“Woke up in my clothes again this morning- don’t know exactly where I am…” After a few minutes, the world solidifies around me, and I remember- I’m in the back of an SUV on an air mattress “camping” near the start of the Hocking Hills 60k in Ohio, it’s 5:30 am.
I had driven into the Hocking Hills, coming off of highway 33 from Columbus, as darkness crept up on me like the Bolero symphony I was inexplicably listening to on the radio (one minute, you don’t notice it, and then all of a sudden, it’s everywhere). I had made the decision to “camp” in the back of the vehicle after a dubious 1 and 1 record of camping before races.
The night passed uneventfully and I woke to a driving rain that I hoped would at least lessen if not stop entirely some time during the race. Got to the start early, checked in and then waited around with the other 30-odd runners there to attempt the 60k. It’s a 3 loop course and there were larger numbers running the 40k, 20k, 10k and 5k races (including a 5 year old that completed the 5k, amazing!), but they were starting later than our proposed 7am start. Since it was still quite dark, we delayed to about 7:25 and then set off into the dusky downpour.
Each loop starts in the parking lot of the Dining Lodge, winds its way up a paved road through some cabins and then, after a short slog through mud and grass, out onto highway 664 for about 2.2 miles of ups and downs. Not a lot of shoulder, but little traffic on a Saturday morning, and the police and park rangers were out there to slow the cars down. (Only had a near miss on the final lap when a VW Beetle was not paying attention and strayed onto the shoulder). From there, it’s up Steel Hill, the only major hill, ½ a mile long, but a couple of hundred feet straight up to the first aid station (not open yet, as we’d been warned, but there for the next two loops, thankfully). I was using this run as a semi-training run for my Hunter-Gatherer race in Texas in two weeks, where there’d be no aid stations, so I carried everything and only took smiles and encouragement away from the aid stations. It was still raining pretty heavily, but being in the woods provided some relief.
Out of the aid station, down the road for a mile or so, then back into the woods for a gradual, very picturesque downhill run to Rose Lake. This part of Ohio is unique as you are close to the hills and mountains of West Virginia and Northeast Kentucky. There are gorges and caves and it’s a beautiful place. I’d have more pictures, but as I think I mentioned before, it was pouring down with rain.
Out of the woods and into the Old Man’s Cave campground (where I had camped the night before) for a bit, then back into the woods as we made our way down to the gorge and the Old Man’s Cave
(named after a hermit that lived there in the 19th century. If you’re interested, a brief history is here.) Then back out onto the road for the final mile up the hill to the finish. Just do that two more times and you’re done!
The first lap went by quickly- I ended up in a great conversation that made the miles seem inconsequential- and I finished it in 2:20 minutes. I set off alone on the next lap (my running partner was stopping after 20k), up the road and into the rain. The second lap saw some doubts start to creep in. I ran mostly on my own and without music, so not only did I have time to take in the beauty of the woods, but also start to think about finishing the lap and then having to start another. I kept reminding myself up Steel Hill- “only one more time after this”, and I almost talked myself into stopping after the second loop. I had covered it pretty quickly (2:30) and so now had 40k finished in under 5 hours. I got away from the start and the big aid station before I could convince myself to drop.
The rain had slowed and there were some periods on the final loop where it completely stopped raining. Apart from the near miss with the Beetle, I felt better about the last loop than the second one. I was finishing what I had set out to do and the thought kept me going. The aid station workers at the top of Steel Hill were encouraging and as this was about 5k into the loop, I started counting down the number of 5ks I had left. Did I mention I didn’t have my GPS? Oh, yeah…
Lacking a good packing process, I had left my GPS watch at home. Being very analytical, I was worried about not having up to date pacing and distance information, so I tried to use an app on my phone (no dice), but mostly relied on my stopwatch and an estimate of my distance, hence breaking the last loop into 5k increments.
By my estimates, I hit 50k at about 6:30 (my second best 50k time) and then began the final push for the last 10k. I was a little worried when the second to the last aid station, about 2 or so miles out, was abandoned by the time I got there. Cups of water were on the table, but no one in sight. No problem, the next station was only 1.1 miles away, and I wasn’t using them anyway, but it felt like I was passing a ghost town, where the residents had left with everything but their water cups. The next aid station was completely gone, and that’s when I began to wonder if I had missed the cutoff.
Up the hill for the last mile, I was running/walking, knowing that I would be in under 8 hours, but not sure if that was over the cutoff time. The EMTs waved as they drove their ambulance down the road on their way out (that’s not a good sign) and park employees were starting to pick up the orange cones that warned cars of runners (strike two?). About this time, a runner caught up to me and reminded me of the 8 hour cutoff. She then went on to pass me and I had a short flash of competitiveness, followed by a reminder that I’m trying to be more mindful and let things go. She was obviously feeling it and it actually felt good and right to let her go. I happened to turn around not long after that brief period of enlightenment to see another run coming up the hill behind me. Evidently, there’s a limit to my zen qualities- I wasn’t going to let two people pass me in the last mile.
I picked up the pace and finished in 7:43. Two more runners came in after me and 5 runners that were out on the course missed the 8 hour cutoff, unfortunately. The day started with 36 runners and only 15 completed the 60k in the pouring rain. I ended up 13th overall and 3rd in my age group (yes, there were at least 4 people in my age group, including the overall winner). It was a beautiful course and the volunteers that were out there did a great job. Next stop is Texas for the Fuego y Agua 50k. No aid stations, find your own water. It’s going to be interesting!