Cactus Classic Marathon

The Cactus Classic Marathon, Manito, IL.

When will I learn that March is like the worst month it seems to race?

Last year it was my celebratory 31st year on this round planet, ’round this planet, ’round this planet…that roundness giving us seasons, by running a 50k, or 31 miles. I still have a 50k in store for this year too, the day before my birthday (I don’t know why, but there aren’t races on Sunday at least in the Spring, seemingly anywhere in the US). More to come 🙂

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Before leaving for the race.

“Spring” marathon. No, not really spring, it was before Daylight saving (that night actually), and actual Spring starts later this month. But we’ve been through quite the winter, and not only us, seemingly enough. Rain and snow both have been plaguing most of America this winter. And I learned it wasn’t over. March: In like Lion.

Since Rocky Raccoon, I haven’t been able to really go out and run. I was in a car accident that moved my rib cage and made it difficult to breathe. Going through insurance, it took a while to make a PT appointment and get something done about it. Finally, very late February, I was able to get in and start the recovery. Found out more that my spine had shifted as well. The week of the race, and still not registered, I went out for a test “run”, a majority of it was power hiking at incline. It went fairly well as long as I kept the pace easy. So I signed up, knowing my friend Andrea would be doing it. We’d talk about a plan on the way down to the race outside of Manito, IL, which is outside of Peoria, IL.

I felt incredibly bad about not being able to pace Antelope Canyon for my friend Sonja. But not being able to run, or know how I would fair past 3 miles, I did not want her to have to be accountable for me in case something happened to me. I was supposed to lead her and be strong, and I don’t know if I could with even 75% certainty.

Regardless, I was signed up for the Blue Ridge Double Marathon in April, and I needed miles badly. I have a secondary race lined up, Terrapin Mountain, which I have my doubts of whether I can finish below the cut-off time, but the elevation there is legit and will help a lot.

As usual, I checked and stalked the weather, knowing I can’t handle a certain level of cold. A few hours south, they forecasted for rain, 100%, from Monday on, and 47-50°F. Sounded good. I was optimistic since the forecast didn’t change for several days leading up, nor the day before the race. I packed the usuals, but very disorganizing so. This came back to bite me.

Andrea and I headed out from Madison Friday evening for the 8am race start on Saturday.

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That feeling when you discover there is no more snow covering the ground! We did it, we ran away from winter.

The closest non-murder hotel we could find was just outside of Peoria called Morton. It was very clean, and the front desk lady was very talkative and told us of the lore of the prohibition era there and the park we were visiting, along with how safe the town was. In the room, I started laying out all the things I needed for the race. I checked off all the boxes except:

– Hydration bladder

– half of my needed nutrition

Ooops… so I had no way to carry water! At least I had my collapsible cup. Aid stations were just about 3 miles apart from each other. With the cold and rain, I doubted I would need to hydrate up and I did a “marathon” in December with only a handheld for each 13 mile loop. The nutrition was more of a worry since I didn’t know what they would have and some of that nutrition was my tailwind which depended on me having something to carry water in. Onward to sleep land.

The four hours of sleep was ok, I managed off an on every hour, waking up about 10 minutes before the alarm.

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In Vanny with Andrea keeping warm before the race.

We had a quick breakfast and was out for the 45 minute drive (yes, further) to Sand Ridge State Park—but wait, there’s more! It was bright outside, bonus! The park was known for its sand which apparently was deposited there when the glaciers melted there long ago. Neat! Always up for a geology lecture. The Cactus Classic was also known for the course, not only very sandy, but also very filled with cacti. I had my doubts about the cacti to be honest. I grow cacti as a hobby (well, mainly succulents), and they do not like the cold. How are there cacti that can grow this far north?!

Upon arrival, it was a small area with two open pavilions. Two Port-o’s and two enclosed state park restrooms (open!) were all that was there. When I got out the car for packet pickup, it was cold. Slightly bitter, and a wind in the air to make things sound poetic here. Pickup was easy and back to the car we went. At this point, I regretted not bringing heavier tights. I opted for my more heavy duty wind/water proof jacket because I’m weak like that and didn’t care if I got too hot (since I never have and we’ve had this discussion on this blog before of “when have I ever regretted wearing too much” and the answer being never). I didn’t wanna wear it because I’ve been wearing it for a majority of runs and races for the past year and it had shrank a little in the wash over time (gonna write outdoor research about that since it was quite the pricey jacket). I wanted to wear something cute! But Cute wasn’t warm and I was not about to quit out of a race because I didn’t dress appropriately.

