Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Inside the 50: Zumbro, 2018

“Between here and the first aid station, you will have a life-altering experience.” This is the beginning of race director John’s pre-race briefing to us 50 mile runners. After strong words of warning and resolve, I overheard another runner say “That’s not John’s normal speech.” and it isn’t. 

Life changing experience in 5 minutes! (photo credit- Paul Nye)

But this is Zumbro. 

Since my first run here four years ago I have had the map and elevation profile taped to my wall next to my desk. I’ve compared this course to every other course I’ve run. I didn’t know when I would be back and what distance I would do but I’ve wanted to be here since I left. Zumbro will not leave me.

Zumbro will not leave others as I know from conversations with my friend Julia, who ran it in 2015 and with Melinda, who ran it in 2017, all of us the single 17 mile loop. In the fall, we discovered our life schedules were clear for us to do the race again. As we ran one of our Friday Adventures, we decided the 50 mile distance was for us. That is, Julia and I talked and Melinda listened but within a week or so Melinda was on board as well. We each picked our own training plans and set to the work of getting to Zumbro. 

Two weeks before the race, Julia and I headed up to Zumbro to join a group for a training run. For me, it proved to be one of the most valuable training days. Within a mile the group had separated into different abilities and paces and Julia and I found ourselves picking our way around the bridle trails by ourselves. The entire trail was in a state of ice, snow, mud and standing water other than the few which were south facing and had dried out. We cut our run short, not completing the entire loop, even though the twelve miles had taken us four and a half hours. Back home, we strategized, watched the weather, bought massive amounts of gear, watched the weather, planned, watched the weather, panicked and regrouped and watched the weather some more. Winter was not budging. 

Bill, Luke and I pulled into the Zumbro West End campground with the camper around 4:30 Friday afternoon. It had been raining on and off all day from what we could find out and the trail was a terrible muddy mess. The 100 mile runners, including Julia, had started that morning at 8:00 but the trail was winning as the drop rate increased with each loop. Julia called it after one loop deciding that the mud was not going to play nice with her injured foot. I walked to the registration/aid station area to assess things. Spirits were good but showing signs of battle. As I walked back to the camper I overheard John say to a runner who dropped that Susan Donnelly who is a very accomplished 100 mile runner had said this was the worst conditions she had ever run in. 

As Melinda and I sat around the trail map discussing plans, layers, gears and trail conditions as reported by Julia who had risked coming back from her hotel to visit, it started to thunder. Then we heard the sound of ice hitting the camper. Then it snowed. We stepped out of the camper at 10:30 to 3 inches of snow on our way to pick up our race bibs. The boys were building snow forts. 

I had made up mind as to what I was going to wear as I packed the day before but there was still last minute doubt as to how best to handle the worsening conditions. I made Bill keep track of the time for me as I changed layers until I on a thinner pair of tights under a thicker pair of tights, a short-sleeved shirt, long-sleeved shirt, a thicker outer layer and a wind and rain proof jacket. I put on a single pair of Injinji wool socks after slathering my feet with Trail Toes and then placed foot warmers on top of my feet. Our camper was full of friends as my friend Nate showed up at 11 to check out this ultra running scene. We all talked and laughed as Melinda and I finished getting ready.

At 11:45 or so we assembled for the pre-race meeting. We found Charlie or Charlie found us and told us the harrowing tale of him driving on the dangerously icy roads to get to the race. He advised us to use hiking poles earlier rather than later and later rather than earlier I decided that was very good advice. We saw Jason and he was all bundled up in all his warm gear and goggles to crew friends of his. Pre-race directives, pictures and hugs and kisses (Bill only for the kisses) over, we moved to the start line. In the dark of midnight, it would have been difficult to find but in the blinding snow we could only follow the people in front of us and listen to John’s voice as he called us to come closer, closer, closer… Go!  

Where's the start line? (photo credit- Paul Nye

I was now inside the 50. 

I’ve not done a lot of night running and my past experiences have not be great. The times I have run at night I have spooked myself with the sound of my own footsteps, letting out a little yelp when the sound got the best of me. Other times it has been squirrels, rabbits and deer, their eyes illuminated by my headlamp. I chose the midnight start because I figured I wouldn’t get eaten or attacked or spooked if hundreds of other runners were with me, all of us with headlamps on. We quickly filtered down to single file on the trail where banter was surprisingly quiet, I believe due to all of us waiting for our life-altering experience. Since I was more mid-pack, we were hiking the climbs rather than running and our footsteps fell in sync. The sound of us moving and marching was a unifying experience. I wasn’t the only one to notice it as others around me laughed when I broke into a little “Hi Ho, Hi Ho”. I looked back and could see a line of light made by all of us individually but blurred together. The snow draped and outlined the branches. It was beautiful. I imagine the same run but without the snow to reflect back our light and I don’t think it would have been nearly the same experience. 

Have headlamp, will travel in single file 

The trail conditions seemed markedly improved from my expectations and previous experiences. Make no mistake, there was plenty of mud and standing water. Perhaps I’m becoming a more seasoned trail runner, perhaps my life-altering experience happened four years ago but the weather had changed and so had the trail since Friday morning’s start. I knew two things- my mind would not budge from my goal and I would take what the trail gave me until one of us won. 

In the dark and snow, we came over the first overlook then tucked ourselves back onto the trail. Branches hung low being burdened with snow and often Melinda and I smacked ourselves with one, not looking up from our footing to see it. One of my favorite sections is the trail though the pine trees. On my scouting run, it was an ice rink which was completely opposite of the stream that ran down it four years ago and this time it was muddy. But what captured me was the way the branches domed our headlamps. I could see a runner ahead, a tiny cathedral of moving light. 

Getting a glowing shot is difficult when your own headlamp is lighting up the trail

I really don’t know where Melinda and I were in comparison to the rest of the 50 mile runners because within the first three miles, we had all thinned out significantly and by the first aid station we were no longer headlamp to hydration pack close. There was always mud but there was almost always a work around. The temptation to dodge all the mud would eat up time and energy so it was a balance of continually moving forward and staying out the of muddiest parts as much as possible. It was just a game out there as we wove our way along on the driest paths others before us had stamped out. 

