When I’m anticipating the end of the work day, I’m thankful for the second hand’s unceasing movement – Because it’s almost 4:00, which means in an hour, I’ll be headed home. 30 minutes after that, I’ll be headed into the woods.
Even now, typing these words, I get a small surge of adrenaline.
The woods are where I belong, and today is Tuesday.
Tuesdays are for trail running.
When work is over, I get home and change into running clothes, pull on my trail shoes, and drive across that money-saving bridge into Henderson where, just on the other side of the Ohio River, John James Audubon State Park awaits. This park is home to a short trail system that is remarkably grueling – perhaps even more grueling because no one expects it when they head back there for the first time.
I run in to the heavy hardwood canopy and follow the single track to get as many miles as I can before the sun goes down. As the summer wanes, the forest’s deepening shadows urge me forward, up steep hills, along plummeting ridge lines, and flying down into ravines – only to come back up again and again.
It’s only 15 minutes from my home in the city, but these woods are a welcome refuge from the noise and bustle of the highways and expressways that crisscross Evansville.
From a few points on the trail, high above the Ohio River, I can look out and see the tall buildings in Downtown Evansville miles away. I can’t hear it, but I can see it. Then I turn and head back into the woods and stop to look at the turtles that line the fallen trees around the edges of Wilderness Lake. On the other side of the lake, a deer heads down for a drink. Her red-brown body reflects in the water in front of the deep forest that climbs up the hill behind her.
Audubon is a beautiful place to run – but it’s also maddeningly difficult. There are days that the wild ascents take everything in my mind and body to get over. My legs take bites out of the hill, climbing up to a peak that I can’t see. Maybe it’s around this corner…maybe this one? Surely this one.
When I finally reach the top, heart thumping in my chest, I don’t stop. Instead, I pick up the pace a little, allowing my legs to turn faster on the relative flat of the ridge line. Soon, my pulse slows and my legs settle into a relaxing cadence – just before I dive back down into a ravine and head for another climb.
It never gets old, this early work week escape between work and dinner. It’s always a true pleasure to suddenly be deep in the woods running with deer, squirrels, spiders, and horseflies. With a smile as I turn onto Backcountry Trail, I wholeheartedly welcome the challenges I know are just beyond the next curve, and I relish the opportunity to give it my all on a training run that is every bit as fun as it is important for my fitness and goals.
It’s Transcendent Trail Run Tuesday. Hit the trails – they’re waiting.
Ever since I started running ultra distances, I’ve been asked a lot of the same questions. The first and most common is: “Why?”
It’s oddly one of the more difficult questions to answer; maybe because I think too hard about it. I try to look into my psyche and find the real thing – the deep answer about what makes me want to run farther and farther.
But, really – I don’t have to dig deep to find the true answer.
Several years ago, I embarked on a backpacking trip with a group of students from the university where I work. This was going to be my longest backpacking trip, and we were going to the mountains of Pisgah National Forest to hike the 30-mile Art Loeb Trail. This was before I ever dreamed of running, let alone trail running.
To make a long story incredibly short, things didn’t go super well that week. The entire trip was a lot harder than anyone anticipated. To top it all off, we finished on the wrong side of the mountain.
While things didn’t go terribly smoothly, the trip did leave me with the desire to go back and get it right.
One year later, I went back. This time, it was with Ashley and a friend. We caught a ride from someone to take us to the trailhead. While we were in the car, that person told us about a “group of crazy people” that comes out to the Art Loeb every December and runs the entire length of it in a single day.
“What? How is that even possible? How do they carry food, water…how do they make it up the mountains….etc., etc.”
I had just run my first half marathon a few weeks earlier, so the idea of going 30 miles in the mountains in one go was unfathomable. And, as as we tried to figure out the logistics of such an undertaking, it just became more difficult to wrap my head around it. But at the same time…something stirred inside me.
I want to run the Art Loeb Trail.
For several years, I’ve had that trail in the back of my mind with every ultra I run. Every time I finish a 50k, I try to imagine what it would have been like to cover that distance on the switchbacks up Pilot Mountain, climbing up to Black Balsam Knob and Tennent Mountain, and traversing the Shining Rock Wilderness and the Narrows – all major points along the Art Loeb, if you haven’t guessed that already.
So imagine how it felt when earlier this year, I learned that my running coach (Doug Hay) was planning to run the Loeb in March 2017. Imagine again how it felt when he asked “Want to join?”
