I have been trying to start this blog post for two days, now. It is not the post I had hoped to write, so perhaps that has made it harder to get started. After two days of thinking about it, I have come to the conclusion that I should simply start putting thoughts on paper and see where it leads me.
Edit – this ended up being really long. So, I have broken it into five sections:
- The Road to Outlaw
- The Take-Aways From This Race
- The People Make the Memories
- The Course and The Aid Stations
- Final Thoughts – Then and Now
Hopefully this makes it easier to skip to any one section you might care to read about more than others.
The Road to Outlaw
As you know, the Outlaw 100 in Oklahoma was my first attempt at running a 100-mile race. The Outlaw had not always been my planned “first” because until October I had planned for the Pistol 100, in March, to be my first 100-mile race.
The Pistol is mostly flat, paved, well-lit, and assuming the weather is not terrible, I knew that it should be a very do-able race, assuming I put in the training.
But in October, on-line friends/acquaintances Jeremy and Alicia decided to host an inaugural 100-mile event in Oklahoma at Robber’s Cave Park. I loved the idea of being part of a first-year race, and I wanted to be able to support their venture, so after I survived the Javelina 100K in late October, I “bit the bullet” and signed up for the Outlaw as my first 100 miler.
When I signed up for the race, there was no race course information available. One of the Race Directors (RDs) compared it to the Hawk 100, a course on which I’d run my first 50-mile race. It was rocky and technical but not a lot of elevation gain, so that comparison was not necessarily a bad thing.
So, I entered Outlaw, moved up the training schedule, so it would finish on February 16, and I trained and I trained and I trained. I incorporated a lot of incline running to get used to hills, in an effort to be as prepared as possible for the Outlaw. I could feel myself getting stronger and faster and I knew I would be ready.
Then, approximately 2 weeks before the race, we were provided with a map of the full course and the elevation chart for the course. All I could think was “Holy fuck, I am going to die.” Each 20-mile loop had over 3,000 feet of elevation gain, meaning the 100-mile race would have over 15,000 feet of gain. I had never done a race with more than 6,500 feet of gain. Hell, the Leadville 100 only has 1,000 feet more than this… but it’s Leadville!!!
At that point, I should have stepped back, taken a reality check, and reconsidered.
Although it was too late to cancel travel plans that close to the race, I should have probably opted to drop down to the 50-mile event and call it good. But I was caught up in the romance of this first 100-mile race, and I had committed to wearing my daughter’s #12, and people were coming there to crew and pace and support my attempt, and so I never seriously entertained the thought of not at least giving it a try.
On top of the new information about elevation gain, we kept hearing comments, with increased frequency, along the lines of, “it is a rocky course.” Well, I knew that (or so I thought) because of the comparison to Hawk.
The Hawk 100 is rocky but it also has a lot of runnable terrain. It turns out that was not really the case, here.
Lesson learned: maybe it’s not a great idea to pick an unknown course as a first 100-mile attempt. Or maybe it’s even as basic as this – it is probably not a great idea to change plans mid-stream. I had originally picked Pistol for my first because it was relatively flat (2,000 feet of gain over 100 miles) and do-able and made sense for a first attempt at 100 miles.
I probably should have stuck with the original plan. It was logical and made sense. But I didn’t.
The Take-Aways From This Race
I can’t say that I regret trying to run 100 miles at Outlaw.
I do regret that I had to stop after 73 miles, and 11,000 feet of elevation gain. I do regret that Brandi, Tracie, Dawn, Brian, Maria and my love, Corey, dedicated so much time and effort toward helping me to succeed, but despite their best efforts, I was not able to cross the finish line. That is my biggest regret.
I do not regret stopping when I did. I was not hurt. I was not feeling helpless or hopeless or any of the emotions that can make people quit between miles 60 and 80 of a 100-mile race. My legs were simply “out of gas.” I had eaten well, I was hydrated, I did not have serious cramping. I had some mild nausea a few times, relieved by Tums and Nexium (thank you, Maria). I was not hit by any of those common and expected maladies that can derail a 100-mile attempt. My legs were just done. They were the “stick-a-fork-in-me-I’m-done” kind of done. When I stopped, I had completed 11 miles more distance and over 5,000 feet more climbing that I had ever done, before, and my body was just “done.”
