Over the weekend, I went to Tulsa, OK, to run the Post Oak Lodge Trail race. It was the inaugural year and I enjoy being on the ground floor of a new event. A friend had sent out a note back when I was getting ready for the 50-miler at Rocky Raccoon, and I had envisioned this as a celebratory easy event after my first 50-miler. Well, it didn’t turn out that way…instead, this became a fun come-back event from injury.
My goals for the weekend were on Saturday to 1) finish the marathon (I’d never run in OK before) and 2) not hurt myself, and for Sunday, 1) not hurt myself and 2) finish the 25K. If I had to walk and be DFL, then so be it.
I got in Friday and was the first one of the bunch to the Lodge. It was lovely — I’d never been to Tulsa and had no idea what to expect. I had kind of anticipated dusty flatness, but it wasn’t like that: rolling hills, oak trees, spongy ground after days and days of rain and snow throughout the winter.
I wandered down to the Pole Barn, which was the start/finish area. A group of folks were busy working and I chatted it up; I met Daryll, who had laid out most of the course; his wife Sharon, who was flagging; and Joel, who was putting together the aid station. I got some low-down on the trails, wandered a bit, took some photos, and then went to look for my friends.
We had a fun time at the dinner that night, with a cocktail or two and listening to our buddy (and my friend Claire’s husband) give a talk to the crowd about his book, Running Across Countries.
Back to the rooms to get ready. There was surprisingly little to do. Aid stations on the course were about two to three miles apart, so I was merely carrying a small handheld and a fanny pack with electrolytes and Sports Beans.
The Lodge was having breakfast for us in the morning. I simply had to walk about 5 or so minutes down the road to get to the start. It doesn’t get much easier or more luxurious.
Day 1, Marathon
The morning was clear and cold. I opted for shorts and layers up top, complete with ear warmers and heavy duty gloves. There was an early start, but we all opted for the regular time — shoot, what else am I doing all day? The marathon was the only event on Saturday, and it looked like a pretty hard core bunch at 9 a.m. (you could tell the doublers, as we had red dots on our bibs); sure enough, my old buddy Kurt Egli was there, former Austinite and the man who introduced me to trail running and started the madness. The horn sounded and we were off.
Because there were multiple events going on over the two days, there was a plentitude of flags: orange, orange and black, yellow, pink. There were sections of the trail that seemed to have flags everywhere. Many of the trails had been built over the months solely for this race, so there was almost no one who had ever been out on all this before. No matter: I’m a trail runner, so I just made sure to concentrate.
I quickly fell into a slot where I was leading with two guys sticking with me. They’d get right on my heels but we’d have a downhill and I’d pull away. It was an easy rhythmn, and I like having someone right with me…except I was getting tired of being responsible for reading the trail AND navigating the giant mud pits. There were huge areas in the grass where the ground was completely saturated; the water oozed up through the dirt, making a dark black muck. Fortunately, it wasn’t like Bandera mud that collects on the shoes and makes giant Frankenstein clumps that kill your calves. I just squooshed through it, soaking my feet and shoes and socks — the mud made a “slllcccckkkk, ssllllcccckkk” sound as I pushed through.
When a big hill came up, I let the guys move ahead of me as we climbed to the top. There was a GORGEOUS view of downtown Tulsa against the blue sky, and I stopped for just a moment to appreciate the beauty. It was also my plan to follow for a bit, so I bombed the downhill and then tucked in behind my guys, Greg and Billy. Off we trudged.
At this point, we actually started to talk to one another and it was during our conversation and when I wasn’t leading that we went off course. Somehow, we popped up at the road near the Lodge and immediately knew it was wrong. As we stood there debating our next move, my buddy Joel from Friday came driving by doing race support. We flagged him down; he took our numbers, radioed back to Daryll, and pulled out a map to consult. Daryll came over and between all of us and Greg’s and Billy’s Garmins, we figured out what had happened. Daryll gave us a route to get us to the next aid station and told us to figure out what we needed to do mileage-wise once we got there.
At the aid station, we confirmed with the check-in volunteers that we were approximate 2.5 miles over distance. There was an out-and-back on the road from that point before going back onto the trail, and we all agreed on our turn-around point to adjust our distance (meaning we were supposed to run LESS on the out-and-back than everyone else). Off we went…but Billy and I decided to go out a bit more that what we thought we needed, just to be sure. My goal was credit for a marathon finish, and I didn’t want to be short, so the two of us covered most of the out-and-back.
The next aid station was approximately the halfway point, and I hit my watch at 3:37. With all the standing around and conversing I’d done, that wasn’t so bad. All told, I felt pretty good.
The next sections seemed to get longer and longer and muddier and muddier. There weren’t any signs at the aid stations nor had we been given any maps, so runners had to ask volunteers what the distances in various segments were. Often, the response given was, “Oh, it’s just about two miles.” But this clearly wasn’t right; it was taking 40 minutes or so to do these sections. I was tired of the loops and returning to aid stations over and over again.
Greg and I were staying together, but Billy was falling behind. Greg was a talker and (surprisingly) I’m not so much for race conversation, so I was beginning to get a little weary. Somewhere in the middle of the second half, I moved ahead, catching a woman ahead of us, whose name was Janet. Sweet relief! I thought I’d been saved…until Janet pointed out that THE LORD was running with us, too.
I cannot adequately do justice to the “conversation” of the next hour-plus. There was a lot of praising God for the sunshine and general Hosannah-ing. At one point, I was asked, “Have you met him?”
Remember, I am about five hours into a trail run. I replied, “Met who?”