On Saturday, Doug and I ran the Art Loeb Trail – an actual dream come true for me. I’ll write a post about the trip and the conditions and challenges we met with along the way later. But first, I want this sentiment to stand alone:
I run ultras because it feels so good to follow a dream from its infancy to its completion. It feels so good to say “yes” to the adventures that at first seem impossible or crazy. It really seems crazy and impossible are the most appealing to me.
My first 50-miler was everything I wanted it to be. It was everything I dreamed of when I registered, my new belt buckle already glinting in my eyes.
Total distance: 50.15 miles
Total elevation gain: 757 feet
Official time: 10:27:20
The race was going to kick off at 7:30 on Saturday morning, and we were fortunate enough to be able to camp (for free!) at the starting line. No 3:30 a.m. wake-up call! The morning went by really quickly from the minute I woke up to when I was suddenly standing in a huge crowd of runners who were going to run either 100 miles or 50.
I heard the race director faintly over the din of the other runners, but I didn’t hear the countdown or really even the “Go!” before suddenly everyone was surging forward to run a loop around the campground/parking area before getting on the Tunnel Hill State Trail for the rest of the day.
Nothing unusual happened for a while. The Tunnel Hill course goes along what was once a railroad track, so there aren’t any sharp turns or steep climbs ever. It’s so unremarkable of a course, generally, that I was surprised to see on my GPS that there was a little bit of an S-bend on the trail because it was so gentle of a curve.
We ran south for a little more than 13 miles before turning back to go north for about 25 miles. Then we turned around and went back to the middle to finish.
While the course may seem unremarkable, it’s really quite pretty. There are bridges that go over rivers and valleys, a few small towns, beautiful farmland, and plenty of animals. I saw a lot of cows and dogs.
Ashley was waiting for me at mile 16, 26, and 40 – and a surprise visit at probably mile 21. She was there to help me replenish my nutrition and to help keep my spirits up. Several days before the race, we talked about what would be most helpful for me at those aid stations. I had told her to not engage in any negativity I brought with me – and to make me smile and say nice things. This might seem silly, but a positive mindset, even if it’s forced, is imperative for something like this. Being able to see Ashley was always something to look forward to.
The unusual thing that happened was that I started fading fast really early in the race. My legs got achy too early, and my mind started to drift into negative territory long before that should have happened. When I first saw Ashley at mile 16, I was pretty out of it. I was starting to get crabby.
I tried not to let it get me down, as I ate some of my sweet potatoes and drank Tailwind, just as I had planned. But it wasn’t working. I still felt energy leaving, and nothing I was doing was bringing it back.
I packed 12 dates and four roasted sweet potatoes (in wedge form). I had eaten two dates, and hated both of them. They tasted normal, but I didn’t want them. The sweet potatoes tasted fine, and were enjoyable enough, but they just weren’t doing anything for me. After a while, they would just sit in my stomach like a lump, and I started feeling pretty crummy and a little light-headed.
This was going to be a long day if I couldn’t figure this out. I ran a quick diagnostic. I felt like I was crashing, and my negative attitude was a good sign I was low on electrolytes. It didn’t make sense because I was eating and drinking plenty – but “sense” don’t mean nothing. My mind was telling me one thing, but my body was telling me something totally different: I was fading, light-headed, and crabby. Something needed to change, and quickly.
Luckily, I packed a Huma gel in my hydration pack, and one extra gel in one of my drop bags. I packed them in case I needed a “shot in the arm” later on in the day. This was not part of my nutrition plan, and I have never really practiced running with gels as nutrition. But I brought them anyway “just in case.”
It took me a while to both remember that I had the Huma gel and to move past the safety of my nutrition plan. I had spent a lot of time figuring out what works best for me and doesn’t hurt my stomach – and I was certain I had figured it out. I just need to eat more taters…I just need to drink more Tailwind…but, for whatever reason, it just wasn’t working on Saturday.
I don’t remember exactly when it was that I ate the first gel. I think it was after 25 miles, but I don’t quite remember – but I had a pretty good feeling about it right away because that thing tasted freaking amazing. It was strawberry lemonade flavored, and it blew my mind.
Before long, I was coming out on the other side of some really hard hours, and I started feeling really good. My legs and feet were sore, of course, but nothing was getting me down. The rest of my day, I ate primarily gels and drank Tailwind, and my energy leveled out, and I felt great for the rest of the day. I had a few peanut butter pretzels and some grapes at the aid stations, but I was being really cautious about what I ate.
