Saturday March 24th, 2018
This was the Owen-Putnam State Forest 50 miler and 50k, held in Poland, Indiana, which according to the Weather Channel is not a place. The nearest “place” is a tiny town called Spencer (where I got all my weather stalking data from about 6 miles away or so). This was my 2nd 50k/ultra marathon distance. It was a doozy.
About 10 days before the event, I started watching the forecast. Rain, 60% chance, 55°F. Ok, I can deal. 5 days before the event, rain, 60% chance, 48°F. Eh. 3 days before the event, rain, 90%, 38°F. Time to freak out. I go out to REI and buy a waterproof and wind resistant jacket with an extra lining inside. At first, I thought I might get too warm, but thinking back, when have I ever felt overdressed? Never. Two days before, rain/snow, 100%, 36°F. Things turned from trying to race the event, to “let’s finish” real fast. Cold weather is not my friend, and I have had the worst luck with distance and weather the last 5 months if you haven’t been following the blog… Little Rock Marathon ended up with rain in the 40s and a little hail at mile 23! Madison Marathon was cloudy and damp, and I ended up being severely under-dressed due to being only heat acclimated from participating in Xterra Worlds in Maui with temps in the upper 80s there!
For those of you read, who are not familiar with running conditions, you can’t get much worse than cold rain. Why? Wouldn’t snow be worse? Not necessarily. Snow is far less dense than rain and won’t go through clothing as easily as rain if it even melts on your body/gear. Rain just gets soaked up by your clothes and stays, does not dry out and keeps you overly chilled. Even the most seasoned runners really don’t want to run in the rain if temps are below 50°F. Then it got worse. Predicted winds were between 15-25 mph for race day, peaking at 11am. These are just not conditions that should be run in period, they are very dangerous and can lead to frostbite quickly and hypothermia. I had done about 9ish miles in conditions like this (sans wind) last year during training and had an idea of how to best prepare, a little…
Why was I doing this? A couple of reasons. 1. I had wanted to race a 50k after I had been preparing with marathon distances lately (this did not end up being the case). 2. It was my birthday and I thought it would be really cool irony doing 31 miles on my 31st birthday! 3. More distance and elevation practice for my A race in April: Zion.
Friday afternoon. Lovely sunny day! Hubby and I made the 6 hour trek down to Cloverdale, passing by Purdue University where we met up with some great friends for dinner. The hotel we stayed in was the Holiday Inn, which even though the rooms were older, there was a Jacuzzi tub in the bathroom, was on the first floor, and was in a great location off the highway.
The hotel was also about 32 miles from the race location, and the closest to the race location. I was pretty impressed, and decided with the declining forecast (now under a winter storm watch), we should stay the extra night post race.
I couldn’t sleep well though. I couldn’t put my finger on it as to why, but got probably less than 4 hours total, going through periods of waking and sleeping. On one of my wakings, I went to peek out the window…snow, a lot of it, was falling. I got up before the alarm went off and prepared for the worst. All the roads on our way down were salted and prepped for the storm. This did well with the snow and the roads weren’t bad on the way down. We used a regular map to navigate to the site since there was little cell phone reception there and wanted to avoid small dirt roads (which apparently google WILL take you down if using regular GPS), thanks to the emails and race guide for that headsup! Overall the race was excellent for sending out emails and having information ready. Even the facebook page was regularly scanned and questions answered within a few hours. Very impressed by that.
We arrived in the dark, wet snow falling was turning into rain now. Starting temperatures were in the low 30s. I went to pick up my packet, headed back to the car to put on all the gear, and then back to the start with 3 minutes to spare before the race began at 7am sharp. I was in the back, fine with me, it was DARK, pitch black out there. My plan involved me taking it easy at the start anyhow, and doing more the second half. Yeeeah.
