Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Dances With Dirt 50M 2011

With a name like Dances With Dirt, I’m expecting a mud fest today. I’ve heard rumors and snippets, of mud and swamps, and there was a light rain last night. At least if it’s muddy, I can use that as an excuse if I don’t do very well on this fifty miler! It’s been three weeks since the Woodstock festivities, where I ran a muddy 50 miles also, but since then, some new classes have kicked in at work, so I’ve been a lot busier, and not at all running as much as I was able to do this summer. I’m hoping that my body is still in shape enough from Woodstock to be able to power through. And, I did get to run the Capital City Half Marathon last week, with no problem, so I’m hoping that helped keep me in shape for this monster race as well. If I can do this, I’ll be able to comfortably call myself an ultra-marathon runner.

I get to the Start area early, up in the Pinkney Recration area, near where the Woodstock festivities were, and the same spot as the Trail Marathon in the Spring, all put on by Running Fit. I still need to pick up my bib, so I head over to the dimly lit tents, getting my VFF KSOs soaking wet already. Poor things. They’re three years old now, with a bunch of rips and holes, and the straps basically useless.

I check in, get my bib number, 790, and return to my truck to wait until closer to start time. The air is cool. Not cold, but having my Ibex wool shirt is comfortable, though I’m still in shorts at this point in the Fall. In fact, weirdly, when I get out of the truck a half hour later, the air seems even cooler.

Also, I now realize that I’ve forgotten my watch. Wow. I thought I’d packed everything last night. But no. Well, ok. I mean, I’m not one of those super obsessive people who have to know every minute of the race (although I acknowledge that that seems to help people) so ok, I’ll just run and get my time at the end. I even kind of like the purity of that somehow.

By now, people have been gathering. There are two main activities today, the ultra-marathons of 50K and 50M, who start at 6:15, and a team relay of 100K, which starts at 7:30. I’m not entirely sure what the relay entails, but I know my friend Mary is on one of the teams, so I’m hoping to run into her today.

But, speaking of people I know, here’s Brandon, another barefooter/minimalist ultra runner who I keep running into at races. He’s the one who ran Burning River in RunAmocs, and who has apparently been getting his 15 minutes of fame for running the North Country 50M with his mouth wired shut, which he told me about, through clenched teeth, the day after at the Naked Foot 5K. He says his story has been picked up by newspapers and running magazines, as a kind of ‘holy crap!’ interest story. Hopefully they’ll include that he’s a minimalist runner. That tends to be a ‘holy crap’ idea for most folks anyway!

Since we run about the same pace (except that, you know, Brandon can actually finish a 100 miler, unlike yours truly....) we agree to run together, at least as long as we can.

It’s funny, at something like the Detroit Marathon, people will be lined up 45 minutes before the start. Here, the director has to actually announce that they’re going to start in five minutes before any ultra runner even starts heading towards the Start. Brandon and I kind of wander up to about twenty feet before the actual sign, because neither of us expects to be up front for any portion of this race, but no one goes ahead of us. Everyone just lines up about 15-20 feet away. It’s odd, because I know there are a bunch of faster runners here. But, too late to move back farther, the horde is now all bunched up.

And, surprise surprise, here is sweet Melissa, from the Woodstock 50M, who I had the pleasure of running with on the first two loops. After her finish there, she felt good enough to sign up for the 50K race today, and she says she’s be talked into going down to Arizona to run the Javelina 100M this Fall. I wonder if we’ll end up running together on this one, though I kind of doubt it, since I’m not going to be in any hurry to compete with the 50Kers.

And here we go! The headlamps come on and we lope out onto the wet grass, along the parking lot, and up the road entrance to this Half Moon Park, passing along a row of vehicles waiting to get in, which would be the relay folks just getting here. And then, into the woods. Everyone going about the same pace, nobody in a hurry to try passing in the dark. It’s nice to have Brandon along, just to have someone to talk to and pass the time, and also so I can pick his brain a little. The one thing he says that really helped at Burning River was that, even and especially at the beginning, he walked the hills on the road section, and walked all hills the whole race. So, I’m going to try that this race. I’m usually gung ho at the beginning, about the small hills at least, but this time I’m going to see what a little conserving of energy gets me in the long run.

The trail bails out on a dirt road and Brandon and I stop to take off our wool layers. The good thing about the Ibex wear is that it’s thin, so I can roll it up easy and tie it around my waist without feeling it’s getting in the way. Maybe coulda just gone without.

As we run, I look back at a glowing line of lights through the woods. The dwarves coming back from the mine. At this point people are still enthusiastic, there are occasionally whoops, and when Brandon yells out, “Marco!” he gets a lot of “Polo”’s. Surely this can’t last.

At one point Brandon stops to gulp a Gu or something and tells me to go on, so I do, knowing he’s the stronger runner. And after going on more trail, and coming back out on another dirt road, he does catch me. We run some more, then make another pit stop, and since he’s running with a pack, has to take it off to get something out, and tells me to go on. So I do again, thinking he’s right behind me, though I think I hear him cough, kind of unhealthily. Jesus, is he ok? Should I go back and check? Am I being like the climber who abandons his climbing partner?

We head down, I think, into lower lying swamp area, and since cold air tends to go down, the air is actually chillier here, so much so that I put my Ibex wool back on. No Brandon yet. Oh man, what if he had a heart attack? And I left him to die!

Onward. We have light now. I’m actually not sure running that half marathon last week ‘helped’ now, since I’m feeling an ache in my inner thighs. Running fast made me use some other muscles. Or, that doesn’t make sense, since I wouldn’t be using them now, right? Still, I kinda feel like I haven’t quite recovered from last week. Maybe. Maybe my body is already going through it’s list of excuses why it shouldn’t have to run fifty miles. Still, now I’m wondering if I should really run the Wildlife Half Marathon a week before the Detroit Marathon in October. Hm, oh well, let’s worry about today.

And lo! Brandon appears! He checks his watch and says we’re making good time, which is good because I was thinking we weren’t exactly all going balls out. We’re going a good slow and steady, for the long haul, I guess. And then, we get on a trail, and a group of runners passes me and slip into the space between me and Brandon. And then some more. And then I lose him. Ah well. These things happen in long races. I’m sure I’ll seem again farther up.

After doing the Trail Marathon twice, and Woodstock twice, I’m now starting to recognize certain sections of trails. They’re not the same routes, but all a part of the Pinkney Recreation area, which is huge, with plenty o’ trails to make all kind of routes it seems, though for some of this I’d swear we were kind of trailblazing, enough where I’m like (and say out loud), “Is this really a trail?” To which someone replies, “It is once a year!”

But yes, here we are out on that long straight sandy trail from Woodstock, and some runners are coming the other directions, with yellow bibs instead of white, so they must be the relay folks, and they seem to be having more fun than us, since many are in costumes, including, notably, the young man wearing only (including his shoes of course) black panties and pink fishnet tights. At least, I think he’s in costume....

I check in to an aid station. They’re keeping track of our numbers, to ensure that people are actually still on the course and not wandering lost in the woods. I fill up on water. I’m still experimenting with nutrition. This race I’m abstaining from Gatorade, trying to avoid sugars so they don’t mess with my blood sugar levels. Also going to avoid the potato chunks dipped in salt, which seem to be the latest ultra trend. I want the salt, but I’m not sure on the starchy, insulin producing potato. Instead, I’m putting pieces of pretzel rods in my mouth and sucking the salt off them, then just spitting the bread part out. So, that, plus just water, and all the fruit I can get.

This route is different than I’m used to on these trail runs out here. Instead of smaller loops that we’d repeat, meaning that I would come into the Start area multiple times, and therefore be able to stash stuff in a bag, this race is two big loops. The first will be 50K in entirety, and then another loop, in new territory, of 18 miles or so. Meaning I’m a little more dependant on the aid stations, but fortunately they’re doing a great job of stocking them with fruit, which is all I really need. I’m not sure of any of this, since, for example, many runners are like Brandon, who pops a Gu pack every hour or so. As a hedge, I’m still carrying a packet of Clif Blok Shots, the little gummy bear-like things that supposedly work like the Gu packs. They don’t have high fructose sugar, but do have rice syrup, so I may indeed still be just eating sugar. I’m saving those for later in the race though.

