Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Rouge-Orleans - 2012

The Rouge-Orleans ultramarathon is a 126.2 mile race from Baton Rouge, Louisiana to New Orleans.  It’s run entirely (with the exception of about 1 total mile) on the levee on the east bank of the Mississippi -- which means it’s flat and there isn’t a whole lot of scenery.  The race was about half 2, 3, or 6-person teams and half solo runners.  Because my mother dropped me on my squishy little head as a child I was in the latter category.  The organizers (organizer?  I assume there was more than one person but it sure seemed like race director Jeff was doing everything) were hoping to have everyone finish within a 3-hour window on Sunday afternoon, so there were various wave starts and mine was at 8pm on Friday night.  I say they were hoping to have everyone finish in a 3 hour window in much the same way that I’m hoping to win the lottery or have Scarlett Johansson show up at my door and ask me out on a date.
A little pre-race beer before my 126.2 miles.

The race started with a bang, and not your typical cap gun or bull-horn sort of bang.  We were all standing next to the U.S.S. Kidd Battleship and they fired a cannon to start the race.  
If you’ve never been right next to a battleship cannon when it goes off it’s very similar to what I assume it would feel like to swallow a stick of dynamite and have it go off in your chest, while simultaneously having one go off in each ear.  I’m pretty sure it cracked a rib or 2.  So off we went with a new-found respect for U.S. Naval might and little less hearing.  It had been relatively warm and rainy all day Friday, and while the rain had stopped before the race start, it had left us with 100% humidity.  The first few miles were paved and fairly urban, which kept it from getting too foggy, so the going was pretty easy and I almost ran by my one and only crew member, Jen, because I didn’t even realize that 4 miles had passed.  Jen was going to be there at the first relay exchange in case I forgot anything or needed to shed some clothing and then she was going to head off to sleep for as much of the first night as she could since I wouldn’t need a lot of help for those early miles.

I was by myself for a while but once we got off the pavement and onto the gravel (more on the hell that turned out to be later) the fog got so thick I couldn’t see more than a couple feet in any direction.  Between the fog, the darkness, the remoteness, and the sound of the ravenous, man-eating cows it was really spooky out there.  It’s possible the cows were not in fact of the man-eating variety and it’s also possible that those glowing red devil eyes were really just tail lights on the other runners ahead of me but in the general spookiness of it I wasn’t taking any chances so I joined up with a couple of other runners.  I was with them though the only “technical” section of the trail which we got to around mile 10.  No one warned us about this but there were sandbags on top of the levee which meant we had to run on the side of the levee which was at about a 30 degree angle (I honestly intended to do some research and find out the actual angle they use but the only resource I found was a 250 page academic study and that seemed like it would be a lot of work to read so I just made something up).  Which, coincidentally, is the exactly optimal angle to destroy the hips and ankles of homo sapiens.  Somewhere in this roughly 6-mile section we missed what should have been an unmanned aid station.  Of course, we didn’t miss it because you’d have to be as blind as a turnip to miss anything in that vast sea of nothingness, it just wasn’t there. One of the other people I was running with and I were getting a bit worried because we had been drinking quite a bit and were almost out of water with no prospect of more until the first real aid station at mile 28.  This was at about 16 miles, and 12 more miles at the pace we were going meant about another 2 and a half hours which is a long time to go without water.  Thankfully, just as it was going to be a problem race director Jeff drove up and got us refilled and apologized for not getting the aid in place in time for us.  We even got to hand the water jugs back and forth across an electric fence just to add a little spice to the evening.

We continued on doing the run 20 minutes/walk 5 minutes pace we had been doing the entire race so far.  I was able to keep that up for the first 4 hours when I started to feel a bit tired and dropped down to a run 15/walk 5 pace.  It worked out well for me though because I was walking much faster by myself than I was with them.  So much so that I actually didn’t really drop very far behind them.  Before too long I had caught up with one of the guys who was dropping off the pace set by the other who was hoping to run at a ridiculously brisk 11 minute pace.  The guy I caught -- tastefully named Mike -- and I plowed ahead to the first aid station (28 miles) where we got some hot soup and were inexplicably weighed for the only time in the entire race.  In case anyone was wondering I checked in at 197lbs fully clothed and soaking wet.

Possibly a dramatization of the wind, but that's what it felt like.

From that aid station we had a few miles to go before we got to the haunted former leper colony.  I’m fairly certain it was, in fact, haunted because it had been warm and humid until we got there and as we were coming around the bend in the river that contained the former leper colony the temperature dropped about 30 degrees and the wind started howling.  I’m sure I remember from The Exorcist that demons like it cold.  Anyway, regardless of whether the cold and wind were caused by a cold front moving in or by something supernatural we still had a little less than a hundred miles to go.  Thankfully this was also the time that Jen came out to meet me so I was comforted by the fact that she could provide me more clothing and hot tea if I needed and before too long I did... desperately.  After about 2 or 3 hours the temperature had dropped to the 30’s and with the wind it felt so much colder than that.  Between the cold and the lack of sleep I was really starting to suffer.  Due to the lack of sleep and the beginnings of hypothermia I was starting to get really confused and sluggish.  I started to basically fall asleep on my feet so at around 40 miles I finally gave up and got into the car for a quick nap while Jen dutifully stayed awake and watched the clock to make sure I didn’t sleep more than 15 minutes.  You’d think the Crowne Victoria we had rented would have a cavernous backseat to easily accommodate a sleeping person (after all, that’s what cops drive and they have all sorts of drunks sleeping in the back) but you’d be wrong.  All the space was in the front seats, so lying in the back seat was pretty uncomfortable and I didn’t sleep very well.  But I did pick up a wind jacket and some warm pants after my nap so I was at least a lot warmer when I got back onto the course.  

And back out onto the course and into the ice-cold wind I went.  Luckily dawn was quickly approaching and that would mean warmer temperatures and some distracting views of the Mississippi... right?  Sadly, no: to one side was the mighty Mississippi river, which is a really big river but not a particularly interesting or scenic one, and on the other a few houses and a lot of chemical plants and oil refineries.  So dawn brought with it slightly warmer temperatures, no relief from the arctic gale, and the sad realization that I was going to spend the rest of the daylight hours wishing I had picked a race along the beautiful Colorado, or even the Ohio River.  There really isn’t much to be said about the daylight hours of Saturday.  I ran, I walked, I ate, I listened to a Dave Barry book on my MP3 player, I even cried at one point when Dave Barry was talking about colonoscopies.  I’m going to chalk that up to my somewhat fragile emotional state and not any particular affinity I have for getting screened for colon cancer.  Thankfully the crying stopped before Jen came bouncing up the trail to jog with me for a little bit -- I don’t think we know each other well enough to let her see me crying, so no inviting her over to watch sports movies (although, later in the race she did give me baby wipes, a rubber glove, and a tub of Vaseline so I’m not sure how we could really get to know each other any better than that).  About the most interesting thing along the course that day was a really nice park at the Manresa House of Retreats.  At the time several of us noticed that there were a bunch of very strange men just sort of standing around on the levee and in the park with very distant expressions.  Some google sleuthing once I returned home cleared things up a bit.  Apparently these were Jesuits who had removed themselves from the bustle of everyday life to hear messages from God.  I prefer the idea that was floated sometime later about the men being alien abductees, which has a little more flash to it.

The aid station around 54 miles.

More miles, more wind, more cold, more time in my head to ponder the deeper mysteries of life like, why does giving yourself a foot massage not feel nearly as good as when someone else does it.  Back in the race Jen seemed to have found a friend to hang out with.  Apparently this girl’s runner was just a little behind me for a large portion of the race but I never saw him once.  Seriously, it was so boring out there I was living vicariously though my crew and anyone who’s crewed for an ultra can tell you that it’s not exactly as exciting as a night out with Charlie Sheen.  But at least Jen had someone to talk to.  