While by now in my running “career,” I’m pretty familiar with running on tired, sore legs, it can still be difficult. It gets more difficult when you know you’ll be running nearly 20 miles longer than you’ve ever run before. So, when the going got tough, I came up with a plan that kept me moving forward. I would run 1 mile and then allow a .25-mile walk. This was important because running a mile when you’ve already run 30+ miles can seem insurmountable at times. Forcing myself to run a mile in exchange for a .25-mile walk seemed like a sweet deal. It also gave me something to think about besides simply “run,” and it gave me a strategy and took away the option to just stop running willy-nilly. I had to wait until I had gone at least a mile.
I strapped on my headlamp some time after mile 40 shortly before the sun set and the trail went dark. I ran for a little while with only my headlamp lighting the way, calling out encouragement to the other bouncing headlamps and various lights that I passed. I counted the bridges I crossed and noted the mile markers left over from the railroad. I was getting so close. My watch informed me that I passed 50 miles shortly before I exited the woods.
When I crossed the finish line, I was elated. It’s one of the most incredible things I’ve ever done – it’s still hard to believe that I just ran 50 miles just a few weeks ago. Even with multi-day backpacking trips in the mountains, I’ve never covered 50 miles on my feet before Tunnel Hill, and I just did it all at once. I’ve built myself into the runner that five years ago I thought I could never be.
Recovery and run streak.
After finishing, we decided to go home. It was very cold, and we had unfortunately set up our camp under a really bright light, which made it really hard to sleep. So, Ashley tore down our campsite while I sat in the car and warmed up. On the way home, we got fries and onion rings. #treatyoself
On Sunday, we sat on the sofa basically the entire day – except of course for a one-mile run in a park. Another thing I told Ashley was that I really wanted to keep my run streak going, and that she might have to do some convincing to get me out the door on Sunday. But it really wasn’t that bad. We walked a little to warm up, then ran a slow, no-pressure mile, and walked back to the car. On Monday, I ran another slow, no-pressure mile. I’m now 336+ days in a row of running at least one mile a day.
I’m pretty much sold now on the restorative benefits of active recovery of even just one-mile runs. My legs were sore for a few days (I ran 50 miles.), but the soreness faded fast. By Wednesday, I was pretty much good to go, except for a little soreness on the bottoms of my feet, which also went away pretty quickly.
I’ll have some more detail about what’s in store for 2017 in a later post. For now, I’m going to run without a plan for a little while. I’ve run 1,600+ (injury-free) miles so far this year, and I’ll probably end up close to 1,800 for the year. Stay tuned for a list of goals and races for 2017!
On November 12, I’ll be running my first 50-mile ultramarathon. I’m excited and nervous, but mostly excited. I’ve been training since May for a 50-mile race, and I’m ready to get this thing done.
Since I haven’t updated in a long time, I thought it would be nice to answer some FAQs regarding ultrarunning, and in particular my 50-mile race and the way I will be running it.
Most of the people in my various social circles know that I run, and that I run a lot. So, one of the common questions I get is: “When is your next race?” or something along those lines. Here are the answers!
The Tunnel Hill course is a crushed-limestone multi-use trail in Vienna, Illinois. It’s part of the rails-to-trails conservancy project. The trail was built on an old railroad bed. They took out the tracks and threw down some crushed limestone. It has virtually no hills, lots of bridges, and a notable 543-foot long tunnel. Through a hill.
2. 50 miles????
3. How long will that take you? Is it all in one day?
I’m estimating it will take me between 10 and 12 hours. My goal is to finish in 10. Yes, it’s all in one day, technically. All runners (of both the 100 and 50-mile races) have to finish in 30 hours.
4. What will you eat?
Throughout this summer, I’ve been working on perfecting my nutrition plan for this race, and I’ve gotten it down pretty well now.
So it goes like this: I eat throughout the whole race beginning at 45 minutes to an hour in. It’s super important to keep fueling the whole time, not just when I get hungry or when I crash. It’s really hard to bounce back after totally depleting resources.
At about 45 minutes in, I’ll eat my first date. Then a little later, I’ll have some Tailwind. Then a little later, I’ll have some potato wedges. Repeat for the rest of the day. This is my main source of fuel.
I also like to have some Chex Mix (salty, crunchy, lovely), and it’s really nice to have a soda in those later miles. Occasional Gin-Gins to help settle a crazy stomach.
And of course I’ll drink plenty of water.
Why would you do this to yourself?
I love the challenge. It feels so good to set a crazy goal, work really hard, and eventually achieve that goal. There’s nothing like it. I know that no matter what happens in other areas of my life, running is a constant. And if I work super hard, no one can take away the progress I make, and no one can tell me that I can’t finish my ultramarathon. It’s all up to me.
