Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Race Report: HUFF 50K Trail Race 2011

ORN:  31.0 miles, 7:33:44, 14:33/mile

Quick Summary

This race was more than a running event.  The second of the two 15.6 mile laps was my hardest run ever. . And yielded the most profound insights I’ve ever gained from running.

Gory Details 

If you are interested in race details, there are some very good summaries out there, including these from  MeggieMary and Bri.

For me, the race was much more than a race, however. It was a truly profound moment which I’ll try to explain. This is a long, somewhat philosophical musing. Thanks for reading.

The HUFF 50K has been around for 17 years and holds a special place in my running heart. It was the first trail race I had ever run in December 2004 when I took their 10 mile single loop option. The race that day was the farthest I had run at that point, my first time ever to run on trails and was central in cementing my enjoyment of running. Funny to reread my blog post from the 2004 event...what did I know then about running??!! I  ran a portion of it again in 2005 (blog post here).

State park funding circumstances forced this race to move to a new locale this year, however. The race organizers did a nice job creating a new course at the Chain O’ Lakes State Park; a 15.6 mile loop which 50K runners would run twice.

The one uncontrollable bugaboo for Race Directors struck, however. We had 3+ inches of rain mid week which swelled the 8 lakes and connecting marshes at the aforementioned Chain O Lakes Park. This meant mud. This meant high water. And when the temps dropped on Friday into the mid 20s, it all turned into frozen mud and icy water.

Fellow Marathon Maniac and local club member Brian and I made the 3 hour drive to NE Indiana after work on Friday. Saturday morning dawned with light snow falling. The HUFF has become a big event, with nearly 900 total runners in the 50K, 50K relay and single loop runs. The cannon sounded at 8:15am and off we went. With temps around 28F and snow continuing to fall, the first lap went reasonably well. We got a tour of the park, saw where the really high water was and an early glimpse of the mud to come. I even found folks with whom to chat; that's me on the right.

From Running-General

I finished the first lap in 3:20:24, a 12:51/mile pace which I was quite pleased with in the circumstances.  A friend of my sister-in-law captured this photo of me at the halfway mark...still feeling good

From Running-General

 And then came lap two.

The temperature was now in the mid 30s, just above freezing. The 800 pairs of feet ahead of me had churned the turf and dirt into a slippery, sloppy mess. Little did I expect what awaited.

Three specific events during lap two changed the tenor of the day, of the race for me

The Flop. In the 21st mile, we descended a deceptively short hill of about 80m. The churned up mud and left-to-right tilt of the trail turned the descent into an ungainly combination of running, surfing, skiing and snowboarding. There was no traction and no control. I made it ¾ of the way down when I lost my balance and went splat in the mud. I fell onto my right side, rolled onto my back, slid and ended with my head pointed downhill, my feet above my shoulders. Adding to the awkwardness, my right calf spasmed when I went down. Flopping helplessly in the mud with a locked-up right leg was not in the plan.

Wonderfully, a runner who was right behind me immediately came to my aid. Her quick thinking led her to grab a perfectly-placed tree trunk with her left hand as an anchor, reaching to me with her right hand, pulling me to my feet and letting me immediately stretch the balky calf. She stopped to talk with me, as did another runner. I was not hurt at all. But I was muddy all up my right side and back, clogging my water bottles, covering my watch and making a general mess. Plus, I needed to get to the bottom of the hill with 10+ miles still to go. The fall knocked the wind from my sails for a good while.

The Slog. During the first lap, a 2+ mile section of the loop along the western side of the park was mushy. 800 runners and 8 degrees later, this section (miles 23-25) was cold, black, churny, ankle-deep muck.

From Running-General
From Running-General
There was no running here. It was only one pitiful step after another. The area was flat. There was no drainage. There was no getting around the mud. It simply went on and on. It broke the soul. Indeed, it was the most discouraging portion of a difficult day. I truly wondered why I was doing this event or why I even bothered. I could only think of photos I had seen of agonizing troop movements during World War I across the water-logged fields of France in winter.  It nearly broke my spirit, it was so slow and difficult. Only a 2 mile stretch on a park road and some higher ground from miles 25 to 27 allowed some mental recovery before encountering the third stage.

The Thorns. Miles 27-29 were low-lying sections around one of the park’s lakes. While this trail might be a scenic, even romantic, walk during a mild spring afternoon, it was substantially overflowed Saturday.

From Running-General
This video by one of my fellow runners from this section is so real, it still gives me chills


 I had waded through some of these knee-deep water holes on lap one, including one nearly 40m long. Half-way through that traverse, my calves and feet felt nearly frozen. On lap two, I chose not to wade again, so discouraged was I from the Slog. The alternative, while less freezing, was more painful. Many of us bushwhacked around the 8-10 water-filled areas. I termed this part of the race the “Multiflora Rose 50K” in honor of the thorny, pernicious weed-plant which has invaded of our state’s woodlands. It scraped my legs and ankles as I scrambled to make progress.

The last two miles of the race were relatively clean, with the course moving to higher ground and then park roads heading back to the start/finish line. I had to walk all of mile 30...running just wasn’t going to happen. However, I was able to run most of the last mile, hitting the finish line in 7:33:44. But lap two was nearly a full hour slower than the lap one, with a pace of 16:14/mile. Not even a modest walking pace on average, such was the impact of my fall, the muck and the water circumvention.

