Tag Archives: trail race

Grandmaster of Disaster

After running the Grandmaster 100K last month in the Arizona desert, I now share one characteristic with legendary ultrarunner Jim Walmsley, who has now twice set the course record at the Western States 100.

No, I did not win Western States. I haven’t even tried to qualify for it (yet). But we do indeed share one type of experience. I shall explain.

My usual plan with an ultra is to run it once, enjoy the experience, and move on. The Grandmaster Ultra is one of the select few I chose to go back to. The stark beauty of the desert, the challenge of the course, and the camaraderie of fellow 50+ runners was too strong a call to ignore. And it was among the few ultra choices available in early 2021.

I’d run the 50-miler in 2020 (just prior to Covid and all that), so I signed up for the 100K this year. A way different beast. In addition to the extra 12 miles, the last few hours would be run in the dark. I looked forward to the challenge.

Check out the incredible scenery below. Believe me, these photos don’t come close to full vision, wide-angle experience.

The footing’s even more fun in the dark!

I arrived with lowered expectations, due to pandemic-related necessities. But aside from mandatory mask-wearing and slightly fewer food options, it was the same as last year, including bonfires at the aid stations after dark. The weather was perfect for running – in the high 30s at start, rising to around 60 degrees in the afternoon, then dropping fast after sunset. Good preparation was key. I made several checklists and packed my drop bag carefully.

I would be running the 50K loop twice, so I sent a drop bag to the halfway mark of that loop, and had another one in my car at the start/finish. I was all set. Or so I thought.

The first loop went exactly to plan. I finished it around 6 hours 15 minutes, right on schedule, feeling strong, and, unexpectedly, as the lead runner. I checked my feet – nothing serious going on – put on a fresh shirt and socks, drank a lot of Gatorade, and headed back out. At every aid station the volunteers congratulated me on being in the lead. I’d met the couple behind me, Gene and Julie, friends running together, and they congratulated me too. Did I mention how great the camaraderie is with trail runners?

And the aid station volunteers were awesome, too!

Partway through my second loop I put on my headlamp, a new design that promised to be lighter and more comfortable than the standard headlamp. It was great. It’s light and so well balanced on the head I didn’t feel it at all, and its medium setting was plenty to light my way. The only thing missing is a red LED on the back for a rear light. So I clipped a couple bike lights to my belt instead.

In the desert, stuff just kinda shows up outta nowhere.

I got to the halfway aid station still feeling good. It was dark and already noticeably cooler, so first thing was to switch out my sweaty shirt for a fresh, dry one. Only I didn’t have one in my drop bag. Somehow, despite my carefully detailed checklists, I’d overlooked packing one. Not good. My only option was the shirt I’d swapped out on loop one and left to dry in the sun. It was still damp. I put it on anyway, figuring it would be better than no second layer. And I had a wind jacket. It would have to do.

On my way back I encountered Gene and Julie again. “Your lead just keeps getting bigger,” Gene said. I indeed figured I could stick to my current pace. No need to hit the gas just yet. I refueled at the next aid station and began the next stretch, which I knew was the longest and toughest on the loop. And during that stretch, things began to suck.

First, the terrain seemed to have changed; I didn’t remember there being so much uphill. I became convinced that in between my first and second loops, a construction crew had come in, elevated the grade, and strewn extra rocks on the trail. And I was getting cold, due to my slower pace, rapidly falling temps, and wet shirt.

Every ultrarunner knows to expect highs and lows during a race of this length. I’d been marveling that even after 50 miles, I hadn’t hit a low. Now one showed up and gleefully reminded me constantly that I was sore, tired, and cold. And, by the way, there was still a long slog remaining to the finish. Those few miles seemed to go on forever. Finally I heard the noise and saw the lights of the aid station ahead.

The middle of that tough stretch. Easy during the day. At night…not so much.

I got there and stood by the fire a bit, which didn’t help much. I think my clothes were just too wet. So I moved on to the final aid station. It was less than two miles, but I was not in good shape. I was shivering and had to sit down. Fortunately, someone had some toe warmers, which I slid down my shirt. After a few minutes my core felt warm enough that I was ready to push on to the finish. It was nearly five miles, but mainly downhill. All I had to do was hold together a little longer.