This was my first dark start. First time with a headlamp (the last time I ran 4 miles on a trail in the dark in the evening, I used a flashlight, bad idea, and then a 5k at 2am in a pretty well lit area), brand new out of the box. I didn’t have a single issue there. I was a little surprised it wasn’t as bright as I had imagined, but for a last minute purchase at REI the day before knowing I needed something more weather-proof, it did its job. NOTHING NEW ON RACE DAY, nah bruh, I never listen do I? This is how I dressed: I made a plastic grocery bag “hat” liner to go under my hat to prevent heat from escaping and wind from getting in (needed a ball cap style to keep as much rain off my face as possible, but this might have been in vain since it was constantly precipitating sideways due to the high winds), this is a cheap technique I used before during my previous cold rain run the last year. Moving down, I dressed in a long sleeve Inknburn tech and my expensive water/wind jacket on top, Altra buff around the neck, Inknburn capris as my base layer (which was great because it was more flexible than something warmer would have been), and my Altra heatzone pants on top. I had some wind proof gloves in my drop bag which I eventually used on my 2nd loop (see course description next). I used Injinji socks and Altra Temps Trail shoes along with my first time using their trail gaitors. I had my trusty Orange Mud Endurance Pack full of 2L of Tailwind, gels, nutrition bar, music (which I actually didn’t use much), and phone (also not used much).
The course was slated as being the toughest race in Indiana, with 4400’ of elevation gain. I thought, ok, good hill training, my first 50k was over 5000’. The course was designed in lollipop style, meaning there is a “stick” portion and then a pop (calling these the loops). The 50k course (and for the first two loops, the 50 mile course) went out on the stick, and did a counterclockwise pop. Aid station A was at the intersection of the pop and stick. Aid station B was about a third a way into the loop up on a hill. You were required to check in at each aid station. Aid station A had the drop bags. The aid stations had jelly beans, chips, pickles, M&Ms, orange slices, tailwind, and later in the day soup and grilled cheese. I really wish I could figure out how to eat during races! A grilled cheese sounds so good now! Moving on, the 50k’ers would do two complete loops around, and then at the top of the stick would go back to the start/finish area, turn around once there and checked in, and head back out on the stick and do a mini loop then return from Aid station A back to the finish for the final finish. The course was very well marked, and I gratefully followed all the candy cane colored flags.
Moving out on the stick portion, my feet got wet immediately. The course was pure mud from the start. Snow covered the ground. It was raining. It sucked. But not as much as the mud! Literally, the mud would suctions you to the ground if you were not careful. Multiple people reported lost shoes even in the first 8 miles.
It was neat running in the dark, and actually was the part I remember passing by in time the fastest. Being on the EDGE of the eastern time zone, this locations’ sun rose at 7:45am, and the race started at 7am. It remained pretty dark even after sun rise because of the weather conditions. As promised, there were stream crossings, but these ended up being a chance to rinse the mud off shoes for a split second! I felt like all there was was mud in my shoes. You couldn’t actively avoid any of it, you could try and avoid the worst of it (almost calf deep sections of mud), and you had to power your way through it or risk getting stuck. I stuck to one part of the plan: power walk up hills. I don’t even remember the hills being there or overly difficult because the course conditions were so poor. I remember there were two or three hills that you really could not get a good grip on in the mud and risked falling backwards/forwards/sideways (potentially doing the splits, nothing there to stop your momentum), and I ended up finding sticks nearby to jack into the ground and pull myself up and balance with. The problem with traction came from the lack of rocks and roots along the trail. Normally I am used to just finding things embedded in the ground to use, but there really wasn’t any. I jokingly started using the term “spartan super super mud race” because no one could avoid getting totally wrecked by the mud. I met up with another girl, April, who was doing the 50 miler. We stuck together for the two loops (up to mile 19/20).
She fell, I would offer help to get her out, and eventually I fell backwards from being suctioned down and it was so deep I couldn’t get back up. The only ways I can describe how the trail felt was the following:
1. Cow pasture near a flooded creek pitted with hoof tracks the size of an elephants’
2. Trying to run knee deep in the ocean being pulled by the waves
3. Trying to run in a creek
4. Quicksand that was the consistency of soft serve ice cream (and temperature to boot)
There was NO dry part of the course, and only continues to deteriorate as time went on. The most frustrating part is when I decided to run the few yards I could run, one foot would slip out sideways and I would stop and then walk, every 3-5 steps! It was like wet glass.
Who knew the forecast went from Winter storm watch to Winter Storm Warning mid race? The rain eventually turned into sleet pellets and they hurt. Some would make their way into my ears, and that was no bueno. I ended up putting in my headphones just to protect my ears from the sideways ice. This started by the time I got to Aid Station B (mile 11/13 or so, I kept very poor track of time and distance as 100% of my attention was to the trail and where to step).
