Tag Archives: trail running

Veterans Memorial 150, Part 3: Bringing Home the Buckle

Concluding my Veterans Memorial 150 race recap: It’s early Sunday morning on the Pere Marquette Trail, finally cooler after a beastly hot Saturday. I’m running well, but another hot day – and trouble – lie ahead…

The Field Thins Out

I arrived at AS 8 (mile 80) around 1:00 a.m. and eased gratefully into a chair. Ruth was there, which meant she’d dropped. “I’m sorry to see you here,” I said. Awkward as that sounded, she understood, admitting to not feeling well from the start. So she’d switched to aid station volunteer.

Kurt arrived and asked how I was. Fine, I told him, how were the other runners doing? “Lots of them have dropped,” he said, which he’d expected. Dean, who I’d met at Baldwin, had been taken to the emergency room with heatstroke but had recovered.

Other runners taking a break. (From the race’s Facebook page.)

Kurt said my nearest competitor, Rebecca, was about 2-3 hours behind me – a bit too close for my comfort. Heading back out, I picked up my pace to take advantage of the cool night and hopefully extend my lead.

A Ghostly Picnic, the Non-Breakfast, and Running Scared

On to Farwell for a crew stop at their park pavilion – a 4 a.m. “picnic” in misty artificial light in a dark, empty town. It was a bit surreal, even spooky. I can only imagine what any passersby would have thought.

An hour later I arrived at the Moose Lodge (AS 10, mile 92) outside Clare. A pancake breakfast would begin at 7 a.m., but nobody showed up early just for me. (Well!). So my crew made me instant oatmeal. Isn’t it wonderful to have people who care?

We checked in with Kurt and heard some startling news. Out of 32 solo runners who started, only eight were still on track for the entire distance. And there’d been some wildlife excitement on the trail overnight! One runner had spotted a black bear and been literally “scared sh**less.” Another had been so spooked by howling coyotes she’d climbed a tree, where race staff found her and talked her down.

Not the same bear, but you get the idea. (Video from Roscommon Fire Department. Click to see video.)

I’d enjoyed an uneventful night, seeing only deer and being cheered on by a chorus of bullfrogs. Nature soon made up for that. As I ran through Clare, lightning lit up the predawn sky. Hard rain soon hit, and I ducked into the van. I tried to appreciate the extra rest, but wanted to get more miles in before it got hot. So I got back on the trail as soon as it let up a bit.

After an hour of intermittent rain, the clouds broke up and the sun was peeking out when I arrived at Loomis (AS 11, mile 102). My running coach Paul and his wife Colleen were there, ready to begin pacing me. And Charlie, my pal from Body Specs, had taken over crew duties from Joyce and Sue, who went to catch a few hours sleep.

Another long, hot day loomed ahead, but only fifty miles to go!

Paul and I hit the trail. Dave and the crew van in the background. Charlie is behind Paul.

Stage 3: Loomis to Bay City

Pacing, Passing, and Pseudo-Napping

“You’re an hour and a half ahead of my time last year,” Kurt told me at Loomis. “I needed two naps during my race. I recommend you take one.”

I thanked him but declined; I was wide awake and had good energy. And I wanted to keep a good lead over Rebecca, who had just left Clare. Paul and I agreed a nap could wait. But as we approached Coleman (AS 12) it was already hot and I noticed reality blurring briefly –instants of fading out and snapping back. I told Paul maybe it was time.

“Lie down and cover your eyes,” he said. “Part of sleep is shutting off the input we get from our eyes. Even if you don’t fall asleep, this will help.” So at Coleman I lay down in soft grass in the shade with a cold towel over my face. It felt glorious. I remained awake but was relaxed and comfortable. Fifteen minutes of that, plus another five minutes a bit further on, was all I needed for the rest of the race.

On this stretch we caught up to Dick West, who was attempting 100 miles and had started at the 50-mile mark. A longtime ultrarunner, Dick is still out there competing at age 76. We exchanged handshakes and encouragement. (I’ll spare you the suspense: he finished!)