At the aid station around mile 80 I finally broke down and changed my clothes.  I think up until then Jen thought that crewing for an ultra was going to be fairly easy, until I handed her the shirt I had been wearing for the last 80 miles and 24 hours and asked her to take the number off it. Shit got real.  With nary a complaint though, she took the shirt and helped me pin my number on some warmer clothes.  It had been pretty cold in the wind for the entire day but the forecast was for temperatures in the 20’s overnight so I started layering on the clothes since it was getting pretty close to dark.  I left the aid station with a group of three guys who started together and who would run the entire race together.  With some new clothes and actual people to talk to I was feeling really good and we moved along pretty well.  Mostly walking, but still at a pretty good clip so the miles felt like they went by much faster than they had been.  None of these guys had run more than 50 miles before so it fell to me to convince them that as long as they were moving forward at this point they were doing really well.  Nobody feels good and very few people are running for long stretches at that point so just getting one foot in front of the other is a major accomplishment.  

Around mile 100 we crossed the spillway which was about a mile wide, low section of I have no idea what (it was really dark at that point).  According to the guys I was with (who were all from Louisiana) the spillway connects the Mississippi to Lake Pontchartrain and when the river gets too high they open the floodgates and let the river drain into the lake, which is connected to the gulf.  I was also told that they had opened the spillway the previous year for the first time since 1973.  
Of course there was also the expected gallows humor about how possible it was going to be for us to run fast if we saw the red lights that indicated they were opening the spillway again, which would have washed us away in a fairly biblical flood.  At the far end of the spillway we decided to call it 100 miles, which was a first for the guys I was with and a new 100-mile personal record for me.  I celebrated the accomplishment by sitting down on the pavement and knocking some pebbles out of my shoes, not exactly Cristal and dancing girls but at the time rock-free shoes were a real treat.

With 100 miles complete we now only had the most excruciating marathon of our lives left (amazingly this would not be the slowest marathon of my life -- that honor belongs to the Jay Mountain Marathon in Vermont).  I had been looking forward to mile 100 because I was told that at that point we would be off the gravel for good.  By now the only thing that was really bothering me other than the #$&@% wind was the bottoms of my feet.  I didn’t have any blisters but after 100 miles of rocks my feet were thoroughly tenderized and every step was pretty much like stepping on an exposed nerve.  So the pavement I was promised after mile 100 was going to be a very welcome relief.  Unfortunately, after a nice paved section through the spillway and for a couple hundred yards after, we were back on the cursed gravel for a few more miles.  It doesn’t sound like much but at that point we were moving pretty slow and a few miles takes about an hour.  Around now the wind, which had been a major problem all day, became an almost insurmountable obstacle.  I had enough clothes to keep almost all of me warm but, like an absolute fool, I had taken my buff out of my bag before I left because I figured I wouldn’t need it.  I had dragged that tiny, lightweight scrap of fabric with me to every single run I did this winter just in case, so why would I bring it to this epic event?  What kind of wuss needs a warm face anyway?  Turns out this kind of wuss does and he didn’t have a warm face which was very upsetting.  Thankfully I had an extra wool hat with me so at mile 102 I got Jen to cut the top off of it so I could pull it down over my face.  It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I probably would not have finished the race if it wasn’t for that hat.  I could have kissed Jen for getting it together for me if she hadn’t mentioned finding her pepper spray a couple of weeks ago.  Probably best not to chance it even though pepper spray probably wouldn’t have made things that much worse.

Covered pretty much from head to toe at this point I tried to just keep powering through the miles without much stopping.  I left the guys I had been with once the pavement started because walking was causing me more pain than running and I don’t think they were too enthusiastic about running.  I stopped again for a brief nap at the aid station at 106 because I was falling asleep on my feet again.  After that I didn’t stop once for the about the next 15 miles except to get my phone out and text my Mom to tell her that I only had about 10 miles to go so I was going to be fine come hell or high water (the latter being much more likely since I was, after all, next to a river.  Also I’m fairly sure that spillway was, in fact, the gate to hell so I had been there for quite some time and it hadn’t stopped me so far).  After my last stop at 106 Jen had started driving to the next relay exchange and then running back to meet me which became a bit of a contest for me.  After she would drive away from the exchange I would run as much as I could manage so I could try and surprise her with how far I had managed to go before she got back to me.  I’m fairly certain I failed to surprise her at any point.  But at least it gave me something to do and it was nice to have someone to keep me pushing forward.  

There were 30 legs in the race and leg 28 was one of the longer ones and probably was one of the worst for me.  I had been pushing through the last few exchanges and hadn’t sat down for a while so my feet were screaming.  To make matters worse Jen had some trouble with parking at the next exchange and then had been scared by someone in the dark on the side of the levee so when she caught up to me she was not in the best of moods.  Although, to be fair, I had slept more in the last 24 hours than she had, and she wasn't even getting anything out of this, so she was in far better spirits than I had any right to expect.  Still, the lack of sleep was obviously getting to her, so at the next exchange we both closed our eyes for about 10 minutes which helped her mood considerably and energized me enough to get through the last 7 miles.  The next leg was only 2.5 miles and I wanted to cover at least half of it before Jen came bouncing up the path toward me and I think I actually succeeded this time.  And before I knew it we were at the final exchange with only “4.4” miles to go to the finish.  So with a hug from my stalwart crew I set out to run as much of the last leg as I could.  I didn’t care so much if I got sweaty in all my warm clothes at this point because I knew I wouldn’t need to wear them for much longer so I ran almost the entire leg.  After what seemed like 10 miles I finally turned off the levee for what I knew was going to be a short hop to the finish.  A couple of blocks down there it was, the finish, and I’d be there in mere moments.  There’s Jen to congratulate me and there to my left, only a couple hundred yards away, is the finish line.  But what’s this? The sign says to go straight instead of turning left for what I can very clearly see is the finish line?  I run up to where Jen is standing and she says “you have to run around the park” with a look of pity usually reserved for someone about to be drawn and quartered.  It’s possible at this point I may have muttered a few expletives and even hurled a curse or two at the race director Jeff.  Regardless of my feelings about it I did my loop around the park and finally crossed the finish line in 34 hours and 55 minutes officially, good enough for 10th place among the 25 solo finishers (51 started).  
Jen made me go back across the finish line for this photo.
The finish line was a fairly sedate affair at this hour since most people were supposed to finish around lunch time and it was 7 am when I got there, but Jen was there, as she had been all day and night, to cheer me in to the finish.  Race director Jeff was also there (his face had not melted off so my curses had clearly not had the desired effect) to give me a giant piece of metal that I assumed was a boat anchor but was informed was, in fact, a belt buckle.  Swag in hand we were off to eat and sleep and sleep and eat and sleep as much as possible.  At dinner Sunday night the wait staff somehow noticed that I was feeling less than spry and asked what was wrong and were so amazed when I told them that I had run there from Baton Rouge that they gave us two free desserts, one of which even had a chocolate-sauce runner with a blackberry for a head.  

There was also some bread pudding that did not have any decorative chocolate sauce.

I feel, in wrapping up this narrative, that I should mention a bit about recovery for any aspiring ultra runners who may be reading this.  On Monday Jen and I went on two walking tours and then drank very heavily on Bourbon St.  That is possibly not the best choice for post-race recovery.  But really, who cares, you’re done so celebrate away.  And it was a fun day and really a lot of fun for the entire weekend, except when it wasn’t.  Thanks to race director Jeff for organizing such an epic event seemingly by himself.  And special thanks to Jen for being such an amazing crew.  Crewing for a race like this would have been a monumental challenge in good conditions with help.  She managed to do it all by herself in terrible conditions so we should both be proud that we got me to the finish.

West Virginia Trilogy - 2011

The West Virginia Trilogy is a 3-day trail race with distances of 50K, 50 miles, and a half marathon for the respective days.  The individual races start and end at The Mountain Institute (TMI), an outdoor education place situated at half way up to Spruce Knob (the highest point in WV).  You can sign up for just one or two of the races but I can’t imagine why anyone would want to only half destroy themselves when they have a perfect opportunity to finish the job.  I signed up for all three of course: not only do you get a nicer t-shirt but you also get some extra blisters at no extra charge!  It really is a terrific weekend though.  TMI is a beautiful place, the trails provide amazing scenery, all the people involved are incredibly friendly (especially the staff at TMI who were all cheerful despite the mess of zombie-like runners picking over the place like locusts) and there’s free beer!  For my part I drank a lot less beer this year which could explain why I didn’t finish last year but did this year, despite the more challenging course.  Last year I also had no idea what I was in for.  I had done multi-day races but I’d never tried to run trails like this.  This race is hard, like getting Lindsay Lohan into rehab kind of hard.  The distances alone would make it a stiff challenge but the technical terrain, complete with plenty of stream crossings, and the merciless hills make this a uniquely difficult race.

