started his two stop watches and simply, like a rustic track coach said, “Alright. Go get it.”
I wore my trail shoes. I have zero regrets about this. The rock plates on the bottom of them were huge when dealing with the gravel on the road. After the first 3/4 mile of laughter (aka: heavy breathing), we finally hit the road. There are a few key rules about this race in relation to the road:
Recognizing my speed, and my tendency to run alone, the rules meant little to me. My mission was simple; this was my 18 mile long-run on a Saturday. It was part of my training, it was different from my days, I would hop along the road, head home, and call it a day.
DID YOU KNOW NEBRASKA HAS HILLS!?!?!?
Within the first 5k I had started to realize the very poor choice that I had made. I was out of breath in the first three miles. The road did not consist of my expected, large, white limestone gravel. It was pea gravel! Freaking pea gravel! Have you ever ran in that? Yes, yes you have. It’s called running the in the sand!
Imagine; you have trail shoes on with amazing grip. You are going uphill with pea gravel. Your quads are on fire, you are moving nowhere fast, and you have 15 miles remaining. The demonic possession truly was going to see my inevitable doom by the end of the course.
Scanning the horizon (easy to do in Nebraska) I started to notice the deep blue hues to my west. I also recognized that this was the second race that I had signed up for involving “The Legend”. The last one ended in flash flooding, lightning, and a stranded car. These elements combined together caused me, in my delirium of ‘tire spinning’ up a hill to note simply; rain was coming.
The wind picked up, the temperatures stayed at 55 degrees, and the rain came down (at me like air daggers) and completely soaked me to the bone. It remained like this for about a solid mile, almost two, before tapering off to sprinkles. At one point or another I yelled at “The Legend” for bringing this with her (she never heard me because, again, I was running alone).
Through the burning, raging, and raining sensations I was witnessing came the next adventure at mile four; the headless runner.
I have learned that for the most part I stick out at races for sheer size versus most runners. At 250 pounds and 6’5 that is just something I accept (along with never touching a basketball…ever). Suddenly, almost like a ghost, a man came up next to me, matching stride for stride. He was bubbly, smiling, and talking; all the things I dream of doing when I run. Most notably though, he was a staggering four inches taller then myself!
When he came up next, assuming he saw the struggles, he said he was doing a 3 on 1 off combo. Meaning three minutes of running, one minute of walking. He was also running the 60k; bless his heart. For the first time in my entire running career/life/experience I decided that I would run with a complete stranger, at least for three minutes. It turns out running with other people melts the miles away. We talked politics, family, jobs, running, mutual friends (the trail world is connected), next races, imaginary, abandoned towns on route (Washington), and life in general. Granted, I should note he was doing the majority of the talking. My short laughter or, “…*gasp*…yeah…” was about all I could get out. It was a hard pace for me. However, we hit the half marathon mark in just over two hours. Meaning, personally, I was cooking. We also found photographers along the route, him knowing them being local. This is where I learned about the “headless runner”. As it turns out, the majority of race photos, for joking purposes, that feature him and other runners include the others, but usually just him from the shoulders down. This gave him the monicker “headless runner” in the GOATz community.
Probably most importantly, I learned why he ran. Ask any trail runner out there, there is a reason why they run the way they do. All of them have a unique story; including the headless runner. Him, and his wife (also running the 60k), run as a way to encourage their daughter. He, being in the medical professional, has a strong connection to movement, the body, and how the well being of people are frequently connected directly to how much they move. It was inspiring to listen to a runner talk about his drive, his family, and that a crazy, absurd amount of miles makes such a strong impact on his entire family.
With that said, as inspiring as the story was, it did not stop the fact that I was dying internally from the mass amount of hills on the course. While he continued to trudge through them, my pace was getting slower and slower. The course doesn’t do ‘flat’, it does uphill and downhill. It ensures that your quads fire, your calves activate, and your soul slowly dies with the dust. My life on the gravel was playing out like an archaic Kansas song.
Turning on the final long stretch, the headless runner and myself saw the construction of
a large barn. Now, being smart, we realized that prior to the race Skinny Bones was also building a large barn. These connections, like a sliver of hope, allowed us to see that the race was nearing its completion. I was going to make it!
And just like that glimpse of good fortune, the morsel of hope and well being, the devil of distance and perception arose and crushed what was left of my heart into the pea gravel of life! Turns out in Nebraska a lot of people like to build barns, and the outline of the barns look eerily similar. A mile heading towards that structure allowed us to realize; we had three more miles. I cried.
The headless runner took off in front of me. We bid our farewells, and I slowed down to a walk for about a mile. The sun came out, the wind kept blowing (did you know that the wind of Nebraska will blow in your face regardless of direction that you’re running), and I began to shutdown like a vampire. With only two miles left I put in my earbuds and tried to move up the final large hill. Listening to Krewella scream into my earbuds, “Somebody help me, I am only human…” brought a knot to my throat, and at the same time a knot formed on my leg. A photographer, driving around taking photos of
corpses runners pulled up next to me. Just when she was preparing to push the shutter button, I nearly collapsed into a pile due to the insane sensation of pain running through my leg.
They call these things cramps. It was the first cramp I have ever had while running. In front of a photographer, already nearing the level of tears from…well…gravel. She drove past me, I think laughing (I wouldn’t blame her), while I did an impersonation of throwback 70’s “Party Off The Pounds” with Richard Simmons trying to get that softball tumor of a cramp out of my leg.
Only one mile left.
The final section was the beginning of the course. Flat, past the tornado sirens in the middle of corn fields, heading directly towards Nebraska Route 133 like a trail runners version of Thelma and Louise. Prior to diving headlong in traffic, I turned down the driveway into the finish line. Completing, honestly, the hardest 18 miles of my life.
The RD came up and asked only one thing…
How was the course marking for you?
I wouldn’t have known if I had gotten lost even if I had wanted to at that point. I gave him a thumbs up, waited for “The Legend” to come in behind me with her husband, listened to her talk about the desire she had for another 30k, laughed out loud, cried inside silently, got my 30k sticker and headed home.
Death? Contemplated it.
Stickers? Got them.
I went back to Kansas City that evening to runners laughing at my story of trying to survive gravel. It turns out running on that stuff isn’t easy (or fun for several people). It really is its own brand of insanity.
Would I recommend it?
I mean, it is a free entry…
And it is on UltraSignUp…
*In event of meltdown; grab some marshmellows and a stick
**Two different races that have been my hardest are hosted by these people
***IT WAS 19 MILES