I like to run. I've learned that it really isn't about where you're going, it's about the getting there - the how, the why, the who with. This blog is just a little repository for my thoughts along the way; the setbacks, the lessons learned, and the occasional triumph.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Race Report: 100kout Mountain - Part Four


The climb up to the mountain top – almost literally straight up the mountain at times – really, really kicked my ass. (Once on the way up, I turned around and just sat down on the trail. It was that steep, that I could just turn around, lean back, perch on a tree root and sit. Seriously.) Then after puzzling my way through the route around the small boulders on the crest, and the feeling that we’d just never, ever get to the next aid station, I was simply cooked. My legs felt okay, my feet were okay, I wasn’t too chilly, emotionally I was still going, but my energy was spent. I was just bone tired.

I gave myself a leisurely break at the High Point aid station. But the next station at Lula Lake Road was less than 3 miles away. I was lucky to still have a trot left in my legs. That trot got me to Lula Lake Road and I took another long break. They were cooking baked potato chunks there. I salted and ate a whole half plate of them.

The Lula Lake Road station was just a smidge under the 50-mile mark on the course. There were two important things about that. First, I’d gotten there in 12.5 hours. I’ve run two 50-mile races on comparably difficult courses. The first I finished in 11.5 and the second I finished in 13.5. So, to get to 50 in this longer race right between those two times, I took as a really strong accomplishment. Second, I’d never run more than 50 miles before, so every step after this aid station was virgin territory.

Leaving Lula Lake Road, I decided I was going to walk just the first couple of miles. I needed to ease off a little while. Then I’d try to get back into my trot. I had a feeling there was going to be a lot of walking in the last 12 miles. But I was ok with that.

I left with another runner. A slightly built woman in a blue jacket with short cropped, dark hair. I'd been, more or less, in shouting distance of her for the previous 12 miles. But it wasn’t until we’d both been trying to find our way across the top of the mountain that we’d kind of started running together. She had been having even more trouble than I was at following the course as designed. She’d thrown up a white flag and admitted she needed help. I completely agreed. We both might have an easier time if we worked on it together.

She hadn’t gotten that far ahead of me in the 3 miles to Lula Lake Road, and when I left that station, she made the decision to stick with me. She soon explained. She’d done a lot of Ultras and had always tried to run alone on purpose (to quell her overly competitive nature, she said), but she’d recently begun to believe that having a pacer or finding a partner to run with after dark was a good idea. Since we’d been moving along at a similar pace together, she was going to stick with me.

I warned her right from the start that I didn’t expect to be moving very fast, and if she found the pace too slow, I wouldn’t be offended if she moved on, but apparently, she was determined to stick with a buddy regardless.

She had a good reason to slow down, too. She was running on a broken foot! Not only that, it was her third Ultra in four weeks. And she had several more Ultras scheduled in the next month. She said her foot had started to nag at her in these late miles, and she was happy to give it a break anyway.

Her name was Abigail, “But lots of people call me Abby, so I answer to that, too, doesn’t matter.”

Abigail – and I write this with a great deal of affection – Abigail could talk. She was a constantly flowing, never deterred, always upbeat monologue of speech. And it continued, unabated for the next 3+ hours and 11 miles of the course. But I’ll reiterate: I write that with a great deal of affection. Because even though I already knew I was going to finish by that point in the night, I don’t know exactly what state I would have been in without Abigail.

She was way more experienced than me, for one thing. My friends think that I’m a crazy running man? I ran 8 Ultras or Marathons in 2008. Abigail had that many planned just for December and January! So, I was with someone who’d been there and done that. More than once.

Also, I wasn’t kidding about her being upbeat the whole time. She would tell stories and chuckle and tell more stories and ponder and tell stories again. And then I’d apologize for going so slowly and she’d say she didn’t mind because her broken foot was kind of killing her. What? I honestly had to ask myself if that was really true or if she was just saying so to help reassure me.