Despite the difficulty I would be facing I packed up the camping gear and with my trusty crew ( my girlfriend Shauna) I set off to erase the shame of my DNF from last year.  Things were not off to a promising start when we arrived at TMI both very carsick.  Nonetheless, the tent was set up, dinner was eaten and registration was completed.  Shauna, who would not actually be crewing for me this year since there are so few crew stops it makes a crew pretty much useless, got to sit in on a long volunteer meeting while I got the rest of the camping gear set up.  After a small sample of the free beer it was off to bed to get ready for the 7AM start the next morning.

Day 1 - 50K

One thing to note about the weather was that it was going to be very warm during the day (highs in the upper 70’s) and very cold at night (lows in the low 40’s) so any of my readers who are familiar with the workings of tents and humidity know that makes for a very moist tent.  I was up like a shot though, and off for breakfast and a quick shower before the start.  All three races start with a loop around the meadow in which TMI is located and with the tall grass and dewy morning that meant wet feet from the word go.  Nothing too terrible yet though.  There were lots of downhills and uphills and even some confused looking cows.  I think confused is just the currently fashionable look among cows and not any sort of reaction to a bunch of ultra marathoners jogging through their field.  Everything was going smoothly when I arrived at the first aid station which was manned by Adam and Dan, the race organizers.  Adam warned me that the fields of Goldenrod I was about to run through was sort of bent down over the trail due to recent snows so I could expect lots of scratches on my calves.  Thankfully I had on calf sleeves so I wasn’t too worried.  And the bent-over Goldenrod wasn’t really much of an issue, not nearly as much as the constant shoe-sucking mud.  But I made it through and arrived at the 11 mile aid station with just some muddy wet feet but otherwise in good spirits.  

This is what the trail looked like with all those downed trees.

Let me just take a moment here to say that while I honestly believe having run the race last year helped me quite a bit, there were times when it was not such a blessing.  One of those times was after that 11 mile aid station because I knew the longest, nastiest hill was right around the corner.  It took 30 minutes to get what probably amounts to a single mile up that hill.  It’s relentlessly steep and long.  I had to stop several times to stretch my hamstrings and lower back because the constant uphill was more than they could take.  My lower back would be a source of discomfort for pretty much the rest of the race when I was going up hills.  But I made it to the top and then back down in a river valley again where we made our first stop at the Judy Springs (16.9 miles) aid station.  The wonderful people who man that aid station had to pack in all the food and drinks (except water) on horses so a big thanks to them for going well above and beyond the normal race volunteer level of effort.  From that aid station it was a big loop going uphill (very steep of course), along a ridge, back down a very steep hill (I’m just going to stop mentioning that the hills are steep, there’s only one kind of hill in this race and it’s the steep kind, if it’s not steep it no longer qualifies as a hill), and back along the river with the obligatory crossings to help with the free blisters I noted above.  Leaving the Judy Springs aid station for the second time (22.6 miles) we crossed over the river one last time and heading up the mountain on the other side of the valley.  This mountain had a meadow which, when you stopped - and you had to stop because you had run a long way and it was really steep and warm and without the trees the sun was beating down on you - you could look across the valley and get the most spectacular view of the valley and mountains on the other side.  It reminds me why I actually enjoyed this race.  At the top of the meadow there’s a nice long, relatively flat section of trail that would been easy if not for all the mud and downed trees caused by the previous weekend’s snowstorms.  Some of the downed trees were kind enough to fall with their trunks across the path so it was easy to step over them.  The less considerate trees fell with the crowns across the path which left you with the choice of bushwhacking on a very steep slope or just fighting your way through those branches.  In many cases you didn’t have a choice so you just marched on through.  By the end everyone looked as though they had spent the weekend with evil, Westboro Baptist chuch kind of ferrets in their sleeping bags.  But after a few miles of that it was out onto the road to the last aid station (27.7 miles) and then a relatively easy bit of running, with only one steep hill, to get to the finish.  

Last year I finished the first day in about 7 hours and 15 minutes and I felt reasonably good.  This year I finished in 7 hours and 52 minutes and I felt like I had been run over by a train.  Things were not looking good for the next day when I would have to run 50 miles over a lot of the same course.  Perhaps because I felt so horrible I was very diligent about my recovery drink and re-hydrating before I had my one and only beer for the night.  But it was only 3PM when I finished so I had lots of time to recover and get ready.  I’d like to say I spent that time stretching and preparing myself mentally for the day ahead but that would be a lie.  Instead I sat in a chair and moaned about how hard the race was while downing about two thirds of a bag of Doritos.  The Doritos weren’t really my fault though since I was starving and dinner wasn’t until sometime after 6.  What was I supposed to do, moan about how hard the race was and about how hungry I was?  But eventually dinner did come around and afterwards there was a brief meeting about the next day’s race then off to bed for a very early night.

Day 2 - 50 miles

The alarm went off at 4:30AM and my stalwart crew member Shauna smacked me to wake me up since I had ear plugs in and couldn’t have heard a jet land next to the tent.  Instead of shooting out of bed like I had the day before I laid there and whined about wanting to quit.  To her credit Shauna did her best to be encouraging when I’m sure all she really wanted to do was go back to sleep.  Eventually I dragged myself out of bed to get some breakfast and tea in the hope that a little caffeine would get me moving.  No such luck there.  But, despite genuinely not wanting to start the day, I managed to get myself ready to race again.  I was cold, stiff, tired, and sore all over so I honestly wanted to quit.  That sort of thought is always there in the back of my mind during events like these so I know if I just keep going I’ll feel better about things.  It wasn’t until about 5 miles into the race that I finally stopped wanting to drop out.  But that’s getting ahead of myself.

The race started at 6AM under an amazing array of stars.  You really can forget just how many stars are in the sky when you live in an urban area.  I didn’t get much time to admire it though since I managed to get out to the start about 30 seconds before we actually left.  That was a lot better than many of the runners who were late.  But off we all went through most of the same loop we started with the day before except this time we turned off and headed up to the top of Spruce Knob.  There were several miles of wet grass before we got to the road that led to the top.  I really enjoyed the road section since there was about a quarter of a mile that was downhill and I was able to really let my legs go and run.  It was a fantastic feeling and really woke me up and made me stop wanting to drop out.  I was still cold and tired and sore but at least I was now slightly less stiff.  It was chilly up there at the top though, being at the highest point means lots of wind and and all my clothes were slightly damp from the condensation in the tent.  But the views up there were stunning.  All misty valleys and mountains covered with red and gold trees.  I won’t even try to describe the sunrise because I can’t do it justice.  All good things must come to an end though, and this was no exception.  We arrived at the top to find Adam and Dan once again manning the first aid station (6.9 miles).  

Off went the headlamps and down went the runners.  It was a long, slow, rocky downhill from there.  Last year I accidentally kicked one of those rocks hard enough that my big toenail eventually came off.  I was a little more careful this year and managed to get through this section with no injuries.  I even joined onto a little caravan of Mark, Darcy, and Angie, which was nice because that was the only part of the day when I had company.  We made really good time along the ridge from the top of Spruce Knob until we dropped down from the ridge to a lower trail.  In fact, I’m fairly certain it was the same muddy, downed-tree covered trail from yesterday, just a different and, if possible, muddier and more tree covered section.  The going got slow here.  Slow and muddy.  Eventually, after climbing through lots of downed trees and sliding through lots of mud we got back to the same meadow we had run up the day before; this time though, we were going down so there was a lot less time to appreciate the scenery.  At the bottom we were once again at the Judy Springs (16.1 miles) aid station.  The next section was back along the river with the same crossings to wash all the mud off our feet.  We were once again making good time until we got to another hill.  Uphill was more of the same since we had already been down this hill the day before...and although Darcy did hear something growling at her from beneath a downed tree, nothing attacked.  

