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 clearing....it’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?