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
Just over a week ago I found myself in a dark room, laying on a table top in nothing but my boxers, and someone continued to grab my feet with their slimy hands. This went on for 90 minutes….
NOW THAT’S AN ATTENTION GETTER!
In all reality I did something outside of my comfort zone (which is ironic considering this whole blog was created because I decided to do something out of my comfort zone to begin with); I went and received a full, therapeutic, deep tissue massage.
The reason? It hurt to walk. It hurt to breathe. It hurt to pick up the cat. It hurt to chase the cat. It hurt to exist. My body just hurt. This stemmed from the fact that for ten months I have been beating my body on the dirt, mud, rocks, tears, and the blood of saints throughout the enchanted woodlands.
Even though I am not even a year into trail running; I have started to learn more and more about two specific things:
My theory, based solely on my own stupidity, is that the few of us that actually get excited about running (there is a ratio out there of those who like to run versus how many friends said person actually has), forget that in order to run we have to be able to do multiple things all at once. Our joints have to function, our muscles have to fire, our brain has to be focused, and that all has to click together at once to ensure that one foot goes in front of another.
The human body is kind of cool like that.
Most of my life my belief was simple, “I like running. The road is flat. I shall run on the road and not grow weary.” When I transitioned to the trails I started to learn that after three miles my stomach hurt, after six my left hip began to sting, after after 10 my knees hurt to even bend. The former self says, “Push on.” This is where running and growing older actually helps, the current self says, “Problem solve. What is causing each area of error?”
In the world of computers, you trace back errors, if necessary, back to the original coding to completely solve the problem. Running I find similar; if my hips hurt, is it because I am injured? No, it’s because I lack muscular development in my hips. My stomach hurts; does that mean I’m sick? No, it means you’re not taking salt with your water and your digestive system is rebelling against you. Am I dying? No, you need to embarrass yourself and go to a masseuse.
Below, I’m going to outline four areas that I have found to be in ‘error’ since starting to trail run, and what I have done to be proactive about addressing each issue (there’s a happy ending with this one).
The problem: I can’t breathe. I can’t pee. My legs are shaking. I am going to puke. Nothing happens when I puke. I hate life.
The reality: A car cannot just function as a car, it must be fueled properly in order for its performance to be optimized. The human body is no different. I am not a dietician (the world is a better place because of that), but I have noticed a pattern for myself. If I eat take-out, donuts, and other garbage during the week, how do you think I perform? Exactly as you thought; like a drunk clown waking up from a scary birthday party with nothing but gin in his system to make the child play go away (and the balloon animal named Steve).
The adjustment: I did not go and hire a dietician. I did not go on ‘a diet’. I stopped eating crap. Unfortunately, in our society it is easier said then done. My Sunday nights are now aimed at prepping food for the week solely so I don’t either; A. Go out to eat, or B. Chooses not to eat during meal time. Make no mistake, we need our calories, but we have to ensure that we are eating the right calories. We are not the Prius of the running community; we are the oversized Ford diesel that gets 30 gallons to the mile..
Result: I’m still working non-stop on this one.
The problem: Easily, I could be the next star for Life Alert…at age 29.
The reality: It is partially because of strength (lack there of), part shoes, sleeping habits, etc…but my body was completely out of alignment. Hitting uneven dirt was not helping the situation. My joints hurt like crazy, along with tendons also (something that I do separate from muscle in discussion). This included some nasty injuries to my feet in the beginning of my poor choices (aka: running).
The adjustment: I looked at what my medical insurance covered. Did you know that many plans have something adjusted for people like chiropractors? Mine did, and now that I am an “adult”, I put it to use. Especially right after or leading up to a big race, I stop at my local chiropractor and get adjusted. This has included
screaming acupuncture, A.R.T, and a lot of stretching. These guys save my skin frequently, and they started by knocking out years worth of planter fasciitis and a misdiagnosis.
Result: Even after my last ultra, they have not seen or heard from me.
The problem: Not that I ever should flex, but if I did, after the laughter subsided from my wife, I could be in a paralyzing cramp until my 30th birthday.
The reality: As a high school student I never stretched (because I thought it was stupid). I strained muscles, tore muscles, damaged muscles, and never gave time to recover correctly from any damage; intentional or not. From high school to currently day, that would be at least 17 years worth of doing nothing to help work anything out of my system. Additionally, I’m mortified of physical contact.
The adjustment: “Suck it up buttercup.” I signed up for a deep tissue massage from a professional masseuse which is very different compared to the massage I got in return for allowing two girls in Mexico to paint my nails back in ’05. Within the first thirty minutes of the massage I fell asleep, drooled on the pillow, and forgot what was going on. After I woke up, flipped over like a buttery piece of bacon (butter on bacon?), and the rest of the experience flew by. While some people view massages as an event for those with way too much free time and money; I can assure you I am neither. However, I also know that these moments are crucial to bring my body back to life. If it was the DC comic universe, a massage is simply the Lazarus Pit. Plus, the company I was with helped me work through my fear of touch*.
Result: I have never done drugs in my entire life, but walking out of that building in the pouring rain a week ago was one of the most bizarre out-of-person experience. They will see me again after The Hawk.
The problem: Turns out lifting a gallon of milk is a challenge. Along with stepping on rocks. Along with jump rope. Along with a single push-up. Along with…
The reality: I am a very, very weak person. For clocking in around 6’5 and 250 pounds, I cannot really lift or move much. I am weak. I skipped the weight room in high school because of fear of being made fun of by the football team. I skipped the weight room in college because of fear of being made fun of by the women’s soccer team (this is a legit fear). I did not know what I was doing. I hated sitting still. I would argue with people that I received enough ‘strength’ just by ‘running’ (the ‘ ‘ indicates I didn’t know what either of those things actually meant).
