Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Good and Bad of Syllamo

Sometimes things don't go according to plan. And that's okay. But when the reality wasn't even in your scope of possibilities, it's kinda heartbreaking.

I decided early race week to go to the 3 Days of Syllamo race in far northern Arkansas. Day 1 is a 50K, Day 2 a 50 mile, and Day 3 a 20K, all on these remote trails in the mountains. I knew it was a hard race. I didn't know how hard. Or that my race would end sooner than I would like.
View one direction at a high cliff at mile 7

The Plan / The Trip

My plan was to do Days 1 and 3 of the race (so 31.1 + 12.4 miles). I committed in advance of a friend (who ended up not being able to go ultimately) so I reserved a nice big cabin that I had all to myself. I'd never done anything close to "roughin' it" so this is now the closest I've gotten to that.
My Cabin

Pretty view

Pump house number 11 cabin... with prop

It was a 7 hour drive to Mountain View, Arkansas. Uneventful - for some reason, running long distances has also made me an awesome roadtripper (time is relative!).

I went to packet pickup Thursday night and met a couple folks from Kansas City.
Packet pickup

Then, dinner and bed. Oh, but not before a complete freakout about getting lost on the course. This race was notorious about people getting lost, especially on Day 1. And packet pickup confirmed there were about 50 people running Day 1. And I knew a couple people were lost last year until about 9:30 at night. And I knew there was no cell service at the race site. And and and... More on that in a minute.

Race Morning

I got there super early and hung out in the car until trail briefing time 5 minutes before the start. You could see everyone else was equally freaked out about getting lost. A detailed conversation from the race director about the trail markings and questions from everyone there with lots of chitter-chatter amongst the participants. Melissa Linan then tells me a few years ago someone was lost for 2 days... they had to cancel the Sunday race for search and rescue efforts. Great, now I'm really freaking out.

Summing Up This Race

I thought about going through this race as I usually do, mile by mile, memory by memory. But instead, I'm going to focus on the huge recurring stressors in this race:
  1. Course Marking
  2. Terrain / Elevation Gain
  3. Time Cutoffs

Course Marking

It was as bad as everyone warned. In 20 miles, there were MAYBE 50-70 TOTAL flaggings. We're definitely spoiled with Tejas Trails races where confidence markers are everywhere. But this was the essence of minimal. You could go MILES without a marker.

If you are slow, you don't have the luxury of going off -course. Those incremental cutoffs (tied to an ultimate 9 hour cutoff at the finish) will get you. I knew this. I knew I *had* to stay on course.

The only marker you would get was an intersection and even then, it would not always be crystal clear which way you were supposed to go. Is that a trail? Or a deer trail? Or a rain washout area? Oh, and they've had leaf fall through this forest, so the whole course is like a Magic Eye picture. If you aren't looking at it at the right angle, you can't see the trail at all. It just looks like a leaf-strewn forest.
Find the trail here... I dare ya! It's not easy.

Luckily, experience on my side, I had gone through that at training at Isle Du Bois in the fall, and pacing at Ozark Trail 100. That gave me some confidence.

What didn't give me confidence?

  • Aid station at mile 4.5 when the volunteer says, "There's a bunch of intersections on this loop. Pay close attention to the markers."
  • Mile 5 when we're out on a loop that reconnects us at mile 9 to the aid station we just left at mile 4.5. And two guys are running TOWARD me. The guy in front sees my look of panic and yells "Wait. Don't worry. We accidentally did the loop backwards."
  • Mile 5.5 when Darcy Africa, yes, one of the fastest women in the US, Darcy Africa, came up behind me, yells a Hi, passes, and says she got lost for a few miles. I yelled that it must feel good to be back on the course. And then I panic. People are seriously getting lost if I'm in front of Darcy this far into a race.
  • Mile 10 when another gal caught me and sped by.
  • Mile 12 when a guy named Ben catches me and had lost 2.5 miles to the course so far. And he had run the race before. 
  • When you are constantly checking the ground for the occasional soft forest soil spots between the rocks and roots, to make sure running shoes had been there before you.

I knew I couldn't afford to get lost. So any possible intersection I would pass and do a 360 degree check of the area to make sure I headed the right way. That's a lot of lost time, but not as much time as getting lost.

Terrain / Elevation Gain

I knew this would be the most gain I'd had in such a short span. Gorge Waterfalls 50K was about 6500 ft gain. This was to be 7000 ft. And this was more rolling than Gorge's two big climbs plus some extra.

It wasn't that it was rolling hills - it was that it was rolling hills on rocky terrain + under-utilized trail. The terrain was rockier than I expected. The rock spacing was nice that it was still very runnable. But my feet were constantly landing on a rock.

Look down and I miss the potential first trail marker I've seen in miles. Look up and I miss a rock and fall. These are great options.

And that under-utilized trail part? It meant that I had to laugh about Bandera, the ultra termed "the trail that bites". Screw sotol cactus, because the trails of Syllamo bite. With what? With the overgrown branches, brambles, and briars. I have the ripped/pulled sleeve of a shirt (which a volunteer used manicure scissors to cut the 6 inch fabric pull off at mile 4.5) and the welts on my legs to prove it.

Well, this was my first big miles back since the 80 miles at Rocky Raccoon 6 weeks ago, and I could feel it. I kept the pace conservative once I saw what the terrain was.

