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.


  1. Very excellent report - very excellent run! Thanks for both efforts, and nice going!

  2. Thanks for putting it all out there for us, Mike! Great accomplishment! Now, should I do it next year? :)

  3. Stumbled across this report. Very impressive! Congratulations!