Monday, March 2, 2015

Pacing the 2015 LOViT 100 Miler

In this previous post, I talked about crewing the first 82 miles of the LOViT 100 Miler at Lake Ouachita in Arkansas for my friend Jeremy. As I said there, I wasn’t planning to pace him at this race for fear of rolling an ankle or being left behind (as he is much faster than me on technical terrain, even with 80 miles on his legs!). But through tough race conditions, we agreed I would pace the last 18 miles.

Probably blurry because we're shivering - it was COLD.
Not mine. But happy I could help someone take home one of these!

The Waiting Game

Our friend Lalita had given me a ride from the finish line to the Crystal Springs aid station at mile 82. Several amped-up pacers and a few crews waited eagerly for their runners. We had been told in the tough conditions they would give the runners an extra hour on the original 6:45 pm cutoff for that aid station. Then, word got around that they would let you go out regardless as long as you had a pacer or crew to watch over you. But how late coming into mile 82 would they let him push it?

Right before 8:00 they started saying that the aid stations ahead of us might be shut down before we got there, but they would let us go out anyway BUT when our runner arrived into mile 82, we couldn’t let them sit. We were supposed to get their needs met very quickly and get them out of the aid station. Or we risked that they would get pulled by race management anyway. And for good reason, because if you are having a seriously hard time moving, they don’t want you finishing a bunch of hours after the cutoff or getting stranded and needing to be rescued. It’s their discretion to pull anyone who looks like they aren’t going to keep a good pace going.

So each time a person acting as spotter would yell that they saw a headlamp, all the pacers would come rushing out of the pavilion to wait and watch. Johnny Eagles and his pacer came in and I asked her if she had seen Jeremy. A very basic description is all that is needed: “he looks like a mountain man.” “Oh yes, we passed him about 10 minutes back. You should see him soon.” LOL.

I had debated layers but with so long in the cold, I went with FIVE upper body layers and tights. I had on a short sleeve shirt, then long sleeve shirt, then my waterproof shell to lock in that core warmth, then my puffy jacket, then my Big Cedar 100 waterproof rain jacket as another layer against wind. Yeah, it was a cold weekend.

When Jeremy arrived, I had all my gear packed for Lalita to take to the finish, I had myself all prepped and packed and my headlamp and flashlight ready, I had his headlamp and flashlight out, and I had new shoes that I knew he wanted to change into. He came into this air of complete chaos and fear as everyone was rushing and hurrying their runners out. I told him “You can’t sit long because we have to go now or you won’t get to go back out.” Like a NASCAR pit stop, another guy and I frantically changed his shoes and socks. Our friend Dat (running the 100K) came in then, and I was so hurried I didn’t even acknowledge him.

Miles 82 to 87: Wet Feet and Meeting the Charlton Switchbacks
We hiked into the dark. He stopped and said he needed to fix something. He messed, I asked him to let me take his flashlight, he refused, I asked, “What are you trying to do?” He said, “I’m not sure.” Ah, ultrabrain. I said, “Let’s go then.” From my point of view, that was really as kooky as he got. No other truly absentminded moments. But I laugh every time I think about it.

At about a mile into this section, there was a small creek crossing. Jeremy stood on the edge and cursed and looked for a way to get through with dry feet. After wet feet all day, he had enjoyed dry socks for half a second. I said, “There’s really no way around it. Let’s just go.” Straight into the ankle deep water. Brrrrrr.

On this out-and-back course, when he had started the race, it was all small creek crossings he could rock hop across for this section. And at this time, with all the rain that had come, my feet were soaked for the next 18 miles. There were so many small crossings with no way to avoid getting wet. I remember that Jeremy tried on to avoid plunging in, and he succeeded, but it was balancing across a log a bit, and I waded right into the water alongside him in case he slipped. At another, a big rock he went to step on immediately rolled, and we were thankful he hadn’t put his weight on that leg yet, or he would have been hurt.

2 miles into this section was “Pipe Springs”. Seriously, just a pipe coming out of a low wall in the middle of freaking nowhere. This began a 2.5 mile out and back singletrack section to the mile 87 Charlton aid station. We would run the downhills and walk the ups. And on this course, there wasn’t anything but down or up. Anything you even thought was somewhat flat was still just a prolonged gradual up or down you soon realized. He always kept a pretty solid consistent pace going.

The downhills all made me a little nervous. Wet, slick leaves hiding roots and loose rocks under them. And traveling in the dark, I realized my trail experience is growing because I really just had to trust that however my foot fell, that my ankle would react and spring back as needed, and I lifted my knees a bit more than usual because catching a toe on a rock was a great way to go sprawling forward on your face.

Jeremy was concerned about me doing the switchbacks into Charlton. A bunch of descending switchbacks that were narrow, with a cliff drop on one side, and littered with loose rocks and big roots and plenty of leaves here and there to hide those too! And once you made it down to the aid station, you had to climb it all back up since this was an out-and-back section from the main path. Jeremy had considered doing the drop down alone and having me wait at the top. But then we were worried they would see him without a pacer and not let him continue. 

