Friday, October 19, 2012

The Hawk Hundred: Something Epic This Way Comes

I’ve been deliberately putting this off. Writing a race report for the Hawk 100 just seemed like too big of a task. In my own mind, the Hawk wasn’t just one race over one weekend; it was the summit of a climb that started in 2007 with my very first trail race. It was all of those miles over the years where I learned what to eat, what to wear, how to pace, how to train, and what it takes to run all day. Admittedly, my own mind probably blew this race way out of proportion but I couldn’t help it. You would think that after running 100 miles, sitting at a computer and hammering out a race report wouldn’t be too hard. But how can I write anything that will do the experience justice? I’ve decided not to try. Instead, I’ll just try and narrate loop by loop and see how it goes. I apologize in advance for the length….but it was a long run.


Ask enough ultrarunners how they sleep the night before a race and most will say “not very well”.  I’ve never had that problem. I get a little jittery in the days leading up to a race but once I’ve picked up a race packet, I always get a sense of calmness that holds through to the start of the race. The morning of the Hawk; however, was different. I was a nervous wreck…to the point where I was having trouble getting all my pre-race stuff done. I just kept moving aimlessly from the Xterra to the race HQ and back. “Hmm, this is new”; I thought, “Man, I’ve gotta get focused”.  Again, it was probably just my mind turning the race into something more than just another race, it was as if my entire existence as an ultrarunner was about to be either validated or exposed as a fraud. Way too much pressure on myself. Clearly there was a need to stop thinking and start running.

Loop One: Miles 1 to 25

The good thing about a race morning is that, inevitably, the race director says “go”.  All of the mental build-up is suddenly irrelevant as sixty-seven sets of lights dart into the pre-dawn woods (22 running the 100 & 45 running the 50). The first task was an out and back up Sanders Mound (a good way to wake up the legs!) and then it was onto the single-track of the “blue trail”. Runners tend to get pretty spread out an hour or so into an ultra so I usually try to be pretty social in the early phases of a race knowing that I’ll be running solo for hours. The runners I found myself with were all pretty quiet. Maybe it was the early start. Maybe everyone was just really focused on what they were setting off to do but after a couple of failed attempts to chat I decided to turn on the Ipod early (I usually wait until I’m alone at mile 20 or so). It turned out to be a great move. Listening to the appropriately named This Will Destroy You  relaxed me and I re-gained my usual race day calmness. The instrumental music also helped me keep a nice easy pace which wasn't difficult to maintain since no one seemed to be ready to pass yet, either. What’s the rush, we’re running all weekend, right?

The course took us past a small fishing area called Lake Henry and then it was three miles or so out to Lands end and our first aid station. I was feeling pretty good so I ran through the aid station and dropped down to the shoreline trail. Now, if you’ve never ran at Clinton Lake, there’s really no way you can understand the shoreline trail. The term ‘Highly technical’ seems inadequate. I’ve seen people trying to go too fast here who damn near die. Turns out; by the way, that running it four times in one weekend doesn’t seem to make it any easier, but on the first loop at least, I was able to get through the ridiculously rocky section fairly quickly.

Coming out of a bad relationship…err, I mean…the shoreline trail; I ran up on Carl Cleveland. I had recently met Carl on a Lawrence Trail Hawk’s training run. We run a similar pace and like me, he’s a former Marine and was going for his first 100-miler. Cool guy. I also think that training so much on the actual course would pay off for us both before the weekend was over. Carl and I wished each other well and I picked up the pace. Seemed like a good idea at the time…

Next up was Cactus Ridge, a rocky section starting around mile 7 or 8 that climbs up and away from the lake and turns back east. This was pretty uneventful except for the cactus I stepped on… “Well that explains the name”. Coming out of cactus ridge I hit the West End Road Aid station operated by the Kansas Ultra Runners Society(KUS).  These guys and gals really know their stuff. After refilling water bottles and listening to the KUS folks lie to me about how great I was looking , it was time to climb up Bunker Hill and run across a high ridge that had a spectacular view of Clinton Lake to the south and the City of Lawrence to the North-East. At that moment, it hit me, this weekend was special….I hadn’t been able to treat it like ‘just another race’ because it wasn’t just another race. My mind may have been building this thing up but only because I wanted it so bad and finally, here I was taking my shot at the distance. This was real. Ultras are full of highs and lows. I was definitely on a high as I came down off the ridge and moved onto the “white” trail for the run back to the start/finish area.
West End Road Aid Station

The White trail, rather than tracing the shoreline, moves up into all of the Lake’s ravines. On the first loop it still felt relatively flat (this would change!) but it is more technical than the lower trail and can make for a long 12’ish miles back. I popped out of the trail and was happy as hell to see Jessica & the kids hanging out at the start/finish area waiting for me. Jessica said that I didn’t even look like I was sweating….so much dishonesty at Clinton Lake this weekend!?! After a quick stop to talk to Alyena & Ayden, I hit the main aid station 5:11:00 into the race, refilled water bottles, grabbed a banana, a PBJ, and some s-caps and went out for the second loop feeling invincible.

