Saturday, May 3, 2014

2014 Ouachita Trail 50 Mile Race Report

Ultra Running Magazine cover
I remembered seeing that Ultra Running magazine cover several years back of the Ouachita Trail 50 floating around the internet when I first started to get into Ultras, and have wanted to climb that defining feature of the race, Pinnacle Mountain, ever since.  Like a giant mound of large boulders stacked haphazardly for nearly 800 feet straight up into the air, Pinnacle Mountain is quite visually striking, and is unlike anything I have ever encountered before.  More of a rock climbing expedition than the typical runnable and hikable switchback trails up hills that I’m use to, climbing on all fours on top of giant boulders that you can’t help but wonder if you’re going to be the unlucky one that causes one of them to get loose…was a bit unnerving at first, but I had such fun trying to figure out routes and stable footing up Pinnacle Mountain, that I didn’t want it to end.  After feeling the euphoria of a hard effort in summiting that Mountain and being greeted with gorgeous views from up top, I was reminded yet again on why I put so much effort into pursuing Ultras, and that is to fully live and experience awe-inspiring moments like those.

Going up...
Peak of Pinnacle Mountain
Going down...

I fell in love with the Trails and Mountains of Arkansas at the inaugural Run LOViT 100K in late February and wanted to explore more of what the state had to offer, my pacer for that race, Elizabeth Kimble, recommended Ouachita Trail 50 Mile being held two months later (I had forgotten when the race started), so I immediately signed up, whether I was ready for it or not.  My recovery after Run LOViT was very slow, not only did I sustain a bad ankle sprain that took over a month to fully heal, my endocrine system was seriously compromised as well; for nearly a month I experienced omnipresent fatigue (legs felt like lead weights), a racing heart-rate even while resting, a weakened immune system (was frequently sick), and shortness of breath.  I’ve read that this could result from training and racing too hard and for too long of a period without rest, and that’s exactly what I had been doing for nearly 6 months prior leading up to Run LOViT.  The months between my three biggest races thus far, Cactus Rose 100 Mile (DNF at mile 70), Bandera 100K, and Run LOViT 100K, was spent doing endless hill repeats to get ready for tough Mountain races in the future, which I credit for allowing me to be able to finish the latter two difficult 100Ks, but it had left me physically and mentally exhausted by the end.

About a month after Run LOViT, my body and my sprained ankle, finally started feeling strong enough to tackle higher mileage in the 40s and 50s with lots of hill training, but I didn’t have much time to gradually ramp up my training, so I planned to go into Possum Kingdom 55K, two weeks before Ouachita Trail 50 Mile, as my last long training run with no taper.  I finished Possum Kingdom 55K in pretty good shape, but I had serious doubts my legs would be able to recover in just two weeks for a tough 50 miler at Ouachita, and considered dropping to their 50K option, until Elizabeth offered to pace me again a week before the race if her knee felt healthy enough.  Just before the race though, she had to back out of the pacing gig, but I already had it in my mind to run the 50 Mile, so I figured what the hell, my legs always seem to miraculously (or misleadingly…) recover to full strength during race morning. 

Pinnacle Mountain was as insane as it looks on this elevation profile of the race.

I really should have researched Ouachita Trail 50 Mile more thoroughly before the race, as I was completely caught unaware about how aggressive the Aid Station cutoffs were (I can hear in my mind the Race Director calling me a Dumbass…very nice lady, btw), and I wouldn’t have spent so much time taking pictures and enjoying the views during the climb up and down Pinnacle Mountain at mile 5; which I must have spent close to 45 minutes just on that Mountain.  It was around the mile 10.6 Aid Station that I knew I was in a lot of trouble for the rest of the day, when a volunteer there informed me I had about an hour and half to make the next five and half very hilly miles to the Northshore Aid Station to meet the cutoff…I started panicking.  I red-lined it most of the way to Northshore, running as much of the long hills during that five and half mile stretch that I could, and barely made the cutoff by 15 minutes.  I had my doubts that I could sustain such an effort for the next 34 miles that I had left to go, and considered taking the 50K turnaround point, but Elizabeth, who was volunteering there, assured me the next 10 miles to the Highway 10 Aid Station turnaround and back would be fairly flat and runnable, she could’ve mentioned the oncoming heat wave though.

After a cool and foggy morning to start the race (too foggy, as we had a scare at the beginning of the race, when a Runner was grazed in the arm by a Car driving without their headlights on during the beginning and end 3 mile road section), it was close to noon by now, and the temperatures were climbing into the mid 80s with crushing humidity; I had been dealing with the rising temps pretty well all day up until then, and it was my first time testing out wearing a long sleeve shirt for a hot race.  I’ve been a fan of the Brooks Equilibrium short sleeve tech shirts for years now, they’re paper thin with a semi-fit silky to the touch fabric that moves well with the body and arms, extremely breathable, and wicks and dries moisture fast; I wanted to experiment with the longer sleeve versions of the Brooks shirt to see how well the cooling effect would be with the sleeves being able to retain more cold water for cooling.  This strategy worked very well for the most part, especially when the body of my shirt became too saturated with sweat and water that I dumped onto my head (which is counter-productive to the evaporative cooling effect), I can use the long sleeves for an extra cooling alternative.  When the aid stations are only 4-5 miles a part with plenty of ice and water on hand, I feel I can run forever in the heat with this setup (I carried an extra 20oz bottle along just for cooling), but the next 10+ miles to the HWY 10 turnaround had a killer 8 mile stretch with only warm water jugs placed under a tree in the middle for refills (there's one last aid station 2 miles from HWY 10)…it was a slog that I had to get through twice.