So I tackled the switchbacks, squealing here and there on the way down. Nothing like a descent like that where you feel like you are leaning forward toward the fall with each step – I hate it. Jeremy had done this whole thing that morning at mile 42, and he told me that going back up would feel shorter and easier. It was a climb, but he was definitely right. Elizabeth, who Jeremy had leapfrogged with all day, had passed us a mile before the aid station. When they didn’t pass us going up the switchbacks when we were going down, I started to really worry that they had held her at mile 87 and wouldn’t let her and her pacer continue.

Down at the Charlton aid station, we immediately asked if we could continue, and they said YES. But we were told the other aid stations were packing up, so we needed to fill our hydration packs full and they would fill a gallon Ziploc with food to put in our packs for the remaining middle-of-the-night 13 miles. I was offered food but said no a bunch. The advantage of doing long runs without any fuel was that 13 miles, even 13 slow miles, without food didn’t bother me. And I had a couple small snacks in my pack. But then Lalita offered up some sort of Caffeine-Kahlua (“but cooked off”)-Chocolate Brownie bites coated in powdered sugar. Then she retracted them because I shouldn’t have caffeine with my essential tremor disease. I was like “Screw that! Give me those!” and then proceeded to eat 5 of them. Brushing off the powdered sugar from my gloves, I looked like the happiest girl at the cocaine party!
Walking out of the aid station, he said, “You promised me a photo.” Yep, I was withholding a selfie of his wife and child that I had said I would show after mile 87. So we huddled around my phone to look at that before we hiked back up the switchbacks. I told him at the next aid station at mile 92, I would have a video of the baby that his wife Sara had sent me. That late in a race, a little bit of happy like that can go a long way!

Miles 87 to 92: Scary Truck and the Longest Forest Service Road in Existence

We started back to Pipe Springs, and it was fun to have a couple places of “oh yeah, this section”. The things that preserve a place in your mind are interesting – this one spot stands out for some tiny undulating dunes of forest soil with these wispy baby pine saplings in the whole area, all just 4-5 inches tall. In between this normal pine forest environment. It seemed a little alien to me. On the way back, on recognizing them, I said that they looked like they would grow into truffula trees from Dr. Seuss’ Lorax.

Occasionally I would let out a big sigh. It’s a tactic I use to keep my upper body relaxed. It was especially needed during pacing though because I was wearing one of Jeremy’s old hydration packs and it sat right on my trapezius muscles at the base of my neck, making my shoulders tense up! I had fit the pack to me well, but the straps just hit right there. It made me long for my Ultraspire Surge pack that I love because the straps sit wider, towards the shoulders. Jeremy leads when paced, and he would ask over his shoulder, “Are you okay?” He does well with focusing on that the other person is going to be okay so it wasn’t a surprise, but it was funny to be checked on by the person who has been up and moving for 28 hours.

After reaching Pipe Springs, we turn left (“when you get to back to Pipe Springs on the return, TURN LEFT!!” echoed in my head from the aid station volunteers’ warnings) onto a forest service dirt road. And we were on this road forever. Scratch that, it just felt like forever. I could finally see the stars in the gap in the sky created by the road and pointed out Orion ahead of us. Jeremy told me to not push him to run right now because his feet hurt, and I hadn’t planned to do that anyway. He was still moving, and consistently so, so I had hunkered down that it would just be a long night.

Out of nowhere, a big truck came around a curve. Not just a pickup, but not a big rig. But it was a BIG truck. A trucker’s truck. While the guy might have been wondering what we were doing hiking out there, I was really confused about why the truck would be out here and especially at this time of night! I assumed it couldn’t be for anything good! As we hiked along, the truck slowed to a stop and then turned off its headlights. Uhhhhh. It’s 11 pm in the dark in the middle of nowhere in the woods. As we approached, I may have uttered some comments about leaving Jeremy to be violated if this was a bad man in the truck. I was ahead of Jeremy and I hear from the blackness of the cab, “Ya all good?” And I said confidently, “Yeah, we’re good!” And his lights went back on and he drove off. Phew. I was not in the mood to be the victim in a horror story, and I’m not exaggerating when I say it was truly that creepy.

During this time, Elizabeth’s pacer Grayson ran up ahead of her and caught up to us, with the music of his little speaker system blaring. Elizabeth had strained her ankle early in the race and it was really starting to bother her such that she had trouble putting weight on it. Grayson wasn’t sure what to do if they hit a spot where she couldn’t continue. I had him get out his phone, and I first gave him the race director’s phone number, then I gave him my phone number, and then I said to make sure she starts using a branch as a walking stick so she keeps moving. He came back a few times after that to check on mileages of where we were and how far apart the remaining aid stations were.

