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Once a padawan, now a freaking Jedi. I run really far, I write a bunch, and have super powers that allow me to grow amazing facial hair.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Race Report: 2011 Bigfoot 50K

Coming into December I looked to close out this year's race schedule with a personal milestone. A year ago this weekend I fulfilled my promise to help my friend Debbie Talbott complete her very first ultramarathon. It ended up being a 7-hour long emotional roller coaster, battling against the snow, freezing temperatures, a torn up mud bog of a trail, and various physical ailments (my injured ankle and Debbie's on-setting stomach flu). I "coached" her to the finish line with success, but as great as this story would have been in and of itself, it has significance for a much different reason.

After the first loop, Debbie and I met up with a friend of hers who also happened to be running her first ultra. Despite being well prepared, her friend decided to trust in the pack strategy, and began to run the race with us. I thought she was cute and on top of that, this cute girl was running an ultra... double hotness points in my book. I was fairly smitten, but couldn't exactly spit game on the trail, so I kept my more flirtatious comments to myself. 

Everyone went their separate ways after some post race grilled cheese, but I did get her name. Thanks to the digital world of Facebook, that's all I needed. Her last name wasn't Johnson or Smith, so it made Mikayla Vega an easy girl to track down. I kept in contact with her, running talk became talk about movies, music, books, and then about life... all while I developed a serious crush on a girl that was perfect, but also unavailable. Over the months of talking, getting to know one another and sharing experiences at different races and running adventures, truer feelings prevailed. The girl that I had met through such a random series of events, is now the girl I want to marry and spend my life with. A rough and unorthodox inception that was the start of our relationship together has become something great and brought us back to Lore City, Ohio to run another race. Bigfoot isn't the greatest course, it doesn't stick out in my mind when I think about the dozens of races I have run, but it will always be significant to Mikayla and I. No matter where life ends up taking us, you will know where to find us on the first weekend of every December. So here we are, a year after the chance meeting that changed both of our lives.

As my last few entries would suggest, the second half of 2011 hasn't been kind to me in regards to running success. Going into Bigfoot I was undertrained and injured... not much different than last year. Neither of those issues would prevent me from toeing the start line though. This race had to be run, regardless of the outcome. For Mikayla, she has battled through a tough year and various injuries as well. She was just beginning to build a solid training base coming into this one, but her base so far had been composed of shorter distances on asphalt rather than long distances on trail. She had decided to commit to just the first loop of the course and see how she felt from there, with no expectations of running the whole thing. Given the significance for us as a couple, my strategy was to stay with her the first loop, and then push on, looking only to finish under the cut off. This was a completely feasible plan that was stress free.

We drove from Columbus to Salt Fork on Saturday afternoon, planning on meeting our friends Rachel Nypaver and Steve Hawthorne for dinner at the lodge, the location of which we were also staying, making for an easy 300 yard walk to the starting line the next morning. Rachel was under the weather and ended up being unable to join us, so it turned out to be just the three of us for some carb-loading conversation. After dinner and a single drink (no Marines to incite heavy pre-race partying this time), we made our last minute preparations and went to bed.

Mikayla and I both slept terribly and I was dealing with a cold (that she had passed onto me) all night, but come Sunday morning we were both motivated enough to wake up at 6:30 AM to get ready to kick some trail. As we strolled to the lobby where all the other runners were gathered, we bumped into Steve, this time with Rachel, who had overcome her illness enough to race. It was good to see her feeling better, because it's always a treat to root for someone that is actually going to have a chance at winning the thing. We also saw Nathan Zangmeister, who I had the privilege of talking into running his first 50K back at Tie Dye in April. 

The weather was perfect for a run, the day started out in the low 40's and would creep up to the high 50's later in the day, and though it was a bit cloudy at times, it looked like we would escape without getting rained on. The only issue we really were concerned about was what the previous week's weather had done to the trail, and then what Saturday's 10-mile race had contributed on top of that. We expected a warm but very muddy day ahead of us... a far cry from last year when it snowed the entire time and never seemed to get above freezing.

