Sunday, September 15, 2013

Shaking out the Crazy: Woodstock 100k

I had to make a decision after my third loop: all or nothing. If you've seen the Matrix, you know my conundrum: choose the red pill, or choose the blue pill. If I chose the red pill, I could stop in five hours. I could revel in the success of a good 100k-- my last until next spring; and, I could sleep...oh, I could sleep like a f&*^ing bear in hibernation for 12+ hours. In an hour when Mother Death passed through my bowels, I could eat to my heart's content. I could run nude. I could dance, if I had a pair of prosthetic legs. If I chose the blue pill, I had, in all likelihood, that bear hibernation sleep ahead of me in the form of a long, long half-witted, half-conscious slog through 50 more miles. I'd have to make my way around the Monopoly board three more times without going bankrupt. Three times. That was a lot to take in.

The race had started at 4pm the previous day. And, my strategy was not complicated. I was going to wear my hydration vest to cut down on aid station vacations, carry snacks on my person, and only "stop" at the end of each loop. There, I could assess the situation with my problem children (read: feet), sweep the hell within my guts under the rug with a cocktail of Tums and ginger ale, and eat something substantial like potato soup or a sandwich. I planned to start slow with early walk breaks. I had a bevy of shoes, socks, Vaseline, and toilet paper on hand. And that was, in its entirety, the grand plan.

I'd made an uneventful four hour drive to Hell, Michigan for the Run Woodstock festivities, and after picking up my 100 mile bib, parking my belongings in the ultra tent, and listening to the pre-race instructions, I was ready to rock. The Woodstock event is unique in that if one has any inclination whatsoever to run in any capacity, there is going to be an appropriate race. Events range from the 5k "clothing optional" free run all the way up to 100 miles with a 5 mile, 10k, Hippie Half Marathon, Mellow Marathon, Freak 50k, Peace Love & 50 miles, and LSD (Long Slow Distance) 100k in between. Also unique is that ultra runners racing the 100 mile and 50 mile races have an option to "drop down" to the 100k and 50k events, respectively, albeit with slightly altered (higher) mileage. The 50 and 100 mile races follow a 16.6 mile loop, and the 50k and 100k races follow a slightly shorter 15.5 mile loop. I was prepared for 66.6 miles. I hoped for 100.

Welcome to Hell.

It felt like I'd never taken off so slow in my life. I was trotting as though I were already 30 miles, three creeks, a hailstorm, and two giant climbs into the haul, except that I felt really good. I had tattooed 'Go 5' and 'Go 6' with a black sharpie to my arms, and I'd added a bonus motto of "smile. keep moving" and a pair of happy faces with a red sharpie as the finishing touch to my not-so-well-thinked faux fancy ink job. Despite the 'permanent' warning on the markers, by the end of loop 2, I looked like I was emerging from battle, dirt sneaking up my legs, hunks of trail clinging to my pants, and red sharpie bleeding down my arm, "Go 5" and "keep smiling" now resembling a black bruise with a bloody smiley face laughing at me. I'd wanted to hold back on the first of the 16.6 mile loops because I tend to overshoot the landing field, and had planned for 3.5 hours, but overshot so far I was halfway to Texas-- 3:04 and a sweaty, hot mess. Apparently slow was not so slow.

I didn't spend a lot of time at the aid station, but still more than I'd wanted. I'd heard horror stories about rookie volunteers who, while well-intended, botched the closure of hydration bladders leading to epic leakage miles later; so, I asked before handing over mine whether the volunteer offering to fill it had handled them before. While she insisted she had, three minutes later and after doing a double-triple-quadruple take with a raised eyebrow, finally the wife of another runner came to my rescue and secured the pack. With my koala beanie, courtesy of my four year-old Liam, safe in my front pocket, and a sip of coke and a bite of sandwich, I was off again up the road toward the sand-covered and horse pooped first mile.

The gravel path around the campground. This was taken approximately 3 hours before the start. During the race the grass was full of runners and spectators.

Heading into the trail. Note the piles of horse poop in the distance.