So far the route has been fairly dry. There’s even one section, the infamous mud bog near the Halls Gate Campground, where the Woodstock races were, which is barely a little muddy puddle. But, I’ve spoken too soon, since here’s something different, the route ends right at a twenty foot wide river. And yep, there’s the pink flagging we’ve been following on the other side. We are supposed to cross this. Ok...

I think about maybe taking off my VFFs and Injinjis, just to keep them dry, or even just the Injinjis and walking across in my VFFs, remembering my firefighting days in Idaho when we learned that getting boots wet was ok if the socks were dry, but the KSOs are just a little too tricky getting on and off, and hell, this is Dances With Dirt, and the shod people are just slogging across, so ok, here we go. The water is only knee high, and the current isn’t strong at all. It’s actually kind of pleasant. I’d like to be out here backpacking or something. Why don’t I do that more?

Turns out we cross the river two more times after that. We’re doing a lot of zigzagging. That is, crossing the river wasn’t necessary, the race director just purposefully put the route that way. Ok, ha ha. Actually, if I had known how long this section was, I would’ve maybe just taken off my VFFs and run the whole way barefoot.

But, after some more trail running, we come to the river one more time. And, right when I get to the water, a woman, with whom I exchanged pleasantries with earlier, is neck deep in the water. Holy crap! We have to go that deep? But no, something’s wrong. As I get closer, I realize she has fallen into a deep part of the river. The problem is, she has a water bottle in one hand, and her GPS in the other, and she’s got her arms raised above her trying to keep them out of the water, so she can’t, or won’t, swim. Fortunately, she finds some footing and kind of pulls herself out to waist deep water. Another guy and I get in the water and ask her if she’s ok, and she is, more seeming to be embarrassed than anything. And the whole time there was a photographer on the other bank taking pictures of us.

And no, the pink flagging is not on the other side, it’s up river. Yes, we’re to walk upstream, looks like for a ways. Wow, ok. The good news is that the VFFs seem to make walking through running water a little easier than with shoes. That plus I’m trying to find the shallower areas off to the sides rather than some folks who try to plow right up the middle and get mid-thigh high.

We pass some buildings and I realize where we are: Hell. Hell, Michigan that is, the ‘downtown’ of which is composed of a general store and a bar, which are these buildings. And as we crawl out and up the bank (yes, on the same side we came in) we are greeted by a crowd of folks, including what looks like at high priest and priestess at a Satanic ritual. The high priest smiles and says, “Welcome.” I say, “Am I hallucinating?”

This is one of the two drop points on the whole race, for those smart people who actually knew they’d get their footwear wet and have a dry pair waiting. Actually, I feel ok about my VFFs and Injinjis. Yes, they’re wet, but I just don’t feel that uncomfortable in them. They don’t have any padding to feel soggy in.

And well well well, who should be here but Brandon, sitting in the grass changing shoes. He yells over and friendly “You suck!” as I’m getting ready to take off. There’s an aid station here, so I’ve devoured some oranges and bananas sections, and have stashed some more pretzel rods in my pockets to suck on. There’s a whole crowd of runners sitting on the grass but no one seems in an hurry to get going. Ok, well, I’m off! Of course, once I’m gone I think of the reply I should I yelled back to Brandon, something like, “Hey, what are you doing sitting on your butt? We’ve got a race to run!” I’m so clever in my own mind.

I expect Brandon to catch me again but instead, I end up with a bunch of 50Kers, which makes me feel good, that I’m still going fast enough to keep up with them. Though actually, I’d probably be running the same pace if I were in the 50K.

At one point I and a guy right behind me are following a main trail, and come to a Y, with no flagging either way. Hm. That’s odd. We go right, the wider trail, but no flagging. The guy goes, “This ain’t right,” and turns around and sure enough, back a ways there was a double ring of pink flagging going off on a thin little game trail.

A little way later, the same thing: I’m on a main trail with some other guys and suddenly the flagging runs out. We stop, look around, back track, and there’s some double pink flagging taking us off into more bushwacking. I’m not sure why I’m missing these turn offs. I guess I get in the zone on main trails and just expect to stay on main trails, and maybe i’m busy staring in front of my feet that I’m not paying attention to the flagging at eye level. Plus like maybe no sleep last night.

But, as we get back on trails, and even again sort of bushwacking, I end up at the front of a group of four of us and some kind of weird energy happens where we’re all going the same pace, and kind of feeding off each others’ paces. I’m reminded of my firefighting days, being a squad boss leading my folks to or from a fire out in the woods, where we used the same exact flagging. I’m trying to keep a smooth steady pace but still pay attention to the flagging, which sometimes doesn’t seem to have a logic to it. For example, the route may take us up a hill, only to move over 20 feet and go back down again.

Eventually I see another runner up ahead of us and follow him and whoops! No flagging. I did it, I did what the DWD website warned us all not to do: I followed the runner not the flagging. It wasn’t much, we backtrack easily, but that seems to break the spell. The guy right behind me takes off ahead of us, and the woman with us slows down and falls behind. But the other guy, about my age, stays with me, saying I set a good pace. Other people have said that, but I feel weird because it doesn’t feel that way to me. I feel like I trudge slowly mostly, and tend to slow down, but I don’t know, maybe not. I certainly never train for consistency, except for the good ole barefoot 180/190 cadence in my head. Which maybe works. Anyway, so this guy, Jerry? (I think?) and I end up talking, which helps pass the time. He’s from Wisconsin. He’s done the DWD 50K over there, and is going to run the DWD in Florida, looking to do all four DWDs and get that fancy belt buckly. And he’s interested in coming over to the forces of light and trying minimalist running. Oddly, he claims he’s not at all in shape for a 50K and is surprised he’s come this far, but yet he runs way faster marathon times than me, and in fact qualified for and ran the Boston Marathon. I ask him what the secret of fast marathon times is and he claims he doesn’t know, that he’s just kind of stubborn and when he wants something, he forces himself to do it. Sounds easy!

Chatting like that about many other things, we bring it on home back to Half Moon Park, to a sizable crowd waiting for us. I wish him and his wife a good stay in Michigan and we shake hands, and then split off, him going into the finishers chute, and me winding around the edge to the 50M aid station, where my bag awaits me with a strawberry banana smoothie with my name on it.

And here is the tough mental part. Running Fit has a policy where a runner can always stop wherever they’re at and just switch to a shorter race. So, I could technically just say I’ve had enough and still get the same exact medal for running the 50K, and then go on to have a nice saturday lounging about relaxing. Or, I could run 18 more miles and five to six more hours. Ugh. And it’s not like those 19 miles are in smaller loops. Once I get out on it, I’m out on it and there’s no easy stopping halfway along. So, gotta commit. Which I do. I don’t know why. What am I proving. I don’t know. I guess don’t overthink it John. Just pound the smoothie, eat some fruit and some PB&J sandwich, grab some more pretzels, and head on out. There’s not even anyone to cheer us 50Mers on from here, since we kind of leave out the back way, along the edge of the parking lot.

At first I’m not even sure I’m going the right way. I’m following some pink flagging, but it’s not on trail, it’s through some tress paralleling the parking lot. Only the fact that I’m passed by some relay people, going real fast, kind of assures me that I’m going ok. In fact, we’re trailblazing at this point, which kind of equalizes everybody since we kind of have to walk, since the forest is so thick with downed trees, which are pleasant to have to step over at this point, though the hardest is to crouch down to go under some trees. Bending legs=pain at this point.

A woman passes looking fresh and energetic, and since she has to go a little slow, I ask her, because I’m curious, how far she’s running, since I’m not clear at this point how long the relay folks are running.

“Oh, I’m a fifty-miler like you.”

“Oh. Wow. Where’s you get the energy?”

She laughs. “Um, I think it’s an uncontrolled burst. Not sure how much longer it will last!”

We catch up to another two 50 Milers, who I remember running with earlier. The four of us navigate over a mud bog. Many people seem to be just running right through it, but I guess we’re all feeling dainty because we pick our way around the edge, walking on logs. Still getting a wee bit muddy though.