And it continued to be dark since it was in fact nighttime. Even later in the day, I remember thinking to myself “I’m running in the dark!” or “I ran through the dark!”. I’m literally so proud of myself for staying up most the the day before other than a few hours of rest and then running from midnight on. One of the advantages of using headlamps is that the course markings are easy to spot because they are reflective. With a quick glance up the trail I could spot the next turn or next section. I could also spot where other runners were on the trail. We would be at the bottom of a climb and I would tell Melinda to look up so she could see them.

Julia and I had deemed the steepest climb before the second aid station as The Big One. You climb several smaller ones, hoping that it’s the big one but only when your legs are screaming and you wonder just when in the hill its going to be over, do you realize you are on The Big One. Summiting the hill, you quickly crest and descend, using mud or ice as the means to get down. On our first loop, the trail was mud but not the flowing mud the 100 milers had the fortune of riding down. This was less mud for me than 2014 so I felt really grateful for what it was. 

We were in and out of the second aid station fairly quickly, although I think we could have always shaved more time off of the stops. The second aid station acts as the third A.S. as well. This section is a quick little up and down and then a sandy coulee which is often difficult to run well. That did not prove to be the case this time since the rain had compacted the sand and it was firm underfoot. We were able to run this section and make it back to the aid station quick enough.

Right out of the aid station we started the long climb to the ridge. We met up with another woman at the top and stuck with her for some time while she us all about some awesome races she has done and now I want to do them. We made it across the ridge and headed down Ant Hill. Ant Hill is not small. The boulders are not small. It’s even a tough ride for my guys on their dirt bikes (they go up whereas we go down). I’m not a fan of Ant Hill. We went slow enough to reduce the impact of the long, long descent on our knees but fast enough to take advantage of the downhill. At the bottom is a mile plus long access road. Both Melinda and I were a little bitter about this road because both of us walked this stretch the last time when we wanted to run but we’re stronger runners now and ran most of it.

After the fourth aid station, which is also the first, we encountered the most standing water. It filled the entire trail and we spent a lot of time trying to keep our feet out of the water and mud but was only somewhat success. Even though this section never did fully drain, my feet were the wettest and muddiest during the first loop.

We had made really good time for our first loop and for not knowing what we were going to encounter out there. Our boys were sleeping but Paul, Bill and Nate were there to help us gear up for the next loop. I called out what I needed from Bill and he filled my bottles with more Tailwind and found my next pair of socks and shoes. I changed both, wiping down my feet with baby wipes first and adding more Trail Toes before. You know what? Trying to change socks and shoes with the wind and snow howling around you while trying not to go hypothermic from not moving sucks. Bill took off his winter coat and draped it around me while I finished up. And he hates being cold! The aid station offered me an amazing quesadilla and some bacon and my eyes were wide with delight. Nate, this being his first experience with an ultra of any kind and me at 5:00 in the morning giddy about a cheesy flour tortilla that stuck to my gloves as Melinda and I headed back out into the blizzard conditions, well, he was speechless.

I’ve always heard the sunrise does wonders for the spirit after a long, dark night of running and was waiting for my Zumbro sunrise. Melinda called to me and over our shoulders was the low, red glow of the sun ready to break the horizon. I was ready for it to happen and hoped to catch it in a turn in the trail. But the clouds would not release their captivity of the sky and that was all we ever saw of the sun for the rest of the day. Gently the morning song of a few brave birds broke out but the rest of the woods remained silent. The darkness of night moved away for the light of day so we turned off our headlamps and took in the trail as though for the first time.

We landed at the first/fourth aid station and rejoiced to take our headlamps off. Mine has a light on the front and a battery pack which is strapped on and is worn on the back of my head. I had tried to lower my ponytail to keep the battery pack from causing a pressure point but didn’t get it quite right. Plus, after 6 hours of wearing it, it was heavy.

Getting to the top of The Big One, the mud chute had now become an ice chute. We, along with several men, battled our way down it. The second/third aid station looked more remote than ever as only a handful of volunteers were there and the lights used to brighten the station during the night were gone. I overhead a volunteer ask another if they needed a certain item anymore and she replied that she did not. It occurred to me that they might be packing up instead of cleaning up. I had hoped we could finish our second loop before the 17 mile runners started or at least be far enough ahead that they would never catch us. I did not want to share the trail with 500 of them. I asked about the morning race and they told us it had been cancelled but said nothing about the 50 or 100 mile race. Melinda and I spent the next section wondering if this would be our last loop but continued with our mindset that we would go until we finished or got pulled. I spent several icy downhill sections sliding, falling and swinging around trees as if they were poles while Melinda looked on from above and rated my skill and poise. As she crept her way down, I decided my safest course of action would be to sit on my feet and slide as far as I could, using my hands as paddles. See, no one will write about this kind of inside information in Ultrarunner Magazine but I’m here to say it was somewhat effective and definitely entertaining. 

Ah! So this is what the trail looks like!

Melinda and I entered the third aid station and no one said a word to us about stopping after this loop. We overheard a volunteer boost a 100 miler up, assuring him he would be able to finish, and we took it as a sign that we would be continuing our race as well. We slipped and slid our way up to the ridge. We kept our mission up to run when we could and walk when necessary and found the trail drifting over although we could still find it. Melinda and I always stayed together but worked at our own paces. We even took bio breaks together although a fair distance from each other. Squatting in a half a foot of snow on tired legs can be an awakening experience. (Dudes have it super easy is all I’m saying.) 

After 16 hours, this was hilarious

There is a long service road before reaching the bridge which links back to the front end of the course. Again, we had no positive feelings about this road but suffered ourselves together to run it as much as possible. We knew it was around a mile long even though it felt like 5 miles but in reality we had no idea how long it was. Assessing ourselves, Melinda’s knees hurt when she ran and my Achilles hurt when I walked. Despite our uneven injuries, I figured with the third loop we would probably both develop another pain that would even us out. Through the trees I kept searching for the metal arches of the bridge. I found them at least three times only to have them be branches before we really did see them. The aid station had made chocolate chip pancakes for us and they were a delight! 