I do not regret the 73 miles that I did complete, because frankly every one of those miles felt like more than a mile, and I am now headed into the Pistol 100 with a confidence that I did not have going in to the Outlaw race. I now know without any doubt whatsoever that I CAN finish a 100-mile race. Although I was not able to finish THAT 100-mile race, I am certain that if I had faced any one of numerous other courses last weekend, I would have completed it. So, despite last weekend’s DNF I feel strong and capable and know I am set up to succeed.
I also do not regret one single minute of the fun times we all shared over the weekend. For four days, I found myself surrounded by the most amazing group of people, ever, and we had some good laughs and made some truly wonderful memories.
In the end, the simple truth is that this course was a lot harder than I had imagined. I think it was harder than anyone there had imagined (other than maybe a local runner or two).
It is of some consolation that I was not alone in underestimating the course.
31 runners started the 100-mile race and only 5 finished. FIVE! That means 26 of us (more than 80%) could not complete the race. Many of those who did not complete 100 miles were very experienced 100-mile runners with numerous prior finishes under their belts. This has helped ease my disappointment in not completing the full 100 miles.
10 of the 31 runners who started the race were women and only 1 of those 10 finished (Heather Blake, you are a beast!)
I am also at least a little bit proud of the fact that my 73 miles were the furthest completed by any woman other than Heather, and in fact was further than many of the male runners. (Yes, I can be a stubborn one, at times.)
And our 100-mile group were not the only victims of this course. I do not know exact numbers but I have heard that many of the 50-mile runners stopped at the 26.2 marathon distance and some of the marathoners stopped at the 13.1 half-marathon distance.
This course was brutal.
The weather did not help. We started with cold temperatures during the day (low 40s) that dropped into the 20’s with a heavy drizzle at night.
Yes, this was a beautiful course. But it was as difficult and unforgiving as it was beautiful.
The People Make the Memories
Trail Momma Dawn showed up on Thursday with her Jeep Cherokee packed completely full of food, a canopy, chairs, blankets, a heater, more food, a little more food, and then even more food on top of that! The Shawsomes, Brian and Maria, and their terrific kids Bo and Bailey, travelled in from Texas to support us and to run the 5K race, and they were beyond Shawsome awesome!
Between Momma Dawn and the Shawsomes, they set up a canopy at the start-finish (SF) area, had a heater going that I used between loops and that was also used by the aid station volunteers to warm up when it got cold and drizzly/rainy at night, they were able to feed all of us warm gumbo and breakfast burritos, and they made me Cup-o-Noodles, and Spaghetti O’s between loops and after I finished. They were there to cheer me in after every single loop.
On top of all of that, Maria ended up pacing me for 14 miles! I don’t think she’d done a trail race before her 5K on Saturday morning, but on Sunday morning, beginning when it was still dark, she led me through 14 cold, wet, rocky, slippery, steep (both up and down) miles and she did it with a smile on her face and a bounce in her step. In my opinion, she is a natural trail runner and really should start running trail races.
Corey coordinated my SF visits so that I had everything I needed every time I came through the area. He drove people to aid stations to meet up with me and pace me for the later miles, he shuttled folks back and forth to and from the cabin for supplies and showers and rest. He was my rock every time I needed one, and knowing I would get to see him as I came into the start/ finish area was a huge morale booster. I am really happy that he did the 5K race – his first trail race!
Brandi and Tracie worked their asses off! They ran their own marathons, Brandi paced me through the darkest night-time hours (2 headlamps are way better than one, especially when searching for the ever-elusive next orange flag on a trail that was not well-defined) and Tracie paced me through miles 67 to 73, and she was ready to take me through miles 73 to 80, had I been able to complete them. I can’t begin to tell you how much it meant to me to share this experience with them. It was not the outcome we had hoped and planned for, but I think we all grew and learned from this weekend’s events. I can’t begin to thank them enough for their support and encouragement at all hours of the day and night in the days, weeks and months leading up to the Outlaw. They were always there when I needed advice or support or just an ear to listen. They are the absolute best, ever!
