I paced the last 35.2 miles of the Ozark Trail 100 Ultramarathon this weekend. Darin Schneidewind, the guy I paced, came in 3rd! I take absolutely zero credit for his podium, but I had a great time coming along for the ride.
The RD credited me with my first Ultra. Technically, he’s correct. The definition of an Ultra is any race distance longer than a marathon. It doesn’t count if you keep running to get to the chocolate milk at a marathon though, since it’s not part of the race course. A 50K (31 miles) would count, although 50 mile and 100 mile events are what really qualify in my book. Side note: I just saw an announcement for the Tahoe 200 next fall. Yep, that’s 200 miles. 100 hour time limit. For those who feel like they’ve got a little left in the tank after 100 miles.
Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version of my impressions of the race and what I learned:
- Running for over 7 hours in the dark was really fun!
- Make sure you have lots of batteries and decent gear. See #1.
- The Ozark Trail is really pretty, but less so in the dark.
- It’s rare to see other runners on the course after 70 miles. Less than 50 runners were left at that point in the race. Amazingly, 4 runners finished within 10 minutes of each other – that was the spread from 2nd to 5th.
- Counterintuitively, it’s easier to follow the trail at night.
- You’re going to fall down. It hurts. Get used to it.
- Your pace is slower than a road marathon, but it’s no walk in the park. The vast majority is running, but there is some walking – if you can call a brisk hike up a steep hill walking.
- It helps mentally to break the run down into the smaller manageable increments between aid stations. Those “manageable increments” are still over an hour each.
- I’ll have to multiply what I did by 3 to run a true 100 mile Ultra.
- The people at the aid stations are truly excellent folks. Not a lot of spectators out there. No cheering crowds at the finish either, if that’s your thing.
- Ultras aren’t really a photo event. Nobody’s hiding in the bushes at mile 83. Or at the finish for that matter that I could tell.
- Cool fact: you can’t sleep after an Ultra since your heart rate stays up after being up for so long (didn’t affect me, but I didn’t run all of it).
For mind-numbing detail about Ultra-outfitting and my race report, read on!
Gear: I give myself an “D-” on this one. I was a victim of my own cheapness. I had two cheap headlamps and a serviceable handheld flashlight. The cheap headlamps were too bouncy to wear. I knew this ahead of time – I was going to use them as backup handhelds. I stuffed one in my pocket and left the other with Julie in case I needed to swap out. I had one set of batteries in the flashlight and a spare set with me. The first set ran out part of the way through a segment and I had to switch to my backup headlamp. The flashlight threw great light on the trail when it was working. The headlamp did not – way too dim. I got my spare batteries in the handheld at the next aid station and was good to go again. However, in the next segment disaster struck. I fell and crushed my flashlight AND my headlamp. Not to mention deeply bruising my palm. The flashlight was working intermittently, so it wasn’t the bulb. The headlamp came apart, and a battery flew out. I couldn’t find it and didn’t want to spend any more time looking. Darin had a spare battery, but I couldn’t get the thing going again. Fortunately he had a working headlamp and flashlight, so he gave me his headlamp for the duration. I’m very lucky both of our lights worked to the end, since I was out of options. I did put some new batteries in my flashlight at the penultimate aid station, but I didn’t want to distract Darin by trying to give him his headlamp back and then have to ask for it again if the flashlight wasn’t really working. The only thing I got right with my gear was my Garmin(s). I wore my 2-year-old refurbished (under warranty) Forerunner 405. I was fairly certain it wouldn’t make it to the finish. As it was, it didn’t start chirping low battery until the last segment. Fortunately, I had my wife’s Garmin Forerunner 10 with me too, and I had it rolling before my primary shut down. Hers isn’t as accurate as mine – thanks to my recent addition of a foot pod, but at least it was good enough to give us some idea of elapsed mileage. I reset my Garmin at each aid station so I could let Darin know how much mileage was left in each segment. He was wearing one of those humongous O.G. Garmins – the GPS equivalent of a bag phone, but favored by many for its long battery life. His lasted for 90 miles, which would have been around 16+ hours. Mine only went for about 33 miles and 7 hours. Lessons learned: buy decent gear; have a backup; bring plenty of batteries.