We started out in the parking lot right in front of the lodge, worked toward the trail head as a big pack, and the race was underway. We had a pretty steady pace going in the cool early morning temperatures and within the first five minutes, the congestion that had kept me from ever really getting to sleep the night before, was all over the woods, and I could breathe again. As we entered the loop and hit both our first stream crossing and climb, I was pleasantly surprised at the effort Mikayla was putting forth. I know she is a strong runner but I didn't expect her to be as aggressive as she was. Instead of walking the hill when we got to it, you could audibly detect her grunt of frustration that people were slowing her down. She started passing people on the climb, forcing me to plow off to the side of the trail to keep up with her. The course was muddy, but in good enough condition that it was still fast. 

We reached the top of a hill, probably just under 3 miles into the course, where there was a flat and relatively smooth trail along a ridge. I was about two or three steps behind Mikayla when I saw her right ankle turn sharply in. Rolling your ankle is about as commonplace in an ultra as sipping water, but in a split second I knew it was more than just an ankle roll. There was a loud popping noise and she instantly dropped to the ground with a shriek. 

I kept running, and as I passed her I yelled back, "See you back at the lodge sweetheart! I have a race to run!" 

Just kidding. I think if I tried to run away from her, not even a broken ankle could have stopped her from kicking my ass. 

I was on the ground next to her as fast as I could, pulling her off the path so we could see if the injury was as bad as it looked. The runner in front of us tried to stop and help us but we told him to keep running and that we'd okay. The two runners approaching from behind though, would accept no such argument. The two insisted that they were nice people, citing the fact that they were Canadiens as their concrete evidence. They were planning on not running a minute faster than the cut-off, so they had some time to kill with us.

Attending to the wounded!

I removed Mikayla's shoe and sock, which even as careful as I was, proved to be a painful experience for her. You could tell the ankle was already beginning to swell, but without x-rays it's almost impossible to tell a broken ankle from a sprained one. Luca, apparently a french Canadian with an affinity for stuffed animal backpacks, had a plethora of gear stuffed into the likeness of Kermit the Frog, including first aid supplies. He wrapped Mikayla's ankle with a bandage and gave some suggestions on what to do next... but the first step was obvious, get her out of the woods and back to the lodge. Runners were passing us during this entire interaction, but none did so without making sure we had everything under control and that Mikayla was, for all intents and purposes, not in any trouble. Luca and his fellow countrywoman, reluctantly left us to continue on in the race, promising to alert the next aid station of our situation.

Mikayla was in good spirits overall, I had known she was tough, but I had no idea to what extent until this dilemma. At this point she couldn't even stand without my help, let alone walk. We would also quickly find that using me or even a stick as a crutch would end up making the trek back an all day affair. Drawing off one of my favorite punishments that the drill instructors inflicted on me at Parris Island, I decided to use the fireman carry to transport my damsel in distress. We initially took the Canadiens ill conceived advice of going off course to short cut the distance back to the start, charging up a brush covered hill. The first consequence of the decision was courtesy of the mud, expertly hidden by mother nature under a thick layer of fall foliage. I was slipping with every step, my balance already compromised by the full-grown (sort of) human being slung over my shoulders. After a fall, which I was able to break with my knees, but not before dinging Mikayla's injured ankle off the ground, I questioned the decision to leave the trail. The other fear we had was due to the fact that it was hunting season and we could hear gunshots in the distance. The trail was marked and the hunters had been notified to stay away from the course, but we weren't on it anymore. At that realization we decided to hike back down the hill and retrace our steps, but in hindsight there was a third reason our original decision was a poor one... once the race staff was alerted, they certainly wouldn't have been looking for us somewhere that we were never supposed to be.

Never have I been happier that Mikayla
is the size of a 12 year old.
Back on the trail we both rested for a minute and once again tried to see if Mikayla could walk with a makeshift crutch. Still no dice, so she went back over my shoulders once again. I was trucking along, a man on a mission, stopping every so often to give both of us a rest. After a mile or so, we came within view of the loop entrance and stream crossing when we saw what we thought was the lead runner entering his second loop. It turned out to be Vince Rucci instead, the race director. He apologized for his delay in finding us. It turned out that once the report was received from Luca at the aid station that there was an injured runner, there was a miscommunication and the staff had gone there to pick us up. Once we crossed the stream, Vince called back to the lodge to have the park rangers send an ATV for transport. 