But what about…
Do you have any questions about trail and ultra running that I didn’t answer? Feel free to leave me a comment below, and I’ll answer it!
If you’ve been around the Internet these last few years, you’ve likely noticed the following inspirational quote:
I suppose this could put you on some type of trajectory. But, really, how terrifying would it be to completely miss your target of the moon, and just end up somehow floating “among the stars,” which are unfathomably and increasingly distant from one another?
I will never be content simply landing near my target.
I plan a lot and work hard to make my dreams come true, whether running or otherwise. I won’t throw my rocket toward the moon without knowing exactly how much power it will take to get there. If I fire one and miss the moon – then I’m coming back and trying again. I want that moon, dammit.
I’m currently 500 miles into training to “shoot the moon” in the form of a 50 mile trail run. It’s a big, hairy, audacious goal. I’m trying to work as hard as I can to make sure that when that rocket launches on November 12, I’ll hit the moon right where I’m aiming.
So, I say – don’t be content with missing your target. If you miss, then it means get back to the drawing board. It means the challenge of trying to achieve your dreams isn’t over. It doesn’t mean you’re not strong enough or good enough. I means you’re going to be stronger and better soon.
Most of the time, I run on trails I’m very familiar with. Within an hour of my house, there are four trail systems that I have spent a lot of time learning. During the week, I run at either Audubon or Angel Mounds. For longer runs on the weekends, I run Harmonie and Lincoln State Park. No matter the distance, I know what to expect when I get out there.
Knowing the trails and what to expect makes trail running a lot easier and makes me feel a lot more confident when I hit the trails for a training run.
But every once in a while, I toe the starting line for a trail race that winds through woods and trails that I’ve never seen . I might turn a corner at some point and fly down a hill that I’ve never gone down before. It would make sense in this case to slow down, maybe even hike down that hill to avoid a misstep on unfamiliar terrain – but I don’t. I live for those downhills during a race. I’m not nervous because I’ve spent many days and hours running as fast as I can down hills back home. Training my mind to look a few steps ahead, training my feet to know how to land or jump over roots or fallen trees at a moment’s notice without even thinking twice.
This starts to feel like my life as a Christian – and how I have to practice faith to have stronger faith.
I’m very comfortable running on trails, especially when they’re my home trails – and that makes sense. But sometimes, running on trails gets really…special.
When I head into the woods for 31 miles in unfamiliar territory, I can’t depend on my knowledge to keep me from getting lost. I have to look for signs to guide me in the right direction. The night and weeks before the start of a race, the director and volunteers have gone through the course and marked everything with colored flags or big signs to help the runners know which way to go. For Gnaw Bone, I followed little pink flags. There were also blue, red, and white out there. Sometimes they were on my course, but I only had eyes for the pink ones because they were for me. If I followed the blue flags, I’d probably finish sooner, but it wouldn’t be my race that I finished. Sometimes the pink flags went up a hill, which didn’t seem like much fun – but that’s the hill I came to run, so I went with the pink flags.
Sometimes, life takes me down a path I’m not familiar with. When I head that direction, I do so knowing God has laid out a path for me to walk, and only He knows where it goes. I’m only there to run the race. Sometimes I’d prefer to run flat instead of up a hill, but the pink flags He set out for me go up the hill. If I go on the flat trail, I’ll get lost. If I follow the pink flags, I’ll get to the finish line. Sometimes the other trail looks like more fun, but that’s someone else’s path to run.
Even though I don’t know the woods I’ll be running in for my race, I’m not completely unprepared when I get there. For many races, there have been people who have run it before – and we runners like to brag. I can find course descriptions and race reports for nearly every run I’ve done. If those aren’t available, I can usually read about the trails in the area or a course description from the race website. I’ll have a pretty good, if a little vague, idea of what to expect when I start the race. Of course my experience will be unique to me, but there are a few things I know for sure. There will be hills – and they’ll likely be harder than I expect. There will be other runners to share my time with. There will be a finish line.
The Bible is a pretty valuable resource. While the stories in it are old, the Bible’s advice on learning to trust God and seek His will is timeless. The world is also filled with people who have had experiences similar to mine. With their help, advice, and support, I’ll feel a tiny bit more confident when I start down an unfamiliar path.
I used to think life is a race. You come speeding through the start line and don’t stop until you cross the finish line. But life isn’t a race – because life isn’t always hard. Life is more like a series of races. You train for the races, line up when it’s your turn, and do your absolute best no matter which way the pink flags go. When they go up a hill and the blue flags go left and finish, follow the pink ones because that’s your race. Sometimes your race really sucks, and you’d really prefer to be anywhere else, and that’s okay. Eventually, this race will be over, and it’ll be time to rest and get ready for the next one.