So I wore craft baselayer, Inknburn pullover (I felt cute inside at least), heavy jacket, Inknburn tights, brought my lightweight gloves I had to buy while pacing Bandera (the mitten part is what mattered), wore the really thin XO Skin socks (figuring when the rain started, there would be water everywhere and I have recently read that thin socks prevent foot damage better than thicker socks when wet), gaiters and brand new Altra Superiors. I have not ever owned any model of the Superiors, but after I think one short run with them in the snow, I was ok with the idea of trying a marathon in them especially with the threat of sand and muddy puddles all over tarnation. I trust Altra clearly. The Superiors are just low to the ground and I think I’d have a better feel for the trail with them in this case.

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The “after” picture, but the Altra Superiors.

The race started just behind the pavilions in the woods. The pre-race briefing was useful. The RD (I assume) talked about how the course was the previous day… mostly ice free, frozen, hard sand, but because of this, they were not able to mark the course as clearly as they wanted to. The general rule was “when in doubt, followed the ATV tracks”.

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Cool fungus at the start.

I think it was a simple “on your marks, set, and go” for the start. I had myself plugged into the iPod in the right ear super super low volume since I planned on pacing Andrea for at least 6 miles, and encased in a plastic baggie, encased in another plastic baggie that held my cellphone in preparation for the predicted rain. I was not going to be able to take pictures of the course (I have some regrets about this but my phone would have been wrecked had I managed to get it out and back in of it’s tight plastic baggie from all the water falling from the sky). So this time you’re going to have to use your imagination!! You can do it, I believe in you!

Usually with looped courses, I try and describe the first loop and leave it at that. But today, the first and second loop (13.5 mile loops) were completely different from each other. So let’s begin. Starting right off, the snow had really melted everywhere in the area (as we physically had driven out of the snow covered lands right after getting to Illinois). The exception were giant snow piles that were now humble little mole hills of snow, and the trail, where snowmobiles and runners or skiers had pounded down the snow into two slick lanes of ice.

Upon entering the trail, we were greeted with a small stretch of snow/ice. Mostly ice along the tracks of the snowmobiles, and mostly crunchy-ish snow otherwise that was pretty runnable I would say. You could avoid some of the snow if you truly wanted by sneaking around the sides of the trail. Someone had clearly taken care of the trail as the briers and weeds had been cut down to about 6” stubs, all the same height as each other for the entirety of the trail. The trail was very solid, and to my memory was never really muddy (I think in part because the ground was still frozen tundra). Some of the sand sections were mushy, and some of it was mushy-solid, but none of it was too loose, nothing like the beach on a dry day. I am not sure how much of the course was actually sand since it started raining about an hour after the race started. I was able to keep my feet dry pretty easily before the rain started too! Mainly avoiding some shallow ice puddles by running on the snow nearby, but nothing I had to really walk or strategize how to get around. The trail was really runnable and I was pleased. I encouraged Andrea to keep going and walking hills and such. We spotted the cacti! They grew along the edges of the trail, although they were pretty sad this time of the year and all wilty. But they were there!

A little over an hour in, the rain began. We both knew it was coming. I put up my hood and carried on trying to still keep the feet dry for as long as possible. I think I managed to keep my feet dry for almost 8 miles. The forest sheltered us for the most part from the wind gusts. Andrea made 8 miles feel like just one. I was in a fairly good mood and our pace was on target to have her in below the cut-off time for the first loop. I challenged her to pass the girl we had been behind for a while. On a part of the trail, the left side opened up from the forest to a giant field, and the trail here was really flat and really runnable, best section the whole race. We made really good time here. As the rain fell, harder and harder, puddles grew larger and larger. We started walking around them. Eventually, the puddles were so expansive we had to start going through them.

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1st loop = runnable. 2nd loop = solid ice.

We ran through the forest with pines, and we ran through a section that was pretty hilly for the flat course, that reminded me of our single track back home (most of the race was at least double track). At the top of this section, the single track made a small creek of water so staying to the side was difficult. Soon after, the puddles were longer and deeper, now instead of ankle deep, now they were calf deep and the water pierced our skin in shock and our feet numbed. After a few good strides, the shoes would drain and feeling would start to return to the toes. This assured me I wasn’t getting frostbite…at least not now. The temperatures for the day did not feel like they were rising. Starting temp was 34°F.

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Leaping across the icy sections in the trail that’s currently underwater. Yes, into water, but water without ice hopefully.