By the way, there were three creek crossings in miles 13-15. Not the minor crossings of multiple times before and after that. These were 50 feet across, almost knee deep crossings. And the first one? Slickrock under the water. I actually slipped and had to submerge both arms, and handheld water bottle, into the water down to touch the rock to keep myself from falling. The next couple crossings were pebbles plus sandy shore so way easier. All creeks were about 40 degrees (according to the race director) from the big ice/sleet they had recently received. And they numbed my feet!



But the constant rocks did a number on me. Something around mile 16 happened and I headed downhill (figuratively) with pain in my left arch. While this is the leg that has dealt with plantar fasciitis off and on, I'm in maintenance phase with that. I see a sports chiro regularly, stretch as often as I can remember, and I'm cleared for all running. So I think the rigidity with all the old trauma / scarring on that arch plus that terrain means I suffered some sort of contusion or trauma on a rock. I was fine - I was fine - then between miles 15-17 I turned from fine into favoring my right foot and wincing off and on from sharp pain in my left foot.

Plantar fasciitis doesn't ever hurt me DURING the run, just late in the day sometimes and first when I wake up (so I do ankle rolling before I jump out of bed to prevent more micro-tears). This isn't like that. It hurt like TRAUMA. (And the day after, it feels like a bad bruise. I want the doctor to confirm before I get back to running of course though.)

Which at mile 19.5 meant that I missed the last incremental cutoff before the finish by 5 minutes. Sigh. Even if I had made the cutoff, the right thing to do with my foot was to drop to be completely honest.
 Cool rock wall we ran against...

...that led to this neat rock staircase. Note I was too busy trying to
avoid cutoffs to get a ton of pics of the constant rocky terrain.

Time Cutoffs

Constantly calculating splits. Fun times. I was consistent through mile 15. Recalculate by how much my Garmin has been off from the aid station splits. Okay, still on a 16:30ish pace. I need sub around-17:10 pace to make all the cutoffs.

Until my pace degrades as my left foot hurts terribly. And I watch that "oh, good, I have 30 seconds per mile over 15 miles to spread over the next 15 miles" fade into oblivion.

Even funnier is watching the faster people pass me and not be worried about cutoffs even when they had lost 2.5 miles to the trail markers.

I hadn't expected the terrain of this trail. My fault. Most of my 50Ks have been under 9 hours (the cutoff). However, I also did a 9:30 at Bighorn and a 9:52 my first year of Bandera. Technicality slows me down significantly anyway.

So when I came wincing into mile 19.5, the fellow said "What do you need?" And I said, "I didn't make time cutoff." I had known it was coming for 2 miles. It dominated my thoughts. He said, "Huh?" And looked at his watch. Sure enough, I was his first to not make cutoff so he didn't even know the time had passed.

I can't fully elaborate on the stress that comes with fighting closely against time cutoffs. And at least I'm used to it. For being a stage race, Race Director Steve Kirk is kinder on his cutoffs than the race director for the Chattanooga Stage Races (been there, done that, have the DNF to show for it).

To Summarize... The Good and Bad of Syllamo

First, to get it out of the way, the bad:


  • I didn't finish a race I never intended to DNF... and this DNF came without blood spurts (North Face New York) or hallucinations (Tahoe Rim Trail) or anything fun to characterize it. Something got screwed up in my foot and I lost time and I lost too much time.
  • I would have emotionally loved to have finished this race. I timed out and DNFed Rocky Raccoon 100 6 weeks ago, and I am fully aware that the tight time limit of 16 hours for the 12000-ft gain Gorge Waterfalls 100K in 2 weeks will result in a DNF somewhere along the course. I wanted a finish here.
And then, to refocus, the good:
  • I proved to myself that trail experience does pay off. I never got lost on the trail when others did. I got into the race and said, "Oh, this is Ozark Trail or Isle Du Bois" and I knew what to do. 
  • I chose to loose small amounts of time in multiple moments wayfinding course markers, over 30 minutes of time lost on a trail that wasn't part of the race.
  • I stomped across multiple significant creek crossings. My lube job on my feet worked great. I handled soggy heavy freezing cold feet until my feet warmth dried the socks again. My shoes were still wet the morning after (note for stage races: pack multiple trail shoes!)
  • I kept moving until I got to a cutoff. And in reality, I'm glad for the cutoff because I needed to stop and otherwise I would have probably kept going and seriously injured myself.
  • A huge experience that will aid me in the future.
  • Stunning scenery like here at mile 7 where we hit a high point over the White River.
View looking back at mile 7 on a cliff

Next Up:

Gorge Waterfalls 100K in 2 weeks. I'm happy because I get to enjoy a weekend with Lesley and Jeremy, running one of my favorite races (when I ran the 50K) ever. I'm upset that I know I can't finish it. It's an awesome thing to qualify for Western States and for many 100Ks that means finishing in under 16 hours. James (the Race Director) has such a strict cutoff for the whole race that it's, yes, 16 hours. For 12000 ft of gain and loss. It's a bear of a race. And James wouldn't do it any other way. He makes tough races, and none of us mind that. But I go into it hoping to get through the turnaround at mile 31 so I'll have seen the whole out-and-back course all of one way, and then try to make it as far as I can back before I get caught up in an incremental time cutoff.

I'm going to try hard to continue focusing on the beauty of Gorge Waterfalls and not the likely DNF.

Keep running happy!

No comments:

Post a Comment