Unfortunately, I don’t think we worked on nearly as many chapters of “the book” as we had planned, but we can blame the course for that. It took every bit of our collective attention to follow the course, find the next orange flag, avoid stepping on a rock, avoid tripping on a rock, avoid slipping on a wet rock, avoid slipping on wet leaves on a hidden rock, avoid twisting our ankles on smaller hidden rocks and navigating the “two” (more like 22) water crossings on the course.
Finally, last but not least, there was #LittleSpike, who was rooting for me all along the way. His support was unwavering and much appreciated!
The Course and The Awesome Aid Stations (Meego’s Saloon and Shorty’s Brothel)
The 100-mile course officially consisted of five 20-mile loops. However, the reality was that there was one “main loop” that was 13-miles long, and a second smaller loop that was 7 miles long, and the two loops, together, would create one official 20-mile loop. Each 100-mile runner would complete the 13-mile loop, return to the Start-Finish (SF) area to check in, then leave the SF area, complete the 7-mile loop, and then return a second time to the SF area, at which point the runner would cross the timing mat, signaling completion of one complete 20-mile loop. Runners would complete that course five times to reach 100 miles. (The 50-mile runners completed 4 rounds of the main 13-mile loop, while marathoners did the main loop twice and half-marathoners did it once.)
The nice thing about this arrangement was that runners would be able to see family and friends more often than if there was a single 20-mile loop. Logistically, this meant that runners could carry a lighter load, in terms of nutrition and hydration, since they could stop and replenish supplies after 13 (or 7) miles.
Both loops started by crossing through a small forested area into a paved parking lot, running maybe 100 yards down the parking lot and back into the woods, where the trail really began. From there it was a mostly uphill climb and the first of many water crossings. After about 1.5 miles from the start, the two courses diverged, with the main 13-mile loop heading off to the left and the 7-mile loop heading off to the right.
The 13-mile loop then had some ups and downs and the first larger water crossing (one of the runners slipped and fell on the mossy rocks, here, our first time across) before we encountered Meego’s Aid Station, at about mile 2.25.
Coming out of the woods onto a road and seeing this positive and enthusiastic group of volunteers was a welcome sight, every time I ran this loop. The first time through I just said hello but advised them I would be ready for a Fireball shot with Meego by the time I came back through during mile 22. As it turns out, I had two Fireball shots with Mike Rives’ alter-ego, Meego, at mile 22, then another two at mile 42, with a repeat performance at mile 62 (which happened to be at about 6 a.m. on Sunday). On one of the loops they provided a delicious bean and cheese quesadilla, and on another I asked for just beans and salsa in a tortilla (burrito style) and almost before I finished asking, it was in my hand. During the night time loop with Brandi, we had some sort of spicy pineapple deliciousness that was amazing! I cannot say enough good things about this aid station, its proprietor Mike Rives, his alter-ego Meego, and each and every one of the volunteers, here. If you leave Meego’s Saloon without a smile on your face, the something is definitely wrong with you. They practice #maximumenthusiasm and it shows!
The hard part about leaving Meego’s was knowing it would be another 5 miles before the next aid station. Since this was a relatively small race (a great turn-out for a first-year race, but small by comparison to some others), there were a lot of miles spent alone in the woods following orange ribbons along a trail that was largely obscured by leaves. There was a lot of stopping to look for the next orange ribbon and wondering if I was on the right path. Mile 6 presented the steepest downhill trail I have ever encountered, littered with large rocks and a few scattered trees, many of which were close enough to grab onto for support while slip-sliding down the steep hill. I slipped and landed on my butt twice during the night time loop with Brandi, but I think I may have otherwise managed to somehow stay mostly upright through that section on the other 4 loops. One of the three biggest climbs in the main loop, and one of the bigger water crossings, were also situated between Meego’s and the next aid station on the course (Shorty’s Brothel).