We came into a very forlorn looking campground. By now the boys were up and everyone met us. Luke found the sign Kristy had made for me during one of my long treadmill runs and was holding it up for me. He became my real live giant teddy bear which I hugged at will. Bill and Paul hustled us into a huge canvas warming tent that had been set up and helped us with our gear. The mood was pensive and hurried. I overheard someone say to hurry up because the weather was getting bad. It’s really not the kind of thing you want to hear in a toasty tent with the snow and wind whipping the sides. It will suck the resolve right out of you. I was down on calories and down in my spirit and paused for a moment. I knew I was going back out and that I would finish but it was definitely a low point. Fortunately Bill knows me and knew how to assess the situation well. He gave me a hug and kiss and booted me out of the tent. I shoveled in a load of scrambled eggs and took two sausage links to go in my formally cheesy and now greasy mitt.

Since the trail had gone from mud to ice, we decided to use our spikes for the third loop. 
They would not have been a good choice for the first loop as there was too much mud. I learned this by finding a singular spike in the mud during that loop. I picked it up and was going to carry it to the first aid station, however, minutes later we came upon two women, one who had lost one of her spikes in the mud and I handed it to her. But spikes on an icy trail are magic and we never slipped once during the loop.

I also brought my new hiking poles with me. I had purchased these a few weeks before the race and only tried them once on a walk in the park. I had my doubts as to how much benefit they would provide versus the challenge of learning a new piece of equipment. The course climbs out of the campground very quickly, I learned very quickly just how amazing using hiking poles were. Charlie was right. I was able to transfer enough weight through the poles to now use both my arms and my legs to move me forward. I proclaimed my love for them immediately. Eventually I share the poles with Melinda so she could try them and she also professed her love. We swapped them back and forth for a while and each time she had them I was plotting as to how and when I could get them back. Finally, I realized we could each use one pole and handed one to her. 

Nailed it! (Note the snow accumulation on me and in my eyeballs) (photo credit- me, obvs)

We entered the first aid station again and I asked if there were any more pancakes and nearly cried when the volunteer said there was. Since they were in a covered container and kept slightly warm, they were nearly the only thing edible and not frozen on the table and I gladly ate two. Throughout the a.m. I had been eating bananas, potatoes, a few potato chips and some very frozen Aldi brand Girl Scout cookies, plus the aforementioned foods from the aid stations. Between aid stations I sucked down Huma chia and Spring Energy gels along with chomping through Clif Bars and Picky Bars. I washed everything down with plenty of water, cups of ginger ale or Coke, and kept the constant drip of Tailwind going until I thought I was going to puke, to which I backed off of. Entering the third aid station, Melinda asked for some hot food as she had munched on pb&j sandwiches the entire time. The volunteer said she had a hot grilled cheese sandwich ready to go. When she carried it over to Melinda the sandwich slid off the spatula and fell to the ground. We stood there, not knowing what to do as there was one more on the griddle but there was two of us. Can you guess what happened next?

I ate the fallen sandwich!

Is it even sane of me to admit that I had wondered for a good portion of the race if I would eat anything off the ground? 
Well, I did and my mom has already declared how proud of me she is and there are no take backs even after discovering this sort of thing keeps trending with her daughter.

It was a hard day for the aid stations as well.

While in the sand coulee, we had heard a loud crack and the sound of either a tree or a huge branch falling. And while the we had experienced snow, sleet, wind, ice all throughout, nothing had felt dangerous. But this felt precarious. The trail on the ridge was completely drifted over. Melinda looked at me and I commented “Nice.” We no longer walked on the trail but on the snow, guessing as to what was the trail. I held my left hand up to block the wind from driving the snow into my eyes but realized I wouldn’t be able to hike that way the entire ridgeline so I pulled my buff even higher and dropped my head down. Melinda, ahead of me, had done the same and the image I have of her is that of a lone hiker in a blizzard bent into the wind. I only post-holed once (when your leg drops through the deep snow) and quickly corrected my course. With the wind and the new perspective, I found a little log shelter on the ridge. I’m sure it had been there the previous two loops but I’ll be danged that I’d never seen it until now. New weather, new times of day, new perspectives and one sees new things every time.

Thanks, sign.
And that is the thing about this year’s race. It was brutal. I guess. I look at pictures and can’t quite remember it being so bad. Inside the 50, inside 16 hours for us, as the trail changed from mud to ice, as night went to day, as hundreds dwindled to a few, it was absolutely beautiful. 

One of my favorite views- the layers of white

We walked the entire access road back. The ridge had taken so much out of us. We ate, we walked, we regrouped. We checked in at the last A.S. and finished the last stretch. We talked of how we would get together for beer and pizza later. We marveled that we could still run. 

Finally we pulled up out of the bottoms and saw the campground. The wind drove at us, desperate to get in its final licks but we would not have it. Paul would later say that people were trying to guess who was running through the campground and he proudly yelled out “It’s my two Mindys!” 

Two Mindy's, two finishes, 1 adventure 

Our times are equally listed. We have a story only 49 other 50 mile finishers can share. We took care of ourselves and each other. Melinda is emphatic in saying she could not have done it without me but I wouldn’t have wanted to do it without her from the beginning. 

Stoked to have done it and to be inside

We’re bummed we could not be with Julia and that she did not have the trail or race we had but she stepped up to a bigger task with all the heart and bravery one needs to even do so. We are humbled by the true selflessness of the volunteers who stayed long after their shift was over because relief could not gain access just so we could stay the course. My admiration and gratitude for John Storkamp and the outstanding team at Rocksteady Running runs deep. I am grateful to Paul for taking such good care of your Mindy, capturing some outstanding pictures, losing sleep and providing for our every need post-race.
My people- Ehresman small group for saying you believed in me more than you said I was crazy; Julia and Melinda for all the texts, long runs and dreaming; Anne and Kristy for the treadmill signs and Yeti strength; the Turkeys for the long runs at Ledges and Browns; Gary for talking me off the ledge- your need for no bs makes me focus; my family for occasionally asking me about my races means a lot; my sister for putting me back together all the time.  

