Hunter Gatherer Survival Run- Fuego y Agua

For months, I’ve been trying to explain what this race is all about: 31 miles, No aid stations (carry your own food and filter and sterilize your water), oh, and you have to “do things” to complete the race. “Like what?”- Well, to start, you have to make your own shoes, you’ve got to make a bow, fletch arrows and then actually hit something with it, you’ve got to make a fire with a bow drill, you know, “things”. Still no comprehension as to why someone would put themselves willingly through this… To say “for the challenge” doesn’t quite describe it. For me, it comes down to the one thing that I’ve looked for since I started ultrarunning: Can I do it?

The short answer is: I didn’t. I “failed” (more on why I would use that word later) when I was timed out of the race after 14 1/2 hours, having completed a little over half the course. The thing about this race, though, is that because I learned so much and kept going despite the silly mistakes I made, it was an accomplishment. That, and the facts that:

  1. Out of about 18 starters, only 3 finished the race (a 300% improvement over last year)
  2. Sections of the course were designed by Barkley and Tour De Giants finisher Nick Hollon
  3. The archery section was designed by Tom Norwood, an excellent archer and lunatic
  4. I learned a ton just training for this race. I now know how to use a survival knife, do a flemish twist, create fire by rubbing sticks together, carve a bow (even with wood from Lowes), make and use a sling and build a deadfall trap.
  5. I lasted for 14 1/2 hours, completed every challenge up to that point and still had legs, even if I didn’t have any time left.
  6. And finally, met a bunch of warriors that can endure more than most people could.
Last Outpost...

Last Outpost…

So, here’s how it went down…

Friday (4pm)- Packet Pick up

Nervous anticipation as we wait for Race Director Josue Stephens. For his race in Nicaragua, he started the race a day early at packet pick up. Last year in this race you had to carry a log up a hill to get your bib. What’s in store for us?

55962448-JGP_6558Turns out, we are being divided up into teams, each person has to build a travois, use them to carry rocks up a ¾ mile hill, fill a six foot diameter circle, then build a cairn in the next 2 ½ hours. The team with the tallest cairn doesn’t have to sleep outside the night before the race. Yikes. 55962447-JGP_6742I end up on team red and we set to work. Hauling a number of rocks up the hill, you quickly find the flaws in your building skills. After the first few rounds, we decide to pair up and get big rocks up the hill on the few decently constructed travois; every few hundred feet, handing off the travois to a “buddy” and getting a few minutes rest. The technique pays off as we hall a number of large flat stones that allows us to build a slightly higher cairn than the white team. We head down for dinner. This is going to be an interesting race…55962446-JGP_6966

(Note: all times are approximate except the start. Even though I had a watch on, I was more focused on pushing on)

Saturday (4am)- Pack and Sandals

The race is a combination of running (31 miles, not counting yesterday’s fun) and skills. First order of the day- make a pack out of paracord and fabric that will hold your approved items (at the bottom of the page on the link) and your food (did I mention there were no aid stations and that you had to filter and sterilize your water?). That done, next you had to make the sandals you were going to run in out of raw materials from Luna Sandals, (NFI) using only your survival knife and a punch. I managed to make a mistake on both of the first two skills that cost me time. First, my pack was ok, but at one point I didn’t cinch it up quite right and something fell out. Luckily, I noticed it quickly, but the memory of that drop haunted me later. IMG_3749Second, I had planned on lacing my sandals in a 5-hole pattern that would keep my feet stable in the shoe. At the last minute based on overheard conversations from veterans about chafing, I abandoned that idea and went with a 3-hole traditional pattern. Stupid.

Having completed this first set of tasks in about 45 minutes or so, I headed out on a short 2 ½ mile out and back, through a river and up a hill. The water and terrain showed the flaws in my sandal design, so as I re-entered the start/finish area, I changed my sandals to a 5-hole pattern. Better fit, but in my haste I made the holes a bit too high up, so they rubbed my pinkie toes raw. I could live with the pain and adjust by taping my toes, but the bigger mistake happened when I unpacked, then repacked my pack, leaving out a Ziploc bag with my medical kit and a number of the items I would need to complete the challenges. I didn’t realize I had simply left them there and by the time I realized they were gone (about 3 hours into the race), I thought they had simply dropped out somewhere on the trail (see haunted by a memory above).

9am- Fruitless Search Completed

Having backtracked from the checkpoint a few miles and two hours later, I had given up the search and was back at the checkpoint.   I thought my race was over.

