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.
Don’t get me wrong; I respect the big jolly red UPS man. Mad props on his amazing journey around the world in 24 hours with his group of misfits attached to a sleigh. The guy gets my vote when it comes to kindness and cheer.
However, Santa is a cheater…
How? The answer is simple. He has a sleigh. See, the unique thing about the land that I call home is that our winter weather ranges from multiple extremes. One week we can have head splitting ice and the next week we can have severe thunderstorms; all within two weeks of Christmas. Santa doesn’t have to mess with the mess of our grounds when his sleigh and our chimneys are able to be his ultimate cheat code.
Am I bitter?
As a new trail runner; I started back in July on this insane adventure. I had been warned from the beginning that as the days grew shorter people ran in the dark; as precipitation fell from the sky, people ran in the snow; and as the Robert Frost world of snowy landscape thawed, people also ran in the mud. Truly we have learned nothing from our ancestors of years past.
The part that I missed within this revelation is understanding that there would be specific, special circumstances when the trail runner would be expected to run in all three unique conditions…at once.
My baptism into this frozen edition of fear factor took place this week.
When not running with the Mud Babes on Monday nights, I tend to spend time with the BAR group on Thursday evenings. True to its name; BAR (beer appreciation runners) operate in a very simplistic mode:
Show up. Go run. Return. Drink beer. Go home.
However, they also function under the similar, unspoken mantra of trail running:
No matter the situation we will still run.
Last week in the flyover land of Kansas City, we witnessed ice, snow, and then a rapid thawing over the middle of the week. Common sense can easily tell you what that does to a trail. Due to the muddy, half-frozen disaster of earth, the area trails were closed for preservation sake. Preservation of the trails, not the runners.
Except for the bridle trails of WyCo. Yes, the muddy horse traveled trails were open for business on Thursday night.
Additionally, I was also recovering from a self-sustained head injury from the Saturday prior. Meaning, the fear of falling on jagged rocks in the middle of the icy cold night was very much a real fear.
However, when in Rome…
Laced up with too many layers of clothes to count, my trusty gloves, a stocking cap (because that’ll protect a head wound), and my Black Diamond Spot headlamp I took off with the slow group*. They hopped onto the horse trails and took off. Mind you, it is pitch black outside, there is snow on the ground, and where there isn’t, it is straight mud, and of course since we are in the ‘flat lands of America’ nothing about this section of trail was flat because God has a sense of humor. This aided the already hellish landscape with an ominous red tint of the night sky (city lights in the distance), and the sounds of a thousand screaming children** coming from the icy lake. Truly, psychologically, I was running through at least the fourth ring of Dante’s Inferno.
Praying that my strained toes could grip into the snowscape, I bound through the woods like a wounded deer trying to escape the Blair Witch. Meanwhile my brain was already completely overwhelmed with the same, repetitive process:
This thought process lasted an entire mile until I noticed the slow runners doing exactly what ‘that group’ does…speeding up. I slowed to a stop and waiting for the back end of the group to catch me. It was at that point I realized a few things about my life:
With the back two people reaching me, bless their souls, they slowed down for my feeble 29 year old body to keep trucking along. I learned that one of the hardest things about running at night and running in the snow is that very rarely can you do that exact thing; run. Because of the challenging, changing terrain a runner rarely hits full speed in either condition; nearly never when both conditions are present. Meaning, we are forced to be patient with ourselves and just embrace the trail that we have been given. We cruised (slid) for another three miles before coming back to the base camp of the BAR group.
I confessed that the first mile, I was nearly shaking because I was so frustrated that I could not get my body to move the way I wanted it to. It was as if I was trying to dribble a basketball and run in middle school all over again. There are some things a 6’5 frame cannot (or should not) do all at once. Slowing down though, taking my time, and actually feeling the terrain helped throughout the rest of the night. Make no mistake, that was my
third run in the dark and my first run ever on snow; I do not care for either. I will keep trying it because I need the training, but if trail running itself is deemed hard, this just added a few new levels of challenge.
