Sunday, April 22, 2012

Ouachita Trail 50k

I had a strong desire to do another 50k trail race. I would say it was less of a desire, more like an itch. Like most itches, if you think about it enough, it will bother you until you do something about it. Doing something about an itch usually involves some form of scratching it. So the scratching of my itch came in the form of running the Ouachita Trail just outside of Little Rock, Arkansas. As it turns out, the Ouachita Trail and my experience there, did more than just scratch the itch. Instead of scratching the itch, I ended up taking a sledgehammer to it. All I was looking for was "a little more cowbell"*, so to speak.

*follow the link below if "a little more cowbell" doesn't mean anything to you...5 minutes of your time and a few laughs and all will be clear*

This race was very last minute for me. My friend David and I decided to make this a mutual adventure and carpool to Arkansas together. I generally like to know months in advance about my upcoming races. This gives me time to prepare physically and mentally for what is ahead. I knew I was in enough physical shape to run a 50k, it wouldn't be the prettiest, but it was not outside my current abilities. My mental preparation for the race was not anywhere close to where I wanted it to be. About the only thing I knew about the trail was what the race website had to say.  I did get one piece of advice from a friend though. He said "Be sure at the finish to yell...Texas Rules!". Hardly helpful information for running the race, but it was to be quite ominous.

We arrived at packet pickup just a few minutes after 5 AM. There weren't too many people there yet, so the lines were nice and short. When it was David's turn to pick up his packet, he gave the lady his last name. She fumbled through several pages of participants and was confused as to why his name wasn't on her list. Then she asked "the question". ARE YOU FROM TEXAS??? With a gulp, he replied "yes". Then she pulled out a 2nd list and found his name. I said to the lady, "wait a minute, do you have us (Texans) segregated??". Without missing a beat, she said firmly (and proudly) "yes we do!". Strike one for Texas. Strike two came in the form of our race bibs. Hand written with a sharpie was the phrase "Texas sucks!" on our bibs. WOW!!

The Start

The race started right as the sun was coming up. The first 3 miles were run on some good grinding hills on the roads. I was excited that the home stretch would have us cruising some nice downhill sections. Hopefully my legs would still have a little life in them to push the pace for the final kick to the finish.

I was very excited to finally get to the trailhead and start some trail running. The trail started off very technical. It was quite an interesting mix of fairly steep and off camber rocks. There was a stair case of sorts made out of rocks in the dirt that didn't seem so bad coming down them. But when you approach them on the way back, there are only two possible explanations for their existence. 1) it WAS a full set of stairs, yet every other one got eroded/washed away  OR 2) this was a hangout spot for Zeus, Hercules and Poseidon back in the day. I found out later on that #2 was in fact the correct answer. 

Now I get to Pinnacle Mountain. I have seen several videos that people have filmed on Pinnacle before. Of the 4 or so videos, they all are filmed at roughly the same spot. What you see in the video's looks very fun and challenging, but not too bad or steep. I decided to film some climbing action myself. The reason this "common area" of filming exists, it would be virtually impossible to continue filming after that particular junction (which is NOWHERE close to the top!). You needed ever body part to get to the top. Besides my feet and hands, I know I used my elbows and knees...and sometimes my crotch and butt to get the job done. The route gets much much steeper and challenging. We ceased being mountain goats and became straight up rock climbers. I kept thinking I would hear "on belay, belay on...climbing, climb on" from around me, but we were all rock climbing free solo. There was no preset path, it was a "choose your own adventure" scenario. If you could hug your body to a rock and advance higher, then that was a path. The views were spectacular if you got the nerve to disconnect from the rock for a moment.

I had a preconceived notion that when I reached the top of Pinnacle Mountain I would take a moment or two and soak it all in. Probably take some good pictures too. The reality for me was different. When I did reach the summit, I pulled out my camera, did a half-assed self portrait, and wanted to get the hell off of this mountain ASAP! Going down wasn't exactly easy. There was more awareness of the dangers of a fall going down because you could see exactly what you would be kissing with your face.

