Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Iron Mountain Trail Run - 16 Miler

I love that the Iron Mountain Trail Run web site has this gnarly warning:

        Before you register, please understand this is a trail race with sections that are very challenging and potentially dangerous.  Some runners may feel that the course, especially the steep technical downhill near the end, is too dangerous.  Please understand that the course is what it is.  You will need to adjust your pace to stay safe.  You alone are responsible for your safety on the trail.  If you enjoy a challenge, sign up.  If you feel that steep, rocky, muddy, and potentially dangerous trails do not make for a good race course, good luck at a different race with terrain that suits your preferences.

I'm guessing that this is meant to keep the riffraff away. Or maybe it is there to attract the right sort of dirtbag trail runners. Either way, it makes me want to run the race more than ever. I like crazy, stupid-hard races.

And make no mistake, this race is hard!

From the start in Damascus you are treated to a 5 mile warmup run on the Virginia Creeper Trail, which is an old railroad that has been converted to a multi-use trail. It's flat enough to let you go out way too fast, and with its steady ascent of about 300 feet over the 5 miles, it's perfectly designed to quietly steal all the energy you should be saving for the last 5 miles of the race. Evil.

Choo chooooo!!! Express train to Dead Leg City!

Hitting the single track after the Creeper trail is sort of like running full speed into a concrete block wall. Except you keep hitting it over and over for about 3 miles. The trail just never seems to go "down".

Rocky, rooty, steep.

Around mile 9.3, you fall down a 42% grade "trail" and into the turn-around aid station, where a bunch of very friendly and helpful volunteers help reattach your limbs, fill up your water bottle with hope, and push you back up the 42% grade cliff with a handful of cookies. I would have taken a picture of the aid station, but I was too busy stuffing my face with sugar cookies and Coke. You'll have to take my word that it was *awesome*!

After a short but steep couple of climbs, you spend most of the remaining 6 miles of the race descending with a brief one mile climb just before the last killer descent.

The descent down into Damascus is where all your Creeper trail shenanigans come back to haunt you and where you get to practice all your swear words. In terms of curses per mile, I would rate the 2 mile descent into town at an astounding 100 "f*&!^$@ s#!7 kickers" per mile. An all time record for me. I have never cursed so much, or so loudly on any other trail. Ever. It was f*&!^$@ awesome.

Emerging from the forest you are greeted with a cheerful sign informing you that you still have to somehow haul your battered carcass "~1 mile" through town and back down the Creeper trail to the finish. I believe that translated to about 5 billion painful steps for me.

But I finished. My second longest trail race in the past 2 years. As I lay sprawled in the grass weakly attempting to stretch all the crampy muscles in my legs, I thought to myself, "I'm doing this again next year!"

Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Rabid Squirrel Half Marathon

The race started with a parade of racers chanting in greek chorus style, "Everybody Walks!". I'll just let that sentence settle into your brainpan for a moment. To say that the Rabid Squirrel is a "unique" race is an injustice. Actually I can't think of a single word to sum up the race, but here are a few choice ones: creative; random; fun!; excruciating; surprising; beautiful. The race organizer, Derek, is either a mad genius, or simply mad. It doesn't really matter since his race is awesome. I mean, where else are you going to be carrying acorns in your pocket as you stumble across rocky mountain trails? Or singing songs and dancing at aid station check points? No other race that I know of, that's for sure.

The Race
I'll forgo all my usual blather and just graphically describe my race experience. It will speak for itself.

The Start
We were organized into starting corrals based on the creativity and insanity of our written test results. You read that right. We took a test after signing up for the race. I won't spoil the wonderful, random nuttiness of the test for future participants by giving away the questions, but suffice it to say the questions left me scratching my head and laughing at times as I "answered" them. The corrals were labeled with various sledge hammer ratings. I was in the Rainbow Vomit corral.