Thankfully, I did not have to embrace this harsh reality alone. My wife was kind (innocent) enough to suggest exploring the same trails the following day.
In conclusion; I appreciate Santa. The dude is pretty legit. However, when it comes to finesse through the wintery conditions out here; I think we can all agree that Santa is a bit of a cheater. I only speak from experience.
*It’s a lie. Every. Single. Time. I believe that the slow group is going to go with a comfortable pace; it is only comfortable if it is under 10:00.00 a mile.
**I have come to the conclusion that geese are indeed spawn of the devil. One, they are so crazy mean. Two, they will chase runners. Three, at night, in the dark, they call out in the hundreds on the frozen lake. Terrifying.
Resting my body on an idle Monday allows me to vaguely remember the nightmarish experience that I took part in, willingly, in the far northwest corner of Arkansas.
The Back 40.
After one sprained ankle, one sprained cuboid bone (that is a thing), and a rather annoying pain in my hip from running; it would only make sense that I would sign myself up for a random race, a brand new race, a race away from many of my running friends, in the winter, and at the similar distance of my previous experience in Nebraska.
Truly, I am dumb.
After threatening the STUCO convention students sprinting down the hallways at 10:30 PM Friday night at our hotel in Bentonville, Arkansas; my wife and I made a made a short trip to Bella Vista, Arkansas.
What Bella Vista is known for: golfing and old people.
What Bella Vista is not known for: holding the devil’s own homemade trails that weave throughout the mountainside.
Saturday morning started off like any other race day morning; cold, cloudy, and full of bitterness. However, walking (hiking) to the start point revealed a little community of trailers nestled together creating this fun little place of happiness. We had stepped into the headquarters of The Back 40 Trail Race.
A man with a beard that qualified him as either a modern day hipster or a true mountain man found in the wild started the show…in the exact way you would expect.
*with no mic or horn* HEY Y’ALL GET OVER HERE SO Y’ALL CAN LISTEN TO WHAT I GOTTA SAY TO YA. YA CAN’T HERE ME? WELL GET CLOSER!
This man was the race director. What I didn’t learn until a fist-bump much later was that he was also a top-3 finisher in the 40 mile version of this race.
All things considered the race started without a hitch; the 20 and 40 mile runners started together on half a mile of asphalt before beginning #1 of the eventual #2,562,332,557,676,545,343…repeating…switchbacks on the course.
First off, the course is gorgeous. The trails are newly made, and the scenery is to die for. Truly take a moment and just explore the trails in northwest Arkansas because it is worth the time.
Second, if you are going with the first suggestion, please lift weights before you go out on their trails. The Back 40 was deceptive; it is like the terrier dog your suburban neighbor has. They look cute on a leash, but once you get to know it, you realize that its entire objective is to chew you up and destroy your soul. The course is not necessarily rocky, it is not necessarily covered in roots. Instead, it is covered with this weird ‘moon powder’ substance laced with broken fragments of slate and limestone.
Translated: You are running on powder and if you fall, you are falling onto natures bed of razor wire. Plus, you are in the woods, no one can hear you scream.
The course has a lot of climbing at a steady pace. The tricky parts are the corners of the switchbacks; they are more like a straight incline with a weird curve. The kind you dream of driving a sports car on in some enchanted forest. Only you are doing this with your shoes, socks, and the path is slowly crushing soul with each hike.
Additionally, did you know The Back 40 is also a mountain bike race? Yes! The day after the trail race, they offer the same route for the mountain bike folks. How did I know this?
My hips still have not spoken to me since Saturday. There are so many moguls (small, repetitive hills) that my internal suspension was shot within the first five miles. They are so short and so close together that even with your mind telling you what you should be doing, your body tends to not to respond to the request until it’s too late. So. Many. Moguls.
