Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Bigfoot 50K

Here we are in hilly Ohio. I keep thinking Ohio is just like Michigan, except without the cool Upper Peninsula, but on my drive down (or, over and down, I-80 to I-77), entering Salt Fork State Park, I was reminded of how hilly Ohio is, much more than the parts of Michigan that I know. This could be a brutal course.

I stayed the night in the Lodge, right smack in the middle of this huge park, and where the race will start. It was nice not having to get up at 4:30 to drive somewhere, with the seven o'clock start, I ended up getting up at five-thirty anyways, to get a half hour of meditation in, and even that got cut short, as I just got too distracted wondering if I was allowing myself enough time to get ready, in having to carry out one of my bags (filled with student papers: I read about five) out to my truck to facilitate the check out procedure. The Lodge is being cool about letting us runners check out later, but I've asked for a two o'clock check out, and who knows, I may be slower than I think. Still, it will be wonderful to get a warm shower in before I have drive the five hours back up later. Ugh.

My goal is to get under six hours. I ran the Woodstock 50K a few months ago and that was my time, almost to the second, so now that I have some mental sense of what to expect (ha!) I'd like to slip in under six. My plan for today is to start out fast. That seems to work for me, rather than, especially on a trail race, getting bogged down behind the slower hillwalkers, though I think there's only 145 runners, so I imagine we'll all get strung out pretty quick. On the other hand, I haven't run more than two hours since the Detroit Marathon about six weeks ago, so I'm not sure I'm in as good of shape as I was for Woodstock. Still, the race is a big ten mile loop, which we'll run three times. I'm thinking that if I can get a good fast first loop, then momentum and fear of being passed will keep my at a decent pace for the next two loops, and if I can merely run them both at two hours, then I'm golden. Ha.

I confess that I also have another motivation this race: There's a Vibram Five Fingers Division, and the winner gets a free pair of VFFs. I think I might have a chance at this. In ten years everyone and their brother will be wearing minimalist shoes, but right now we're few and far between, so maybe there aren't any monster runners for this. It's COLD this morning, 20 degrees, and won't get much above freezing all day. Plus winter and snow flurries. Woo hoo! So there's no way I would do this pure barefoot. I have my KSOs, and my Injinji socks, and those plus my clothing layers should keep me warm once I start running, at least based on my running so far this Fall. The Vibrams actually feel like luxury. I've been all barefoot all summer, with this added layer, I feel invincible! Though I'm not letting myself go back to shod mode at all.

One oddity: Official sun up isn't until 7:30, and the sky is supposed to be cloudy all day. So, not being a night runner (running barefoot at night freaks me out), I don't have a headlamp. So, I'm brought my mini-light from my bike. It's small and lightweight. But, do I need it? Could I last for that half hour and just coast off of other runners? That doesn't seem right, so I opt to take it, thinking I can easily slip it into one of my many pockets in my New Balance running shell jacket-thingy.

The start is weird: Since it's so cold, everyone is congregating on the fourth floor of the Lodge, where the packet pickup was. Btw: The Lodge is built into the side of a hill overlooking a reservoir, so the fourth floor is the top. At ten to, one of the organizers yells out, “Can everyone please head outside?”

We head outside onto the porch/patio. He yells out, “Can everyone please head out onto the pavement?”

We head out onto the pavement. But, where's the stop sign? Which way to we run? He once again yells out, “Can everyone please line up behind the starting gate?”
We look: Oh, there it is, behind us, hidden by a truck. We all move in that direction. Since I've decided to start off fairly fast, I move to about twenty feet behind it, thinking the fast folks with fill in in front of me. But no: Everyone starts to line up behind me and some others nearby. Nobody lines up right at the gate. It's like nobody wants to start off fast. So we stand there with twenty feet of space between us and the start line. Weird. But, I mean, I don't move. It's too crowded, and why not? Why not start up front, for a change, and for something risky and new? I've underestimated myself a couple times on races this past summer, and I've been telling my students to think beyond what they think they can do, so...Let's see.

The organizer dude give us directions: Orange flagging, with occasional blue arrows. Three loops. And, “Your feet will be wet the whole time.” Ok, great. That means my Vibrams are going to be soaked.