I can't explain this madness, so I'll just copy Derek's explanation:

"your sanity score will be on your bib. no sledgehammer means you didn't take the test. the plain sledgehammer means you are just crazy enough to take the test. 

the white border is a score of "acorns". you are nuts, but you are still a squirrel in training, but you've got some growing to do. the yellow border means you are bananas! who doesn't love you?! but don't slip! 

the multi colored border means you are rainbow vomit (this was decided months ago, so we're not riding the fb wave). in your head there are pretty colors and thunderstorms and barfing unicorns barfing up pots of gold with little dancing green guys running around smile emoticon....and if you get the pink border, you scored "flamingo toothpaste". for all of us, this is self-explanatory... "

And in case  you were wondering, the corrals determined your starting order, which for the first half mile of very narrow single track trail, made the difference in being passed by many people, or having to pass many people. Next year, I'm shooting for Flamingo Toothpaste.

To Moore's Knob
After starting, we headed up to Moore's Knob. I have been to Hanging Rock State Park dozens of times, so I knew exactly what to expect: STONE STAIRS. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them. I know exactly how many, because I've counted them at my other favorite Hanging Rock race, Top Of the Mountain To Ya!. For the benefit of my fellow racers, I started counting them out loud as we ascended. I made it to 37 before I was told to "Shut up!" by friends (hi Brandy!) and strangers. So, I'll let you do your own counting from now on.

There are precisely a steaming, heaping, crap-load of these stairs leading up to Moore's Knob.

At the top of Moore's Knob, there was a check-in point and a tiny little aid station with pineapple chunks, gatorade and water (in tiny little shot cups). The view was simply gorgeous!

Sauratown and Pilot Mountains in the distance

To Magnolia Springs
After having my bib marked, I headed down off Moore' Knob towards Magnolia Springs. I kept waiting for the trail to become "runnable", but I was sorely disappointed. In fact, my hip flexors really started getting sore since all I seemed to do for the next mile was hop, skip, and dance down a very rocky gully that was labeled as a trail. Finally, near the bottom there was a whopping 50 yards of runnable trail before we started the grinding climb up to House Rock.

To House Rock
The climb up to House Rock wasn't as bad as the climb to Moore's Knob, but it still required a good bit of hard, joyless climbing.

My friend Brandy makes climbing look easy and happy.
I hate her.

Arriving at House Rock, there was again a small aid station with water, gatorade and a small selection of snacks. I grabbed a cookie and was about to leave when a volunteer with a bag of acorns said "Here, take this acorn!". Okay. Um, sure. This seems random, but I'm fine with that. I put the acorn in my pocket and continued down the trail towards Wolf Rock.

To Wolf Rock
For the next mile I had this acorn bouncing around in my pocket. I had all these strange triple nut thoughts rattling around in my brain, which I tried to keep to myself. Stumbling into the next little aid station at Wolf Rock, I was greeted by a volunteer who instructed me to smash my nut with a sledge hammer. I made sure it was the extra nut and smashed it hard!

Photo stolen from Chris Boyce, a man
who was both slower and smarter than
me in this race.

I may have been a bit too enthusiastic with my nut smashing. Sorry, Derek.

To Hanging Rock
After my smashing success at Wolf Rock, it was off to the next check-point at Hanging Rock. If I thought any of the previous climbs were stupidly unrunnable, the climb up to Hanging Rock proved to be the worst. Not only was it totally unrunnable, it was also swamped with day hikers. But I eventually made it to the top where another volunteer instructed me to dig through a bucket of acorns and find the one that had my initials written on it. I spent what seemed like an hour digging through a bunch of acorns unable to find the one with my initials. Eventually, I told the volunteer I couldn't find it. She looked in the buck and in one second, found my acorn, sitting right on top in plain view. The nuts in my brain had apparently been smashed in the first 7 miles of the race. I chucked it over the cliff edge, got a quick picture with my friend Heiko, who had been running with me for the past 5 miles or so, and then headed down, down, down.

Me and Heiko after carrying, smashing, and throwing nuts off cliffs.

Down, Down, Down to the Finish
Getting down off of Hanging Rock was nearly as difficult as getting to the top. Heiko and I took a wrong turn and ended up falling down a very steep rock filled gully. Luckily, the gully intersected the trail we were supposed to be on, so aside from hammering our legs, no damage done.

Arriving at the visitor center, we were again greeted by a volunteer who assigned us a song to remember and sing at the next checkpoint at the bottom of the mountain. I was lucky enough to be assigned the "Chicken Dance" song, which really has no words. I could barely remember my name at this point, so song lyrics would have been problematic to say the least.