After settling in for a few miles, I enjoyed my extremely slow pace for the race. I had made the mental decision that due to the insane injuries I had received in previous weeks, and a looming 50K race in February, this course was all about finishing. Because of this pace, I didn’t necessarily plan accordingly for fuel and things along those lines. I chose not to take my bladder to my vest (no regrets) due to the amount of aid stations, but I also had not packed any Tailwind into my handheld. Since I use that powder so much during races I really had forgotten why I had needed it to begin with.
At mile 7 my stomach began to growl. So much so that out of heartbreak I nearly ate a half-eaten Honey Stinger Waffle that someone dropped on the trail. Turns out hunger on the trails is one of the worst sensations you could imagine. Slowly maneuvering to the second aid station (the first aid station had Old Man’s Blue Stuff which was a concentrated Gatorade blend so strong that it burnt the top of my mouth…true story), I was thinking about peanut butter, bananas, and jelly beans because…trail running. As I slowly cruised in I told the folks that I was a tad hungry.
Did they offer the pretzels?
Did they offer the peanut butter?
Did they offer me the stew they were cooked over the campfire?
Give it up for southern hospitality. Regardless if the meat of choice was squirrel or beef, it was hot, delicious and kept me going. At least until the next aid station. By mile 15 I had gotten into a slow, comfortable rhythm of moguls and climbing. I also started to do math to predict the next road crossing.
Word Problem of the Day: If The Back 40 informed you that there were two dozen road crossings on the course, and you noticed a dramatical incline prior to coming to each road crossing, how many overly dramatic climbing and descending moments would a runner have due to the crossings?
Solution: Take two dozen (24) and multiple that by two (incline up and decline down); that gives us 48 moments on a 20 mile course that your body has an opportunity to seize up while being remotely close to moving traffic at 60 mph.
Props to Arkansas though; they have the fanciest road crossings I have ever seen. At each crossing there is a remote sensor that caused flashing lights to come on, on the road, for motorist. The crossings almost made up for the unplugged freezer with 3 year old calamari I found at mile six with the overturned sofa in the middle of nowhere, and the strange man in the forest chopping wood with an ax, laughing, at mile 12.
By mile 15 I was actually surprised I only had a few miles left prior to completion. I was cold and hungry (again), and thankfully the final aid station had pizza to share that they had just ordered via delivery (I am not making this up either). It was at this point that one of the aid station volunteers saw my jersey and exclaimed in humorous fashion:
Hey y’all! He’s with Run816! That’s the store I stopped at in Kansas City last time I was up there because I didn’t have shoes with me, only flip-flops. That’s a great place man.
Five hours from home, people knew exactly who I was running with.
I thought it had been interesting that between my slow movement and messing around at aid stations that a 40 mile runner hadn’t passed me on the course. At mile 16 my wish came true. Just like in fashion at GOATz, the first place 40 miler came flying up behind me, said the standard (and friendly), “You doing alright man? Keep going!” and was gone. He would finish nearly five miles in front of second place. This guy was in a world of his own.
While the moguls had been their own little piece of apocalyptic fun; I really had no idea that the final 4.5 miles would be the worse section of the whole course. The black diamond sign gave me a hint, but I thought it was just poorly placed since it could have easily gone for the entire path.
Nope, turns out life can get much worse. Imagine, you are already tired, you are cold, it is mile 17, and you can see a road crossing in front of you. Meaning; there is an incline. However, this incline isn’t a normal incline. In my young life as a trial runner; I witnessed my first climb that required my feet and my hands to get up. I want to repeat that; I HAD TO CLIMB WITH MY HANDS IN THE DIRT TO GET UP A HILL! As goes the recent motto of America; “This is not normal.”
Ironically, for all the complaining about all the climbing, the final two miles were a strange step into an alternate reality. After crossing the road, while being followed by Jason Voorhees*, I discovered that the final section of the course is a flat jaunt along the roadside into the park that we started on. Sounds easy, right? Except that at this point you’re internally (and possibly externally) crying, you’re cold, you’re hungry (again), and Jason is following you. All you want to do is finish, but you can’t, because you are just running straight for what seems forever.