Luckily, there was no issue with me continuing.  I realized I may not be able to do some of the challenges now, but I still had items I could use, so I headed out.  The next challenge was only a few miles away.  On route, I had to pick up my travois from the night before and carry it down to a section of cliffs.  Here, hidden in the nooks and crannies were arrow shafts- I needed four.  After about 30 minutes of searching in the cliffs, I found the four arrow shafts I needed (thanks to Corinne and Nick for the leeway as there were only four shafts left spread out over the entire cliff).

I had part of a cheeseburger, drank some Tailwind (NFI) and headed back up into the hills to Eagle Cave.  Now, one of the reasons I had decided I could do this run was that I was ensured that the cave from 2013 was not on the list of things we had to do.  Oh, well…

11am- The Hole

Technically a cave, the opening is a 2×2 foot hole in the ground. Tight places and I are not friends I was not looking forward to this. We had to find 3 arrowheads with different colored dots on them. We didn’t have to find 4 arrowheads because when putting the white dot arrows out, three copperheads made their presence known and the bag was abandoned. 7 hours in, I get in the hole, find I’ve caught Angela (the only female competitor in the race), and she’s been crawling around in there for a while, still missing her 3rd arrowhead. I quickly find two, then start crawling back to look in an area she hadn’t explored. I get back there and realize I’ve found the bag of white arrowheads. OK, didn’t they say something about copperheads back here? Time to go… Luckily, on my way back I spotted the third arrowhead I needed, accidentally gave away their position to Angela (giving aid to a fellow survival run is grounds for disqualification) and we both got out of there quickly. Time in the hole: about 15 minutes.

The next section was a “self-navigation” over about a mile or two, bushwhacking the whole time (aka no trails).   I got turned around and by the time I got to the next checkpoint, Angela had beaten me there (even though she left after me).

12 noon- Fletching

An item on our list was four large feathers (which, as I live in a city and don’t have regular winged vertebrate access, I had to buy online) and artificial sinew. I had the feathers, but had lost the sinew (see above). Luckily, we only had to turn in the feathers, and there was sinew provided for us to fletch our arrows. Fletched all four and headed out to the archery range, about 4-5 miles of trails and bushwhacking away.IMG_3761

Next stop: make a bow and shoot it.

2:00 (ish)- Bow Time

Making a survival bow out of a Juniper branch is difficult, but easier than trying to make one out of the 1×2 I tried to carve with my survival knife at home. When I arrived, there were a few runners there finishing up their bows and I felt good that I had (kind of) caught back up.   It still took a while and I had to find a different branch halfway through the construction as the first branch turned out to be unsuitable. Once that was carved, stringing the bow consisted of making a Flemish twist with the string and then stringing the bow. I had the twist down, but couldn’t get the bowstring to stay taught. We then could practice with our bow as much as we wanted, but then had four chances to climb about 10-15 feet into a tree and shoot a “bear” about 15 yds away. After about 8 practice shots, I had hit nothing. It was getting close to 3:30 and I knew I was up against time, so I decided to give it a go, resigned that this might be my first missed challenge. Climbed the tree, wiped the sweat out of my eyes, pulled the string back as far as I could and let it fly…right through the heart. Well, 1/1000 of an inch into the bear at about where the heart was, but it stuck, surprising myself, the guy in charge of the checkpoint and the bear. BearI jumped out of the tree and picked up my bow and arrows (which I had to carry with me for the rest of the race).

Got the symbols for the challenges I had completed to that point, stamped them into my copper disk with my survival knife (chisel and nail having been lost with the bag) and stamped out my first word: F-A-I-L. To explain, the disk had four sections. By completing all the challenges in a section, you get a word. Do all the challenges and finish the race and they spell out I DID NOT FAIL. They build up over the race and you only get the NOT if you complete everything. One word down and it was only just before 4 o’clock. :)

Before leaving on the next leg (about 6 miles), I was told that I had to be through the next two checkpoints by 7:30 pm. I remembered the next section of running as being particularly brutal with a lot of bushwhacking, ridiculously rocky and cactus-y. On top of that, there was very little shade and while it wasn’t hot for Texas, it was pretty warm. Angela had just finished her bow making and so we agreed to head out together. 12 hours into any race, having someone to talk to distracts you from what I like to call “the demons”. Those voices that try to convince you to stop, remind you constantly of what hurts, and generally exist to beat you down. We ran, hiked and bushwhacked for 2 hours to cover that 6 mile stretch. (did I mention the terrain was pretty brutal?)