At the top of the hill was a section that was 5 miles of almost constant downed trees.  5 miles of bushwhacking.  5 miles of quad-pounding downhills...at the end of which we get to stop at an aid station and then do it all over again in the other direction.  It was described as soul-sucking by last year’s winner but I would say that doesn’t really do it justice.  If you can imagine what it would be like to have someone spend an hour taking a belt sander to your feet and all the while having Celine Dion blasted into your ears you would have some idea of what this section was like.  The trail though much of it is faint on the best of days.  With all the downed trees it was non-existent.  You’d be moving along and come upon a downed tree so naturally you’d try and go around.  And then you’d try and go around the one immediately behind it, and then the one behind that.  Eventually you’d run out of downed trees but you’d have bushwhacked so far off the trail that you couldn’t find it anymore.  It did end though and Darcy, Mark, and I made it to the halfway(ish) aid station (24.9).  That would be the last time I would see either of them until we were all finished because Darcy, knowing she was now in a good position to win the Trilogy, took off and Mark slowed down.  I would actually spend the rest of the race from this point by myself.  I passed one person and was passed again by that same person much later but he was the only other runner I saw on the course for the rest of the day.

There really isn’t much to say about the horror of going back over that same section of trail (which was mostly downhill the first time so you can figure out which direction it was the second time) that I haven’t already said so I will leave it at the only real observation I actually made while I was there.  Despite the pain, it seemed a lot shorter going up than it did going down.  Once I finished that section there were a couple of very runnable miles to get to the Horton aid station (33.6).  The Horton aid station was the first cut-off for the day but I was a little over half an hour ahead of the cut-off when I arrived -- a significant step up from last year when I was half an hour late.  But I really wondered to myself, while I was charging downhill to get there, “why am I hurrying?”  If I had taken my time they would have made me stop and I could have gone back to camp to start drinking.  I wouldn’t even have had to get up the next morning to run since I would have been a DNF anyway.  But hurry I did and once there I filled up on soup and other goodies before setting out for the first section of the course that would be new to me.  

The novelty wore off quickly once I started on what felt like 3 straight miles uphill.  It wasn’t particularly steep and the trail was mercifully clear, but it was long.  I had made it past the first cut-off but there was a second one at 46.2 miles and I was worried because I knew I wasn’t going to get any faster.  So on my way up this hill I put my exhausted mind to the task of figuring out what sort of pace I needed to keep in order to make that second cut-off.  In normal life my math skills are rarely tested by anything more extreme than figuring out the tip after a few drinks.  I get lots of practice at that sort of thing though, so the old melon has figured out a simple system for that.  Not so with figuring out pace.  And after 2 days and more than 60 miles my brain was just not up to the task.  So I figured.  And I figured again.  Then I figured some more and still got nowhere.  Having gotten nowhere I started worrying.  I was going to be damned if I would fail after having come this far.  So I hurried.  I had been told the previous year that the course got easier after our second trip through the Judy Springs aid station (40.5 miles) and I hoped that was true -- I was pushing myself hard to get up the mountain and then back down, and if the course didn’t ease up on me it was going to break me.  I arrived at Judy Springs for the second time in sort of a daze.  My brain had pretty much given up on me and for some reason it had gotten the idea stuck in it that there was going to be more than 7 miles to go to the next aid station. But when Dennis said it was only 5.7 miles to the next aid station, the clouds parted, a heavenly light shone down upon me, and a choir of angels sang out.  I was dumbfounded.  This was possibly the best piece of news I had ever heard in my life.  It may not sound like much to those of you who don’t do this sort of thing but to me it was like I was instantly transported a mile and a half down the course and given a drink of ambrosia.  I was going to make it.  Barring some serious injury I was home free.  Sure I still had to drag my tired ass another 10 miles.  And sure, I had to run a half marathon the next morning.  But that was just details; the hard part was behind me.  You could throw in the 12 labors of Hercules too if you wanted -- I could handle anything you could throw at me.

I’d like to say that this feeling of invincibility carried me for the next few hours to the finish but that would be lying.  In truth it got me about 100 feet down the trail before I fell back to earth.  But it didn’t matter anymore because I could handle the lows now.  I would even repeat the cycle of exultation at the next aid station when I found out it was only 3.8 miles to the end.  Wow, I thought it was 6, cue the angels please.  In my experience that’s really the hard part of running ultras.  The euphoric highs are easy to deal with but I’ve never been so low in my life as I get at some points during these races.  And climbing out of those lows is like climbing out of the deepest blackest pits of hell.  It’s always hard to see that out even exists when you’re down like that but I’ve always made it out so far.

There isn’t much to say about the rest of the 50 miler except that it did in fact get easier after Judy Springs.  At the final aid station (46.2 miles) I finally saw Shauna who stuffed some food in me and then kicked me out without even letting me sit down.  One of the race organizers (Adam) was also there and he told it me was just 3.8 easy miles to the finish.  But while Adam and I both speak English, we speak an entirely different language.  He says the the hills on the course aren’t that steep and that the trails aren’t that technical which means something very different in his version of English than it does in mine.  So when he says 3.8 easy miles I assume he means 3.8 miles that would make a Mossad agent cry like a little girl who lost her My Little Pony.  But it was actually pretty easy other than having to climb over some barbed wire.  

So I had finished the 50 miler which meant I had pretty much finished the race.  For those of us in the back of the pack the half marathon the next day was going to be more of a long victory lap than any kind of race.  But before I got to that I needed to get a shower and some food.  Dinner that night was lasagna, which I can’t stand, but I had 2 helpings anyway while the last of the runners came in.  I would have liked to have hobbled down to the finish to cheer them on but the hypothermia that often accompanies these sorts of things was setting in and I decided to stay inside.  I was shaking pretty bad and could barely drink which I’m sure was worrying Shauna quite a bit. But I wasn’t worried because it has happened before and I knew I just needed to keep going with my recovery and I would be fine.  We had a brief post-50 miler/pre-half marathon race meeting and then it was off to bed for what was likely to be a very uncomfortable night.  At least I would get to sleep in.

Day 3 - 13.1 miles

The half marathon didn’t start until 9am and, despite the pain in my hips, I took full advantage of the extra sleep.  I felt bad for Shauna because I had woken up twice during the night to pee and having me towering unsteadily over her as I tried to exit the tent must have scared her half to death.  But I managed to not topple over onto her and we made it through the night with no mishaps.  And after much grunting and groaning (not that kind of grunting and groaning, get your mind out of the gutter) we were up, breakfasted, and eventually standing at the starting line for the race.  Shauna was participating in the half marathon with me and, despite my repeated attempts to get her to run on ahead so I could take it easy, she stayed with me the entire way.

The course for the half marathon started out the same as the previous 2 days, with a big loop around the TMI grounds before heading down the mountain for 2 out and backs and then back up the mountain to the finish.  The out and backs were nice because we got to see most of the race as they passed us coming the other way.  We were very near the back so if it hadn’t been for the out and back we wouldn’t have seen much of anyone.  The first out and back was pretty short and I, thinking that the two sections were pretty equal for some inexplicable reason, thought that we were going to be through this race in no time, but the second out and back was much longer and included a lot of uphill.  It was fairly easy, though, since a good portion was on the road.  When we got to the turnaround for the second out and back we were at the end of a very long uphill on the road.  So when we turned around and started running down the hill I just flew.  Maybe flew isn’t really the right term since it implies some sort of grace.  Really I just fell down the hill but without ending up in a heap.

When I got to the bottom of that section of hill I stopped to let Shauna catch up...or, actually, I stopped in order to start heaving.  I wasn’t actually throwing up, but my stomach, which had not been happy since day 1, was in a full on revolt at this point, which would really hit me on the way up the final hill to the end.  But I managed to keep everything down and make it up the final climb and then on to the finish.  I even took off running at the end to get in at about 2 hours and 45 minutes which was a much more respectable time than I had any right to expect.

So I had actually finished the West Virginia Trilogy and avenged my DNF from the year before. But I didn’t feel nearly as triumphant as I thought I would.  Honestly I just felt really tired and sore.  I wanted to go home and take a good shower and sleep in my warm bed that didn’t have condensation dripping onto it.  But the folks at TMI had been roasting a pig and we weren’t about to leave before we got to tuck into that.  So we put off packing up the tent for a little while and ate.  There was also an awards ceremony where they got all 15 Trilogy finishers up there for our finisher awards (nice pottery mugs, definitely the best finisher award I’ve ever gotten).  I really appreciated that acknowledgement because I definitely feel that just finishing this race is an achievement worth noting.  I always say that finishing is winning for me but in this case it really felt like I had won.  Thank you Adam and Dan for that, it’s not a feeling I’ll ever forget.