With that said; I finally reached the asphalt that I had once started on earlier in the day, a Siberian Husky greeted me by barking “hello”, and I hobbled/walked/imagined I was flying into the finish line. There I was presented with a piece of wood with “Back 40” burned into the wood. Really, really cool.
I ate a burrito. Found my wife, who after finishing her 10K went and got Starbucks, took a selfie, ate breakfast, and then sat in the heated car waiting for me (I’m not bitter), and slowly started the process of leaving Arkansas.
While my adventure was hard; the event was amazing. Especially for the first year, this event is a must on your list of races. It is low key, wonderfully cheap, and the organization of the race is so, so well maintained. The course is incredibly well marked, there is a ton of volunteers everywhere, the local police man the road crossings, and there is support anywhere and everywhere. Coming from the Kansas City area this race easily ranks up there with any event hosted by the Trail Nerds and the Trail Hawks. While I could never imagine doing 40 miles out on that psychotic thing (10 hour cutoff mind you), I cannot wait to enjoy this race again in 2017.
*Jason Voorhees: Also known as the guy in the ski mask that walks down people sprinting away from him in horror movies. The last four miles there was a person behind me that walked the entire four miles. What was amazing (and slightly terrifying about the teleportation abilities) is that no matter how quickly I ran, jogged, hiked, anything; they were always right behind me. I could hear their breathing; they helped motivate me to finish (and empty my bowels).
While it has become common knowledge that I love to run, the sad reality is that I have not been able to run for the past two weeks. A sliding rock that I stepped on resulted in a mildly sprained ankle that safely sidelined me for the past fourteen days. I would love to rant and rave about how terrible this experience has been on me, and how I wish I was back out running (coming soon), but instead I want to make a case for trail running.
Not through the eyes of myself though, but through the eyes of my wife.
I want to make something very clear: my wife hates running. We are talking a valid comparison of hatred in regards to my distaste towards canned tuna (there, I said it, fight me). It is a rigid bitterness that has been a part of our relationship for years. I like to run, she does not. I have nearly been left at road races because she drove off being in anger from our conversations on the topic. I take responsibility for these problems (note this moment in male history). That is my arm chair confession for this piece. Interestingly enough though, something has changed with my wife, and it is a very hard to describe.
A few months ago, my wife took a similar challenge to myself back in July of this year. She journeyed out into the woods with our running group and tried trail running. That is all. She just tried. She didn’t take off sprinting, she didn’t run without water, she was smart with her choices. The next day she was incredibly sore, but the company of runners warmed her heart. She hated the heat, but loved the woods. Something was changing in my wife.
As weeks progressed, slowly but surely, she started to stack on mileage. A mile here, a mile there. Nothing record breaking in speed, but record breaking in determination. As she continued to truck her way through, she started going to strength classes with a local running coach. Sure, she couldn’t walk normal for three days afterwards, but she continued to go back each week.
In October, she took a bigger challenge. She ran an actual trail race. She ran Rock Bridge Revenge out in the middle of Missouri. She was alone, on her own, and she finished the entire course. The craziest part? Listening to her talk about her entire journey three hours back home. Who is this woman? Surely this isn’t my wife because she is talking about running, and laughing, and having fun. The second craziest part was how she downplayed running 7 miles on a trail compared to the only other experience she had running was 3.1 on asphalt.
My wife ran a few weeks ago with me in Omaha, Nebraska. There, as many know, she left me at the start/finish line because she was “encouraging me”. She will never admit it, but you should have seen how happy she was with her little, wooden medal for finishing the race.
This is the same lady, that usually on average of once per week asks me the same question:
What day do you get off early this week? Think we could go to the trails and run a few miles?
As amazing as all these events have been; nothing has been more impressive, admirable, and uplifting then her latest feat. Three days after spraining my ankle, it was obvious that I was not running for a while. However, our running group still meets every Monday night, no matter what. With daylight savings time doing its random thing, all runs in the evening are in the dark because…hey…that is normal. My wife, a hater of running, and a person who cannot stand being cold or wet, chose, on her own, to drive to our running group while I rested at home. She ran in the dark with her headlamp, in the rain, in the fall temperatures. While I was falling asleep, she came home, legs covered in mud:
Look at me! I have mud up to here, I’m soaking wet, and…I’m glad I went…I had fun tonight.