Mainly because not much has been going on. After Yamacraw, I was between training. I really enjoyed three or four weeks of running outside of a training plan. I still ran every day, but I didn’t have any set mileage, so I just did what I felt like. But, that playground style of exercise has ended. I just started a new training plan for my first 50 miler. More on that later!
It has been raining a lot here lately. This makes trail running a bit difficult. As a trail runner, staying off the trails because they’re muddy is really frustrating. I’ve missed two (TWO!) Transcendent Tuesday trails runs because of rain. Now I’m doing a training plan, and the first long run was intended to be done on the race course, which is a trail. Not only is it a trail, but it’s a notoriously muddy trail. Any little bit of rain leaves standing water and terribly sloppy conditions.
With the all-day rain we’ve been having for the last several weeks, I decided my first long run of the plan would be done on the road. Sad, frustrating, but acceptable.
But then I remembered last weekend.
Last weekend, Ashley and I volunteered at an aid station for the Dances with Dirt trail races at Gnaw Bone. Our station was at an intersection where all distances went through twice. Once four miles into the race, and then again five miles before the finish line. We gave water and food to runners doing 13.1 , 26.2, 50k, and 50 mile distances(including a couple friends doing their first trail half).
All the rain we’ve been having made a wreck of the trails, and about 1,000 sets of feet churned them into miles-long mud pits.
As the runners reached my aid station at mile four, I couldn’t see their shoes, and their legs were caked with mud. They had just climbed up four miles of muddy trail and continued through to get back on the trails before returning to my station.
Some of the runners were in good spirits, enjoying the new challenge of running in these conditions. Some people were broken down, sore, and tired. Whether they stayed at the aid station for a few minutes to rest and recover, or whether they downed a quick cup of water and sped back down the trail – they all kept going.
Can’t? – or won’t.
With a head full of last week’s incredible runners, I went out to Angel Mounds yesterday and slogged through the mud for 10 miles. It was filthy, but I got it done, and I’m proud I didn’t give up on that detail of the run. It was actually pretty enjoyable.
It’s one of those times that the lessons I learn or the determination I cultivate as a runner can carry over into my “real” life. That one I live where I don’t smell like a yeti. There are many times when I don’t do something because I can’t. But I think, in most cases, it’s really only because I won’t.
I’m not saying that I’ll always be able to find the motivation to do a chore or complete a project, or even run 10 muddy miles on a trail because that’s what my training plan says. What I am saying is that I’ll dig deeper no matter what. I’ll pick up my pen, lace up my shoes, or grab a sponge or paint scraper, and get it done. Because I’m an ultrarunner. Ain’t nothing gonna stop me.
There are only a few days to go until I run my first race of 2016: Yamacraw 50k. I’m really excited to hit the trails of Big South Fork in Stearns, Kentucky.
I have been remiss in keeping this blog updated – and I’ve avoided the inevitable post that says “Boy have I not been updating much.” Kind of a stalemate. Perhaps the first step is to admit that I’ve been lazy?
While I have not been talking about what I’ve been up to, I have been up to a lot. Specifically a lot of running.
My run streak, which began inadvertently on December 29, 2015, and officially on January 1, 2016, is going remarkably strong. When I hit the publish button for this post, I had 94 straight days of running behind me. It has been a wonderful accountability tool.
“You could skip today’s run. The weather isn’t ideal,” says the lazy athlete on my left shoulder.
“Yes, but then your run streak would be over. Don’t want that, do you?” asks the ultrarunner on my right shoulder.
Lace up shoes; pound the pavement. 94 days and counting.
Since I use a Garmin watch (see below!), I primarily use Garmin Connect to upload and track my runs. However, I discovered Smashrun through a fellow blogger, and I’ve been having a lot of fun with it. Smashrun caught on pretty quickly that I was doing a run streak and started counting the days for me. Not only that, but there are all sorts of badges you can get when you upload your runs there. Check it out! It’s a lot of fun, and I’ve found the badges oddly motivational. They also send a weekly running report (like the one on the left), which is kinda cool.
I have two new pieces of running gear! Usually gear comes one at a time because it ain’t cheap. But, one thing was free.
I’ve been interested in SPIbelts for a while. There are other brands out there (like Flip Belt), but SPIbelt was the only one (that I know of) giving them away for free on Leap day. SPI stands for “small personal item,” and I have taken that to mean potatoes (see below). Before the belt even arrived, I was already calling it my tater sack.