6:00pm- Bow and Sling

Rolling into what would be our final checkpoint, the last two skills were to shoot a target placed uphill from your position (by the way, once you made something you had to carry it. Carrying a bow and four precariously fletched arrows through all the bushwhacking made it even more fun and we found more than a few remnants of previous runners’ demise as we picked up the odd feather or arrow that had been claimed by the unfriendly vegetation.)

RPXD0007Hit the target on the third try (of only four allowed, so just barely) and then looked around for material to make my sling. My missing bag contained most of the material I needed, so I improvised and found someone else’s dropped sling and completed the challenge. By then it was 6:30 and we needed to go another 4 difficult miles, start a fire, boil water in a cup made out of cactus and then make tea with medicinal herbs we needed to identify in the next hour. We weren’t going to make and called it there.

We ended up 12th and 13th, outlasting 6 of the 18 runners that had started the race. A further 6 made it to the next checkpoint and only 3 finished the race. I felt good and had completed everything put in front of me. Still probably wouldn’t have finished the entire race (leaving the next checkpoint, you had to carry a 20 pound rock for 2 (I think) miles, build a deadfall trap with it, then run some more before getting in the freezing cold river for a 1.25 mile “swim” upstream.

We were driven back to the start.  I ate some jerky, watched the first and second place guys come in and then crashed hard.

Everyone out there was an incredible athlete, both physically and mentally, and it was humbling to participate and learn from them. As I said at the beginning, I learned a lot.  I like the dual nature of the challenge this type of race gives and will do it again if I can find the time to train properly.  Next year sees the race moving to California, so I need to go practice my fire making….Success will be in getting further the next time…

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the idiot

PS- Big thanks to Jeff Genova for the great pics and to RD Josue and everyone else who made this happen!

Zen and the Art of Mountain Running- Nirvana Big Bear 50k Race Report

IMG_3012The howling of the wolves was our starting gun, the rattle of the diamondbacks our cowbells. Nineteen intrepid souls began their looping journey in the semi-dark shadow of Crafts Peak near Big Bear, California. Some had ambitions of completing a 100 mile expedition, my goals were more modest- complete 31 and still have enough strength in my legs to work the gas pedal that would propel my car back to Las Vegas.

It was 37 degrees at the start, but warmed quickly, and soon I was down to shorts and a t-shirt. Early on, my toes were a bit numb in my sandals and I had another pair of shoes stashed at the start just in case the course was more technical than I could handle in my flip-flops. Turned out, that wasn’t going to be an issue.

IMG_3024Starting at about 6,500 ft was a new experience for me, and the first hill reminded me of the difficulties of running at altitude (well, at least more altitude than I was used to). The first two miles took nearly 30 minutes as I adjusted, and the pack drifted away from me.  As this was the Nirvana Big Bear race, I tried to place my mind in a present state and breathe.  After the second or third hill, I tried to focus on getting my heart rate under 200 and making it to the end.

IMG_3058The course itself was a series of three loops, the first two (of 1.5 and .5 a mile respectively) brought us up to just under 7,000 ft twice and then the 8 mile loop pushed us to the top at around 7,300 ft, then threw us into a series of hills before chasing us down the mountain and back to the finish.  Total elevation gain was about 4,800 ft per Garmin. Two well stocked and excellently volunteered aid stations were set up so that you actually hit them three times (miles 5, 8, and the start/finish).  This was the initial running of the NBB, and RD John Wog put on a fantastic race!

IMG_3091Because of the short loops at the start, I had the chance to glimpse a few other runners, but with only 19 on a 10 mile stretch, I didn’t expect to have much sense of where everyone was.  I am competitive, but generally not a competitor in these races, but I do occasionally gain purpose from knowing someone is just in front or just behind me. My first indicator that something different was happening at this race came as I rolled into the first aid station.  I had caught up to and was running with one of the 50 milers, and as we came to the table, the volunteer checking us off said to me: “You’re in third place!”  Awesome! I love being in front only 5 miles into a race! (he typed sarcastically) Something must be wrong. I don’t think I’m going too fast.  Maybe the wolves are actually out on the course (which, by the way, it turns out that there are wolves in Big Bear, but they’re at a sanctuary 20 miles away, maybe I heard coyotes…) We loped out of the aid station to complete a 3+ mile loop, and didn’t pass anyone. As we sauntered back through the checkpoint, I confirmed that I was actually in 3rd, and began the descent to the start.  I forgot to mention that I was holding my iPhone on a stick, trying to get a time-lapse of the first loop of the course.  That didn’t really work, but it did allow me to get a few good shots without really stopping.

