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!
I have been traveling along the dirt, mud, rocks, and spiderwebs for nearly three months now. Through the conditioning, running, and sweat I have learned this valuable piece of knowledge…
…I am not fast.
Truthfully. I frequently forget that I run with people that have been on the trails for three, five, or even ten years compared to my twelve weeks. From someone that has transitioned from the road to the rocks, it can be very hard to realize that you have to find your own pace, your own style, your own speed in the world of death defying leaps, rocky acrobatics, and meals consisting of dirt and decaying fungus.
You are truly you.
With that in mind, last week I was able to witness a unique event that I will forever store in my memory bank of “when I was trail runner” that I’ll harass great grand-children with somewhere down the road.
Due to the amount of rain we had received over a span of several days, several of our usual trails were closed while they dried out. In this event, when gathering to run, we head off to a small little trail called, “The Dog Park”. It is a six mile out-and-back trail that travels through a leash-free section of city park. For those not terrified of dogs, it has its own challenges. For those mortified of fido its mental survival is a struggle in itself.
The course is fast; it starts very rocky, but afterwards it widens out and you can get moving at a rather solid click. My goal, really since receiving a heart warming letter about someones first complete ‘Dog Park’ run (all six miles) was to complete that six miles. I started slow, hanging out in the back, walking, chatting, and watching the others head off with speed. I have learned that I thoroughly enjoy trying to catch people while running. I started moving from the last group to the mid-group, nearly tripped over two dogs and continued to try to find the head group. What was amazing is seeing that this course is a great gauge to see where your cardio stands. I ran and ran and ran and ran and tripped and ran and ran for what seemed forever. I splashed through mud, jumped through a creek bed, and scaled some old railroad ties. Before I knew it, I heard laughter…and I was at the end of the three mile jaunt.
I was breathing heavy, trying to catch my breath, and attempting to ignore the haunting reality:
Now you have to make it back to the shelter house before it gets dark.
Saying this fear out loud I believe it what spurred the next comment from the pack…
Shawn, why don’t you lead us out?
Before I continue the story; please understand the group that was at ‘the end’ of the course. A lady who had just finished a 100 mile race, a lady who caused me to dry-heave the week prior with a sub-10:00 minute mile pace, a lady who crushed her first 50K this past weekend, and a lady with insane amounts of distance races under her belt. Note the above passage…I…am…not…fast.
I almost faked an injury at that moment to prevent the reality that was coming on fast. However, my brain and legs did not meet in agreement and before I knew it I was heading out, back down the trail with one of the runners yelling, “Shawn! You’re going too fast!” knowing that I would eventually fall victim to my unknown arrogance of fear of being passed. For nearly half a mile I led the group, listening to one of the runners step right behind me step for step. It was the sub-10:00 runner; I knew I was toast. I tried as long as I could, but in a conversationalist tone, she politely asked, “Mind if I just hop around you here real quick?” If I had not been wheezing due to being out of breath, I may have sobbed slightly at how easily she made the request.
Around she went.
She disappeared for the next two miles. Meaning, that everyone else was still behind me. I tried to keep the speed fresh for the varsity squad, but they continued to talk amongst themselves while we jumped over trees, rivers, and dogs; ignoring the fact that darkness was coming soon.
Leading is weird. You do not know what you are supposed to do. You are afraid of letting people down, being ‘too easy’, or trying too hard and getting injured in the process. You know the guy that sees the attractive girl running on the street and tries to run with her, but hasn’t seen running shoes since high school? Eventually he steps away, dying, and she continues on. That, that is kind of what leading feels like. At any moment you are just waiting for your legs, heart, or lungs to stop operating (the brain already stopped because…well…you are running on dirt for fun).
Through the gasp of a fish-out-of-water I said, “I’m sorry for being slow!” while trying to scale a rocky edge to the group behind me. “Don’t worry! You’re fine, if I wanted to pass you I would have already done it*”, the runner behind me reassured me.
Through the tropically trees, rounded rocks, and muddy paths I eventually emerged from the path, feeling like Indiana Jones and a boulder flying up behind him. I had done it. The full six mile section, while leading a group on the way out. It was not a race, it was not a ‘first’, and it was not spectacular, but the reality that I was able to lead struck a note in my soul that I could not let go of.
Even if you are not fast.
Even if you are not a 100 mile runner.
When you are running with the right people.
It is alright to lead.
*I love people and their kindness. “If I wanted to pass you, I would go ahead and pass you” is such a motivating phrase of kindness…until you realize miles later how far out of your league you really are with these people.
The right words just do not exist when trying to take the joy of the running world and apply it to the digital screen. I am trying to document my attempt at working my first aid station ever, during a 100 mile trail race.
Hold your breath…
Several weeks ago I had been informed that the secret to the trail world is not just running, but immersing yourself in it like a bad ice bath. This includes doing things such as volunteering to work at an aid station.
