Race Recap: Free State…Where Legends Are Made

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.

Challenge. Accepted.

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

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Evidence of poor choices.

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.

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Hundreds of miles. Finally I do not look overly bloated…and even better, I look like I know what I am doing. Photo Credit Via Mile 90 Photography

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 RaccoonPsycho 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.

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…and I wonder why I struggle making friends… Photo Credit Via Mile 90 Photograph

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

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BFF’s.

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

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I will forever cherish this photo. See the other lady? I helped lift her out of a trail after she fractured her leg in February. #family Photo Credit Via Mile 90 Photograph

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…

Lightning.

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.

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Laughter+Fighting the Tears

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.

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Why trail runners can’t have nice things…

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.

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Legend. Photo Credit Via Mile 90 Photography

fly.

Go Solo

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:

  1. Bowel movements: Let’s just get this out of the way. While trail runners all talk about their amazing community, friendship, etc…no one really wants to be grandpa heading up the hill with the walking farts, causing fellow runners to dive into the trees fearful that haters of the sport have opened fire on them. Especially if they feel they have to report it on Strava. Running solo removes the fear of judgement. Get it out of your system with each step you take; though, I caution you to never trust a TRAIL TIP 22fart.
  2. Mind games: When you run with other people, you don’t have to think about yourself. You only have to focus on the conversation, the roots, the rocks, the hydration, the pace, and the fun (it is in there, I promise). When you are alone; it is all you and the woods. Unless you enjoy having conversations with yourself frequently (corn fields never replied back, so I started this habit at an early age), the mental challenge can be a challenge for many runners. However, if you are planning any race in the future, ask yourself, “Will I always be around other runners?” Likelihood is not in your favor. In fact, I have been in multiple trail races this year with over 500 runners, I have been found alone in several situations (usually delusional, lost, and craving ginger ale and donuts). Trail running is just as much mental as it is physical. Especially when you are out in the woods, mile 92, convinced that there are scorpions on the ground and a nice, cozy house in the middle of the woods (both of which do not exist).
  3. Body language: As a runner who truly has no idea what I am doing at least 9/8th of the time, I have found it to be important to pay attention to how my body is reacting while out running. Especially along a 200 foot ledge that could easily result in my demise, and no one would know. I mentally try to trace over my body; each muscle group, each joint, historical trouble spots, etc…It is my body to use, I might want to make sure I know how to use it correctly.
  4. Time: Going solo on a long runs isn’t about the fast pace, it isn’t about the competition, it is about time on your feet. This ties directly back to the mind games; when we spend insane amount of time on our feet in the woods, we tend to be more comfortable when coming up to race time. Additionally, solo long runs; they are not about record breaking speed or time. It is about setting a goal, meeting the goal, and learning more about yourself in the process.
  5. Fuel: Prior to trail running I had never taken a water bottle running with me, because I was dumb. I never thought there was a purpose to hauling extra weight. It only took one run in the woods for me to realize that, that is a great case for an early death. Solo runs are great opportunities for you to find what works and doesn’t work with your body in reference to fuel. Two months ago, a 24 mile solo run showed me that I needed to be eating something every six miles otherwise I would crash hard. When we are not as distracted by the people around us (no offense to the lovelies), we can focus more on what our body is telling us we need in order to survive be successful.

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).

fly.

*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.

RESET

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?

Immediate thought:

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.

Mother Nature gave us a hurdle workout too!

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.

The reality?

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:

  1. I had strength training classes once a week, plus running four days a week, including a long run…Every. Single. Week.
  2. In June of 2016 I was able to complete 2.5 miles (barely), July I finished a 10 mile race, October I finished a 25K and a 20 mile race, December was another 20 mile race, January was another 25K, and February was my first 50K. Meaning, in 9 months I had increased my racing distance by nearly 12 percent. Considering prior to June of 2016 I was running a 5K race on a flat surface at max, this realization was startling.

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.

fly.

*Later that week they found a burned up car with a body inside at the same parking spot; I knew that route was evil…

Race Recap: Rocky Raccoon 50K…Going Ultra

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. trail-tip-20I 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?

I’m sorry.

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.

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SPF 1000

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.

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This store! Run 816!

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).

.fly

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?

LTH FA: The ‘Mini’ Hawk

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.trail-tip-18

When you show up at a FA there are a few things to note:

  • Hopefully the course is marked
  • You have to check in after each loop (so they know whether or not Lassie saw you fall into a well)
  • You have to sign the waiver saying you won’t sue to the poor folks should you happen to fall into a frozen lake…or be attacked by Sasquatch. Both equal opportunities in this case

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.

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I wish I was doing something cool here, but I was just trying not to die. Photo Credit: Gary Henry, Trail Hawks

 

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.

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They call this ‘delirious’. Photo Credit: Gary Henry, Trail Hawks

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.

fly.

*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.

Santa Is A Cheater

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?

Slightly.

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.

trail-tip-17The 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:

  1. Headlamp lights the path
  2. Eyes see the lit path
  3. Brain receives what the eyes have seen on the lit path
  4. Legs are already moving
  5. Feet are already stepping
  6. Split second connection of thought from the eyes to the brain to the feet to prevent a late night stretcher unit exploring the woods
  7. Repeat as necessary until fear is gone…or soul is crushed

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:

  • The staples in my head were pounding
  • I was on the verge of vomiting from eating too much prior to heading out
  • My taste in choice of friends over the years is very questionable
  • WHY IN HEAVEN’S NAME WAS I RUNNING IN THE DARK, IN THE SNOW, IN THE MUD, WITH A HEAD INJURY?!?!
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At least it looks like I am doing something cool.

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

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Fake smiles. Our shoes were already soaked.

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.

fly.

*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.

Race Recap: Banjos, Beards, and The Back 40

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.

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Cue nightmares….

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?

Moguls.

Moguls.

Moguls.

Moguls.

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.

A GOOD PHOTO FINALLY HAPPENED!
A GOOD PHOTO FINALLY HAPPENED!

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?
Nope.
Did they offer the peanut butter?
Nope.
Did they offer me the stew they were cooked over the campfire?
Absolutely.

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.

trail-tip-16
Math was a theme this weekend.

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.

The inagural Back 40 Trail Race brought runners and mountain bikers to Bella Vista's new network of trails.  On Saturday runners took to the trails, taking on 10k, 20 miles, or 40 miles while the bikers took their turn at the course on Sunday.
My face says my thoughts afterwards…judge me.

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.

fly.

*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).