Burning River 100 - 2011

The Burning River 100 is a trail race in lovely Cleveland Ohio (my home town) in July.  What many people don’t know about Cleveland is that in July it gets really hot and humid.  Most people think that since Cleveland is so far north it must be relatively cool there, and for 11 months out of the year it is, in fact, somewhere between cool and bone chilling cold.  Sadly the race wasn’t in any of those 11 months, it was in the one really hot month of the year.  So race day dawned, or rather would dawn about an hour after the race started, with 70 degree temps and 100 percent humidity.  It’s really easy to tell when you’ve got 100 percent humidity because you can actually see it right there in front of you.  There we were at Squires Castle, a place I’ve always found creepy (probably because of those childhood stories about someone hanging themselves there), in an eerie mist, ready to begin a jolly 100 mile romp through the trails of Northeast Ohio.  Another misconception most people have about Northern Ohio, myself included, is that it’s very flat.  After having spent the first 25 years of my life in the region I thought I had a good handle on the terrain there.  Long story short I was wrong, but I’ll get to that later.
The first 9 miles of the course were on roads so it wasn’t too much of an issue that visibility was awful.  My plan was to run as much of the first 20 miles as possible before it got too hot.  Then when the heat started I could spend more time walking to keep from overheating myself.  Not much of interest happened on those first road miles except that I caught up to my old Saturday run friend Jordan who has since moved to Charleston, SC.  So we got to catch up for a while until about mile 16 when my digestive system started complaining and forced me to do some walking to avoid an unpleasant accident.  At the 18.6 mile aid station my crew greeted me with my text requested baby wipes (I was making a beeline for the toilets and didn’t want to hunt around in my bag for them) and also some bacon (that came after the bathroom break).  After this I was ready to go and feeling a whole lot better.  I had lost Jordan, who I would run just a few minutes behind for most of the race, but I was feeling good and ready to grind out some miles.
Between the 18.6 and 23.4 aid stations was when the clouds disappeared, the sun came out, and it started to get hot. It was a little less humid by then, at least you could no longer see the humidity, so that made things a little easier.  Luckily the wonderful volunteers at the 23.4 mile aid station had popsicles to cool us down.  It’s a good thing too because I thought I had seen an ice cream truck and that put popsicles into my head so I wasn’t going to be happy until I got some.
At this point in the race we were mostly on trails that were well tended and not at all technical so it was still pretty easy to do quite a bit of running.  I was feeling good because I had managed more running in the first 30 miles than I had anticipated and I was still feeling strong so dreams of running a sub-24 hour race started dancing around in my head.  The glory of hitting such a monumental milestone on my first ever try at 100 miles seemed well within my reach.  All I had to do was keep this up for another 70 miles, how hard could that be?  After about 30 miles we came out onto the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath which is a lovely, flat, well groomed trail that runs along the Cuyahoga River… at least that’s what it is in the other 11 months of the year.  On July 30th however, it was 3 miles of blistering sun and 90 degree temps that seemed to have taken on a life of its own and was intent on using that new found life to beat me into submission.  Needless to say when I got to the 33.3 mile aid station I was not in the best of spirits.  I had been wearing a visor since the sun hadn’t been out and that probably made things a lot worse since I had no hair to keep the sun from boring directly into my brain.  Luckily at the aid station my wonderful crew gave me a new hat with a pocket on top to put ice cubes in.  In went the ice cubes to the hat and my hydration pack and off I went.
Unfortunately, due to my boiling brain, I had told my crew that I didn’t need any more food and I had been eating plenty.  About 10 minutes later, when the ice on my head had cooled my brain sufficiently to allow a semi-normal thought process, I realized my mistake in not taking on any more food and not having eaten enough for the past hour or so.  I did have my emergency food in the back of my pack so I got that out and started forcing it down.  I also sent a text to my crew to let them know that I was not allowed to leave them again without eating more and taking on more food.  With that taken care of I settled into a good fast walking pace to try and get through the heat of the day without overexerting myself.  I can’t really remember how much of this segment I actually ran but it wasn’t much.  The course was kind enough to offer plenty of steep ups and downs on fairly technical trails so I didn’t feel too bad about all the walking.  I walked a good portion of the way with a guy named Jim that I had met at a race in NJ earlier this year.  He is studying physiology at some obscure college in NY whose name I can’t remember.  The important thing about that is that in his studies on the subject of ultra-marathons he’s come to believe that in the course of a 100 mile race a person needs to consume somewhere between 7000 and 14,000 calories depending on the conditions and the size and pace of the runner.  Being in the middle of a 100 mile race on a hot day I was dubious that anyone would be able to consume anything close to that number of calories since at that point the last thing in the world I wanted to do was eat.  But in retrospect I probably came in pretty close to the low end of that spectrum thanks to what must have been about a gallon of Coke-a-cola.  I wonder if there are any dentists that do ultra-marathons?  It seems like the diet of an ultra-marathoner would make any dentist curl up into the fetal position and cry for momma.  Nothing but sugar in the most concentrated forms we can lay our dirty little hands on.  I did brush my teeth at 70.6 miles but followed that right up with more sugar so it was probably less helpful than I would have liked.  It did make me feel better though so that’s something.

Getting close to the 49.1 mile aid station I started to feel really good again (as opposed to merely adequate) and started running.  Sadly that running was to be short lived since almost immediately after I started I ran into the aid station where I loaded myself down with more ice and some food.  I also picked up my first round of Tylenol since the bottoms of my feet were blistering by now and they hurt.  After the aid station we were back on the towpath for a mile or so.  I walked along with a guy (I later learned his name was Radames, he was a friend of my pacer) who seemed like he was having a pretty tough time of it dealing with cramps.  When we turned off the towpath and onto a mixture of roads and single track I left him to do some running.  The only really interesting thing about this segment was the house that had a bunch of chickens and the fence around those chickens had doll heads mounted on the posts.  They were probably just big fans of Game of Thrones, they’re big on putting heads on posts in that show.
I arrived at the 53.5 mile aid station (which was the same as the 49.1 mile aid station since the just completed segment was a big loop) and had my first good sit down of the day.  I also got started on drinking Coke which I had avoided for the first half of the race to keep from crashing too early.  But by now I was really tired so I needed a boost.  This was the first time in the race where we were allowed to have pacers so I picked up Shauna and off we went.  The one thing we didn’t pick up though was headlamps, and that would become a source of concern after a few miles when it started getting dark in the forest.  But for the moment everything was pretty good.  My blisters we starting to cause me real pain but it was manageable and my legs felt surprisingly strong so I was encouraged.  Especially when I compared myself with some of the wreckage I saw around me.  The heat seemed to have really done a lot of people in.
Getting from Boston Store 2 (53.5 miles) to Pine Lane (58.3 miles) was probably the most scenic but also difficult sections.  It was really hilly and down near the bottom of those hills it was very muddy.  But we made it without any serious incidents other than me almost stepping on a snake which caused me to actually jump and scream. I had no idea that my body was still capable of jumping after so many miles but my fear of snakes managed to overcome the fatigue.  At the Pine Lane aid station I decided for the first time to not fill up my hat with ice since the sun was starting to set so the temperature was dropping.  Unfortunately that meant that it would be dark soon and neither Shauna nor I had a headlamp and the next aid station was farther away than we thought so we had to really get after it for the next 6.8 miles.
The course doubled back on itself for the next mile or two which meant steep hills and shoe sucking mud.  After that we came out onto a road which we were on for a while.  I really tried to run this section but just couldn’t manage to get my legs moving.  I did keep up a good brisk walking pace so we made it into the Happy Days aid station (63.8 miles) before sunset.  Not by much though.  My concerns about running in the dark with no light being eased I tucked in to some sushi, graciously provided by my little sister Mary’s boyfriend Dominic, for dinner.  I can tell you that sitting down for some sushi 2/3 of the way through a 100 mile race will get you a few odd looks.  At least one guy, who I gather was an experienced ultra runner himself, said it was a really good idea.  My thinking was that sushi is easy to digest and a good source of protein and carbs.  Plus it has the benefit of being light and easy to eat.
With a belly full of sushi and Coke and having changed my shoes, socks and shirt I set off into the gloaming.  The gloaming, however, quickly turned into the darkest night ever since the course took us almost immediately next to a short cliff face (in north-eastern Ohio I know, I didn’t believe it either) that was to the west of us and blocked any light we may have gotten from the setting sun.  This was probably the lowest point for me mentally.  It was the first time it had been really dark and this was hands down the most technical section of trail so the going was extremely slow.  Once I started moving that slow the thoughts of how far I still had to go started creeping in and knowing that I had over 35 miles to go at this glacial pace was just crushing me.  But I pressed on and eventually the trail smoothed out and got easier to follow so I was able to pick up the pace and do quite a bit of running.
At this point I should mention that I had my watch set to beep at me every 5 minutes to remind me to drink.  Generally in these sorts of events I let myself get very dehydrated and that inevitably leads to muscle cramps and just general fatigue.  With my watch beeping at me all day I was, to put it mildly, very well hydrated.  Most of the day this was fine since it was so hot I was sweating out a large portion of the water I was taking in.  I was actually quite proud of myself that I had peed 4 times between miles 18.6 and 49.1.  On this segment of trail I ended up having to set my watch to beep at me every 7 minutes instead of 5 because I was peeing every 10 or 15 minutes.  It generally happens after running a long way that I sort of lose the ability to hold it which means that every 10 or 15 minutes there was an abrupt stop so I could pee.  At the Happy Days (63.8 miles) aid station I had picked up my little sister as a pacer and I gather she was none too pleased about running along behind me only to have me stop abruptly and turn to the side of the trail and pee.  Probably not the sort of thing she signed up for.