Once we’re back on trail, they speed up. Argh, I’m going into penguin waddle mode, I fear. In fact, I’m on a main trail and suddenly can’t see any flagging either way and hesitate, thinking I probably missed another turn off, but I see two hikers up ahead, so I scoot up to them and ask if they’ve seen any runners come this way. Fortunately they describe the “fresh” woman, so I know I’m ok.

Then, an odd thing. I’m on a main trail, I see the three people ahead of me. A couple turns later, still on the same trail, I can’t see them anymore, but hear some sticks breaking uphill, in the trees, and hear them talking. I can actually see some pink flagging up in there, but I can also see some pink flagging still going along the trail. Hm. Uh oh. Ok, don’t follow the runner, follow the flagging, so I stay on the trail. The flagging takes me left, uphill, then left again, going back the way I just came, only farther uphill. Ah ha, this is the flagging I saw earlier, meaning those three people just cut. On purpose? Not sure, since the flagging was visible down on the main trail. If I’d lost track of it on the main trail for even a second I might have gone uphill too. But hm, I just did a half mile more than them. Oh well.

After that, I don’t see any more 50 Milers with the white bibs. Instead, I start to have a steady stream of relay folks, in the yellow bibs, passing me hauling ass because they’re fresh. Which is not good for my confidence right now, making me feel I’m going slower than I really am. I have to say though, that they are all amazing polite and encouraging, almost all of them giving me at least a “good job!” or “Right on Ultra!” on their way by.

And then the trail ends at a lake.

And then I see people walking in the water.

Yep, the flagging actually goes out into the water and along the shore of a lake. The shoreline is too thick with brush to navigate. We simply must walk in the water. Looks like for a ways too.

Wow. Ok. I wade in. The water is about thigh high, and cold, which actually feels good on my sore feet and legs. There’s no question of running, though one guy behind me sounds like a boat crashing in when he comes in and he’s doing his best to actually run in thigh-high water, expending vast amounts of energy. He passes me and the folks in front of me. He rounds a patch of weeds and suddenly sinks down to his neck. Climbing out, he looks back at us and yells, “There’s a hole here!” And then immediately sinks down again. I can’t help it, yelling, “There’s another one!”

So, I follow behind these two guys in front of me, letting them find any more holes. Just like in the rice paddies back in ‘Nam.

I swear we go for like a half mile. Feels like a half hour, though I’m sure it’s like 15 minutes. And when I swish out, my legs have frozen up. Fortunately there’s no room to run, so we have to walk through brush and mud and yes, now, we have true mud. No getting around it either, with huge weeds on either side. Time to sink the feet in up to their ankles.

And when I finally get back on solid ground, it’s the hardest thing to get me feet moving again. I fall back to the basics: just running in place, getting the feet moving at a decent cadence. Then, the slight lean forward and I’m trotting again. Trying to get back into good barefoot running form, legs bent, but man, bending the legs at this point is hard.

And still the continuous stream of fast relay runners. I’m starting to think I’m like the last 50 Miler out on the course. And what the hell happened to Brandon? He better not have bailed out with just a 50K!

And here I’m not sure if forgetting my watch was a good thing or not. I have no frame of reference for how far I’ve come, or need to go, nor even what my finishing time will be, since I feel slow, and that damn lake sucked up a good chunk. And the relayers are going by too fast to be able to ask them how much farther. Even when I do ask one of the slower ones, she says, “Six miles!” And what does that mean to me? Nada. That must be the length of this leg for her.

I do start to here cheers though, and I think, No, can’t be the finish already. Can it? Maybe? Hope? I start to run faster, wanting to finish strong. And when I run out of the trees into a’s only an aid station. Or, an aid station for me, and a transfer station for the relayers, so there’s a huge contingent of them, awaiting their respective runners. They give up a huge cheer for me though, which rocks. I refill my water, eat fruit, and find of it’s 2.9 miles to the next aid station, then 4 miles to the finish. Seven miles. Ok, I can do that. I can run seven miles in my sleep. Ugh. Well, I can make it 2.9 miles for sure, then it’s only four. That’s how I gotta do it, just break the course down to little chunks. But man, seven miles. And, ridiculously, I know that’s going to be like a couple hours more of running at the pace I’m going. Ugh.

As I set off, the relayers send me off with clapping and a bunch of “What to go Ultra!” so I raise my fists in salute. I so much want to stop and give the line from the movie They Live: “I came here so kick ass and chew bubble gum. And I’m all out of bubble gum.” But I fear they might not get it, and I’d look silly. Oh well. At least I’m still clever in my own mind.

Trudge trudge trudge....and the relayers go streak streak streak! Just like that old Muppets skit. My sister is the only one who probably would understand and remember it. I am in a serious mental head space now. Not talking to anybody except a continuous series of ‘thank you’’s to the passing runners’ ‘good job’’s. I just want this to be done. I know I’m going to finish, but I just wish I could run faster so I could end it sooner. One small part of me is interested in the fact that, exhausted, I can somehow maintain a basic slow cadence. Thinking about just running in place really helps me, my body seems to be able to do that forever, so just adding that little leans makes me go forward. I’m not sure I’m being as efficient with it as I could be though.

The next aid station. It’s another transfer point too, so another crowd of relay people. More awesome encouragement. Seems like I should have run into Mary some time today, but no go. Too bad. Would really help to see a familiar face out here. I load up on more water, then head out to more clapping, and with a fresh stream of relayers passing me.

Waddle waddle waddle...March of the penguins here. Or, penguin. Singular. Tortoise and the hares. The good news is much of this section of trail is either sand, or grass. Meaning softer on my sore feet. And lordy mama, I forgot, there’s pizza waiting for me! Now that is a motivator. And I’m going to drink a couple glasses of nasty old Mountain Dew, too.

Onward onward. I hear some relayers talking about time or something, so I yell to the guy who passes me, “Hey, how much farther?!”

He checks his GPS watch. “Less than a mile!”

Oh. Wow. Holy crap. Right on. Hell yeah! Done! Time to give it some gas and finish strong!

I run. I run fast enough that I’m keeping pace with the relayers. No more passing. And then we bust out at the top of a grassy hill, where I can see the finish about 200 yards away, and there is a ton of people there! All the relay groups are there! This is it, this is the end my beautiful friend!

Downhill over grass, the route lined with onlookers and people already eating pizza and drinking beer. And having people recognize my white bib number and call out “Way to go Ultra!” really feels good. Usually on races like this by the time I’m finishing most people are gone. Not here. Everyone stays. Nice to be given some respect. Some acknowledgment of effort put in.

I cross the finish.

A woman takes me name and age. As usual, I’m nowhere close to finishing in the top three of my age division. Lots o’ men my age running these things. I ask my time, and they don’t have it. Their official clock is running the relay teams’ times. But one worker gives me the time, 6:30, and in my groggy mental state I realize that that’s 12:45. Not bad! Better than I thought, especially since at least fifteen of those minutes where in that damn lake! Almost exactly my time for the Woodstock 50M.

Ok, I did it. Now where the heck is the pizza?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Capital City River Run Half Marathon Half Marathon

I can think of no better pump up song than Jimi Hendrix’s version of “All Along The Watchtower” to come on the radio right before I hop out of my truck to head for the start of the Capital City River Run Half Marathon. Thank you anonymous radio DJ with the early Sunday shift, thank you Jimi, and thank you Mitch Mitchell for some kick ass drums to get the blood pumping. All right. As Vasquez says, Let’s rock!

New territory today. And a beautiful day. I’ve barely run up here in Lansing at all, just a little over on the MSU campus. This will be all paved, and I’m going barefoot. Feels good to get the cement and asphalt under my feet after so many minimalist races lately. My main goal for the race is to just try and run it with the best running posture I can. I know I’m not going to win, and I know I’m not going to get a PR (Under 1:39) but a minor goal is to at least get under my yucky time at the Somerset Stampede a while back.