At about mile 7.25, runners crossed a bridge and entered another paved parking area with a pavilion that housed Shorty’s Brothel, which was set up to tend to (almost) our every need. I say “almost” only because, of course, there was no real “brotheling” taking place, here.
There was an indoor bathroom at this stopping point, and it was included in my route through this section, during all 4 loops. The volunteers at Shorty’s were warm and welcoming, offered up a variety of delicious food and drinks, and did everything within their power to keep us all running. I had some bacon here during the first loop and salted potatoes every loop after that. (Brandi tells me there were also some amazing chicken quesadillas, here, but I somehow missed those.) T relied upon this stop for Mountain Dew (for caffeine) and pickle juice (to avoid cramps). During loop 4, I decided to change my socks, here, because they had been wet for miles and I had hot spots under the balls of both feet. (Fortunately, it turned out that there were no blisters!) I am ticklish and I have gross feet and I was determined going into this race that no one would have to deal with my feet. But after 67 miles, when you want your socks changed, having someone there to help you do it, to massage your calves, and to tie your shoes was an amazing thing! Thank you so much to Shorty and all of the volunteers at the Brothel. You are all amazing!!
Runners would leave Shorty’s, climb a small embankment up to the main highway running through the park, cross that highway, and set out for the final 6 miles of the main loop. Mile 9 of this loop was similar to an earlier section that Maria called the Troll Garden… it was littered with hundreds of larger (1-3 feet in diameter) big grey rocks that look like sleeping trolls. We wished more than once that we could wake them up and make them move, like they do in cartoons. The ones at mile 9 were the worst, though, because they were generally too close together for comfortable footing, but not flat enough on top to simply run or walk across the top of them. Then, just as we would clear that slow section of the course, we faced the last big climb on the 13-mile loop during mile 10. In that section, the trail climbed up to a beautiful bluff. It was where my current FB profile picture was taken. But the path to get there was extremely steep, and by the 4th time of climbing it my legs would go no more than 2-3 steps before I would need to then stop for a rest, take 2-3 more steps, then stop again.
(At this point, during my 4th time through the main loop, Tracie was with me and I told her “I am done.” I know she did not want to believe me and I am sure that she thought I was simply hitting one of the expected 100-mile “lows,” but I could physically feel the absence of energy. I was not feeling down or depressed or hopeless… In fact, I still held out hope that I could start to feel better, but I was exhausted beyond redemption. She suggested I get some food in me at the SF area and then re-evaluate. She was right. There was a chance that some more food would help. I planned to try that.)
Fortunately, the trail from the mile 10 bluff back to the SF was relatively easy as compared to the rest of the course. The one exception to that was about a 1/3-mile stretch of gravel road that was all uphill, during the last 1 to 1.5 miles of both the main loop and the 7-mile loop. That short but steep section of road was a bitch at the end of every loop, just because it was so steep. But once we reached the top of that short section, we had just a short, wooded section toward Robber’s Cave, followed by a concrete (and downhill) chute that dropped us back into the parking lot we had crossed at the start. From there it was a short 50 yards or so through a final wooded area and back into the SF area.
After the first time through that loop, I returned to the SF area and declared to Corey that this loop was surely the 13th level of Hell. By then, he had run his 5K, which was very similar terrain, so he understood. But despite the challenges, I’d completed the loop right well within the time range that I had anticipated, going into the weekend. After 13 miles, I was still feeling really good. I took a short break and headed out to the 7-mile loop.
The 7-mile loop had no aid stations (it did have an unmanned water station). It shared its first 1.5 miles and its final mile (or so), with the main loop. The 4.5 to 5 miles in between were beautiful, had more runnable sections than the 13-mile main loop, and provided some reprieve from some of the more grueling challenges of the main loop. There was one steep climb in this loop but it seemed less steep than those in the main loop, and this loop also had a long stretch of trail through a grassy area and another long stretch of welcome gravel road. My first time through this loop I enjoyed it and I was still convinced I could finish the full 100 miles.