The adjustment: The devil. Not quite, but pretty close. I am very fortunate to have a gym in Kansas City, ran by a demon who has completed Western States, is a ultra coach, and is passionate about runners getting stronger. Bless her soul for her patience. She works me over Wednesday nights for sixty minutes; ensuring that Thursday will be a rest day by force. For a small fee, I am able to get attention on areas of weakness (hips at the moment) from someone with the trail and ultra experience.
Result: This is the hardest adjustment I have had to do. However, it probably has had the biggest payout so far. I can now run at ultra distances without having hip problems. The
burpees jump squats crying is worth it.
Who knew running was so complex? You want to go from point A to point B, that’s it. However, there are so many gears that you have to go through to get through that distance, allowing the margin of error and breakdown to increase with the mileage as well.
How do I know that these things have helped me? The easy answer is taking my time from a course in July and comparing it to this weekend in which sixty minutes had been knocked off. The easier answer is this; in 7th grade (1999) I took a helmet to a knee doing something that I should never do (trying to be athletic). That one moment started the whole reaction of knowing that I get hurt, injured, and truth be told; I never recovered from that, the shoulder surgery, the ankle injuries, the knees as a whole. Something always hurt, all the time for 18 years.
I went running for a hard 10 miles yesterday. It was hot, nasty, and overall very pleasant. Why? It was the first time running distance, especially without mud, that I was not in pain. I was limping, I was not cramping up, I was almost dancing along the trails. For the first time in 18 years I did not feel pain running, before, during, and after. That is the testament to understanding even though I have no idea what I am doing, that these adjustments make a world of difference to the runner.
*They did not even mention anything about my fear. The masseuse was no non-sense. The moment of fear was over when I laid on the table, after removing the clothes, on my stomach. Only to learn that I was to be on my back to start the process. Hollywood is a lie, and I think they don’t tell you this in order to break the ice through the tool of embarrassment.
Move aside Gilgamesh.
Part ways from us Achilles.
Yes, even you Dante have no place in this story:
Dearest reader, adjust your seat and take a deep breath; I’m going to attempt to encapsulate you in honor, glory, dignity, grit, and a story that makes legends of those who are in it.
This is my race recap of the Free State 13.1/26.2/40/100K race…
Free State is a strange race through its 11 years of running. Starting out at Clinton Lake, a borderline natural disaster in years past during the race influenced the race director to relocate it to its current location; Lake Perry, Kansas.
Unlike Clinton Lake; merely an earshot from Lawrence, Kansas; Lake Perry truly is a remote fishing lake out in the middle of Northeast Kansas. Are there towns? I’m guessing so, but I have only heard of them via rumor and not with my own eyes. Meaning, for a Trail Nerds sponsored race, this one is out in the sticks so-to-speak. The trails can easily be summed up with one word: technical. The course is beautiful, extremely well marked, and it runs along the shoreline of Lake Perry and back to the hospitable (and slightly questionable in a “The Hills Have Eyes” kind of way) Branded B Ranch. Realistically, it is really hard to screw up a race that is well organized, detailed, and smoothly ran.
Months ago, while building out a training schedule, I went ahead and placed a race in my schedule as a ‘training run’ just to break up the long runs over the weekends. I was limited in my options, knowing that anything along the lines of a marathon or more would kill me. Thankfully, I discovered the half-marathon option at Free State. I signed up back when the sun was going down before 6:00 PM at night. My mindset was simple; go out, have a good time, get in a good run, volunteer at the “Mud Babes” aid station, and call it a weekend.
However, a week prior to the race I started a fun dialogue on Facebook about the
event (the other bad place to be for poor choices outside of UltraSignup.com) with a 100K competitor. Their name was Brandy (cue legend, knight-like music), and they were looking for a pacer. Brandy asked me if I would be interested in pacing her on her final loop. Naturally I immediately declined because…logic, knowing that I had a half-marathon to run, I’m slow, and I would likely die if I was placed with another person competing in a 100K. God has a tendency to allow nature to take care of those who are inherently stupid in choice. I stared at the dialogue for a while, sent a few messages to Brandy, and without consulting a single smart soul out there I changed my mind and agreed.
At Free State I would run my half-marathon in the morning, and then later in the day I would pace Brandy in her final 20 mile loop. I spent the rest of the time nervously figuring out how to slow down my race, so that I would have the energy to keep up with this ultra-runner. 100K=62 miles, these are not people to mess around with. They are the main character in the stories, the hero’s, they are the ones that documentaries are made about, and stories are shared about around the campfire at future races. Brandy, in my mind, was already a legend.
Note; I had also never ran with her in my entire life.
The day of the race finally came to fruition; it started very similar to
Rocky Raccoon…Psycho Summer. Strangely warm for the morning hours. 8:00 AM hit, it was time for the 100K/40M runners to take off. I was sure to show up in the morning early to meet with Brandy, help with anything, and see her off, along with many other amazing friends. 8:01 AM there was still no airhorn; it was then that we discovered the race had been pushed back thirty minutes. This knowledge sent one of the runners into a new triggered fit as they had witnessed the same thing happen two weeks prior at a race called Rock’n K. The delay? Stupid people pulling flags from the course the night prior. The race started thirty minutes late at 8:30 AM; my race started an hour later at 9:30 AM. When I left for my jaunt through the woods the temperature was nearly 76 degrees and not showing signs of slowing down.
At mile three I noticed that I was already started to burn from the exposure of the sun and the reflection off the lake. The noticing of this was limited due to reality of the focus-game I got to play with the course. I waltzed like a ballerina (I just insulted two groups of people with that comparison), or as close as a 6’5 ogre could through the rocks. These small rocks are halfway buried meaning the risk isn’t the rocks sliding; it’s you busting your feet, toes, knees, face, soul against the cutthroat, jagged Saw like toys of nature almighty at every single mile. The truth was that you could never get the footing to stretch out on the course. Unlike myself, only the athletic were able to move quickly through the course. Except, as I neared mile 9, I started to realize that the actual athletes were beginning to suffer. The heat was now near 81 degrees in mid-April in northern Kansas. Very few, if any, runners were prepared for the heat and the humidity. Cramping, crying, and slamming of Ginger Ale was becoming frequent at nearly every aid station. I was merely trying to just finish so that I could rest for the day’s second round.