As I made the transition, I passed a guy who looked like he was running the 50k, but I wasn’t sure.  “How can you look at someone and tell what they’re running?”, I hear you ask.  Let’s just say I was one with the mountain at this point, and because when I asked him what distance he was running, he said “50k”. Hypothesis confirmed.

Ok, now I’m technically in second place and we still have 20 miles to go.  Based on my past race experience, that’s not going to hold unless I do something different.  Time to channel my inner coyote and run like the wind on a becalmed sea.  I actually did the second loop in almost exactly the same time as the first loop (around 2:05) but because there were very few times you had long straightaways, I had no idea how much distance I had put on #2 or how far in front the leader was.  It was getting warmer and my heightened senses told me the leader was close…and that I would need a shower.

IMG_3133I bombed the downhill at a 12 minute pace J and came roaring into the start/finish to begin my final loop.  Another runner was there and as we left together we started chatting. He was running sleep-deprived from a 5 day old newborn and wasn’t sure what distance he had signed up for.  In addition he had kicked a boulder, so was struggling a bit on the downhills.  I had to stop to adjust my straps as my homemade lacing system was starting to rub, and by the time I was done he was way up ahead of me. It took me a while to catch up to him and we stayed close for a while before his injury started to slow him down even more.  I moved forward with the odd sense that something had just happened.

Leading a race is never something I had done and it was a bit terrifying.  Confirmation that I was now in the lead came at the midway aid station, so with 5 miles to go, I needed to step it up.  Rooting around in my head, I found the coyote again and woke him up, thundering out of the aid station and stupidly running a 10 minute mile that left my quads shaking.  I caught Ed the Jester (he was only 3 loops into his eventual 100 mile odyssey), talked to him for a bit and learned we both knew some of the same people, then power hiked the last hill into the final checkpoint, leaving only a little over a mile left to the finish.  I saw Doug (the eventual 3rd place finisher) hitting the aid station as I was going by the other way, so I knew I had a little over 3 miles on him, but didn’t know where Dustin, the sleep deprived, injured new father was.  The coyote was licking his paws, so I hobbled my best into the finish area, only to be reminded that I had completed 30 miles, not 31, so I needed to do two ½ mile loops to complete the distance.  A guide was provided and he assured me that we had no more hills to climb, so we set off at a respectable pace and finished in 6:38.  As it was, Dustin was about 30 minutes behind me and Doug was 11 minutes behind him. First place felt good! Maybe I should start looking for sponsors?IMG_3187

According to Wikipedia, Nirvana literally means “blown out”, and in the Buddhist context nirvana refers to the imperturbable stillness of mind after the fires of desire, aversion, and delusion have been finally extinguished. I’m embarrassed to report that I didn’t achieve Nirvana.  My mind is still all over the place, this race did not extinguish my desire to run, I do have an aversion to pain, and am still deluded.  I did almost blow out a quad, though, so maybe I’m close… :)IMG_3195

Note: Still Working on my American Odyssey Relay race report from the week before.  Trying to get other’s perspective, otherwise you’ll only hear about 1/12 of the race!

The Monkey vs The Mountain vs The Mafate

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A (somewhat serious) review of three shoes I wear/have worn: The Luna Mono, The Altra Olympus and the Hoka Mafate 2

So, I used to run in the Hoka Mafate’s, I’ve been running in the Luna Mono’s for about 6 months and just got my pair of Altra Olympus’ and I thought to myself: Has anyone reviewed/compared the 3?  A quick search showed a scattering of reviews, but none that compared all three, so I decided to take on the task for others, like me, that are looking for guidance in a sea of choices.  Arguably, all three are different in their own way, but there are a lot of similarities that make the comparisons less than ridiculous.

My conclusion is at the end of this brief review, so if you’re the impatient type, you can scroll down. ☺

First: The look

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The first thing you’ll notice when wearing any of these three shoes is that other people will tend to stare.  Both the Hokas and the Altras put you on a platform a few inches above the normal running rabble and the sheer volume of the shoes causes looks.  The Luna’s, while garnering a slightly different response, still score high on the gaping stare spectrum, especially when worn when it’s cold outside.