I'd downed some less conventional fare pre-race solely for the purpose of staving off hunger for as long as I possibly could: chocolate milk and chicken with cheesy riced cauliflower. Having falsely assumed that consuming these foods a solid ninety minutes before the big show was going to keep digestion in a healthy flow, I was now hangover sick again and needing a proper (or, hell, even an improper) place to relieve myself. Worse, I was at this point more than a mile into the trail, and reality sank me hard: it was dusk and I didn't have my headlamp. Resolved not to worry and to stay positive, I fully put my faith in the illumination of my bite-sized flashlight, remembering fondly the memories of waving one like a walking stick at the pitch black trail at Burning River the previous year when I'd made the same mistake. As darkness set in, I opted to utilize the night sky as the door to my imaginary outhouse in the woods, after which I clicked on, what I am now convinced is, the greatest mini flashlight known to humankind. With the trail in front of me bright, I pressed on.

Intentionally moving slower this loop with more walk, less talk, and forced feedings, I rolled into the 24.5 mile aid station feeling worse than I can ever remember feeling at any point in any race prior to 40 miles. It was unnerving, disheartening, and frustrating; and, it was all because it was so early. I was approaching my second bathroom break in an hour, and despite my efforts to eat and eat early, I was more nauseous than ever. I walked nearly the entire road mile after the trail dumped me onto it after a few pleasant miles over wooden bridges and toe-jamming roots. I began to silently reassure myself there was no shame in the 100k drop-down, and I was almost halfway there. If I'd been able to do 66 miles half-asleep and batshit crazy at Mohican with a swollen ankle, walking into trees and hyperventilating, today it was going to be a cakewalk. Diarrhea had nothing on cankles and sleep-walking.

Finishing the second loop right on target in 3:58 for a net time of 7:02 for the 33.3 miles I'd covered was encouraging, and I took advantage of the ultra tent next to the aid station to change clothes, drink some more chocolate milk, snag my headlamp for extra light, and just to try to regroup for a couple minutes. I didn't feel good, and I wasn't looking forward to having to do what I'd done all over again, especially because it was going to take hours longer. That tiny hope that I might have enough gas in the tank to drive it around the board twice more after that had unraveled down to a few sparse threads. It was looking more and more like I was going to be taking home a medal instead of a buckle.

Post-race feet and legs. I emerged blister free, but look like I'm wearing brown leggings from an abundance of sandy dirt early in the 16.6 mile loop.

 But, at 11:14pm, I set out to start my third loop. Feeling lousy, I tried to implement the count & landmark strategy: run to a count of 30, or until the 100 bottles of beer on the wall have turned into 87 or 79 or whatever; or, run to the empty KFC bucket down the road (that actually turns out to be a rusty gas can)-- whatever I have to do to run a little further and cut down on the walking. I kept it going for a mile or two, but abandon it completely most of the way between the aid station at 38 miles and Richie's Haven at 42 miles. Once I hit the road, I met my only visual disturbance of the entire dance when my eyes began to experience the same problem I'd had at Mohican. In retrospect, it was like my mind was in an altered state of consciousness while my physical body, including my poor eyes, were trying to tend to the task at hand. In any sense, it was disturbing and anxiety-provoking, and left me completely unable to run. I was walking as fast as I could, just trying to get to the trail when I heard footsteps rapidly approaching from behind.

One meets many an interesting person and story during a 12+ hour race, and the young individual that began walking beside me introduced himself not by providing me with his name, but with a one-liner about his hallucinations. He was wearing long basketball shorts and cotton socks pulled halfway up his shins, and looked like he'd never run an ultra in his life. Clutching a water bottle and staring blankly and looked half crazy, he told me not surprisingly that this was his first 100 miler and he'd only run one 50k in preparation. I realized, in contrast, that I was well on my way to my fourth 100k+ since late April. I learned that this kid, who I'll simply call Crazy, was fresh out of high school, and planned to make a hobby of running 100 milers. I told him my only real words of advice were to start loop 5, because then it's all or nothing: there is no award for completing 5 loops. You either do 4, or you're in for the long haul. If you start that fifth loop, you're committed. I lost Crazy a couple miles later, but there is a lone 15-19 year old finisher who appears in the results who suspiciously finished his third loop not long before I did. I can only assume it was Crazy who finished in 28:10.