Somewhere around mile 9, I looked down at my watch and it read something like 2:41, and I was like, I haven’t even run this slow during my worst half marathon! I had no way to communicate to Rich that I was not going to make 4-5 hours estimated back at the start/finish (approx. 22 miles). I felt bad about that. At the aid stations, the volunteers commented that my running friend did not look good and was losing a lot of salt. I was completely aware and ok at this point, and knew at this point so early in the race, this was a really bad sign. I took it upon myself to stay with her to make sure she made it around safely. It turned out she had a puncture in her water pack and all her preferred electrolyte was gone, and she didn’t like tailwind, so she wasn’t taking anything in. Bad. She was eating half sandwiches at the aid stations, but nothing high in sodium. By the third time at an aid station, I made sure a volunteer made her eat chips or pickles, SOMETHING. I’m not sure the timeline when all this happened so I’ll move on for now.
The first loop provided one section half way between aid B and heading back to aid A that was rocky, and a section section that was more covered in pine needles, and was the most sturdy ground all course. Feet felt blessed. For the most part, my impression was this having seen the whole course: Start/finish to Aid A, I couldn’t even remember because it was dark, this was about 2.7 miles total.
Aid A to Aid B was awful (about 2.5 miles), having two of the hills that were just hard to climb because of how steep they were with the water running down them and absolutely no traction on them, and what felt like running through a swamp. Aid B back to Aid A was the longest section of trail without aid (I want to say like 7 miles?) and started out a lot like A to B, but then let up a little and had one part that was pretty exposed and a view that was similar to one of that of the Barkley Marathon with the powerlines stretching across a cut forest/field area, so many hills…this part was windy, no thanks…let’s head back into the woods. Eventually, B back to A had a few short stretches that were “runnable”.
Going back out to loops two, nothing was familiar ground, literally. The course was worse, and more flooded. By this time, sleet pellets covered a lot of the ground and you couldn’t tell where you were stepping. I would often just sink into the mini potholes of mud. Even if you tried stepping where there weren’t puddles, the mud was just soft and you sank anyway. Runner friend was walking a lot more and a lot more slowly. I still stuck with her. She was having a hard time with her hands. I had to get her back to Aid A at least, where I would have to leave her to fend for herself. I kept waiting for the “runnable” section…it was gone. The rocky section (which was a short section of fireroad, probably 0.25 miles or less), was now ice covered and hard to navigate. All the trees now were covered in a layer of ice, you could hear tree branches snapping everywhere. I eventually came to a fallen tree, I don’t believe I came across a fallen tree on the first time around…
Made it back to Aid A. My hands were freezing. I grabbed my drop bag and took my gloves. This was mile 19 or 20 or so. I told the volunteers to take my bag back to start/finish, I was done with it. I stayed at this aid station longer than I wanted…my feet needed heat. My feet started feeling cold at mile 17/18 or so (like I said I had no perspective of time or distance). I knew I needed to run more to try and get blood flowing to them more. So I took off for the start/finish on my own and tried to “run” more. Despite trying to run, I only managed at 17:00 min/mi pace at best. I tried to shake the feeling I was being “slow” and just press forward.
My motto that day was Relentless forward motion. That phrase never meant much until today. The terrain was terrible heading back, a lot of stream crossings, but I just couldn’t get my shoes to drain because I was constantly in water/mud. I was desperately trying to get feeling in my feet. My shoes were not an issue, it was literally just the trail and weather. I couldn’t get my heart rate up and I was getting colder. The second loop had stolen a lot of my heat with the high winds that pierces my ears and nose, hands, and feet. I pushed hard. I arrived back at the start/finish, I briefly saw Rich and headed back again. I just kept drinking my tailwind, but I knew I was in a calorie deficit. I had had ONE honey stinger gel and one bag of chews, a few orange slices, and maybe 3 jellybeans? I had at least been through 2.5 L of tailwind by this point. Never got cramping. I still probably had a little too much salt, fingers were slightly swollen.
