Sunday, March 1, 2015

2015 Run LOViT 100K Race Report

I’ve been thinking a lot about the downsides of this sport, as evident in my last post about the role of Pessimism, but largely as a result of all the months I spent injured and burnt out after completing Bryce Canyon 100 Mile in June of last year.  For the first couple months, I was injured with a pulled groin muscle which I ran on for over 30 miles at Bryce, and then spent another couple months afraid of my own shadow as I half-heartedly went out for training runs, rarely ever going past 30 mile training weeks, as I feared re-injuring myself so soon.  Thus began my “Old Man of the Trail” mindset, where I would advocate to anyone seeking advice to slow it down and consider dropping to the lower distance as they were contemplating going for 100 Milers; always done with the best of intentions and careful analysis of their racing histories, I might add, but couldn’t help feeling like a bit of nag and a hypocrite, considering the 100 Milers I’ve done where you could’ve put up a good argument for why I shouldn’t have attempted them when I did.  These anxieties were what I would be carrying into my first Ultra for 2015, on a return trip to the new and improved and more fearsome Run Lovit 100K held at the beautiful and brutal Lake Ouachita Vista Trails in Arkansas.

I fell in love with Arkansas last year running in the inaugural Run Lovit 100K, living in Texas, it’s hard to find heavily forested and Mountainous trails, and all while running alongside numerous flowing creeks and a huge and gorgeous Lake Ouachita; the trail stewards there (known as the Trail Dogs) have certainly put in a lot of care and thoughtfulness in creating a breathtakingly beautiful trail (every bench you come across is a photo worthy moment!), not to mention a constantly challenging one made up of wearingly hard climbs and ankle twisting rocks, it’s a beauty you will have to earn.   I earned the right last year to drink in its beauty, and then some, by running in one of the hardest races of my life, all on a badly sprained ankle that I incurred on the very first mile, that took every strength I had, and lots of encouragement and prodding by my pacer, Elizabeth Kimble, to finish.  I credit the finish last year at Run Lovit (my 2014 Race Report) as the main motivating factor that really bolstered my confidence enough to take on Bryce Canyon 100 Mile later that year; now that I’m officially in for the Wasatch Front 100 Mile Endurance Run in September, I could use that same motivating boost again to kick off a half year gauntlet of training for that Monster of a race.

With all that said, I was on the fence about another go at Run Lovit 100K until just a few months before the race, as mentioned above, my dealings with injuries and burnout after Bryce was some of the worst I’ve experienced yet in the over three years of running Ultras.  After 4 months or so of running 20-30 mile weeks, I hadn’t begun to seriously train for Ultras again till around December of last year, and had only completed one slow 50K race (Lost Loop at Lake Texoma) since, with another DNF at Big Cedar 50K (got horribly rained out and treacherously muddy) in November, and after both events my injuries would slightly re-aggravate and continue to drive my anxieties about signing up for Run Lovit.  What finally pushed me into signing up for Run Lovit was a decent showing at Athens Big Fork Marathon in January, while that race got flooded out and we had to opt for a course through back country roads, it was a fun 25 mile romp with friends (that didn’t end up with my injuries returning, thankfully); also if Elizabeth was brave enough to throw her hat into the new 100 Mile course there, I should start throwing caution into the wind again myself, I immediately signed up for Run Lovit 100K when I got home from ABF.

Along with the new addition of a 100 Mile course at Run Lovit this year, the 100K race course itself had been significantly changed from last year; gone was the flatter 20 miles of pleasant rolling hills in the first half the race last year that I loved, in was the new 14 mile out and back hilly section, past the Brady Mt road aid station, that I loved even more.  While the 100K course had been made significantly harder, with around 1,700ft in additional climbing upping the elevation gain/loss to around 8-9K ft total (per Garmin measurements, the race site has it officially listed at 12K ft, but I didn’t feel it was anywhere that high), it was also made shorter by about 4 miles, down to 60 miles officially, but no matter, I was really excited about these changes, and with an earlier start time, I would finally get to see a lot of sections that I missed last year that I had to run completely in the dark.  Newly motivated, and with a healthy dose of fear of the new changes, I had a good burst of training in the weeks leading up to the race to ease my worries heading in, but that would all turn to moot though, as terrible weather of freezing rain was projected to take a massive dump on race day *sigh*.

