Two “L’s” is appropriate for the spelling. More than it appears. This race turned out to be quite a tight race with a local Arkansas dude, PoDog (and, his first 100 miler no less). Not only was it a close race, the conditions were extremely tough. As Chrissy Ferguson (one of the Race Directors) laid claim, this was the toughest conditions ever at Traveller. 15 degrees above normal, high humidity, only a 47% finishing rate. There was a lot of carnage.
Mark Lantz (who I raced with at Waldo 100k in August) and I both thought it was tougher heat than Western States. At States it’s hot and humid, but the heat is still a dry heat. The Arkansas River Valley is dripping moist. I’ve never been so wet during a race. It literally looked like I jumped in a lake, stepped out, and stayed that wet for the entire race. Shorts clinging to my legs, dripping wet. Jungle humid. I must add, west central Arkansas in October is normally in the 70s and 50% humidity. However, at the peak on race day, it was 89 degrees and 90% humidity. Dripping wet.
I’m back up in Northern Arkansas today as I write, up in the Ozark hills, out of the river valley and it’s much cooler. As I sit in Roscoe’s Internet Cafe in Eureka Springs, enjoying a latte with my foot propped up, listening to the rain come down from the thunderstorm that just blew in. I’m enjoying the fall smells and cool breeze blowing in the tall oaks outside that are just hinting of their fall colors.
As I just finish explaining to a couple of locals why I have a limp and why my feet look like complete crap, I can’t help but reflect on my own personal carnage. I had to work hard for this win. I was dripping wet all day from the humidity. My shoes were squishy with sweat most of the day. My feet are the worst they’ve ever been after a race.
Here’s a short list of my carnage…gigantic blisters on both balls of my feet (deep layered), more on my toes, between my toes, stone bruise on the ball of my right foot, poison ivy, chigger bites, and an extremely bruised left big toe from multiple head-on kicks to rocks (no loose ones here, they’re all attached securely to the earth). Amazingly, my feet look worse than after Hardrock—ironic. Again, this race is more than it appears.
We started out this race at 6am with headlamps shining. I ran with Mark Lantz for the first few miles of road, then the gravel road up to Brown’s Creek Aid Station. Mark and I were in the top 5 coming out of Brown’s Creek. We continued the gravel road climb up to Flatside Pinnacle Aid and the beginning of the Ouachita (pronounced Wah-chuh-tah) Trail section, where we’d follow for the next 8 miles until the first crew and drop bag station at Lake Sylvia (mile 16).
It was so humid that I couldn’t keep my prescription Rudy Project glasses from fogging up. I had wiped them several times with an anti-fog cloth, but the Arkansas humidity won out. I took them off and never wore them again for the remainder of the race. Thank the Lord my prescription is not super strong. I was a little worried about night time, but figured the course’s majority fire road terrain would be manageable without the glasses. Again, this was in the first hour of the race and barely light—already steamy humid.
I was in 4th when I started the Ouachita Trail and quickly passed a few guys on the rocky trail and was running with the top 2 guys. John Muir (7th from last year and ended up in 3rd this year) and another guy (I didn’t catch his name). This section of trail was awesome—technical, rocky, rolling. Lots of leaves on the trail. It was killer fun. We arrived Brown’s Creek together and I left first with the other two guys right behind me. I led through this whole section and quickly realized why leading in the woods here is not necessarily a cool thing—orb spiders.
These little suckers, or rather, big suckers are EVERYWHERE. Gigantic, non-poisonous brightly colored spiders that make their web across the trail right at face height. Usually you can catch a glimpse of them a split second before you hit their web and can duck and only get part of the web in your face. But, if you don’t, well—BAM! Face-full of sticky web and sometimes the spider too. I had spider web on me on and off most of the day…hanging from my beard, ears, arms, tangled in my hand. You get used to it.
I arrived Lake Sylvia in the lead with everyone right behind me. My dad got me in and out with some ice in one bottle, downed a Turkey slider (the Roch Horton special) and started the run up the gravel road to Pumpkin Patch. I decided with the heat, that I would just run steady until at least half way, probably until the turnaround at 58. I didn’t worry about what place I was in.
I was soon up to Pumpkin Patch, then Electronic Tower and soon the rocky decent into Rocky Gap (mile 29). The rocky sections of this course are REALLY rocky. It reminded me of Wasatch rocky without loose rocks and without the steep factor. All the rocks are solid in the ground, so there is no forgiveness. This is definitely what wreaked havoc on my sweat-drenched feet throughout the race. And, the section where I kicked a rock with my left big toe and jammed my toenail HARD (my big toe is gnarly looking and I won’t be able to get into shoes for a while). The toenail is moving around—goes with the territory I suppose.