For the second time, I had to put on gloves during a race. The last time being at the OPSF 50|50, that 50k I mentioned from last March, see here for details. I clutched the gloves tight and water would pour out literally like a faucet. I touched my legs every now and then, and they were soaked through and I could drain water out from them just by touching them. I was glad I wasn’t wearing something heavier because they would have been heavier by the rain falling and I doubt I would be warmer in these conditions. I touched what was in my pocket…it was hard and cold. I realized it was the hot hands I had activated before the race started…it was frozen!! It was true my legs were suffering so much I could not push the pace, and I couldn’t take longer strides. I stuck with Andrea the rest of the first loop instead of leaving her. It was safer this way too in case one of us fell…because no one was going to come and get us and sitting there in the frozen puddles in the rain was not an option. I touched my coat, and realized all the waterproofing from it had disappeared…I guess it gave its last hurrah at Cloudsplitter. I didn’t have any other option but to keep going as is. Things were getting brutal and harder to handle, but we tried to stay positive. Andrea’s feet were doing well in her new shoes, but her feet were losing feeling and her legs were locking up hard. I told her we needed to press on harder to get our heart rates up and to help circulation of heat in our bodies to get through.

Was that thunder? We contemplated if they were going to call the race.

Eventually we got to find another girl to pass. The next challenge. The course then turned to kind of horse trails, MY LEAST favorite terrain on the planet. You could tell where the divots in the ground were and if you hit a mole hill wrong, your ankle would take the spill, or you’d be in a small bowl of water. The high ground kept you dry if you placed your arch of your foot on the top of the “hill” and would not collapse under you keeping you dry and moving forward. But your steps would be shorter and running is made difficult. If you can picture a horse trotting through the mud on a trail, you can imagine there are several hoof prints embedded in the ground. Before the end of the trail loop, there was a giant steep hill that was hard to run down without feeling like you are going to faceplant forward and die. You couldn’t tell by the reflections what was mud streaming down or if it was icy and you would slip down to your doom. Upon reaching the bottom I asked Andrea to turn around and see this monumental hill. This was no midwest hill, we have no idea where it came from.

By the end of the nightmarish first loop, Andrea bowed out respectfully after coming in at a record PR time despite the horrible conditions of the day…about to get worse, none of us the wiser. I said I was going out for another loop and I should be able to run it faster than the first at my own pace. I refilled my water at the start (thanks so much Andrea for letting me borrow one of your boob bottles, that sounds hilarious and horrible but I wanted to use the terminology I just came up with…these are basically just soft flasks that go in the front of your hydration vest/pack instead of a bladder in the back)…and I headed back out with a mission.

The rain had melted a little bit of the trail snow and created more puddles. So naturally I tried to go around the puddles, to seconds later find out the once runnable snow was now solid sheets of ice with no traction AT ALL. Oh ok ok. Another plan, ride the side of the trail. I ran up the hills we had walked before, and faster down the hills than we did before trying to get through this loop fast so Andrea didn’t have to wait too long for me. I checked the next two miles on my watch…I was…slower than I wanted. I was locked up from the cold, and couldn’t extend my stride. Not that I lacked energy at all, I was really fine and the first loops felt like 5-6 miles, not the whole 13.5. I knew I was behind on nutrition, I couldn’t help it. I had probably had 100 calories in the form of tailwind and one gel on me the first loop, and grabbed a few orange slices from each aid station that had food (I think there were three that were manned). Other than that, I had nothing to spare and saved my last gel for mile 21 when I wanted the boost.

I stopped keeping up with every other mile for some reason. So I read mile 15, 17, 19, 20…

I tried to associate miles from the first loop to the second loops to compare as I was keeping a keen eye on the splits for the first loop with Andrea. I knew mile 4 was rough for us. But when I got to mile 4 on the second loop, it was…slower! Why? The course got harder. Within minutes of being out on the second loop, the apocalyptic skies opened up their fury and poured its hardest rain. I was alone. I had not seen another runner since the half way point aid station. This was the case for 95% of this loop, unknowingly to me. I heard sounds from the wind that sounded animal like. I started to think what kind of wildlife was going to be able to eat me in Illinois. Was it wolves? At some point, I ran across spines in the trail that didn’t look like a plant. They were about 6” and looked like porcupine quills, pointy and black/gray on one point and white on the other. I was in a (now) runnable section of trail and didn’t stop. I needed to run hard and fast whenever I could cause with each quarter of a mile, the trail got worse and worse, and runnable sections decreased exponentially.