As I neared the end of my own, actually…rather calm, race I found the end point of the course. If you ever race at Lake Perry please be ready in your mind for the final 100 feet of the course. It is 100% exposed in the grass fields (where the photographers hide in the blades like a cracked-out cougar…animal cougar…taking shots of ‘art’…also known as suffering), and the final steps? A 60 foot switchback climb to the finish line. If you are not ready it truly will end your existence, at least spiritually.
Upon crossing, getting the medal of
survival completion, I thanked my parents for humoring my stupidity. Kissed my wife as she left for her volunteer time at the aid station, and proceeded to go inside the main building. At this point I switched bibs, switching out my numbered race bib, for another one marked PACER with orange borders, almost as if it were a warning. Coco, assisting the race director, looked at me almost with eyes of pity, and simply asked through the tone of caution:
Are you sure you really want to do this?
I chuckled, smiled, and walked over to a vintage 1970’s couch, ate a few hotdogs, and went to sleep for a few hours. At 4:00 PM my wife was sending in texts, stating that our friends on the 100K course were struggling. The heat was now up to 86 degrees with 65% humidity in the Kansas woods. Runners were, in some cases, staggering through the finish line to completion. The drop list from 100K to 40M was growing, along with the insane amount of 26.2 to 13.1 drops from earlier in the day. At one point I saw 26.2 runners finishing behind the 40M runners. Make no mistake; the heat was that bad.
At 5:00 PM I was watching Eric, an aid station volunteer, play with a black rat snake he
had found, and was humoring the reality that an aid station worker was going to instead pace a 100K runner who needed the help later in the day. At 6:15 PM, with a 6:45 PM cut-off, the three pacers were standing over the prairie land finishing area watching for our runners. At 6:25, a camera crazed runner named Todd came through. The first pacer, Ashley, disappeared with him off into the woods for their final loop. At 6:20 PM one of the “Mud Babes” that has kept track of me forever came through; Carol. There she picked up Matt as her pacer, and disappeared into the woods. Finally, worrying about cutoff time ticking through, I saw two braids coming through the woods; Brandy made cutoff by 14 minutes.
Upon finding her, it became like an aid station stop,
“What do you need? Are you eating? What do you need to switch? Get your shirt off, switch with this. Don’t eat that! You can eat that though. Ready?”
Brandy had busted it through two 20 mile laps to make cutoff. She had completed 40 miles in 10 hours. That, in some ways, given the weather and course is a rather tight cutoff. She was not cramping, but she was tired, nauseous, and was not in the mood to eat. After about 10 minutes we got her out of the chair and her and I started down the road towards her final 20 mile loop. She was the second to last person to make cutoff. Several of our dear friends did not make it; primarily due to reactions with the heat.
This is where my race day started to get interesting. I started chatting with this borderline stranger on the road, hiking of course, and it went a little like this:
Me: So…I heard a rumor about you…
B: That I have a tendency to fall asleep in the middle of long races? Yes, that does happen. That will be the big thing to watch for. It is why I do not run 100M races.
Me: Have you ran a 100K before?
B: Nope. This is my first one.
Recap: My first time ever pacing someone resulted in being with someone who had never attempted a 100K, and due to physical reasons had a tendency to fall asleep during races…while running.
Best. Idea. Ever!
The nice thing about her making cutoff was that it really eased her time on her third
loop. Meaning, a lot of it was spent hiking. By mile 42 her appetite was back and she was eating. By mile 44 it was started to slowly cool off, and mile 45 we sadly started to turn on our headlamps due to the darkness. Mile 46 I screamed like a girl due to a spider (spiders), and neglected to tell Brandy about the Copperhead we nearly stepped on. At mile 50 we started to see a lot of insects and animals; interestingly enough that were all moving in the same direction: uphill.
The thought crossed my mind once, “You know, animals tend to know something humans don’t before we do learn about them. I wonder why the deer, snakes, and millipedes (SO MANY!) were all moving in the same direction?
At mile 47 we hit our first aid station; we didn’t stay long, but we did say our farewells to Matt and Carol; she was dropping due to severe stomach issues. As Brandy and I left we started to think about the women that were in the race; that was when we realized between her friends and mine, that she was the only female left on the course. Meaning, Brandy finishing was going to result in her not only completing the 100K, but also taking first overall female. We were calmly freaking out. Smiling, laughing, and occasionally jogging. We spent the next three miles talking about Jesus, life, and chemistry (seriously). Anything that kept her moving. At mile 50 we hit the next aid station. At this station we had a 5 mile total down-and-back, and a 5 mile jaunt to the finish line. I slammed down a can of Coca-Cola, and noted that for the first time while running, I was legitimately tired. I couldn’t tell Brandy, but sleep was messing with me (irony). As we left the aid station the wind dropped the temperatures, and suddenly our headlamps were overtaken by something much brighter…
Remember all that heat and humidity from earlier in the day? Rule in the Great Plains: if you have those same ingredients all day, it will storm at night. Tonight was no exception. Not even half a mile from the aid station it started to sprinkle and lightly rain. We laughed about it with the people behind us, the course sweeps, and then nearly a mile in to the down-and-back God pulled something that would even make Noah blush. It rained so hard that we could not see in front of us, even with our lamps on, the wind was blowing, and the lightning was incredible…and we were in the middle of woods.