I drove up early (from Dallas) to see the 100 Milers off, with their races starting the day before mine at 6pm, I couldn’t help but notice how insane these hardy group of 13 brave souls were for even showing up; by the time I arrived at the race site, I wasn’t so much as shocked to find out that a third of the 100K runners had already dropped out the race, as I was that hardly any of the 100 Milers did the same (only one dropped to the 100K distance, that I know of)!  As a famous Vulcan would say (RIP Leonard Nimoy), it’s illogical to want to run a 100 Miles, it takes a willful determined sense of stubbornness against all the odds to believe you can finish a 100 Miler, a trait I know all too well, but with the prospects of starting in freezing cold temps, and running through the pouring rain and foggy conditions of that hellish night, I seriously doubt I would have toed the starting line if my legs were in shape to do so…brave souls indeed.  After a good night’s sleep, it would be my turn to brave the trails and harsh conditions at the still quite epic 100K distance.

The few, the brave, the 100 Milers at the start.

The first four miles or so of the race was pretty uneventful, as we started the first mile on a road that led to a long climb up a bumpy back country road that stretched on for another 3 miles, all while ran in the dark due to the 6am start time.  Day started to break within an hour, which nicely coincided with a gorgeous view up Hickory Nut Mountain overlooking Lake Ouachita, I was loving the new course design already.  After another mile of dirt and gravel roads, you finally get a taste of winding single track trails running down Hickory Nut Mountain; these were some of my favorite stretches of the course, and your legs finally get the chance to really open up after all the long climbs on roads.  For the first 8 miles or so, the weather was perfect, not too cold and only the occasional drizzle, maybe the 100K runners were saved from the worst of it, but then the rain’s came, followed by the freezing cold…ugh, and to imagine, the 100 Milers had to put up with this all night I thought to myself while I was running with my head down for an hour or so of downpour, hoping to keep freezing rain from dripping into my hooded jacket.  

The views from up top Hickory Nut Mountain in the early morning

Running down the switchbacks of Hickory Nut Mountain

The rain started to let up by the time I reached the Crystal Springs Aid Station at Mile 12; I foolishly stopped to change into dry socks, considering just a quarter mile later I would have to get my feet wet again crossing the many creeks past this section, and headed out for Big Bear Mountain with a friend, Deb Baker.  After three miles of cursing the multiple creek crossings, we started the slow 600 ft climb up Big Bear Mountain; me and Deb were both in the lottery for entry into Wasatch 100 Mile (she didn’t get in), with her running it last year (sadly resulting in a DNF), so I enjoyed the chance to ask all sorts of questions about the race and her motivations about wanting to run it.  It was a frankly sobering conversation, admittedly, I haven’t looked up much about Wasatch, it has always been a mythical beast of a race that was too far off in the realm of possibility, that I never bothered to, and that I also feared I would never have the guts to enter it if I really had looked into the race…ignorance is bliss sometimes.  Basically Wasatch was a lot of climbs, a lot of sand, a lot of rocks, a lot of altitude, and a lot of scorching heat…great, I had to finish Run Lovit now, or I would have no business being in the running for Wasatch in the first place. 

Following Deb...not always successfully.

Deb and I, ran together for another 4 miles or so on top of the ridgeline over Big Bear Mountain, which looked like an otherworldly dreamscape in the thick fog, before I had to drop back for good; 18-19 hilly miles into the race was when it all started going downhill for me, with both of my knees experiencing chronic soreness that I just couldn’t shake…maybe it was much too soon to tackle a race of this difficulty after all.  At Mile 23, resting and trying to cool down my knees at the Brady Mountain Rd A/S, I inquired about how Elizabeth was doing, and they informed me she was going to drop at the turnaround point at the Avery Rec A/S after a difficult time due to injuries, all through the next 7 miles I would consider doing the same, as my knees were getting progressively worse.  I tried pushing thoughts of dropping out of my head as I headed out, which was made easier considering how gorgeous the new 7 mile section was, which was helped with the fog finally lifting and the Sun making random appearances through the clouds for the first time. 

Trail running through the fog...