Clothes: My grade is A- on this. I know running gear pretty well now, as well as what works for me at different temperatures. I wore a L/S Compression Nike Pro Combat Cold Gear up top, with some Merino Wool tights on the bottom. Thin wicking socks. Liner gloves. I tied a L/S fleece around my waist in case I got cold, and had a fleece headband in the pocket just in case. I never needed either. The top was running a little hot, but not by much. I started right at dark, about 7:45pm, so falling temps, not to mention colder in the hollows. I think the air temp was probably upper 30s to very low 40s at the start. It was below freezing by the time we wrapped it up 7 1/2 hours later. I changed my shirt once. Wow, did that dry shirt feel fantastically warm and cozy after a few hours in the first one! I also changed socks once after a dunking at a water crossing. I didn’t have any problems per se with socks, although in hindsight I would have thrown a pair in a pocket so I could have changed at an earlier aid station before the crew access point where Julie gave me the dry ones. I also had a huge variety of other things to change into in my gear bag so I could have switched to a lighter L/S shirt, added a vest, gone with a S/S shirt under a fleece, etc. However, I never needed any of that. A combination of Body Glide and petroleum jelly in various strategic places prevented any chafing/bleeding nipple issues. Lesson learned: if you’re running the whole thing, take advantage of drop bags, even if it’s just socks and batteries.
Shoes: A on the shoes. My Skora Forms worked great. I had taken them for a 20 mile spin on the trails at Clinton before this, so I knew they’d do well. I had ZERO foot problems after 7 1/2 hours and 35 trail miles. I attribute that to the anatomical design of the Form, coupled with my trick of coating my feet with a thin layer of petroleum jelly before socking up. I reapplied once during the race. No blisters. No lost toenails. I have never lost a toenail in minimal shoes. Do you hear me, heel strikers? Also, there’s nothing that’s significantly absorbent on the shoe, so I didn’t pick up weight after getting them wet. They drain well and the leather upper handled the moisture well. I knew they’d be fine though, since my trial trail run in them was in the rain. I brought a spare pair of shoes (Base) just in case there was some train wreck issue with water or shoe failure, but I didn’t need them. Lesson learned: punish your shoes before a race to make sure they work they way you need them to in a worst case scenario.
Since I don’t have any race pics, here’s my Forms the day after:
Fueling/hydration: I give myself an A here too, by virtue of having no issues whatsoever with this. I really can’t recommend one of my pre-race meals (a breakfast of Krispy Kreme donuts). However, I ate a hearty late lunch, including some delicious lobster and shrimp bisque, a salad with beets and goat cheese, some pan-fried tilapia, and steamed veggies. Oh, and some ice cream for dessert. Props to “Sybil’s” in St. James – a welcome surprise on the way to the race. It sat well and I had plenty of time for digestion before the race started. When Darin came into the tent, I pounded through a roll of Sweet Tarts. I had been pushing fluids all day until my urine was clear. I gulped down 2 cups of HEED before we started. I hate carrying fluids with me. I did fine with 2 cups of HEED at each of the next 4 stops before the finish. I wasn’t ever truly thirsty, but I may have to reconsider this strategy of aid station-only fluids if I run a full Ultra. I refueled mostly with candy bars and HEED gels. I never felt nauseous or had any other GI issues. Lessons learned: drink when you’re thirsty. Make sure you’re okay with what’s being offered at aid stations.
It’s going to be hard to reconstruct a description of the course and race from memory, especially since it was dark, but here goes.