He yells, Go! and we go. Through the start gate, following some orange arrows in the parking lot, doing a huge loop of it, then cutting out on to some grass, and to what starts to develop into a trail. One guy's hat flies off and he stops to collect it. The guy next to me says, “Oh, that's hit. That cost him the race right there!” So, good to be with people with a sense of humor. And, the pace isn't insane actually. No sprinters. Just a good fast trot. Plus we're heading downhill, heading down to the edge of that reservoir below. I'm actually like tenth, which is bizarre, but the first ten are fairly bunched up, taking it easy down the incline. The rail is a little muddy, a little slippery, and will only get muddier and slipperier as the day proceeds.

We bottom out, and immediately there's a minor fiasco: Two people, in the lead, run right past a sharp turn to the left, going back uphill. There is flagging, but it came pretty quick and if I'd been alone I might have missed it too. But, the bump back in ahead of me, with some grumbling.

It's dark, but not super dark. I should have remembered from my wildland firefighting days that the sky starts to get light before actual daybreak, but I just wasn't sure if, once we got in the trees, things would get dark again. Turns out not. I've had my mini light on, but it's not really doing anything. Kinda cool to look back as the trail curves around to the right, and see and string of moving lights in the woods. Elves! But, I turn off the light and put it in my side pocket. Problem: The pocket is so deep that the light actually starts bumping against my boys. Grr. Ok, I take it out and unzip my jacket, dropping it in the inner pocket. But, same thing, it's so deep that it bangs my boys again. Argh. What to do? Well, I have a back pocket in my shell pants, where I keep my spare truck key. I tuck it in there, but it's just I little too heavy, and starts to drag my pants down. Argh! I shouldn't have to be worrying about this.

So, that, plus to somewhat fast pace, and the determined feel of my fellow front-runners, and the fact that we're heading uphill again, plus the fact that I'm trying to do all this while still running, and with my gloves and hat off and held in one hand, makes me break out in a huge sweat. I mean, it's pouring off my face, soaking my hair. That knocks some sense into me. I don't want to get hypo-thermia out here. So, I just slip my light back in the side pocket and decide to suffer. Seems not to knock my gnards when going up or downhill, which seems to be the majority of the race, so maybe I'm ok.

In the meantime, I've dropped my hat. Crap. Go back? Go on? Will I need it? Will I cool back down. Argh. I stop in indecision, looking back, and that's when the guy behind me yells, “Drop your hat?”

Yes. He has it! Right on. I give him a Cheers! and we continue. And, as the trail goes back to some downhill, and not that I'm not jerking around with my stuff, my body cools back down and I put my hat back on. But it, and especially my new snowmobile-level gloves are super warm, so I'm going to taking them on and off the whole race I fear. If it gets too warm, I may be carrying them, which would sucketh.

Up and down, generally making our way sidehill around fingers of the reservoir. The land, when I actually take some time to look, is beautiful. I mean, the sky is grey, the air is cold, and all the trees are bare, but the water reflects a cool grey light, and just the feeling of being out in the middle of the woods is nice. All the Troubles from work vanish. This is John in his element. This is John doing something he cares passionately about. Like meditation, thoughts come and go: A thought about my poisonous department meetings comes, and there's absolutely nothing I can do about it, so it hangs our a while and vanishes, like it should. Zen running.

The trail is muddy in parts. Ok, it muddy in most of its parts, which makes for some interesting slipping and sliding in my VFFs. I am running 'harder' than I would purely barefoot. The rubber sole allows me to barge through and over leaves and rocks and twigs. Right now, it works, with the adrenaline, but I think I'm going to regret it later, but the third lap. Just having a little protection makes me shift more into shod mode. Not super-slamming my feet, but also not entirely light-footed either. But, the mud helps with that too.

Then: The Hill of Death. We turn left, uphill, and though all of us have been running up the smaller hills to start, there is just no way to run up this bad boy. It's like straight up. So, we become Hillwalkers. And man, I start working up another sweat just hiking this thing, taking off my gloves and hat. There's been some rearranging of positions, people pass me, I pass some. We're all definitely getting strung out now. I look back and actually don't see anybody behind the vanguard of twenty or so, though I think I can hear folks. Too many twists and turns anyways, and enough vegetation, even with the barren trees.

Up up up, and there is light! And space! A road! With a volunteer in her SUV pointing us to the left. Good thing, since there's been a light dusting of snow over night, so all the painted directional arrows on the road are covered up.