Holy creek crossings Batman (apologies), they were everywhere for the first couple miles, criss-crossing every which way, it was all quite beautiful to run into them, but I dreaded having to get my feet wet so much (and especially on the return trip!), it’s a miracle I managed to survive the race without blisters, I love my Altra Lone Peaks 2.0!  As mentioned previously, this section can be really hilly and also very technical, so there wasn’t much opportunity to run if I had wanted to, I even started welcoming the climbs, as it hurt my knees going downhill even more.  The geology nerd in me loved this section for all the unique moss covered rocks and boulders all along the trail, not to mention this was the first time it was clear daylight to notice everything during the race, so I didn’t mind the slow pace I was going too much, while taking pictures every 100 yards or so.  It was about a mile from the turnaround point at Avery Rec A/S that I started to run into some familiar faces that I knew were running the 100 Mile, first Jeremy Day, who was hurting, but I wasn’t surprised to see him continuing on, for all my worries about Wasatch, he’s out here training for the Bigfoot 200 Mile race in August!  I was a little shocked, however, to see Elizabeth pressing on…well, hell, if she’s still out here determined to finish the 100 Mile, what’s a 100K in comparison. 

Curse these tranquil creeks...

For just the briefest moment at my pit stop at Avery Rec A/S, I considered dropping, I just couldn’t run anymore with my sore knees, and there was no way I would make the cutoff’s if they weren’t extended, and if they were extended, did I really want to face the prospect of having to power-hike for the next 30 very hilly and technical Miles, with multiple creek crossings in the cold, cold night?  In a way, I’ve missed all these agonizing back and forth questioning of myself on the will to continue, you’re not in an Ultra until you start having them; as I’ve done many times in the past, you just have to suck it up and press on, damn the consequences.  I left Avery at about 8:15 hrs into the race, with a strong power-hike averaging a solid 18-22 min/mile, even over hilly and technical trails, maybe there was a way I could make it to Crystal Springs A/S not too far past the official cutoff of 14 hours there.  About a mile or so back to the Brady Mountain A/S, I caught up to an older guy I ran on an off with all day named Bill, who informed me that he was dropping and had his wife waiting there to pick him up; it was so tempting to hitch a ride with him back to my car, but the volunteer at the A/S, Josh, informed me that they were definitely extending the cutoffs, and with a bag of some amazing crackers he handed me, off I went to ride along the Big Bear once more.

Some additional photos on the return trip from Avery, including a rare cameo of the Sun!

I have a thing for moss covered rocks...

I had wanted to continue on anyway, even if it resulted in me being pulled from the course for missing cutoffs, because it meant that I would finally, finally, get to see the views from Big Bear Mountain.  Last year when I ran Run Lovit, we started 2 hours later, and we didn’t hit the peak of Big Bear Mt. until around mile 47, by then, it was already pitch black; while my first trip over Big Bear Mt. earlier in this race was completely covered in thick fog, with the fog cleared and with about 2 hours of daylight left, I would finally get to see what I’ve waited over a year for.  I can’t fully express how beautiful Lake Ouachita looks from on top the ridgeline at Big Bear Mt, especially after you have gone nearly 40 miles anticipating the views; the sense of “earning” the privilege of taking in these beautiful sights after running many miles on tough trails is a big part of why I love to run Ultras so much.  I couldn’t take too much time enjoying the views, however, the temperature was dropping rapidly as night approached, and all I had on was a T-shirt and a thin hooded rain jacket, I needed to push my power-hiking as fast as I could in order to keep my core temperature from dropping (gave up trying to run a long time ago…).

Was hard to get a clear shot of the lake with the many trees in the way, by the time I got an unobstructed view from up top Big Bear Mt, it was already getting dark.

After some furious power-hiking through the night, and many more freezing cold creek crossings that were now knee deep because of all the rains, I made it to Crystal Springs A/S (Mile 48) in around 14:20 hrs, only 20 minutes after the official cutoff, not bad I thought to myself; I immediately noticed Jeremy and Elizabeth was still there as well, and wanted to say hi, but not before the Volunteers informed me that I only had 5 minutes left to get out of Dodge.  “You got to be kidding me”, I blurted out as I scrambled to find my drop bag to put on extra layers and fish out my headlamp and other supplies. I was under the impression I would have much more time than that (they extended final cutoffs for several hours last year), but no matter, after I gathered my things, I stuffed as much food into my mouth as I could, and barely made it out in time with Elizabeth and her pacer (Jeremy had already left a few minutes earlier).

