Tag Archives: Dances with Dirt

Down and Dirty: Dances with Dirt Hell 50K Recap

NIGHT AND DAY. That’s the best way to describe the difference between my experience at Run Woodstock earlier this month and the Dances with Dirt – Hell 50K last Saturday.

He's not really a bad guy once you get to know him.

He’s really not a bad guy once you get to know him.

Cool and dry where Woodstock was hot and wet, it was a perfect day for a long trail run. With no danger of bonking, I ran strong from start to finish and felt great the whole time. But every one of the four Dances with Dirt races this year had its particular challenges, and the Hell race was no exception.

As this was the 20th anniversary of the run, they promised to “pull out all the stops” – and they delivered. Here’s a sample of what the 50K and 50 mile runners went through.

I avoided this by walking over some logs. But just as I was congratulating my cleverness - well, see below.

I avoided this by walking over some logs. But just as I was congratulating my cleverness – well, see below.

There wasn’t much mud, but what was there was spectacular. The reason you can’t see my legs in the photo below is that they’re completely submerged. Fortunately, the runner in the photo above helped pull me out.

DWD Hell - Deep in the Mud

There were only a couple of water crossings – but one was a downriver wade of a quarter mile.

DWD Hell - Wading Downriver 2

And there were some hills:

DWD Hell - Blurry Hill ClimbAs you can see from the runner’s shoe, we are climbing an almost vertical slope. I wish this photo had come out more clearly – but then again, it’s got kind of a neat impressionist look, don’t you think?

And there was some bushwhacking into parts unknown. The blue paint is the “trail” marking.

DWD Hell - Bushwhacking

But it all paid off with a finish in the top 20 overall. And I got a special belt buckle for completing all four DWD events this year!

DWD Belt Buckle Group

My strong finish was helped by some gear adjustments based on what I’d learned from my failed 100K attempt.

To tackle the chafing problem, I wore my triathlon shorts. I’d never run more than a 5K in them, so I was violating the rule of “don’t try new stuff in a race” – but since triathlon gear is designed for marathons (the Ironman running distance), I figured I was safe. And it worked! No chafing, and they dried out quickly after that long river wade.

I wore the same shoes as for Woodstock, but wore thinner socks and applied a bit more tape around the toes. I also rubbed Gold Bond Friction Defense over my feet. The result: no blistering, even though my trip through the mud meant running 10 more miles in soaked shoes.

With the usual well-stocked aid stations there was no shortage of food and water. All the same I sucked down a couple more Gu than usual, which I think helped keep my energy level up. Something to consider for future ultras.

Wow, Coke really is available everywhere.

Wow, Coke really is available everywhere.

Next up: 25K this Saturday on the Vasa trail in Traverse City.

Running On: Lessons from My Ultra DNF

Runners are funny people. They encourage the efforts of others, and when someone crashes and burns, they always know the right thing to say. Except when it comes to their own performance – then that stuff goes right out the window.

So it came as no surprise to me that everyone – 100% – of people who knew about my DNF at Run Woodstock supported my decision to stop. Some were even grateful. And everyone had something encouraging to say. So how did that make me feel? I think the meme below expresses how runners I know feel about such things.


That out of the way, I feel better now. And besides, there’s another ultra this Saturday – the Dances with Dirt 50K in Hell, which, being its 20th anniversary, promises to be a lulu (check out the course description here). So instead of moping, I’ve been looking at what went wrong and what I can learn from it. And I’ll want to try the 100K again someday, too.

After some self-analysis, discussions with Coach Marie and a bit of WAGging (*) I’ve identified three main areas for improvement. If any ultrarunners are reading this, you’re welcome to chime in with your own stories and lessons learned. And if any readers are considering an ultra, I hope what’s written here won’t scare you away. An ultra is a blast. Really. I mean it.

So here we are:

The Physical – Aye, There’s the Rub

The biggest contributor to my early exit was the heat exhaustion. I’ve since read that even minor dehydration can play havoc with the body’s ability to regulate temperature. I was drinking a lot of fluids, but also sweating so much in that wet heat that it may not have been enough.

I bought two things for my next effort. First, a forehead thermometer. I can carry it in my pocket or running backpack so if I feel that way again, I can check to see if my core temperature is safe or too high. The other is some chemical cold packs to bring down my temperature if ice is not available, or I’m between aid stations.

Thermometer and Cold Packs

Chafing is another regular problem I have during ultras. Despite applying Body Glide and Vaseline, by my third loop my thighs were raw where my soaked, sweaty shorts rubbed on them. There were also a couple of “hot spots” in my underwear, and I don’t mean the good kind.

Gold Bond Friction DefenseMy coach told me about Gold Bond Friction Defense, a Body Glide-like product that also contains aloe for soothing the skin. I’m going to try it on Saturday.