We’re starting right in front of the Lansing Center, on Michigan Ave, a few block east of the state capital. I’m always bad at estimating numbers of people, but there has to be over a thousand, including the 5Kers, who start at the same time, but run a different route. One cool fun thing this race seems to do is have their pacers wear costumes. So, there’s a couple pirates, and slutty girl scout, a sexy ladybug, two Cary Grants, and a couple ballerinas.

The sun has risen over the buildings, the temperature must be about in the upper 50s or low 60s.. I’m in shorts and wicking t-shirt, with the race long sleeve shirt over the top. I’m already getting some odd looks for the feet. This is back in civilization, not with the hardcore trail runners, so some of these folks won’t have even heard of barefoot running yet. Like this woman, who comes up and says, “Are you really going to run this race with no shoes?”

“Yes ma’am.”



“Aren’t you scared you’ll get hurt?”

I give her my spiel about how I had plantar fasciitis for two years and couldn’t run at all, then tried going barefoot and could run immediately. She nods when she hears the words plantar fasciitis, though stares like she doesn’t believe me, but says, “Well, good for you.”

I wish her a good race and wander away. The crowd is gathering. I’m not sure where to start, since I know we’re going to get log-jammed up here at the start, but I end up between the 9:00 and 9:30 pacers, a ballerina and a ladybug. I can here the whispers behind me already: “Dude’s barefoot!” “Oh my god!” “That’s hardcore!” “That’s really minimalist!” Sigh. Ah well, that’s part of why I’m here I guess. To represent and spread the gospel. Repent, shodheads! Join the forces of light!

But, just to show how far we’ve come already, I happen to be standing right night to a VFFer and a woman in Merrills.

And we’re off! The expected log jam happens through the start gate, but then we get two lanes of traffic to spread out a little. I’m able to keep a space in front of me so I can see where the heck I’m putting me feet. And youch, Michigan Ave. is wee bit rough through here. I hope the whole route isn’t like this? That’s going to a be a long slow painful run if so. To take some of the edge off, I run on the paint lane-markers when I can.

More whispers, so not-so whispers: “Look at that!” “That’s crazy!” Well, I may be crazy, but I’m ahead of you!

I’m concentrating on posture, which helps with the rough road. A little. Straight back, head high, but relaxing the whole upper body, especially the shoulders. Bending the knees. Lifting the feet to the 180/190 cadence of Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation”: “I don’t give a damn ‘bout my bad reputation! You’re living in the past, it’s a new generation.” Sing it Joanie.

And, when I’m really relaxing and lifting the feet and getting a little forward lean at the waist (though that’s the hard part, how to lean with bent legs) I can actually feel myself go faster even though I feel like my legs are moving slower and with less power. I can’t claim to maintain that feeling, but it’s there, in and out. That’s my goal for today, to stay in that zone as much as possible. I feel doing this in a race is actually better, because I have the challenge of other people moving fast around me, keeping me honest.

We head east, into the sun, into familiar territory: Michigan State campus, my old old stomping grounds. Man, I can’t believe I didn’t run back when I was a student. Right before we turn onto the campus proper, we can see where the route comes back out and crosses this same street farther down, and the super fast insane guys are just crossing it already, going all out sprint. As one guy behind me puts it, “That’s sick!”

Anyways, we zip in and along the Cedar River for a little bit, on mercifully smooth cement and pavement, then surprisingly, we’re back out of the campus grounds pretty quick. I would have though we’d take the Cedar River bike path all the way to the other side of campus. But, we’re on some other bike path, following the river back west. Man, was this here when I was a student? Looks old, but then, so am I. Seems like I would’ve found this just walking around back then. But, nice just to be off the road and in the trees.

I’m already seen a couple other VFFers, but lo! There ahead of me is another barefoot runner! Gotta catch up and say hello! I don’t recognize him from another other races, nor from the Barefoot Runners Society Website, I think he may be a rogue. He’s actually caught up in a convo with two shod folks who are grilling him: “But what about when it gets cold?” It’s funny, I’m right behind two women who are right behind the other barefoot dude, and I hear them say, “Oh my goodness, would you look at that!” Then I pass them and it’s like, “Oh! There’s another one!” Like we’re Marfa Lights or something.

Anyways, I slip around the rogue barefooter and give him a wave, and we share a look of understanding. The secret brotherhood of barefoot dudes. Then I’m off, actually getting a burst of energy.

We seem to be going through a whole series of bike paths in parks I never knew existed here in Lansing. Seems like a whole green beltway. It’s nice. Lots of bridges though, with wooden railroad ties and such, so I’m like pleasenosplinterspleasenosplinters! But I’m fine.

One older shod guy comes up next to me and asks, quite earnestly, “Are you doing ok?”

I turn it around and say, “Yes, I’m fine. Are you ok?”

He laughs, caught in his condescension. We run together for a while, he’s breathing heavy, then gradually I pull away. Or, he drops back more like it. In either case, I’m doing ok.

There’s one section where the route is two-way for a little bit, so we can see the faster folks coming back from a loop. I get a couple surprised exclamations from them of “Barefoot!” Or maybe it’s like, “Barefoot?!”

I get a moment of fear when we turn left onto a gravel trail. No, please flying spaghetti monster, no! But it’s only for 100 feet or so, then back bike trail. Whew! See? Ask FSM and he shall care for thee!

And then we curve around and come back to the two-way section, which seems strangely longer going this direction. Lots o’ people behind me, just a steady stream of folks. Just awesome to see so many people out running and being fit and feeling good.

As we curve around a pond-ish lake, another younger shod guy comes by me a little later and says, no intro, no hello, “How are your feet?”

I shoot back, “Fine. How are yours?”

He looks at me sideways, to see if I’m joking or not. I am, but he can maybe see I’m not amused, so gives a grimace/grin to show he knows I’m making fun of him and pulls ahead.

Then, ack, we shoot out into a residential area, meaning back on roads, meaning back on rough ground. So, all those smartass remarks I say to people, when they ask, ‘Doesn’t that hurt?’ and I reply, ‘If it hurt, I wouldn’t do it’? Well, sometimes it hurts, gotta admit. My hope is that the hurtness doesn’t ever last very long, but this stuff seems to. Argh. I feel myself slowing down. Getting passed. Argh argh argh. Posture John, posture. And cadence! “I don’t give a damn ‘bout my bad reputation...” La la la....

We take a zig and zag through a city park, Potter Park?, where I think the BRS runner meetup was earlier this summer. Seems to be many people out and about by this hour, including what looks like an antique car show. Pace-wise I seem to be about even with folks around me, maybe dropping a wee bit. Always surprises me at this point in a half –marathon where dudes comes powering by. Like, where have they been the whole race?

Cadence. Posture. Relax. Bent legs. Raised feet. Joan Jett.

A guy in VFFs passes me, and he kind of defies the argument that VFFs will give you better running posture, since is feet seems to be going in circles, and his left arm just sticks out to the side and both his arms move side to side with each stride. Kinda odd, but hey, he’s ahead of me!

We pop out on a main street, I’m not sure which, but I can see the city center buildings in the distance. And we wind back down onto a bike path along the Grand River. This is it, the home stretch. Only a couple more miles! I check my watch. Hm, 1:25ish. Two ten minute miles and I’m at 1:45, well under Somerset Stampede time. Ok, I can do this!

And I run into a guy from the Naked Foot 5K! I think his name is Eric. When I say hello he recognizes me immediately. “Hey brother! How goes it?”

He’s wearing some homemade huaraches that look pretty durable. Cost: 8 bucks. He tells me to go on, that he’s slowing down, so I do. But good to see a familiar face.

But dagnammit, the bike path uses its wonder twin superpowers to take the form of angry rocks. Argh. Bend the knees John! I am John! Lift the feet John! I am John, would you shut up?! Ok, here’s where I swallow my pride, and bump out onto the grass edge. Or, I mean, that’s legal right? I’m not morally obligated to run on the pavement. It’s not cheating.

We hit a wood boardwalk and I can hit my pace again. Trying to pick it up while still maintaining good posture. But guy man dude, it’s hard. Bending the legs when tired is hard. So is keeping a good cadence. We’re actually passing under Michigan Ave, right where we started. Almost there! Let’s rock! But no! More angry bird-rocks! Argh! But yes! Cement! Run! Then rough path. Argh! Run anyway!