I started at Hazel Creek – 68.4. This was a crewed aid station, so lots of people were there. Darin came in a little past 7:30pm or so in 4th place and this was a major stop for him – changing into night clothes, eating, shoe change. I was chomping at the bit to get going! I admit to being a little disconcerted when Darin mentioned that he had gotten off course by about a mile earlier in the day and had to retrace his steps. I tried not to show it. Later, I realized it is much easier to follow the trail at night. First, it’s packed, so if you get off it, you can feel the softer ground underfoot. Second, the trail markers have a reflective square on them that can be seen from afar. It’s really helpful. Darin and I left the aid station with the 5th place runner and his pacer close on our heels. We eventually put some distance on them and they never passed us. This stretch had some really marshy spots in it – I soaked my shoes pretty early on. We came up on the 3rd place runner in this stretch. Darin knew him by name. I appreciated the friendly exchange between the two. He asked if we wanted to come around, but Darin said not yet. He meant it too, as we took a breather and let him go out ahead again. He led us into the first (for me) aid station at Pigeon Roost (75.9). There was a gravel road – pretty much the only part of the run that wasn’t on single-track trail – for a half mile leading in. It was mostly downhill – it felt like we were flying! I worried I was pushing Darin too hard – but he knew his own mind already and told me he was going to back it off a bit as we cruised toward the aid station. I seem to remember an inflatable snowman – it was too early for hallucinations so I’m pretty sure it was really there.
The next stretch was a relatively short 5.4 miles to Berryman campground. We did it in just over an hour. This is the segment where Darin moved into 3rd place for good. It sounds stupid, but since it was dark, my favorite part was a touch of civilization – a huge swath cleared out for high power lines. It was strange to suddenly to have the sense that there was nothing around or above us. The stars were brilliant as well, made brighter by a new moon. Berryman is a crew access point, so Julie was there, along with a bunch of other people and a lot of Christmas lights! I got to switch out my socks and shirt, but Darin was quicker through here than I expected! I was still pulling my shirt on and grabbing candy bars as we headed out.
Berryman to Billy’s Branch was a long haul – 8.8 miles that took us almost 2 hours. We met another runner coming out of Berryman – it’s the only part of the race that’s an out and back. There is a short spur in and out of the campground before the trail took off to the right again. Seeing the other runner motivated Darin to push really hard during some nice flat stretches of trail. Billy’s Branch was a welcome sight – especially for Darin, he knew the folks manning it pretty well. Unfortunately for me, there’s a really tricky narrow and steep section coming into it, and I stepped off the trail onto a slope and sprained my ankle. Ironically, just a few minutes before this Darin had taken a wrong step as well and remarked about NOT spraining an ankle. If only I had been so lucky! I ran through the pain, including 3 or 4 re-tweaks on roots. Eventually it loosened up (or swelled up, or whatever your body does to keep moving if it thinks it has to) and I was running well again, albeit not totally pain-free. There was a cowbell coming into Billy’s Branch – which we used to our advantage after leaving to learn that we had about 2/3 of a mile lead on the next runner behind us. More cowbell!
Because of my ankle, the worst stretch for me was the 7 miles to Henpeck Hollow. However, we ran it at a really good pace, about a minute per mile faster than the previous segment. Darin was killer on the downhills, despite having some pain in his quads (understandable at the 90 mile mark). With my ankle, I had to push to keep up. At this point in the race, we never saw lights behind us, maintaining our lead on #4. However, we never saw #2 either. As we came into Henpeck, Darin made it clear it would be a grab and go to keep our lead to the finish. I think he might have taken on some bacon. While bacon is probably one of my top 10 favorite foods, I’m not sure if I would feel that way about it after 97 miles.
The last segment has 3 significant hills. Darin ran really strong to the first hill, which didn’t appear until a couple of miles into the last 6.5. Ironically, the only time we went off course was right before the finish. As we came into the campground we were seeing a lot of glow sticks, however, we missed a turnoff that was marked by a reflective sign above eye level on a tree – not more than half a mile from the finish. No glow sticks there… Fortunately for Darin, he had run the course before and knew something was off when we found ourselves on a paved road in the campground. I ran back to retrace, but he figured it out first and we brought it home after finding the turn.
After getting into the tent, we learned that second place hadn’t been in the barn for long – and we saw the fourth and fifth place runners come in together about 5 minutes after we did. Thank goodness we didn’t wander around the campground too much!
I came out of this race amazed at how clearheaded Darin was and how strongly he was able to run during those last 35 miles. If I venture out onto this course myself next year I hope I can keep it together that well. I don’t know if doing the whole thing would change how I feel about it, but I had a lot of fun running in this race!