Next: The feel

For me, this is one of the key differentiators and the reason why I’d choose one over the others.  The Hokas have great cushioning, but my foot sits deep in the shoe.  The result is a rubbing on the side of my ankle that caused me to cut a notch out of the shoe (noticeable in the picture above).  Also, for me the shoes are a bit too narrow and for longer distances, as my foot swells, it rubs.  This is the hurdle, for me, where these shoes fall.  Raw skin and blisters should not be a part of any activity you love to do.  I will speak of them no more

The Lunas have their own special rubbing points, but I’ve found if I wear toe socks for really long runs, I have no issues at all.  The contact of the strap between the toes can be alleviated either that way or with a lubricant like Body Glide (NFI) and the buckle on the top of the foot can be dealt with the same way.  The heel strap rubbing is eliminated (in my opinion) with the addition of a tech strap, or additional straps as shown in the picture.  Once that is sorted, they are a lot of fun to run in.  Sockful or sockless, running on the road or on trail is comfortable and oddly freeing.  No worries about running through water or mud, it all just runs through.  I do get the occasional rock, but no more than wearing shoes without gaiters, and it is considerably easier to get rid of them than completely untying the shoes. Also, after a couple of runs, they mold to the shape of your foot, which makes them feel great.

The Altras, in my opinion, fixed a lot of issues I had with the Hokas.  Just as padded (in my opinion) on the bottom, MUCH wider toebox (although I haven’t run an ultra in them yet, so no idea on rubbing) and the collar around the ankle is a lot lower, so there shouldn’t be any rubbing there.  The few runs I’ve taken them on have been a lot of fun and the zen-like tread pattern works well on loose dirt/gravel.

Next: Form

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I run using the Chi method, hitting on the balls/mid foot unless my form gets sloppy.  Both the Lunas and the Altras can accommodate this style as they are zero drop (no difference between the heel height and the toe height).  As you can see from the pictures above, there is a slight difference in the amount of cushioning between the two :) , and that leads me to:

Finally: The conclusion

To recap, I wanted to love the Hokas, but they weren’t made for my spread out, swelling feet.  If you remember, I ran Death Valley in a pair of Hokas, but switched out between them and a different model of Altras.  I ended up having to cut relief holes in the Hokas to avoid re-aggravating the blisters.

The new Altra Olympus appears, at first run, to be all that was missing in the Hokas, I like the cushioning, the depth and the width.  I have two races coming up in the next few months and will run at least one of them in the Altras.  For me, if it’s too cold, or the course is ridiculously technical or long, I think they’ll be my go-to shoe.  I like minimalist, but I’m not a masochist.

The Lunas, however, are my go-to for everything else.  I love the idea of strengthening my foot muscles and running more naturally and I love how the sandals pretty quickly molded to my feet.  I have over 200 miles on my current pair, and they’re still going strong.

Basically, I run because I enjoy it.  I’m usually nowhere near a podium or a course record and I like to be able to walk and talk after a race, not collapse in a quivering heap.  I will pick one of these shoes over the other based on the type of experience I want to have (with the exception of the Hokas, did I mention that?).  If I want to bound around like a deer (or a monkey), I’ll take the Lunas, If I want to plow through a mountain, I’ll reach for Olympus.  I may have found the perfect pairs of shoes for me, at opposite ends of the spectrum, but covering it all.  I’m running in the swamps in Florida next week at the DWD Green Swamp 50k, so I’ll probably be monkey-ing around down there!

I have no financial interest in anything I mentioned here, but I do have friends that work for/sell both the Lunas and the Altras.  If that, in your mind, constitutes a conflict of interest, I’m really sorry I wasted your time.  My recommendation would be to go out and see what works for you. ;)

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1 Inspired Idiot

28 Miles on a Safety Pin

IMG_2402 Author’s Note: This report is late due to the ongoing dialog with major motion picture companies on the eventual film rights to this story.  As those negotiations seem to have broken down on a number of fronts, I’ve felt it important to release the story and worry about whether or not Matthew McConaughey could or couldn’t actually run this far for another day.

Running in sandals gives you a feeling unlike any I’ve ever experienced.  No material to rub your toes raw, the wind freely blows through the hairs on your toes and with the one’s I was wearing (Luna Mono’s- I have no financial interest in mentioning them, but I do know someone that works there and I did spend the better part of the Fuego y Agua getting to know and like him.  He did also teach me how to add another strap to make them conform to my feet, so that may bias my thoughts towards these sandals versus others.  Void where prohibited, etc.) there was enough padding to keep me going through the 31 paved miles of paths of Nashville and set a PR of 5:23.  But that’s only part of it.IMG_2406

The real story is of a guy named Jason from Nashville, who ran the full 50 mile version of this race in his Luna’s as his first attempt at 50 miles in only his second ultra. Not only that, his ingenious use of a safety pin from his race bib kept him from dropping out of the race 22 miles in.  Jason started, like the majority of the other 184 runners, at 7:00 am on a bright, but slightly chilly, November the 5th.  I briefly saw him at the start, noticing that he, like I, was clad in Luna’s.  IMG_2410A few early stops to take some pictures and adjust my straps (still trying to figure out the “best” fit) put me behind him, but as I ran and chatted with different people (like just about every ultra I’ve been in, the runners all have great stories and challenges and it helps the miles fly by), I started to catch up.  I saw him again as we neared the end of the first 16 mile loop (the hilly one).

