An Ultra by the Numbers
A daunting figure even to those of us who pursue these trail ultras with excitement. 50 miles is nothing to scoff at for almost all runners and looking back at my running logs, I’ve been nervous for 2 months. Since completing a 50km race earlier this year, I had in the back of my mind the idea of tackling a 50 mile race before Katie and my’s life is turned upside down.
Stepping outside my comfort zone is what draws me back to these races time and again. It’s clearly not for glory or praise, there are almost no spectators. I will never win a race and even if I did, there is never prize money. Each ultramarathon is a personal trek and the lead up I find to be more difficult than the actual race. 100s of miles into the year already and I could have never been comfortably prepared. There is an intrinsic doubt when reaching into the unknown, mentally and physically. Toeing the line at Caesar Creek State Park this June morning would be no different as I was asking my chicken legs to carry me 18 miles further than they ever had before.
Questions of why will always be the first on people’s minds. I cannot answer that for each individual as we each have passions that push us to discover different parts of ourselves. A few pieces and parts of the 2016 Dawg Gone Long Run are described through my perception and in the photos of talented race photographer, Tracy Collier.
Only a select few individuals voluntarily sign up for such an event. The people at trail races include high school tracksters and 65 year old guys with miraculous mustaches that have seen more miles than the tracksters that breeze by. Some runners are decked out in gear; electronics, gaiters, hydration packs, calf sleeves, and more, while others are carrying a bottle and wearing running sandals, yes sandals. Point being, there is no correct way to dress and everyone does what makes them most comfortable to obtain their goal. On this day, 91 brave souls laced up their minimalist shoes, maximalist shoes, racing flats, structured trainers, or trail lugs to see what was possible.
The state park surrounds a dammed creek and features rolling hills covered in Ohio vegetation. Unfortunately, only 2 days before the race a small tornado disrupted said Ohio vegetation. Portions of the course had to be closed and others rerouted. This meant that not only did runners have to tack on a small road segment at the start of the race, but throughout the 3 loops of Caesar Creek’s Perimeter Loop trail there were trees down frequently. Climbing over, jumping on, crawling under, and sneaking around the downed trees was fun in a way the first 2 loops. By the 3rd, I was cursing the quickly dying specimens as much as the guy with an entire tree on his roof which could be seen at mile 15 of each loop, poor sap (Solid pun Brian).
Obstacles did not end with uprooted vegetation however. All of us knew we were in for a battle with the sun. The race started at 6:30am and the sun already had the penetrating, UV ray potent feel that makes fair skinned fellas dart for the forest. As the day wore on, the humidity rose under the tree canopy. It was important for me to fill my handheld water bottle at each stop as that was my only means of cooling and hydrating myself. Each aid station had buckets of ice and water to douse heads and necks. Volunteers were happy to sponge the chilled water onto runners and fill their bottles while we gorged on a variety of snacks. The tables had oreos, sandwich squares, bananas, jelly beans, and more sport specific options like electrolyte pills or gels. For the first time in my running ‘career’ I carried along my own salt tablets. The white gelcaps help to mitigate nutrients lost through sweat and the several gallons of water consumed. Though I tried to time them out strategically, I typically took one when it felt as if someone had generously used a salt shaker on each elbow. In addition to the 8 salt tablets, I also carried and consumed 13 gels. I can promise you that after 10 of them I was not enthused about eating another in 45 more minutes. By sticking to that timetable, for the first time I did not completely fizz out from nutrition. In races past I have strayed from the plan for 1 reason or another and paid for it later. Today’s pains would come in other forms.
Hornets made a guest appearance for lap number 2. We had already run through this portion of the trail 3 hours earlier, but seeing as we were nearing from the front of the pack, the rest of the runners must have stirred whatever peaceful existence the hornets dwell. I heard a buzzing near my ear but thought nothing of it initially as I had already swallowed two bugs and eaten several cobwebs this summer morning. There was a menace to the 2nd round of buzzing though and was quickly followed by a sting to the ear, right before I swatted it away, and one to the back which thankfully was not inside my shirt. My new friend, Brian (I’m not schizophrenic), was close behind and, though I heard him yelp, we both sprinted for a few yards before realizing what exactly was happening. He made it through unscathed but I made a mental note to zip through this section of the trail next time around.
Completing 2 loops meant that I had equaled a distance I had only previously completed 2 other times. With each step I was exploring a little bit more of the unknown. Other Brian’s friend, Jerry, joined us for the 3rd and final loop. Without his added enthusiasm and resiliency to our curses, both Brians would have been out on the course for much longer. Each of us had our low points as we both we striving towards the 50 mile mark for the 1st time. Having never met the man before, he instantly made me feel part of the team and knew when to push both of us and when to let us work through our rough patches. He was also a new source of conversation. Brian and I had just met but had already been talking the hour car ride down, several hours in a hotel room, and 7 hours of single track trail. There is certainly a myriad of opportunity for 2 strangers with common interests to converse, but Jerry’s new level of energy helped both of us. Brian and I also bonded in taking any frustrations out on Jerry, he knew that’s why he was there and he was always quick with another reassuring comment about how great we were doing. What a jerk.
Eventually 1 rough spot was too much for Brian and Jerry to drag me through. With 3 miles left I told them to go as I needed to walk for a while. We had laughed (I cried a little as well) and talked for 47 miles and finishing together sounded like the only way to finish but I did not want Brian to leave Caesar Creek feeling as though he had left some effort out there. As they jogged away, I had a tough 10 minutes alone in the woods. The rustling of the trees was deafening and as much as I wanted to sit down on each log along the trail, I wanted to cross the finish line so badly. I could not make myself run however and was resigned to death march up and down the rollings hills. After a mile I willed my legs to break stride and managed about 15 steps before an upslope halted running. It was a start however and with each small runnable section I was able to gain momentum. My stomach would not let me drink any more water and teased nausea with each sip. I knew there might be consequences to pushing it but I wanted to go home and I wanted to accomplish my goal.
A heaving chest from emotional overload is something that seems to be a common theme. Wouldn’t say that I’m necessarily proud that as i near the finish line of these races I can barely contain tears. After mulling over how life is about to change for 11+ all I could do is think about Katie and our growing family. Swelling thoughts about what it means to be a parent drowned out any distance PR or age graded results. After hugging Brian on our accomplishments and thanking Jerry and the race directors, the battle against heat exhaustion began. Dizziness, nausea, lack of balance, and seeing stars lasted at least 20 minutes until volunteers helped lower my core temperature (thanks Joe).
Later that evening while I tried to force down liquids I recounted stories with Katie. With each passing story I realized how much I had enjoyed the time on the trails and the people encountered.