I arrived Lake Winona Aid Station (mile 32) in 4th place and was only 4 minutes behind the leader. Another turkey slider and gel and water refills and I was on my way. I had finally dialed in my S cap intake by Winona. I had systematically increased my intake per hour until I had no more cramps or squirrelly stomach. It ended up being a pill every 20 minutes in the heat of the day…ALOT. I was feeling better after that and somewhere between Pig Trail Aid station and Club Flamingo (early 40s) I moved into 3rd place.
Video from Lake Winona Aid Station, mile 32. Theme? Hot.
I got up and over Smith Mountain and down to Chicken Gap and was feeling pretty good. I had become accustomed to drenched clothes and the humidity (well, at least as much a humanly possible…maybe it was just mental numbness).
I arrived Power Line Aid and saw Tom Brennan (last year’s winner) standing there with his shoes off, apparently he had dropped (he’d been complaining earlier of an ankle tendon bothering coming into the race). This put me in 2nd and my Dad said the leader had just left a few minutes in front of me. Enter PoDog.
I met PoDog earlier in the day as he was hammering up a hill and we ran together for a bit. He came up even with me and exclaimed, “Hi! I’m PoDog! How ya doin’?” Super friendly, upbeat dude and had good uphill running speed. I was in a bit of a low spot at the time (before I dialed in my S cap intake) and probably mumbled something like “I’m Jeff, it’s hot.” or something similar.
So, now I’m back on PoDog’s tail, he’s with his pacer at about mile 50, a couple of miles before we arrived at Chili Pepper. He saw me and was out of the station quickly. I said some friendly hellos to the volunteers and had a quick chat with Paul Schoenlaub (from St. Joseph, MO), whom I had met at Wasatch in 2004 when he had finished up the Grand Slam. He’s a super nice guy and was good to see someone familiar. Some orange wedges, ice in the water bottles and I was back after PoDog. I had a stray dog to catch.
I accessed my current condition. I felt good but needed to be smart and not blow the advantage I had. So, I decided to bide my time before I made a move and wait until after the turnaround, before dark. I just kept PoDog in sight and conserved. At the turnaround, PoDog was leaving when I was arriving. So, I did the usual aid station refill, turned around, and headed out for the 42 remaining miles.
When I caught sight of PoDog again, I noticed he was walking as soon as it got steep on the road, so, I decided it was time to make a move. Right before mile marker 60, we went into a rolling uphill section and PoDog was hiking. I ran the hill, passed him and ran the remainder of the hills coming up to gap him. He was soon out of sight and I settled back into a run-hike combo on the climb back to Chili Pepper and Power Line.
After Chili Pepper, I was running and hiking on and off transitions when a runner on his way out passed by and reported, “he’s 100 yards back!” That rascally PoDog again. That was it—time to put the hammer down. I ran the remainder of the climb up to Power Line, weighed in, downed a turkey slider, got my lights and jammed out of there. Not very far out of Power Line you enter the bushwhacking section over Smith Mountain. It’s basically an old overgrown ATV trail that they weed-wack down for the race. Rocky, uneven footing and rolling topography on a ridge line.
My iPod shuffle kicked out a Rage Against the Machine song, appropriately named “Freedom”, I hit repeat 7 times to keep pushing the pace hard over Smith Mountain. I was meeting back of the packers on their way out and they were shouting encouragement, it was giving me juice, and I was feeling strong—the worst of the heat breaking with the setting sun. With the light fading, I wanted to get over Smith Mountain and back on the gravel Fire Road past Smith Mountain Aid Station before I had to turn on my lights.
I made it to Smith Mountain station (mile 73) before dark, asked for soup, they scrambled and I quickly realized they had nothing really ready. I quickly downed a half banana, said thanks, and grabbed my bottles with ice and jammed outta there.
I flipped on my lights on the way to Club Flamingo. I periodically turned my lights off to see it PoDog was close—nothing. Just darkness. Good. But, not out of the woods yet (literally). This head game of light checking continued for the remainder of the race. Well, at least until the last aid station. No one at any station could tell me how far back PoDog was at the previous station. So, I assumed he was close and ran scared.
I was soon to Pig Trail at 79 miles, in and out, and onto the last crew drop. I cruised down the gravel road to Lake Winona at mile 84. This is where I saw my Dad for the last time before the finish. He asked me how I was doing, I said “tired and hot” or something complaining-like. I stretched a bit while they filled my bottles with ice and water, got my last supply of gel and asked him how far back PoDog was at Power Line (mile 68). He said 3 minutes. Crap, dude. I told him I pushed hard over Smith Mountain so hopefully I put some more cushion on him. No way to know for sure. See ya at the finish Pops.