I honestly was embarrassed that I was moving as slow as I was, and that I was too out of breath, even at the gentle pace, to be able to talk back to her very much. Every now and then I reiterated that, and told her to keep talking; I was enjoying listening to her stories. I’d also tell her again to speed up and move on anytime she wanted, that I wouldn’t be upset if she needed to go.

The truth is, I didn’t really want her to run off – Abigail had a rather profound impact on me. And the reason is the nature of the stuff she talked about while we ran. Of course we covered a number of the usual Ultra chit-chat stuff, the races we’d run, the races we still wanted to run, things like that. But she also veered freely into a great deal of very personal stories about her life, her loves, her husband(s), her career(s), her children, her friendships, and on.

Some of them were good repeatable stories, like the time she asked for and received a chainsaw for her Mother’s Day present.

Or the time, while on he job as an EMT, that she dislocated her own shoulder while pulling a man twice her size from a wrecked car – even though she knew she would dislocate her shoulder in the process and told her fellow EMT so before she did it.

Or how she requires her kids (5 of them, if I remember correctly) to run every weekend except when she goes to run an Ultra, and so they often look forward to her races.

She told me all those things.

But she also volunteered a list of personal and intimate confessions which I would never dare betray by even hinting at their contents here. None of it was criminal or reprehensive, but it was all offered with such honesty – and with such a clear, reflective eye directed at herself – that it all qualified as privileged, personal information.

I asked myself, even as we ran, why she would tell me these things. We ran together for over three hours. The night was black around us. Both our lamps were always focused on the trail in front of us and we never looked at each other. I was generally too tired to speak and was content to simply listen anyway, and she had too much energy not to talk. I suppose in such rare circumstances, confessions are bound to slip out.

But still, she offered me, a complete stranger, a great deal of trust. The only things we knew we had in common were being runners and this race. I suppose that was more than enough. Abigail, if you should ever find yourself reading this, I want you to know, there was never a single ounce of judgment in my mind. Not even for a second. On the contrary, I enjoyed every tale, and admired your honesty, both with me, and with yourself.

I did a lot more walking those last 12 miles than I’d planned after I left the Lula Lake Road station at the 50-mile point. I thought I’d be able to do a lot more trotting, and found, instead, that a brisk walk took most of what I had left. Abigail was kind and told me she’d seen a lot of people 55 miles into a race that would have been thrilled to move at such a quick walking speed. She’d been around enough that I believed her and was buoyed by the compliment. But finally, with a little over a mile left before the finish line, she ran off ahead and disappeared down the trail. She didn’t say anything. We both knew the end wasn’t far below us, and she was eager to be done. It’s hard to hold back when you can smell the barn ahead of you. I’d been telling her for three hours that she should go when she was ready. I understood, but I was sad to see her go.

In the end, I cruised into the finish 72 official seconds behind her. When she crossed the last bridge into the finish line meadow, I could hear the hoops and hollers of the friends and volunteers wafting up the hillside through the trees, and I knew the end was near for me, too.

I collected my finisher’s prize (a handsomely understated Pilsner glass) collected hugs and love from my girlfriend, Laura (who didn’t miss me at a single accessible aid station the whole day), and gave my parents a quick phone call to let them know I wasn’t dead.

It was nice to sit and get some food and enjoy a drink of victory Coca-cola from my new glass (the sweet soda sounded better than a bitter beer), but I was eager to get to the car, change out of the wet clothes and head back to some place warm.

Funny: the last thing Laura had said to me when I left the final aid station was, “don’t make me turn into a pumpkin!” Meaning: Finish before Midnight! It was a friendly, teasing encouragement. But I’m proud to say, I finished about ten minutes before the Pumpkin Hour, so she owes me one. (Har-Har!) My official time was 16:03:31. My pace dropped off pretty dramatically after the 50-mile point, but I couldn’t help feeeling that 16 hours was a pretty respectable finish for a race where I had no time goals. And I beat all the cutoffs, finishing two hours before the course was closed.