Finally, there was blistering. From my other ultras I know where the trouble spots on my feet are, and I made sure to tape them carefully. That worked, but blisters are apparently more clever than I thought, and I got a couple where I didn’t tape. On the other hand, rubbing Body Glide all over my feet each loop helped keep them dry and comfortable. With mud and river crossings on the Saturday course, I will be continuing that practice.

Mental Lessons – Lord, Give me Patience – NOW

It’s fairly indisputable that any run of 30-plus miles qualifies as a long run. A 100K (62 miles) might even qualify as a very long run. Not surprisingly, long runs take a long time to complete. Any successful ultraunner, therefore, possesses at least a modicum of patience and mental discipline. But the longer the run, the more is needed, and at some point, most people hit a limit. I think I hit mine.

My plan for mentally managing the 100K was to break it up into manageable segments, like with last year’s 50-miler. Each loop had four, marked by the aid stations, all about four miles apart. But while similar in distance, they were very different in feel. The first leg and third segments were okay, but for some reason the second and fourth legs seemed to stretch on and on.

View from my headlamp during Run Woodstock 2012.

View from my headlamp during Run Woodstock 2012. The bright spot is the next trail marking flag. Or a ghost. I forget which.

On a trail in the dark, distances stretch and the inner clock I’ve relied on to estimate my pace and distance simply doesn’t work. Even known landmarks and milestones seem to take longer to reach. I began to get frustrated and began to tell myself how much worse it would be the next time around. That part of me was quite relieved when I quit.

The key to solving this, I think, is some formal mental training. My coach suggested restoration-style yoga, which includes a focus on meditation. I’m looking into this and will keep you posted.

Attitude – A Different Animal

Perhaps my biggest miscalculation was treating a 100K race like an extended 50K, instead of the very different type of race it is. Setting aside the maxim that for a long ultra, “if you think you’re starting too slowly, go slower still,” I ran at what seemed to be a comfortable pace – my 50K pace. No doubt that plus the heat caught up with me.

Pace too fast 2

Yum, yum!

Yum, yum!

I had the same “50K” attitude toward nutrition – being sure to drink and have salt at the aid stations, but otherwise winging it. For a 100K, I think I’ll have to approach it more systematically, to know more exactly what I need at what time. There are some general guidelines to apply on replenishing electrolytes and how many calories I should replace, what percentage should be simple sugars vs. complex carbs, how much protein, and how much water is needed to process it all. More to come there, too.

So for Saturday’s race, I can apply some lessons already. And I won’t have to worry about heat issues – it’s a morning race and will be much cooler. Should be a good time!


(*) WAG = Wild-Ass Guess. Not to be confused with SWAG – Scientific Wild-Ass Guess – for which, as I understand, you need a Ph.D.

On the Rocks: DWD Devil’s Lake 50K Recap


DWD Devils Lake - Halfway PointIt was the second half of the Dances with Dirt – Devil’s Lake 50K near Baraboo, Wisconsin. This is normally where I start overtaking people who pass me in the first half. But as I picked my way down the two-mile decline from the rocky overlook to the aid station at the road, runners continued to pass me. And I was too gassed to do anything about it.

What was going on? Perhaps it was the 5:30 a.m. start, which meant I got up around 4:15. Or the 200 percent humidity that soaked everyone in sweat just a few miles in. Or the treacherous roots and rocks along the trail that had already spilled me once and kept threatening to snap off an ankle or two. Or it was just one of those days where you toss your goal time out the window and work on getting through the race. And it wasn’t gonna be easy.

We're off!

We’re off!

The Devil’s Lake course, like the other DWD races, has its features that make it memorable. No fire ants like at Green Swamp, or walls of mud or wading down a river like at Gnaw Bone. But it took more out of me than any of the ultras I’ve ever run.

DWD Devils Lake - On the Trail

View from the top

View from the top.

DWD Devils Lake - Down the Rocks

The signature climb up and down the rocks at the halfway point was a challenge, but the really enervating part was the frequent change in elevation. After the long climb up to the overlook (right above the “43” in the chart below) came the two-mile descent mentioned above. Then after a couple of miles through a grassy meadow, we turned around and went right back up (mile 22), with another dive downhill at the finish.

Tip for non-runners #1: Running downhill in a trail ultra is neither easy nor fun. Especially if it’s steep. And after mile 15. Skeptics are welcome to consult any ultrarunner, or try it themselves.

It was just as fun as it looks.

It was just as fun as it looks.

My whole race went in cycles. After mile 6 I felt like crap. Then I recovered, improved, and at mile 10 I felt invincible. Two miles later I felt like crap again. Rinse and repeat. I was at one of my “feel like crap” moments when I got to the 25-mile aid station where my friend Tracy was volunteering. “You didn’t look too happy,” she told me later. After sucking down Sprite, Gatorade, and water, and pouring more over my steaming head, I pulled myself away and staggered down the trail for the final leg.