There’s the finish. I can here the announcer calling off finishers’ names. Just gotta go past and cross this bridge. All the runners around me are pushing, I can them breathing, grunting, moaning. No wait, that’s me.

Over the bridge! The sides of the route lined with people clapping and cheering. “Go barefoot runner! Woo hoo!” Cadence! Cadence! Lean! Lean! Rocks! Rocks! Argh! Argh!

I cross....

Whew. Lordy mamma. Check my time: 1:45. Ok, I’ll take it. I collect my finisher medal from a woman shocked to see me barefoot and wander over onto the soft grass of the small park, where a band is playing some cool classic rock tunes and there’s a tent with all the bananas and pizza I can eat, plus cold apple cider. Aw yeah!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Woodstock 50M

Up at 3:45 to drive the hour over to Hell, Michigan and be there early for a six o’clock race start. I packed all my stuff last night in order to avoid groggy-morning forgetfulness, like water bottles, or VFFs, or an extra truck key. Anything. I’m capable of forgetting anything at these hours. All I have to do is just get up, make myself a breakfast, and go.

I’m looking for a little redemption after my DNF on the Burning River 100 Miler earlier this summer. Since I DNFed at Mile 70, I’m fairly sure I can finish a 50 Miler. Still, I want to apply a little of what I learned on that experience for this one, mainly in the area of nutrition. I really want to be better about keeping my salt/potassium levels up, so yesterday I was adding extra salt to my food, and ate a couple bananas (which I don’t normally eat) and this morning I eat another banana. I’ve also bought a couple strawberry/banana smoothies to drink during the race, which I’ll keep in my gear bag.

I’ve also bought some salty products to nibble on, unsure of what will be available at the aid stations: some Triscuits, and some pretzel rods. But my latest experiment, nutrition-wise, is ‘Clif Shot Bloks’, which are supposed to work the same way those ‘Gu’ packs, but taste way better, like gummi bears. I’m not exactly sure if the effect is psychological or not, but using them for my longer runs, there seems to be an effect. Anyway, I have two packages’ worth with me, which I’ll carry in my shorts pocket and nibble upon along the way.

The weather is cool, but not too much so, so I’m wearing my compression shorts, with another pair over the top, along with my amazing wicking t-shirt, still going strong after years. I’m still kind of debating footwear, or even wearing footwear period. I ran the 50K at this place barefoot, but they were pretty raw by the end. Just like at Burning River, I’m thinking I’d just like some protection for this longer distance, so I’m going to wear my VFFs, though I throw my huaraches in my gear bag just in case. I’m also thinking of maybe running the first of three loops of the race barefoot, just because, especially now that’s there’s a little rain, and the trails will be soft and muddy.

I’ve been debating whether to use minimalist footwear on longer runs or not. It’s a question of speed versus purism/injury potential: Someone like Barefoot Ken Bob would say that we shouldn’t run races we couldn’t otherwise run barefoot, because of the chance of injury from our feet being desensitized while covered up. On the other hand, I know that I run way slower while barefoot. I too thought I was a purist until running the Pinkney Trail Marathon barefoot last Spring. It was rocky, and slow going, and though I finished, I finished almost at the very end, and my feet hurt anyway. Another rule of Ken Bob’s is to make sure you’re having fun, and to me, finishing towards the back with my feet still hurting just isn’t fun. I know I’m not going to win any races, I’m not that fast, but I enjoy being in the ‘pack,’ both for the mini-competitions that develop, but also being part of the collective pushing of each other’s boundaries that happens in any race.

The long dark drive over on Michigan back roads is confusing, just like last year, and just like last year, I get slightly misplaced, but eventually make it into Hell, and then beyond up into the Hell’s Creek Campground, where then races start. Unlike the rest of the surrounding countryside, the camp seems alive with activity, with lights and generators going. I’d hate to be camping out here, though many people are.

The local chain of running stores, Running Fit, is hosting a weekend of race mania, all around the them of the 60s Woodstock concert, so many employees and attendees will be dressed in hippie garb, like tie-dye shirts and dresses. The 100 Mile and 100K races actually started last night, which I like the idea of, since they were running in the dark at their strongest fitness levels. The 50 Mile race is the first race this morning, and an hour or so after us the marathon, half-marathon, 50K, and 5 Mile will all start. I think there’s even a 5K planned for later in the afternoon, as well as one tomorrow, for those who stay the night.

And when I pull into the parking area it’s raining again. Hm. I put on my rain jacket, wondering if I should maybe wear it for the run, though that would probably make me sweat and get just as wet in the long run. But as I walk from the parking lot to the registration area, the drizzle lets up.

Kinda hard to believe that the 100 Milers and the 100Kers have been running all night. I go into the runners tent, the floor of which, the grass, is soaked. And a runner comes in off the course, looking exhausted. “Congratulations!” says one of the organizers, “You came in fourth!” Wow, I’m assuming she has run the 100K, but even then, wow. Her whole race was basically in the dark. Wow.

There are other 50 Milers puttering around like me. Not a lot of places to sit, since everyone is putting their gear bags on the folding chairs to keep them out of the water. And I don’t just mean the grass floor is slight wet or dewy, it’s sopping, and squishy. Fortunately the organizers have found a large piece of plywood and put it in one corner, so I put my bag there, though even then water is oozing out onto it.

With the cloud cover, the course is going to be dark. It the skies were clear, I’d consider not starting with a light, but for this I’ll carry a flashlight, which fits handily in one hand, balancing my water bottle in the other. Running in the dark convinces me that I need my VFFs. Running barefoot in the dark on rocky trails with only a flashlight does not sound like fun.

And, there’s no getting around it, we’re going to get wet, so no sense trying to stay dry here. So, I put on my Injinji socks, and then my VFFs, and step on the grass and feel the wetness ooze in. But outside the rain has stopped. Conversation consists of speculation on how much rain we’ll get. Most people seem to feel the rain will have stopped, with maybe another shower in about three hours.

Wandering around near the start line, I spot another set of VFFs, and the woman’s hair looks familiar: Is that Jocelyn from the BRS site and from the Naked Foot 5K a couple weeks ago? It is! Only she’s kilt-less this time. Humorously, we end up comparing VFFs right in from of the Running Fit owner, who doesn’t seem to be amused, even though Running Fit now stocks VFFs. He seems to frown and be annoyed and walks away. Lace up, dude!

This is one of about 20 zillion races I’m doing this Fall, and some may wonder why I’m doing so many, especially since they cost money, and I could be doing other things, like having a social life, and/or playing more music, or having more time to write even. I guess my answer is that I feel alive when I run, both on my own, and in a different way when I ‘race,’ though I’m not sure race is the right term for these things. I kind of feel like these are ‘rituals’, or at the very least re-enactments, of some long gone primal activity, when we were all persistence hunters, before we invented the spear or the bow and arrow, and the whole tribe, women and children included, would spread out and run animals down until they dropped. Yes, I am competitive, and feed off of challenging myself against other runners, but really I feel like these ‘races’ are collective experiences, where we collectively push ourselves physically, learning from and, really, helping each other.

But speaking of a social life, another reason to run in these things is the hotties in tight running shorts. It’s not that I have a preference for a certain body type, I don’t, but any athletic woman in tight running shorts just looks amazing, like the one standing in front of me right now, in a blue sports bra and black shorts, with a few visible tattoos, including one kind of flowery design on the back of her neck. Lovely. Unfortunately, running is like writing and tends to be a solitary activity except for tribal gatherings like this. How then shall I meet one of these fit lasses?

But now we’re gathering for the start. I don’t pretend to even think I’ll be fast, so I go towards the middle. There’s maybe 50 of us, maybe a little more, but it’s one of the smallest groups I’ve run in. The marathoners and half-marathoners and the 50Kers will be starting later. For at least a couple hours it’ll just be us and whatever 100 Milers we come across. Us ultramarathoners are running a different route, of about 16.6 miles. The 100 Milers will run it six times. Us, three. With the 100Kers and 50Kers taking special short cuts on their respective last loops.