All in all, it wasn’t so bad a day. The time passed quickly out there. The sloggy 50-miler I ran back in April was a far more difficult event. 62-miles didn’t seem like such a big, fat, hairy deal. I am still, a month into the New Year, evaluating my race experiences in 2008. I feel that I might need a down year with a few less distance races to help me recharge a little. It may be another year before I take a shot at my first 100-miler. So, I’m all the more pleased to chalk up my first 100(K) successfully.

Race Report: 100kout Mountain - Part Three


When I set out on the back half of the course – a new, 24-mile “lollipop” shaped section on the Southwest end of the mountain – I only had 45 minutes of daylight left. But in the thick forest, the available light dimmed a little quicker than that and I was soon in a whole new world as a runner: the Pitch Black Dark.

I’d done a little night running before, but only on a flat, well-groomed, white gravel, road-width forest preserve trail near one of my freelance jobs in Chicago’s northwest suburbs. Even though I usually take a headlamp out with me on that forest preserve trail, I often find there is enough ambient light from nearby towns – or even just the moon – for me to see the white trail good enough without the lamp at all. Extremely gentle conditions.

So, this was a completely new experience for me.

When I first flipped on my headlamp, I could still see a deep blue sky above me, but I was running through the woods and the shadows cast by their thick, looming trunks were too deep for me to see clearly anymore. What was worse, I was running a rolling, narrow, single-track trail that was buried in leaves and pine needles and flooded with rain wash. Every step I took seemed to sink deep into a marsh. Just keeping my balance was tricky.

At first, I tried just using the red light on my lamp. It’s intended to illuminate without destroying all of your night vision. It worked for a little while, but everything was so wet, that it somehow made the world seem darker by default, and the terrain was so uneven, that I couldn’t see far enough ahead of me to do much good anyway.

I switched over to the full, white beam. Now my problem was that the early evening fog and the rain were, kind of, blinding in the full light and I almost lost as much vision as I gained because of it. (If I’d opted for a hand-held lamp instead of one on my forehead, the lower point of origin for the light would have alleviated some of this problem. But I already carried my water bottle, so I chose to keep my other hand empty and available for unexpected events.)

I settled in to a gentle rhythm, but I gotta say, it was harder than I expected. There were sections of the trail, in those final 20 miles, that were wider and straighter and smoother, and when I was on them, the running was a lot easier. But on the winding, narrow single-track, it was really tricky and difficult to move at any regular pace with just the light of my headlamp to guide me. The race leaders had passed me going the other way just before sunset. They were going to be finishing up just before the light was gone. I was starting to envy them. Even if I’d been feeling 100%, there was just a limit to how fast I could move in the dark.

The world shrinks down to not much more than that pool of light projected in front of you. I was using a powerful lamp, so my pool of light was relatively large, but still…

The biggest trouble was yet to come. We had all been forewarned by the Race Directors of the section of trail between the Long Branch aid station and the High Point aid station. (Indeed, the reason I had Kris Wharton’s number in my cell phone was because when I e-mailed her to say I couldn’t make it to the pre-race meeting, she insisted that I call her instead so she could describe it to me in detail.)

It was a three-mile section that, first, sent us up the steepest mountain climb of the day, and then led us right across the rocky peak of the mountain along a route that sent us up, down, around, and sometimes under the rocks and boulders that littered the crest. Even in the daylight, it wasn’t a runnable section. A misstep or a dodge instead of a duck could quickly turn into a 100 or 200 foot drop straight down the side of the mountain.

Now imagine trying to traverse that section after dark.

There were plenty of reflective markers out on the back half of the course. Far more than there were ribbons in the first half of the day. But once on the peak, the route was so twisty and random, that I still lost track of it several times. I had to back track, and slow down and sometimes just stop completely and look around.

Between doing that dance in the dark, and the steep, arduous climb up to the peak, my pace had dropped slower than walking pace. Most aid stations were roughly six miles apart. It was frequently taking me 90 minutes to get from one to another. The 3-mile section to High Point took me 80 minutes to complete.

Twice, though, I did stop completely, flip off my headlamp completely, and try to take in the vastness of the dark world around me on top of Lookout. If I ever go back, maybe I’ll try to run the thing a little faster so I can be up there to see it before the sun is gone.

