Sunday, June 29, 2014

My hattrick of ultra-running

Sunrise over Caesar Creek Lake

Three weeks after Another Dam 50k, and just one week after my first 50-miler at Mohican, I found myself at sunrise at the starting line of the Dawg Gone Long 50k at Caesar Creek State Park: 3 ultras within one month.

Like me, several other runners showed up in their new Mohican t-shirts. Some of them were running again, others were manning the aid stations.  The community of ultra-running is as small as it is dedicated.
Less than 100 runners were at the start

It was a muggy morning as the sun rose below a layer of clouds over Caesar Creek Lake, painting the sky in shades of purple that soon turned orange.  The temperature was already in the high 70s, the air was still, moist, and heavy.  It seemed a difficult day lay ahead.

Purple skies just before sunrise

The race consisted of 2 loops around the southern portion of Caesar Creek Lake.  I was still not fully recovered from last week’s race and had no specific time goal in mind. I simply wanted to know if I could complete two ultras on two consecutive weekends.

Reflection pond

After the dam crossing, the trail led through the Caesar Creek spillway where 450-500 million year old rocks had been exposed.  These rocks contain a myriad of fossils, mostly clam-like branchiopods, but also bryozoans, corals, and gastropods.  I spotted quite a few fossils but a trail race is not a fossil-hunt, so I did not pick anything up.

Some of the drainages have bridges over the creek beds

After that the trail winds through thick woods, traces the lakeshore in some places, and crosses a few drainages. About 5 miles into the race, the trail led through Caesar Creek Pioneer Village, a collection of historic houses from the 1800s maintained by a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving knowledge about the lives of early settlers in the area.

Water lilies on the East shore of Caesar Creek Lake

At mile 9 the route crossed Caesar Creek Lake on State Route 73 to the Western side, which was much hillier than the Eastern portion.  Throughout the first loop the trail was in fairly good conditions.  There had been a series of Thunderstorms in the past week, but Friday had been dry.  The trail surface was soft and tacky with mud in only a few places where the water had not been able to run off.
Ridge along the West shore of the lake

I completed the first loop in 3:45 hours.  I had paced myself well and thought that I might be able to maintain the same pace throughout the second loop.  How wrong that was!

After the rain the trail turned into a gooey mess

A few miles into loop 2 it started to rain.  Only slightly at first, it gradually intensified.  In most places, the soil had already been moist, and was not able to absorb any additional water.  Soon, many portions of trail turned into little creek beds.  Branches of shrubs and trees were heavily leaden with water droplets and sank lower and lower until the trail became a small and narrow tunnel. Up-right running was no longer a possibility and many sections turned into constant ducking and bush-whacking while stomping through a gooey mess as the soil disintegrated.  I was completely drenched but the temperature was now very pleasant in the mid 70s and there was no danger of getting cold.
The sun came out towards the end, illuminating the misty forest

As I got back to the Western side the bushwhacking was mostly over as the trees were taller, the trail was wider, and the undergrowth was less dense.  After a little while the rain stopped and even the sun came out in a few spots.  However, the gooey surface remained for the remainder of the race.  The trail was so slippery that I had to walk most of the downhill sections.  Fortunately I wore good trail shoes, which provided more traction than those of a few other runners who I passed during this last leg of the race.  Finally, I reached the finish line (at 53km) after 8 hours and 27 minutes – the slowest time of my three 50ks.  

It was still a lot of fun but I think I’m going to take a break before going out again for another ultra.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

50 Miles of Daylight

At the start line - just before sunrise

June 21.  Summer solstice.  Sunrise in central Ohio is at 5:58AM.  Two minutes later race director Ryan O’Dell sent the runners of the Mohican 50 on their way.  Fog was hanging over the steep slopes of the Clear Fork Gorge, the air was still and moist, and light drizzle emanated from the low hanging clouds.

First hill after the start - ascending in morning mist

I didn’t quite know what to expect.  Exactly 23 months ago, on July 21, 2012, I had run my first-ever foot race in the same place.  It was called Dirty Mo and was about 19 kilometers long.  Yesterday I was back to cover a distance more than four times that.  A distance 70% longer than the longest I had ever moved on foot in one continuous effort.  I had no idea if I would be able to do it, which was also precisely what attracted me to attempt it in the first place: failure was not just possible, it was probable.

Running through a creek bed

I had looked up the finishing times of the slower runners of last year’s event.  The last person who successfully completed the race did so after 19 hours and 10 minutes.  Many others had dropped out.  That meant I had to be prepared to be on the trail until well past midnight.  So I placed a headlight into a drop bag at an aid station that was 60km into the race, hoping to reach it before it got dark. Sunset was going to be at 9:03PM. To be safe, I also put a small flashlight in my backpack; just in case that I might need it sooner. 
Great Lyon Falls - the approach from above is magical

The course was challenging, either ascending or descending up and down the Clear Fork Gorge.  It was also beautiful: along the ridges, pine forests alternated with stands of red and black oaks, as well as maple.  Down in the gorge there were areas of sycamore, willow, and buckeye trees.  The ground was often covered by a variety of fern.   Most of the trail was single track.  Some sections led by waterfalls, through and along creek beds.  Coming out of the Lyon Falls area, runners even had to climb up a steep root ladder.
The infamous root ladder - super cool!

The race consisted of two loops.  I had determined to take the first loop slowly to conserve the energy that I knew I would need at the end if I stood any chance of finishing at all.  I rigorously stuck to that plan and I reached the end of the first loop after 8 hours.  Knowing that the second loop was going to be a lot more difficult now that my legs were tired, blisters were forming, and I had already travelled for almost 50km – my longest previous effort – I hoped that I would only slow down slightly and, if all went well, I might stand a chance of finishing within 18 hours, i.e. before midnight.
Some ultra-runners report hallucinations; I wonder if this is the reason

The variety of the trail continued to be a welcome diversion from the physical effort involved over the course of such a long, long day.   The 50km mark came and went and I kept going strong.  In fact, I noticed that I started to pass several other runners who had slowed down, and no one had come from behind to do the same to me. And so it came that at 5:30PM, I reached the aid station where I had placed my headlamp, much sooner than I had dared to think was possible.  I diligently put the light in my pack and pushed on.
At the dam during the first loop - still looking fresh

The following climb up to the rim is the steepest and longest of the entire race and took a lot out of me.  I had been moving for 12 ½ hours and covered 65km. But when I reached the flatter section at the top and the ground was covered in soft pine needles, I continued to pick up pace again and run.  I reached the last aid station at 7:30PM.  For the first time in the race I felt unable to eat anything.  I tried a turkey sandwich and a few other things but everything tasted awful.  “You can do 10k without fuel,” I told myself and kept going. Much of that last section is downhill. However, the lack of food caused a sharp drop in my energy level and turned it into the hardest part of the race.
Soft single track through enchanting forests

As the finish line drew nearer and neared I picked up the pace again and passed several 100-mile racers who were also finishing their second loop.  I saw the envy in their eyes when they noticed that I was almost done and they were just reaching their halfway point.  They were now 16 hours into the race (the 100 milers had started at 5AM.)  I wished them well but worried for them whether they were going to be able to complete their race before the 32-hour cut-off on Sunday.  One of them had completed the 100-mile race 18 times before and was going for his 19th completion.  I assumed he knew what he was doing.
At the finish - 2 minutes after sunset

Shortly thereafter I took my last turn and made a final dash towards the finish line.  I reached it at 9:05PM, 15 hours and 5 minutes after the start, and two minutes after the sun had officially set. I completed my first 50-miler, and I never took out my headlight. J