Well I went back to Tennessee to once again torture my body in September. Mostly I wanted to have a better performance than I did last year, or at least not almost pass out from the heat. For a refresher of last year, you can go here where I talk much more about the race than I plan on in this report.
The main thing different I did this year was to make sure I was heat trained. I spent 10 days out of the 14 before the race taking hot baths to get my core temp up after whatever training run I did that day. I just sat in my bath tub and got my core temp up to at least 101.3 for 40 minutes or so. That’s right CORE temp. That’s the only way to get an accurate reading and it’s much safer as well so you don’t overdue it. Oral temps aren’t accurate for heat training and every research paper on heat training or heat stroke confirms that. Just make sure to mark that thermometer so no one ever puts it in their mouth by accident! Really it wasn’t too bad at all. The first few sessions sucked pretty bad. By the end I didn’t ever feel light headed or anything anymore. I would watch episodes of Mysteries of the Abandoned since no one else in my house likes those. I learned a few interesting things but mostly it just passed the time.
I didn’t get near enough hill training in again. Mostly I was concentrating on getting back to full mileage after Rhonda but I did get a few hilly runs in at least. I lost some weight as well to help with the hills.
Once again I flew out to the race. I stayed at my friend Clark’s house about an hour away from Frozen Head State Park where the race is held. The time zone at his house is different than the race time but I kept reminding myself that I’d just need to adjust accordingly. It was a great place. Nice and quiet with good conversations. Him and his wife even fed me a few times!
I got in later Thursday night and the packet pick up started at noon on Friday. I left at 10am to get there with the time change right at noon. This is really the only race I know of that I try to get to packet pickup early. That’s because it’s the first time you find out what the course is going to be. Laz changes it every year although there are only so many places the course could go. He had hinted it would be longer with more elevation this year and it definitely was. The swag bag was similar to last year. The shirt was white this year and much more usable. I don’t know why anyone likes to wear black shirts while running in the summer but that’s what we got last year.
Clark came along for the pickup to show me way there and back. We went back to his house and I started studying the map. I figured it was about 35.9 miles long and just under 12,000 feet elevation gain. That’s about 2 miles longer and around 1,000 feet more elevation gain than last year. I was guessing it would take around an hour longer due to that but I subtracted some time since I wasn’t expecting to be hit by the heat so much this year. After looking at each section and figuring out how long each would take me, I concluded on a finish time of 11:50 and was fine with that. The course this year was basically impossible to get lost on unless you weren’t paying attention since it was all on maintained trails or under power lines. There were even signs where the trail split which was nice but unnecessary if you can read a map and pay attention.
The rest of the day was spent going 4 wheeling, carbo loading, and hanging out. I got everything set up for the race after supper and went to bed around 8:30pm to get some good sleep before the early rise and long day ahead. I wanted to get to the parking lot around 6am like last year so I planned on leaving at 5am. I set my alarm accordingly for 4:20am. Did you catch it? The time zone change I had been reminding myself about the last 36 hours? I didn’t!
As is usual for me, I woke up early. It was 3:30am and so I went to the bathroom hoping I could fall asleep again after I was done. While siting on the toilet in the dark, it dawned on me that in fact it was now 4:35am RACE TIME! A slight panic set in but quickly subsided since I was really only 10 minutes behind and very thankful that I woke up early.
I quickly went through my checklist of stuff to get done before leaving. Checklists are very useful when sleepy or in a hurry! I left about 10 minutes later than expected. I drove through the dark night which had a surprising amount of traffic for 4am local time on a Saturday. Along the way was a church with a big lit up billboard. It said “Preparath to meet thy God.” Seemed spot on for something to see while going to this race. With the time zone change I arrived at 6am and set about using the porta potties (much nicer than last year), leaving my drop bag, and finalizing everything.
I heard several groups of people talking about actually trying to finish this year. The words were sometimes different but that was the basic premise of the conversations. That kind of stuff irks me. Why even sign up for a race if you’re not going to try, let alone continue to sign up for the same race? I also know people who every year get caught by the sweeps before the first aid station. It’s of course normal for some to get hurt, sick, etc and get caught before the first station but I’m talking about the same people each year. They have zero chance of finishing and they know it. Yet, they continue to take a spot from someone else to get even their first attempt. I won’t get into specifics but I remember most of their names and their results and I’m not saying all this to embarrass anyone. I’m saying it to anyone reading this who is thinking of signing up for this race. Think about if you are ready to have a fighting chance of finishing the full distance. Think about others wanting a chance to see if they can complete this difficult race. Ask yourself, if you’d like it for someone else to get in instead of you and then not train or even try hard to finish.