Race Report: 100kout Mountain - Part Two


A cool thing happened to me after I left the 32-mile aid station at the 100kout Mountain Trail Race, something I’d never really experienced before: I caught a major second wind.

I’ve always read about the sometimes dramatic mood and energy swings that runners get during a super long ultra event, but I’d never been through them. Even in both my 50-milers, what I’d felt was just a long, gradual wearing-down, from strong, to steady, to slow, to trying-not-to-walk-too-much-so-I-can-just-get-to-the-finish.

From mile 26 to 32 at 100kout, I was not doing well. It was during a long stretch of cold rain, and I got caught wearing just shorts and a tech t-shirt. So, I was drenched and shivering and running trails that had often morphed into running streams. In addition, we were gradually winding our way back up the mountain. The switch-back climbs were wearing me down.

I met my girlfriend, Laura at the 32-mile aid station (Covent College). I changed my socks. I changed my shirt to a warmer, long-sleeve, thermal Under Armor piece. I sat for a few minutes and sipped some chicken noodle soup. Then I trudged out on the trail again. My legs were still cold and stiff. But there had been very good news: Covent College was the first aid station of the day with a cutoff time, and I had come in 2 hours under. It was no guarantee for the rest of the day, but it was still a relief. I was past the half-way point, and I had some time in the bank.

Then, less than two miles out of Covent College, I felt a change. It was utterly unexpected, but my legs felt fresher, my chest felt warmer, my back felt stronger, and I said to myself, unequivocally, “I am going to finish this race.” It was the first time that day or in the months before when I really knew that was true.

After limping through the six miles before Covent College, I zinged through the next six miles to the aid station at the Start/Finish line. Seriously, I was almost giggling by the time I rolled down the hill back to the tents and parked cars.

Kris Wharton, the Race Director, had informed all the runners that she would do a personal assessment of each runner’s condition at this station and if she felt you weren’t in shape to continue, she would pull you from the race regardless of cutoff times. Well, I didn’t plan it this way, but I was practically dancing when she found me to give me the once over. In fact, I reintroduced myself and gave her a big kiss on the cheek for the help she’d been giving me over the phone during the morning. She was nothing but gracious and motherly.

My body certainly didn’t feel that good through the rest of the day and night, but I never lost my optimism and I never had any doubts about finishing. It was an uncanny feeling. The kind of thing that makes you foolish enough to try an event like this again some time.

Race Report: 100kout Mountain - Part One

Okay. Time to get back on the horse. It’s only been a little more than 5 weeks since I ran the Lookout Mountain 100K (aka: the 100kout Mountain), but somehow it already feels like months ago. So much has been happening – luckily, none of it bad stuff – but it has kept me from the blog. It seems pointless, now, to try and compose a “full” race report, but given my long-winded tendencies, that’s probably not really a bad thing. Besides, even if my writing has come to a halt, my running hasn’t and there are other things worth writing about now anyway. But I’ll handle old business first.

I’m going to do this with a series of “shorter” posts, because rather than recount the race as a whole, there are several different episodes I’d like to describe or points I’d like to make. So, I’ll offer each with a new post and a header.

Here goes…


I had notions of trying to finish my first 100-Miler in 2008. I signed up for the Cascade Crest 100 in Washington State, but when the logistics and expenses of that trip proved too large and difficult to negotiate, I had to withdraw a couple of months before race date. I was unable to find another 100M that fit into my calendar, and I resigned myself to putting it off until another season.

Then in August, I found the Lookout Mountain 100K on a race calendar scheduled for late December. It would be the weekend before Christmas in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and it would be easy to stop over there for the weekend on my way south to Atlanta to visit my parents for the holiday. A perfect consolation race!

So, I could still finish a “100” in ’08, and – though not the 100 Miler I’d originally hoped to complete – it would still rank as the longest race I’d ever run. My work schedule would not allow an ideal training build-up for a 62-mile Ultra, but I decided way back in August, that my finish time wouldn’t matter in anyway.