I want to be this guy when I grow up.

Paul and Colleen tag-teamed me until Sanford (AS 14), keeping me at a safe pace and entertained with conversation. (What do runners talk about while running? You have one guess.) It was my first time being paced, and I quickly appreciated its value. The miles were hot and miserable, but company made them pass more easily.

How am I doing? I’m fresh as a daisy. Why do you ask?

On the trail with Colleen.

At Sanford we waved goodbye to Paul and Colleen (who’d brought me a milkshake – aren’t they great?), and Sue and Joyce rejoined us. I was surprised to find Charlie ready to pace. I hadn’t expected him to start until Midland (mile 127, ten miles ahead) and even then I was a bit worried, since he’d never raced more than a half marathon.

“Dude, it’s thirty-two miles to the finish,” I said.

“Yeah,” Charlie said. “Let’s go.”

Crisis Afoot

The miles to Midland were among the hardest I’ve ever done. It was mid-afternoon, the temperature well over 90, with fewer crew stops because they had trouble finding places to meet us. But more troubling were my burning feet. All the hours spent on hot blacktop were taking their toll. By the time we neared the end of the trail, every step was extremely painful.

Charlie’s presence was invaluable. He knew I was struggling, but remained easygoing and relaxed, keeping me moving forward without the need for direct encouragement. We swapped Aikido stories (he’d also trained under Kushida-sensei), pondered the weather, anything to take my mind off the long hot slog.

Finally we reached downtown Midland – and my crew couldn’t locate the aid station. I spotted a bench next to a pretty glockenspiel and collapsed onto it while we called Kurt. He said the station was being set up a mile farther down. Oh, God, another mile of agony, I thought. And how the hell was I going to do 23 more after that? For the first time in the race, I wasn’t sure I could continue.

“We need to do something right here, right now,” I said to my crew, rather plaintively. “I can’t finish the race with my feet feeling like this.”

They sprang into action. An icewater foot bath put out some of the fire. I took two Advil. Charlie checked the bottoms of my feet – nothing cracked or bleeding, just some swelling – and applied some moleskin. I slipped thin foam insoles into my shoes for extra cushioning. I found a large blister and treated it. Finally, a fresh pair of socks. All that done, I stood up and took a few steps.

My feet still hurt, but it was a manageable hurt. Charlie and I walked to the aid station while the crew cleaned up. By the time we got there and checked in, I was physically and emotionally back on track. “We’re gonna finish this puppy,” I said to Charlie. (I may have used a slightly stronger phrase.)

Motivation

From Midland the course wound through an industrial park, then onto Midland Road and due east to Bay City. This road was five lanes wide and busy with traffic, even on Sunday. Sometimes there were sidewalks, and sometimes we had to hug the shoulder. I was grateful again for Charlie being there. I’d expected to be exhausted at this point and running in the dark, but even awake with the sun still up I felt much safer with a pacer.

And as the evening slowly cooled, I was able to run again! We began with jogs of a hundred yards or so, and worked up to half miles. My legs felt surprisingly strong, and running was actually less painful than walking. Charlie even had to rein me in at one point. “No sprinting!” he called out as I pulled away at a blazing ten-minute mile pace.

At 8:00 p.m. we reached the Auburn aid station (mile 135) and I checked on runner status. A few had stopped at Loomis, earning a 100-mile belt buckle. Only four were still on track to run the full 150. “Is Rebecca one of them?” I asked.

“Oh, yes,” was the reply. “We expect her to arrive around 9-9:30.”

I couldn’t believe it. My lead had shrunk to an hour, and 45 minutes of that was due to my early start. Charlie looked at me. “We’ve got to win this by at least an hour,” he said. “For moral justification, at least.”

Charlie and I on Midland Road, ready to rock to the finish.

We took off running, and kept up an aggressive pace into Bay City. (11-minute miles never felt so fast.) We reached the final aid station, the Cops and Doughnuts store in downtown Bay City, as darkness fell. In hindsight I should have asked about Rebecca, but I was so anxious to finish the race I didn’t even buy a cookie (or three) to carry me through the final six miles.