Some people get all touchy about this like I’m being a jerk complaining about it but I don’t care. This is a very difficult course and deserves the respect of that fact. Plus there are literally hundreds of people on the waitlist that are training just in case they get that email a week before the race saying they finally got in. If you’re just signing up to say you were there, that’s not the right reason. I put pretty much the same post on the race Facebook page and laughed for the next hour at all the responses I knew I’d get. I always like the “life’s not fair so deal with it” response people like to give. No SH&T! That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t attempt to be courteous and thoughtful in the decisions you make in life. There are plenty of other 50k races you can sign up for and half-ass train for and then just blow off that don’t have waitlists. This race is special, act accordingly.
With that said, there will always be lots of people who don’t complete the full course. Some don’t even finish the shorter “marathon” course. If they trained hard and gave it their all, I’m happy for them and they deserve to be there. Of those that fail and are lucky enough to get in again, the vast majority will try even harder the next year since they know what’s coming. That’s awesome! But those that I spoke of earlier, that keep just showing up for the shirt, and to say they were there, and make up some stupid stories about how “epic” it was, I guess I’ll just call them classless.
So what do I think is a good test of whether you should sign up or not? If you want a reasonable expectation of finishing the full course in the time allotted, you should have finished a hilly (over 8,000 feet of gain) 50 mile race in 12 hours or less. That’s how this course “runs”. That’s not to say you can’t finish the full course with worse results than that in your racing history. Let’s just say I’d be surprised if you didn’t finish if you have that history. There are people that have finished 100 mile races that still don’t complete this race, I suspect mostly because of the time limit.
Anyway, it was time to line up for the 7am start of the race. I lined up around a third of the way from the front since that’s about where I was expecting to finish. I also planned on going up Bird Mt. a bit slower this year so as to save some for the end of the race.
We had to have a flashlight along for the entire race this year but they didn’t check for them until the decision point like last year. Since we had to have them along, a lot of people wore their headlamps at the beginning of the race which made the first 2 miles much easier since it is still dark then.
They had a big sign and a bucket around a mile along the course telling people to put their GPS watches in if they had them. They are against the rules. Of course a mile later the backpack on the woman in front of me made the distinctive Garmin beep sequence. Whatever, people always feel the need to cheat I guess. Really I can’t even imagine a GPS watch on your wrist is all that accurate on this course, let alone in your backpack.
I made it to the top in 45 minutes, the same as last year. There was a big log that people seemed to have a hard time going around part way up so there was a big bottleneck there. It wasn’t hard by the way.
I tried not to bomb down the other side like last year. I still had to pass a group of 15 or so people but once I caught up to the next group of people, I just stayed with them. They were going fast enough and it kept me from going crazy. It seemed to take forever to get down the hill this year. There are 3 climbs before the first aid station but they didn’t seem as bad this year as I knew what was coming.
My heel was hurting already on my right foot. I kept checking for a rock or something but couldn’t find anything. I didn’t tape my feet since I was expecting to get wet in the tunnel again. In hind sight I probably should’ve just taped them since the tunnel was mostly dry. After a couple hours it didn’t really hurt anymore, so I just figured it was a rock. I did have a small heel blister when I finished the race so I was surprised it didn’t hurt the entire race.
I got to the first aid station which was the same location as last year at 9:15am. Right on schedule. 7.4 miles in and I still had some water left, but that was my plan for this race. I was NOT going to run out of water this year, even if that meant carrying extra. It was still cool and there was even a breeze for most of the morning. This was the first bib punch. It was clear that it was going to spell IM A WINNER when completed. The next section was a short 3.7 miles back down a gravel jeep road to the ranger station.
Again I just took it nice and easy down the hill. Nature was calling so I took a quick pit stop in the campground bathroom. It was nice to be able to wash my hands and face. I planned on getting to the 2nd aid station at 10am but got there a few minutes early. Over 11 miles of the race in only 3 hours. I of course knew this was all the “easy” part of the course so I didn’t get excited. The next section is the Chimney Top Trail. We did this after the decision point last year and I was super slow on it. I was looking forward to power hiking this section like a boss. It’s over 6 miles so I filled up completely with water again and ate some food. This is also one of the only places on the course that they had a timing mat.