The last mile or so of this segment included some wide open grassy areas (again with hills, I was beginning to think we had left Ohio altogether and made it to West Virginia) that afforded some beautiful views of the night sky.  After the lovely stars and grassy hills we pulled into the Pine Hollow aid station (70.6 miles) where I would pick up Pam who was to be my pacer for the remainder of the race.  I had never met Pam before packet pick-up the day before and had found her on the facebook group for the race.  Thankfully she was really positive and excited to offset my zombie-like stumble.  So after some soup and a quick brush of the old chompers we were off on a 3.3 mile loop that would bring us back to Pine Hollow again.  Unfortunately I didn’t have any coke at the aid station so by the end of that short segment I was really dragging.  But we made it and I got myself some more caffeine.  I left my crew with a warning to not let me leave their sight without taking in some caffeine and then we were off for the 6.6 miles to the Covered Bridge 1 aid station (80.5 miles).
The segment between Pine Hollow  and Covered Bridge 1 was where the mileage really started taking a physical toll.  My legs still felt pretty good but the blisters on me feet were excruciatingly painful by now.  To add to it I was also starting to have some chafing in my nether-regions.  I suppose I shouldn’t complain about that since many people had been dealing with that for a lot longer than me.  Thankfully I had learned the lesson about using baby wipes after a restroom break in a previous race so the chafing didn’t start until fairly late in the race.  This segment was mostly trail but not very technical so I was able to run some of it but tiredness won out in the end and I walked the last couple of miles on the road to get to the Covered Bridge 1 aid station.  The covered bridge itself was a sight to behold since the aid station volunteers had decorated it with Christmas lights.  I’m sure for the people who were volunteering and crewing there it looked festive.  But after running for 80 miles and being completely exhausted it was really just surreal for me.  Kind of a dreamy sort of white glow to everything except the people who were just dark shapes moving around in what seemed like slow motion to my addled brain.
I made the mistake of changing my socks again at this point.  It was a mistake because getting my shoes back on over my awful blisters caused quite a bit of screaming on my part.  Then once I did get up the pain level in my feet seemed to have gone up several notches.  But before I could get back to it I had one more issue to take care of, the chafing.  I asked Shauna to bring me some Vaseline.  She came back with a tub of it along with a rubber glove.  Apparently my face brightened up quite a lot at this and Shauna remembers my face at that point as her fondest memory of the night.  I was fully expecting to have to apply that Vaseline with the usual tongue depressor so a rubber glove was going to be a whole lot easier.  I’m sure my little sister is pleased to know that she missed this after having to see me pee a half dozen times.  I don’t think she could have handled seeing me get a big glob of Vaseline on my rubber glove and apply it to my rear.
Chafing taken care of we set off for 4.7 miles of, what I had been warned was, very technical trails.  In reality it turned out to be not so bad.  The mud made it a lot worse than it would have been otherwise.  But there was plenty of mud and with the bottoms of my feet covered in blisters all that sliding around meant a couple of miles of extreme pain.  Thankfully after we turned back for the aid station the trail flattened out quite a bit and I was able to run most of the rest of the way back to the covered bridge.  Once I made it there I really felt like I was going to finish.  I had been warned about that last segment so I had been worrying about it for a good bit of the race.  With it behind me I knew it was just 15 miles to go and fairly easy ground to cover so I ignored the pain and set out.
The next segment was 3.3 miles to the last aid station where I would not see my crew.  The course was mostly road so it went quickly and we were there before I knew it.  The only real difficulty was the humidity was back which meant my headlamp did a great job of illuminating the mist directly in front of my face but nothing else.  Otherwise I feel like I made good time.  I seem to remember the aid station being pretty festive and everyone being dressed up, the memory is a little fuzzy though.  I do remember sitting in the chair and commiserating with another first time 100 miler for a few minutes.  We compared hurts for a little while before his pacer started telling him to get up.  Thankfully his pacer seemed to know the course pretty well and had said there was one more gnarly downhill section and then it was smooth sailing till the end.
Reluctantly I ambled out of the aid station for the 4.5 mile segment.  The downhill at the start was indeed gnarly and took a while because I was moving gingerly at this point due to the blisters.  Past that though we were back on the towpath for a while and I did what I thought was an amazing amount of running.  I was helped along at one point by a waste treatment plant next to the trail that smelled absolutely horrible.  It was so bad I would have been happy to find a skunk so I could hold that up to my nose to block the smell.  Like dead things mixed with sewage and simmered for a while in the heat and humidity.  If that didn’t make you want to run I don’t know what will.
We pulled into the mile 93 aid station around 6 am with dawn beginning to break.  I no longer cared about how bad my feet hurt I just wanted to get finished.  But that feeling was competing with a very strong desire to not leave the chair I was in.  I had been warned several times to “beware the chair” but after having a seat several times during the race I thought that might not apply to me.  This time around though the chair really had a hold on me.  But my wonderful crew again came to my rescue and forced me to get up and get moving again.  Only 3 miles to the next aid station and it was all on the nice flat towpath.  With the usual mixture of running and walking I made it and found Reece’s Cups there.  They had clearly been melted at one point and I no longer had the manual dexterity to properly open it and get the wrapper off the cup but I would not be deterred.  That must be how zombies feel about brains.  I will no longer make fun of their clumsy stumbling and single minded desire for brains.  I’ve been right there with you brothers, you’re doing the best you can.
With only 4.8 miles to go I didn’t even stop to sit down.  I ate my Reece’s Cup and had some more coke and I was off.  There was a good bit of gentle downhill which I was able to run on and make pretty good time.  I knew there were stairs coming so I wanted to run as much as possible before I got to those.  I had been dreading the stairs for days but when I actually got there they were quite pleasant.  For some reason going up stairs was the thing that made my feet hurt the least so I bounded up them two at a time. 
Perhaps bounded isn’t quite the correct term but I certainly moved more quickly than I thought I should at this point.   At the top of the stairs was a long straight section of easy trail that I thought would never end.  The sun was coming out again and it was starting to feel very warm.  It probably wasn’t all that warm but my body was having a tough time regulating temperature by now so as soon as the temperature started going up it felt very hot.  Finally there was a road ahead and I said to a guy I was passing that I thought that was where we would turn to head for the finish.  I had no basis for that thought other than hope but this guy was so happy he said he would kiss me if my pacer hadn’t been there.  The road we had seen did indeed turn out to be the road to the finish so now I could really smell the barn.  Unfortunately it was a very long uphill on this road which meant more walking.  At the top of the hill I found my Mom, sister, girlfriend and family friend waiting to run with me to the finish.  With that sort of reception I couldn’t do anything but start running again.  The running and the pavement and the heat caused blisters on both of my pinky toes to burst but I didn’t care how much it hurt, I was going to finish.  The tears started so I could barely see anything, least of all the finish.  I couldn’t believe how long it took me to get there, my toes screaming with every step, but I made it.  I crossed the finish line and Joe Jurczyk, the race director, handed me my belt buckle and I stood there bent over and cried for a minute.  It was just such a surprise to find myself at the end after such a long race.  I had tried really hard to never think about how far it was but now, at the finish, I could look back at the whole thing and marvel at what I had done.  It’s not often that I can really surprise myself, but I had this time.
I didn’t spend too long in my revelry though.  I sent my crew off to find me some breakfast while I made my way over to the podiatrists to get my feet tended to.  By the end of that both feet were almost entirely covered in bright green and red tape and I looked very Christmas-y.  After about 15 minutes off my feet I had to use the restroom again so it seems my work wasn’t quite done.  The nearest restroom was across this large courtyard which looked and felt like it was about 10 miles across.  In reality it was probably still a couple of hundred yards and that took forever on my poor feet.  But I made it and with that taken care of we were off for home and an ice bath and bed.
Looking back at it I am amazed at those people who did this without a crew.  My crew was awesome.  Everything I asked for they got for me, everything I needed they had.  I have never been so well taken care of in my life.  The volunteers at the aid stations were fantastic and were always right there with everything I asked for but having a crew that just did everything without me asking was so helpful since my mind was not the steel trap it usually is by the end.
Having pacers was also wonderful.  Knowing that I never had to worry about myself if things went bad was a real help when I got tired.   During other races that was a real concern that I just never had to deal with for this one.
Thanks to Shauna, Mom, Dad, Mary, Dominic, Pam and Patti for all your help.  Without your help I never would have been able to something so amazing.  I really can’t express enough how much help you were and I can’t thank you enough for the very long day you put in so I could do this.