The last stretch on Henry Street / State Park Rd. also had heavy traffic. Charlie had on a full light vest, so we were very visible. Still I was grateful when the streams of headlights diminished as we approached the park. And although I was pretty sure Rebecca couldn’t catch us, I kept looking behind me, unable to shake the fear of seeing an approaching headlamp.

Kurt had checked regularly on our progress so he could be at the finish when we arrived. And at 11:20 p.m. Sunday night, the finish line was lit up and he and other staff were there to welcome us in. I jogged across the grass, up a sidewalk, and after 40 hours and six minutes, crossed the finish line. I’d led it (nearly) wire to wire – and won it.

Finish! Kurt hands me my 150-mile belt buckle.

Aftermath

Relief, Disbelief, and Unnecessary Grief

Kurt was amazed. Despite the oppressive conditions, I’d finished over two hours faster than his time last year, and five hours ahead of my original schedule. “How did you handle the heat so well?” he asked.

Past experience mainly, I told him. I’ve run enough hot ultras, and learned the hard way from them, to know what I need to stay cool and keep electrolytes in balance. And a terrific crew and pacers. No way I could have done it without them.

We hung around for an hour, and then got ready to head back to our campground in Empire. I asked Kurt when Rebecca was due to arrive, as I’d hoped to cheer her in. “Oh, we expect her around 3:30,” he said – three more hours away. WTF?

The Auburn aid station had either misunderstood or been misinformed. She hadn’t even left Midland until after 9 p.m. We could have walked it in! I was happy to have finished strong, but I could have been spared a lot of anxiety knowing the actual situation.

On the other hand, who was really to blame for that anxiety? Charlie said it best during our trek down Midland Road, when I’d pushed too hard and thought I’d hurt my knee. “You lost your focus,” he said after I’d stretched it out. “You were worried about Rebecca instead of running your best race.” Amen. Lesson learned.

I couldn’t sleep on the drive back because someone kept moving my legs and sticking needles into my feet. When we got back to camp I considered going into Empire for breakfast, but decided to attempt a nap in our camper. I was out instantly. Nearly 48 hours after I woke up Saturday morning, my race was over.

Advertisements

Once More Around the Block, and The Best Pacer Ever: 12 Hours at Dogwood

I clambered up a long, steady rise out of the trees onto a wide field of grass and sand. Up ahead I would cross a road and descend back onto the woods for the final part of the loop. The sky was dimming and a cold breeze had started up

“You’re doing GREAT!” a woman’s voice shouted.

I looked around but saw no one. Was I hearing things? I was over eleven hours into the Dogwood 12-Hour race, and the way I was feeling right then, anything was possible. I was giving all I had to get through this final loop and hold onto third place.

Then someone burst out of the trees behind me. . .

****************

The Dogwood is in the category of races measured by a fixed time, rather than a fixed distance. The most well-known is the 24-hour race, but there are shorter and faster varieties including 48 hours and even 72 hours.

These events usually take place on a short loop of road (such as one mile) or on a running track. Results are tracked by loops completed. Advantages include always having gear and refreshments close at hand, and relay team planning is simple, since each exchange takes place at the same point. Disadvantages include – well, sheer monotony – which is why I’d never run one. I like a variety of views and terrain in my ultras.

The Dogwood, however, caught my eye. I wanted an ultra around the end of March and the loop was on trail and decently long (3.4 miles). And it was in Virginia, meaning warmer weather and near where my daughter Tori lives. She even accepted my offer to pace me for a loop. Win!

I showed up at Twin Lakes State Park at 6:30 a.m. and was joined by a couple of relay teams and around 30 fellow solo runners suffering from the same condition – namely, that we find running all day something to look forward to.

I’d set a goal of 15 loops (50 miles) with an average 40 minutes per loop, which on paper would take ten hours. I would use the two remaining hours as cushion. Any extra loops would be gravy, and perhaps just enough to get into the top five.