I made it back to Aid A. I warmed my feet again. I probably stayed too long, and hurt my overall time a bunch by this, but in the end, I don’t regret that decision, especially the effort it took post race to re-warm (more to come, keep reading!). It was told to me that the short loop was just a mile or so. That was a lie. It was like 3.5 miles or something, I ended up hitting the lap button on my garmin checking the time of day, and messed up my mile laps there. The trail this time around was substantially worse, and I didn’t recognize any part of the trail. I was crying due to the cold air against my face. My gloves were now wet and freezing my hands. I wanted nothing more than to be done. No way I was going to quit at mile 26. I managed my way back to Aid A for the final time. I stayed there for a record of probably 5 minutes or so just to warm my feet. The small fire was making my clothing steam up. I thought I caught them on fire! Then I was off with the words of a volunteer “2.7 miles, you can do that in your sleep!” I remember one ran with me for a bit, and then headed back to the tent. I’m pretty sure 2.7 miles would take me an hour. That thought stuck to me the wrong way. All I could think about were my feet. I would sip on my tailwind, thinking maybe it would help somehow. No.
On my way back, I saw a robin, the first creature I saw the whole race. The bird perched atop a small mud mound, and I followed it. It got up and flew forward along the trail a few times, it seemed like it was showing me the best way through the mud creek. I felt blessed. I made it back to the finish, walking and moving forward as fast as I possibly could. I couldn’t even run anymore, not because of some wall, I energy wise felt fine, it was my feet, and each step hurt. All I could think about was getting back to Rich (picturing him waiting for me, I didn’t want him to worry), and FIRE. There was a fire waiting, and new clothes to put on. I made it back to the finish in 9 hours and 28 minutes.
I had placed 3rd female, but that’s irrelevant, anyone who finished should be very proud of what they got through. I constantly wondered how many of the 50 milers would finish. 4 people ended up finishing the 50 miler.
I arrived in the tent. I was greeted with a round of “Happy Birthday” by the half drunk volunteer crew (very very friendly, I loved them all), and they wanted pictures. I wanted to smile, but my upper lip muscles were completely frozen and it felt like I had botox injected (I guess that’s what it’s like?). A volunteer took my shoes off, I have no idea how, the mud was seemingly caked permanently on, and I took my socks off which was super painful. I also didn’t want the clean people in the tent getting dirty because of me! I had driven a hole in my socks My toes were all bright red. I could not feel the heat. I was worried. I could feel pain though. I could feel them put my new socks and shoes back on, and it was a super bad feeling. I don’t know how else to describe it other than “bad”. I was allowed a seat. I tried to get my feet warm, but it just wasn’t meant to be. Eventually I decided to leave the tent and head back to the hotel. I shuffled along, I was getting the bone chill freeze now. Down to the core freeze. Finishing temps were not higher than starting temps, but wind chills were below 20.
It was quite rough getting back to the hotel. It was a careful 20 mph drive. The roads were now in terrible shape, and plows hadn’t been out recently. We made it safely back to the hotel. I took probably what was an hour long shower, just trying to warm my feet and hands. I inspected myself, and I didn’t have but one tiny little blister on the side of my big toe. I had at some point kicked a log that was hidden under the mud with my foot, and had some nail damage to the side of the bed, but nothing I’m worried about, my foot was pretty swollen there for about 24 hours, now better. My toes tingled painfully after the shower though, and I could not get rid of the feeling. What I had gotten was basically pre-frostbite, called frostnip. Nothing that causes long term damage, but it a huge warning that you’re about finished off. It took until 24 hours after finishing for the nerves to calm down.
The total elevation gain recorded (I had my garmin on high accuracy) was 5,078.7 feet. My fastest mile was mile 1 (14:39) and mile 8 (15:14), with an average of 167 feet of gain per mile (each mile was pretty even with gain and loss). The trail continuously got worse, so the speed up I had planned on never happened. I do not blame the course conditions on the race. It was just a really hard training day, and something to brag about getting through. I couldn’t imagine having a worse race condition. Hopefully my bad luck has run its course (lol course), and Zion is looking warm. The warmer the better. I’ll embrace the sunshine with wide open arms…too bad the race will have me running at night too haha. Speaking of which, Zion is my A race this year, and April 20th, and my next race. I have 10 more days of harder training, and then it’s taper time. Overall, OPSF505 was a very well run race, nothing logistically could have really been better. It was not chip timed, but it didn’t need to be. One day I will run an easier 50k.
Signing off for now, my next post will be about Zion whether it’s a finish or DNF.