SPIbelt is a belt with a small pocket that you can put stuff in. They’re designed not to bounce around or be uncomfortable, which I can attest is the case for my particular belt (a black, standard SPIbelt). I crammed two potatoes’ worth of roasted potato wedges in my belt and went for a 22-mile run, and I barely noticed it was there. The heat from my body actually kept the taters pleasantly warm. Just kidding. That’s kinda weird.
I knew that the battery life of my old 410 was not going to cut it for ultramarathons, especially anything that takes longer than eight hours to complete. So I did some research and found a new one. I’m now the proud owner of a Garmin 230, which is so fancy and pretty, I can hardly handle it. Also it boasts a 16-hr battery life and loads of other features and data that give me heart palpitations.
Internal cadence sensor. I don’t know how it works, but it’s great to see my cadence. I should be between 170-180, and I’m typically averaging 176. Yay fastfeet!
Smart notifications. This means I’m a little easier to get a hold of while I’m out running. Ashley has promised not to text me unless it’s important or motivational. (example right)
Live tracking. Ashley (or anyone who I invite to the party) can track me on my run. This is especially nice when I’m running 22 miles on generally not-runner-friendly roads. I haven’t tested this on the trails yet, but that’ll be next!
There are other things like V02 Max and recovery advisor, but I need to learn more about how to use that information before I get too excited about it.
New nutrition! (NEWtrition?)
There were a few weeks when I finished a trail run completely drained of energy. After a few runs with this experience, I started thinking I need to up my calorie intake while out on long runs. My first successful foray into calorie intake on the run included eating dates. Usually one date every 45 minutes. I also will drink a bottle of Skratch. This is how that breaks down caloriewise:
1 Date: 23 calories
16 oz Skratch: 80 calories
18-mile trail run: ~2,132 calories
I would need to eat 92 dates to match that calorie burn. Not gonna happen.
So I’ve started bringing roasted sweet potato wedges on my long runs. It has made a huge difference. I eat two potatoes plus the Skratch, and it has kept me from bonking, and helps me feel like I can keep moving after my run is over, rather than laying down in the back of the car with a towel over my eyes.
Plus I get to eat potatoes while I’m running. Potatoes are delicious.
This is a long one: Both Ashley and I share our 2015 Rugged Red experience below, followed by bonus pictures!
Last Saturday was the second Rugged Red in Red River Gorge, Kentucky! Nearly everything about it was opposite of last year’s race, with one notable exception: The course was the same.
The morning of the race began very early. When the alarm went off at 3:30 in the morning (2:30 a.m. at home), Ashley and I crawled out of the tent, cleaned up, and got in our running clothes. We were at the shuttle pick-up location very well on time (5:00 a.m.) – while the same could not be said for many other runners. Possibly victims of sleeping in or last minute decisions to not bail on the race due to the rain. Oh yeah, it rained the whole night before the race, most of the morning before the race started, and then several times during the race. The course was damp, but our spirits were not. (creative writing degree, thank you very much.) We had to wait a long time before the buses finally pulled out of the parking lot. Some of the delay was on purpose, though. With the cloud cover, the sun wouldn’t be shining on the dark trails when the first wave took off – so they delayed about 15 minutes to accommodate for that. Anyway. Bus ride finished, we got to the Chimney Top trail head and headed to the portojohns (another similarity to last year…45-minute bus ride + ~450 runners = big line). We cheered on the three waves that started before my wave started, and then I got in a clump of other runners. Ashley’s and my experience separates here, as I was in Wave 4, and she was in Wave 5.
The instructions were similar to last year. “Be careful, sometimes people die.” and then a horn blew, and we set off down the gravel road in search of this “Rugged Red” we all were promised.
To start the RR course, runners go down about 1.5 miles of a rolling gravel road. It’s not the most fun portion, but it definitely makes it that much more exciting when you do get to the true dirt trail portion of the race – which continues for the next 12 miles, so there’s really nothing to complain about. The course blasts down technical switchbacks to the bottom of a ravine where we cross a stream and climb back up a grueling incline that rose above the low, drizzling clouds.
While the water rushed from both the sky and creeks, it would be insincere to say the rain didn’t affect me. As the rain pattered against the leaves, rocks, streams, and my fellow runners, I couldn’t stop smiling and thinking to myself “This is perfect. There is no other way I’d rather spend my weekend.” I was truly elated.