This section was SOOOO much easier this year since it was so much earlier in the race. I was of course not near as tired and I also wasn’t overheated like last year. I power hiked the entire way up the first 2 big hills passing a few people as I went along. This trail never really has a final peak as you kind of go up and down a ridge. The last peak ridge is fairly steep in areas so I slowed down quite a bit there but once that’s over, it’s basically flat or downhill. There is one spot I had to slow down to confirm I was still on the correct trail since there are several paths going around the rock formations that aren’t the trail. Just look for the painted trees and stay on the correct color, every trail has a different color. I’ll leave it up to you to figure out what trails are what color.
I’ll add here that cramping seemed to be a major thing affecting what seemed like most runners. I saw people having issues at every stage of the race, some even on the first hill. I didn’t have any problems with cramping at all. I’m not sure if I’m lucky or if I’ve just done this long enough. I cramped occasionally the first 2 years of running and then it just stopped. I think it may just be that once you get adapted to ultra distances, you’re muscles are able to handle things much better. Kind of the same thing as not getting a side ache while running after a big meal anymore.
After the sharp turn left in the trail, I knew it’d be fairly easy up to the Tub Springs Aid Station #3. It turns into a jeep road after the place we turned off last year. It was slightly uphill but a nice easy power hike to the aid station where Laz was to punch our bibs. I got here I think about 11:50am so 10 minutes ahead of schedule. I lost my timing sheet somehow but had it memorized anyway for the most part.
The next section was going down another jeep road toward the top of Testicle Spectacle. It was mostly downhill with about 300 feet uphill after the road crossing. It was now hot and the wind was gone. The temperature was around 88, similar to last year but the dew point was around 60 which was much better than last year. Not a cloud in the sky for shade.
Finally I was at the top of the hill.
I was basically planning on getting to the bottom of Testicle Spectacle around 1pm which was almost 2 hours later than last year. That’s how much more of the course Laz put before the big difficult hills this year. I was looking forward to this hill all day. Well this and Meth Lab which is right after. I took off down the hill but as expected I almost immediately caught up to people going more cautiously. Since it was an out and back section, there were people going both ways which slows it down even more. Most people were going down on their butts very slowly. I was surprised how many people just had regular road shoes and not even trail shoes, let alone the aggressive trail shoes that are needed. I was happy to get a picture of me running down this hill. This is in one of the steepest sections towards the top.
Below is a video someone else took of the race. Around the 7 minute mark is where we started going down the steeper part of Testicle Spectacle. I say “we” because I’m behind him for part of it and can be seen a few times. The part of the video with Ratjaw is really good as well.
Whoever we were following went off the best path and we had to climb back up a steep hill to get back on track. We didn’t even go all the way to the bottom of TS which is actually after you go up a small hill in between. There was a tent and a bib punch. I was now about 15 minutes ahead of schedule.
Next was the climb back up. I tried to get in front of people so I wouldn’t be going so slow up the hill. It really wasn’t hard at all this year for me. It helped that a lot of the hill was in the shade because it was 2 hours later in the day than last year. Also we weren’t doing the entirety of Testicle Spectacle. There was more waiting for people coming down than getting behind people going up. I didn’t trust that someone above wouldn’t just biff it and take 10 of us out like bowling pins. I tended to just make a new path up the hill to stay out of the way.
At the top was some person incorrectly telling people they could go this easier way down Meth Lab Hill by going on a road. It really only made the first 20 feet down easier for them anyway but I don’t know why anyone was listening to her. The rules are clear that you have to stay under the power lines. A lot of this hill is runnable. I see a lot of race reports that say it’s horrible and impossible to run. Those people usually don’t make the time cut off so believe whoever you want. There are certainly areas that you will slide down this hill in powder and/or gravel. If anything I just slide on my hands, I never slide on my butt. It slows you way down to do it that way, and I don’t feel like having a pound of dirt in my shorts the rest of the day. There were a couple mud holes part way down too this year which added to the fun. Towards the bottom you hit a road that cuts across the hill and has a sign pointing you left out of the power line cut. There was one small unmarked turn that I found someone looking at his map but I remembered it from last year and showed him the way.
This year I ran the entire road section to the Prison Aid Station #4. I felt pretty good about that since last year it was a hot overheated walk. I filled up completely with water again here and ate some more sugary stuff.
I walked to the prison to allow myself to relax and get my body ready for Ratjaw. We went over the wall and through the tunnel the same as last year. There was barely any water running this year so I only got one foot a little wet. Also someone in front of me had a flashlight so running through the tunnel was much easier as well. We got to the base of Ratjaw and crossed the only other timing mat. It was now 1:45pm. The sun was right above us.