The only catch was the race would actually have the strictest cutoff time of any race I’d ever run. Start time would be after 7am, and the course would close at 1am that night – less that 18 hours. (By contrast, the two 50-milers I did both had 38 hour cutoffs!)

So, I’d have to be careful and manage my pace to make those cutoffs at each aid station, but still, I’d just run it to finish it. Period. No time goals. No ambition. No pride. Just get to the finish line before they shut the thing down.

And that’s what I did.

The weather wasn’t bad. Temps were in the high 50s all day, but it was cloudy with a chilly, occasional rain that came and went throughout. The sometimes rocky trails were slippery as a result, and, after an early afternoon, hour-long down poor, some sections of the course were more like a muddy creek than a dirt running path. But I wasn’t running for a good time, just for a good time, and it was easy to keep my sense of humor about everything. I had prepared a cheat sheet in a plastic bag with Aid Station names, the miles between them and cutoff times at each, and I just made sure I was staying ahead of those numbers.

They sent us off at the start as soon as enough daylight had dawned to give us a little light. That turned out to be around 7:40 am. It was worth a little wait, though, because we began next to a stunning, raging waterfall that spilled down a rocky ravine and over a cliff beside us to continue on in the river below. The rainy week preceeding the race had only added to the spectacle. (We finally got enough daylight to start the race, but never quite enough to get a good photo of the falls. Oh well.)

It was an impressive way to start. Of course I still managed to have a few misadventures…

About 8 or 9 miles into the race, I was running a beautiful section of the course that followed a hiking trail high along the ridge of the mountain’s crest. The valley below was stunning, filled with clouds and morning fog, and far below. The rocky mountain wall climbed upwards on our right and dropped off sharply down on our left.

I’d finally reached a less precipitous, pine needle-strewn section and had reached a few trail switch-backs, when I looked up to see another runner coming back at me from the opposite direction, an Asian girl in a black cap and red top. Later in the day, she would tell me her name was Lori. She said she’d slipped and fallen off the side of the trail, and though she was fine, she was a little disoriented and, apparently, had started running back the wrong way.

Well, I was not 100% sure that I was going the right way, myself. Everything about the event organization was great except one significant flaw: there really weren’t enough ribbons out marking the course. I will say, there were always ribbons at the intersections, but there were hardly any – and often none – on the long stretches on trail between the intersections. If you’re running a new or unfamiliar course, and run 20 minutes without seeing any ribbons, it’s easy to start doubting yourself, even if you’re pretty sure you made the proper turn the last time you came to one.

I went out on a limb, though, and told Lori I was pretty sure that it was me who was going the right way. I remembered seeing her pass me just before the first aid station, and if she’d been in front of me, it stood to reason that she was the one who had accidentally doubled-back again on the trail. A couple of miles later, when we reached the 2nd aid station, my deductions were validated.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t yet done struggling with the course.

The 3 miles stretch after the 2nd aid station was a gently sloping, downhill cruise on a wide, soft fire road. It was glide-time and peaceful. That is, until I passed a large lodge, crossed a paved road and, 150 yards later, found myself staring at a burned-out wooden bridge spanning a wide ravine below. It completely blocked me from continuing down the trail. How could that be right?

Two other runners had gotten there right before I did; two young, crew-cut blonde guys who looked like (and they were) brothers. They agreed with me. It didn’t seem like this bridge could be a part of the course, but none of us had seen any intersections of any kind on the trail, let alone any course marking ribbons. I hadn’t been able to make it to the pre-race briefing on Friday night, but the brothers had, and they couldn’t remember any talk of a burned-out bridge.

There was a way to cross it – along the edge, outside the railing, on the end of the wooden support ribs – but it seemed a little too precarious to be part of a trail race. We stood weighing that fact against the contradicting fact that we’d been on a single road with no turns for several miles, so how could this not be right?

I looked back up the road to see yet another runner headed toward us and the bridge. My first thought was: Oh good, someone else came this way, too. The more people who came this way, the greater the chance that the route was correct, right? But then I looked again and saw that the runner was Lori, which made me laugh. I told her outright, with a big smile, that I didn’t take it as a good sign that I followed the same direction she had taken.