Loop Two: Miles 25 to 50.

Back up Sander’s mound. This time; however, we had to pull a page from a book of poetry Trail Hawk founder Gary Henry had written and then deliver it to him at Land’s End as proof we didn’t skip the mound. The run to Land’s End was a quick three miles and I was still feeling great. As I came up the trail I started yelling Gary’s poem to him “Southern Whiskey in Southern Mountains goes down hard, It’s tough…”, writing now, I can’t remember the rest of it but I had memorized it in those three miles and Gary was gracious enough to act impressed with my ability to memorize a two line poem. A gentleman and a scholar…and a poet…and a liar…and one hell of an aid station captain. Gary worked the Land’s End checkpoint the whole weekend and his crew really took care of me each time I came through.
Land's End Aid Station
After Land's End I basically ran the whole second loop alone. Like I said, runners get pretty spread out in these races. Anyway,  I did pass a few folks near Bunker Hill and one in cactus ridge and a few other runners passed me on the white trail. It was a good second loop. In fact, it was probably a little too good, I hit the start/finish area at the 11:29:00 mark, on pace for sub-24 hours. Holy crap, I really needed to slow it down. Turns out, slowing down would not be a problem.

Loop Three: Miles 50 to 75.

Jessica, Alyena, & Ayden were waiting for me at the 50 mile mark again but I surprised ‘em by showing up a half-hour to an hour earlier than planned. Sort of surprised my pacer too, but he was ready to roll anyway. I had met Rick Troeh at the infamous Psycho Wyco 50K a couple of years ago. He’s an experienced ultra-runner who has finished the Lake Tahoe Triple marathon,  the Pikes Peak marathon more times than I can count, and plenty of ultra distance races. He had approached me at Coleen’s Sweaty Ass Run about serving as my pacer. I hadn’t planned on using a pacer but I jumped at the chance and thought it would be a cool experience as I’d never used one before. He was going to run the last 50 miles with me to get in a good long run in preparation for his own 100-mile race in October at Heartland.
Hittin the 50-mile mark
We took off towards Sander’s mound and suddenly my legs started to seize up a little bit. What the hell? I was doin so good and it was waaay too early in this thing for my legs to start feeling like this. The third loop would turn into an alternating run/speed hike/power-walk/run/etc. Damn, I went too fast too early and I knew it. This was also where Rick helped out a ton. My mood was starting to decline as I got upset with myself but Rick kept telling me that even power hiking sections, I was on pace for an excellent 1st hundred finish time. He also reminded me that once I hit 62 miles, every step was a PR.

About the time we were coming off Bunker Hill the sun went down and it turned into an entirely different race. I thought the white trail was technical in the daylight, in the darkness it was downright un-runnable. Trail running? No, it was braille running. My mood was matching the darkness. I was just getting slower and slower and I started to really get down on myself. I could hear a clock ticking and I felt like something great was slipping away.

About 16 miles into each loop there was a huge tree that had fallen down across the trail. On the first loop I had jumped over it. On the second loop I went around it, on this third loop I would have gone under it if I could have. Instead, I slowly climbed up and over it and might as well have been maneuvering the Eiger’s Hinterstiosser traverse. I was starting to realize that the fourth loop was going to hurt.
The downed Tree
Rick and I hit the main aid station at about 1:30 in the morning. Jess and the kids were safely tucked in bed at home and to be honest, that was kind of where I wanted to be. The third loop took over seven hours!?! I pushed the desire to call it a weekend aside, swapped out my dimming headlamp for a new one, ate some food, and then we were off for the final loop.

Loop Four: miles 75 to 100!