Crew Side Note: Okay, I have to tell a quick story about my Dad. Mike Browning is a born salesman, works in sales, and has never-NEVER met a stranger. My friend, Steve, who was cruising around during the race said he was “at first” worried my Dad would be alone. He quickly realized that my Dad knew EVERYONE at the aid station within 30 seconds of stepping out of his car. I can hear him now in his Missourah drawl…”Hi, Mike Browning…Hi, Mike Browning” extending his hand for a firm handshake, then a proud proclamation that “his boy is Jeff Browning” or something similar. Good ol’ Mike.
He’s good at being there for moral support and competition analysis. I had given him instruction to get my drop bag, fill bottles with cold water and have my waist pack swap ready, and make me eat a turkey slider. He did all this to the “T”—perfect.
However, I was expecting him (my fault, as I did not specify and will next time) to take EVERYTHING out of my drop bag, lay it out, and have it ready for me to choose through the stuff quickly. Power Line especially comes to mind. I come in, PoDog 3 minutes back, and he would hand me my drop bag, zipped up. Here ya go. I’d have to unzip it, rummage through it to get what I needed, not very efficient. Again, NOT HIS FAULT AT ALL, just comical…he did EXACTLY what I asked. I just didn’t ask enough. He’s a great crew chief. Thanks Dad, you da man.
Back to the race…
I dropped down the gravel road hill to the spillway concrete crossing and soon was hiking the steep gravel road climb that starts the uphill to Rocky Gap. I hiked hard and ran quite a bit on the gnarly, rocky terrain up to Rocky Gap. By this time, the heat and constant similar grade of this course was grinding on my quads. They were pretty sore down deep. Can’t slow down now. And, soon was at Rocky Gap, mile 87—less than a half-marathon to go—mentally, a nice fact.
In and out of Rocky Gap, lots of running on the rolling, mellow climb up to Electronic Tower Aid at 92 miles. Coming up the last climb, after Electronic Tower aid station, the course flattens out and does a large U turn on a gravel road before heading into Pumpkin Patch aid station. I turned off my lights and stared into the darkness toward the course section I’d come up, straining in the dark to see a shimmer of light—nothing. Good. I was inside of 7 miles from the finish and figured I could just cruise it in from there without too much to worry about. Steady flow, Bronco, steady flow.
I quickly caught a glimpse of the orange glowing jack-o-lanterns that line the road leading you into Pumpkin Patch aid station—the last aid station. Mile 94.2—5.8 miles to go—less than a 10k.
I headed out of of Pumpkin Patch for the last section and really started to notice how much I hurt, especially my feet. I had some serious blisters and my quads were screaming from using the same muscle group all day. But, pain aside, I was pumped.
However, I was worried upfront, as this course doesn’t really play to my strengths as a mountain runner. I’m better at very technical, very steep courses. This was a runners course, lots of fire roads, mellow grades. Those things aside, I really wanted to come here and pull out a win. It had happened. I had run a smart race by laying back early in the peak of the heat. Pushed on the technical sections. That’s what a hundred is about, controlled effort, knowing your strengths AND weaknesses. The old hundred saying—race doesn’t start until 60 is so true.
I hit the paved road for the last half mile to the finish and was hootin’ and hollerin’ and yee-hawin’ and came across the line in 18:21:50! A satisfying ending to a hard, hot, humid day.
I’m finishing up this post on Thursday and I still can’t get normal shoes on, not even flip-flops. I had to go buy the slip-on Nike sandals that have the big velcro flap over the top. My left big toe and toenail is still super swollen, I just was able to put weight on the balls of my feet Wednesday. My feet remind me of the Patagonia ad a few years ago of Betsy Nye’s feet after Wasatch, all duct taped up. I should be so proud—Betsy’s league. Sweet.
A HUGE thanks to Steve and Natalie McBee (whom I met briefly at Hardrock), and were kind enough to open up their home in Fayetteville for me to crash before and after the race. Almost a whole week afterward while I checked out NW Arkansas. They’re awesome.
I also have to give my love to my family. Jennifer stayed up taking progress reports from my dad via cell phone and posting it. Benjamin (and Annie) helped me fill gel flasks before I left. Thanks to my Dad, Mike, for crewing and making me eat turkey sliders, even when I didn’t want them and getting me in and out quickly and back on course.
I’d also like to thanks Mark DeJohn, who kept me running healthy all season after a slow spring training start. Active Release Technique is AWESOME. I highly recommend it. Check him out at www.activebend.com.
Thanks to my sponsors Patagonia, Clif, Black Diamond and Footzone of Bend. They keep me gear-geeked out, Bronco Billy style. With 6 ultras this season, including two 100s, I’m ready for 6 weeks off.