IMG_2412We were flying by my standards (sub 10 minute miles) and once I found out he was running the 50 mile, it was his first, and he was way ahead of his goal pace, we agreed to stay together,  making sure we stayed quick without blowing up.  He had an earlier, thinner version of the sandals on that he had been running in for almost a year, and we swapped stories and advice (both experienced and read) as the miles rolled past.  We ran past the finish line to start the second loop and into the more isolated section of the course.  Staying mostly on the paved path, we soon veered off into a grassy section at mile 18 and dodged roots and logs for about 2 ½ miles. Pace had slowed at this point to just over 10 minutes, but we both still felt good.  We caught a few people, and then came back out onto the pavement.  I can’t remember if it was a speed bump or just a foot drag, but at about mile 22, the front of Jason’s sandal caught and he pulled the toe strap right out of the bottom of the sandal.

Over the next few minutes we tried everything- tying a knot in the strap (not enough leather), running with the strap as it was (no dice), running ½ and ½ (one foot barefoot, again a non-starter).  Jason finally got the strap to go through the hole in the bottom and sit there, but we knew it wasn’t a long term fix.  Luckily, the next aid station was only about a mile away, so we slowly shuffled there, trying to think of a fix.  Of course, if I had all my survival implements from the previous race with me, we could have come up with a complicated solution that would have involved me cutting off a toe, but unfortunately, I didn’t bring them.  As we came into the aid station, we started to think about alternatives, and the idea of using one of the safety pins on Jason’s bib surfaced.  IMG_2417IMG_2419IMG_2423After only a few more minutes, we had the solution and motored out of the aid station!

My turn around point was only another half mile up the road, but after testing it, Jason declared himself ready to go and kept on.  Meanwhile, I turned around, and continued my race for the last 6 or so miles with the usual paranoia that sets in late in the race while running alone.  Is that someone catching me? What was that noise? I only went how far since the last time I looked at my watch?? Where is the bridge?  My GPS must be messed up, I know it’s not this far!  Luckily, although I saw a group, and they did nearly catch me, I was able to gut it out and finish 4th in my age group and 12th overall.  The real question was, what happened to Jason?

I got a text from him later that day that he finished in 12:43 after bonking around mile 35, he rallied and clicked his way to the finish line.  There are a lot of inspiring stories in the ultra world on overcoming adversity.  The distance and the time combine to throw a lot of reasons to quit at you.  A first attempt at 50 miles is daunting. Having your shoe fall apart would seem to most to be reason to quit.  Having a safety pin as the only thing holding it together for 8+ hours had to be a constant mind game and I draw inspiration from Jason’s perseverance.  My hat is off to him- look for the film in the 2015 summer releases!IMG_2425

Moved by the Spirit- Spirit of the Osage 50k report

(Note: this race was held on 10/20.  Apologies for the late report)

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Not the farm, but an interesting country church

In the beautiful hills of Missouri, about halfway between St Louis and Kansas City, lies Osage County.  There are no stoplights in the entire county, and the land is dotted with farms.  Just off Highway HH, the hills rise to a peak at the home of race directors David and Victoria White.
This is where we started and ended our jaunt- three loops (and a short out and back) on a combination of paved and gravel roads.  As they lived at the highest point, each loop was capped by a mile long climb that brought you into the waiting arms of the aid station.  The temptation was to linger, but with the countryside beckoning, and knowing that a return trip would only take a few more hours, you left with that great feeling of one more lap in the books.

My strategy from the start was to stay at the back and stay disciplined.  The only elevation profile I could find said that there was about 1200 feet of gain for the entire distance.  That turned out to be per loop (note: always pay attention), so 3600 for the entire 31 mile distance!