Aid Station (Noun): Buffet with waiters and waitresses (and perhaps a random disco ball and/or ukulele). Frequently found at aid stations include pickles, Pringles, flat Coca-Cola, and an old man sleeping in a lawn chair.
Wanting to continue to strive to be like the ‘cool kids’ I signed up to work at “The Hawk” in Lawrence, Kansas. This course would handle three races, the lower mileage being a marathon (because in trail running white is black, up is down, and marathons are the short runs) and the other two being a 50 mile and a 100 mile course…I’ll let you read that again…a 100 mile course. In my lifetime I have never seen a marathon race, so to see that plus the other two adventures would be something surely I would never forget.
The race started at 6:00 AM Saturday morning on pavement due to the rain the night prior. Both the marathon and 50 mile race were 100% on pavement/gravel due to the trails being too wet from the rain. I arrived at the aid station at noon; knowing absolutely no one, getting lost at least once, and somehow the race director (RD) had planted a container of cold brew coffee in my car for me to deliver.
I was expecting to find people smiling with volunteer shirts on, and handing out water cups. What I found was possibly one of the biggest circus performances on the planet. I found people in lawn chairs, a runner sleeping on the gravel, and people picking through scores of M&M’s and peanut butter filled pretzels. If it was not for the realization of knowing I was at a race, I would have mistaken this for a cut scenes from the movie Heavy Weights. People were laughing, dancing, and just messing around. I was fearful the sun had gotten to these poor souls and it was my responsibility to rope them back into reality. Unfortunately, peer pressure is a powerful drug.
Aid stations work like this: Runner comes up to the aid station, you gently (rip) off their bottles and bladders (synthetic, not real) and ask if they want water or Tailwind (nectar of the gods). Once they are filled and you are soaked, you find the runner in a delusional state eating random things and ensuring that they are not putting small plastic objects in their mouth (spit that out!). After you have restocked their liquids, gave them a pep talk, and ensured that they ate something…including chewing on painkillers for some strange reason, you let them out of the gate like a crazy bull. Meaning…they shuffle off into sunset for another riveting 26 miles.
I am blessed to know that my years of being a water boy in high school truly paid off at the aid station. Hauling water containers, filling bladders, and being soaked were merely second nature for my nerdy soul. All the while I was laughing when a 60 year old man who was running 100 miles came down the road dancing, acting like an airplane, and singing the entire time. The sun is truly a cruel, cruel creature.
Confession; I did get misty eyed when ‘my runners’ came to the station. They are not really mine, but there were four people out in the chaos that I run with throughout the week. One killed her first marathon, one destroyed her 50 mile, and two very unstable…uh…amazing women rocked their 100 mile races. Seeing them on the path towards the station made me jump, clap, and overall look like a nerd, dork, child…everything that a cool trail runner is not.
Strange things happen when you are working an aid station; you start to have fun and you easily lose track of time. The duration I signed up to work was from noon to 6:00 PM. However, like a strange mission trip with youth, flexibility is key. We learned that the fourth loop of the 100 Mile race was going to be held on the trail. Because of this, they needed an individual to hang out in the woods and direct runners along their course and to the aid station. Meaning, I volunteered to be fed to the rabid raccoons and found myself standing in the middle of the woods.
With no light.
With no shelter.
With no hope.
By 8:00 PM my wife was sending me texts, curious as to when I was planning on coming home. I jokingly said that it would be Sunday morning. At this point my desire to capture the events taking place similar to the Blair Witch Project was in full swing on Facebook Live for the rest of the world to watch. Sadly, there are many reports of people fearing that I was intoxicated during those videos…I was 100% sober…and that is how my mind functions…daily.
By 10:00 PM the new aid station co-director had gotten into the swing of things at the station. By 11:00 PM through the woods, in the darkness, I could hear what sounded to be Burning Man Part II or 2016 Woodstock coming from the aid station.
At 1:00 AM the party was in full swing, loud music from the 1980’s was blaring, someone had gotten into a bottle of Pecan Pie Whiskey, and a ukulele was being played for every runner coming into the station. Some volunteers brought down a cup a vegan soup and a cheese quesadilla. Allow me to state that when it is 51 degrees outside and you are wearing shorts, these are the delights that keep you warm…namely the whiskey.
By 2:00 AM delusional images were coming to life and on several occasions I swore that a runner coming through with their headlamp was indeed ET trying to phone his home. When 3:00 AM hit the person sitting in the woods with me and myself had finished all of the world’s problems, analyzed the political philosophy of our time, and charted out half the stars in the night sky. Truly, we were productive.
4:00 AM passed and I was considering my poor life choices over a small bowl of ramen noodles (turns out that is a favorite dish amongst the runners late in the night) with my closest friends. A random stranger had my car keys for safe keeping, and the 200 yard trip between the aid station and my ‘look out point’ was the most dangerous trail run I have ever attempted. I even witnessed a runner or two take a shot of Fireball for safe measures on their way out.