Somewhere along the waterfalls section of the Indian Creek Trail, the trail became so steep that you had to side step your way down tiny little rock ledges that were supposed to be steps. It was in this section that Heiko and I were separated. I turned around at one point and he had simply disappeared. I learned later that he was attacked by the trail. I couldn't hear the thump of his body slamming into the ground over my own banging heartbeat and screaming quad muscles.

At the bottom of the mountain was the final aid station. A young volunteer asked me to sing my song. I stumbled around flapping my arms in a seemingly drunken imitation of the chicken dance chanting "Chicken Dance! Chicken Dance!". It's all I could manage with what brain power I had left.

At this point I just wanted to be done, but still had about 3 miles of rolling single track left. After several near wrong turns and some running through some very beautiful creek trail, I arrived at the Dan River, and what I thought would be the finish. I looked around in confusion at where the trail dead-ended at a boat launch into the river, but another friendly volunteer quickly informed me that the finish was only 0.2 miles downstream. Great, I thought, almost finished! But then she informed me that I would have to run through the river to get there.

Way down the river on the right in the white shirt is my friend Aline.
I somehow managed to catch her just before the finish way around the bend.
Sorry, Aline!

I tried everything to get down the river as quickly as possible. I ran in the middle on the rocks. Very slippery. I ran near the edge in the shallow water. Lots of tree roots and hidden snags. I ran along the bank immediately next to the river. Lots of sucking mud. I ran through the woods above the river. Briars, brush, and poison ivy. Nothing worked. It was all slow miserable going. And I loved every second of it!

Actually, the river finish was the best part of the race, and probably the reason I will endure this madess again in the future. This race was definitely insane, but just perfectly nutty in the best way.

Hand made finisher award. Custom bib. And timing "chip". 

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Eggses, My Precious - Raleigh IRONMAN Half Marathon

I'm not sure how I got talked into signing up as part of a 3 man relay team for the Raleigh IRONMAN Triathlon, but I've done stranger things, so I guess it doesn't matter. It may have been because my normal training partner is one of those uber-fit tri guys and told me it would be "FUN". Never trust a tri guy.

The good thing about doing the run leg of a triathlon is that I didn't have to stumble out of bed at 0-dark thirty in the morning to catch shuttle buses from Raleigh out to the swim/bike starting areas near Jordan Lake. Instead I wandering into downtown Raleigh at a civilized 10:30AM. I found the right officials near the transition 2 (T2 in tri lingo) bike-run area and had my legs marked with my team's bib number and big R to indicate I was part of a relay team. Then I waited. And waited. And baked in the hot sun. And then waited some more. By the time my biker had arrived, I had been waiting in the now 90F stew that passed for air for 2 hours. But hey, I like the heat, so no problem, right? My bigger worry was that I hadn't run more than 9 miles since February, but then again, why worry about that either? This was easy, flat, boring street running. Not the gnarly technical trails I call home. This run should be easy!

Eggs Over Easy
I'll be honest, the first 4 miles or so were indeed easy. I felt comfortable with the heat and my pace. In fact, my legs felt great! But then, slowly, inevitably, I began heating up. There was almost zero shade and very little breeze. What breeze did blow felt like a low speed hair dryer on high heat setting. If my facial hair hadn't been soaked with sweat and Gatorade, I'm sure it would have singed right off.

Around mile 5 I started getting light headed and the world started wobbling, I panicked and started downing large quantities of Gatorade at every aid station. Two aid stations later, I began to endlessly burp Gatorade and hot stomach bile. Sooo delicious! As I finished the first lap (yep, the course was two laps down Hades Street... err, I mean Hillsborough Street), I seriously thought about DNF'ing the whole thing. But then I thought, I'm already sweating my nuts off, how much harder can it get?

Hard Boiled Eggs

Lap 2 was the worst! Not only did it get hotter, which didn't seem possible, but I was soaked in sweat. My good old Umstead Marathon Tic shirt weighed about 10 pounds and was turning into a salty, crusty, sandpaper sack. My underwear already felt like it was made entirely of sandpaper stitched together with barbed wire. Sooo comfy!

Chafing seems like such an inadequate word to describe what was happening to both my nips and my huevos. It just doesn't do justice to the acidic salty grinding that accompanied each step of the "run" after mile 8. I snatched dollop after dollop of vasoline-on-a-stick at every aid station and buttered myself with abandon. No shame. No hesitation. I gladly sacrificed every last ounce of my pride for a tiny bit of relief.