This shows the very bottom of Ratjaw. It’s nice and steep here. The person at the bottom told up there was a bib punch somewhere in the upper section of the hill. She also recommending going to the right side of the tree you can see in the upper left part of the photo. I’m not in this photo by the way. I waited for the person in front of me to get most of the way up the hill and then I started. I went to the right of the tree and then had to hit the brakes as the guy in front of me had stopped for some reason. This isn’t really a hill you can just stand on the side of very well. I got off balance and started to fall to the left of the tree. I did a little “jig” and then grabbed on to the tree and swung around back to the right side. I got some applause from the observers below and made the comment that it was so fun the first time I wanted to do it again. By now the other person had moved so I continued up to a semi-flat area and proceeded to pass a couple people that weren’t sure where to go. Up. You always go up on this hill.
Being that this was 2 hours later than last year, it was a lot less crowded. In fact you couldn’t put Rat Jaw any later in the race and still have it part of the “marathon” run. In case you didn’t read the report from last year, if you don’t make the cutoff to continue for the entire course, you can just run back to the start via an easy shortcut and get a “marathon” prize. Most years it’s not even a marathon distance. You can also just decide to take the short way even if you still have plenty of time for the full course. He does this to mess with peoples’ heads supposedly. Personally I think more people would quit this race sooner if there wasn’t the “marathon” option. They wouldn’t even go up Rat Jaw if they knew there was no chance of finishing the full distance and wouldn’t get the consolation finish. Last year Rat Jaw was kind of in the middle of the race before the decision point and the year before that it was pretty much in the beginning. I’d like to see all the big hills be after the decision point. People might actually train better so that they get the chance to do them.
The path on the first part of Rat Jaw was easier than last year. It was much wider and not near as many thorns got me in the portion up to the access trail. I made it up fairly quickly and I wasn’t overheated this year! I stopped for about 10 seconds to look over the dozen people laid out in the grass like I was last year. Heat training was helping but I was still tired.
I continued up the path and then got into a traffic jam. I wasn’t too upset about it since I didn’t mind taking a break here and there on the section up to the turn. At one point I heard some people saying they thought it’d be another hour to the top. It had already been 50 minutes and I told them it wouldn’t take near that long for the rest of it. Soon enough we got to the turn where it flattens out a lot. I was looking forward to this “easy” part since you can hike it instead of climb it. But due to the slow people in front it still took 40 minutes to go the less than half mile. Last year slow people would move over when they took a rest but not these guys.
There was supposed to be someone punching our bibs somewhere after the rock cliff wall you go through. At least that’s what the woman at the timing mat at the bottom said. You never can fully believe anything anyone says at this race so I was somewhat worried I already missed the location. This section is where it’s solid thorns. They were a couple feet taller than last year so no one ever made a nice path through them like last year since they were above your head. Instead it was easier to just bear crawl through them. It was like going through a tunnel of thorns. Every once and a while you could get your head up above the thorns and see where you were. Finally we could see a white shirt where we correctly suspected was the bib punch.
By now there were another 20 people behind me. Still the people in front didn’t move over and just told us to make a new path if we didn’t like it. I think a few people did try that but quickly quit since it was just as slow to make a new path. It was an easy thing really. It’s not steep and going slow doesn’t make the thorns hurt any less or grab you any less.
Occasionally someone behind me would pull off a cane that had completely attached itself to my head and pack. I thanked them since they did kind of hurt in my head. The thorns this year were different than last year. Well more specifically there seemed to be 2 kinds of thorns this year instead of 1. There were the regular long thorns you’d see on a rose that cut you. There were also these more clear, smaller thorns that broke off into your clothes and skin. I didn’t have any of them last year although I heard about them in previous years. Some of the leaders from 2 years ago said they had thorns come out of their skin this year from then. This is the type of thorns they were talking about. I only had about 4 in my arm when I got to my friends house after the race. I haven’t had any come out since then and don’t suspect there are any still left.
Finally after 90 minutes total, I got to the top. It took about as long as last year even though I didn’t stop for 10 minutes. I lost 20 minutes having to follow those guys.
There are lots of great photos of people all cut up at the top of Rat Jaw. As you can see from the photos, I wasn’t one of them. I got scratched up sure, but not all bloodied. I saw people very cut up only half way up Rat Jaw with blood dripping off their arms. I’m not sure what they did to get so cut up but it’s part of why I won’t be going back to this race. I didn’t see anywhere near that much blood last year or I wouldn’t have come back this year. Blood born diseases are real and I’m not going to put myself at risk to getting them. Even without the blood, there are plenty of other diseases you can get just from the scratches and cuts from the plants and dirt. I’m sure the risk is low but think about it; you’re getting cut by the very same plant that 100 people directly in front of you got cut on. Perhaps that’s why I’m not very cut up, I was consciously trying hard to not get cut.