By extraordinary luck, I had an Ace in the hole – otherwise known as a Cell phone in my pocket. I gotta say; there’re two things I’ve never had in a race before: my phone and the Race Director’s phone number. This time, by grand coincidence, I had both. I had to call Kris Wharton, the RD on the Thursday before the race. Her number was still in my phone’s call log, so I pulled out the phone, looked up the call record and pushed “Send”. And the good luck continued: I had a strong signal here on the mountain, the number was, indeed, Kris’ cell phone, and she answered it after a couple of rings!

“Hello,” I said, “this is Greg, I’m actually running the 100K today, I think I’m lost, and I was wondering if you might be able to direct me back on course.”

It was an unexpected call for her, to be sure. Her first response was a big Oh NO. An RD’s worst fear for a long trail race is lost runners. But when I mentioned the burned out bridge, she knew exactly where I was talking about (the lodge we’d just passed was actually the Ruby Falls tourist attraction), and she was able to given me rather precise directions to get back on course.

The bad news was, we’d gone at least a mile out of the way. Somewhere back up the fire road behind us, we were supposed to have turned left off of that road and dropped down onto a forest single-track trail below. Now we had to backtrack for a mile or more back uphill to get to that turnoff. I thanked Kris profusely and told her not to worry, we were all fine.

As the four of us got moving back up the hill again, yet another runner – the fifth now, including me – was coming down the road past Ruby Falls toward us. She wasn’t really happy when we told her what had happened. In fact, all four of my compatriots were a little down-spirited about the turn of events. Only Lori seemed to bounce back from it relatively okay, but she quickly confessed it was only because she was already planning to drop out at the 38-mile point, when the course took us back through the Start/Finish line.

I wasn’t thrilled either. I’d lost something like 25 or 30 minutes. And when we finally made it back up to the turn off point that we’d missed, I could see that the turn was marked but not in a very foolproof way. (After running 2 miles downhill on a wide fire road, a few pink ribbons on the side of the road at an otherwise invisible trailhead aren’t really enough. Should we all have seen them? Perhaps. But a white sign with an arrow would have been far, far harder to miss. Oh well.) But in spite of this, I kept my good humor and pressed on. It was a marked improvement over my attitude two weeks earlier at the Tecumseh Trail Marathon. I think my modest goals for the day helped me immensely.

Lori and I didn’t exactly run together for the next 17 miles, but for much of that time we remained, at least, in eye shot of each other. She was definitely in good enough shape to run off ahead of me for good, but after two big wrong turns, she was a little gun shy. I couldn’t blame her. We were still running long stretches of what seemed to be the actual trail without seeing any ribbon markings. It was much harder now to just have faith that we were still on the right track between ribbon sightings.

I must say, too, that Kris, the RD, was really wonderful and concerned about us. She actually called me back again – twice – to be sure that we’d been able to find our way back to the trail and then to try and find out from me which other runners had been with us so she could make a note of who and how many had missed the turn.

It made me think: Event volunteers at each aid station are usually in touch with the RD and official staff during an event like this, but they simply can’t be everywhere. It might be a good, standard practice for RDs to dole out their cell phone numbers and for runners to be encouraged to carry their phones during the event. Not just for getting directions to lost runners, but also to get medical aid to runners faster. A runner who takes a serious fall, might normally have to wait for another runner to pass, then for that runner to make it to an aid station, before anyone would even be able to find out that a runner was in trouble. With a cell phone protocol in place, the injured runner themselves would be able to, literally, call for help. In a real emergency, aid might be gotten far more quickly. Just a thought.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Lori & I @ 100kout!

Ok, The fact is, the holidays were wonderful, but very busy, and the past week has been total chaos because I've been MOVING, and I don't think I'm any closer to getting my race report up than I was the moment I finished the race.

BUT: I promised Lori that I would have this picture up for her to take a copy of and I think I've made her wait long enough.

So, Lori, here it is! I hope you, and everyone, had a wonderful New Year.

(More to come...)