Gobi March 2010

Back in 2007 during the JFK 50 in Maryland I ended up running next to a girl who had some unusual patches on her sleeve.  When I asked her about them she told me they were from a multi-day race she had done in the Gobi Desert that year.  I didn’t stay with her long but when I got home I looked up the race and was intrigued.  I previously had no idea that there were running stage races and certainly thought that no one in their right mind would run with a weeks’ worth of food on their backs.  Turns out the Tour de France is not the only stage race out there and that, in fact, no one in their right mind would run with a weeks’ worth of food on their back.
The race is set up more as a survivalist adventure race than a typical ultra-marathon.  It’s roughly 150 miles in total with 6 stages over 7 days.  You are responsible for carrying all your gear for the week with the exception of a tent and water.  You do have to have the capacity to carry 2 liters of water on you when you leave the checkpoints, which are spaced about 6 to 10 miles apart, due to temperatures that this year were expected to reach the 120’s.  Most competitors had a bag full of freeze-dried meals and ramen noodles.  Throw in a sleeping pad, sleeping bag, first aid kit, extra socks and a few luxury items like soap or food you actually like to eat and most packs came out to be around 20 to 25 lbs.  The heaviest I heard of was something over 40lbs from someone who carried canned food.  The lightest was less than 10 pounds from the Chinese competitors who were cheating and getting food and supplies from the Chinese media who were following the race.  My pack checked in at about 25 or 26 pounds (the measurements were in kilograms and they weren’t exact) but it felt like it was closer to 50 on the first day.
About 160 of us met at the Yin Du Hotel in Urumqi, China, home of the hardest beds ever to grace a 5 star hotel.  (They were so hard I seriously considered getting out the sleeping pad I was carrying for the race.)  Despite the lousy beds, the morning of June 26th saw us all boarding buses to head out to the first camp.  Everyone was nervous but spirits were high.  The first camp was in a little village near the Tien Shan mountains.  The scenery was fantastic and despite my worst fears the temperature was actually really cool, probably down into the 50’s that night.  The next morning we broke camp and headed out for what we were told would be an easy 20 miles with some rolling hills in the last half.  They neglected to mention that we were starting out at around 7000 feet and would be getting to over 9000 along the course.  They also neglected to mention that by rolling hills they meant impossibly steep cliffs covered with spiky plants that pretty much everyone got to experience up close.  (In case you haven’t noticed “they” are evil liars.)  None the less, the day started out with an easy 6 miles on a rough road with beautiful mountains on either side and some sonic booms thanks to the Chinese air force to keep it interesting.  After the first checkpoint there were some more flats along a stream with lots of grazing cows who stared at us like we were crazy (maybe I’m just remembering it that way now).  Immediately upon leaving the second checkpoint we went up the steepest hill I’ve ever gone up without using a rope.  It was pretty demoralizing because we’d get to the top of these impossibly steep hills only to see the flags we were following leading down an equally steep hill and then back up another one.  The hills flattened out a bit after a while, but got a lot longer--and just to top it off, we were at around 9000 feet at this point.  But thanks to all the hills being covered with heather (along with the stinging nettles) the whole second half of the stage smelled wonderful—though this wasn’t enough to brighten my mood.  I had slept very badly the first night in camp and then between the altitude, the much-harder-than-expected terrain and the pain in my shoulders from the backpack I was not having a good day.  I was really having doubts about my ability to finish this race if I was in for 3 more days like this one, followed by a 62-mile stage 5.  After 5 and a half hours I finally made it to the second camp where I immediately set about eating as much food as I possibly could because my shoulders hurt and I desperately needed to lighten my pack.  I threw down as much freeze dried food as I could stomach, commiserated with my tent mates and other competitors for a while and then it was time for bed.  Thankfully I had thought to bring some Advil PM with me and none of my tent mates wanted to stay up late so by 9 PM I was blissfully sleeping off the first day’s torture.
Despite a really cold night I slept great and was feeling much better about stage 2.  I had decided that my race plan needed some major revising so I planned to walk all of the stage.  We started off on more of the hills we had finished on the day before so not running wasn’t much of a difficulty.  That lasted for about 7 or 8 miles until we got to a little village that consisted of several mud brick houses and nothing else.  After that checkpoint we made our way along some flat trails to a mostly dry riverbed.  It looked like it might have at one point been a really big river but was now just a stream.  We crossed the riverbed and up the other side to a road which we followed to the second checkpoint.  At the second checkpoint they said it would be about 10K to the end and camp.  That would be the only time all week they underestimated a distance.  And so I quickly found myself back at camp and preparing some more freeze-dried food.  Unfortunately this was where the freeze-dried stuff started getting hard to eat.  Either because of the GI issues I was developing or because I was already sick of them I had a lot of trouble forcing down my dinner that evening.  But I was in much better spirits at this point, despite the still-painful shoulders and the developing GI issues.
The Uighur house we stayed in.
Stage 3 had us back in the riverbed for an ankle spraining 6 miles of water crossings and even some actual trees.  After checkpoint 1 we were on the road again for another 10K and I decided that since I had finally found a pack adjustment that didn’t hurt, it was time to try running again.  It’s amazing how much quicker the miles go when you’re running as opposed to walking.  And seeing as I had trained for this race by running it felt pretty good to get out there and jog.  After the second checkpoint we were up onto some actual rolling hills of very loose dirt which went up until the middle of the stage and was downhill for the last part.  The camp after stage 3 was in a Uighur (pronounced “wee-ger”) village where we stayed in people’s homes.  I was still on the floor on my camping gear, but it was something different.  This camp had a nice cool stream next to it where everyone got to clean up a bit and ice down their feet.  My tent mate, Denvy Lo from Hong Kong (who actually ended up being the first woman to finish despite never having run even a marathon before), spent pretty much the entire afternoon there.  We were told that we would have to be up well before dawn the next morning (3AM) so I ate some freeze-dried shepherd’s pie, which felt like I had swallowed a bowling ball, and then it was off to bed by 8.  Unfortunately sleeping in the village was not better than the tents--I had flies buzzing around my head and it never really cooled down.  Then at around 9 or 10 the townspeople started coming out (they wisely stayed indoors and out of the sun when it was hot during the day then came out when it was cool… the exact opposite of what we did) and making lots of noise.  Needless to say 3AM came a lot sooner than I would have liked.  But come it did, so we got up, boarded the buses and headed out for the start of stage 4.
Stage 4 started at 6 AM and temperatures were forecast to be well over 100 by midday.  With that in mind I tried to run as much as I could before it got hot and thankfully the course accommodated me.  The first 10K was on a road so I was able to run that at a decent pace (about 9:30 miles).  After checkpoint 1 I was still able to keep up a good pace until I had to stop and take care of my first blister.  Once that was taken care of I motored along until I got to some very steep hills of loose sand.  After that it was slow going to the second checkpoint.  From checkpoint 2 to the finish was about 11K, or so we were told.  It sure seemed like it was longer than that but it’s possible that’s because so much of the time was spent in a boiling hot box canyon that claimed quite a few racers.  Several people climbed into any shade they could find to rest and one dropped from heat stroke.  Thankfully I was able to get through all that and finish before noon so I missed the real heat of the day.  Six hours after starting I found myself at a strange tourist attraction at the base of the Flaming Mountain where we would be camping.  Many people slept in a museum but the bulk of us camped outside because it was really hot indoors.  Before we got to sleep though it was an anxious afternoon of waiting for the last of the competitors to finish.  Several of the volunteers and medical staff had to hike up the mountain to bring water the people who were stuck there and suffering.  Nick, the competitor who had heat stroke, had to be taken out on a camel because there was no vehicle access (sadly, he died from complications a couple days after arriving at the Urumqi hospital).  At the end of the day there were quite a few people who dropped out but most made it in safely.  Thankfully it was a great night sleeping outside, probably the most comfortable night of the entire race—and it was a good thing too, because the next stage was 62 miles in what was forecast to be 120 degree heat.
