I’ve been bad to my blog lately. It’s been a busy life these last 6 weeks. It’s been tough to clear time for the running, let alone the writing, but I have been running. The past, as they say, though, is prologue and the main event is nearly upon me. It’s just 1 (!) more day now until the San Diego 100 Mile Endurance Run.
I admit, I’m nervous. The biggest thing I’ve been asking myself lately is why I signed up to tackle a race in a part of the country I know so little about. I’ve never been to the bottom of California. I’ve barely ever been to L.A. I realized a few weeks ago, I don’t even know what the dirt is like out there. Sure that’s a silly thing to worry about, but is it black, or brown or red? Is it littered with gravel and skree, or is it fine and soft? Is it going to fill my shoes and blister my feet or welcome my every footfall with a cushiony plop?
You see? I’m kind of at that point in the training cycle.
THE GNAW BONE 50K
Once I got past the Wisconsin Marathon six weeks ago, I went into a kind of recovery and maintenance mode. I just wanted to bounce back and nurse my mileage base.
However, almost as soon as I got home from Kenosha, I started to worry about my lack of a hilly trail ultra run in the last 5 months. So, two weeks after Kenosha, I patched one into my schedule and drive down to Nashville, Indiana for the Gnaw Bone 50K. It’s one of the Dances With Dirt Trail Series and was billed as a tough course with “stupid sections”. They had a 50 Mile option, but I didn’t want to bit off too much more than I could chew. I was mainly going for the trail work.
I wound up having a good day with it. I started off slowly, but after 6 or 7 miles, I fell into a very strong and steady rhythm. There were some tough sections on the course, and some no-trail sections, but a lot of it was very runnable and I was able to get comfortable. I caught and passed a couple dozen runners in the next 12 miles (though the 50K and the 50M shared the same course for most of the race).
I hit 2 problems: by 22 miles, I had a worn a blister on the bottom of my right foot. IT was a very wet week before the race, there were a lot of water crossings on the first half of the course, and my shoes were coated filled with mud. Blisters are what ultimately knocked me out of the Burning River 100 last year, and they are my biggest fear in San Diego. I was not happy to have one turn up in the middle of Gnaw Bone.
I was carrying an extra pair of socks in my Race Ready shorts (Love those things) and we when finally reached the Aid Station at mile 22 (which we actually expected at mile 18) I took the time to sit down, clean my feet and change into my fresh pair. I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was an instant improvement even without trying to lance the blister.
The other snag I hit was the hill at Mill 26. It was a steep, 1/4-mile long, No-Trail section up the side of an unpleasant little mountain littered with forest ground cover and briars. I would dub it “Marathon Hill” both for the time it seemed to take to climb it and it location on the course, except that with all the different race distances being run on the course that day, everyone got to it at a different mileage point. It really kicked my butt in a major way. After that, for the last leg of the course, I was pretty much cooked.
It didn’t help either – and this is my one complaint about the race – that the course seemed to be marked a good bit longer than 31 miles and the error was somewhere in those last 8 miles. Almost every runner got off course during the day. I have learned from old race reports that this race is slightly infamous for that problem. I, however, luckily never really lost my way (there was a 100 yard detour at one point, but it was quickly corrected). But my split times between those last few aid stations cannot possible be correct based on the stated mileage between them. Even with Marathon Hill kicking my ass, the split times just don’t make any sense at all unless at least 1.5 extra miles are added in. I think that so many people go off course during the race that no one almost no one noticed that the actual course was marked far too long.
In spite of that, it was a good day, and I felt really good about my decision to go down and run it. It was excellent practice for San Diego.
THE CRUD 8-HOUR TRAIL RACE
Then, a week later, I kept the race appointment I made months before at the brand new C.R.U.D. 8-Hour Trail Race. I’ve known the co-race directors, Adam & Mike, for a couple of years now, ever since we all spent a number of miles on the trail together first at the Rock Cut Hobo 50K and then the Farmdale 33-Miler a few weeks later. I was excited to head down for the race, not just because it would be my first “timed” ultra event, but also because Mike and Big Z are great guys and I was sure they would host a fun day.
I wasn’t completely sure what kind of course it would be, though the guys had claimed on the website that there would be plenty of runnable sections. They’d mapped a 3.1 Mile (5K) loop that we would run laps on for the first 7 hours and 15 minutes, then we’d switch over to a separate 1 Mile loop for the last 45 minutes. I felt like I could get to 40 miles, at least and if thing went really well, maybe even as many as 45 before the 8-Hour cutoff.
Mother Nature had other plans. Central Illinois got even more rain the week before the race, than Central Indiana had the previous week before Gnaw Bone. Long sections of the loop course were, literally, transformed into a swamp. A quarter-mile of fire road was drowned under 3 and 4 inches of standing water. And perhaps as much as 1/3rd or half of the course was caked in slick, deep, shoe-sucking, dark-chocolate mud. It didn’t rain on race day, though. Instead, there were blue skies, and the temps started in the night 60s and climbed all day during the race into the mid 80s. Down in the low sections of the course, around all the standing water, it was sticky and humid. Luckily, most of the course was tree-shaded, or the soaring heat would have been a real problem.