Janet: “Our Lord, Jesus.”
Me: “Uh, well, he died a long time ago…” Yeah.
Now, Janet was very nice and I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, so I was politely and vaguely noncommittal (I don’t want to talk religion or politics with strangers on a run, thank you), and at one point, I said, “Now, Janet, I go very inward in the final miles of a long race and get quiet.”
Janet: “Inward? What do you mean? How do you spell that?” (No, I’m not making that up.)
Me:” I mean I don’t feel like talking to anybody and I need to concentrate on myself.”
Janet: “Oh, I know what you mean…when I went to blah blah blah…”
At what the volunteers said was around mile 23, Greg rejoined us. I momentarily praised our running buddy THE LORD for this development until, I shit you not, Greg whipped out his harmonica. Yes, harmonica.
Greg burst into a rousing rendition of “You are my Sunshine.” This couldn’t have been a worse moment for me; I’d been to a memorial service for a friend just the week before, and the recessional music after the service was, you guessed it, “You are my Sunshine.” All I could do was say, in a strangled voice, “Have you carried that the whole way?” but Janet was so excited to have music; she began making requests and they hit “Amazing Grace.” She sang; he warbled along; I looked for a large rock to bash their skulls in with.
I tried hard to run away but I could only get so far on tired legs before they’d catch me. I debated internally on when to say to Greg, “This area around me is a harmonica-free zone, please” but I couldn’t do it. The only option was to let them pull ahead. I slowed…and I slowed…and I slowed.
The final 3.2 miles were taking forever, and I seriously began to doubt if I was going to make the 8-hour cutoff. I heard Janet and Greg up ahead, yelling my name and whistling for me, and I actually cowered in the woods a bit, waiting them out. My ego, such that it is, would not allow me to finish next to someone playing the harmonica.
I crossed the finish line at 7:58 with 28+ miles (according to Billy and Greg’s Garmins) and my new-found trail friends were still happy with me seeing as I had not killed them. There was a beer with my name on it in the finishers’ tent and a hot bowl of chili along with a beautiful medal.
After a nice chat with Russ and a quick clean-up, we were back at the Lodge for buffet dinner. We had pleasant table mates, and I ducked Greg (who had his harmonica at dinner — he played a little tune when a dignitary was introduced, which verified my story to friends) as best I could.
Race: Day 2, 25K
When Sunday morning rolled around, I had a moment of despair thinking about the mud. But I remembered from our back-to-back long runs at Bandera that the worst part is putting your shoes on and starting, so I got ready. Thank goodness I’d brought two pairs of trail shoes, as Saturday’s pair was still wet and muddy on the Lodge porch.
It was another cold, clear morning. Those running the 50K took off at 8AM; we 25kers left at 8:15 a.m.; the 10kers got started at 8:30 a.m. There were lots of trail newbies out there; I was tired, and quickly fell to the back of the herd as we trundled up the road to hit the trail.
Once on the trail, I moved around a few folks and tucked in behind a group. The next thing I knew, we’d been running about 35 minutes and it was as though the herd spooked; runners were heading every which way. The woman ahead of me jumped over yellow tape to move behind a group on a trail that ran parallel — I yelled, “Hey, you’re cutting the course.” And then I looked at where I was and realized I didn’t know how I’d gotten there.
Clearly, I didn’t want to do what those in front of me were doing (cutting segments of course), and I knew the route did not take us back out to run on the road. I wound up standing with a group of three (a woman, Ann, and two men), and we agreed that something had just really gotten fucked up. We considered our options, tried to backtrack, gave up, and ran back to the start.
In hindsight, I think what happened was that, when the 25Kers and 10kers got within eyesight, somebody in my pack thought, “Hey, how come I’m not with them?” and went off-course. Anyway, Ann and I stuck together and did what we were told to do to get back on course. She was my kind of trail runner; we chatted a bit to get to know one another (turns out we’d been at Rocky Raccoon at the same time and will both be at Pocatello in May) and then she ran about 20 feet ahead of me, both of us quiet, double-checking turns with each other. We ran the whole rest of the route that way.
The first 1:15 (that’s how long it took us to get to the first aid station, what with the route issues) of the run were not joyous for me; honestly, I struggled and, had it not been for Ann’s company, I came close to just walking off the course after another screw-up. But somewhere around the 2:00 mark, my legs felt better and I seemed to find some rhythm.
The mud on the second day had really become soul-sucking, especially after all the foot traffic. I’d gotten to the point of just going all in, right through the middle, so I’d become quite the mud puppy. There were walking wounded on the trail, and that’s another kind of soul sucking. Neither Ann nor I had a Garmin, so we had no real idea what we’d done mileage wise, but I’d been trying to keep splits on sections and I figured I had about 40 minutes of time on my feet to go when we encountered the race director, Johnny, at a split in the road: 25K to the left to finish, 50K to the right to continue.
Ann and I stopped to confer with Johnny. We went over the trails we’d run, the aid stations we’d been to, and he said, “You’re done; finish.” I knew we’d be short, as did Ann, but we decided there wasn’t anything more to do than what we’d already done — nor did we want more. So we went to the left and finished. And that choice was a good thing, because I was in the middle of a pretty severe allergic reaction, though I didn’t know it at the time. Perhaps THE LORD was running with me after all.
It was an epic time; I had a blast and met lots of nice people. I had a great time with my Austin friends. I managed to finish both the runs and not hurt myself — the worst thing I’m recovering from is the swelling from the allergic reaction. And somehow, I wasn’t even DFL.
You can’t ask for much more than that on a come-back accidental ultra adventure.