We were told that stage 5 would start at 6 AM so everyone was up bright and early only to be told that it would really start at 8 AM.  So after an extra hour of sleep I was up and ready to get started.  I had lightened my pack as much as I possibly could and after what happened the previous day I planned to take it really easy because all I cared about was finishing, no matter how long it took me.  We started off with a few river crossings, because nothing makes 62 miles easier to cover on foot than wet shoes and socks.  I took some time at the first checkpoint to change my socks and clean out my shoes before setting out for a long walk through a nice little town.  The great part about the town was that pretty much every kid (and there were a lot of kids) had learned to say “hello” in English.  So we walked for about 4 or 5 miles through this town, pelted from all sides by repeated hellos from half-naked children.  At the second checkpoint I picked up Sam, a Brit living in Hong Kong who is one of the organizers of the race and who would be my companion for the remainder of that very long day.  Mercifully the weather went easy on us and we had cloud cover for most of the day.  If it hadn’t been for that I can’t imagine what it would have been like for the 30 or so miles after checkpoint 2.  There is really no way to describe how desolate salt flats are.  It was just endless miles of nothing but the occasional scrubby bush and  little pools of water so salty that they actually had huge salt crystals growing in them.  The only wildlife we saw was a monstrous camel spider.  It was seriously about 8 inches long and its body was as big as a cell phone.  Camel  spiders are also really aggressive so it kept coming after me and I kept jumping up and down in what I will call an attempt to scare it away but what was in fact just sheer terror.  I’m so glad I didn’t see that anywhere near my tent or sleeping bag.
So we walked, and walked some more.  And then we kept walking.  Eventually Sam and I picked up Colin, another Brit (but one who actually lived in England, unlike most of the Brits in the race).  And Sam, Colin and I walked.  We just kept going checkpoint to checkpoint.  Between checkpoint 5 and 6 the sun came out and it got really hot which caused my feet to start really blistering.  At checkpoint 6 we stopped for a while so that Colin and I could get our blisters taken care of.  Lots of other people had stopped there as well, including many of the people who were leading the race.  When we got there they were lying down getting IV fluids.  We left checkpoint 6 just as the sun was setting in a most spectacular fashion and made our way to checkpoint 7 where there was hot water for us to make dinner with.  When I say that we left checkpoint 6 as the sun was setting, it may sound like it was about 8 in the evening… but not quite.  It was actually about a quarter ‘til 11 at that point, so we didn’t get to checkpoint 7 and “dinner” until about 1 in the morning.  I tried to sleep a bit at that point but made the mistake of lying down next to the medical tent where a couple of people who had been getting IVs at the previous checkpoint were again receiving medical attention.  The dry heaving and incoherent babbling made it impossible to sleep.  So at about 3:30 I woke up Sam and Colin and we got back on the road around 4.  At this point there was almost no talking; we just kept walking down a long road and through some grapevines to the final checkpoint before the finish.  There I was finally able to lie down and sleep for about 10 minutes, which made a world of difference—between those last two checkpoints I could have walked in front of a bus I was so out of it.  But after that little bit of sleep I felt a lot better mentally.  My feet still hurt more than they have ever hurt in my life.  They felt like I had been on them for 24 hours straight… because I had.  I was determined though, and we had another 10K to go, of which about 5K was on sand dunes.  So off we went.  Unfortunately at this point we were very near a town and many of the town’s children had come by and taken the flags we had been following so we didn’t really know where to go.  According to the race organizers they had marked that section of the course about a dozen times but despite that almost everyone who went through had trouble finding the way.  Right before we got to the sand dunes we found someone who was in the process of marking the course again and he explained in great and accurate detail exactly where and how far we were going.  I wanted to hug him for finally giving me some accurate information.  Unfortunately what he said was to go over the sand dunes.  Now, sand dunes are really pretty… if you haven’t just walked 59 miles and have to cross them to get to the finish.  But we had and we did, so the sand dunes were torture--it’s impossible to get footing and it’s also impossible to keep the sand out of your shoes unless you have proper gaiters… which I didn’t.  By the time we made it to camp I was exhausted, hungry, and my feet were screaming at me, but I had made it through and essentially finished the race. 
The rest day was not at all restful.  I finished stage 5 at 10 AM the day after I started and it was already getting pretty hot in camp.  I tried to sleep a bit but woke up sweating like crazy and hyperventilating so I got up and sat around for the rest of the day trying to drink as much water as I could, which was torturous because the water was so hot and it was so hot outside—we’d finally gotten the 120 degree temps we were promised.  Another problem with sand dunes besides the footing is the lack of shade.  So I sat with a bunch of other people in the cyber tent which provided shade but no walls to block the breeze so it was the coolest place in camp.  Sadly that only meant it was 110 instead of 120.  Around 6 or 7 it finally started to cool down and I was able to eat some real, though still freeze-dried food.  They even had a birthday cake for the people whose birthdays were during the week.  I wasn’t interested in cake or anything else at that point other than sleep.  So sleep I did.  I guess a lot of people stayed up for a while chatting and taking pictures but after not getting any sleep the night before I was too exhausted to participate. 
My tent mates.
The next morning we got up early so they could bus us to the start again.  It was just a short bus ride this time since they were just taking us to the town where we were going to finish.  The last stage was only about 6K so most of us ran all of it just so we could be done and get to the food and cold drinks.  One thing I’ve learned about China is that they aren’t big on cold drinks so I was horribly disappointed when I was handed a warm Coke at the finish.  The food also left a lot to be desired but as it was not freeze-dried it tasted fantastic.  The beer was slightly cooler than the coke but not by much.  I even went to a local shop and bought some ice cream.  Then we all boarded the buses for the 4 and a half hour drive back to Urumqi where showers and proper toilets were waiting for us.  I’m not sure I’ve even taken such a wonderful shower as the one I took that day after 7 days of sweat and sand and dirt in the desert.  It really makes you appreciate a little thing like being clean.
I’m not sure if this sort of race is really for me.  It was more about how extreme can they make it than just being a long run and I was hoping for something more like just a long run.  Still, I’m glad I did it and really glad I finished.  I would hate to have dropped out and to now feel like I had to try again.  Ultimately, I had the itch to do this race for a few years and now it’s been scratched and I doubt it will come back.  I met a lot of really great people and had a great experience but I think I’m done with deserts.  It was so hot that even when you were resting you couldn’t rest.  Although they are holding a similar race in Nepal next year, and it’s not supposed to be so hot there…