And with space comes wind. Brrr! Blustery! Back on with the hat and gloves. And uh oh, I'm feeling a little sore already. Methinks I may have overexerted a little. Out in the open here, with two clear lanes, a couple more people pass me. Also: The snow has some ice underneath. My VFFs are slipping a little, except where cars have packed things down. So, I can see where Vibram might be experimenting with different models, something with a little bit more bite.

Also, warmth might be nice. I'm mostly warm, except my face (my nose is basically a faucet, I'm breathing through my mouth the whole time) and my feets. Not too bad, but praise Allah for the the Injinji socks, which will hold (some) heat even when wet.

We pass some campgrounds, there are people even camping, with tents and everything! Nice! And there are what looks like some retirees out with their Winnebagos. Not a lot, but the park is apparently still open for business. Also, there are hunters, which is kind of a heads up feeling, but they're apparently hunting to our right, in an area we won't be in. Still, kinda yikes.

The “aid station” is set up on the leeward side of a park shower/bathroom, across from another campsite. The volunteers seem to have just gotten there, still setting stuff up, including a portable...handwarmer I guess it would be called, a heater with a tube that shoots out concentrated air. There is water, and I gulp a couple cups. I think I've gotten a little spoiled on my last few races, with aid stations always every two miles or so, seemingly. I'm thinking I should have brought my bat-utility-belt water bottle holder. I have it, I just rarely use it, and didn't at all think to even bring it. Maybe I should be more methodical in bringing supplies, just in case. I'm thirsty, and perhaps already on the road to dehydration. As long as I'm at it, I have a cup of the Dew o' the Mountain. And there are snacky-snacks: chips and cookies, though of course the things I zero in on are the Fig Newtons! I heart figs!

And I'm off again. Me and this other guy are kind of together, with no one else close by. He's from Ohio, on his first 50K and first trail run every. Nice. He says he's only begun doing long races recently, in the past year of so, and says his last marathon time was 3:10! Doh! Wow. I kinda wonder what they hell I'm doing running the same pace as him, but I assume he'll eventually pass me. But actually, he falls off a little as we head left off the road, up a short hill, to what could be the highest point in the park, since there's a water tank. But after that, the trail starts to head down down down again. More mud, kind of slippery, but I take it pretty fast, sometimes jumping side to side on the trail to kind of brace my controlled fall.

The trail levels out, back in the trees, and suddenly a spot with lots of orange flagging appears. It's a 'T'. I can go right or left, and and either way has more flagging and blue arrows. Wtf? I stop, trying to figure out.

The guy I've just been talking to catches up, starting to say, “I think it goes to the—“ He pauses. “Oh. Wow.”


We both stand there. I have no idea what to do, feeling the urge to just go, but fearing going the wrong way. I just can't get my head wrapped around it. If we're on a loop, how can there be two ways to go?

The guy takes a step back and finds a blue arrow sign sticking out of the ground. “It says 'go right'.”

Um, ok. I go right, but am not entirely convinced. We continue to ponder it, especially when we start to run by the reservoir again, this time on the left, and can see another trail across the finger, where two people are walking. They're just walkers, right? Not runners? Right? But, he seems more sure than I am, so I go with it.

Then around the bend comes a young guy running towards us, in shorts, and VFFs! All three of us slow down. The guy behind me asks, “Are you heading the right way?”

The other guy hesitates as we pass him. “I thought so. This is the route for the 50K, right?”

We say yes, keep going, leaving him there. Another guys comes towards us and the guy in shorts yells out, “Fuuuuck!”

We keep going, and gradually it comes to us: This is the trail we started out on, that there's actually a section at the beginning where runners go both ways, and that 'T' is where the loop actually splits. This is confirmed to me when we start back up here, walking of course, and I see two of the people from the front of the pack earlier this morning, coming down. Ok, that makes sense, they're ahead of me, and have already gone up to the Lodge and are now on loop number two. I get it. Wow, why did it take me so long to get it? The guy I'm with and I figure out that we didn't remember seeing that 'T' on our way in. Just goes to show how different things look in different light, and how easily small things like that can get someone lost. If I'd been alone, I might've gone left and still been out on the course. Who knows when I would've figured out I'd gone the wrong way? Maybe the organizers could have explained about the loop split in one of their (admittedly numerous) group emails. Maybe they did and I didn't pay attention. I'm kind of embarrassed I didn't figure it out, but on the other hand, a little heads up, even this morning at the start, might have helped. But I'm betting there's going to be some other people getting messed up back there.