Off we go.

We set off at 7:15, just as the sun was coming up over Godwin Lake. We ran along the shore for a bit, then up a gravel road and onto singletrack along rolling hills with a few long climbs and some fast downhills. There were a couple of stream crossings, which required nimble steps on the rocks to keep feet dry. Up to a road crossing, then back into the woods, one rooty section, then a final climb to the main park road for a downhill sprint to the finish. Quick stop at the aid station, then back out again.

I ran the first two loops with a nice chap named Alex. The morning was sunny and cool with soft, dry trail, absolutely perfect conditions for a race. My steps were light and easy, and the loops flew by. I lost track of him after that, and settled into running alone, maintaining an aggressive but sustainable pace.

Just as with the Land Between the Lakes 50, I felt terrific for the first third of the race. After five loops I was ahead of my goal pace. But I was beginning to feel subtle hints that things were going to get tougher. My legs were starting to complain on the downhills, and the bottoms of my heels were developing hot spots. I taped them more thoroughly and hoped for the best.

Finishing up an early loop.

My loop times began to slip, but I held onto the 40-minute average until loop 12, at which time I was told I was in second place! Perhaps I’d have been better off not knowing, because I struggled on loop 13, with my slowest time by far. My mind began suggesting that fifteen loops would be quite enough, thank you, regardless of any extra time. Breaking through that mental wall would take some effort, but I’d deal with that if and when I got there.

At the aid station, I met up with Alex again. Turned out he was the leader, one full loop ahead of me. He offered me his company for the next loop, and I set off with renewed energy. Unfortunately, the third-place runner (Corey) had also picked it up, and at the top of the gravel road he caught up to us. Both he and Alex were feeling stronger than I was, and on the trail they politely excused themselves and took off. Well, then, third place would have to do.

Trail runners are the best. They’ll smile and praise your effort while they blow your doors off.

Then, as I finished loop 14, there was Tori, all set to pace me for a loop. And so we ran loop 15 together. She’s a stronger hiker than a runner, but she gamely pushed through it. My one worry was that whoever was in fourth place would catch up. And about two-thirds of the way through the loop, someone ran by at a steady, deliberate speed.

Well, nuts. But what did it matter? A run with my daughter meant far more to me than a podium finish. And after this loop, with my 50 miles logged, I could quit! The clock read 10:30 as we came in. 90 minutes left, but with thoroughly fatigued legs and burning feet, I was happy to call it a race.

Just to be sure I wasn’t in podium contention, I checked with the scorer, who shook his head. “That guy who passed you is two loops behind,” he said. “You’re still in third.”

“So…I suppose I should get back out there,” I said, trying to sound upbeat about it. He agreed. “You’re looking strong!” Perhaps he was being kind, or perhaps I looked better than I felt, but he wasn’t helping me quit. Just one more, I promised myself. Just one more.

I pushed aside the physical and mental exhaustion and walked onto the sidewalk along the beach. Then, as with the previous fifteen loops, I began a slow jog. Final loop started; now just finish it.

I start one of the later loops. Photo courtesy of Dan’s wife, Luce( sp?).

By the clock I had plenty of time, but I still had no idea where the fourth-place runner was. So I ran it scared, at as quick a pace as I could muster. If I had to run this final lap when I’d already mentally checked out, then dammit, I needed something to show for it!

Then, more than halfway though, I heard the voice from nowhere. And as I crossed the road, ready to let it go as a mystery, someone came out of the rise and ran toward me. Fast. Smiling.

*************

He was a kid, perhaps ten years old. Behind him came a woman I assumed to be his mother. Obviously her shout had been meant for him, not me. Such was my mental state that I checked them for race bibs! Seeing none, I finally relaxed and focused on just getting through the remaining mile. Loop 16 and 54.5 miles completed in 11 hours, 23 minutes. Fourth place was 14 loops. I needn’t have worried.