Anyway, by the time I left the clapboard outhouse at Richie's during my third stroll around the board, I was three shits closer to paradise, but a few Tums too short of avoiding stop four of the midnight train through hell bowels. It didn't help that there wasn't any ginger ale or potato soup. After I left the aid station, I walked for a very long time. My goal of finishing the first 50 in 11:30 faded into oblivion as I found myself disenchanted and still sick. I finally rolled through in 12:19, and didn't waste any time notifying the officials that I was dropping to the 100k. Just like that, I'd picked my poison: the red pill rolled down my throat like honey.

the bandstand pre-race. During the event, it was alive with music, well into the night and even in the morning hours!

By the time I left the aid station at 4:24am, I had 5:35 to get it done if I wanted to finish under 18 hours, and I set a 17:55 ETA. That meant I expected to slow down even more, but I could, if I played my cards well, still afford to walk if my stomach continued its rebellion for the duration of the race. Walking the entire 4 mile stretch to the aid station, I just wanted a hot bowl of soup and some cold ginger ale. Instead, my choices were old brown banana, pizza covered in peppers, flat warm coke and mountain dew, and a bevy of sugary gels and candies. I nearly vomited onto my hand. Fellow ultra running facebook friend, and winner of O24 with 106 miles, Crystal Shinosky was at the aid station when I got there, also finishing the last loop of her 100k. I spent a few minutes talking to her before putting on my game face, realizing I was going to have to get serious and push through the sickness if I was going to meet this goal.

Daylight broke on my way to Richie's at mile 58 where I realized in a magical moment I was no longer ill and simultaneously being overrun by the 6:00 starters in the 50k and 50 mile races, all fresh and fast-stepping. I started running again when I wasn't being eaten by thorns on the side of the trail, trying hard as I could now to make up for all the time I'd lost walking through an epic adventure of nausea and numerous shits. As I made my way to the last aid station, I was on fire. My phone indicated I had well over an hour and a half to cover a mere 4.3 miles if I wanted to cross the finish line in 17:55, and I didn't plan to walk 4.2 miles of it. Determined more than ever, I wasted no time. There was plenty of runnable trail waiting for me.

While I'd checked the time perhaps a collective five times in the 62 miles leading up to the final aid station, I was suddenly acutely aware that time did, in fact, exist, and the clock wasn't going to stop ticking to wait for me to catch up. And, when the half and full marathoners began pouring through the twists and turns of the single track trail, flooding it and forcing me again into the thorns, all of the crazy I'd been bottling up for more than 100 kilometers in a lack of desperate cries, shrieks of profanity, and declarations that I'd never do this f&^ked up s&*t again, suddenly began pouring out uncontrollably from all angles. I started crying, talking to myself, and finally running full-force like a mad woman over hill and past the hippie halfers and literally a dozen 100 mile droppers like myself until I came barreling onto the campground like Mel Gibson charging the battlefield in Braveheart. The music and cowbells blasted me through the finish in a totally unexpected 17:27:53. And in that moment, I was done. I'd closed the book on 100k and longer races for 2013, and I'd done it with the best race I'd had since O24-- because yes, despite the 10 hours of diarrhea and weird eye problems, any race that doesn't end with me collapsed in a collapsible chair with my eyes closed in agony is a great race...especially one that ends in battlefield running.

Run Woodstock finish line

Race stats indicate that I moved from 23rd place to 7th place overall out of the 36 finishers in the 100 mile 100k drop meaning I passed 16 people during the last 16.6 mile loop-- probably during my mental breakdown in the final four mile stretch. I also moved from 4th overall female to 2nd out of 8 finishers. It is also interesting to note that while I was 21 minutes slower than I was at Burning River at the 50 mile mark, I reached the 66.6 mile "finish" at Woodstock 46 minutes faster than I reached the 65.7 mile aid station at Burning River, so clearly I was having a much better race in Hell than the Buckeye Trail.

2014 is going to be an interesting year of racing for me, mostly because I'm throwing out all the plans I'd been making up to this point, and basically have no real cohesive race schedule. I'd like to take a stab at the Kettle Moraine 100k, perhaps. But, I also want a go at Laurel Highlands. If I can scrape together the time off work and the funds to do it, the Pinhoti 100 looks like a good race, if an out-of-Ohio 100 I am to do, again. Woodstock is an absolute 'yes'-- 100k this time rather than the drop-down. I got a nice medal out of the effort, but I missed out on an age group award by not entering the 62 mile race. But, regardless of what I choose, there's a lot of trail out there, waiting patiently. And, I have a lot of dreams.


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