On a muggy, overcast July 5 morning, I learned much about trail running and myself at the DINO Series 360 Minutes @ Muskatatuk. I reached the goal of running for six hours and feeling strong at the finish. In the process, I also set personal records for distance and time run in a single outing.
The Gory Details
At our family 4th of July gathering Friday evening, daughter-in-law Susan, a goal-oriented person like me, asked me what my mileage goal was for this 6 hour trail run. I replied I really didn’t know enough about trail running to have a distance target; instead I only wanted to keep moving for six hours and not be wasted at the end. In retrospect, I stated the goal out of luck more than knowledge, even though it proved to be a most helpful target.
After a really lousy night’s sleep at a motel near the race site 2.5 hours south of my home, I checked in around 5:15am. There I met up with Larry, the guy I had met on the plane coming back from the Portland Marathon nearly two years ago and who had been very helpful in educating me via email about the course. We talked more about the fact that recent rains had raised water levels in the many stream crossings and worked up the mud. As a race official, I’d see Larry regularly and his help was huge.
The course was fully on trails in a county park near North Vernon, Indiana. Each lap of 5.5 miles was made up of three segments. At the end of each segment solo runners were logged in as completing that segment; the many relay teams used those checkpoints as handoffs. Scoring was simple; we ran for six hours and got credit only for fully completed segments. The most completed segments won.
At 6am, after brief announcements, we were off.
The first lap for me was awful. Overcast skies made the woods dim in the early light. The humidity was well over 90% without a breath of air moving. I could not seem to find a rhythm at all. I was using a very conservative 2/1 run/walk ratio but couldn’t even seem to get into that at all. At the end of segment A, I made a wrong turn and got off the course, even though it was well marked…that’s how out of it I felt. Early in segment C, I had the low point of the entire day. Near one stream crossing, my right foot slid in a mud patch and triggered a sharp pain in my knee, the kind that made me involuntarily yell in pain. What did that mean? I’m barely into the race and I’ve got a bum knee already? I walked for a minute or so and resumed running. Yet, 5 minutes later at another slick spot, the same thing happened again. Was I looking at another DNF in a trail race? I was perplexed and concerned.
To add further humility, I was lapped by 3 relay teams before I even finished my first full lap. Boy, were those guys flying down the trails. I got to the start/finish area, restocked my water and Gu and set out for my second circuit.
Lap 2 was the “up” in response to Lap 1’s “down.” Somewhere in Segment A, I “came to terms” with the race. I don’t know fully what that means, other than I then grasped what was before me. I was fully alone now on the course, except for the flying relay runners, and realized the course was what it was, the humidity was what it was and my condition simply was what it was. And I came to terms with all of this. I further realized I am a very novice trail runner, despite the fact I’ve done a lot of road running. The environment was different and very new for me. So, I simply had to learn.
As I moved into the flatter Segment B, I had a hearty laugh when I linked two different things in my mind. When my sons played youth baseball, I coached them and we had drills for infielders called “Soft Hands” drills. When fielding a baseball, we taught kids to receive the ball as if they were trying to catch an egg. Arms relaxed, wrists flexible, feathering the batted ball into their bodies, rather than being tense and stabbing at the ball with their gloves. I realized I needed to give myself the same advice and began running with “Soft Legs” for the same reasons. Early in the race, I was uncertain and my legs were tense. Thus, I was “pounding” the course, which may well have contributed to my knee pain. I began to consciously relax my legs and let them glide more than push; what a difference. It was in Segment B I finally had stretches of running comfortably and smoothly.
Larry was the marshal at the checkpoint beginning segment C; he asked how I was doing and I guess he could tell it was going a lot better. I ran smoothly through the scenic third segment which went quickly.
Lap 3 was just fun. I had figured out what I was doing, the course was now familiar, I was running comfortably. In each lap, there were about 10-15 stream crossings, half of them too wide to jump over. So, I spent the day running in wet shoes. It got to be fun and I actually got to the point of looking forward to using the streams to wash off some of the mud from the other sodden sections.