Podium: Me with Alex (left) and Corey (right), who are helping keep me vertical.

The bonk hit me fast and hard as soon as I’d finished. Sitting didn’t help, so I lay on the ground. Alex and Corey, bless them, looked after me and helped me stand back up at awards time. For my third-place finish I got a bottle of Tiramisu Stout. Tori and I split it. She helped, after all.

Best pacer ever!

This was a small race but really well run and a lot of fun. More people should do this one; it’s a hidden gem among ultras. Dan, the race director, is hoping to turn it into a 24-hour race in the future, which may well make it more visible and popular. I hope so.

The Magic of Estes Park

One hundred yards into the run, and I was already fatigued.

It wasn’t a huge climb, and I was walking it. I was fully warmed up. And yet I felt like I’d already run 20 miles. When we got to the top of the rise and began running down into the canyon, I caught my breath and fell into a groove. Until we began climbing again.

Are we done yet?

I knew what was wrong, of course. And despite the struggle, I was having the time of my life.

I just returned from five awesome days in Estes Park, Colorado attending the U.S. Trail Running Conference, an event I’d looked forward to since February.  I attended presentations and panel discussions, networked with race directors, and tried out some pretty cool products, all of which I’ll talk about in upcoming posts.

And, of course, got in some running. I went up and down (and up) the gorgeous Black Canyon Trail, climbed 1,500 feet over two miles to Gem Lake, and ran loops around Lake Estes. All of this in sunny, cool weather which calls to trail runners like chocolate calls to – well, everyone.

I came back convinced that every trail runner or hiker should travel at least once to Estes Park. Here’s why.

Mountains.

For some of you, such as my daughter living in Denver, ‘nuff said. (“Mountains” is her TL;DR why she moved there from Michigan.) I don’t share her deep and permanent love for them, but I was continually struck by them during my visit. They’re a continuous reminder of just how small and insignificant we are.

The trails included some incredible overlooks at the larger, snow-capped mountains farther away, and valleys and plains below. During group runs, many of us stopped at them just to take in the scene for a few minutes. (That’s my excuse, anyway.)

Gaining a new appreciation for breathing.

I’m not out of breath. I’m just taking in the scenery. Yeah.

After several years of training and racing, it usually takes a pretty good effort to get me breathing hard. Not so above 7,500 feet. Experiences vary: one runner described it as, “trying to breathe through a straw.” I had no trouble breathing fully, but fatigue hit me on any climb whatever, even at the start of a run. My first day 5-mile run felt more like 10, and even walking uphill was a slog.

I gradually acclimated, and running got easier. At Lake Estes on my final day there, I felt nearly normal and was able to enjoy an eight mile run on a mostly flat path. Not ready for those 14ers yet, though.

Getting away from everything.

One of the overlooks on the Gem Lake trail.

What they saw.

Estes Park makes you want to throw away the cell phone and submerge yourself in nature. Although I spent most of each day at the conference, I made sure to get outside. Each morning there was a fun run on the trails, and the sessions started late enough to not feel rushed. A long walk during the day was also a must, either after lunch, after the final session of the day, or whenever the hell I felt like it.

Or how about a nice climb?

I spent the morning of my departure packing up, staring out at another beautiful day. I just couldn’t leave without one last run. So after checkout I headed down to Lake Estes and ran the paved path around the lake. I had just enough time to sneak in two loops, about eight miles, before driving to Denver for the flight home.

Just enjoying running.

Training is part of my weekly routine, and there’s a temptation to just push through it as necessary preparation for my upcoming race or races. But racing isn’t why I run. I started running longer and harder because I wanted to. Because I came to enjoy it.

And while I try to appreciate each run while it’s happening, it’s much easier to do so away from the routines of home. Last week I could just go out and run for the sake of it, and enjoy the company of those who share the passion for the trails. No one cared how slow or fast you were, how far you went, how hard you worked. We were running trails, and that was all that mattered.

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, people standing, outdoor, nature and water

The payoff: reaching Gem Lake (elevation 9,000 ft.)