The final loop was the toughest 25 miles I’ve ever experienced on a trail. I was getting slower and slower and I was starting to think dark thoughts. It’s funny how you can rationalize things. I remember thinking that once the race was over; I would never run 100 miles again. “Maybe 50k races are what I should focus on”. I think there are two ways to look at the 100 mile distance. There are runners who want to run 100 miles and there are runners who want to have run 100 miles, I had always thought that I belonged in that first category but during the first couple hours of the last loop of the Hawk, I was starting to have doubts.

We hit Cactus Ridge around four AM (I think. It was still dark). Up until that point, Rick had been an extremely positive-minded and energetic pacer but he got pretty quiet going through Cactus Ridge. The sleep deprivation was getting to us both. He was running a 50-miler after all and those make for tough days too. I think he battled a few of his own demons on cactus ridge. We were both just struggling to keep moving forward... and I realized that this was good. I remembered some tough climbing expeditions with my brother John, and best friends Aaron & Cameron. The suffering…the pain…the struggle. Putting each other's welfare first on the way to the summit. Rick was out here sacrificing and possibly suffering to help me get to the finish. I decided I had to see this thing through, even if I couldn’t physically get my legs to respond and go any faster, I could do my best and make sure Rick had a full 50 mile training run to help him succeed at Heartland. I had to get my ass across that finish line, not because of any silly self-imposed notion that I needed the distance for validation as a runner…how f&#^$g petty and vain. No, it was about the weekend as a whole and what it really meant to be out there struggling for every step, understanding that we’re not entitled to shit in this life and anything worthwhile is worth going to the edge for. All weekend long I saw runners falling apart, getting back together, wrapping up damaged feet, laughing, crying, falling back and then surging forward. It was epic and it was beautiful.   

Coming down off of Bunker Hill for the last time, Rick and I both seemed to be feeling better. We knew we had the KUS aid station in front of us and despite my earlier sense of doom, we were way ahead of a pace for sub 30 hours (my B goal for the race!). It felt like the white trail; however, was going to make sure it kicked me in the ass on my way out. We finally hit the final Lands End Aid station (mile 94!). Gary Henry and Mark Boucher told us we were looking good (more lies). Gary had race director Danny Miller on the horn and relayed to me Danny’s request to "please get my ass to the finish line".

Lands End is a cross roads of sorts and a runner was coming up the blue trail from the other direction. He was getting ready to hit the shoreline trail and I remember thinking “damn, he’s just now hitting the shoreline, I don't think he’ll make it”. Turns out that dude made it under cut-offs with time to spare. What a tremendous effort. He had to have picked up his pace and hauled ass over the last seventeen miles to get that done. I don’t think I could have picked up my pace like that. At this point in the weekend, I was simply surviving. Leaving lands end, I averaged 28-minute miles over those last six miles. I had multiple muscles seizing up and my football induced old ankle and knee injuries were really thumping. I got passed for the first time in twelve hours at mile 98 and I couldn’t have cared less!

At mile 99 I finally realized that I was going to do it. I popped out of the woods and actually picked up my pace for the last .1 mile. Jessica, Ayden, & Alyena were there waiting. I ran around the sand volleyball pit and saw Danny Miller holding a buckle. Just like that it was finally time to stop moving after 29 1/2 hours. Despite falling apart over the last 50 miles, I had managed to come in under 30 hours and was the ninth place finisher (not sure how many finishers there were and don’t really care). Finally, a 100 mile race in the books. Whether I truly needed validation as an ultra runner or not, it felt freakin awesome!
Mile 99.9!

Wow. I don’t even know where to start. Thanks to co-race directors Danny Miller and Coleen Shaw-Voeks for a truly top notch event. Huge thanks to the Lawrence Trail Hawks for one of the best race experiences of my life and an epic adventure I’ll never forget! Huge thanks to Chris Wristen for the pictures and videos of the race and the encouragement in the months leading up to the Hawk. Thanks to Gary Henry for the stellar aid station service, the poetry, the running mentorship he gives so freely, and for dreaming up the Hawks. Big shout out to the Kansas UltraRunners Society for a great aid station. Thanks to every single volunteer who made this thing happen. A heartfelt special thank-you to my pacer Rick Troeh for all you did, You're a tough runner man and I know you’ll get your 100-mile finish.  

Finally, love and thanks most of all go to Jessica, Ayden, & Alyena for sacrificing many weekends, always supporting me, and going along on the journey over these last few years.

Next up…a little rest and then I’ll close out 2012 with my seventh ultra of the year and "short race", the Lake Perry Rocks! 50K trail race.

Thanks for reading and I’ll see you on the trails!
Pacer Extraordinaire! Rick Troeh & I

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