Saturday, June 09, 2012
My First Ultra!
Well, it's been a week and I still haven't had any genius inspiration for how to write up the incredible experience which was the 2012 War Eagle Trail Running Festival. I guess the sensible approach is to just go loop by loop, the same way I ran it, but not without an opening observation: From the second I boarded the Rush Running cattle car to shuttle from the parking area at the War Eagle Mill to the starting line at the Hobbs State Park Visitor Center, I knew I was with my kind of people. I pointed out in my Hogeye write-up that I had never seen so many fit people jammed into such a small place. The combined energy of a thousand or so people all awaiting the start of a great challenge thrilled the air in a way I am hopeless to describe. It was electric! The energy at the start of the War Eagle race was similar, on a much smaller scale obviously, but there was a subtle difference which I fear I will be equally hopeless to describe. I will try. At the risk of drifting into unfair generalities, people who run trails are different. Very slightly different. Certainly anyone I would be running with this day would be completely at home at a road marathon, indeed I had chatted with one of them, Edward from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, for several miles during the Hogeye race. But on whole, the people standing around me as Mike Rush explained the course during the pre-race meeting were a bit rougher around the edges than the "typical" road racer. Their garments were a little less pink and a little more functional, their faces a bit more chiseled. Their hair a bit more windblown. They were probably a bit older, on average. This is useless. Just know I felt very much at ease with these people. I liked every one of them instantly. The first loop of the course was not a loop but a mile-and-a-half spur leading from the Visitor Center to the main trail, a spur with a very nasty hill. In what would prove to be the correct assessment of my running ability relative to that of my peers, I left the starting line near last, which put me in slow traffic for my first several descents. I couldn't bomb my way from crash tree to crash tree as I had had done in my training. No matter, though. The going was easy and I wasn't wasting energy too early. The War Eagle Valley Loop is my favorite part of the whole trail system. It has several challenging hills and a half mile or so of creekside running which offers different vegitation and often a cool breeze. I settled in behind a line of five runners all following an older gentleman. I wondered if the other runners in the group stayed with the old man because they sensed, as I did, that he knew exactly how fast to run in the early hours of a long race. On the next big climb, though, I couldn't stand it any more. As they all bunched up on the hill, I gave a quick burst and passed the lot of them. He would pass me back at about mile 18 and go on to finish some 46 minutes ahead of me which makes me think he did know how fast to run in the beginning. I never got to properly meet him, but I learned from the results that he was Robert from Euless, Texas, and that he was 65 years old. I hope I look so good at that age! From the War Eagle Loop we caught a short stretch of gravel road to the first Townsend Ridge aid station which I blew through and then jumped on the Little Clifty Creek Loop, the big loop, for several miles. The 25k runners continued on the Clifty Loop after the Piney Road aid station while we ran the bunny ears, the Bayshore Ridge Loop and the Dutton Hollow Loop which, together with the short spur leading to them total about seven miles. I could hear some runners ahead of me a few times, but I didn't see another soul save the volunteer at the intersection making sure everyone went the right direction. I recognised him from Hogeye where he was taking pictures and asked him if he ever got to run a race or if he just worked every one of them. He assured me that he did. He filmed me for a few seconds with his iPhone as I was on my way up from Dutton Hollow, very near the halfway point of the race. After the bunny ears, I continued my first lap of the Little Clifty Loop for several more miles before finally being caught from behind by several runners as I dealt with a cramp on the loop's one big climb. There was an aid station where the trail crossed Townsend Ridge Road several miles north of the big aid station at the Townsend Ridge Trail Access which I had visited earlier. I grabbed half a banana and half a PBJ, a formula that worked very well for me the whole race. As I was filling my pack and yakking with the volunteers, a youthful but chronologically older lady with a lovely French accent ran up. Her name was Emm. We ran together after the aid station but I kept crowding to one side trying to wave her by. She insisted she liked my pace and that she was going to be doing lots of walking, but I still felt like I was in the way. She liked my pace for a few miles, I guess, but eventually slid by me and quietly pulled away. She disappeared into the woods just as I was rolling into the big Townsend Ridge Road aid station. I would not see her or any other runner until I reached the finish line. The Townsend Ridge aid station marked the inflection point where I was certain that, as long as I could walk, I would be able to finish the race before the eight-hour cutoff. I had three hours to run the last nine miles. There's not much to say about the second lap of the Little Clifty Loop. It's mostly easy trail and only drops down to creek level twice. I was shocked to still be able run nearly all of it, if at a ponderously slow pace. Anything can happen, though, and at mile 28, with my legs already shredded by a long descent, I came into a nice clearing where a two-foot coopperhead was sunning herself on a patch of hot clay. It took me one step to see which way she was facing and then I reflexively made a very awkward leap the other direction. When I did, my right calf instantly cramped into a ball and I just shouted. It hurt so bad! Fortunately, my fanged friend slithered slowly away the other direction and left me to stand there in agony. Eventually I was able to begin hobbling forward as the trail wandered alongside Little Clifty Creek. I was back to a fast walk when I reached the climb out but the calf never fully recovered. Continuing with what had been working well, I grabbed half a banana and half a PBJ at the small Townsend Ridge aid station, thanked everyone again, and embarked towards the short spur back to the Visitor Center. I had one hour to run a mile and a half or just a bit more. After the one nasty descent and climb, I experimented with running on a cramped calf. This would be a good skill to have in longer races, right? I finally settled into this sidewise shuffle which didn't require me to bend my right leg at all. I felt like I could do it forever! Fortunately, though, the cramp eased and I was able to run across the finish line in a more dignified posture. The first person to greet me at the finsh line was Nicholas Norfolk, the volunteer who had been directing traffic at the bunny ears. He clipped the timing chip off my shoe and gave me my finisher's award, a very cool handmade clay carving of a running Indian. Emm was also bouncing towards me from a canopy where she had been resting in a chair. I reached to shake her hand but she threw a big hug on me instead. It's a French thing, I guess. She had finished about 18 minutes ahead of me and I would wait about that long for the next finisher to arrive. There were actually four more runners left on the trail and I waited around to cheer all of them home. After that, I helped break down tents and empty all the trash and recycling bins. It seemed the least I could do after seeing how many volunteers worked the entire beautiful spring day just so we could go out and play. I thanked Race Director Jeff Genova for putting on such an awesome event and learned that he had to work at 5:30 that night, which blows my mind. Nicholas, who had driven up from Little Rock just to volunteer, got my email from me so he could send the video he shot. He also mentioned me in his this great article for Arkansas Outside. Some people are just awesome! If you want to experience running fifty kilometers at Hobbs, just watch this short video two thousand times. Thanks for the footy, Nicholas! Here I am just coming off the War Eagle Valley Loop. It was a cool morning and I hadn't even broken a sweat yet!