Down the wide, gravelly road I went, feeling better from the warmers and a quicker, steady pace. I reached the bottom and the final turn to the finish. Just between one and two miles to go, on a nice soft runnable surface.

And I had a Walmsley moment.

At mile 93 of the 2016 WS 100, Jim was not only the lead runner, he was on pace to break the course record. Per his own account, all was on track – until he made a wrong turn, went two miles off course, and ended up walking the rest of the way.

And on my final turn by that highway I went wrong, ending up on a path that looked sorta right, except there were no ribbons. In daylight I would have figured it out pretty quickly from landmarks and the fence line. But it was dark, and I figured it had to be right. I kept going, getting more and more concerned. Then I saw a woman up ahead.

“Have you seen any ribbons?” she yelled.

Well, if I was lost, at least I had company. We ran on a little longer, not seeing anything familiar. So we decided to turn around and head back to the intersection. I took off hard, pleased to have a reserve to draw on, but frustrated I’d gone so far the wrong way. I estimated I’d gone over a mile off course.

I got back to the crossroads, found the correct path right next to the other one, got on it and continued hard to the finish, crossing the line at around 16 and a half hours. My second loop had taken ten hours.

And I’d finished third. Both Gene and Julie had taken the correct turn and finished well ahead of me. Julie actually won the race overall by about ten minutes. So I was second male finisher and earned a trophy instead of the winner’s belt.

I was bummed, naturally, but also amused at the irony. Last year I’d won the 50-miler by a single second, and the fellow I’d finished with had accepted his second-place trophy with good grace. Now after being unchallenged leader for nearly 61 miles of a 62-mile race, I had to do the same.

I did my best to smile as they took my photo. But I was suffering badly from cold and fatigue, so right after that I got in my car, cranked up the heat, and returned to my lodging. What a relief to get into a warm bed with dry clothes.

And how do I feel about it now? Just fine, thank you. One advantage of being over fifty is learning what’s worth getting upset over, and what isn’t. And a race result is a definite isn’t. Besides, it makes for a good story. And I like the trophy. People think it’s pretty cool. What was I going to do with another belt?

Now I ask you – isn’t that one cool-looking trophy?

And one other thing may change as a result. I’d been thinking this would be my final time at the Grandmaster. There are too many other races that look like fun. But I was not happy with my time, even accounting for the wrong turn. If I’d won, I might just let it go. But now? I’m beginning to think I can do a lot better if I give it another go. Jim Walmsley did.

This is Fun? Damn Right!

A COUPLE OF MILES into last Sunday’s trail marathon, as I wound my way along the Potawatomi Trail, a low roar of excited babble came from across the lake to the right. The guy in front of me glanced in that direction.

“Sounds like the five-milers over there,” he said, referring to the shorter race that took a different path through the woods.

“Yeah,” I replied, “but they’re not having as much fun as we are.”

He agreed. “Got that right!” The morning was sunny and cool, and the Poto was in superb condition. Why settle for a measly five miles when you could run 26.2?

Saturday’s half marathon had been gray and bleak, with the wind off the lake driving most runners to warm places elsewhere for their afterglow. Working Zero Waste afterward, I shivered with the race staff and made liberal use of the heater in the volunteer tent.

No such issues on Sunday, the kind of day you’d want for a marathon, or any kind of run. Despite some fatigue from the half, I had good energy throughout. I finished slower than last year (which I’d run on fresh legs) but as I said, I was having fun.

So what exactly is “fun” about running four-plus hours up and down a trail?

I’m sure every trail runner would answer a bit differently, but “fun” and its synonyms are prevalent in our conversations. When someone says, “I nearly died out there. I couldn’t walk for a week. It was AWESOME,” we nod and make a note to look up that race.

This couple shows the joy on Sunday. (Photo from Frog Prince Studios.)

For me last weekend, enjoyment came with “being present” in the event, where outside thoughts and worries slipped away and my world shrank to the race and the trail. Hard effort, discomfort and pain mixed with runner’s high and feeling of accomplishment. The scary thrill of nearly losing control on steep downhills. Encouraging shouts from volunteers and spectators. Sweat-soaked PB&J and cookies in sticky hands. Exchanges of “Good job!” as I pass and get passed by other runners. A surge of adrenaline cresting the final rise and seeing the finish line, sprinting the final hundred yards, and capping it off with a somersault just for the hell of it.

