I could have stayed home for my 60th birthday last week, eating pizza and chocolate cake like a sensible person.
But if you’re an ultramarathon runner, your mindset has diverged from what other people call sensible. You think a milestone birthday should be celebrated with a challenge, preferably one with lots of pointless suffering in exchange for a beer, a fancy metal trinket, and the cheers from tens of spectators.
And so there I was at Chicot State Park in Ville Platte, Louisiana, ready to “run my age” through the park’s trails and bogs at the Loup Garou Trail Run. Sixty miles or an alligator, whichever came first. Or maybe I’d encounter the loup garou (“loo gah-roo”), the werewolf who, legend has it, haunts these parts. “Nah, don’t worry,” a race staffer told me. “Nothing bad ever happens in a swamp.”
This year’s race was smaller than usual, with only four of us green-bibbed 60-milers toeing the starting line, down from over 20. But a lot of folks were in the 40-mile and 20-mile races, and twenty were brave enough to attempt the marquee 100-mile distance.
I didn’t know anything about the course itself, only that it was “very rooty” and the normal 20-mile loop had changed to a 21-mile out and back because part of the park was closed. So we green bibs would actually do 63 miles. No problem; the trails near home have plenty of roots too, and an extra 5K never hurt anyone. I could handle this.
We set off at 7 a.m. I love the first few miles of an ultra; we’re all feeling good, running easy, and chatting about other races. I met someone else who’d run Burning River this summer, and we commiserated on the hot, wet conditions there. Well, Mother Nature overheard. “Oh yeah, just you wait,” she said.
Just before we reached the “Sloth Café” aid station at mile 3.5, we emerged from woods onto a long boardwalk that crossed a cypress swamp. In the morning mist I felt like I’d just entered Middle-Earth.
This scene made the race worth it for me. We got nothing like it in Michigan, folks. I’d see it five more times, thanks to the out-and-back course. Never got old.
I finished my first loop in 4.5 hours, right on plan. One of my fellow green bibs had a good lead on me, but I had a decent lead on the remaining two. As usual, my focus was on my own performance rather than my place in the standings, but earning a podium spot is a nice bonus, and a little extra motivation to keep up the pace.
And then the heat picked up and things got steamy (not in the good way). Very unusual for December, even in Louisiana. Add in the long 8-mile gap between the two aid stations (twice per loop), and the busy two-way traffic began to dwindle. Some 20-milers didn’t even complete their single loop, despite having 29 hours to finish.
The lead 60-miler continued to rock it out, and I plugged along, uncomfortable but under control. The two behind me disappeared (they would both DNF), and it was soon clear that all I had to do was finish to lock up second. Easier said than done, given conditions. Remember the “very rooty” comment? Add about twelve more “very” to that. While I never fell, I set a PR in near misses. Most frustrating were the roots concealed by leaves, giving me no chance to see them. Nice touch, Mother Nature.
The sun set just as I completed my second loop, so for my final leg, on top of the heat and roots, I had the dark to deal with. That was okay; I like night running. Except I always carry two light sources, and one mile in I loaned my backup to a runner coming in without one (not a situation you want to be in on that trail). So I had to pray my headlamp wouldn’t fail until I at least reached the turnaround, where I had another in my drop bag. (Spoiler alert: it worked fine.)
On that final loop I decided to relax and enjoy the experience (as much as possible). So I slowed it down and spent extra time at the aid stations, eating, drinking, and chatting up the wonderful volunteers. At the final turnaround I even got a shot of Fireball. “It’s your birthday!” was the justification. Yeah, it’s my birthday. Why the hell not?
I emerged from the singletrack and sprinted across the finish line around 1:00 a.m., the only remaining non-100 miler on the course. I was second overall, age group winner, Masters winner, and DFL (dead last) all at the same time, not an easy thing to do.
I’d been pretty lonely on the final leg, seeing only a few poor souls struggling along. I found out why; of the 20 who started the 100-miler, only seven finished. A standard DNF rate for that distance is around 30 percent, so over double that means it was one tough day out there.
I finished feeling surprisingly good. My feet and quads hurt a lot, but I had good energy and no gut issues at all. So I was able to sit at the fire and enjoy the outstanding homemade gumbo. (Almost) worth all those damned roots.
All in all, a pretty good birthday. Probably a good thing they occur only once a year, though.
P.S. There’s more to the story, including lessons learned for my next ultra, and a new buddy made at the airport. I’ll relate that next time!