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Archive for November, 2007

Rock Creek 50k Race Report

Posted by toddruns on November 2, 2007

On Saturday, the 27th of October, 2007, my friend Kara and I ran the first ever Rock Creek Trail Series 50k near Perry Lake Kansas, just outside of Lawrence. Or as Kara called it – The Rock Root 50k. She did remember seeing a creek, but apparently that didn’t stand out so much as the roots.

This was uncharted territory for me in a few ways. It was but my second ultra-distance race, and I was running it just 2 weeks after running a marathon – after which I usually try to do little but easy recovery for a few weeks to a month. I was traveling to another state to run a race on a course I knew nothing about and wouldn’t see until the sun came up on race morning. The best I could tell from the course map and descriptions was that it would be mostly single track (my favorite), not as much climbing and down hill as Afton (my only other ultra), and the weather promised to be spectacular. Rocks and roots were also on the menu. I figured it to be fairly rugged as it appeared to have been designed for mountain biking.

The idea for running this particular event came from Kara. She ran the Chicago marathon and her race was cut short when she stayed by a friend’s side who ended up having problems related to the heat. Kara still had her training for Chicago waiting to be used. We talked the night before I ran Whistlestop, and she started her sales pitch while I was digesting my pre-marathon pasta. While I was intrigued with the idea of running Rock Creek, it was hard for me to say yes for sure since I had no idea how I would feel after the marathon I had yet to run. I think I gave her a provisional yes, with the caveat that I needed to see how my legs were doing after the marathon, and hey, I could always run the 25k, right?

While my marathon was a bit of a bust, I wasn’t feeling too beat up afterwards, and I had pretty much decided on going to Kansas. I mean, what better to way to redeem myself from a mediocre performance? It didn’t take long until I was pretty excited about the prospect of the trip. As the time got closer I found myself really looking forward to the race, and oddly enough, I was lacking all that pre-race anxiety I usually feel before a marathon. I think the low key nature of the trail race, along with the minimal expectations of a particular finish time were big differences from the pre-marathon jitters. Or maybe since I barely had time to recover, my usual taper zaniness never kicked in. The thing is, I had really wanted to run another trail race this fall (ever since the taste of ultras I got from Afton), but wasn’t able to find one that worked for me for a number of reasons, mostly related to me being signed up to run the Twin Cities marathon in early October.

Kara was excited for this race too, and I was a bit worried about her lack of trail specific training. I had no doubt at all that she could handle the distance, but she hadn’t run much on trails. I mean, pretty much not at all, and I was a little nervous how she might like it, or rather not like it. We both commented after the race that had either of us known about just how technical much of the course was, she probably wouldn’t have wanted to do it, and I probably would have tried to talk her out of it. More about that later…

We arrived at Kara’s sister’s house, our version of the host hotel, in Lawrence early Friday evening. We went for a stroll around the University of Kansas campus and tried to decide where to eat We settled on an awesome Mexican restaurant and chowed heartily. I sometimes feel obligated to prove that a pre-race pasta feed is not a requirement to a good run.

I woke up way before the alarm was set to do it’s deed by a cat that was talking a language I didn’t understand. I had a hard time falling back asleep and didn’t do so until just before the time I was supposed to get up. Of course, that meant I slept through my alarm and I was finally roused by Kara’s knock on the door and a welcome cup of coffee. Oh well, we weren’t too rushed and made it out the door within 5 minutes of targeted time. We drove to the park, and managed to find it without too much difficulty. The sun was just making it’s way up when we stumbled to the tent for check-in.

Once we checked in and had our goodies and pre-race potty stop it was pretty close to race start time. The temperature was 43 at the start and not much wind in the woods where we were. We both were trying to stay warm, and noticed our feet felt cold. After a pre-race briefing and a photo-op, the horn sounded and we were off. Kara and I hadn’t discussed running together, and she wanted to start near the back and run very conservatively. I kind of defaulted to the understood and implicit credo of training partners that we stick together in training, and on race day we all must run our own race. The start line was about 75 meters down the road from the trail head. We ran up a hill on the road, through a ditch and then were off down the single track trail. I looked back and saw Kara for the last time in several hours as we all snaked along the first half mile or so. We crossed a little bridge across a creek and then headed down towards our first glimpse of the lake. In the early hours of the day there was a trace of fog over the top and it was really serene and peaceful. I listened to the few voices of people around me talking, the sounds of the breathing and the clunk of the rocks under our feet. The RD (Willie Lambert of Great Plains Running Company in Topeka, KS) had cleared the trail of fallen leaves, so we could see what we were tripping over (his words not mine). There was no shortage of rocks and roots. The rocks were mostly rugged chunks of limestone rubble, and I lost count of the number of roots that were exposed enough to warrant their own loop of pink ribbon (which was used in abundance to mark the trail). It was the first but not the last time that I would worry a bit how Kara was going to adapt to these surprises.