This is where my runner began to struggle. The rain chilled her to the bone; she had been in heat, sweat, and sun all day. Suddenly she was no longer talking, she was not moving her arms, and she was shaking. The moment was gone. We were now not just on the trail, we were needing to get to shelter and get to shelter quickly. Brandy started to walk off course, my phone (I HAD JUST BOUGHT A NEW PHONE AND CHOSE THE WATERPROOF MODEL!) was going off with my wife trying to find us (it was her aid station were heading towards), and the rain was falling even harder. It took us nearly three hours to get 2.5 miles. I was holding onto Brandy’s pack guiding her on the trail because she was losing it from the cold. The only thing I could say was, “We have to keep moving. We will get out the rain, but we have to keep moving.” 120 agonizing minutes later we found what was left of the aid station, it was 1:00 AM and all that was still up was the canopy. I ran in front of Brandy the final twenty feet and started grabbing for any dry material I could find. She came under the canopy and I wrapped her up in everything I found, sent the ATV out for rain gear, and just wrapped my arms around her. We had to get Brandy warm. At the same time I asked the aid station captain to radio the race director and find out the status of the race. Brandy and I had 7 miles left on the course. She was shaking uncontrollable, and I was trying my best to stay upbeat and at the same time alert.
Something clicked in me that this was it. If Brandy and I went back out, that would be 7 miles of hiking. That would be at least another 3-4 hours. She would have hypothermia at that time and require medical attention. I bent down, grabbed Brandy by the shoulders, and in one of the most painful things that I can remember doing I said…
You have to make me one promise. Look at me please. You have to make me one promise. If the RD calls the race, we have to abide by his ruling.
It wasn’t even 30 seconds after that, that the aid station captain came back to notify us that the race director had instructed all people to be removed from the course. The race was called. Brandy sat on a tree stump, sobbing, knowing that her race was done. The only thing I could do was hover over her and take the brunt of the rain so she would not be as wet. Minutes passed and the ATV came back. We placed Brandy on the ATV and she was taken back to the start/finish line. It was upon her leaving that I started to realize something; I was really tired, really wet, and really cold. I turned my lamp on and took off through the trail (now just standing water that was from ankle to knee in depth) to get out of the woods. Something snapped in me mentally; I was done with this race. I wanted off the trails, I wanted to know my runner was safe, and I wanted to sit down. While sloshing through the torrent, I noticed that I could not hear myself think, all I heard was rushing water. I looked forward and saw a four trail crossing that was quite literally a raging river; it was a classic flash flood. You know, the classic ones that kill idiots like me that try to cross without thinking about it.
I screamed at the water. Screamed at the trail. Screamed at the sky. Turned around and ran back to the aid station crew who were coming in behind me. I told them the issue, and slowly but surely they helped me across the area safely and out of the trail. By 1:30 AM I was sitting in a chair, covered in towels and dry shirts in the lodge of Branded B Ranch. Brandy sitting across from me was just devastated and there was not a single thing I could do to fix the problem. The worse feeling is feeling that you have no power to correct the problem.
Brandy left to go take a shower and go to bed (bunk house located on site). I asked my wife to go grab the car. She did not want to leave without someone else, so thankfully a friend of mine, Sheri, went with her. Twenty minutes passed and Sheri came back to me, placed a hand on my shoulder and calmly said…
Your car is in mud halfway up the wheels. You are not getting home tonight.
My wife, is now losing her mind in the car, in the dark, in the mud because we’re obviously not getting home. No one could come out until the morning to pull us out. I tried to sleep in the bunk house on a couch, across the hall from a dog, a few very tired guys, a wife who was sobbing while eating a cold hotdog, and Brandy. At 8:00 AM Sunday morning, now being at Lake Perry for over 24 hours, I called roadside assistance. They couldn’t get me out without charging around $250 because it was not located 50 feet from the road. I called the race director, he told me to call the owner of the property, he told me he would call his brother. At 9:00 AM a burly farmer attempted to pull my car out; nearly burying his diesel in the process.
At 10:00 AM I said farewell to Brandy, and my wife, our car covered in mud, and myself left for our home where we would sleep all day, eat way too much from Burger King, and try to purge our minds of a day so insane that the non-trail runner will never fully understand.
I wish I could have added more humor to this post. However, the forcing of humor takes away from the legacy. I watched a runner, grew to know them as a person, fight against God, Himself in order to finish a race. Sure, in the end there was no medal, no trucker hat, nothing. More then that though, was the fact that Brandy had unintentionally put herself in the volumes of my growing book of legends.
As for myself? It took me a solid 24 hours to fully recover from the whole day. Mentally I was ruined from the event. Even during my casual Monday night run I was trying not to cry because of how sad the ending results were from Free State.
It should be noted though; through the eyes of a runner that cares about safety. The whole Trail Nerds organization did everything by the book. The runners were protected, the event was safe, and at no point were lives inadvertently at risk. The result sucks, but knowing that everyone is safe does outweigh the final numbers.
If you are curious; only six runners ended up finishing the 100K. That is getting close to The Barkleys Marathon kind of statistic. I did wind up running an ultra-marathon; 13.4 miles in my race and then another 13.7 with Brandy; so 27.1 miles. A note about technical footwork; at Rocky Raccoon 50K I logged 33000 steps, at Free State half-marathon I logged 31000 steps.
I hope that one day I too could be a legend, like the one I saw created this weekend. Thank you Brandy, for being mine.
I grew up in a small farm community north of Kansas City, Missouri. With 1200 people in the town, it wasn’t unheard of to graduate their high school with 50 students per year. It is the life of the small town, and the life of growing up without friends…
The other part of growing up in this kind of atmosphere is knowing that if you love to run (especially if you are really bad at it*), you will be running alone on the back farm roads…a lot.
Summer, spring, argument with parents, friend-zoned by some girl, there was always a reason to lace up and take off out the door. The reality though, was aside from my own small aid station 1 1/2 miles outside of town**, I was on my own. I never learned paces, I never learned running in groups, I never had the moment to find people to run with because I was informed that running together was ‘fun’.
