Winter seemed to last especially long the past several months. We had inches upon inches of snow, I heard more reports about snow-shoeing than running, and my electric bills reached levels never seen before. With the Fools 50K marking the beginning of Spring in the NE Ohio trail-running community, it was an event I was eager to get to and usher in Spring and kick Winter square in the teeth and tell not to come back for as long as possible.
At the inaugural Fools 50K in 2009, we had a cool, crisp morning with light frost followed by a rising sun, dry trails, and an absolutely spectacular day to share the trails with a few hundred friends. 2010 saw an event sell out quickly as all 50K's are doing in NE Ohio but weather that saw lots of rain in the days preceding the event followed by one overnight snowfall which quickly melted. Race day, March 28th, had starting temperatures in the low 40s and nearly 100% chance of rain by mid-morning. The trails were already muddy BEFORE the rain. "THIS is trail running in northeast Ohio. It's going to be a great day," I thought.
Leading up to the Fools run, we were lucky enough to welcome a highly accomplished ultra-runner from out west who spoke to a full room of local runners and supporters of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park at Happy Days Lodge on Friday night. Pam Reed, Race Director of the Tuscon Marathon, 2-time outright winner of the grueling Badwater 135 Ultra-marathon, and author of The Extra Mile, spoke and inspired us all, hung out at Vertical Runner on Saturday during packet pickup, then ran the Fools 50K on Sunday. I was hoping to see Pam on Sunday and possibly soak in some ultra-running wisdom and inspiration but with over 200 runners quickly spreading over miles of trails, I didn't think that would happen.
The race kicked off promptly a few minutes after 7:30am on Sunday morning and within the first mile, most were already slopping around in the mud. The first section is in grass but is also on a slight decline from the road and adjacent parking lots. This runoff keeps this section very muddy and the trees keep little sunlight from drying it out. Quickly, I set in to my ultra-running shuffle and starting making my "rounds" of friends within the pack, catching up with as many as possible before the hills showed up. For me, early miles in ultras are simply social times as I rarely see these folks except when I have a number pinned to my shorts. It's one of my favorite things about running, for sure. Approaching the first hill, I kicked in my "A-game" and powered up the hill passing 30 or so runners. Hills have become my forte, for sure, and I walk them all on trails but I can normally pass folks while they run. I stretch out the stride, lean into the hill, and use my shoulders and arms as fuel to get up the hill. This method has paid dividends in longer ultras like 100-mile events and really makes the 50K's fun and much more easy to get through.
Around Mile 4 or 4.5, I thought I saw a friend who I see very rarely and did my best to catch her and after shouting her name, the actual person turned and said: "No, it's Pam!" "Pam?" "Pam Reed." "Hi, Pam!!!!" Starstruck, I was. So here she is...the woman who ran 482 miles over 6 days in New York City with 7 hours of sleep, the woman who won and beat the men in 2002 and 2003 in 125 degree heat at the Badwater 135, the woman who ran 300 miles once...just because, and the woman who has run nearly every dream 100-miler of mine on the West Coast. Oh yea, she runs 4 to 5 times PER DAY, too. Never a coach, never a nutrition plan, and rarely an injury. All this in a small, petite, 49 year-old, 100lb woman. Now I get to run with her. One thing I know is that some runners like the silence and a nagging talker on the trail can just drive a person looney tunes. She was wearing headphones so that immediately told me she may just be one of those runners who zone out and want the alone time. You'd have to be to run 482 miles, right?! Well, we did talk....well, I talked quite a bit and asked lots of questions. I also turned into the local tour guide and explained the different trails to her and what races went through them through the year, especially the Burning River 100 Mile Endurance Run. Pam was a trooper and endured my ramblings and we spent the better part of the next 16 miles within a few strides of each other. I remember her saying "I just have one speed. Whether I'm running 20 miles, 100 miles, or 200 miles, or going up a hill...just one speed." No kidding. Around mile 20, my hill strength could no longer keep up with her. She literally ran those steep inclines without slowing or anything. She wasn't even wearing trail shoes. I know shoes quite well, but I honestly don't know what brand of road shoe she had on...perhaps Newton's? I have no idea. With all the slop and no traction under her feet, she was amazing. I just hoped to see her post-race.