Running in my Brooks Equilibrium LS shirt 

Perhaps my legs weren’t quite as recovered from Possum Kingdom as I thought, or it was a combination of going all out for the past couple of hours in order to make cutoffs, but my quads started locking up with fatigue several miles into this out and back stretch.  With the flatter section, I thought I may have been able to relax a bit on the gas, but I was helpfully reminded upon reaching the cache of water jugs three miles in, that I was squarely in the “Red Zone” for cutoffs, so I ignored the throbbing quads and developing foot pain, and kept hauling it.  Once I got to HWY 10 at the Marathon distance mark, I could switch into my pair of Altra Olympus for some cushiony relief; I didn’t want to risk climbing Pinnacle Mountain in my Olympus at the start, since the shoes are still new to me and I feared slippage on those boulders too much.

This 10 mile Out & Back wasn’t exactly the prettiest section of the trail… While the trails leading up to Northshore were quite beautifully constructed (with bridges, stone structures, and enjoyable twisty-turny and up and down paths), well maintained, and looks like they’re well worn with hikers and runners, the trails after Northshore were pretty over-grown with grass (I wondered if I was lost a few times when the trails were too over-grown) and ran in a boring straight line for the most part; I wouldn’t be surprised if this section was only used for the 50 mile portion of the race all year.  To be fair though, this section had it’s moments with running under towering trees and the numerous creek crossing were nice diversions (I wish I had the time to snap a few photo's of this area), but for the most part I kept my head down and focused on moving forward, my legs were falling apart and I desperately needed to reach my drop bag.

Again, I barely made the cutoff for the HWY 10 aid station turnaround with around 10 minutes to spare; after running all 35 miles at Possum Kingdom two weeks ago in my Altra Olympus, I had already forgotten just how stiff as a wooden board the cushion is on the Altra Lone Peaks, my already fatigued quads were being pounded into jelly, my feet were being beat up on the rocks, and the heat and humidity made it feel like a swamp out there.  At the Aid Station, I took my time to change into the Olympus, while downing bottles full of ice cold Coke to cool off; when I left I felt like a new Man again, Coke always recharges me on a hot day in a way no sports drink can ever match, and the difference between the Olympus and the Lone Peaks felt as stark as night and day.  I trotted out feeling a lot more confident about finishing the race, but it wouldn’t last for more than a few miles. 

I quickly passed up a handful of ladies that I’ve been running with and trading places for the last 10 or so miles, but half way through I started fading badly again, and the troubles and frustrations grew.  My quads were only given a temporary reprieve before it started locking up again, and with the temps now reaching peaks into the high 80s, I started getting a bit delirious from the heat.  The Ice water I filled up my water bottles with grew warm in a matter of just a couple of miles; dumping warm water on me in hot and muggy conditions was proven counter-productive.  Needing to make cutoffs, I kept my head down and powered through the fatigue, pain, and heat, but in my half deliriousness state I got loss several times on my way back; a few of those times I was lucky to have someone behind me call me back before I got too far, but other times I chewed up 5 or more precious minutes trying to find the trail markers. 

After getting lost for about the fourth time, and bumping dangerously close to the cutoff, I think my legs finally signaled to my brain to call it quits, by locking up for good on the last mile, where every stride felt like someone taking a hammer to my quads.  For the last mile I felt like walking it in to intentionally miss the cutoff, so that I wouldn’t have to make excuses to Elizabeth and the other Volunteers to not continue or even be talked into running further, but my stubborn pride wouldn’t allow it.  I pushed myself during the last mile to make the final cutoff by five minutes, arriving with the saddest tired dog face I could muster, and immediately sat down at Northshore and refused to get back up until the time to continue finally ran out on me, DNF'ing at 37'ish miles.

Ouachita Trail is no baby 50 miler, with Pinnacle Mountain chewing up so much of your time at the start (making that 13 hr Race cutoff seem more like a 12 hr one), you have to be prepared to constantly be on the move, because there’s not much room for error, easy pacing, and periodic resting in order to make the aggressive Aid Station cutoffs.  It was important for me, mentally, to know that I could make that last Aid Station cutoff on tired legs (and the hottest race day on record, I’m told), because I definitely want to have another shot at this race with fresher legs for next year; if anything, this race is a great excuse to see and climb Pinnacle Mountain once more.  While I’m 100% sure DNF’ing was the right decision, I’m also sure that I was capable of death marching it in, especially since Northshore was the last cutoff to meet, and you could technically run past the official 13 hr cutoff and still claim a finish; I just didn’t have the desire to do so with my biggest race of the year Bryce Canyon 100 Mile coming up on the horizon, the potential costs would have been too great in terms of injuries and recovery time in order to finish Ouachita.  The trails at Ouachita and Pinnacle Mountain were gorgeous, and I would’ve love for the Aid Station cutoffs to be scaled for a 14 hr cutoff, instead of a 13 hr one, to take it a bit easier out there; as it stands though, be prepared for a race if you enter the 50 Mile, if you wanted a bit of day-tripping, sightseeing, and hanging out at Aid Stations with your Ultras, sign up for the 50K option…I know I’ll be lining up for the 50 Mile again next year.