Reality is that until this past year, I had never learned how to run with other people. Monday nights are my chronic, semi-painful practice session to keep pace, breathe, and try to answer questions all at the same time…without falling on a tree root.
The flip side of all of this was an added personal benefit to trail running that I hadn’t noticed until a few months ago. As alluded to in the review from the Rocky Raccoon 50K, weeks prior I had visited a random trail, needing 24 miles, I just took off through the woods alone.
I’ll make an argument; we each need our own solo runs. For some of us it is an easier feat to accomplish compared to others, but in the end, we all need it. Being a
lying experienced runner who is doing the whole ‘blog’ thing; I’ll even give a few reasons why you need that solo run:
The reality is that your next race will be a race in which you are running. It is your adventure. If you take the time for your own solo runs; it helps ease any fear of knowing that in some ways, brutally honest here, you will be going it alone. Yes, crew, friends, family, teammates all exist, but they won’t be with you each step the way. It is just you and the woods (and in some case the other five voices in your head).
*There was this girl that was a distance runner on my high school track team. Many years we were the only two to do distance races. She lapped me three times in the two mile, because a NCAA All-American in cross country (without having a high school cross country team), and was always supportive when she passed me . If salt pills would have been a thing back then, she would have offered them.
**True story. This girl (same age) lived at the top of our ‘hill’ in the community 1.5 miles outside of town. During the summer, when I would run by, she would frequently be out there with a glass a water. I thought she was very kind for doing such things, and only learned nearly six years afterwards that she had a crush on me the whole time. Me=Oblivious.
Last Saturday I had scheduled to run just 12 miles (because I’m cool enough to say just now). The twelve would be ran out in a random trail that I had never been to on a warm and windy day. I arrived thirty minutes late because…sleep. I swear I will never be the 60 year old that has breakfast at 4:30 in the morning and dinner at 4:30 PM. Due to of my tardiness the rest of the crew had already taken off into the woods for a day of mystery running.
I picked a random route*, fascinated by the color blue (and every other shiny thing out there…but not the murderous fox I encountered), I started trotting through the woods. My mind was clear; knowing that since I had already entered into the world of ultra-marathon a month prior, twelve miles really should not be that difficult of a task; relatively speaking. Strength training classes on Wednesday were wearing me out on Thursday’s, but I was getting stronger on the longer runs also.
Realistically, Honey Stinger in hand, the day was marked with early stages of success.
…so why in God’s green earth did each step feel as if I was trying to run through a swamp?
The adventures of Texas was last month; the swamp sensation of humidity, alligators, and potential death should not be a part of my life until at least May in this section of flyover land.
I tried to shake the sensation. Instead, I tried to focus on the reality that the ‘potential brush’ I had been advised about was ripping my shins to shred with each step I took. Perhaps a little physical pain would ease my mind from the fact that I was struggling to move forward. Sadly, after being involved in trails for a while now, the pain threshold (and realm of allowed stupidity) has increased. I’m sad to report that my bone could have been showing from the gashes, and I would still be hell-bent on ensuring my Garmin was accurate with my pace.
Eight miles in and the trip was turning into a disaster. I struggled through the final four miles, walking the final mile of the four.
I went home knowing that a new week would give me new potentials and this would be shaken out of my system.
Monday night: Aside from dodging another collapsing tree due to an incoming…oh you know…tornado; I was still running through sludge.
Wednesday night: I had a horrible strength training session. Nothing was working correctly between my body and brain (mouth and brain issues are to be expected though). I left defeated and frustrated. I still owe an apology to the course instructor.
Thursday night: I was able to last for 2.5 miles before I called it, and just went home and cried in the basement (due to a sappy rom-com anime series…NOT because my love of running was betraying me in the dirt)
Friday night: I staggered into my house from work. I didn’t make it back out that night. Instead, I contacted two very, very trustworthy, knowledgeable, 100 miler (that still sounds abnormal) runners and asked them what was going on with me.
I need a reset.
Nothing is broken. There are no injuries. My diet, overall, isn’t that scary in comparison to past months. All the usual signs of issues weren’t there, but my body just wasn’t able to move. Between the two of them problem solving; we discovered a few interesting pieces of information:
The truth was, factoring in teaching
hell-spawn middle school students full time, and other things out of my control (some call these issues life), I had been pushing my body to its limits nearly every week for 3/4 of a year. Sure, I dabbled in the dark magic referred to as ‘tapering’ leading up to races, or even a week off after my first 50K, but that has been it.
Because of my unstable, barely functioning cognitive condition (I now understand why peers use to call me the scarecrow), I absolutely adore running. I have to move my legs, I have to travel by foot, I love the ability to continue to try and fly.
I state this because some people I’ve met get into this sensation that they grow to hate the sensation of running, the activity, the process, the cycle, whichever they call it; I call it “learning to hate oxygen”. Knowing this is key to understanding that this is not a burnout issue with myself.
So; if it isn’t burn out, injury, sickness, or diet…what is causing this sensation? Plain and simple; spelled out to me in very easy terms, I’m tired. My body is absolutely wrecked from the past several months. I’m doing things that I have never done before, and my body is trying to tell my brain that we have to slow down the process. Especially as the mileage increases, and times hopefully decrease.
To make it easy; we only become stronger and faster when we allow ourselves rest.
This is my lesson to learn. To get faster, to go further, to grow stronger; at times we have to stop.
Without guilt (and possibly with ice cream) I’m following advice and taking a week to reset myself. Ensuring that enough rest is had, which is ironic considering the time of night and the curse of daylight savings time as I type this, and that I’m physically ready to go again.
*Later that week they found a burned up car with a body inside at the same parking spot; I knew that route was evil…
Four weeks ago I ventured out to a trail I had never visited before. I was late getting there compared to my much faster colleagues (because I do this thing called SLEEP in the mornings), so I decided to spend the day running by myself. My goal? 24 spectacular miles of…something.