There aren’t words to express how I feel about Bill. He drove me to the race, managed all my needs, took care of Luke and made the call to pull our camper out of the campground to higher ground, missing Supercross in Minneapolis, to drive us safely back to Iowa all in a day and half. Your belief is me is beyond my belief. 

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

What I Learned In September

At the prompting of Emily P. Freeman's blog, Chatting at the Sky, I spent some time reflecting over September. I remember it being September 17 and remarking to Bill that it already felt like we had skipped September entirely and gone straight to October. The weather has played havoc with our sensibilities in the last few weeks and the pumpkin spice latte has already made an appearance despite the fact that the real pumpkins weren't even ready in the garden. Finally, I settled down into it really being September and here are a few things I've learned this month.

  1. I've just started reading and learning about Enneagrams. While I've pulled together bits and pieces to understand myself more over the last months, discovering the enneagram has made so many things fall into place. I still don't know very much but I am eager to learn more.
  2. I finally cleaned my make-up brushes. I used this simple method from CleanMama.net and wow, what a difference! You can find little bottles of Dr. Bronner's soap in Target by the sample beauty products.
  3. I've spent enough time sitting, standing and waiting for my racers and runners to come in that I finally learned I am not a good crew person or volunteer if I don't eat. Last year I spent a long day volunteering and hardly ate. I did not enjoy my experience. I mean, I was grumpy. Last week, I waited a long day for Ben and Bill to come in from racing and then another long afternoon for them to receive their awards. I could have done a better job taking care of myself so I could take care of them. I don't think it's being selfish. It is being aware of the situation and being proactive. 
  4. I buy my bananas at Sam's Club. Bananas are generally sold by weight but Sam's sells them by bunch at $X dollars. Here's a trick I've started doing- counting how many bananas are in the bunch. Usually there are 8 but I'll look for 9. On my last visit I scored 10 bananas!
  5. I devoured Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart in 3 days. It would have been less if I didn't have, laundry, cookies to bake, people to feed, etc. I heard about the book through Anne Bogel's podcast What Should I Read Next. Its my first novel in a long, long time! 
I loved putting together this little list and sharing it with you. What did you learn in September?

Saturday, September 30, 2017

PrairieFest 10k, 2017

Why do I keep paying to run a race that I can run for free every single day? Why do I keep coming back to this race and this distance? I have nothing but high hopes, barfy feelings, pee my pants effort and dashed dreams and it costs me money to feel this way. You, too, can have this every August for less than $30.

I keep coming back because it is literally my local race. It goes directly past my house every year and I know lots of runners. While I love cheering all the runners on while I sit in a lawn chair and eat cinnamon rolls, it's also hard for me not to be out pounding the pavement with them. This year I had even declared to Anne and Kristy I would not be running it. But as I went to bed the night before, I decided it would be weird of me to go out for a run on my own and finish at the same time the race was starting. 

I woke up early, whispered to Bill I was running the 10k, had my usual pre-run breakfast and headed out to register at the park, a half block away. After registering, I went out for a long warm-up. I need at least a mile of very easy running before I'm anywhere near ready to go. I did a bunch of dynamic stretches at the back of the crowd and chatted with a friend.  My goal was to not want to quit while giving it about 80% effort. 

I envy the runners who look so cute. No I don't. They probably got up extra early to look that way.
I rolled out of bed. Obviously. 
Every year I want to quit. Every year people comment that this must be a breeze for me. So this year I will attempt to set the record straight. Yes, I've run further than 6.2 miles before. Yes, I run 6.2 miles more often than not in my daily training. But racing 6.2 miles is different. For me, 6.2 miles is gas to the floor kind of running. I've been working more on speed this summer than ever but in general I'm always working on very technical terrain which is slower or longer distances which is also slower. To say a 10k is a breeze for me is not the case. It is work. But if you tell me next year that this must have been easy for me, I'll probably smile and mumble something not bad.

So there I was at the back of the crowd. I didn't move up or position myself to some advantage. I knew there would only be a handful of runners doing the 10k to begin with. The truly fast ones would be where they belonged and I would be where I belonged, towards the back away from the fast cross country kids who would be done and gone before I crossed the finish line. I didn't care where I was. The race is run on roads the entire time and we are able to spread out across the width of the road. I could maneuver around runners as need be and not get caught up in them.

I popped in my earbuds and surveyed the crowd ahead of me. I watched the 5k's take the turn to head back and started calculating who might be ahead of me. This year it seemed the 10k participants was especially small. We stretched the entire length of East 1st street. This is always the longest section for me. I hardly ever run it (for free) and every time I do, I feel it sucks the life from me. Today I didn't allow myself to feel that way. A couple miles ticked off and I took time to look at my pace. I was pleased and decided to try to negative split the race. It would probably hurt but I decided it was the only way to make peace with this race this year.

My nephew and a couple of his friends has by-passed the 50k and went for the 10k, something I'm kind of proud of. They hung just in front of me. I knew he could pick it up but secretly hoped I could at least creep in front of him for a bit. I didn't say a word as I inched my way closer. I considered if it would be bad for him if his aunt beat him but before I could come to a conclusion those boys must have decided they were done being out there and just left me in the dust like I was standing still. 

I made all the usual turns along the course. I thanked the volunteers who stood offering water but took none. I rounded the corner right next to our house where a neighbor was out walking her tiny doggy. She remarked about me stopping to go inside and I laughed. I could actually do that. But I didn't and I didn't want to quit either. I was starting to gain on a couple of people and was hoping to make a pass. However, the distance from my house to finish line is just shy of a mile and one of the runners took off. I didn't have that kind of speed to catch her. I kept plying myself to finish strong.