Anyways, up up up, walking slow, pulling off my cap and gloves again. Not until the trail turns to grass, almost to the parking lot, does the ground level off enough to trot again, thankfully, so I can at least look respectable coming into the Lodge and any people crazy enough to be out spectating in this cold. And, there's not a lot, though a few men busy setting up things. A Park truck is actually pulled up right in front of the timing gate, so we have to slip around it to pass through. They're unloading a generator, not sure for what. I stop long enough to pass along to one of the organizers that he may have some angry lost runners out there, and I see her face kind of go blank, as he thinks both, How can people be such idiots, and, How many angry emails am I going to get about this tomorrow?

And, I don't realize it's a problem until I start back around the parking lot, but there was no aid station there. Meaning, no water. Uh oh. It's going to be a long race. I may already be dehydrated, because I even look down at the lower parking lot, off to the side, where I parked my truck last night, and don't even think about running down and dropping off my mini-light. Or, I do, but I tell myself that would be five minutes or more, and I'm trying to not do all those little time-wasters that all end up adding up. Perhaps a little dumb on my part. Time for the first loop: 1: 42. Not bad. Sustainable? Probably not.

Another thing I might have dropped off is my shell pants, which now that they're sufficiently soaked, seem to getting a little baggy and slipping down my butt. Great. So, instead of stopping and pulling them up, I try to do it on the run, which fails miserably, so that I do eventually just have to stop. Maybe I should be paying more attention to how silly my thinking is being this race. Just, not very focused.

On my way down I start to meet others coming up, with the same lost looks that I think I had, wondering if they're going the right way. I and the guy behind me try to reassure them that yes, they're going the right way, and they're very much relieved. I'm expecting to see Rob, my running buddy from The Somerset Stampede Half Marathon back in Michigan. He and his friend Steve (?) are staying at the Lodge too, and we had dinner last night. This is his first 50K, and though he and I are about the same running speed and strength, he opted to start farther back in the pack.

At the T, people coming from the road seem to want to almost follow us, and my bet is that that may have actually happened. I might've done that if I'd come up to the T alone and seen a couple guys heading away off to the left. In fact, I kind of feel like that might have just happened, because suddenly there are three more people right behind me and that one guy I've been with for a while. Oh well, I can't worry any more, I'm starting to worry about me. I'm going slower, definitely already feeling the strain. I'm wondering if from now on I'm going to just be gradually passed and passed. So, there is that to consider with the fast start: having to suffer the humiliation of being passed a lot at the end. I mean, it's not like any of us are going to the Olympics, but yes, the competitiveness does take over.

One guy who passes me has an odd-looking shoe. I guess I only notice it because we're going uphill, so they're right at eye-level. They've got super thin soles, but with super traction bottom. I ask him if they're minimalist shoes, and yes, they are, Inov8s. Still look a little too thick in the sole for me, but man, I'm envying that traction out here in this mud. Fortunately is still kind of 'congealed' I guess, though some places are more wet than others, and I do get some water down into my VFFs. The bad part about the VFF soles is they curve up on the sides, which sort of holds moisture. I'm thinking a pair of VFF Flows might have served me a little better. If I win the VFF division, maybe that's the kind I'll ask for.

Because, yes, that's still on my mind. I remember seeing a list of about ten people in the division on the race website, but I haven't seen any besides that one guy doing the relay, so I wonder if other VFFers decided to go shod for the cold weather. But, I'm now fearing (or, ok, that's a little extreme) that the next person who passes me will have VFFs, and I'll go, Nooooooo! But so far so good.

People do ask about the VFFs, either humorously, like the woman who says, “I wonder what people who don't know about minimalist running will think when they see your footprints.”

“Maybe they're think there's a real Bigfoot out here!”

More than a few times though, a guy will just ask, “How are your feet?” And I'm not quite sure what they mean. They're asking if my feet hurt, yes, but do they mean hurt in a poking way, or hurt in a non-arch supported way? I suspect the later, but in either case, I say, “Fine.” And then they say, “Good job!” And I say back, “You too!” Both of us probably thinking they other is a little crazy. Ah well.