I tried my hardest to sneak around puddles that were now lakes in the trail, but I would get caught in brier bushes as they tore into my coat and legs. I learned all the individual colors of briers out there because I would still encounter them on the side of the trail where the rain had worn down the snow to pure ice and basically made the trail impassable otherwise.

During the middle of the big downpour (the rain never did stop once it start, it only got heavier), it because impossible to avoid the now rivers flowing through the trail. The trails were now flooding massively and the water was so deep that you could not see the bottom in the least. One wrong step on the VERY hidden ice beneath would have your ankle flying out from under you and you into the water. I slid under the water hundred of times trying to find some sort of traction. My muscles pulled in all sort of directions. But the worst part was the temperature of the water, being mostly melted ice and rain falling from the skies below 40 degrees. My usual plan was to sprint through these passages of water, being they were pretty short the first loop, and it wasn’t so bad and minimal water would seep in. The second time around however, I was in the water for minutes at a time for very long stretches of trail, having to go through the deepest sections of it because if you tried to run on the sides, it was all hidden ice under it and you would quickly go under. The first few seconds weren’t bad, but after that, the pain seared upward. The now knee deep ice/snow-flood waters pierced my skin like it was prying it open from the 2nd layer of skin out, radiating up into my frozen quads and my spine. My calves froze solid and I lose all sensation and feeling in my feet. I forced a spring through regardless and continued to sprint past the flood waters on the more solid trail (still in puddles but just not as deep typically), where I would have to keep my heart rate up until blood flow brought warmth to my feet. Each step was pure numbing pain like my skin was made out of ceramic, waiting to break. It wouldn’t give, and I couldn’t push off. I literally would just have to plant my foot on the ground and force movement through my hips to move forward.

Once I was able to feel again, things got better, but this happened every quarter of a mile at least, and got more frequent as the miles ticked by. Mile 20 never ended I’m convinced. I knew my watch was gonna beep with something ridiculous like a 21 minute mile after all these flooded trails during that particular stretch, but it was 16 instead. I never stopped, but I also slowed down finding the best and most shallow ice free route each time. I was needing calories…

I started getting angry, I could tell, I was yelling at the briers. I stubbed my toes and gashed my feet on the 6” stalks that were now under water, and I couldn’t see them. I was climbing around a particularly deep section and saw a small foot sized mound I could use to hop across one section of flooded trail. As I got a foot hold, the ground collapsed under me as a tree branch whacked against my face as I fell into the icy water hip deep now. I cried out in pain. I thought about the Titanic scene where Rose and whats-his-name was on the fireplace mantle piece of wood floating in a frozen Atlantic Ocean (well, I knew many people faced this fate as the Titanic story was real and these things did happen) and know I would have just died. And if I hadn’t died, I would be traumatized the rest of my life and probably moved to the amazon to make sure I never saw anything cold again. This helped keep me sane. At one point during mile 21-22, I thought about dropping because there was so much water, that I could not reheat my feet and I was not about to get frostbite over this. But at the same time, the sky stopped doing the thing.

I was a little confused, but I knew rain had to stop, and I had been out there a long time. In no way did it warm up, or the sun come out, but I was able to put down my hood, and it was ok. God sometimes sure does test your very limits eh?

I arrived at the 2nd to last aid station. A guy there wanted to talk to me (I think he was the RD?? he was at least at the start/finish when I was there after the first loop). I knew since I had not seen one soul this whole loop, I had to be the only one out here. He wanted to know if I had seen anyone and I chatted a little about the condition of the trail, cause after all that mess, I was pretty done trying to go for any time. I sat there and inhaled some oranges. He didn’t ask if I wanted to drop, and I appreciated that, as I was feeling much better after not being in frozen water recently (recently as in the last 5-10 minutes). I told him I was fine to finish the last 5-6 miles and off I went again.

Crossing the road here, I headed up to single track again. The streams were flowing down the hillside along the trail (path of least resistance, sigh). But since there was no ice lake on the trail, I just ran straight through the trail creek, and joked about how I had not been told there were stream crossings in this race, nor that half the race would require a kayak. The flood trail creeks were rather shallow and fairly stable foot underneath so I plowed through. I still ran uphill since uphills were far more runnable than a majority of the trail now. Silt was pretty firm in these sections also mushy much like the sand. I could tell some of the water was draining, either that or this part of the trail was pitched correctly enough that the water didn’t flood there or the trail drained well there or something. My arms were incredibly sore, especially my forearms. I think it was from clenching the gloves and trying to keep the water flowing out of them by squeezing them all the time…that and trying to keep my hands from feeling like death. The gloves ended up being so heavy! So when the rain stopped, I took them off and I was basically fine. The wind wasn’t too bad in the woods.