The Fools 50K consists of 2 25K loops and the 2nd loop was an incredible sloppy mess as the rain had began. It just got worse and worse. Luckily, I have experience in these conditions and understand the necessity of keeping my body above my foot strike to keep from falling and slipping side to side. While many go around the mud and run on angled embankments, I chose to go straight ahead through it all where the sure footing remained and kept me from potentially re-injuring a healing adductor muscle by uncontrolled sliding left and right. I had certainly chosen the proper footwear for the day: waterproof Keen Wasatch Crest trail shoes along with my flaming blue Dirty Girl Gaiters. The gaiters kept the muck out of the top of my shoe and since we didn't have any immersed water crossings, my feet stayed dry and clean all day long. In fact, after 31.2 miles of mud, my feet and socks were as clean as they were when I awoke that morning. Love my Dirty Girls! As the day progressed and I passed the 26.2 mile marathon point, I definitely slowed a bit, took some more pictures with my waterproof (thankfully!) Canon camera, and just enjoyed the trail. I was increasingly more happy that I wasn't in pain. The sloppy trails were exactly what I needed to RE-injure myself. However, I missed the trails so bad that nothing was going to stop me from being a Fool on this day. PUN INTENDED!
As I entered the "ultra" portion of the 50K ultra-marathon, the last 5 miles, it was time to crush the toughest section and arguably, one of the hardest trails in the whole Cuyahoga Valley National Park, the Salt Run Trail. It's a very up-and-down trail, very muddy, and contains the steepest climbs and descents of the event. Entering the trail around Mile 28 with a view of the finish line across the "Sound of Music" hills, the quick calculations in my head told me that I was going to be incredibly close to a 6-hour finish. What I did NOT want was a finishing time of 6:00:something...I wanted sub-6 for no other reason but just to be under it. Based on my pace going into Salt Run, that wasn't going to happen, especially considering the difficulty of that trail. However, just after these thoughts, I came alive. I felt renewed, empowered, and ready to tackle the trail. No soreness, no pain, no mental barriers...everything felt in sync. I powered up and sometimes ran the hills and often looked behind me to see if anyone was coming. I passed a few runners, too, which just added fuel to the fire. After cresting the toughest climb on the course, about 1.5 miles from the finish, I knew I was WAY TOO CLOSE to missing the 6hr cut. I hoofed it harder and knowing the course so well, I had a landmark ahead which I had measured in 2009 when helping Lloyd out with this race. When reaching the guardrail along Quick Road, it was exactly 1/2 mile to the finish. In that last 1/2 mile was one quick descent, one steep climb, and another slowly rising climb over super-slippery grass with the finish line in site. When I passed the guardrail, my Garmin turned over 5:55:00. I also knew I had started my Garmin a few seconds late. "Oh geez, that's very little time to cover the final 1/2 mile considering what's ahead," I thought. "GET IT DONE!!!!" I shouted out loud. Sometimes, you really just need to give yourself a kick in the butt...verbally...out loud. Quickly glancing at my Garmin over and over again, I rocked that course as hard as I could and was all over the place as I slipped in the grass while seeing the ticking clock from afar. It read 5:59:something. I pushed as hard as I could and crossed in 5:59:47. 13 seconds to spare!!! WOOT! That was great. Great for no other reason but that I finished another ultra, accomplished a tiny extremely-short-term goal at the end of the race, and felt no pain, no regrets for running in the mud, and I got to spend 1/2 of the day with a running legend in the ultra-running community. Life was good. Life IS good.
Post race, Pam was there...freezing, finishing shortly before me and talking about heading to the pool to swim. (she never stops!) I got her to stop for a quick picture, thanked her for running our race, and then told her goodbye. A few bowls of Panera Bread's potato soup later and after changing into some warm cotton clothes, I was on my way home. A great day on the trails was just had and a day perfectly representative of a trail-running community that is alive and well. Great runners, phenomenal volunteers (on a miserable day to be a volunteer), and a national park that opens it's doors wide to us time and time again...it was a great day. Here are 52 photos from the event.
So here's to 2010 and another season of trail-running. I'm running a bit late on kicking myself into gear this year but I'm thankful the kick has finally arrived.
Start of event and finish line video. Go to 6min, 28sec to see my finish. Thanks, Chaney Events!
Happy Trails, everyone!