The Running Fit owner counts us down and we’re off! Up a gravel road, past tents and some port-o-potties and then cut into the woods on a trail. There’s surprisingly not a lot of jockying for position, at least not back here. And the trail is muddy. And I mean muddy. Like, basically no traction muddy. Like, in danger of falling on my face muddy. I hear exclamations of surprise and frustration all around. We’re running through puddles, and now it starts to pour. If my VFFs were damp before, they’re now soaked.

Weirdly, when I look back, the whole back half of the runners seems to have vanished, I guess totally slowed down by the mud and rain. And, after passing a couple of people on muddy downhills, where I just go balls out, I find myself alone in the woods. Like, after five minutes. Everyone ahead seems to have vanished. I can’t see any lights. And no lights behind me. If it weren’t for the plethora of pink flags on the trail I would think I’d taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque or something. I’ve never seen runners dispersed out so quickly.

I hear someone catch up to me and take a quick look back. It’s the lovely from in front of me at the start. I try to make a joke about how I’m glad I’m not the only one out here and she says nothing, so I take that as a hint that she doesn’t want to partake in race banter. She follows behind me for a while and seems to be going pretty strong, so I kind of scoot to the right when the trail widens a little and tell she can go ahead and pass me if she wants, but she says, “No I’m alright.”

So we run like that, even when we pop out onto the sandy bike/horse trail straight-away that I remember from last year. I pick up my pace a little bit, while still trying to keep a good running form, and she stay right behind me, which feels weird, since the trail is wide enough for about four runners. I normally don’t like when people ride right behind me, but since she’s so attractive it doesn’t annoy me, just confuses me, as women are wont to do. I try to start a convo, just basic questions like if she’s run this before, and where she’s from, which, alas, is like two hours from me. Sigh. She just gives short monosyllabic answers, so I don’t want to seem like the overly-talkative guy trying to hit on her (even though I guess I am), so I just keep running and she keeps right behind me.

We do encounter other people finally. One guy we catch up to, who’s driven over from Wisconsin to do this. Another comes up on us and runs with us for a while. Also, we’re starting to find 100 Milers, who are somewhere in the later stages of their races, and now walking like zombies, all of them with plastic parkas that the race officials must have given them. I say hello to all of them, and they do reply, but they have that look, that exhausted-beyond-coherence look. I ask one guy if it’s been raining on them all night, and he says, ‘Yup.’ Wow. That’s a long cold night.

The bike path route keeps going for the marathoners and co., but for us ultramarathoners it cuts left back on a trail into the woods. The guy eventually passes both of us, though we follow him for a while.

The course is wonderful, especially now. Just so quiet. Though I don’t like getting up early, now that I’m out and running my body feels electric. Birds are starting to wake up, but mostly what I hear is the rain, falling on the leave and trees and ground. And me. This section of trail is more sandy, so it’s nice and soft without any loss of traction. The rain feels good on my face, and I like the musty wet forest smell.

I have no idea how many miles I’ve run, and I’m trying not to look at my watch timer, just to run for now. We get to the first Aid Station, a big tent seemingly in the middle of nowhere, but with a big table full of drinks and nibbles. I make sure to have a couple Gatorades, and then to eat both a piece of potato dipped in salt and a couple banana pieces, trying to keep that salt/potassium intake going, even, and maybe especially, at the beginning stages.

Then I hear, “John!” I look up at the group of guys standing off to the side, and who should it be but Jason Robillard! He’s not running, so I ask him if he’s pacing somebody, but turns out his wife Shelly is running this 50 Miler.

I dawdle a little, wondering if I should eat something else, then turn to go, and realize, and I swear I’m not making this up, my lovely companion seems to be stalling, ready to go, but waiting for me. Wow. How odd. So, not wanting to just start running without at least acknowledging her presence, I say, jokingly, so if it’s not true she doesn’t have to feel awkward, “Ready to go?” And she says, kind of monotone, “Yeah.” Ok, so she’s not totally excited maybe. Who knows. Ok, well, again, I’m not going to be ‘that guy’ that likes to talk women’s ears off. So, I’ll just run.

More mud. More rain. Not heavy, but a steady drizzle now. Just feels like it’s going to be going all morning. There’s not wind, so the clouds are just going to sit over us. It’s at least light now, so I can turn off my flashlight.

We dump out onto a larger gravel road, and I again am grateful that I didn’t try this barefoot. I know Barefoot Ken Bob says to go out and have fun on gravel, but I don’t. Maybe if I lived near some I’d play on them more, but as is, I can feel the pebbles even through the VFF soles.

And we go a while on the road. The Wood Nymph follows behind me until I slow down and move to the right, trying to show her that she’s welcome to run beside me, which she does for a while, though we still don’t really talk, until some confusion occurs: We see people coming the other way. We wonder if we’ve taken a wrong turn, but turns out that this portion of the course is two-way, and we’re seeing both some more zombie 100 Milers and now some of the faster 50 Milers.

After some time, I’m not sure on distance traveled at all, we cut back onto a trail to the left. The Wood Nymph motions for me to go first. “You’re probably faster than I am on trails.” I’m not sure about that, and I think she really just wants to pace off of me. Kinda weird, since I feel like I’m running maybe a little faster than normal, and therefore I’m not sure how long I can keep it up, whereas I get a feeling she’s pacing herself and could be going a lot faster if she wanted. But we get to another aid station, the farthest one out on the course, and again, she seems to stall, waiting for me. After more salty potato and a whole banana I set out, though also noting a couple quiet runner guys hanging out in the tent, looking just beat. I realize that they’ve probably decided to stop and are waiting rides back to the camp. Well, I know how that feels, and I would not judge them at all, especially not in this everlasting rain. I just feel bad and want to tell them that it’s ok, that they’re awesome for getting that far.

Anyways, onward. We seem to be more in a mix of 50 Milers, coming back along that two-way section, where, surprisingly, there are still folks heading on their way out, which makes me feel decent that I’m not way at the end. We even get passed by some fast guys, making me suspect that they’ve lapped us already. Is that possible at this point?

And then we get onto another trail and bam, there’s a flood of runners. We’ve hooked back up with the marathoners and half-marathoners and even the five-milers too, all of us on the way back to camp, except, no, some runners seem to be going the other way? That seems weird, and makes for a kind of crowded trail. Why would the organizers do that? But, last year there was a section of the 50K/marathon that was like that, so maybe....

“John Yohe!”

What the hell? Never have so many people known my name in a race. It’s Mark, my coworker and runner extraordinaire, who actually finished 10th at Burning River. He’s running the marathon. We weren’t sure if we’d actually see each other, but here we are. He pats me on the back, we say hello, and he’s off, before I can even ask him how far he’s into the marathon. The dude is fast, so I’m thinking at this point he’s already on his last loop. He’ll be home grading papers before I’m half-way through with this thing.

With all the coming and going of runners, I take a look back and see that The Wood Nymph has fallen behind ways. We make eye contact but I’d feel weird waving or something. Well, these things happen in long races and I’ll probably see her later on.

I catch a bite of conversation between groups going in opposite directions, since apparently someone just ahead of me is wondering what’s going on too, and the woman, in a group of three, who replies says that they’re half-marathoners, but that they went the wrong way by accident. Hm. Odd.

The trail comes to a ‘T’, but there at the end of the trail is a sign that says, “IF YOU CAN READ THIS THEN YOU’RE LOST.” What? And, everyone around me is having the same reaction. We all slow down, and even stop, trying to figure out what’s going on, because right past that sign are flags of all colors, meaning for all the different distances, lined up and going to the left. But a group of three young woman are talking right next to me, and one of them seems to be taking charge by explaining to the others that since they’re five milers that they’ve come the wrong way, that this is for the other distances. Which can’t be right, because the sign makes no distinction about the distances. I decide phuck it and keep going, and they group of young women turns around and head back. That doesn’t feel right and though I normally like someone who takes charge and just makes a decision, in this case I think it might have been the wrong one. Not a good day to have cold, wet, and tired people lost in the woods.