Cruising along the back half of the loop.

Trail Marathon Weekend remains among my favorite events. I like going to new locations and rarely repeat a trail race, but every year I go to the Poto. It’s local and low-key, with, to me, a “just right” mix of smooth running and difficult climbs and descents. Not overly rocky or rooty either, though there are places that require careful footwork. You can spot them by my face prints in the dirt.

TMW also scratches a particular itch I have to push my limits. You mean I can run both the half on Saturday and the full marathon or 50K on Sunday? And it’s called the “No Wimps” option? You sadists! Where do I sign up? (You can read here about how I graduated to this from the 5-miler.) This year I even ran an “ultra half” which you get by missing a turn and running 14 miles instead of 13.1. (I’m thinking of suggesting this become an official category.)

And the marathon has a special award, the Rogucki Trophy, for the top finisher age 50 and older. Each year the male and female winners get their names and finish times put on the trophy. As the 2017 Rogucki winner, I had a title to defend, which reason would argue for resting on Saturday instead of doing No Wimps. Reason lost. (It usually does with races.)

Nearly as famous as the Stanley Cup!

So did I successfully defend my Rogucki title this year?

My name added for 2017 (bottom left).

Well, no. Two guys in the 50-54 age group smoked me like a pork butt. The winner finished second overall in 3 hours 35 minutes, a time I wasn’t going to touch even with a month of rest and an IV line of espresso. And that’s just fine with me. Frankly, I was stressing a bit too much about it. With the pressure off, I can enjoy that I won it once, and have that much more fun next year.

And, BTW, our Zero Waste effort rocked again, with reduced overall waste and a 97 percent landfill diversion rate. That’s three straight years of winning that no one can take away!

The Sunday morning Zero Waste crew – a gaggle of Girl Scouts. They did great! I’m wearing my marathon and No Wimps medals. Wooden! Very sustainable!

Thrills, No Frills, And A Wish Fulfilled

The vernal equinox is upon us, and with it came the annual No Frills All Thrills Trail Race at Huron Meadows Metropark. Hard to believe it’s been a year since the memorable 2014 race, with its Iditarod-like conditions.

Hardcore!

Hardcore!

The NFAT is one of my favorite races, in part due to the minimalist approach the organizers take. No shirts, no photographer, not even chip timing, just an 8K or 4K trail run through a pretty metropark. For an early spring run in unpredictable conditions, it attracts a surprising variety of runners of all ages. I even saw a stroller this year. Now that’s hardcore.

Just a couple of weeks ago, with snow still covering southern Michigan, I’d expected something similar to the 2014 race, where snow and ice covered the entire trail 3-4 inches deep. But the recent thaw took care of that. I asked the nice lady at the registration area what the trail was like this year.

“The first half mile is a bit muddy,” she said. “And there’s some snow and ice, but not much. It’s much better than last year.” Which would have been true about any year other than 2014. I replied that last year was one for the ages, and she said. “Yep. The Ice Ages.”

NFAT starting lineYet last year I pulled off once of my best efforts, aided by many runners deciding mid-race to drop to the 4K rather than stick out the full 8K. I wound up in 6th place overall. This year, with the trails mostly clear and runnable, I figured there was no way I would finish in the top 10 again. But I lined up in the front anyway.

As promised, there were some muddy spots, and a few large patches of snow and ice here and there. But most of the trail was in surprisingly good shape, and my Saucony Peregrine trail shoes provided good grip throughout. I got off to a good start and settled in at the rear of the lead pack, about 20 or so. We pulled well away from the rest of the runners, and with no one behind me to worry about, I began to work on those ahead.

The 8K route isn’t a killer but it has its challenges, and my winter workouts and all the hill work in Costa Rica paid off as I caught and passed other runners beginning to tire. And no other runners passed me. I love it when that happens! I crossed the finish line in 36:46 – good for an age group win and 9th place overall. Top 10 again!

Saving the best for last: a nice steep hill 100 yards from the finish line.

Saving the best for last: a nice steep hill 100 yards from the finish line.