After 20 miles I was feeling good and headed back out for more. (“Please Mister, May I have another?”) After a second main loop, I came back in to the SF area at mile 33 still feeling really good. At this point I was starting to think I should start to use my trekking poles for support on the steep uphills and for balance on the steep downhills. I also thought they would be handy for balance through the millions of small rocks, hidden by leaves, that were ankle-turners (I stopped counting after 20-25 times of twisting my ankle on them). I made a mental note to take them out with me when I came back in to start my third round of the main loop.
But first I had to do the 7-mile loop a second time. It was starting to get dark as I started miles 34-40. It got very dark during this loop, and I got lost – really lost – as in a 36-minute mile lost. My headlamp was not very bright and I had to stop at almost every orange flag to search for the next (again, the trail itself was not easily discernable due to the leaves that had fallen, and we did not stay on any one park trail so following the tree blazes was not an option.) In retrospect, this was the beginning of the end of my race. I was truly scared for several minutes, and by the time I located the path, again, and regained my composure, completed the loop and returned to the SF area, I was emotionally drained. I now believe that emotional stress affected my physical state of well-being.
I took a few minutes at the SF to regroup, enjoyed a delicious bowl of Dawn’s gumbo, and warmed up by the heater. Thankfully, I had a new and much brighter headlamp for the rest of the night. Brandi was there waiting to pace me through miles 41-53, and we set off.
Brandi did an amazing job guiding me through this loop. She was able to see most of the orange ribbons without us having to stop and look as often as I had to on the 7-mile loop, when I was alone. (I would estimate we did have to stop and search for the next orange ribbon a good 15-20 times, but overall it was a lot better than I could have done, alone.) By this time, it was getting very cold (in the 20s) and it started to drizzle. Between the heavy mist and our breath in the air, seeing the trail became even more challenging, but not impossible. At this point, I could feel myself starting to tire and the loop was slower than it should have been, but we completed it, and considering I had now finished 53 miles, I was feeling pretty damn good as we returned to the SF area.
At that point, I had a second delicious bowl of Dawn’s gumbo, and Maria (Xena) and I headed out for the third time though the 7-mile loop. This would be miles 54-60. At this point I knew it would take me more than the allowed 36 hours to finish this beast of a race, but I still planned to complete it.
Maria/Xena did an excellent job guiding us through the 7-mile loop, in the dark. I don’t know whether she kept track, but I could guess that we had stop at least 30 times to look for the next damn orange ribbon. A few times I stood by one while she scouted ahead for the next. (Hopefully next year they can mark the course with reflective ribbons to make it easier for the runners.) She negotiated us through the section where I’d gotten lost and we completed those 7 miles without any real difficulties.
We completed the loop faster than we planned, so when we got back to the SF area, Corey, Tracie and Brandi were still having breakfast back at the cabin. It was almost daylight and I was OK to go on ahead for miles 60-73 without a pacer, but in all of her awesomeness, Xena stepped up and volunteered to run with me as far as Shorty’s Brothel, which was 7 miles into the main loop. There, we met up with Corey and Tracie so that Tracie could take over pacing duties and Xena could enjoy some well-deserved rest.
That was mile 67. I changed socks. I was tired. The sun had come up and provided some renewed energy and the trail was much easier to follow in daylight. My legs were feeling more tired, but the trekking poles I had been using since loop 3 were helping. After the change of socks, a kiss from Corey, some Mountain Dew and some pickle juice, Tracie and I headed out for what would be my last 6 miles.
Final Thoughts – Then and Now
In retrospect, I am not sure what I could have done differently that would have enabled me to finish the race. At some point in those final 6 miles my legs just quit. I mean literally quit. Putting one foot in front of the other and relentless forward progress were running through my head. I was thinking “lift foot, move forward, transfer weight.” And it was working but just barely. The last bluff climb at mile 70 (the mile 10 climb described earlier) was the final straw. It took several minutes to summit the bluff and I was done. I knew I could get back to the SF, but I also knew I did not have it in me to climb that bluff one final time. Later, as we walked up that final steep gravel road section within the last mile or so of the loop, I begrudgingly started to come to terms with the fact that my legs were also not going to be able to carry me up that steep section of road 3 more times.