I had no map. I had no plan. The only thing I had was the number ’24’ etched into my mind.
7 hours later, after running out of food and water due to my amazing planning skills, I arrived at the desired number of miles. I was cold, exhausted, and ready for bed. I finished when the sun was beginning to set for the night.
Meaning; I had spent my entire Saturday doing nothing but quite literally running*.
The experience was its own reward, but the mileage was also part of the plan. Knowing that two weeks after that day I would be strapping up for one of the
dumbest most amazing experiences of my life.
The ultra marathon.
To understand this, we first need to identify a few key terms:
Marathon: 26.2 miles in distance; where a good chunk of the population ventures to in order to see if they truly can run far enough to die (as legend would hold it).
Trail Running: Dancing through the woods with a pace in mind (along with a watch, and a hydration vest, and a water bottle, and a hat, and BodyGlide, and a gel, and waffle, and a…).
Ultra Marathon: …anything past 26.2 miles worth of running. YOU NEED A MEDICAL OPINION FROM A PSYCHIATRIST IF YOU ENJOY LIVING IN THIS REALM OF YOUR OWN FALSE REALITY. THERE IS NOT ENOUGH HOLY WATER TO SAVE YOU.
Feeling good after eight months of snapped ankles, busted heads, and more chaffing then a high school football player in the August heat, I had made up my mind months ago that I dreamed of the world of the ‘ultra’. After all, in my running group, all the cool kids were doing it. Thankfully, as crazy as they are, they were still kind enough to recommend an easy…“easy”…first** ultra marathon: the Rocky Raccoon 50K by Tejas Trails and Altra.
The race was in February, it was in Texas, and the course was as flat as a trail race in the woods of Texas was going to get. The weather, on average, tended to be nice and the people were even friendlier. It was held in conjunction with a 50 mile event also; meaning that the cut-off time was reflective of the 50 mile, not the 50K. Translation; slow people like myself had a chance at being able to complete something on our bucket list with time to spare.
Two days prior to the race I took off for south Texas with a seasoned runner, my wife, and a car full of Tailwind, socks, and this weird stuff called Trail Toes. Gross.
As it turns out this race is so long that they start it in the morning. Not 7:00 AM in the morning, not even 6:30 AM, this crazy thing kicks off at 5:45 AM. But wait! If you want to find an ideal parking spot in the park, you’ll need to arrive near 4:30 AM on race day.
Having horrible flashbacks of waking up in the dark to go deer hunting as a child, realizing that I will truly never be a morning running I stumbled out of the car near 5:00 AM. Our experienced runner friend, also running the 50K, suggested that I place Trail Toes on my feet prior to putting on my socks and shoes. Meaning, take this weird cream stuff in this small container, and rub it on your feet…making it sticky…prior to putting on ones socks. I added the goo, used this BodyGlide stuff as a deodorant stick for my crotch (because that is normal), kissed my wife one final time prior to meeting again in front of St. Peter, and roamed to the start line.
With 30 seconds left prior to the start of this race, my first attempt at an ultra, I noticed something strange within my body. Remember that time you were on a roller coaster, you climbed to the top of the tallest hill, and the car stopped before plummeting you into the depths of physics induced hell? That same mental sensa…dread…overtook my body as the race director gleefully smiled, as Lucifer himself, counting down…
3, 2, 1…GO!
At this point the dice had already been cast, I had wagered my life on the ability to finish, and laughing in a way to prevent myself from puking at the start line I shuffled into the tropical darkness of Rocky Raccoon.
Within the first half mile the theme had been set for me: sand. Sand everywhere. I don’t know if Egypt owed Texas something from back in the day, but they must have repaid the former republic in sand. I spun my tires like an archaic 4×4 for the first hour. The benefit was that it felt great on the knees. The downfall was that it lit up the muscles in my legs like a Christmas tree almost immediately. Sand equals suffering in a very special way.
By mile 6 there I was beginning to see shadows in front of me, by mile 7 I could make out the pine trees along the horizon, by mile 8…if I hadn’t already been exhausted…I would have danced in joy as I turned off my headlamp. Daylight had blessed us all.
With that said though; daylight is a double edged sword in the Lone Star state. Along with the daylight came the sun, and with the sun came the heat. A week prior the Rocky Raccoon 100K/100 Mile (how are these even things?) started at 30 degrees in the morning. Forecasted high a week later for my maiden voyage? 85 degrees and sunny. I would have panicked at this reminiscing the sensation of Psycho Summer so many months ago, but at mile 9 I began to remember, “At the next aid station in one mile, my crew will be there with my supplies.”
At mile 10 my crew was nowhere to be found.
I had to keep moving. At mile 14 I had made it back to the start/finish line. I surveyed the campus to find my crew, only to find them sitting in a chair. We didn’t bring a chair. With their leg propped up. They weren’t running. With bandages wrapped around their knee. They weren’t traversing through the woods.
Their only words?
As it had turned out; my crew (aka: my wife that kicked me out of the start/finish line in Omaha back in the fall) had fallen trying to hike to the aid station. Somehow she wound up with a sprained knee and a strained MCL. My crew was done for the day.
I stood there and talked with her for a few minutes; the clock ticking around 3:55:00, and we started to hear cheering as a man came through the line. He crossed, walked away, and found a bottle of water.
The winner of the men’s 50K crossed the finish line with a course record of 3:56:00. I had just finished my first lap. Laughing at a point of hysterics I realized that I had no choice but to take back off into the woods; all while hating the winner for making it look easy, crying about the winner because he looked so freaking cool. While I was on my way out my wife made mention that our other runner was having feet issues around mile 12. I kept that in mind, knowing that I would see them considering how many times you are in 2 way traffic areas throughout the course.