I also was a little annoyed at my fellow runners. Here we were in this nice county park and what did I see on the trail but a lot of empty foil gel packs on the ground! People, people, people; if you can carry the gel pack into the woods, you can carry it out of the woods. Don’t throw it on the ground to litter up the place. I see this in road races but was truly disappointed to see it in a trail race.
Lap 4 went similarly well. Larry had told me there was one stream crossing in Segment C that had a very slippery rock in the middle of the creek. Indeed he was right, but I had even more fun with it each time around. The term reminded me of the famous Slippery Rock University Football team. As a kid growing up in Nebraska, I spent fall Saturday’s helping my Dad harvest corn. We’d always have the University of Nebraska game on and they always made a point of announcing the score of Slippery Rock’s game. I could hear my Dad laugh, smell the dust of the corn in the truck, feel the crisp autumn air. Amazing what such memories bring.
As I came past the start/finish line to end lap 4, they were playing the Pink Floyd anthem, to which I sang a new refrain: “One more lap will be a-nother brick in the wall.” I knew I needed five full laps to reach a marathon distance and I had 1:15 to do it in; about the same time each lap had taken me so far.
Lap 5 thus became the most fascinating trip of the day. I was a little tired but not wiped out. I knew I simply had to keep moving, not fall, not get injured, not lose focus. I did not feel The Wall creeping in, yet I knew it could appear very suddenly. I plowed through Segment A, running more than I had, reserving walking just for the steeper inclines. My time at the first checkpoint seemed about right. As I worked into Segment B, I turned off the timer on my Garmin. It worked well to guide me in my 2/1 segments but did a lousy job in the dense woods of tracking pace or distance. To paraphrase the country song, it was “lookin’ for satellites in all the wrong places.” I chose to simply run by feel, as Rob has described on many occasions. I pushed it to the point I thought I could hold it for the rest of the lap but not beyond.
As I emerged from the woods to the third checkpoint, Larry was waiting for me, as usual. He looked me intently in the eye and said “Joe, you have 31 minutes to do 2 miles…Grind It Out!” It was the perfect balance of encouragement and a kick in the pants, at precisely the right time.
Back into the woods I went. It was focus, run, focus, walk up, keep moving, go as steady as I could, keep grinding. I was in new territory; I’d never run over 5 hours before and my watch went through 5:30, then 5:40. I came to Slippery Rock at about 5:43 and I was feeling more confident. At 5:50, I made the second parallel run with the large river below and I knew it was getting close. I could then start to hear the music from the finish line. Several relay runners passed me; we encouraged each other that it was almost done. My legs were tired but not wiped out. At 5:55, I started up the last incline. At 5:57 the opening out of the woods to the finish line appeared above me. I cranked it up for a quick run to the finish line and found it closer than I imagined. I crossed the start/finish line and hit my watch at 5:58:08. Done.
While I could have technically started on another lap, there was no point. Instead I simply started walking. I didn’t want to sit down…I just needed to walk and keep the legs moving. It felt awesome…I didn’t hit the wall, I finished a marathon distance, or so I thought at the time. The organizers had a misting tent set up and boy did that feel good to completely soak in cool mist. I found my gear, changed into a dry tee shirt, dry socks, clean shoes. The food afterwards was tasty. I found a post-race race food which worked wonderfully; applesauce! It sits easily on the stomach and digests oh so easily…just what I needed.
After the brief awards ceremony, I thanked the Race Director for doing such a great job. I also asked him what the distance of the full lap was. He said it was 5.5 miles. I walked away, did the math and it hit me. Five laps was 27.5 miles. More than a marathon. Amazing.
When I got home, I listed out my lap times, which parallel the descriptions above;
- Lap 1 1:13:04
- Lap 2 1:10:48
- Lap 3 1:08:30
- Lap 4 1:13:09
- Lap 5 1:12:34
I was stunned. Running the last lap faster than the first lap is a hoot. Dropping the lap time by 4.5 minutes from the first to the third is also amazing. I’m blown away by feeling strong at the end of the race. It is a new experience and I kind of like it.
So, perhaps I’m now less of a trail novice. This race was quite high point for me, moving into new distance and time territory. I learned much and enjoyed the run immensely. If you are still with me, I thank YOU for persevering and enjoying this with me. And persevere we will continue to do!