I crossed the finish line to a few cheers. I was pleased with my time considering having just raced the 2/3 marathon the weekend before. I was happy to find I had some leg turnover after having a really rough Spring and an easy Summer to make up for the Spring. Later I looked at my mile splits and found that I ran each mile faster than the previous. I negative split the run. I collected my age group first place medal and headed to the parade where everyone else was already at.

Warning: Do not feed the ultra-runner a 10k

Friday, September 29, 2017

Moorehead 2/3 Mazathon

Sometimes there are so many races and sometimes there are so few races. The distance of the drive, the length of the race, the difficulty of the trail, these are all factors which weigh in on my decision for a race. Over the summer, I wrote out a calendar combining my training plan and potential races to align with the plan. Then I merged it, actually mashed it together with our family calendar and looked at what I had for options. I've never read tarot cards or had them read to me, but I suppose it's probably similar. How about if I use a panning for gold analogy? Yes, I was looking for little golden nuggets of training races amidst the rubble of dirt bike dust.

I taped up the notebook paper schedule beside my desk and occasionally referred to it. I couldn't make the Mines of Spain race because it coincided with two other activities that weekend. It's a great race and a tough course but I haven't been able to get back there for a couple of years. You know about my experiences with the Trail Nerds Pyscho Wyco races to know that I would be out of my mind to choose that again so soon. But floating around the Turkey's Facebook page was a new to me race in Ida Grove, Iowa named the Moorehead Mazathon and the Trail of the Dragon Ultra

Initially, the family calendar said we were busy so the reminders and notifications from Facebook passed. But early in the week of the race the calendar cleared up- like storms clouds floating away. The race director, Susan Knop even reopened the registration and I quickly applied. I found a place to bunk the night before the race via GOATZ friends and headed towards Ida Grove. 

At packet pickup, which isn't a packet, it's usually a bag that is stuffed with a bit of swag from race sponsors but that's what we call it, I met the two women I would be sharing a cabin with and another mother runner. We shared our running backgrounds and life tidbits over spaghetti and salad, provided by the race then headed to our cabin for the night. We spent the rest of the evening watching the sun go down, not getting much cell service and deciding the guy next door should make better life choices than to have a heart shaved into the back of his head as part of his haircut. 

When I arrived the next morning at the race, the 50k and 50 mile runners had already started, including my two cabin mates doing the 50 miles. There are 5 different races being held at the same time. The ultra races, called the Trail of the Dragon, go out and do a few extra sections on each loop. For the non-ultra races, called the Moorehead Mazathon, there are three distances to choose from- the 1/3, 2/3 and full marathon (8-ish miles, 17-ish miles, 26-ish miles). Again, these are trail races and the mileage is not exact and trail runners are okay with that. After a brief pre-race talk, the race director scratched a long line in the gravel as our official start, timer started us and we headed towards the trail. The starts may be my favorite as they are so nonchalant with most trail runners. Nobody is standing alongside commenting, "Wow! Look at them go!". Sure, there are always a few who take off and more power to them and a bunch of us start our watches and that's just about it. 

I was super curious about the trail. It started out with a double wide path which helped sort out who was moving at a faster pace and who was dropping back. Being such a small race, there really was no jostling and positioning to get into the right crowd. The trail then turned into a grass path that went over the top of a hill, rounded around the bottom, ran along off-camber of the same hill before spiking up to the top and back down. During the first lap, the sun was hidden by a layer of fog so thick it draped us like a heavy robe. I knew as soon as the sun bore its way through the clouds, we would die a thousand deaths in a smoldering cauldron of heat and humidity. (#TWH) Y'all, an August race does not play nice with weather. As the trail made its way into more wooded sections, it stayed double wide and was not technical although there was plenty of water erosion areas within that required good foot choices. Finally, the trail tucked into single track and I gave a little shout of glee. The trail would be a little more established and the tree cover would be better. 

course description: some gently rolling hills with heavy humidity
I kept my eye on my general pace and decided I was doing just fine. I had no particular goals for this race other than see what is was all about and to test myself in a race setting. I came upon a group of women discussing audio book choices and was passed by a speedy 50k or 50 miler but other than that just enjoyed my time. The single track ended when we hit the ski area and let me tell you, that was a sad realization. For the most part, the elevation change had not been too much so far but the race boasted 1,000 feet for each 8.8 mile loop and it had to happen somewhere. My leg turnover slowed to a hike as I made my way up the first of three steep hills. At the top of the first was a cemetery. How fitting, I thought. I also wondered if a trail races doesn't pass by a cemetery, is it even a trail race? Just a little funny moment to myself. Down to the bottom, around the corner and back up another steep climb, only to turn around and bust your quads to the bottom where other than an aid station check in, you turn around and head back up the same hill via a different route. Imagine the three climbs making a W. It was a brutal section because they came one after another after another. 

"Death, oh death. Won't you spare me over 'til another year?" Ralph Stanley

The race director did a fantastic job of squeezing every bit of mile out the park. She routed us through the historic homestead of Ida Grove where a small handful of buildings still stood. After they finished, the audio book women told me on another loop the buildings were open and they toured one! 

The local cross country team was enlisted as volunteers. They did everything from timing, to managing the aid stations to directing runners. There were two particular enthusiastic and vocal boys at the mazathon/ultra split who whooped and hollered and cheered more than anyone I've ever seen at a race. While I missed my turn initially because I was so entertained by them (but they quickly re-directed them), they were the best! All the volunteers were great. It really was a local effort and I loved that aspect. 

I finished my first loop, stopping briefly for a bite and bathroom break then headed toward the trail again. I was really pleased with my effort on the first loop and decided how I wanted to approach the second one, which would be my last since I was running the 2/3 marathon. I decided to see if I could finish strongly with my time being as close as possible to the first loop. I plugged in my ear buds to the Hamilton score and worked on not throwing away my shot. 