“Just do your best,” Tracy called after me.

Oh, that hurt.

You all look awesome! Keep it up! "Zombies NightoftheLivingDead" by Direction and cinematography both by George A. Romero - Screenshot from timeinc.net. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

You all look awesome! Keep it up!
(Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.)

Tip for non-runners #2: Standard procedure on an ultra run is to say positive things to other runners. During the two-way traffic in the meadow, the air was filled with “Good job!” and “Looking awesome” as runners went by each other. Telling the truth (e.g. “Man, you look like death”) is not cricket.

And yet, after all that, I was in for a couple of surprises. With about three miles to go I got a burst of energy, picked up the pace, and began passing people, even someone who’d flown by me a half mile back. I crossed the finish line in just over six hours – nearly 45 minutes faster than my finish time at Gnaw Bone. For all my worries about tanking the race, I’d finished third in my age group and in the top 20 percent overall.

And all those folks who had passed me? They must have been running the shorter races – the marathon and half marathon, which shared a lot of the 50K course.

This guy's shirt read, "Raw Vegan 50K". As I kept up with him most of the race, I call that a victory for meat.

This guy’s shirt read, “Raw Vegan 50K”. As he was about half my age and I kept up with him most of the race, I call that a victory for meat.

After stretching, my standard post-race half beer, some lunch, and a nice rest on a blanket, I was much restored and able to admit I’d had a good time. Here were some other things to appreciate about the event:

– The Running Fit crew, who did their usual awesome job of setting up the event, supporting and tracking all the runners, and then cleaning up so thoroughly there was no clue on Sunday morning that they’d ever been there.

– The towels soaked in ice water at the Bug Pit (mile 20). Talk about a lifesaver.

– The jugs of water at mile 7.5, just where I needed it. Whoever put it there, thank you so much!

– The post-race lunch that included cold watermelon and portobello mushroom sandwiches

– The clouds covering the sky all day. I have no idea how I could have dealt with the sun being out.

One of the 50 mile finishers. On that course? Truly awesome!

One of the 50 mile finishers. On that course? Truly awesome!

Next up: the Pterodactyl Triathlon on Wednesday.

Between the Deep Blue Sea and the Devil

PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: If you’re healthy today, take a moment to be actively grateful.

Hey, this lake has no lines painted on the bottom!

Okay, Kent Lake isn’t exactly deep and salty, but I needed a headline. Work with me here.

I’m nearing the end of one of my longer periods between races – in this case, my recently completed first triathlon and the upcoming Dances with Dirt 50K at Devil’s Lake in Wisconsin.

In one sense, it turned out to be fortuitous timing. My wife contracted a nasty bug that knocked her flat and put her in the hospital for a week with intravenous antibiotics. The good news is that she responded well to treatment and will be discharged on Tuesday.

Sign on Wall - Healing in ProgressThis hospital works hard to put the focus on healing rather than suffering. They use warm colors and lots of wall decorations, visiting hours are not restricted, the food is good, and the doctors and nurses are friendly and polite. But even so, when I walk through those doors and to her room, it doesn’t take long for me to actively appreciate being healthy and fit. There isn’t much in this life that’s more important.


And of course an on-site coffee shop is essential.

And of course an on-site coffee shop is essential.

Some other random bits from this interlude…

On Sunday I swam for the first time since the triathlon. The time off didn’t make me any faster. (I can dream.) But I completed an 1,800 meter workout, including an 800, without much trouble, even after the 12/20 run & bike “brick” I did on Saturday. Given that the Pterodactyl Triathlon is only four days after Devil’s Lake, this was very encouraging.

B2B trail - St Joseph Mercy Hospital areaWith perfect weather all weekend, I was itching to get out on the bike, so I rode to the Saturday morning run, and from there to visit my wife. Along the way I discovered another part of Washtenaw County’s Border-to-Border Trail, which includes its own car-free bridge across the US 23 freeway. It’s so nice not to have to worry about entrance and exit ramps!

My run included two sets of 3-mile progressions: one mile at a 7:30 pace, the next at 7:15, and the third at 7:00. Our route wound through Barton Hills, where let’s just say Grand Canyon burros would feel right at home. So after setting my initial pace on the lone stretch of level ground, I ignored the watch and ran by feel.

“This will be hard!” my coach warned in her email. She was right – but it was entirely my fault. I’d come across an Active.com article on improving half marathon performance, and forwarded it to her. “What do you think about these workouts?” I’d asked.

“These are great, Jeff,” she wrote back, and promptly began assigning them to me. Apparently just reading about the workouts doesn’t improve performance nearly as much as actually doing them.

Next up: DWD Devil’s Lake! Given the elevation changes I see on the route map, Barton Hills will likely be a fond memory. I think the pre-race meal is mountain goat parmigiana.

DWD Devils Lake-50K elevation profile