Around mile 9, I started putting ice under my hat. That worked so well, that at the next aid station, I filled my pockets with ice. I also tucked in my shirt and dumped more ice down the collar, letting it collect around my waistband. That wasn't enough to cool me down, so I went full monty and dumped handfuls of ice down my shorts into my briefs. Finally! Relief!

Scrambled Eggs
The last few miles, I ran. I mean I really ran. I had enough ice on my body that I was actually out of the heat exhaustion zone. Other runners could hear me coming from behind and would stare as I passed. I'm sure they thought someone carrying a foam cooler full of ice was passing them. Nope, just some idiot with his underwear full of rattling ice cubes.

In the last mile of the race, the ice in my underwear had melted to a small enough size to start dropping out of my shorts as I ran down the street toward the finish. "Yeah!" I thought, "Trail runners are so cool we crap ice cubes! Deal with it tri guys!"

Post Mortem
Someone always asks me if I'll run the same race again when I have a miserable first experience. My answer is usually "Not no, but HELL No!". Well since I think I've already run through Hell in this race, I might actually run this one again next year. I mean, it couldn't get any worse, right?

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Uwharrie Withdrawal

Lately, I've started to think of my body as a checking account of sorts. I slowly build up a healthy balance with regular exercise and healthy living, only to overdraw the account with racing, beer, injuries and general stupidity. Going into Uwharrie with an overdrawn account is not a great idea. Old Uncle Uwharrie exacts a high toll on any runner foolish enough to stumble down his trail over his rocky hills and streams. And have no doubt, Uncle Uwharrie will be paid in full, regardless of how fast or slowly you run.

Debts Public and Private
"I'm done." That's all I could think of as I climbed the big hill towards the 8 mile aid station. Both of my knees were shouting at me. With every step, they yelled "IDIOT!!" over and over in my mind. What the hell was I thinking? I hadn't run more than 13 miles in nearly a year and a half! Not to mention the knee surgery that fell within that window. Even attempting 20 miles on a pancake flat greenway, bordered by singing daisies showering me with codeine laced pollen would be stupid. Running 20 miles in Uwharrie would simply be insanity. Well, welcome to Crazytown! I'm mayor, police chief, and resident drunk, all rolled into one.

I'm in last place,
just behind a lost glove.

Loans from Friends
Unfortunately, the mayor of Crazytown is an honorary position with no salary, so when Uncle Uwharrie demanded payment around mile 8, I couldn't even bounce a check. Luckily, my friend Harold was at the aid station. His confidence and encouragement (and pushiness) got me back on the trail when my own self doubt and self debt was about to derail my race. Staring down 12 more miles of Uwharrie with cranky knees is scary, but good friends can sometimes pay you forward.

After a long, lonely, painful stretch on the trail past the 8 mile aid station, I recovered a bit. My knees settled down and stopped screaming at me. I found a rhythm that worked - walk the hills; dance gingerly through the rocky streams; cruise the flats and downhills. But mostly, I just tried to enjoy the beautiful day.

The last few miles of the 20 mile race are wonderful. Not that they are easy (they are NOT), but it's the stretch when you begin passing all of your 40 miler friends (way too many to mention here!) on their second half. More deposits to my empty account at just the right moments. Simply excellent!

Paid in Full
Crossing the finish line this year was especially good for me. There have been times during the past year and a half when I thought I would not be able to run again, much less run Uwharrie again. Hearing the cheers of many friends as I crossed the line, and receiving my beautiful finisher's cup from friend-in-injury, Spinz, was fantastic. Satisfying on a level that is difficult to explain.

This year, somewhere around mile 13, it hit me. I really did miss Uwharrie. No matter how much I moan and complain about the stupid difficulty of running on a trail seemingly designed to destroy runners, Uwharrie really is a special place. Even with my legs burning and my heart threatening to turn itself inside out, cresting every hill in Uwharrie is a primitive pleasure. In the same moment that I realized I had Uwharrie withdrawal, I also realized that Uwharrie has deposited some of the my most precious memories. Someday, when my running bank account has been completely depleted, I'll have only my memories, but I'll be rich.