Around 5:00 AM I saw one of my friends (aka: the person who dragged me into this world to begin with) as she prepared for her final section of the 100 mile race. Seeing her so happy, so strong, and so focused made my numb body from the cold just light up in warmth and joy. Through all the partying in the night, nothing surpassed seeing someone so happy with their future accomplishment (she went on to win third female overall and finished under 24 hours).
At 7:30 AM I was trying to figure out how I wound up in the middle of nowhere through my daze of fatigue and lack of water. I saw my other ‘my runner’ passing through. I could have cried for her because of how hard she was working. She finished in 28 hours with either a sprain, strain, fracture, or amputated foot. This too was her first 100 mile race.
With her passing by, I knew my time had expired. I had fought the good fight, somehow my legs were covered with mud, I had witnessed all ‘my runners’ in their amazing glory, and twenty hours after the beginning of this adventure I sent a short text to my wife:
Coming home. Shower. Sleep. Biscuits and gravy. Not necessarily in that order.
I bid a kind, warm farewell to the aid station that had taught me so much about life, love, and the liberty of the trail runner. I found my friend that had already finished her 100 mile, gave her a high five, and unapologetically stated…
When I grow up, I want to be like you.
At 9:00 AM, and I am still trying to figure this one out due to the insane amount of fatigue, I wound up in the driveway of my home 75 miles and nearly 24 hours away from the beginning of this adventure. I proceeded to sleep for nearly another 18 hours without a single regret.
My weekend as a volunteer summed up in two words: no regrets.
EDIT: Please NOTE: NO runners were lost, or misdirected, or not 110% well taken care of with whatever their needs might be: hydration, soup, quesadillas, buffet of food and soda options, massaged feet/back/shoulders/calves/quads, blister care, etc… whatever they need, we aim to please.
At 3 a.m., I’d like to think we were an oasis of energy for the runners and crew to draw from and continue on their journeys.
Over the past several weeks, enjoying this new world of trail running, I began to search for why so many trail runners were not in their 20’s, but instead were in their 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s when it came to age. As one runner put it when I inquired about it, the reality is that this kind of running requires patience. Young runners don’t have that patience yet, so they tend to stay away from this form of sport. They are all about their splits, staying within time, striding out, and speeding down the asphalt. There is nothing wrong with that concept for many, but for some we need a different form of motivation.
Last Saturday I laced up for a fun run with a few runners from our local running team; Team Run816. The route was just a chat trail that laced through the south end of the city. Some would do two miles, some four, and some more. No race, no purpose, just running. I had decided earlier in the day that I would log 4 miles and enjoy my Saturday. A week removed from my first trail race adventure had me thirsty for more, but also a small voice in the back of my head telling me that I was tired. I had logged 16 miles for the week, had some cramping issues on Thursday, and even I could express that I was tired.
At the turnaround of my four mile course I noticed that one of the faster runners, a running coach, a trail runner, an ultra runner was quickly going to cross paths with me at the turnaround*. Personally, I became extremely scared. Nothing is more terrifying then being tired, running heavy, and seeing a running coach fly up behind you. I embraced for the worst as I trucked along.
When she caught up, the first words caught me off-guard:
Are you alright? Let’s stop and walk this section.
Years of experience probably led her to already understand and see that I was worn out and not moving very fluid. We walked for about ten minutes and then picked up the pace again. Through this process she talked the entire time (I’m still trying to figure out how people talk and run at the same time, my ‘yes’ usually comes out as a *gasp*) about trail running, training, and patience.
She told me that I had been trying to stack too much on after my first trail race, and I needed to lighten the load a bit. She suggested running with my wife, spending time on my feet, but not pushing myself to new levels the week after a race.
One of the biggest problems in the trail running community is seeing younger people come up through the ranks, fly through the courses, and then after about three years they are worn out, burned out, and done with trail running. It is a serious risk that exists for people who are not patient with their training, and potentially even more importantly their overall recovery. Trail running requires an insane amount of patience. You are building your body, slowly and safely, to take on extreme mileage. Think about all the training a road runner has to do to prepare for a half-marathon; now calculate that into mileages beyond a marathon on an unstable surface.
When I have someone finish a 100 mile race, the next day they are required to take a 30 minute walk. It keeps them loose, but doesn’t overdue it in light of what they have just accomplished.
In my case; I’m brand new to trail running. I had my first race, and it was a brutal experience. The temptation is to hop right back out and keep going, but when we are patient we allow that fire of desire to burn and smolder; making each trip out that much more enjoyable.
Upon learning all of this on a two mile trip back to our local coffee shop, I made some adjustments this week. My wife and I went out of town for our anniversary, and I did not run a single one of those days.