I passed by the final aid station with two perky people, a guy and a girl, looked like they were also runners and got what was going on asking if I wanted to try some yoga without touching the ground challenge they were apparently doing before I showed up. They told me sorry about the oreos, they kind of drowned. As I was eating my orange slices, I glanced down and saw them. They resembled nothing of oreos. They looked like those dinosaurs that you give kids to put in a glass of water for 2-3 days as they expand into a bigger dinosaur, like fuzzy on the outside and sort of resembled a dinosaur once engorged with liquid. Or just really deep fried oreos without batter. They were so poofy it was baffling. The girl told me as I was leaving that my friend was waiting for me at the finish. I told her to tell them I am coming as fast as I can (in a high spirit voice).

Then the horse trails came. I started yelling at them too. But then decided to redirect my voice into just singing Korean pop songs on my iPod instead…until…

There was a soul. A single male soul. I had caught someone? Someone was out here too? They were walking. They seemed ok so I moved on but I most certainly stopped my singing outloud. He didn’t seem too in the mood to talk. I wished him luck and that we were almost there. I got the feeling he didn’t believe me. And then finally, the large downhill thing…

On the first loop, Andrea had told me that she saw cars parked and that were we almost back. She was right, and we rejoiced! I constantly was on the lookout to my right for these cars. The cars never showed up. But before I knew it I was back at the finish. I put on my best stride and got through the finish line where just Andrea and the RD and a friend were still there. 53570311_415758482329804_7334058636794134528_n The timing mat was just barely under water this time, as the first time I passed through it, it was very covered in water. I asked if I was last. I was apparently the 2nd female to finish and 1st in my age group. The cars were all gone because people had dropped out and/or didn’t meet the cut-off. 53442035_534210843653341_1343876364767330304_n Everyone had left, but the few poor souls still out there, with no final race cut-off. I immediately made plans to change into my spare clothes. I was gratefully for the full stall of the camp site restrooms to change in. I grabbed a sandwich the race provided from Subway and Andrea and I headed off into the coming darkness.

As we left, we passed through the small town of Manito, where we really saw the flooding in town. We hit a patch of really bad standing water in the van unexpectedly. We also had to take turns going under this bridge were a lot of standing water stood. We passed by a bank, and it read the temperature as 41. I remarked to Andrea that it was getting colder. But Andrea said it never got above 35 that day. So much for the forecast of upper 40s.

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As we headed back on the interstate, the rain picked up again and standing water on the highway would pull the car if we stayed in the left lane for any amount of time. This storm was no joke.

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Local Flooding almost as deep as the fire hydrant in Manito.

As for the race, the aid stations, they were sort of minimal, but who can expect even a volunteer to be out in that mess? But more so minimal on food. Water was an option but no electrolytes on hand that I saw. They had pringles and oreos and bananas and oranges. Good enough for me anyway. It’s not a complaint on my end. Most of the food could not be kept out because of the weather or was utter destroyed by the weather which most volunteers apologized for (they didn’t need to). The lady at the first aid station was super sweet, and was staying in her car until a runner came, and stayed the whole race!! Every volunteer was there because they wanted to be there and each one was helpful and cheery despite the terrible day that was of no-one’s fault. Overall the race was well done. I have to say, even with the warning that the course was not marked to their expectations, it was very easy to navigate and I did not get lost or get close to taking the wrong way. It was marked well.

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Really weird barn near the race.

Out of 10 women, 7 started, and 3 finished. The DNF rate was at or above 50% for this race. I placed just based off of the fact I didn’t give in or give up and I go through ridiculous things and situations to finish what I start. There are so many scenario in the past few years where people would not blame me for quitting or dropping out, but I don’t. This should give you an idea of how much was going against me at Habanero for me to DNF.

Last bit of good news, I tried those Superiors. I didn’t get any blisters, and lost all my skin on my callouses (pain free!). When I say I don’t callous well, I mean it haha. My feet today are pretty banged up from all the stalks I encountered by accident and slipping and turning my ankles quite a few times, but the most sore part of me today are my arms. Time to get ripped I guess!

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Localized Flooding outside the race location.

I like to say I’m working on my PhD in mud and water on trails.

Let the count down to the Blue Ridge Double Marathon begin. Stay tuned for the Terrapin Mountain race report, coming soon.

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