I found myself thinking about how much I liked running on a technical trail like this. There were long stretches where I needed to be alert and engaged in the running. It got to be mentally taxing at the end, but I liked the challenge. It might explain the appeal to me of doing this kind of distance over running a road marathon or ultra or a 24 hour event on pavement or a track. This kind of running demands my attention and I can’t just go on autopilot.

There were lots of twists and turns in sections, and several switchbacks as we climbed the banks of the lake. I eventually found myself wondering when there was going to be one of those big hills that you get to walk up, but the course seemed to be full of smaller ups and downs. I decided to move ahead of the pack I was in and I ran by 3 people, after which I caught up to the next group ahead. Before long we arrived at the first aid station at mile 4.5. My bottle was still pretty full and I didn’t need anything at the time so I just blew through it, although I resolved to make sure my bottle was empty by the next aid station. At mile five, I noted to myself that I just had a mere marathon left to run. I was feeling good and had become the 4th runner of a human centipede that was formed of about 8 or 9 runners. The guy in front of me was taking photos (on the run), and he said the motion compensation worked pretty good except it wouldn’t watch the trail for him. After a bit he stepped off to the side for a special shot (I guess) and I became the third person in the centipede. It was kind of cool as we all played follow the leader, power walking the steeper uphill sections and then resuming running on the downhill and occasional flat sections. It was fun to be part of this mostly silent group of like-minded people moving in unison down this twisty narrow path. I even flashed on the Borg from Star Trek, only we were a collective running being made of separate parts.

Eventually we hit the second aid station, and the orderly line was all scrambled up as people did their own thing. I filled my bottle, downed a quick cup of drink and headed out with 2 squares of PBJ in hand. I sure like these while running a race like this. It seems like PBJ has magical properties for running. The next short loop (less than 2 miles) brings us back to the same aid station, and it was remarkable for its stretches of pretty runnable dirt (sans rocks and roots) as well as a few big circles of limestone rock and one little limestone shelter with a vaulted roof that looked like it belonged to a Hobbit or a bootlegger. Oh, and it also marked the turn around at the northern most section of the course, where we headed back south to the start / finish line.

Leaving the 2nd / 3rd aid station again, the centipede was down to 4 or 5 of us. I stuck with the 2 folks in front of me, listening (eavesdropping?) to their conversation about the Heartland 100 race earlier this fall. I decided it was wise to hang behind them, allowing their savvy experience keep my rookie enthusiasm in check. I learned a bit about the windiness of Kansas in general, and of the Heartland 100 race in particular. It was nice to have the company, and it wasn’t long before we were leaving the last aid station and heading for the start / finish so we could eat and repeat. Once at the half-way point I dropped off my long sleeved shirt that I had removed earlier and went with singlet and shorts for the rest of the way. It was very pleasant out, maybe low 50s. I grabbed some drink and a few more PBJ squares and left before the others. I was on my own now, and pretty much would be the rest of the way. There were a few spots where I worried about seeing another ribbon that marked the trail, but sooner or later one would appear and I could relax again. I was feeling better here from 16 to mile 22 than I had around mile 12 or 13. That was different. It usually just gets harder. I also realized at some point that even if I hit a rough patch, there would always be another good patch just up ahead. That attitude worked well for me the rest of the way.

The first aid station after the mid-point (now at mile 19) was staffed by just one person when I was there. It was very relaxing chatting with her, we talked about TCM, (she had been up there to run it this year) and they even had some of the blue Medtronic Pennants that people marked to cheer on friends. It was almost too easy to drink more coke and eat more trail mix and stand around and chat, but suddenly I remembered, OOPS, I am running a race here, no time to dawdle.

After that aid station I pushed on, and came up on anther runner. As I passed him, he complimented me on how well I was running, and he started to sell me on his race in February at nearby Wyandotte County Park, called the Psyco Wyco Run Toto Run. I knew of the race and had already thought it might be fun to do someday (he promised that it was a lot hillier than this one). I asked if his name was Ben, and he affirmed that he was Ben, Ben Holmes. I explained how I knew about the race and that I had met the winner of his summer version of that race at Afton. All of that “its a small world stuff”. We also discussed how supportive the ultra community is, like how the elites in this sport show up to volunteer at aid stations and will wait at the finish line to cheer in the rest of the runners after they finish. He eventually sent me on my way because it was kind of hard to talk too much. After another mile or so I realized that this is really my thing, this trail running. Maybe it was a little of getting a big head from Ben’s compliment, but I was running well. I was keeping myself upright and moving forward and staying hydrated and fueled and I was having an awful lot of fun. I even allowed as how I might not be too bad at this. At any rate, I sure do like it a lot.