I would say my general approach to my second and final loop was to keep the pace steady and push when I could. I now knew the entire course and there weren't any surprises. I had kept an eye on the bib numbers of runners passing me on the out and backs and had a general idea of where I was in terms of placing. It wasn't my plan to place; my plan was to run smart, but I wasn't going to let someone pass me if I could help it. On the climb to the cemetery, I saw the next person ahead of me and started planning. I crushed that downhill, beat it up the next climb, crushed that downhill again and after a shot or two of pickle juice at the aid station, charged my way to the next climb. However, between the quick aid station and the fast, steep hikes, my body screamed at me. I listened because I knew I would not pass anybody if I flat out bonked before I had a chance at the chase. I made sure I had enough calories in me, filled my water bottle and worked my way around the course. Very soon I saw her and realized I was moving better than she. I passed her quickly, giving her a word of encouragement. 

I was happy for my surge but it had taken a toll on me and I worked to not back off completely, which is a different kind of battle. It's a mental one that presses the body to overcome when it wants to stop. All of this was what I had come for although I didn't think of that at the time and only now as I write. (Thanks for making me write race re-caps, Kristy.) The trail came to and end and I ran along the edge of the park road. In the grassy edge were a photographer and a guy and girl in formal clothes. I thought it was a an odd time of year for prom pictures or senior pictures or so on but maybe not. Around the next corner the picture became clear. There stood a bride and groom and another photographer. I wished them congratulations as I sprinted to the finish line. At least what I thought looked like sprinting.

As I cross the timing mat to people clapping, the timer told me I was third place female. Oh, wow! I did pass that one woman ahead of me and no one else passed me but I am never quite sure of my position. It was really fun to race well and third place is a nice perk. Later in the evening, I looked at my time for each of my loops and I had run them exactly even! 

I hung around at the finish, cheering in other runners, talking to friends, sipping some Blue Moon, chowing down on post race food and thanking the race director, Susan Knop,  again for a great, quality race. No matter how many attend the race, it is still a lot of work and she is doing it well.

sweet single track

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

McNaughton 50 Mile Trail Race

I believe I’ve mentioned this before but the start of a trail ultra marathon looks more like a gathering, a clumping, a general standing around until the race director yells go. Depending on the difficulty of the race, the length of the race, and the preference of the runner, some will take off and give it a go while most will barely stop their conversations as they pick up their pace. Our small group of 50 mile and 100 mile runners started at 6 am Saturday morning in the camping area of McNaughton Park and quickly took a left down a short, steep trail before rounding a field. As we lengthened out, the chatter was cheerful and plenty. A similar short and steep ascent brought us back near the starting area where I immediately dumped my headlamp with Bill as it was already light enough to see the trail. Thus began my first 50 mile race.

My new headlamp Bill gave me for Christmas that I never even turned on
I can’t share my race experience without mentioning Justin. We’re both from Huxley. We both run trail ultras. We both did Psycho Wyco this year. And we both signed up for this race. But we never run together. Well, almost never. We ended up doing some treadmill miles together about three weeks before the race inadvertently. However, at packet pick-up (where you pick up your race bib and t-shirt and other stuff), we met up and I invited myself, Bill and Gary to have pizza with Justin. At supper we all talked race stuff where Gary gave us a bit of course description, him having done three loops before having to call it quits on his 200 mile attempt. The guys also talked cars and that sort of thing. I still have no idea what a splitter is but my pizza was good. The next morning when Justin and I started together we didn’t talk any strategy or race pace or anything. Just two Huxley ultra runners who never run together running together. 

Talking race strategy (and beer)

First loops are almost always fun. The runners are generally together and the banter is light and there are lots of jokes. It’s easy to get carried away by fresh legs and bright ideas. Optimism is at its highest during the first loop. Caution to keep the pace easy and attention to course markings blown to the wind. Except I knew better and having been warned by Gary to pay attention as he knew of other runners getting lost on the first loop. The sun rose within our first hour and brought with it warm temps which perked up the spring colors. Around the trail we ran and hiked the hills while the birds exercised their vocal chords. We came into the first aid station about 3 miles in and grabbed some fruit and kept moving. 

Pay attention to the flowers, too
I never rely solely on the hotel for my breakfast and always pack my own. This time it was a breakfast burrito and a banana with almond butter. I’ve tried also eating yogurt but it gives me a serious gag reflex later when brushing my teeth and I’ve come close to a full on throw up. No throwing up this time either at breakfast or the rest of the day for me. (Thanks for reading, Dave. Have a nice day!) I didn’t know about the coffee situation and had brought my own k-cup in case our room had a machine. It did not but as I staggered bleary-eyed out of the lobby, I found that the hotel management had started the coffee early, thanks to the insistence of another runner.

Even though I had been on the course last year, I paid particular attention to how it flowed for me during the first loop. Whatever felt easy to me now and was no big deal would be harder and harder in subsequent loops. I hiked all the hills with momentum but not too aggressively and took it easy on the downhills. Even though I didn’t have as much hill training as I would have liked over the winter, I knew the hills on this trail were short and steep and definitely work but were not that bad overall. I made mental notes of where I hoped to be able to run on the later loops and where I would have to practice patience and get through. The course was marked with ribbons on trees, ground flags and paint, some signs and reflective clips for those running in the dark.

In the weeks leading up to the race, the weather had been quite rainy. This gave me a bit of concern as to how muddy the trail would be and how high the creek crossings would rise. There are two creek crossing over the 10 mile loop. 50 miles, 5 loops, 10 creek crossings. Its not really something I practice during my training runs. Neither is running in mud. Most public trails don’t like traffic on them in wet conditions because it tears up the trail. As it turns out, the trails were mostly mud free though it was inevitable that my feet would be completely soaked at each water crossing. I made sure my feet were well covered with Trail Toes (kind of like Vaseline but better) before slipping on my socks and shoes.

Last  year we could get across without getting wet. This year Moses didn't show up.
Making a 10 mile loop around a park means the trail weaves around established trails, crosses over some open spaces a couple of times, takes you over hills, winds you around the bottoms, connecting all the different sections into one. Almost every part had a name: Totem Pole aid station, the beach, Heartbreak Hill. There is a pretty little section called Heaven’s Gate that stays on the edge of the creek with a sweet single track section before crossing a field that stayed wet all weekend. The course passes through a disc golf course before ending back at the race camping area.  