Finally we arrived to solid and "flat" ground and now is the time to start trail running! With this much excitement, varied terrain and unusual circumstances for me, I almost completely forgot about my "gameplan". I had covered about 7 miles in about 2 hrs. During that length of time, I only took in 2 gels, 2-3 endurolyte pills and maybe drank 30 oz of water. According to my plan, I should have been in the range of 5-6 gels, 5-8 pills, 60+oz of water. I didn't think much of this at the time, other then let's start taking care of these things correctly from now on, which I did. The effects of my lack of nutrition/race management will become evident later on.

The Ouachita trail was absolutely beautiful. Unfortunately my eyes were glued 2-5 ft in front of me at all times. Most of the trails I have run have technical and challenging sections to them, but they are only in stretches. This trail did have some really technical parts, but for the most part, it was mildly technical enough that one little glance at the scenery would result in a dive. Up, down and the occasional flat stretch...all the same, unrelenting focus and concentration. I was not expecting this type of terrain, but I did enjoy it nonetheless.

I had previously decided that my shoe arsenal did not contain a pair that could somewhat handle some rocky terrain. I decided to purchase the New Balance 110's and give them a try. In the rock department, I would say they performed adequate. If I was running longer, I might have wanted more shoe. I had tested the shoes out a few times prior to race day and loved them. My main issue at this race was my foot bouncing around inside them. If something even resembled a downhill stretch, my big toe on my right foot would immediately volunteer to headbutt itself against the shoe. At one point, I stopped and took off my shoes to try a lace-lock approach. But, my big toe was in LOVE with my shoe and it was apparently mating season, I couldn't stop the hanky panky going on down this was like trying to preach abstinence to two teenage kids, it ain't gonna work.

I felt my running was very good and I was extremely pleased with how well overall I was dealing with this type of terrain. My recent running experience had been predominately on roads with a handful of trails thrown in. Normal running routes that I did had a few hills in them, but the flat areas took up the bulk of the mileage. So up until about mile 13 or 14, I was feeling pretty positive about everything.

The Demise

I thought I was just tired. That really was my thought as to why I was feeling like crap. It had been a whirlwind last few days. In the previous 48hrs, I had gotten about 6 hrs of sleep total, not by choice. I had also been somewhat sick the week leading up to the race. Nothing major, just not feeling good, body aches and such.

From mile 14 to about 26, all I wanted to do was lay down and sleep. I seriously thought I was going to fall asleep while I was running. I'm glad I was out of the public's eye, because whenever I was walking, I was weaving and staggering like a drunk man. I tripped constantly, never fell though. I was tripping over rocks that were buried in the ground, pine needles stuck out higher than the rocks I was tripping over. I remember one time were my right foot tripped 3 steps in a row. I remember this instance vividly because each trip stirred up the "horizontal limbo" that was going on in my shoe. The 3rd time had me holding back a primitive caveman type roar of pain.

At this time, lack of calories and various nutrition was not on my "radar" for what was wrong with me. I was still thinking sleep deprivation or dehydration. Since I had gotten back on schedule with my gels, I had several hours of good nutrition in me. Looking back now, I can see how that poor planning caught up with me and snowballed.

The half-assed self portrait atop Pinnacle Mountain

There was a lot of walking during this 12 mile, 3 hour stretch. Walking had been reserved for the steep sections. There was no "safe terrain" while I was in this condition. Up, down, flat...if I was moving, it sucked. If I stopped, it sucked because I was making that much less progress towards the finish. I kept thinking, press on, try and suck it up, there HAS to be light at the end of the tunnel...but that was not the case.

The Final Demise

Up until about mile 25, I thought the course was marked fantastically. Intersections had arrows made of flour pointing the out/back directions. Blue flags and blue marked trees where everywhere on the course. I did not have one moment of doubt as to which way I should go. There were many long stretches were I was all alone in my semi drunken stupor but never in doubt that I was making progress. Then I came to the junction.