I ran to the next aid station (the one that was 2 / 3 on the first loop and was now 6/7). Shortly before I got there I came up on another runner. He was waving his arms a bit, and I assumed that he was listening to headphones, but he wasn’t. Apparently, he was just in a zone somewhere and my “How’s it going?” startled him out of his reverie and he nearly jumped a foot off the ground. I felt kind of bad, but took it as a compliment when he said I was light on my feet and he didn’t hear me coming at all. I passed him and headed to the aid station.

At the aid station I had my first sad moment as the bread on the PBJ was getting a little dry and it lost its appeal on me. Yeah, I k now, wah wah wah. I had to toss it after one bite. Oh well, I switched over to gels and had one of those raspberry Hammer Gels. It was like sucking down a tube of raspberry jelly, not in a bad way though. I ran this loop as fast as I dared, as now I was starting to feel a little tired and sore. I also had my first big stumble, but I caught myself before I smacked the ground. But it scared me a little into paying attention. A bit later I felt a sharp pain in my right knee. Oh great, I thought. And then, it was gone as quickly as it had arrived. Weird.

I hit the 6/7 aid station again, and grabbed some more gels while they filled my water bottle with sport drink. I also stocked up on M&Ms and some trail mix. Eating and running is fun. I left there right behind a young gal named Megan that the guys at the aid station obviously knew. They were giving her all kinds of kudos and encouragement while I was filling up. She was limping a little bit and holding her right hip as she left there. She was finished as the second place female and winner of the trail series race of which this was the final race. She had never run longer than 25k before this race. She seemed pretty determined, and when I asked her if she was ok, she was positive and said yeah, thanks for asking. In my generous way, I shared the new knowledge I had that there were some good patches up ahead. Mentally, the trip from here to the final aid station was the toughest. There were quite a few ups and downs and more rocks. There was a guy who passed Megan a little after I had and I could see him when we were running up some of the switchbacks. I decided to do my best to stay ahead of them and push myself a little as I had only about 4 miles to go now. Physically though, I didn’t feel like I’d already finished a marathon.

When I got to the last aid station I debated whether to even stop as I wasn’t that low on fluids, but they filled me up anyway and I left just as the 2 runners behind me entered. That pushed me a little more and I ran and listened patiently for the sounds of the finish line. It seemed to take forever, like it was just around the next bend and then the next one, or maybe the one after that. I did like the last stretch of trail though. It is really pretty in there, narrow and twisty but with long views of the woods around me and occasional glimpses of the lake off to my left. I could finally hear sounds from the finish area. As I turned a corner the music from the band came into focus for me – “Ghost Riders In The Sky”. I love that song. I’m sure they were playing it for me. Then I heard someone yell “runner coming in” accompanied by cheers and clapping and bells. I got a little verklempt. It feels so great to finish. I had a huge smile as I passed the clock at 5:50:07.

I received some water and a medal and a cool mug (my sweatshirt I got before the race) and a handshake from the RD. I got a cookie and changed into a dry shirt and walked around a bit. I had some chocolate milk, and then some more chocolate milk – probably three or four cups worth (its the ultimate recovery drink, you know). Then I had a Coke and went to the car. I cleaned some of the trail dust off my legs and changed shoes and socks and listened to the guys next to me talk about their race. I then strolled down the trail a bit, wondering how Kara was doing. I walked out for about 20 minutes, cheering 2 runners on their way in. They both wanted to know how much farther it was. I started to worry that I somehow missed her finish while I was changing or something. So I headed back to the finish and waited there and watched the awards ceremony. They announced that there were still some runners out on the course, 6 or 7 of them. The RD gave away the awards for the race and the trail series, then he started drawing numbers from the hat for freebies (you had to be present to win, so I couldn’t leave then). Willie called Kara’s number and I told them she was still running, so they saved her the hat and sport wash she won. Then I heard the call from the kids watching the trail that there was a runner coming in. Everyone stopped what they were doing and stood to cheer. That is so cool how they did that for all of runners. I love that about these races. It was Kara, with a big smile on her face and a turkey feather sticking out of her hat. The first thing she told me was that she had so much fun. I was relieved to hear that, as I selfishly want to have someone else around crazy enough to drive 500 miles to run for 6 or 7 hours.

She had the best line I heard all weekend: “I started to feel sad at mile 30 because I knew it was going to be over soon”. She ran really smart, walked through some of the technical sections and treated it as a long day in the woods. I should have known better than to worry, she’s a smart runner who knows how to take care of herself. Only now she’s a smart Ultra-runner.

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