If only they allowed dirt bikes on the trail
Justin and I discussed what we would do once back at the start/finish line. I had started the race in capris and two long sleeve layers but had already warmed up enough so I wanted to change into shorts. We finished our first loop in about 2 hours and 15 minutes and I dashed into Gary’s tent to change. My crew was Bill and Gary. Bill kept my gels and food replenished, my Tailwind bottles and hydration bladder full and did the math, along with cheering me on. Gary picked up my trash, inspected the condition of my wet feet and kept up the race banter which is code for checking on my mental condition. They were great and made each stop there go smoothly and quickly for me. 

Before Justin and I headed out our second loop we stopped at the aid station table loaded with food. They had donut holes! I grabbed two and practically choked on one stuffing it down my throat. I shoved a half banana into one of the pockets of my vest for later.

The runners had spread out now. We would come across pockets of them here and there along the trail. Often we would pass a runner with a pacer or two. They had started either Friday to complete 150 miles or Thursday evening for 200 miles. So many of them were in good spirits despite having only the smallest amounts of sleep they felt they could get away with in between loops although we did see someone asleep to the side of the trail as his pacer kept watch. We would catch up to one, have a brief chat but since we weren't nearly as tired and didn’t have as far to go, passed them and moved ahead quickly. The birds were singing, the day was early and everything still felt easy.

Justin and I chatted about anything and nothing. It didn’t matter and I barely remember. We were just passing the time and miles. The trail was starting to take on its own rhythm. I kept taking it all in and strung all the parts together from last year and this year. Doing five continuous loops never became boring. For one, it was on a trail and even in one day a trail can take on so many nuances. Secondly, I was always assessing my pace, how I felt, what I was eating and drinking and would this be sustainable for me for the next loop or the next two loops, etc. I kept an eye on the half hour, taking in a gel as routinely as possible, Other than that, I didn’t pay attention to the actual time of day or how long I had been out there, more on the half hour marks and my average pace. My primary goal was to finish the distance and my secondary goal was to finish it under 15 hours. This is an average finish time for most 50 mile races even though this race was very generous by having over 30 hours to complete the distance. 

I had posted a picture on Instagram of all the food I planned to pack and eat such as fig newtons, oatmeal cookies, Twizzler Nibs and Pringles since these were the foods I trained with. However, with last minute advice from a trusted friend, Chris, I changed it all up. He said I should keep my base calories (200 calories/hr) incoming by way of gels and add other foods as needed or wanted. Chris’s suggestion made sense to me and since I have not had a problem with how gels affect my stomach, I went with the strategy of downing a GU Energy gel or HUMA chia gel every half hour. This plan worked really well for me and am positive that I will continue this fuel plan when I race again.

Running is so healthy
Finishing the second loop, I shouted out to Bill what I wanted from my stuff so he could pull it out while I went to the bathroom. I made sure to stop every loop since I didn’t want to go in the woods if necessary. Only once did I have to do that and I’ll tell you there is not much cover in early spring. Having to go meant I was drinking enough liquid. Not having to go more than once a loop meant I was managing my water and electrolytes and caffeine pretty well. Side note- Even though the toilets were temporary, the race kept them clean for the entire weekend. 

We kept this stop short. Minutes add up quickly at aid stations and I like to pass through most of them as fast as I can. My feet still felt fine so I took a new bottle of Tailwind, a handful of gels and headed down the trail with Justin. On the previous loop, I went to eat the banana I had stashed in my vest pocket but couldn’t find it. I figured I must have eaten it already but of course couldn’t remember if I had or hadn’t. A trash can was placed a bit further on then the main aid station and I took a moment to empty the trash I was carrying from gel wrappers and other stuff when I looked down to see half a banana on the ground. Being less than two feet from the trash can, it looked like a runner was a lazy slob and couldn’t throw it away properly. But I knew the real story and exclaimed “Here’s the banana I lost!” So, I did what I normally do. I picked it up and threw it into the trash. Sorry, friends, I did not eat any food off the ground this race. (I probably should get a gold star for this.)

One of my favorite things is when the race starts to take on personality. We came across a young boy with his dad. He had a race bib one so I asked him what he was doing, meaning what distance was he attempting. His reply to me was “This.” (He completed 50k, with lots of careful supervision!) Someone had been out and placed plastic plate signs along the course. I came to think of them as what fortune cookies would say if they had more room.
I did have to put on sunscreen

Is it just me or does this sign have a little too much sass for a plastic green plate?
At the end of the third loop my knees were aching more than I wanted them to be. Having dealt with this over and over by now, I didn’t do anything more than just note how they felt and sprayed them with BioFreeze. I continue to wonder why they hurt only during races. My guesses are that I am unable to train on terrain most similar to the trails I race on and maybe even more importantly, in training I never push the pace because I’m going for a new distance or trying a more difficult terrain. I plan to adapt my training to work on this. We always finished our loops strong and when we came in this time I changed both my socks and shoes after wearing the same pairs for the first thirty miles. The fresh footwear felt so good. Gary stuffed my damp shoes with newspaper to help dry them out faster, remarking about my doll sized feet and how he was saving on newspaper. (I wear size 7 and if anyone wears or tries on my shoes they are on my naughty list.) Bill was concerned I wasn’t drinking enough water but I assured him I was.

The fourth loop waited for us. Neither Justin nor I had gone further than 31 miles until now. My friend, Julia had said the fourth loop would be the worst. It would be new distance territory and also not so close to the finish that you could say you were almost done. I decided to just let this ten miles be its own and didn’t expect anything else. 