After Rat Jaw is the tower. As I neared the top I heard a voice announcing my arrival, “From the frozen tundra of Minnesota”. It was Carl Laniak who helps direct Volstate (among other awesome things). It was great to see him again although it was just briefly. I told him later that he had the best spot for bib punching on the course. He certainly deserves it, Volstate is hard on the RD’s as well.
After the tower was a short jog down to the aid station we were at once before, and the decision point. It’s where you decide to do the full course or take the shortcut back. I got there at 3:30pm. I was there 90 minutes before the cut off, the same as last year. The cut off was 10 hours this year instead of 9:30 like previous years. I got some food and drink from my drop bag and also my poles since I thought they’d be helpful on Bird Mt.
I got my bib punched saying that I was a winner and continued on the full course. It was a basically flat 3.1 miles to the next aid station that we had been to before. I really didn’t feel the urge to push it. I wasn’t concerned with my placing in the race and was hoping that someone behind me that I wanted to talk to about Andorra would catch up. I was also fairly hot. Nothing like last year, but the temperature was maxed out now and there was no wind.
It probably took close to 45 minutes to get to the next aid station where I got the final punch. It took 2:15 to get to it from the reverse direction this morning. I knew it would take longer now going the other direction, even with it being more down than up.
It wasn’t a great finish to the race. It was hot. I was slow. Bird Mt. seemed higher than I knew it was and I had to take a few short breaks going up it. The poles did nothing to help since my arm strength was all used up bear crawling for a third of a mile. I was mad at myself for not realizing that at the decision point and just leaving them there. I started to feel a little nauseous which usually never happens to me. In the end I wasn’t really all that concerned since I knew I had plenty of time to finish and would still even finish close to my expected time. The entire race I was planning on listening to music on this last 7.4 mile section, but I never did. I’m not sure why as it might have brightened my mood. This really is my favorite part of the park, even though I suspect most like the Chimney Top area better.
Finally I reached the top where some of the people that passed me were taking a break at the top. I guess they were just as tired as me but wanted to wait till the top to stop. I ran behind 2 people on the way down. It was a nice even pace down the hill. I suppose I could’ve passed them if I really wanted to but I never tried. The asphalt road at the bottom seemed to take forever to get to the finish line. Around a half mile before the finish line, the marathon shortcut merged onto the road as well and I saw a lot of people coming from that direction. Some were walking and some were almost sprinting. I finally crossed the line at 6:55pm for a race time of 11:55.
After some cheaters were removed from the results (there are always people who cheat but this year they actually seemed to do something about it) I was 79th out of 456 starters. There might even be a few more people removed before it’s all said and done. Only 186 people finished the entire 50k course in the allotted time. That’s quite a bit less than last year but it was also the hardest course this race has had.
I got my 2nd year medal since I finished it twice now. I ate a Sword ice pop and sat on a chair for a bit. The steak sandwich meal tasted even better this year. After that I got changed into normal clothes and out of my dirty stinky ones. I was in much better shape at the end this year. So much so that I wondered if I didn’t take it a little too easy. I was able to walk around normally and could stand in line for the food just fine. Usually I have the “ultra” walk going on at least a little bit, and I hate just standing in line for the first hour or so after a race.
I waited around for a bit for a couple people I knew that I thought would be coming in soon but I never heard their names announced. I decided to leave as it was getting dark and I didn’t want to have to drive when I got tired. I gave a ride to a couple of runners that had to park in the overflow lot and then I was on my way.
The drive back was uneventful and after eating some awesome home made pizza at my friends house, and a shower, I crashed asleep. It wasn’t the best sleep since the scratches and cuts hurt with every slight movement I made in my sleep and I kept waking up. The next morning I was sore and hungry as normal. I ate an awesome breakfast and sat around talking and looking at Facebook until it was time to catch my flight home.
As I stated earlier, I don’t plan on ever going back. Mostly it’s just a bad time of year scheduling wise and it’s a long way to travel for such a short race, which increases the cost. It also is much more crowded than I like. While I don’t want to degrade the race by saying it’s somewhat like an obstacle course race, some parts of it have that quality. You run and then stand in line at an “obstacle” and then run again and do another obstacle. The obstacles could be as simple as a tree over the trail or as difficult as Rat Jaw. Again, I’m not trying to denigrate OCRs, I used to enjoy them, but it’s not what I’m looking for in an ultramarathon. Overall this race is fun and worth it if you’re serious about your training.