The miles wore on, and I barely noticed except for the few people in front of me who slapped each mile marker as we passed it. Three, four, six, eight….they flew past without much notice. Absolutely the trail was difficult: I was climbing hundreds of feet in minutes, not stopping to breathe at the top – but running on. Unlike most races or training runs, with each mile completed, I felt a surge of energy. I flowed up the hills and blasted down the quad-busting downhills, pushing incrementally harder, feeling exponentially greater with every person, tree, rock, and root I passed. It was amazing, and I felt – truly – like a million bucks, even as my legs asked politely if we could take the next hill a little less aggressively. “We’ll rest at 13.2!” was always my response.
A few highlights: Shortly after mile 8, we crossed a suspension bridge. There were a few spectators sitting in the woods playing guitar and singing to the passing runners. It was one of the best parts of the race. Their songs followed us as we ran past them, across the bridge and road, and up the next hill.
We were climbing up the hill that broke me last year. I recognized a big rock, and knew that when we turned the corner, I’d be facing some of the really large step-ups where I had to stop and sit last year. I was feeling 100% this year, though, and as we approached the area, I continued forward with strength and confidence I could only dream about last year.
When I passed the 12 mile marker, I high-fived the sign, and said “Let’s run this out.” I drank the rest of my Skratch, ate my last date, and took off. I came down a hill pretty aggressively and took off up a little uphill into the woods past a ravine – and down the wrong trail. Not only the wrong trail, but in the complete opposite direction of the finish line. I went down a big hill and halfway up the next before realizing I hadn’t seen any trail markings in a while. I turned around a little ways in, really not knowing how far off course I had gone. I ran back down the hill and up the other side, and finally back to the Rugged Red course. I saw a stream of runners come down a hill and turn at the giant yellow arrow that I had missed. A giant, yellow arrow and a big “RUGGED RED” sign. It was so clearly marked, I have no clue how I missed it. I was heartened only by the fact that two runners followed me during my bonus miles, so they missed the marker, too. All told, I got an extra ~1.67 miles and around 30 minutes added to my finish time.
When I got back on course, it was only 7 or 8 minutes to the finish. I crossed the line at 3:30, which is about a 30 minutes faster than last year – a pretty decent improvement. Without my bonus miles, I probably would have cut an entire hour off last year’s finish and finished under 3 hours, but…you know. Extra miles ‘n’ such.
While I’m disappointed that I didn’t improve my overall finish time as well as I could have, I still feel incredibly good about the race. I ran exceptionally well with a fuel and hydration strategy that was much better than last year. I’m sure the hundreds of miles I’ve run on trails in the last year helped out a lot as well. Training for Gnaw Bone has gotten me into pretty good shape, something I’ve only built on while getting back into training for December’s Bell Ringer 50k.
Since I started my pre-race report with three thoughts I figured I could start off my race report similarly. Full circle people, it’s all about full circles.
1. “This place and these people are amazing.”
2. “So I’m running back and forth across a creek while its pouring rain and there is nothing I would rather be doing.”
3. “I’m totally doing this again next year.”
From those you should have a pretty good idea about how the Rugged Red went, but I’ll elaborate because that’s what I’m here for. Andrew’s rundown of the general parts of the day is pretty detailed so I’ll try to focus mostly on my own personal running experience out there.
I was able to warm up early on and tackle the first big climb at an okay pace. The trail was still pretty crowded so there was lots of passing and being passed going on but that cleared up pretty quickly. On I went and it was during the fifth mile I found myself alone, running along and through a creek in the pouring rain, and just smiling to myself. I was having so much fun. That feeling never went away even as I climbed more or when I found myself laying on my back on a downhill. A root or rock tripped me and I somehow managed to hook my arm around a tree (seriously, I’m not really sure what happened) and I ended up staring up the trail I was descending. I just got back up, brushed myself off as well as possible, and kept going. I’ve fallen before and I will fall again, so far so good (apparently I know how to fall without seriously hurting myself, so hey, great life skill achieved).
It was after my little fall that I starting thinking about how bits and pieces of all the different trails I run at home came together to help me get ready for a course that you simply can’t come near to replicating around here. Downhills from Audubon, long ridge lines from Harmonie, hills from both Audubon and Lincoln, fast flats from Angel Mounds, roots from them all. All those hours and loops really paid off as I found myself keeping my pace up and counting down the miles quicker than expected.
Andrew had told me that after I “stepped up a tall rock” you would start winding your way down to the finish line. Well, at mile 11 I met up with that tall rock that was really the whole hillside and required several “step ups” (we can blame last year’s heat exhaustion on his vague memories). But he wasn’t wrong, after that I found myself descending quickly and before I knew it I heard the sweet sounding commotion of the finish line. I came out of the woods, ran up on the road and down the large grassy lawn. I had talked with Andrew about my expected finish time, and I had guessed 4 hours if everything was going right. I crossed at 3:41.