I mentally evaluated the race to that point. I realized I had climbed 11,000 feet, which was almost twice the climb I’d had in any prior race. I had finished 73 miles, which was 11 more miles than ever before. I was not hurt, but I also knew that if I pushed too hard I might risk injury. I have a lot of racing ahead of me this year and no time for injuries.
At that point, mentally, I was still in the race. I wanted to finish. I knew most of the other runners had already quit during the night and I knew I would be second overall woman, if only I could finish. I wanted it so bad… but at some level, right then, I understood it was not going to happen. Not that day.
As we trotted into camp that last time, I was in tears. It was ugly crying at its finest. Not the happy ugly crying that comes with a huge personal achievement but instead it was the heartbroken ugly crying that arises from a sense of defeat.
Until that moment, I had never ever had a DNF on any other race (even ones where I was injured) and I was embarrassed about the fact that I was failing. I was surrounded by a team of wonderful people who had sacrificed their sleep and weekend to help me succeed, and in the end I did not come through for them. I was angry at myself. I was hollow with disappointment. I felt broken.
I sat in front of the heater to get warm and to eat, just in case that might help. Brandi and Tracie got things ready so we could head back out for the next 7 miles, if I was able. They really pushed me to try (I know that was coming from Jenna’s advice) and they did all that they could do to get me back out on course, but the food did not help with my energy levels and without the energy, I could not go back out there.
I told the RDs that I was done. Then I immediately changed my mind and asked them to give me a few more minutes to decide, because some small part of me still believed that with a little more time the food would help and my energy stores would return. Tracie and Brandie went out to do the 7-mile loop without me, so Tracie could compete her marathon miles. And after many more minutes of waiting, the harshest of realities set in and I accepted that my race was over.
In retrospect I now know that stopping was the right thing. An hour later, after resting, I walked to the bathrooms, and during that walk got very weak and dizzy. I stood to talk with other runners and the effort, again, made me dizzy and woozy. I don’t recall ever having so little energy at any other time in my life. And it lasted for hours. I now know, looking back, I could not have physically finished that course.
I continue to console myself with the fact that other, much more experienced runners also quit, and many (maybe most?) quit with fewer than my 73 miles. One of the other 100-mile runners said he equated each of those miles with 2 on most other courses, so I should assume I ran the equivalent of 146 miles. Hearing that made me smile.
Knowing that a number of experienced racers also failed to finish has helped me accept this outcome as a learning experience. I still see it as a failure and I still regret not coming through for everyone who believed that I could, but I am grateful to also be able to see it as a learning experience and a valuable tool for my ultramarathon information arsenal.
Finally, despite the fact that I could not complete this course, I really do feel 100% more confident, now, about my next 100-mile race, than I did going in to this race.
And I can’t say enough how much I appreciated the time with friends and my hubby this weekend.
Oh – and did I mention? I was awarded “Most Enthusiastic Outlaw” by the Race Directors! Of course, I wanted to (and did) hand that award over to Trail Momma Dawn (and #LittleSpike) because they were the epitome of race spirit at the SF area, all weekend long!
Next stop is the Little Rock Marathon where my friend Trail Momma Dawn will complete her very first marathon!!
And then it is on to the Pistol 100. It was my original planned “first 100-miler” and will now hopefully be my first completed 100-miler. It is also going to be Brandi and Tracie’s first 100K! And the Shawsomes will each be doing a 50K/50-miler combination race, as will my Smokin’ Hot Granny teammate, Sue Dionian! Jenna Powers will be there chasing a time goal on her 100K race. And where would any of us be without Trail Momma Dawn who will be there supporting all of us. There is a large group (15+ of us) from Run the Year 2019 who are attending. It’s going to be one fun time in Alcoa, Tennessee!!
And you know what? I am going to be bringing home the “right” buckle from that one!