Speaking of Bigfoot, a sidenote: How cool would it be to run this thing dressed in a Bigfoot costume? It would almost be possible, since you wouldn't have to worry about overheating necessarily. How cool would it be to see a bipedal hairy creature running through the woods? Might get shot, but hey.

The huge hill is once again huge. It's just walking, which is pretty tough on the ego, since it's walking for what feels like a long long time. And by the time I get to the top, behind a group of guys, I'm feeling pretty dead. Man, and this is only Loop 2.

And the wind is even more brutal this time, right smack in our faces. I think the temperature has actually dropped again, though it could just be the wind chill. But no, when I finally, and kinda barely, make it to the aid station, the water in the paper cups is frozen over. When I drink some more Dew o' the Mountain, I actually get brain freeze it's so cold. As I'm grabbing treats to nibble on later, one of the workers kind of looks at me funny. “Are you alright?”

I tell her yes, and hope it's just the brain freeze. I get that a lot though. I must have a naturally pained-looking expression when I run.

Off, once again, this time a wee bit more slowly. Trudging. Man, I'm starting to have some doubts about this. But soon, we're heading downhill again, so I can let gravity kind of carry me along, though I'm also not up for slamming down fast either. My thighs can't take it, so I'm being a little bit more dainty. Or, well, maybe that's not the right word. I'm being a bit more sluggish, really.

Still, after the down hill is some relative flatland for a while, going back through the 'T' and now passing people going the other way again. I've actually ended up by myself, at least in this direction, so there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of people who've been hanging back, though maybe everyone is conserving their energy for Loop 3 at this point.

Up the first hill again, and this time at the top I have a little bit harder time starting back up again. It's more through shame of being seen by people at the Lodge that I return to trudging. And, there are even less people out now, but, they now have an aid station! Yes! Two guys are hanging out there, I think they're organizers. They seem bored and want to talk to me. One of them, again, asks me if I'm ok. I am, I just wish the other guy would stop standing in front of the cups of water. The first guy asks me if I want any power drink, or gel, or other science-fiction stuff, but nope, I just want water. I'm a simple man. All that gunk just has a lot of nasty sugar. He seems to think my reaction is weird, but that's certainly not the first time someone has thought that about me! One of the women behind the table asks me if I want some hot soup. I pass, though say I might want some after the race. I'm not super hungry anymore, though I do take a handful of M&Ms as I leave.

Time for second lap? 3:45. Uh oh. I don't think I'm going to make six hours. There's no way I can even run this third lap in two hours, but that's in part why once again I look over at my truck but don't stop, which is stupid because my shell pants are getting really baggy now, and either they, or my running pants, or my underwear, something, seems to be falling down and dragging on my thighs. Tmi, I know, but what's I can feel the material rubbing against my thighs, and though I did apply some lube this morning, I didn't apply it down that low. Again, knowing this, do I stop? Of course not. That would be unmanly. Must. Suffer. To be. True. Runner.

Down down down again, and yep, ouch. I'm trying to keep my legs bent for cushioning, except keeping my legs bent now hurts, so I'm kind of pogo-sticking on my legs. Thankfully, the ground is still fairly soft.

I still haven't seen Rob either coming or going. I wonder if everything is ok with him, since he should be catching up to me, having started off at a more reasonable time.

Now is the Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul. Runners are now strung out all over, and I find myself on my own. My reminder that we are all alone: Born alone, we run alone, and die alone. I think I'm definitely dehydrated. And yes, not as in shape. Still, I'm not getting the feeling that anybody else is either. That is, except for those ten fast starters, and the fifteen or so that have passed me, no one else seems to really be going that fast, which I think is an argument for the fast start: Establish position while full of energy, with the idea that everyone else will be just as weary as time goes on.

Or not. I'm just tired, and right at the turn off up the Huge Hill, a group of five guys overtakes me. I start hiking before them, but they pass me quickly. Yes, I'm getting passed walking.

At the top, my legs are just stiff. Looks like the other guys' are too. Some stop to stretch. I just trudge, trying to keep up with them, keep them in my sights. I feel like if I get off by myself again, I'll just let my mind wander and start the penguin shuffle.