The plus side of waiting at the beginning of the loop was that we were afforded the opportunity to see the front runners coming through and also be entertained by Vince. We ended up being there long enough to see Rachel, who at the time was battling in 3rd place, Steve who was temporarily ahead of her, Nathan who was on a PR pace, and few other friends we have made over the last few years of our ultrarunning careers. 

Posing for a rendition of the
Wounded Warrior Project logo.
We waited there for a relatively long time, getting cold in our now static position. All three of us were getting impatient after several calls were made trying to figure out what was taking the rangers so long to get to our location. After literally an hour or more of waiting, we decided to continue on our own, carrying Mikayla back. If nothing else, it would make us warm. Not more than 5-minutes after we started, Perrin Peacock, who had passed us during the initial incident, was making his way to the completion of his first loop. He insisted on helping, switching off the duty of carrying Mikayla. The help was most welcomed and very appreciated. We now were making great time back to the lodge, without the assistance of the motorized vehicle we had still been hoping would meet us. Vince was apprehensive about helping with the carrying duties... I assume it didn't have anything to do with the fact that he is probably only an inch taller than the person we had to carry, but rather he didn't want to show off his beast strength.

When we got to the base of the last big climb before we hit the pavement where we could get Mikayla into a car, Vince let his pride get the best of him and took a shift. He insisted that using the piggy back method was the most efficient technique and thus carried out his plan. After about 50 yards, he had showed off enough that he decided to let Perrin take the reigns back. After a good haul, I took her again, and we were close enough to the end of the journey that it was time to thank Perrin for his assistance and let him get back to running. The woods turned to muddy grass which bordered the pavement leading to the start. Vince ran ahead to get a vehicle and I waited with Mikayla in the grass.

Our race had ended less than an hour from it's beginning, but the adventure lasted much longer. I certainly wish that Mikayla hadn't gotten hurt and that our day would have played out as we had planned, but I had made good on a promise. In previous events we had done together we had joked about something happening to Mikayla on the trail (more along the lines of an epic animal attack or a rapist puppeteer kidnapping her instead of a broken ankle) and I had told her not to worry, because I would just find her and carry her out of the woods. Though I did have some help from pretty amazing people, I did just that.

Here is a video of the race from Perrin Peacock (Mikayla and I can be seen at 2:27 and 3:42):

We ended up getting back to the lodge a few minutes before the leaders entered their final circuit. Plenty of time for us to get cleaned up, eat something, and see at least some of our friends finish. After carrying Mikayla through the hotel a few times, the staff finally noticed and provided us with a wheelchair, making the rest of our day a hell of a lot easier on my back.

There are a number of races since Laurel that I look back on with disappointment... poor efforts and missed opportunities. This race isn't at all one of them. Sure, I thought it was going to be different. I thought I would at the very least have another 50K finish on my resume, but that day it didn't really matter.

We are still in our 20's, both a decade away from our peak age for ultrarunning. No race is ever the same and expectations must be kept low at all times, because you really never know what could happen out there. Despite how crippling Mikayla's injury is (it turned out to be a severe sprain and a chipped bone), and how extensive the consequences have been, I don't think it would be worth trading the adventure of our day. What I got was a very unique chance to show Mikayla how much I love her, and we both have one hell of a story to tell.

This was to be my final race of 2011, and so that stands. I am currently attempting to get a lower abdomen pain taken care of that I have been ignoring since before Laurel. I suspect I will need surgery to repair a hernia, thus joining Mikayla in an unfortunate situation that prevents either of us from running for a length of time. Both of us have our sights set on Glacier Ridge in April. We plan on being fully healed and adequately trained for a late start in 2012. Mikayla will be attempting her first 50 miler and I will be after a new PR for that distance.

Stay tuned for my 2011 wrap-up blog!