When I finish a race, I’m usually euphoric, thrilled with what just happened. While my body felt fine this time, my spirit felt broken. I was deeply discouraged and I didn’t know why. It took me three days of reflection to grasp what happened.

I realized this race, lap two in particular, was a metaphor of something much more profound, something far larger than distance running.

Lap two was chemotherapy. Lap two was long-term unemployment. Lap two was raising a difficult teenager. Lap two was not what I signed up for.

Let me explain.

I entered this race wanting to run. To run a trail race. I was prepared and psyched to do a 50K trail race in cold weather.

I didn’t enter a Warrior Dash or Tough Mudder or any of the adventure races designed to put physical obstacles in the way. Not my style. Not interesting to me. Others may enjoy them but I don’t.

I signed up for a 50K trail run. And I couldn’t run. The trail was unrunnable over significant stretches. It was not the trail conditions themselves which broke me down, I came to realize, however. It was the complete and utter denial of doing what I had hoped and planned to do.

From this stems the metaphor.

I want to be healthy, we say. I want to live fully And then I’m racked with cancer. And the treatment is worse than the disease at times.

I want to work, we say. I want to support myself, my family. And then I’m unemployed. Have been for 18 months. No one even wants to interview me.

I want to love my teenager, we say. I want to communicate, appreciate, encourage, guide. And she rejects me. Turns her back. Yells at me. And worse. And has been for five years now.

These disappointments are examples of the many ways our lives become difficult, deeply discouraging. So much of discouragement stems from the dashed dreams, the hopes we feel have been unjustly taken from us. These dashed dreams can break our spirit. We didn’t sign up for the tough times.

You see, when I got done with lap two, I was fed up with that race. As runners, we are often full of bravado and enthusiasm, welcoming the pain, the difficulty of a race as a challenge, as a badge of honor.

I had none of that on Saturday. I hated lap two. If the Race Director were to call me today, offering me free entry into the race next year yet saying the conditions would be the same, I’d turn him down. I don’t want to do that again. I just want to run.

No one I’ve ever known would choose to go through cancer and treatment again. No one I’ve ever known would choose long-term unemployment. No one I’ve ever known would relish having another angry teenager around.

But we find ourselves in those situations. We don’t like them. We wouldn’t want to do them again. But in the moment, we have to do them. We have to keep moving. One step at a time, whether through freezing water or thorn-filled clambers on a non-trail. We flop and are so grateful for someone to extend a hand at the right moment.

The metaphor helps me have empathy for those with far more serious issues than mud and cold water that resolve in seven hours. Lap Two taught me all this and more, afresh. I hope it’s been helpful for you to read. It’s been helpful to me to write.




Bri said...

I'm so, SO glad I added your blog to my Google Reader. At first I'd forgotten I had, but as soon as I saw Huff in the title, I smiled :)

You should be so proud of yourself for so many reasons. For sticking with this "race" or "run" or "adventure" throughout its entirety. Even if it's not what you signed up for. You finished! For overcoming what sounds like a nasty fall. I sure hope you're still okay. At least the mud was soft :P And lastly, for all the things that you've "had" to do in life that has made you the person you are today. You are absolutely right -- sometimes we don't choose certain things in life. Whether its mud or clear skies. But it's perseverance and drive that get us through the tougher times. And I'm pretty sure after reading this, you've got what it takes. Bravo!

Plus, I'm sure that honking Toyota with a bunch of crazies at the top of the hill around mile 29 didn't hurt ;)

Wes said...

yea, I think I would of DNSed that one. but one thing you learn doing Ironman or a 50K in the freezing wet cold. All too often things don't go as planned. If you sit around and cry about it, getting better is not going to be an option.

Well done, Joe! You crazy-assed northern peeps are certifiable! :-)

LAPALAPA50 said...

Great job at the race! Nice write up. We had a great time at The Huff on a tuff coarse.

Sarah said...

First off, congrats on finishing a tough, tough race! I'm with you, I like to run. I don't mind a little mud but once it turns into a slog it isn't fun any longer. Love how you turned it in to a lesson of getting through the tough things we don't ask for in life. I can always count on you to think about the big picture.
Happy Holidays to you and your family!

Jeffro said...

Still can't believe I chose to do a second lap. For the moment I agree that I won't choose to sign up for next year but a year is a plenty of time to romanticize the memory; I'll remember the thrill of the victory while forgetting the agony of de feet, and de legs and de frozen hands...

reoracer (Jen) said...

Great job. I truly relived that second loop as I read this. I was one of the other graceful runners who took a nice fall (I was behind the cabins on the second loop, around mile 19, and went straight down to my knees, which are still bruised nearly 2 weeks later!), but I don't think mine was as spectacular as yours. My friend and I trudged in just under 9 hours, but we made it. I've never felt so accomplishedly tired in my life. Bravo to everyone who finished that insanity! See you at the HUFF next year?

Darrell said...

Wow, Joe. I finally got around to reading this post. Boy was it more than I expected, just as the Huff was more than you expected. Thanks for the life lesson, you don't know who good it was to read that (or maybe you do).