Meanwhile, more mud. Like, crazy amounts of mud. There’s one hill that just one big mud slick and with my VFFs, which have NO traction, I can barely get up. I have to grab onto shrubs at the edge sometimes just to stop from sliding back down hill. Then the trail, or what used to be a trail, goes through a swamp. Only now there’s no trail, just a clear area through the cattails. Some people have tried walking on earth clumps along the edge, but you can see their shoe prints where they slipped sideways into the water. So, nothing to do but walk right through the water, about knee high. Higher in some place. The only thing worse would be if there were leeches. It’s crazy, and kinda fun. I mean, it’s so absurd! We paid money to do this!

Another mud bog, this one deep, which I remember this from last year. Back then, this was the only mud on the whole course. Now, it’s like a mud pond, and this whole section of trail is lined with brush rather than trees or forest, making side-stepping around any of this if not impossible, then time-consuming. The fastest way is right through the middle. And after I get out, my feet just look like lumps of mud. I can barely see the VFF shape. The good thing is that my VFFs are probably lighter than shoes at this point. The shod-heads must be carrying an extra 10 pounds on their feet.

But, that mud bog means that we’re almost back to camp! And soon I can hear classic rock coming from the PA speakers. I bust out into the campground, onto one of the gravel roads, with people waiting there for runner loved ones, but who clap anyways. Around a bend, with more onlookers clapping and past the stage, which at this point doesn’t have a band.

A race worker directs me into the proper chute, the one for people heading out for another loop, after drawing a black mark on my bib to denote one loop done. Inside the tent, which is ridiculously wet and muddy, there are tired and muddy-looking folks. One guy is just now opting out of the 100 Mile. The way Running Fit runs this is, if you DNF in one distance, they still give you a medal for the nearest distance you’ve run. So, for example, he’s still getting a 50 mile medal, though he doesn’t look happy about that. He looks like he just wants to go home and go to sleep after a good cry.

I tell the guy in charge about the sign fiasco, and that there’s probably some confused runners out there. He’s not sure he should believe, even when the Wisconsin guy who I met at the beginning of the race seconds me. I walk away to take care of my stuff and hear the official say to another official that I’m the first one who’s said anything. Ok, fine dude. The people who turned around are still out running. The people like me who figured it out and probably more concerned with just getting on with the race, and/or they finished and just think the problem will solve itself. And they probably won’t want to sign up for this race next year. Just sayin’.

Anyways, I dump my flashlight, gulp down one of the strawberry/banana smoothies, eat a banana, and grab two pretzel rods to nibble on. I also get two glasses of Gatorade, and some ramen noodle soup from the supply table. Also another piece of potato dipped in massive amounts of salt. Gack.

And back out on the course for Round Two!

My ‘split’ for the first loop was three hours. Not bad, if I could keep up that pace, but I’m betting my next loop will be more like four hours. Which means my third loop will be even longer, probably longer than five. So, 3+4+5=12, which was my semi-official goal, since that was about how long it took me to run to 50 in the Burning River. Ok. Maybe no PR today.

Amazingly, now the first part of the trail is even more muddy. It’s had more rain, and hundreds of people pounding over it that it’s just a slippery mess now. Crazy stuff.

I hear somebody coming up behind me, then a “Hey!” and it’s the Wood Nymph! She’s even smiling like she’s glad to see me. I give her a “Hey!” back and as we shoot out onto a dirt road and into another trail on the other side, I ask her name. “Melissa,” she says. Then she actually asks me a question, my name, which I tell her and as we get out on the sandy bike trail we actually run side by side and talk a bit. Turns out she’s taking ultra lessons, her coach is actually running the marathon. I ask her if she has aspirations do to a 100 miler. “Well,” she hesitates, “Yes, but I just want to see how this goes first.”

Fair enough. A third guy kind of catches up to us, and we all run in silence for a while. Melissa actually steps up her pace a wee bit. That, or I’m getting slower, which could very well be, and pull out ahead of us, so we’re all running in single file, which again seems kinda odd on this wide trail.

We’re now seeing people coming at us from the other direction, which just can’t be right. Not a lot, but a significant number. I don’t have the heart to even ask them if they realize they’re turned around. Hell they might not realize even after they get back into camp. I don’t know why I care so much, but I guess if just doesn’t seem safe to make people, especially beginners doing the 5 Mile, to run longer than they planned, especially in the rain.

At this point I’m taking stock of my own pace, and my form. See, I’ve been feeling that my foot placement has been kind of sloppy. My feet seem to be ‘scruffing,’ not moving up and down exactly, but kind of sliding a bit as they come down, making noise, which to me is a warning sign: sound equals wasted energy for the barefoot runner. I’m thinking the desensitization from the VFFs and my tiredness are causing me maybe land either on my heels or maybe my toes rather than the whole foot. Meaning that my feet are getting sore. But...Maybe they’d just get sore after 16 miles anyway?

Anyways, with this long sandy flat straight-away I try to concentrate on really getting a good form, bending the legs, lifting the feet in a steady 180/190 cadence, back straight, but trying also to relax. Bending your legs when you’re tired is actually kinda hard, but, without seeming to increase my cadence more than it had been, nor feeling like I’m exerting any more energy, I actually start to go a little bit faster, such that I pull out to the side of Melissa and gradually pass her. Seems like there’s less scruff and less soreness too.

I at least sustain that along the bike trail, until it cuts back into the woods, though I’m going to try and keep consciously returning to good form for the rest of the race. Again, being tired will make that harder. As will the mud.

I’m now starting to pop the ‘bloks’ and there seems to be an effect, in the sense that I seem to feel energy, while at the same time feeling a weariness with my body. That is, maybe and energy overriding the weariness? Not sure.

Down through trails, and again we pop out on that larger dirt road with the two-way ultra traffic, with more of both 50 Milers already making the return trip on their second loops, and more zombie walker 100 Milers. It’s here that Melissa makes her move and passes me. Not much at first, I keep behind her, which is an amazing view, but she’s gradually pulling away. Alas my fair Wood Nymph, I think I’m losing you. Still, good for her, still going at a steady pace. I know I’ve slowed down, even with my attention to form. Will I see her on Loop Three?

I’ve lost track of time. Feels like eight o’clock at night, but it maybe only noon. Crazy! And I’m only like half way!

I’m feeling slow. I’m getting passed now, like the ‘tide’ has shifted, and if I started at the middle of the pack, I must be getting bumped towards the end. I know I was never going to ‘win’ but I feel like I could be stronger, maybe at least keep the pace I had for the first loop. But, after I hit the farthest aid station and make my way back along the two-way section, there are plenty of other 50 Milers behind me, looking pretty beat.

If anything, the mud bogs are even deeper and more muddier. More rain, and more runners. Just trying to climb up Mud Hill I literally start to slide back downhill just trying to stand up. Then having to wade through thigh high muddy water for about fifty feet. It’s like a levee broke somewhere.

But, that last big mud bog signals the nearness of camp! And, as I predicted, this split is about 4 hours. With most all the marathoners and halfers already done and gone by now, the crowd actually responds louder to my appearance. There’s even a band playing by now, so the field in front if filled with people watching, and they all clap as I go by. Feels good. Much needed boost.

I’m feeling ok. I know this next loop is going to be tough, but I’m fairly sure I can make it. In the runners tent they have pinned up all the bibs of people who have dropped out, and they cover one tent wall. And, that’s just the people who dropped here at camp. It’s a lot of 100 Milers. No surprise. They’ve just been rained on for 15 hours. But there’s 50 miler bibs up there too.

I restock my bloks, pound another smoothie, eat two bananas and a salty potato wedge. More Gatorade. Chicken soup. Sorry chicken! Thank you! And, two more pretzel rods to nibble. I’m still sweating, and still urinating, and the urine is clear, so that’s all good. Ok, onward!

I’m the only one that’s come in recently, and the only one leaving. And on the dirt road up to the trail, I see a familiar face walking towards me. She recognizes me too. “Hey, are you St. John? St. John the Gambler?”

That’s my handle on the Barefoot Running Society website. And I know who she is! “Are you Buzzy?”


We crossed paths at last year’s Woodstock festivities, when she was running the 100 Miler, on, she tells me know, a broken foot. Today she’s been running the marathon (I think) but says one “hoof” was just bothering her too much, which is too bad. After being in my head for most of this race, it’s nice to talk to someone I even vaguely know, but when she finds out I’m in the 50 Mile and still have a loop to go, she shoos me off and I go.