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Not game ending, but not exactly what I was prepared for. I took the camera out on the first loop to get some shots, knowing I could drop it for the next two (and knowing that my desire to take pictures is inversely related to the distance I’d already covered).  I also was experimenting running in Luna (NFI) sandals and had “real shoes” ready at the end of loop aid station just in case. Loop 1 started well and I was able to chat with a few people and finally caught up with Chris Tallman about halfway through the loop. He had stopped to take a picture of a fairly uninterested bull and we decided to run the rest of the race together, swapping stories and enjoying the run. IMG_2326 Loop 1, about 11 miles, we finished in just over 2 hours and with the next two loops being shorter, we thought around a 6 hour finish was doable.  The Lunas were holding up well, so I dropped the camera and we started loop 2.

On loop 2 we started to catch and pass a few people.  In a 3 loop race, in my opinion, the second loop is the hardest mentally.  The early race euphoria has worn off, you’re seeing the same scenery for the second time (no matter how beautiful) and you know you are going to have to do it again when you’re done.  Having someone to run with helps as the conversation usually makes the miles go by largely unnoticed. That was loop two and as we hit the bottom of the last hill, I had an unexpected visit from John Cash (working aid stations after completing the 20k) saying I had an urgent phone call.  OK, so into his truck and back to the start line, I was on the phone for a good 40 minutes, but thankful that everything was resolved and was able to get back to the run.  I caught a ride back to the bottom of the hill and started again.  One note, I did wimp out and change into shoes while on the phone, so now I was ready to do the last lap plus a mile.

On my way up the hill, I ran into Justin Handy, a good friend and fellow SLUG.  I had spoken to a few people during the race that had told me this was their first ultra and I told Justin how unusual I thought that was.  He surprised me by telling me that this was his first as well (we had run a number of long training runs together, so I assumed he was a veteran)!  Ok, that 40 minute call served two purposes and one was to put me right where I was so I could run with Justin.  On the last loop we took turns motivating each other to run, run faster or walk faster.  Made it up the last hill and into the finish!  I was really glad I could be there for his first ultra and we devoured a few brats, some chili and a few beverages and enjoyed the great spread put on by Dave and Victoria.  All in all, a great day, a big change from my race two weeks earlier, but once again, a chance to run and talk with some great people.  The camaraderie is the biggest difference between these runs and the 10,000+ marathons, in my opinion, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  On to Nashville two weeks later for (what I assume) is going to be the flattest ultra I’ve ever run!

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Ain’t no Fuego like a Texas Fuego!

IMG_2305_edited-1Legends tell of a place deep in the heart of Texas where fire and water join the hills to try to destroy all who enter.  The sun burns, the water is undrinkable and the buzzards circle.  We entered this place willingly, and (thankfully) it spit us out whole…

The first annual Fuego y Agua (US) was held at Camp Eagle near Rocksprings Texas. The race offered four levels of challenge (50 and 100k “run only” and 50 and 100k survival runs <details here>).  I chose the easiest, and it still was one of the longest 50k’s I’ve ever “run”.  I finished in 9:51, which was good enough for 6th overall in the 50k run (out of 13 runners, one of whom dropped out (DNF)).  In the 50k survival category, 10 of the 23 DNF’d and only 1 person did all the challenges and finished the 50k (in 16 hrs, 22 min).  No one finished the 100k in either event.  To say race director Josue Stephens had created a challenge is an understatement.

The survivalists started at 4:30 AM and the runners at 5:30. The reason they started early was they had to make the running sandals they were going to run in.  IMG_2210Materials were provided by Luna (NFI) and armed with a knife, a sheet of rubber and some strapping, they went to work.  The day before they had to carry a log (weight commensurate with their own weight) up a hill to get their race bib.  Crazy.

By the time we woke up and meandered down there, they were putting together their sandals and their “packs” (they had to make a pack out of a shirt or bandana, no hydration packs here).  All had finished and set off before we got the go signal, and at 5:30 we ran off into the dark of Camp Eagle to begin our odyssey.

We quickly caught the survival runners (they had that same log on their backs as they ascended and then descended a pretty steep hill (100ft straight up, then 159 down to the riverbed)). We cheered them on as they took their logs into the river for a swim while we ran along the bank and back up into the hills.  We didn’t see any of them again, and as noted before, a number of them never made it.

I was fortunate to run into two veteran runners- Tom Norwood and Francois “Flint” Bordeau and we ran together for most of the race, only parting when it became apparent that they were in much better shape than I was (around the 40k mark we decided that I should use my own two legs to run rather than have them continue to drag me on the litter they had fashioned out of oak branches).  They are the reason I was able to finish at all, much less place so well.  The combination of Tom’s running skills (he wore Luna sandals the entire time) and Flint’s East Canadian tracking skills (we avoided what we were pretty sure was a rabid wolf in the first few hours) got us through a number of interesting places on the course.