Note: I am a very socially awkward individual. My students try not to cry in my class. Not because I will make fun of them, but because I will panic because I don’t know what to do with them.
By mile 17 the sun was getting toasty. I’m trotting through the jungle, avoiding alligators at all cost, and I finally saw our other running coming from the other way. They did not look happy, they looked distraught. I smiled because positive facial experiences can calm the soul of troubled people. Unless their feet hurt. If their feet hurt, they just start crying right in front of you and you freeze because you do not know what to do, and you forget to freeze your Garmin, so your time and calorie count is off, and your mind is beginning to freak out, and you want to give them a hug, but their the opposite gender and that is awkward, plus you smell like a new batch of BodyGlide and sweat, and what is a hug going to do anyway, and by the time all of this processes through my head…she looked at me and said, almost in a Saving Private Ryan kind of tone:
You need to go on. You need to finish this. This is your ultra.
Knowing that my wife had been hurt by tripping on air, and the seasoned runner was dropping out of the race, I truly started to flashback to weeks prior of running in the woods completely alone. At mile 20 I gave myself time on Facebook as a reward for making it to the next aid station; those motivators I use with my students to get their work done? Works well on a desperate grown man as well.
With 20 miles done, the next stretch of the course consisted of a ‘service road’. I had been informed that it was much better compared to the human sized gravel that it was made of the year prior, but that did not stop me from absolutely hating my life for nearly seven miles. The problem with the service road? It is 100% exposed to the sun. This meant that for several miles I walked/hiked in the direct sun. I found a man who wasn’t quite sure where he was due to the heat, sun, and lack of hydration. I was beginning to suffer because I am pasty white, and where is my sunscreen? With my crew at the start/finish line. I did find time and energy to chuckle when my watched notified me of hitting the 26.2 mile mark. I have never ran an actual marathon before, and my goal is to run everything except a marathon, so that when people ask if I’ve ran a marathon along with the other distances, I can just politely decline. These are the small things I find humorous in my life. Along with the fact that I was passed by the kindest people during this part of the course. Each one of them offering hydration, salt caps, or even pain killers. I politely declined with a smile, I wasn’t sure how I could inform them that what they saw, that’s me running on a normal day. It is a painful experience for everyone around.
The final four miles, more so out of the need for myself, I pulled up next to a runner that was evidently suffering from the heat. Again, being socially awkward, I asked where they were from, if they were alright, etc…They informed me that they were from Denver, they signed up for the 50 mile, and while listening I just gladly gave praise that I had someone to communicate with for the final stretch. The reality; I wasn’t going to speed up anywhere in the near future, so why not just enjoy the ride with someone else.
Along the final stretch of road, crossing a pathway, we began to see the end of our journey. She dropped to the 50K, and with nearly identical times we crossed the finish line. I kept moving, ran past my crew, ignored the medal, and just went to a happy place that had plenty of shade.
It took several hours for the reality of my journey to really set in my heart. I wasn’t necessarily hungry, thirsty, or overly sore beyond reason. I had just went running, I was sweaty, sunburnt, and suffering from horrible heat rash, but I was in good spirits. Overall, Rocky Raccoon was good to me. I went in with a goal of survival, I finished with time to spare, and I was able to comfortably walk the next day.
The best part of your first ultra? Learning about the community that was watching you the whole time, pulling for you for each mile. My Facebook feed lit up louder than my birthday with congratulations, smiley faces, and hearts all around. My Instagram feed went crazy with likes for several hours afterwards. All of these coming from trail runners I had met over the past eight months (and a few spam accounts). I learned two days later, walking into my job (school), that one of my coworkers had stopped into one of the local running stores on Saturday to pick up a new pair of shoes. When they walked in, they noticed the staff huddling around the computer screen. One of the staff members exclaimed, “Shawn only has seven miles left at Rocky!”
This is the kind of community I belong to.
Looking back through the whole process; the emotional response of crying like my first ever trail race wasn’t really there. Instead, the exhaustion, fear, relief was all replaced with something different this time around…just a smile that lasted for days (and two double-doubles from In-N-Out Burger).
The Rocky Raccoon series really is a great ultra to get your feet wet in. Check out Tejas Trails for more exciting adventures that they offer throughout the entire year.
*And dodging gunshots in the woods followed by police sirens…a week later I learned that I was actually running from a woodpecker and an auto accident down the way from the park.
**Can we please rename this race from Rocky Raccoon to Sandy Gator?
One evening, several weeks ago, I was sitting in my basement under the influence of lack of sleep, debit card in my hand, and my wife was safely at rest upstairs. Glowing in front of me was the holy website of trail running; ultrasignup.com. The date was December 1, 2016 I do believe, and as the time rolled around I started to scroll through the different races to look at going into the new year.
One stuck out to me; The Hawk. Now, previous encounters with this event have left me dazed, confused, and at a loss of words for what aid stations look like and operate as. Needless to say it was fun, but could you imagine actually running in the event? I know I couldn’t!
That’s when the debit card possessed me.
That’s when I found “The Hawk 2017”.
That’s when I clicked “register”.
That’s when I fought back with all my might! And against the grains of muscles in my fingers I did not choose “The Hawk 100 Mile” race!
…I chose the 50 mile instead.
Now, nine months from now, I’ll be lacing up and heading out for my first 50 mile trail race (no take-backs in the trail running world). This course, as noted before, is maintained by a local trail running group; the Trail Hawks.
It has been 5 months since my last brush of
death fun with this group in the wilderness of Clinton Lake. Without a doubt I had forgotten what was wise, and with The Hawk looming in the near future, I had to get to work training. Over the past several weeks I have slowly been inching up my weekly mileage. The weekday miles stay relatively the same, but the Saturday long runs are getting…well…longer. Mix that reality in with the fact that it is in the dead of winter in the middle of God’s frozen tundra, and the desperation to train outside has been rather dismal to say the least.