Top things I love about this race:

  • The “no frills” as proudly advertised. Low key and straightforward.
  • A trail race in March means the conditions are unpredictable and practically guaranteed to be different from year to year.
  • It’s a good test of my fitness level as I get set for my late spring and summer races.
  • The organizers are very nice people, and so are the other runners. Every year I have a good time chatting with people after the race, and learning about other can’t-miss trail races. This year I found out about the debut Two Hearted Trail Run in the UP in June. (Don’t tell anyone – space is limited and I haven’t signed up yet.)
"No frills" race swag: gloves, chipless bib, and age group award.

“No frills” race swag: gloves, chipless bib, and age group award. (Spibelt is mine – and I highly recommend it.)

Normally, I’d be adding “the post-race goodies” to the list. But the homemade chocolate chip and red velvet cookies of the past few years were missing this year, replaced by boxes of store-bought. Perhaps it’s just as well – a couple more of those red velvet cookies and I’d have proposed to the baker, which probably wouldn’t have gone down too well with my wife.

And now for the big news I promised last time:

Coach Marie has a new baby daughter! Kasey June Morgan was born on March 13. Congratulations to Marie and her husband Rob, who faced difficulties in having a child, but whose patience and optimism saw them through. Kasey doesn’t know it yet, but she’s going to be a runner. Heck, she already has a 100+ support group!

Kasey doesn't know it yet, but she's going to be a runner. Heck, she already has a 100+ support group!

And in other news, I’m signing up for two spring ultras: the Pinckney Trail Marathon Weekend April 25-26, and the Glacier Ridge Trail Ultra (50 miles) in May. And the 100K retry is also on the list – just need to choose the venue. Stay tuned!

Cold Logic: No Frills All Thrills Race Recap

I HAVE FOUND SOMETHING TO APPRECIATE ABOUT THIS WINTER.

(Warning: it’s based on the fact that I ran outdoors all winter, so I’m guessing that many of you will not be nodding your head in agreement.)

Oh, we're all ears, I'm sure.

Oh, we’re all ears. Enlighten us.

Okay, here goes.

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(Remember, I warned you.)

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Last Saturday, I ran the No Frills All Thrills 8K trail race at Huron Meadows Metropark in Brighton. I run it every year, and it lives up to its billing. No shirts, no photographer, and it’s timed by the gun – no chips on the bibs. But it supports a good cause (Girls on the Run), and whoever baked the post-race chocolate chip and red velvet cookies gets my vote for sainthood.

The metropark trails are challenging in the best of conditions, with some steep climbs and descents built into the course. This year was not the best of conditions. The snow may be gone from the roads, but the trails were still covered in several inches of the stuff, and while some of it had been tamped down, for most of the course we just had to slog through it.

Abandon all hope ye who enter here.

Abandon all hope ye who enter here.

But that’s exactly what I’ve been doing all winter – slogging through the snow. And I was wearing the Hokas, which while not exactly letting me glide along, gave me good traction and kept my feet dry. I liked my chances.

The few...the proud...the nut cases...

The few…the proud…the nut cases…

I got off to a decent start at the back of the leading pack. The trail was mainly ice for the first quarter mile, which meant stepping carefully and trying not to trip over other runners. But when we entered the woods I settled in, and began to pass people one by one as they struggled in the snow. It was hard going, like one of those bad dreams where you’re running really hard and going nowhere. But no one passed me – no one – while I continued to improve my position.

No gold shoes for age group awards this year, but  check out the mug with integrated spoon.

No gold shoes for age group awards this year, but check out the mug with integrated spoon.

I crossed the finish line pretty sure I’d done well. And the initial posted results had me in 12th place overall, out of about 120 total. Quite satisfactory, although I had to settle for second in my age group.

But the story wasn’t over. That night, I logged in to look at the final results – and I’d moved up to 9th place overall. A top 10 finish! Woohoo!

But wait, there’s more…

Tonight I went back to look up my finish time so I could update my race results widget, and saw this!

NFAT 2014 - my race result

According to the race organizer, some of the 8K runners decided to take the detour and just do the 4K – and didn’t tell anyone at the finish line. They think they have everything correct now. Too bad – they way things were going, I’d have won the race by next week!

So there you have it. I rocked out a cold, snowy race for a 6th place overall finish – my best ever – and I owe it all to this winter.

For my next trick, I will explain how the 2012 Dexter tornado led to my current PR in the 5K. Or maybe not. One twisted logic story is enough for now.