I don’t know who my wife is anymore, and it is the most brilliant thing that I have
witnessed inside these past four months. Don’t get me wrong, I count down to my own adventures on the trails. While they are exciting, and memorable, they just don’t have the same flavor as being able to enjoy the experience with someone I love. My wife constantly wears her racing shirts from previous races, almost like a badge of honor. It is adorable. She talks to her coworkers constantly about her accomplishments, many in awe. Even my own parents noticed that she is excited about playing on the trails, traveling to new destinations, and trying out new adventures. Whether she realizes it or not, she is very much not the woman I married several years ago. She is so much more.
The humorous part of all of this is noting that one of us was obsessed with running fast, and can’t because…well…dirt logic. The other one did not care for running at all. Yet, somehow we are both counting down the days until our next excursion into the woods. Together.
My wife and I cut from different cloths in life. We are very much polar opposites in regards to several areas of our lives. Fitness, health, etc…are some of the areas that we find conflict in frequently. I make a case for trail running because rarely are we on the same page, but once we are both in the dirt, it doesn’t matter. We have the goal; to enjoy the ride.
Turns out we are just a dirt driven family.
It has taken me a full week to collect my thoughts…many of which, along with my trail nectar (Tailwind), I spilled out along the dirt and trees in Omaha, Nebraska.
I took on the GOATz challenge.
GOATz (Greater Omaha Association of Trail Runnerz) is a group that lives in the Cornhusker State, and enjoy running around in the dirt. One of them happens to be last years female winner of the Western States 100. Make no mistake; for a place surrounded by…corn…there are some quick people that live in the woods.
GOATz is broken into four poor choices for you; the 5 mile if you are curious about bad life decisions, 10.5 mile if you would like to double your odds of regretful choices, the 21 mile for those who are convinced that life without pain is not a life worth living for, and the 50K in the event that your connection with humanity truly is that strained.
Naturally, I chose the 21 mile. Because, hey! I enjoy making bad choices and poor commitments in a 5th wheeler camper a month before this race.
The course is a full 10.5 loop around a lake in north Omaha, Nebraska. It is far enough north that you are removed from the major city, but not so far north that you are waving to folks in South Dakota. Understand, unlike my previous adventures, this course lacks rocks. However, there is a stark difference between lacking rocks and lacking hills. Hills, GOATz has plenty of those to offer (along with cute goat cartoons at each hills to remind you of the fool that you are). You will climb, you will want to sit down, and you will question how on earth Nebraska of all places can have so many strange challenges (and pine trees).
The 2016 course started with 515 runners. It turns out that, that is a ton of people lugging around water bottles, Tailwind, and Honey Stinger Waffles*. The 50K started 10 minutes before the 21/10.5/5 group took off. Incredibly, aside from the brief moment the course looked like the 405 in LA, people spread out rather quickly. The faster people moved forward…I did not.
Due to the lack of rocks, but also noting that it is an equestrian trail, please understand that you are guaranteed two things throughout your journey:
I told myself to go slow from the beginning. I had never tried a 21 mile race, I had never ran over 15 miles (two weeks prior), and realistically I had no idea what I was doing. I cruised with the main group for about two miles. I traveled through a few nasty climbs, some killer ruts, and a strange, peaceful sense of passing through a pine forest (pine needles on the ground are the best!). The first loop was not that bad until about mile eight. At the 5.5 aid station, while munching on a Honey Stinger Waffle, I sent a text to my wife informing her that at the start/finish I was dropping my vest and I needed sunglasses (this was also the first race I ever ran multiple loops). At mile eight, cruising through the deciduous forest of the Great Plains I was making good time. It was at that moment it happened.
IT=TREE SAPLING STUMP
I am not scared of rocks. I am not scared of snakes. I am not scared of running out of Tailwind…mostly. However, those stupid little stumps terrify the living hell out of me.