At the aid station, all I want is water. I stand in front of the table of goodies, seeing if anything sounds good. Nothing does. I have a few potato chips, I think my body is craving salt.

Alright this is it. I think the aid station is about at 26 miles, so I've done the marathon. Five more miles. But man, I am so tired. I seriously feel like quitting, which at this point would mean just walking the rest of the way. But, I can't bring myself to do it. I can't bring myself to just walk and be passed, especially if there's some lurking VFFer out there. So I shuffle along. Even downhill now I shuffle. Pain. Both the thigh muscles, and the bottoms of my feet a little. Plus the mud is muddier, and slipperier. That's all I need right now, is to slip and fall face first into some mud. But I don't

The trail levels out. Can't be long, though I'm not sure. I try to pick my pace up a bit, try to force myself to jog up the smaller hills, though I'm not sure that gains me anything. The 'T' is no longer a T: Someone has come down, or maybe they have a sweeper, and changed the flagging so that is only points in one direction now, towards the Lodge. So, everyone is through two laps.

I see no one for those last miles, or maybe it's only one mile. Feels like ten. Just goes on forever. I just want to stop. My thighs are on fire from what I know is going to be a bad rash. My feet are cold and wet. Let it end!

And, even though I've wanted to just stop running and walk, when I finally get to the last hill and have to walk, if feels...I'm not sure of the word. Anti-climatic? To walk toward the finish line.

A spectator in a big heavy parka stands almost at the top. He claps. “Good job!”

“Thanks. Not with a bang, but a whimper.”

He laughs. “Still, amazing that you're even out here.”

At the top, at the grass, where is levels in, I have 'the talk' with myself and start running. I will finish strong, even if it's just across the parking lot. And, it's not a sprint, but it's more than a trudge. I look back, expecting to see my imaginary nemesis, a VFFer come sprinting up to catch me. But nope. Nobody still.

No spectators. The aid station is even gone. Just two organizer dudes, who nevertheless are enthusiastic. I glide through the gate, at 6:10. My third loop was about two and a half hours. Ok, not a PR, ten minutes later than my last 50K, but I'll take it.

One of the organizer dudes says, “Holy crap, you did that in Vibrams?”

I nod. “Yeah. I think I may have won the Five Fingers Division.”

He smiles. “I think you might have been the only in Five Fingers out there!”

He checks with the other dude, who gets an envelope out of the car. My prize: A certificate from the Vibram company for a brand new pair of VFFs! I did it!”

I ask the other dude what my overall place was: Sixth in my age division, but 36th overall. Hey, that's fairly respectable. And here I was almost going to quit! I was really thinking I was not doing that great.

There are refreshments inside. I go in, grab the last banana, eat a doughnut, and get a free Muscle Milk drink. Mm. Lots of calories, but tastes great.

Best of all: I get to go back to my room and take first a quick hot shower, then a quick hot bath, then another quick hot shower. That rocks. That makes the price of the room worth it.

Interestingly, my toes seem to have gotten a little more frozen than I suspected. They throb with pain in the hot water, and one, the left 'pointer' toe, is numb. I've had frostbite before, and none of them are black, but still, I had no idea I was that bad. Nor did I realize how bad that rash on my thighs was: I'm almost bleeding back there. Yikes! After I dry off I apply a good dose of Goldbond, miracle powder, but now I'm walking kind of bowlegged.

There's even a free meal after the race. Luxury. Actually, I guess it's the fact that the race is small that this is happening. I'm so used to just having to drive home. This is nice. There are tables set out on the fourth floor, with catered grilled cheese sandwiches, soup, and Sun Chips. The best part is being able to actually talk to other runners. I've never done that before. I get to check in with some of the fast runners I saw at the beginning, and people who have come in after me. I even meet some more folks from Michigan, who, insanely, drove all night to arrive and run. I finally find Rob and Steve. Turns out they ran together for most of it, until Steve DNFed on the second Loop. No harm in that, and he doesn't seem that bothered. Incredibly, Rob took off and actually ran his third loop the fastest, to slip in under seven hours.

Speaking of crazy driving, I have to get going. I'll be on the road for five hours, perhaps in a blizzard. Ugh. Oh well, I hear a Starbucks ice tea calling my name on the Ohio Turnpike somewhere.