This is when the Trail Hawks came to my rescue. Knowing the new year was upon us, many of us eating in a way that would make any aid station blush, without necessarily the miles to support it, the Trail Hawks devised a unique plan new to me.
They called it the LTH Frozen Ass (FA).
I kid you not, this is a real thing.
The concept of the FA is simple. The group rented a cabin at Clinton Lake, along The Hawk course. They would start running at noon and would stop running at midnight. You could come as you’d like, log as many ‘loops’ as you please, eat some “100 Mile Chili”, crack a few jokes, freeze a few body joints, and head home for the day.
This was not a race. There was no ‘swag’ to receive. There was no reason to sign up.
I signed up. I thought that I could head out on Saturday, log a few loops, hit my mileage goal, and head home. The group is kind and caring, plus it is cold enough outside that no one would smell my rotting corpse for months.
Then it snowed.
Also, as noted prior, running in the snow and my own existence is not a safe combination. It has resulted in injury and near-death experiences*. However, I am a trail runner, miles have to be met, and I don’t want to be the person being made fun of on the Trail and Ultra Runner’s Facebook page for not being able to handle the weather. My wife and I, armed with research, our wits, and 36 3’8 #8 screws, screwed our shoes in a way that would impress even Pinhead and the rest of the Hellraiser crew.
After straining a neck muscle, throwing a screwdriver, and crying about the neglect I witnesses as a child in my shop class in high school, my wife assisted me with getting the screws into my shoes. With our new android gear in tow, we departed to Clinton Lake.
When you show up at a FA there are a few things to note:
With our life’s signed over; my wife and I took off for our first loop. At just under three miles, the loop is a nice rolling format with snow, ice, and eery silence of death lurking behind you. Not to mention Gary is hiding in the woods taking random pictures of you for the Trail Hawks….just to keep you on your toes. We walked/jogged the first lap. She went to the cabin to warm up. I kept moving. The reality was, due to our late start, I had to get six loops in on Saturday. By 2:00 PM I had completed one. This meant, knowing my speed, that by the sixth loop I would be in the dark.
Thankfully, during the second loop I noted that it was ‘warm’ by Kansas standards. 24 degrees with the sun felt great, thawed the snow, and turned part of the course into mud. Again, I can’t express how grateful I am for (my wife) putting screws in my shoes.
At mile six I noted something strange, a whip like pain was searing across the back of my right Achilles. Because I had runners brain already at this point I didn’t stop to look down, I just kept running. Unless my Achilles shreds apart, I can still move and get in my loops.
After completing my second loop I looked down and found one of the most fascinating, evil things my shoes could have ever done. As an amateur I run with my shoes laces out. This means that the ends of my laces accumulate snow and ice as I trudge through the snow and ice. Momentum and gravity, two wicked things in the world of running, would have those laces swing like a possessed Skip-It (where my 90’s people at?), and smack the back of my leg over and over and over. Not to mention, like a debris field from a tornado in a trailer park, these little ice balls of Satan would gather leaves, sticks, small children, and almost got Gary twice and would just add to the torment through the woods.
I think I have a bruise.
By the fifth loop my wife had called it a day and was wisely sitting in a warm cabin, eating warm chili, having warm conversations with other warm people. I was outside. As I approached the halfway point of the fifth loop I noticed what science had cautioned me about all day. The sun was beginning to set. Based on my thermometer; I started that loop at 24 degrees; I ended that loop at 14 degrees. The buff that I wear around my neck to keep cold air from freezing my chest in motion? Frozen to the scruff on my neck that I had been too lazy to shave off earlier.
The sun was going down. There were articles of clothing frozen to my body. Even Gary had gone in for the night. Everything in my body told me that I shouldn’t go out for another loop.
That’s when my wife motivated me. Stopping in the cabin, she looked at me, in front of the awesome Trail Hawk runners, and said, “You’re not going out, right? I figured you’d be done by now.” She said it with this slight glimmer in her eye, a smile almost formed, my body reacted with, “She thinks you’re done. She thinks you can’t go again. Remember when she abandoned you at the aid station? Go get your headlamp, son!”
Equipped with another layer of clothes, moving around like the little kid from A Christmas Story, and head lamp lit I took off for the final, sixth loop of the LTH FA. I was the only person on the loop. No one could hear my cries if they ever would have came out of my frozen vocal chords. The temperature was down to 10 degrees. There was no breeze, no movement, no life. The land of Narnia had to gone to bed for the night. Through the course I had memorized at this point, I just kept moving through the woods. Pushing the fear of certain death to the back of my head, I tried to enjoy the reality that it was only me and the woods on this snowy eve.
Just under a half mile left I noticed that the moon was out that night. The end of the course ran into a clearing along the shoreline of the lake. I did something that allowed me to feel more like I belonged as a trail runner, and less about me trying to be a healthy person going out for a workout.
I turned off my headlamp.
While possibly one of the dumber things I’ve done while being alone, in the woods, in winter, in the dark, with a dead cell phone (I learned that later); the experience was mystical. Almost traversing back in time hundreds of years, trekking through the woods being aided by nothing but the moonlight from above was clearly a soul awakening experience.
Kicking a frozen hedgeball (Osage Orange) shortly after brought the headlamp back on.
After six loops, five hours, and layers of frozen clothes I bid farewell to the woods and made my way to the cabin. The “100 Mile Chili” by Gary tasted amazing, the local college basketball team was playing, and the cabin was full of laughter and great stories…and a surprising amount of grapefruit.
Did I get a shirt for participating? Nope. Did I receive a medal? Nope. Was there even a race that took place? Not at all.
Instead, there was just community, the creepy darkness in the woods, and a moment allowing me to learn how far I am willing to push in order to grow.
*Actually had nothing to do with running. Only had to do with trying to walk down an icy sidewalk. Read at your own discretion at my personal website.