Commentator 1 (in my head): Shawn is having a great run today. He cleared out of the 5.5 aid station, took down a Honey Stinger Waffle, and is cruising through the jungles of northern Omaha. He looks to have three runners directly behind him, but what a pace the rookie has going for him today!
Commentator 2: Yes Jim, when we were speaking at the start/finish his wife made mention that his goal today was…
Commentator 1: Sorry to cut in Mark! Trouble out in the jungle! Shawn’s Saucony Ride9’s have found the secretly laid sapping stumps throughout the course. He did not try to save the ride, he just dove straight for the outside, avoiding three other people in this contact! Runners have slowed, he’s given the thumbs up with smile, and he is back up a running! Hopefully, this doesn’t change his plans for the day.
Knowing a group was behind me, I lost focus of where my heavy feet were going and I kicked one of the darn stumps with about every force within my being. I chose not to save myself, and instead leaned left into the tree line. This is the first time I hit the ground with actual force. Mud burrowed into the top of my handheld, my shoulder and hip made immediate contact, and in rolling I hyper-extended my right wrist. Through this whole process, unwinding in ten seconds, I bit down as hard as possible prior to impact. The runners past by (naturally, asking if I was alright), and I hopped back on the trail knowing Trail Tip #4 was holding true on this day. It took an entire mile for my jaw to stop hurting, it took seven days for my wrist to stop being sensitive to the touch, and even though it was not a fall that resulted in injury, the event put me into a funk leading into the start/finish.
The start/finish area is a hard reality. They do have a full aid station, but they also have the finish line…as in…it is over. When you start doing dumb(er) things in life, you stop getting to go through the finish line to end the event. You go through it to end your first loop. While trying not to cry, eating a Honey Stinger Waffle, and questioning how I was going to do a second loop, I dropped my vest with my wife, cleaned out the handheld to the best of my ability, and tossed on a pair of sunglasses. Usually there is a no point in sunglasses on the tree covered trails. However, there is a lot of exposure along the GOATz course.
Exposure (n): Where the sun burns you, the wind beats you, and Mother Nature takes her sweet time abusing you.
My wife, bless her soul, is not one to enjoy conversation when she knows that I am stalling. I tried talking to her, while getting a drink, and I turned around to say something else…and she was gone. In fact, like something out of a bad high school movie including a popular girl and a nerdy guy, she was back at her picnic table laughing with those around her. Never made eye contact again. I had no friends. I had to go back out.
The second helping of Satan’s little dish of delight went a bit quicker in the first 5.5 miles. I just moved to my own beat, which was good because I was all alone. At the start of my second loop on the 21 mile I could hear the cheers of the first and second place runners finishing…their 50K course. This was my day.
The second stop at the 5.5 aid station resulted in Honey Stinger Waffles and a few gummy bears. It was leaving that station that I truly started the sense the grave errors of my way.
If you ever lived on country roads you are well aware of the importance of a good suspension in a vehicle. Your body is designed in similar fashion, so much so, that like a bad Pinto the suspension can also go out in your body.
On this day, after the sapling stumps tried to kill me, being ignored by my wife (because I was stalling), and seeing the fast people finish well before me…it dawned on me.
I am a Ford Pinto.
The final five miles were some of the darkest times in my life. I was in this funky, strange trot through the woods. I could not run, but walking was not really an option either. My hips were not lying, they were done. My glutes had just upped and stopped functioning, and my big toe was burning for some strange reason. There were moments that I had realized how bad the race had become; people were passing me and saying, “Way to push through!”, also known as, “You poor thing. You look terrible!” and half a mile away from the start/finish I decided that I would force myself to run. One step fell in front of another, faster, faster, and faster and about the time I was thinking of completion the dull *pop* came from the hamstring in my right leg.
I hobbled over the start/finish line.
The finishers medal almost caused me to collapse under its weight.
I did not eat. I did not drink. I went straight to the massage table.