More or less it was a 'T' intersection with the blue flags I had come to love seeing. The problem was, the blue flags where just "there", not much more. When I got there, I just stopped and starred. At a casual glance, there was nothing to indicate left or right. I peered down both possible options, nothing indicating 'this is the way'. There was no one in front of me, who knows how far someone was behind me. I decided to reevaluate the information that was given. 3 blue ribbons. 1 blue ribbon on the left. 2 blue ribbons on the right. One of the blue ribbons on the right was tied to a trail sign pointing to the right. My experience is that the purpose of the ribbons is to get the runner to "look here". When I saw the ribbon that appeared to be specifically tied to a sign pointing to the right, I took this as a "look here" signal. After I processed this information, it wasn't a judgement call. At first glance, the message/direction wasn't clear. A second evaluation offered new information that I had previously missed and resolved the issue. To the right I go!!

At this point I was in walking mode only. It was all I could do. I was running low on water but an aid station was about a half mile away. I walked and walked and walked.....and walked some more. Nothing. My Garmin distance was slightly off from the race's distance numbers for aid stations so I wasn't sure exactly what mileage I should have to be at the next aid station. All I know is that I had hiked over a mile and hadn't seen anything. I finally came across some hikers. I asked if they had seen anyone wearing a bib number like mine and they said no. Not what I wanted to hear. I asked what was further down the trail and they said the park parking lot was not very far. I thought that was were the aid station was so I figured I should just keep on since I was in need of water. I would explain my reasoning for going the "wrong" way at the aid station.

I finally arrived at the parking lot area. The problem was, the aid station that had been there was outbound only. The parking lot was full of families enjoying the beautiful day. Not a runner in sight. I recognized this area as I had been here before, but since it was on the outbound route, backtracking from this point of the race would have meant going back over Pinnacle Mountain. NO THANK YOU!!! I needed to use the bathroom and since I was now in public, I couldn't get away with 'trail running etiquette'. I found a public bathroom and I'm sure I turned a few heads. I'd be surprised if I looked like anything less than a combination of: Sasquatch's brother, some nature survival nut, an escaped mental patient and a rabid dog. Plus, throw in the fact that I'm wearing a "number" on my short shorts that also says "Texas Sucks!" and it appears I'm almost looking to pick a fight with somebody! Oh, and lest we forget that I'm still about to fall asleep. I still resemble that drunken sailor from before.

I find a water fountain and literally almost cried. Not really because I was so happy to have water (which I was), but because of the size of my water bottles, I could only fill up like 2 oz of water in it because of the shape of the basin. I could fill up 2oz, pour it in the other bottle and repeat. So I could get one full bottle plus an extra 2 ounces...yipppeee!! (sarcasm) As I turned around from filling up with water, I hear a little boy say "Daddy, is it our turn now?". I felt soooo bad because I honestly don't know if I was at the water fountain for 2 minutes or 20 minutes. I apologized and the dad said it looked like I needed it more than they did, to which I said, "actually, I do".

So now I am faced with a decision, where to go now? I found a Pinnacle Mountain map. Noticed the trail I was previously on circumnavigated the whole mountain and "should" lead me back to the race. That was the shortest and most direct route that did not involve scaling the mountain again. It looked simple on the map, a straight line with no intersections until I got to my destination. This was not the case. About a quarter mile in, I come to a junction. Not a 'keep going straight' junction. This was a 4 or 5 way intersection all pointing in different directions. All of the paths are marked with the same color markings as the trail I am on. What the hell! Come on Arkansas!! Really? I literally flip a coin and hope for the best. This situation happens 2 more times. I guess they need to update their maps.

Somewhere in this "junction orgy", my energy levels returned to normal. I could finally function again!! I started to jog/run, but after about 20-30 ft my mind just said 'no'. My range of emotions over the past hour of being lost were so vast. So many thoughts passed through my mind. I checked my Garmin data, I was off the grid for about 1hr15m. It felt like a full day. I wondered if all the 50 milers had finished yet. I kept expecting the sun to be setting at any minute, I didn't know it but it was only one in the afternoon. So trying to run again, not knowing if this trail I was on was even going to lead me closer to a resolution, was just not jiving with my mind. 