The rest of the weekend was just as great. I was definitely “suffering” from runner’s high, additionally fueled by pizza from Miguel’s and getting to spend it all with my favorite guy (see above). It rained off and on the rest of Saturday, but Sunday brought on sunny skies and we took our time enjoying them before heading home (on the way we got beer, vegan crab cakes, and a cactus!).
This coming weekend is the second annual Rugged Red Trail Half Marathon in Red River Gorge, Kentucky! I ran the inaugural race last year, which resulted in the most consistently popular post on my blog. I learned a lot from that race and from the many miles of trails I’ve run since.
The RR took me and my hubris for a ride, spitting me out at the finish line completely trail weary. Once on the course, faced with an insurmountable boulder, I had to sit for 10 minutes to gather my spirits before continuing. I had to sit a second time when I was simply too tired to go on.
The gorge whipped me good. So, clearly, I need to do it again.
Probably the main thing the RR taught me is that there is no place for naïve pride on the trail. Any trail. The other thing is that I need to learn how to fuel properly during a race. This hadn’t been an issue before, since all my other half marathons were on the road and wildly supported with a water stop every mile and food in bowls on the course. This was not the case on the RR. There were only two water stops, and virtually no food. I ran my body completely empty out there.
Since that day, I’ve run many miles on trails (including a 50k ultramarathon and two other trail half marathons), so I have a little better idea of what it takes to cover that distance in the woods.
Here are a few key things I’m bringing to RR this year: Medjool dates. These are a natural, whole food alternative to popular gels that many runners use. I find these to be more effective and a lot easier to stomach on a hot day.
These little suckers are the best in-run fuel I’ve found for myself. I bring them out on every long run I do. Every 30-40 minutes to an hour, I pop one of those bad boys in my mouth and drink a bunch of water to wash it down. Before long, I have the energy I need to keep moving through rough terrain or to keep my pace up during the late miles of a progression.
Electrolyte drink. I’ve been using Skratch as my in-run electrolyte replenisher for a while now, and it’s great. I’ve found that the lemon and limes flavor sits best with me. Electrolytes are lost through sweat. Extreme situations might find a person reaching for salt tablets, but I haven’t needed something like that yet. Basically the Skratch comes in handy late in a long run when I start feeling crabby. I should probably drink it sooner than that, but a crabby disposition is a good indication that I need some salt/electrolytes.
New trail shoes. While my shoes were not a big issue last year, I’m still excited to use my new Altra Lone Peaks for this year’s RR. My Brooks Cascadias were and are fine shoes, but they’re a bit narrow, giving me blisters on my little toes after 8 miles or so.
My wife Ashley is running the RR for the first time this year, so I recruited her to share her thoughts. This brings us to a new segment on Infinite MPG:
Ashley’s thinkin’ spot.
As a spectator at last year’s Rugged Red, I had a few reactions:
1. “Oh my god, it is a million degrees and humid. I feel like I’m going to melt.”
2. “I wish I knew how the runners are doing out there.”
3. “I want to do this next year.”
Listening to Andrew’s and our friend Eric’s race recaps (even as they recounted the craziness) only made me want to do it more. I was hesitant at first as I am not as strong of a runner as Andrew and had less trail experience, but ultimately I made the decision to go for it.
I’ve trained for and raced five road half marathons, and I knew training for this run would take a much different strategy than those. For the RR, I committed to a trail-specific plan created by Doug Hay for his Trail Runner’s System. Andrew is a member, and it is a great resource for all levels of trail runners.
How did this plan differ from previous ones I’ve done?
4 months instead of 3 months
Higher weekday mileage
More longer “long” runs
Fun tidbit: My very first weekend long run for this training plan fell on the weekend of the Harmonie Half. So I’ve come full circle: I started with a trail half – and I’ll end with a trail half. (I didn’t train specifically for the Harmonie Half, since I had just finished a road half in April – so the miles just sorta carried over.)
With this training plan, I shattered my previous miles-per-month record twice by almost 30 miles. It went from 60 miles to 88. A huge difference. Also I was able to run all but two of my long runs on trails. We switched up between a few local State Parks and found some great areas to loop around. This was fantastic for me because my legs and hips do so much better on trails than they do on the road. I even found a stairwell at my work that offered the perfect lunchtime stairs session. Yes, I am that lady going up and down the stairs over and over again.
I’m so excited about this race; I’ll be back to let you know how it went!