Afterwards, I took off my shoes and socks to discover that a callus had been partially ripped off my left toe. Pathetically, I tried not to faint at the sight.
Some Most races I am not in to win, and in some races the objective is merely to survive. It was not my day. It was not my race. It hurt like crazy, and I am so glad it is finished.
Later that day I had learned that the first and second 50K finishers had both broken the course records. Very few people (relatively) of the 515 runners failed to finish. My wife knocked out her second trail race, and one of my crazy, unstable mentor runners received a PR on the course. Plus, I got a hoodie because I signed up for a ‘long race’.
Overall, there are few places that run races as smoothly as the crew with GOATz. The aid stations were amazing, the course directions were fantastic, and the overall experience was awesome. Obviously, even though it was not my day, I would recommend this race, of any distance, for anyone. It is a great course for beginners and a nice challenge for experienced runners. Being 2.5 hours north of Kansas City makes it a nice two day event as well. As I told my wife, heading home sipping on Ginger Ale, there is nothing about the course or experience that made my race hard. GOATz as a whole is an amazing organization that the city of Omaha should have a lot of pride in.
What is next? I took my week of peace and quiet. Now, strength training begins and we begin to look at the Back 40 in Belle Vista, Arkansas in December.
I have to be insane to enjoy pain and story-telling so much that I want to go out and do it again.
*Biggest mistake of volunteering at an aid station? Trying a Honey Stinger Waffle. I. Cannot. Stop. Eating. Them. I told the aid station at mile 5.5 for GOATz that I was in this race solely to find the Honey Stinger Waffles.
Don’t forget to taper. Stay off of Ogg!
In many wonderful ways the people I run with throughout the woods locally have quickly become the sisters that I never had (the world is a better place probably because of this). They ensure that I find success, but at the same time I am protected, usually, from myself. This includes the week leading up to a race.
Back in the world of 5K road races, one could conceivably wake up early, head to a race, sign up, and take off for three miles and finish with a bottle of water…and a cotton t-shirt that was always a size too small. Life was simple. Life was good. In fact, you could go far enough to run three miles the day before and still pull off a decent race.
I never thought that those days would not exist as mileage gets higher. It turns out that when you are involved in long distance running, in my case trails, rest is equal importance to training. This overwhelmingly holds true the week of a race. Currently, I am 36 hours out from beginning a hell bent journey that will take 21 miles of my life away. Knowing this, it was crucial that everyone within the group ensured that I was not moving through the majority of this week. Meaning, I was tapering.
Tapering (Noun): The quickest way for a runner to develop schizophrenic tendencies while waiting for their next race. Conditions that can take place include fidgeting, restlessness, excessive eating, and nightmares that you forgot to wear your shorts to race day.
One of the biggest and hardest principles that I have struggled with as a runner is understanding how important rest is for the body. I love beating my body up and making poor choices (I am a trail runner after all), but through my brief history on this planet many times I was directed (incorrectly) to push past the pain. The reality is that we work hard for our adventures, but we also have to rest hard for our adventures. Our bodies have to recover from the training. Without that rest the body never hits an optimum peak for performance and the risk of feeling lethargic, dead legs, or lack of energy is extremely high when it matters most. Meaning, there are some days when you just have to stop.*
As a new trail runner the above concept is really hard. I don’t like to stop, I don’t like to walk, and I don’t like to sit idly and look at Facebook photos of other people’s runs. This makes tapering a very, very hard thing to do. Yes, painfully so, this goes back to the vital importance of patience when dealing with so many miles.
With that said…
Today, as someone who is not even close to a professional, but sadly operates their own blog; I will give you the tips to be a master taper:
Truth is, we spend a lot of time on our feet, in the woods, running from bears, and eating gooey things that come out of plastic containers…for fun. As much as we love the sport, in order to continue that love, lets not forget who we are outside of the run.** It is important to respect the taper, and in doing so the trails may (probably not) respect you.
*It hurt to type that sentence
**OH MY GOSH! I ACTUALLY SOUND LIKE A TRAIL RUNNER!