I finally reach the aid station I should have been at over an hour ago. I am approaching from the wrong direction, I can see this is raising a few eyebrows. A lady asks if I am still in the race. I said "I think so. I have been wandering lost around Pinnacle Mountain for over an hour." She asked how I did that. I responded by saying I followed the markers. I explained myself and she was very nice and sympathetic to my situation. At this point I hear some guy say, "hey, looks like you got some bonus miles in!"
.....I know many people have gotten lost/turned around in races. And this could just be me, I don't know....I wanted to punch that guy in the face. Bonus miles? are you kidding me? I honestly thought I would not have enough resources or strength to make it back here. I can sit back and laugh at it now, but at the time, I was angry...furious. At that point in time...if you combined the anger and rage of Mel Gibson from the movie "Braveheart" with Brad Pitt from "Troy", that might be close to describing what I felt inside. Don't crack a joke to that person. Like I said, this could just be me and an isolated incident. But if you are reading this, you have been warned. Say "bonus miles" to someone and if you get popped, well...I told you so. :)

The Triumph

I was finally on the home stretch of 4 miles. I got to climb the Herculean steps. Honestly, when I saw the pavement that would be the last few miles, I couldn't have been happier. I could finally look up and out for a change. It was also a little cold shower for the romance of my toe and shoe, no more funny stuff with you guys! I took all that previous frustration, my renewed energy levels and everything else I had inside me and pounded the pace as hard as I could. About the last mile and a half or more, I see a man closing in on me. Come to find out it was Podog Vogler, the seasoned Arkansas runner. He was hoping to squeeze in under 8:30 for his 50 miler. He asked how my race had been. I gave him the "summarized" and polite version. I'll never forget what he said. "Well, all that matters right now is that you are here. You overcame your struggles and challenges and are about to finish, that is something to be proud of. Nothing can take that away from you." And all this while we were keeping a low 8 minute pace, which is hauling ass in my book, especially with over 8 hours on my feet.

I finally cross the finish line, exhilarated to be finished. The race director hands me my finishers medal and asks "well, what did you think of the course?" I said, "It was great, except for wandering around Pinnacle for over an hour".  I explained my situation and experience. She knew exactly where my junction conundrum occurred. She had delegated that marking duty to someone else. It was marked primarily to catch the attention of outbound traffic and not inbound. Flag placement one way can look completely different when in reverse. I'm probably the only person who took the information the way I did. I sometimes tend to over analyze things and see information that might not necessarily be information. At the time, I didn't remember too much of my outbound turn by turn journeys. So retracing my steps was kinda a blur.  

What an experience. Way more than I bargained for. I wasn't expecting to be tested that much on a 50k. I was not anticipating being on my feet for that long. I did get a PR for longest distance run (almost 34 miles) and longest time on my feet!

My wife hard at work!
Before deconstruction
Before deconstruction
I also enjoyed testing out my new running hydration vest. I had the desire to carry just a few more "things" on me for races, depending on the course, and have direct access to it while running. I also wanted to have water bottles instead of a bladder to make it easier at aid stations, but I didn't want to use handhelds. So, my needs where: enough room to carry a plethora of things and have on the go access; water bottle hydration without carrying them in my hands. I also didn't want a waist belt system, preferring to carry the weight on my shoulders and back. I scoured the internet. I found things that were close to what I wanted, but usually lacked pocket space. So, my solution....make it myself (or ask my wife to make it!). I found a life jacket at Bass Pro Shop that had the general "shell" I was looking for. My wife stripped the vest, stream lined it, removed the flotation padding and many many many other tweaks. We stripped an old backpack of a lumbar support strap and turned it into water bottle holders. My wife hand stitched those babies onto the back of the vest. She also added a pocket/sleeve in the back that could hold a bladder if I wanted. I used the sleeve to hold extra gels for the turnaround section of this race. The front pockets worked out wonderfully for me, I had more than enough room to carry whatever I needed. Ease of access was wonderful. The fit was also amazing. No wiggling, shifting or anything. The vest just felt like an extension of myself. The weight was almost unnoticeable to me, although I am used to running with a 70oz bladder.

To get from point A to point B, with a point C thrown in the took somewhere around 8hr35m. It's definitely a race I would like another crack at! I went to Arkansas to run a 50k...came back to Texas with a 54k instead...also picked up a few "learning experiences" along the way...nothing wrong with that at all.

End result

End result

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