After FOREVER on that forest service road, including a stop where we changed out Jeremy’s flashlight batteries, we came to the FS47A aid station. And there were still people there! They were told they could leave, and they stayed. And they had a big bonfire and food, and what made Jeremy really happy – thin mint cookies! He said he needed a minute at the fire, and I acted stern but I edged over to the fire too. I was wearing tights and learned a lesson. After a few hours of being in close to freezing temps, a minute in front of a hot fire left my legs burning like I had ants in my pants. Like all the blood had rushed to the capillaries on my skin’s surface at once and it did not feel good. Note to self: no bonfire stops when wearing temps in freezing temps.
It was extra cold here and it was interesting seeing how most of this course was a direct east to west traverse. We could cross several microclimates over those hours out there. Kinda cold to suddenly some warm air to freezing cold again where I could clearly see my breath to some light fog to one spot where Jeremy said it had to be below freezing and when I asked how he knew, he pointed to the leaves on the side of the road that were all shimmery and coated in frost. My reaction to that: “That is so much better than shiny spider eyes.” That is the shimmering jewel-like flickers you see when at Rocky Raccoon 100 in the middle of the night!

Staying in a Good Mood

People ask what a pacer and their runner do all those hours – silence? Talking? One-sided talking? The whole time we were out there Jeremy was actually in a good mood. That’s a hard thing to do that far into a race and when your hip flexor is killing you and your feet are totally macerated and blistered that every rock, and every step, hurts. I shared stories of the day of what I’d done, then turned to stories of what mutual friends of ours were up to this weekend. I talked about who had inquired about how his race was going and who sent cheers his way. We told awful jokes. He told me about things that had happened during the race so far. Since he was a little grumpy and quieted when paced at Ozark Trail, I was expecting the same this time but was pleasantly surprised at the better mood!
We would get in a rhythm of moving and I would get silent for a bit, and then he would say, “You’re quiet. Are you okay?” “Oh, yeah, I was just singing a song in my head.” Then I’d hum a few bars then sing a few lines. I tend to sing songs over and over and over in my head and then another will pop into my head and I’ll move to that one. This time, it was “Inside Out” by Eve 6, “Ain’t It Fun” by Paramore, and “Shut Up and Dance with Me” by Landon Austin. Surprisingly, no songs from Frozen this time.

Miles 92 to 96: Up and Down a Mountain, GPS Check, and Rocky Road

We had to climb 3.5 miles to Hickory Nut Mountain and the next aid station. It never seemed like that big of an ascent. There were several short moments of steep hills, but it didn’t seem as bad as the elevation profile had looked to me. Near the top, back on a forest service road, we hit a junction. The signs just didn’t feel crystal clear. One had an arrow to the aid station but it was the head of the arrow without a tail, and it felt like points of the arrowhead went to both ways of the junction. But we were also both really tired. We chose our path, and I got to have my anxiety rise as I worried about having Jeremy take any more steps than absolutely necessary. I pulled out my phone, pulled up the course map, compared it to our GPS location, and then ultimately ran up ahead on this long uphill road until I saw the lights of the aid station and could yell back to Jeremy that we were going the right way.

Matthew at this aid station had peppy music playing and a laser projector lighting up the sky to the music. To get back to the trail, we had to sit and jump off this stone wall. That put us onto a few miles of downhill muddy rocky road. It was not the fun kind of downhill with the spacing of the rocks and the occasional slick mud that made us glissade. And because we argue a lot, at 1 am it was completely reasonable to bicker about the pronounciation of the word “glissade.”

We passed some leafy shoots that were like tall tendrily vines with even spaced white triangular leaves. In the glow of headlamps, I remarked that they looked like butterflies. It was surreal.

As we picked our way through that awful mud road, I commented that if you had told me 5 years ago that I would be in the middle of the woods in Arkansas in the middle of the night all alone (collectively) hiking in freezing temps, I would have laughed my head off.

We came out to the last half mile of pavement which had some pretty steep uphills as a last way to stick it to the poor 100 mile runner. And then Jeremy used the last of his legs to run the final tenth of a mile into the finish line. Dustin and Rachel, the Race Directors, were waiting for us, along with Lalita and our friend Nicholas.

He Finished!

Jeremy sat down in a chair with his new 100 mile buckle. I was offered food but wasn’t really hungry at all. He munched on a cinnamon roll, while we all chatted about the day. It’s funny how it felt like the most normal thing in the world – to be sitting in freezing temps in a pavilion on the lake at 3 in the morning, talking about running.

I went and pulled the car up and started all the heaters full blast, and Lalita helped me load the gear. After finishing the race at 2:51 am, and for me, having been up almost 24 hours, I was surprised how awake I still was. I got him back to the hotel, we both got a chance to shower, and then I had my first ever 4:30 am beer before bed.

I’m really happy Jeremy asked me to come on the trip because face time with friends is always the best. And while I wish his hip flexor hadn’t given him trouble, in the end, I was glad that I ended up pacing because it really was a fun / miserable 18 miles on the trail. ;-)

Hats off to Race Directors Dustin and Rachel Speer. They were very well-organized, did an excellent job of communication leading up to the race, and took individual care of each of their 36 race starters across the two distances. Especially in better weather, I definitely recommend people check out the LOViT 100K and 100 Miler.