I was happy to have some company to hike with after spending the last 12 miles mostly by myself, and I was also curious about how Elizabeth’s race had been going up to that point; after finding out, I was a bit taken aback by just how bad of a shape she was in and her many struggles throughout the day (you can read all about it in her own race report).  With all my ruminations lately about the potentially damaging consequences of running Hundred Milers (especially ones with lots of elevation change like Run Lovit), I couldn’t help but ask her why she’s still even out here.  It was inappropriate to ask someone at mile 80 something that question (God knows I’ve been through worse at that point, and still carried on), and I’ve apologized for it, but I wasn’t so much as questioning her decision to continue with the race, but rather the point of 100 Milers in the first place and whether putting ourselves through the extreme struggle and pain required to finish them is even worth it…hell, I’ve been writing this blog for 3 years now trying to answer that very question!  Both of my Hundred Mile finishes required fighting through extreme pain and injuries in order to finish, not to mention the lengthy 2-3 months of recovery periods from those injuries.  Seeing Elizabeth go through so much to finish her race was equally inspiring and terrifying at the same time; I realized my own anxieties about Wasatch was boiling over, and I knew all too well that I would have to go through such pain and suffering and risk serious injuries all over again in order to finish that Monster…It was a sobering realization that, mentally, I’m still not quite recovered from Bryce.

After about 4 miles together, our respective races split off into different directions and I wished Elizabeth luck on the finish; with 8 miles left, all I needed was to make it over Hickory Nut Mountain one last time, and it’s all downhill to the finish; simple enough I thought to myself…it ended up taking me nearly three hours to cover the final 8 Miles.  For the long and slow climb up Hickory Nut Mountain, I was fortunate to have some company along most of the way, with a new friend Yoni and her pacer Andi (whom I’ve only known through Facebook up to this point), because climbing a 650ft Mountain on 50+ mile legs can be maddeningly slow.  Upon arriving at the Aid Station up top Hickory Nut Mt, I let a loud “Whoo”, as the Volunteers had put on a blue laser display along with a crackling fire; the patience and dedication of the Volunteers were amazing all through the race, with some of them being out here since well before the 100 Milers had started, I thanked them one last time and headed off, after 17 hours of being on my feet, I was ready to get this last 4 miles over with and be done.

The last 4 miles was mostly all downhill and flats from Hickory Nut Mountain, there was a chance I could finish under the official 18 hour cutoff I thought to myself, but that didn’t turn out to be any where near the case.  The dirt road was a lot more technical than I remembered, and all the rains had turned it into a slushy muddy slope that was often-times treacherous to walk down, I spent the next 3 miles worried about twisting my ankle on all the loose rocks, while trying to keep my balance on the downhill mud slide.  By the end of that long slog, I was at my wits end, begging for any signs of the last mile road to the finish, kind of fearful at times of being lost, even while going in a straight-line because it dragged on for seemingly forever.  Reaching the hard pavement of that last mile road to the finish, after being on a trail for 59 miles, sucked the life out of me, I was done, but with still a mile left to go…I zombied it in to finish in 18:31 Hrs.

My performance at this race wasn’t anything to brag about, but I’m thankful that I decided to push on anyway and grind out a finish at all cost.  At the end of my Bryce Canyon 100 Mile race report, I wrote that the finish there took so much out of me, that it may take a long, long time to regenerate the will to go through such experiences again; my stubborn will has not quite recovered yet, as I found out during this race, but finishing Run Lovit 100K in less than ideal circumstances (now that’s an understatement) has gone a long way into regenerating my spirit as I begin the long march towards Wasatch Front 100 Mile.  At the finish line, warming up under blankets and some hot delicious Vegan soup (I must have eaten my fill all through the day to make up for the Race entry fees alone), I wanted to stay and see Jeremy and Elizabeth finish their 100 Milers, but I knew they wouldn’t be done for several hours well past the official cutoff of 30 Hours (I hear talk that they may extend the cutoffs for next year…), and had to get some sleep before driving back home to Dallas; congrats on their hard won finishes, I couldn’t imagine the lengths they had to go through to finish their races in tough conditions, it’s something I’ll have to keep in mind as I continue to chase my own impossible goals.  Thanks again to Dustin and Rachel Speer and all the Volunteers who organized this fantastic event, the Lake Ouachita Vista Trail system is an absolute gem, and I would encourage anyone, especially those living in the southern states that may have a hard time flying out to Utah or the Pacific States to experience the Mountain races there, to consider Run Lovit in their racing schedules.

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