For what it’s worth, the rain has stopped and the sun is actually peeking through the clouds. Meaning it’s a little warmer. My wicking shirt is now almost dry. And with the sun out, the ground is drying amazingly fast. This first section of trail is now not really muddy at all, maybe just narrow sections up the middle. If there is any mud, it tends to be, no other word for it, sucky, meaning that it seems to want to hold on to my feet just a little bit more.

I cross a dirt road and see a woman running down it, away from the marked trail. Reminds me of the time I almost ran past a similar trail on the Burning River, so I do what some kind soul did for me and give her a yell. “Hey runner!”

She turns around. I point to the woods. “You passed the trail.”

She looks kinda confused and walks back. “I don’t think I’m supposed to go that way. I’m doing the 50K. I’m on my third loop and supposed to be taking the short cut. Are we near the camp?”

Another guy comes out of the woods and stops. I say, “Yeah, the start is about a mile, mile and a half, back.” He nods confirmation.

She looks even more confused. “Oh, the camp is that way? I should only have a couple miles left. That sounds right.”

Doesn’t to me. I remember the 50K short cut being a long ways to go. But then, the 50K route is different than last year. Still, seems to me she’s not even on the course anymore. There are no flags at all on the road. What I think has happened is that she is one of the people who got turned around by the sign. Anyway, she doesn’t look coherent. The other guy and I tell her that we think she should be running on the trail with us, which I know makes us seem like a couple of know-it-all guys telling the woman what to do. She does follow for a little bit, but then decides it doesn’t feel right, so all I can do is say, “Cool, ok, Good luck!” But I’m thinking that race courses just should not be this confusing, to anyone.

That other guy has taken off way ahead of me. Now I’m back to running alone, which is a strange feeling. I get out on the sandy bike path again, still scruffing along. My feet ache. Like, my arches just feel on fire. I’m just taking really small steps, trying to just keep steady and moving forward. Bending my legs is tough, even though when I do my feet ache less. But then my legs ache more. I’m trying to keep relaxed, but it’s hard to relax when you’re exhausted! Bend the legs: hurts. Straighten the legs: hurts. Breathe: hurts. No, actually telling myself to breathe actually helps in some way, maybe reminding me to keep to the basics. Still going on the small baby steps, with a cadence that maybe isn’t 180 at this point, but at least vaguely steady.

A few more people coming the other way. Going slow and looking tired. I think they got more running in than they anticipated. I hope they actually say something to the organizers before they take off.

So, no wood nymphs this time around. Nor even a lot of 50 Milers. Yep, I think I’m at the back of the pack. Who I find myself running with are the 100 Milers, all now on their last loops. Some are even passing me! One skinny scruffy old guy with a beard smiles as he passes. “Don’t let the jet blast from my wake knock you over!” Because he’s like going 2 miles an hour and I’m maybe doing 1.5. Who knows, but it’s nice to see someone keeping their sense of humor at that point. And he doesn’t have a pacer.

See, at this point even a lot of the 50 Milers have pacers with them now, which seems a little much. But most of the 100 Milers have them, and what I’m noticing, and maybe this is just me, because I know how I think, but the guys all seem to have young hot babe pacers in tight running shorts. I mean, I guess that’s what I’d do if I could. I’d love it if some beautiful woman were right in front of me right now, looking back and smiling and saying softly, “Ready John? How about we try shuffling for a little bit?”

Anyways, I end up kind of bumping back and forth with this guy doing the 100 Mile. Basically I’m just keeping a steady penguin waddle and I’ll pass him and his hottie pacer, but then that’ll cause him to get a burst of energy and he’ll overtake me for a little bit. I don’t think his pacer is going to get up to even a slow jog for the whole 16 miles, but bless her patience. I finally come around a bend and he’s spread out on a bench.

“Stay with me!”

He waves. “Oh, I’ll get there. It just feels so good to sit down, you know?”

I laugh and keep going.

With the rain gone, and the heat, the air actually feels more humid now, strangely. And, the mosquitoes and horseflies have come out. You know it’s bad when you can’t even outrun mosquitoes anymore.

To almost add insult to injury, a woman passes me power walking. She’s doing the 50 Miler, but says her legs has cramped up too much for her to run. Reminds me of Burning River, when that happened to me, except I wasn’t able to even walk that fast. Also, I remember another woman passing me at Mile 60 power walking, and then I saw her finish the next morning doing the same thing. For all I know, she may have just power walked the rest of the race. I gotta learn how to do this. I think this is where having shoes actually helps, since the key to powerwalking seem to be to get the heel to toe roll, which I can’t, and don’t want to, do. But the arm swinging seems to help. I’m walking up even slight hills now, and this seems to speed me up a little. So, thank you Powerwalking Lady!

Onward. Trudge trudge trudge...Mud mud mud. I still have to wade in the water on the back end. The people at the aid stations have traded out, new faces. One bearded guy calls me by name, telling me to keep it up. I think he might be a friend of Jason’s. A friendly touch though. I’m kinda too delirious to strike up a convo at this point though.

Mud bog, where is the mud bog? Mud bog means home. John need mud bog. John need home. John need sleep.

There! There is mud bog! I walk right through the middle, my mud flaps making me look like a muppet at this point. Hi ho, Kermit the Frog here, on the planet Koozebane.

Man, I’m groggy. But a mile and a half left. Time to leave everything on the course. I run. I even go a little faster than a trudge.

Amazingly, this far into the day, there are even more people waiting when I pop out into camp. I know, or I think, that they’re awaiting people they know, but the applause is enthusiastic and genuine and a good last boost. I’m actually feeling a little choked up, like I could almost cry. I round the bend, more clapping, and the whole camp starts clapping and giving me ‘good jobs’. I wave and try to give a good strong finish. If not a sprint, then I at least have enough energy to jump up and land right on the timing pad, which the crowd seems to like.

And then, that’s it. I get my medal. The woman asks me my age, and no I haven’t qualified for any prize for my age category. Didn’t finish in the top five of my category even. That’s fine. I’ll take the finish. Time? 12:30. So, about what I predicted, and good given the course conditions.

The runners tent is gone, looks like they took it down to lay it out in the sun to dry. My bag is one of the last one’s left. Even the food table is gone. At least I have one last banana! And a protein smoothie!

I hate to do it, but I have to check the feets: Yep, a big ole blister on my right foot, right where the ball and big toe meet. I thought I could feel something burning in there. My Injinji socks are just trashed, holes in all the toes, soaked in dirt. They just going in the garbage. For my VFFs fortunately one of the women working there finds me a plastic bag. They’re so muddy I don’t even want to throw them on the floor of my cab.

And yeah, kind of anti-climatic. I take a cool down walk around to see if anyone I know is still here, like Jason or Sweet Melissa, but don’t see anybody. Lots o’ people still camped out though. As for me, I have a bed calling my name back in Jackson. Goodbye Woodstock! Goodbye Hell!

After Action Review

What were my expectations?
Well, to finish, and hopefully get under 12 hours. That didn’t happen, but I’m fine with it. I wanted to be better about nutrition, and I think I did that. I was still sweating at the end, and had energy to drive home. This was also a lot cooler than Burning River though.

What actually happened?
The weather was crazy and uncontrollable.
I did not expect to get a blister from the VFFs, but it didn’t hinder me in any way. I thought wearing socks would prevent that, but I also actually hadn’t run with this pair in a while, opting for some newer ones, so if I know I’m going to be using a pair in a race, I should stick with that one pair.

I probably could have run at least one loop barefoot, but super slow, and I just do not want to be any more slower than I already am. Yes, I think going minimalist makes me run more sloppy, which probably causes some foot ache, yet I think my feets would be aching anyways. There’s a temptation to consider wearing something like racing flats, something with some cushion, but when I think about it, I don’t think it’s lack of cushion that makes my feet hurt, and seeing that 100 Miler guy I was running with come in right when I’m leaving me is a good reminder of the horror of shoes, since his toenails are falling out. No way. I’ll take my achy feet.