We made it to the first aid station and I grabbed a cup of potato soup. Although the temperature was in the 70’s, the soup tasted so good. For ultras, aid stations are placed a few miles apart and are packed with food, unlike road races, which are mainly water or Gatorade. There is fruit- orange slices, bananas, watermelon. All sorts of candy. Salty items such as pretzels, pickles, potato chips. And real food choices like quesadillas, oatmeal peanut butter balls, soup, boiled potatoes, cookies, and more. When you consider runners are out for 6, 12, 24 hours, having real food makes sense. And is delicious. Everything is the best thing you’ve ever tasted. Justin didn’t know he liked fruit so much. Watermelon is amazing. Avocado and cheese quesadillas are magical. Coke and ginger ale have healing powers, I tell ya. 

Not captured- me belching after guzzling this cup of potato soup
Amber had advised us to work through our highs and lows during this loop. At one point, Justin and I separated a bit. When we met up again, I was concerned about how the rest of the race was going to go for us. I had yet to bonk but I told him if I did it would look like me crying, which freaked him out a bit. I told him if that happened to make me eat something and keep moving. 

I really wanted to run so I tried, asking Justin how my running looked. He said I was better walking. I agreed, given my knees were acting like the Tin Man in need of a good oiling along. I was more efficient at hiking than I was at running anyway. I didn't spend much time dwelling on what I couldn’t do but instead focused on what I could do and what I needed to do to keep that up. I wanted to get this loop over with. I wanted to finish the race before I needed my headlamp again. I didn’t want anyone passing me. 

Go ahead, Justin, you pick the best spot to cross. I'll wait.

As we came into the start/finish line for the fourth time, I stopped first at the guys to get the last of my stuff before crossing the timing mat and going out for the fifth loop. All the other loops I had crossed the timing mat and then gone back but this time I wanted to get going as fast as possible. Bill decided to come along with us. He was ready to stretch his legs after a day of waiting around for me to come in every two and a half hours. I filled him in with all the really important details of the day: the banana story, how I lost my balance and dunked my shoe in the mud, how there were 10 horses and riders out for a trail ride on the same course, and pointed out the cemetery from which they get the name of Heaven’s Gate and which I only just found it last loop. Fascinating stuff.  

If you can read this...
The last loop was exciting and I was ready to take it on. Once started though, it occurred to me that I still had ten miles to cover and pacing would still be important. We were about three miles in when I could feel the tears trying to make an appearance. I told Bill I was on the edge crying and needed some space to deal with it. I decided I was fine and didn’t have any reason to break down. I ate something and started focusing on the grape.

On the far bank of the first creek I had seen a green grape in the dirt during an earlier loop. It was there again during the fourth loop and I mentioned it to Justin who had seen it also. We decided if it was there on the fifth loop, we would have to do something. As I got nearer and nearer the creek I wondered about the grape. Would it be there? How did it get there in the first place? What would I do with it? We crossed the creek and with eyes down, scanned the sandy corners where it had been but it was gone. Neither Justin or I could find it. I felt a little let down because I kind of wanted to see it again but consoled myself with the idea that it met it’s fate in the way it was supposed to. Then I spent the next stretch of trail concocting stories about the grape. See, loop courses don’t have to be boring.

I was on the home stretch and I wanted to be finished. I felt I was moving slower and slower even though I pushed myself harder than ever. I finally looked at my overall time and distance to go and started really wondering what time I could finish under. Here I was, about to finish my first 50 mile race and I was going to finish faster than I had hoped. I hadn’t thought all day of how long I had been out there more than about how long each loop took. Wading across the last creek that finally didn’t splash up past my knees, I knew I was about two miles from the finish and went for the final push. Those last two miles were some of the longest of my life. Finally! Finally the campground came into view. I saw the seconds tick by as I hobble ran the last stretch towards the finish line. I finished in 12:44!

Richard, one of the race directors, was the closest person to me and I threw my arms around him in a happy hug. He handed me my belt buckle medal. Bill and Gary closed in and they each got hugs. The grinning was not going to stop for a while. And you know what never happened? I never bonked. I never cried. I didn’t cry in the week leading up to the race, or packet pickup or the morning of, or during or at the finish line or afterwards!! 

Justin was not too far behind and soon he finished as well. I’m really grateful for his company during the race. I know I did not experience the loneliness and the lows because he was there. Which means he’ll be signing up for at least three more 50 milers since that’s how many more I have in mind.

50 mile finishers! 
Wow! I was so happy with the entire day! 

I don't have a belt or a fancy place to wear this buckle
Back in the hotel room, I started removing layers. Off came the shoes and socks for the second inspection of my feet that day. I had a sore spot on the back of my heel but there were no blisters and no significant damage from the continual pounding and dunking they took. As I sat on the edge of the bed later, waiting for Bill to return with our supper of Mexican food, I started to get so tired. I had to get in the shower but I mostly just wanted to sleep. Eventually I chose the shower. I gingerly stepped in because that’s where any chaffing is truly discovered and none was to be found. Again, wow! All my gear had worked well. 
One would think after 50 miles with 8,000 of elevation gain, I would be starving. I was hungry but not overly so. I knew I had to eat so I worked my way through a taco and rice and beans. My feet were starting to swell and were getting hot and painful so I partially filled a garbage can with ice and water and forced my feet and legs in for 10 seconds at a time. Wow! It hurt like none other! I did so a handful of times and the swelling and pain was definitely reduced. I fell asleep that night with my puffy jacket on top of me like a blanket with my lower legs completely uncovered all on top of the blankets. Later on, I woke up only a little thirsty but knew I still needed to drink water. I had to keep balancing the water and electrolytes so at 1:30 in the morning, I sat in my bed eating Pringles and sucking water from my hydration pack. I fell asleep again with all that still on the bed and now a little puddle where the end of the hose had been pinched open under me and leaked. 

Even though Gary said the race was offering free loops the next morning, I took a pass and we headed home. 

I’ve thought a lot about this race since then and writing about it has taken a while not because I procrastinated but because the whole thing needed space. There was so much that went exceptionally well that day. The weather was unbelievably nice. The trail was in great shape and the creeks were tolerable to cross. I spent all day with good company, had a great crew in Bill and Gary and the race itself is well organized with amazing directors and volunteers.