We were spared navigating the more treacherous parts of the course in the dark, but as the sky brightened, so did the metaphorically maniacal glee in our RDs eyes. While the pace could indeed pick up as we could now see, we were led into areas where men fear to tread.  Up hills, down gullies and full of bushwhacking (seemingly endless crawling over/under/through trees/bushes/rocks/cacti).  Our pace slowed considerably, but having 3 sets of eyes to find the next marker assured us we were heading in the right direction (and not towards an untimely fate) and helped us make up time.  By a few hours in, we figured we were near the middle of the pack.  We reached the first checkpoint with water and decided to take a break and fill up.  checkpointThe water was in a giant round tub fed by a well that needed to be sterilized, but not necessarily filtered. We had passed 3 runners, two of whom then re-passed us at the checkpoint.  We got of there quickly, determined to catch them again and hopefully stay ahead of them.

It took us a bit, (more ups and downs, a bit of bushwhacking), but we caught them again and they were struggling.  Hudson and Chris were both running their first ultra (Chris in Lunas), having decided to run it only a few weeks before (unbelievably). Chris had knee issues and the heat was getting to Hudson.  We stayed with them for a bit, gave them some salt pills and words of encouragement, and then headed on.  This was about 12-13 miles into the race and it was a testament to them that they not only kept going, but finished well.

So, having passed them, we descended back into the special hell that Josue designed, on our way to the halfway point (15.87 miles, 4hrs 44 min).  It was at this point that we heard the incredible.  There were only three 50k runners ahead of us!  Visions of podiums and paparazzi spurred us out of the checkpoint.

I was feeling pretty good at this stage, but I wasn’t eating enough (he now says in hindsight).  To keep us occupied, though, there were a lot of interesting things to see and do.

Including what I can only think is “forest bowling” bowl

 

 

Blooming cactus staring cactus

 

 

 

 

 

Spider avoiding spider

 

 

 

 

and of course, the one thing you always (read never) do in a 50k, rock climbing!

The ups and downs faded away, and the course now became runnable.  This initially confused us as we were sure we had missed a turn somewhere- this part actually looked like a trail!  The long day of climbing started to take its toll on me, though and as Tom and Flint hit their stride, mine hit me back.

As I mentioned before, I hadn’t been eating enough as I was trying to “listen to my body” and go by feel rather than by schedule.  It worked for about 35-40k, but what I thought was silence turned out to be willful blindness and my body had to stage an intervention to get me to listen.  At the 40k checkpoint, my water was low enough to warrant a trip to the river to refill.  Flint and Tom had waited for me (we had decided to try to finish together for a “joint” 4th place finish), but it soon became apparent that I wasn’t in nearly as good a shape as they were, and I urged them to go on.  Descending about 30-40 feet to the river’s edge, I filled my water bottle, took out my ultraviolet sterilizing pen, and….

…nothing.  (Uh-oh)

If I didn’t get the water sterilized, my race was over.  Even though we only had a few miles to go, I couldn’t run it without water.  For what seemed like 30 minutes, but was actually only about 5, I tried to get the thing to work, constantly looking over my shoulder and sure that Chris, Hudson or one of the other runners would be coming into the checkpoint at any minute.  I finally got it to light up, sterilized the water, ate some food and got out of there.  One big up hill and a bit more bushwhacking, and I stumbled into the finish, 16 minutes behind Tom and Flint.  As it turned out, the closest runner was still about an hour behind me and it was another 3 ½ hours before the final runners crossed the finish line. My GPS said we did about 4700 ft of climbing, and then laughed at me.

Overall, it was a great race, very different from anything I’d ever experienced.  I made some good friends and was overawed at the limits that some people can push themselves to and still keep going.  The survival runners were inspiring and I would entertain attempting that next year, except for one challenge, the hole cave.  It’s the entrance to a bat (and other things)-filled cave that many spent an hour in.  No thanks.

Inspired? Yes Idiot? Yes, but if every mile on my quest to run 2014 for the kids at SouthSide Early Childhood Center is this entertaining, there will be an even bigger smile on my face when we open the doors to the new school!

Next run is Spirit of the Osage in two weeks (what am I thinking?)…longhorn

Shadows in the Rain

“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. IMG_2126This 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

Old Man's Cave from above

Old Man’s Cave from above

(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.  IMG_2129She 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!

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