Waiting makes the experience that much more enjoyable.
Throughout my life I have quickly given up on establishing the joys of “my first”. Each and everyone of them (kiss, job, car, trail race…) have all had odd quirks that really take away from the Disney enchantment factor of new adventures.
Psycho Psummer (10 mile edition) was no different, and completely fulfilled my destiny for continuations of awkward, odd, and overall painful experiences within my life.
To set the tone for last Saturday’s race, I first must establish where I was physical the night prior. After work I had driven down to the hotel closest to the course to pick up my race packet. I didn’t make it a half mile from the hotel before I had to lock myself in a very sketchy bathroom at a local gas station for thirty minutes while emptying everything out of my digestive system.
Needless to say I was rather nervous.
Understand that prior to this race the furthest I had ever ran in my life was nine miles, and that was the prior Saturday with the trail running group that was eating pickles along the way. In fact, when it came to ‘racing’ the only experience I had was 5K’s on asphalt.
This choice still has God laughing at me for my prideful endeavors.
The start of the race at 9:00 AM Saturday morning at Wyandotte County Lake (WyCo) immediately set the tone for my day. I was one of few that was wearing a full hydration vest; this should have been a red flag for me.
The first four miles were a horrific experience, straight out of a Stephen King novel, if Mr. King found entertainment in torturing people through athletic events instead of clowns. It wasn’t asphalt we were running on, it was dried Missouri Mud paths laced with jagged rock. Meaning, it wasn’t hard like asphalt, it was hard like concrete with holes that could shatter your ankles with one wrong step, or just slice to you to ribbons like some anime horror episode.
Did I mention that the beginning of the race was right around 86°F?
At the first aid station I truly wanted to
puke die. My stomach was in an awful knot, and I was terrified of being that person that was going to defecate in my shorts while trying to finish the course. Thankfully, a running partner from my Monday runs (bad word choice) was at the first station and immediately suggested ginger ale. Now, I understand that you have to be 60 year of age or older to enjoy ginger ale, but I hit that stuff at every aid station like it was going out of style and it fixed my stomach. Praise Jesus for ginger ale*.
By mile four I was wheezing, heaving, and having a splendid time. It was at that point that I could hear the light footsteps of a secret, pixie/ninja coming up behind me. The footsteps drew near at a rapid pace, I stepped to the side to allow them through. Before I knew it, with a giggle, a smile, and a wave the winner of the Western States 100 mile trail race flew by me as she bounced between each rock.
You’re doing great!
I clapped for her…and cried for myself.
Six miles to go…
At mile seven I was talking to myself, rationalizing my poor choices in life, and wondering when the next 50K runner was going to pass me without sweating. That’s when I saw the sign…
You’re NOT almost there, but you look fabulous!
Do you know how the brain handles wording like this after baking in the heat for two hours? I threatened the air in front of me with anger and cursing. I knew I wasn’t close, but I also knew I didn’t look good at all. The race photographer left when he saw me coming down the trail.
A quarter of a mile later, another sign caught my attention along the trees…
Run now. Poop later. Never trust a fart.
Somehow, someone had made a sign that had categorized the beginning of my morning with colorful markers.
By mile seven I had made it to another aid station; it was maintained by the group that I run with on Monday nights. There were sprinklers, and dogs, and children, and a man running around in a pink bikini…everything made sense since my brain resembled the artistic rendition of scramble eggs. It was at mile seven that I began to really understand that in races where heat is an issue, the hydration vest isn’t the best option because it weighs you down and your body can’t breathe under the material. Make no mistake, I love UltrAspire and my vest, but this was a day where the vest had a fault. Running is bad, running in heat is worse, running in heat with a weight vest because you want to be the next great Wilt-the-Stilt Chamberlain is an overall horrible idea.
Moving to mile nine I came across the ‘three sisters’ (there is better R-rated terminology to describe this geological wonder). I was grateful when I saw a 50K runner pass me, stop halfway up one of these abominations on this planet, take a deep breath, and continued to climb. For a split second the elite and myself, the
peasant, were on the same level and that felt good.
By mile 10 my brain was no longer functioning, I think I was drooling, and my stubborn legs just kept moving. Hallelujah that I grew up hating country music, because I flew in the last half mile when I heard the music from the start/finish line transition to Blake Shelton talking about some beach that I will never see.
At mile 10.5 I crossed the finish line in three hours and six minutes, and in 96°F heat with a 103°F heat index. I had consumed 5 liters of liquid through that trek, and lost about another half liter afterwards in the form of salty tears.
Now, after the accomplishment of this train wreck of ego and pride, there is only one question that I can even humor to ask myself…
When can I do that again?
*Turns out that I was not the only one with digestive issues on the course. All aid stations and the main station ran completely out of ginger ale towards the end of the race because so many people were consuming it at the stations.