================

(BTW, next year’s conference is in San Luis Obispo, CA, home of the Race SLO series. Just in case you’re interested.)

Dirty German 50: Ve Vill Run in Ze Rain, Und You Vill Like It

Last Sunday dawned bright and beautiful in Philadelphia. I went out for breakfast on a sunny, cool morning perfect for the trail race I’d come here for, the Dirty German 50-miler in nearby Pennypack Park.

Too bad the race had been the day before.

Steady rain had been forecast for all day Saturday, and for once Nature let the weathermen be right. While they were pounding Bloody Marys in celebration, several hundred trail runners were lining up for what promised to be a long, chilly, muddy slogfest.

It surpassed all expectations.

I’d been drawn to the Dirty German from previous year photos showing happy runners in lederhosen on a bright sunny day, being served by handsome St. Pauli Girls. After a wet, muddy Glacier Ridge 50 the year before, I was ready for something a bit flatter under more pleasant conditions. It was indeed flatter, but pleasant? Not so much.

But I’d paid the money and showed up, and the race was on. And right on time at 7:30 a.m., off we went. Our shoes soaked through in the first big puddle, so that was out of the way and we ran through them with abandon. Not that there was any choice; the course was already flooding and it got steadily worse throughout the day.

See the water gushing in from the river on the left! Thanks Kevin Minteer for this photo.

My main concern wasn’t a winning time, but just staying in the race. That meant keeping warm, primarily. My triathlon shorts were perfect, shedding water rather than soaking it up. Over a singlet and long-sleeved shirt I wore a plastic rain wrap, which retained sweat but kept the wind and rain off. My hands did get cold and numb, leaving me unable to retie a shoelace that had come loose. An aid station volunteer cheerfully helped me with that.

I also made to sure to keep well fueled. The aid stations had standard PB&J, potatoes, fruit, and candy, but the hot grilled cheese sandwiches really made my day! Adequate hydration wasn’t an issue, of course. Salt tablets every two hours kept my electrolytes in balance.

The wonderful folks at the aid stations made things as cheery as possible. But even they had to deal with conditions. The first one was at an underpass. On the second loop, the underpass had flooded, and they had to move uphill. On the third loop, we were diverted around the underpass and had to slide down a muddy slope to reach the station, then climb back up to get on the course again.

Flooded underpass at miles 4 & 12 of the loop. (Thanks to April Arnold for this photo.)

Unsurprisingly, many 50-milers called it a day before finishing; I saw a few hanging out at aid stations, waiting for a ride back to the start. The 50K (two loops) and the 25K (one loop) suffered less, but still had their share of drops. But I was feeling okay; there was no physical reason for me to quit. I just had to remain mentally focused and deal patiently with increasingly flooded paths and sticky, slippery trail.

Halfway through loop 2. Only 25 miles to go!

Knowing the course would get less runnable, I ran the first loop in 2:50, faster than plan, and started the third at the 6:05 mark, close to my original goal of a nine-hour finish. But it was not to be; the singletrack was like chocolate pudding (albeit much less tasty), and combined with normal race fatigue I had a 3:45 final loop and a finish time of 9:50, good for 17th out of 76 starters.

Turns out my age group (50-59) was the toughest out there, with 6 out of 7 finishing the race. I was third in my group and won this cool German weather house as a prize. It’s even made in Germany!

If the woman is out, it’s dry. Since it’s inside, looks accurate to me!

Only one small beef. The finish area was very light on food choices. Sausage and sauerkraut just didn’t appeal to me after ten hours of running. And there was only water to drink. No beer at a German-themed event? Seriously? So it wasn’t long before I hobbled out of there to a hot shower and dry clothes. Rather anticlimactic, but it just wasn’t the day for an extended post-race party.

What really encourages me about this race was that  I never felt the urge to quit, and stayed patient and on a mental even keel throughout. In that regard it was an excellent checkout run for the Lighthouse 100 next month. Hoping for better weather at that one, though!