After just the first hour, the fragile, muddy course had been chewed up so badly that any semblance of rapid forward motion was difficult. I was especially worried about the chance that I would start up one of the many gooey inclines (or declines) and my feet would skid out from underneath and the rest of me would crash hard to the ground. The only real running injury I’ve ever had was a fall I took where I banged up my knee so badly that I couldn’t run for several weeks. A duplicate of that event could take me out of the SD100 before I even got on the plane to California.
It’s hard to explain how much extra energy gets sucked out of you when running in that kind of mud. Much like snow (and maybe sand), with no solid ground to push off of, no step you take given you the forward propulsion you are used to. You do the same amount of work and get less result. It’s more than that, though, because the ground you’re on is not stable. Your feet can spend as much time sliding sideways and backwards as they do pushing you forwards. That forces you to engage the balancing muscles in your legs hips and torso in a way you are unaccustomed to. It all amounts to a lot of wasted energy and a frustrating day.
By the time I got to my 5th and 6th loop, I was beginning to wonder if it was worth it to continue. I could just push out a few more gentle loops and nudge my total up over 27 miles. Then I could technically claim the race as an “Ultra” (being over the standard 26.2 mile distance) and call it a day, stopping to hang out at the staging area to cheer on the folks still out on the course. Sure, I could do that. I didn’t have to run all 8 hours. You don’t get a DNF at a timed event so long as you run at least a mile, you just get a measly mile total for the day. And it was just a training run – did I feel trained? Sure, why not.
After the 6th loop, though, something shifted. First of all, I plundered my little mini-cooler and drank a full bottle of Ensure. I also changed my socks (a futile battle to stave off the mud, but I was doing it every 3 loops anyway). And then, somehow, I bounced back. I felt a little zippy again. The rising heat stopped bothering me. The mud on the course finally seemed like it was starting to dry up just a little. And I know that bottle of Ensure had a lot to do with it (I should have had one sooner).
And I was running again. I found a rhythm and settled in. The mud was still there to work its voodoo, but it bothered me less. And I started to think, “Nah, I don’t need to drop out early, I can just keep going.”
I decided I could get 3 more laps in (for a totally of 9) before the switch to the 1-mile track for the final 45 minutes, and then I might be able to knock out 3 little loops to put me right at 31 miles for the day. That would be a 50K – easily my slowest 50K ever – but still, a respectable, attainable goal under the circumstances. I ruined that plan though, by running the next 3 laps so quickly that after my 9th lap there was still 90 minutes left in the race and I had to go out of the 5K loop one more time to start my 10th loop! Believe me, it was a little teeny-tiny miracle.
I came around to finish Loop 10 with about 25 minutes left in the race. You only got credit for each full 1-mile loop you ran at the end, and I didn’t think I had quite enough energy left to run 2 more full miles on that course in just 25 minutes, so I walked just 1 more mile as a little, personal victory lap and called it a day 6 minutes before the final whistle blew at 4pm. I eeked out 32 miles (eek!) and I was satisfied.
I must say: Adam and Mike were AWESOME. After the end of my first 3 or 4 loops, Adam came over to personally check on how I was doing and to jog with me back out of the aid station to the entrance of the course again. Later in the day, when I was taking longer breaks at the aid station, Mike came over to chat, say Hello and see how I was doing (both in the race and the world at large). It might seem like a silly thing to say, but both Mike and Adam are big brawny guys and when a man like that give you a big handshake and claps you on the shoulder it goes just a little bit further towards making you feel like you can do it and you’ll be fine. They were great hosts and at the end of the day it really seemed like everyone had a good time.
It’s always a good lesson to be reminded of: whatever your expectations, you just have to run that course on that day. I ran the slowest 32 miles of my life and felt damn good about it. The same thing happened at the Chicago Marathon in ’07, and there have been – and will be – others.
The last note I need to mention about the C.R.U.D. is the response I got from my running attire. I made myself a shirt before my (failed) attempt at the Burning River 100 Mile last summer. I bought a yellow technical shirt and, with a Sharpie, carefully printed on the front: “I AM NOT TALENTED, BUT I AM STUBBORN”. It was a phrase I thought of that just stuck with me and resonated on many levels. I saved the shirt for late in the BR100 when I needed inspiration. Not many people saw it then, and I haven’t run with it since. I thought it deserved another special occasion. I pulled it out for the 8-Hour and people were talking about it all day long. There are a few “fast” people who run Ultras, but the majority of us are plodders, doing it for fun, and a lot of those folks could identify with my shirt. Somebody asked me where I bought it, another asked if I minded if he “stole” the idea and made one for himself (just talk about me when someone asked about it, I told him with a wink), and many more made it a point to mention it to me. I’ve never been a put-your-name-on-your-shirt kind of marathoner, but it was kind of fun how much attention my yellow shirt got.
SO ANYWAY: That’s where I’ve been lately…