Ozark Trail 100 Race Report: Trail by Braille

Getting ready to start. Photo by Paul Escola.

Pics of the course…lots of oak leaves. This is actually an easy part of the course to see. Photo by Paul Escola.

Can you see the trail in all the leaves? It’s there somewhere. A hint of what we had to deal with. Photo by Paul Escola.

Arriving Sutton Bluff aid station (mile 17). Photo by Paul Escola.

Done! 18 hours and 38 minutes on a very leaf covered course. Talking with my sleepy son, Benjamin, at the finish line. Mama woke him up after 3 hours of sleep.

Turning off the Black Diamond headlamp after crossing the line. Ah, to be done running!

Respect where respect is due…

Hats off to the volunteers and race staff…awesome aid stations, I never filled a bottle and the course was marked perfectly. You would never know this was a first year hundred. Very smoothly run—like a well-oiled machine! I was extremely impressed. Awesome, awesome job.

Now, since this my blog, I like to be honest and constructive…if I may, I’d like to make two small suggestion to Stuart and Paul (the RDs) for next year. Give the belt buckles out AFTER the 2pm cutoff. I know they want to be “low-key”, but I really wanted everyone to stick around so I could talk to all the runners post-race. Plus, it makes it really cool for the back of the packers ’cause EVERYONE is there to cheer them in. A few did stay and I enjoyed hanging out (you Arkansas boys), but I love to swap war stories and hear the first hand accounts of the runner’s experiences on the course. After all of us get done battling the course—especially a challenging course like that—it’s nice to share the experience with everyone who fought hard in the woods. Secondly, maybe a good ol’ fashioned Missourah BBQ. Swapping war stories with some ribs or a half a hog in my belly wouldn’t be bad either. Seriously though…great job Paul and Stuart and all the race staff and volunteers. Cool race, I hope folks will return to support this race. The leaves give this course a whole different level of technical complexity.

On an unfortunate note, I heard some horse riders pulled some flags on part of the course later in the day…which gave the race staff some stress. We used to run into the same issue when I mountain biked in Missouri in college. Horse folks rule the roost on trails in the midwest and have a long standing history of trail use. Too bad, considering how much time and volunteer effort was put into clearing the Ozark Trail (OT) for this race. Given the high horse use in some areas of the OT, maybe race staff try to reach out to the horse folks next year and get them involved with volunteering in the future and it would help with runner-rider relations and mutual effort to get the trail maintained. I think all could benefit. The 20 or so riders I ran into at mile 40ish did not know the race was happening. They were very nice, but surprised there was a race and seemed a little flustered that over a 100 runners were headed their way. I think warning and awareness will go a long way in the future. Much like the horse folks get involved in Western States 100. It’s a mutual benefit for trails and sharing. They learn about our crazy sport and runner’s get a reminder on trail etiquette when encountering horses on the trail (let the horse take the high side of the trail, talking to them, etc.). Plus, it get them emotionally attached to this thing too. Something to ponder.

Anyway…less deep thoughts and more about my actual race experience on the OT…

This was the most dangerous course I’ve been on at night. This course includes 80+ miles under 4+ inches of fallen oak leaves. You can’t see the obstacles under the leaves, which is basically running by braille—using your feet as feelers and being ready to adjust on the fly every step. On paper—this course looks easy. Race description said 15,000 feet of climbing (I think they must have used GPS units to figure that…which exaggerates elevation because it doesn’t take into account barometric pressure. My Suunto actually clocked a lot less—10,906 of ascent and 11,572 of descent). And I’ve found my Suunto to be the most accurate. It’s all at low elevation, rolling, no major climbs—well, it looked really fast. Even though it was 98% singletrack, I thought it would be pretty darn fast. Within the first 20 minutes of running in the pre-dawn dark, I realized my original plan of going under 17 hours was not realistic. The challenging footing in the dark with the leaf factor, as well as the route finding. Many times you had to look closely to barely see an indentation in the leaves where the trail was. Tricky, especially when trying to run downhill fast. Plus, certain sections of the OT are very rarely traveled, making the faint trail almost invisible.

We started promptly at 6am and ran the first 20 minutes in the dark before it got light enough to see. I went out leading the front pack with Ryne Melcher, Dave Wakefield, and Ben Creehan in tow. We were a few miles in and I stopped to tie my shoe at a power line crossing in the woods. They continued on and I jumped in about 50 meters back and we came to a down tree and no markers. We all looked around, Ben ran up the wide trail and then I backtracked to the last flag and sure enough the trail had veered left into the trees. We all missed it. Maybe a minute off course. No big deal. Once we were back on track, I joked that I let them lead for 30 seconds and they tried to get us lost!

The trail at times was easy to lose with the heavy amount of fallen leaves, especially if it switch backed hard. Plus, add in the thousands upon thousands of blow downs from the windstorm last winter (that uprooted, root ball and all and laid them over) in the first 40 miles of the course….well, it made for some slow going in spots where there was a 2-4 foot hole in the ground in the middle of the trail and you had to negotiate your way around the root ball and hole. At one point, I missed a switchback for about 3 or 4 steps and stopped to look, Dave scouted the trail and took the lead and I tucked in behind him and we stayed in that order into aid station 1. I ditched my lights, filled my bottles, ate a bit of banana and took off ahead of the other 3 guys by about 50 meters.

As we traversed, I just kept a steady pace and would occasionally catch a glimpse of Ben, Dave and Ryne across a drainage in the woods a few minutes back. After about 20 minutes I quit seeing them. I decided not to worry, as I felt comfortable and didn’t feel like I was pushing it. So, I just settled in and concentrated on not tripping in the deep leaves. I came into Sutton Bluff at 8:52am, the first crew spot at 17.6 miles hootin’ and my brother, Joel, yelling back. My sister had my bottles, Dad had food, and Joel swapped my waist pack and I was out of there in less than a minute. Later I found out that I had about 7 minutes on Dave and Ryne, who arrived together. Ben arrived right after them, but was in and out quicker and left before they did in 2nd place with Dave and Ryne close behind.

I continued to cruise in and out of aid stations and kept looking back but didn’t see anyone. I kept plugging away to the crunch-crunch rhythm of oak leaves underfoot. The heat started to be felt late morning and I was getting pretty warm. I was downing my two 20 ounce bottles and running out before the aid stations. I was feeling pretty overheated when I arrived at the next crew spot at Brooks Creek at mile 43.5 at around 1:25pm. We did the quick swap, Joel set up my iPod Shuffle and I got some ice in my hat. I was just about to leave, when an aid station volunteer yelled, “Runner!”

I bolted out of there like a shot.

Come to find out, the person they saw coming down into the aid station on the switchbacks was a hiker. I didn’t know that. So, I was out of there running everything. I went to turn on the tunes on my iPod and the battery was dead! What a bummer. It must have been accidentally on in my drop bag. So, after trying to get it to work about 10 times, I stuck it in my waist pack and accepted that this would be a music free hundred miler. Well, sometimes you just have to roll with it. As it turned out, with so many leaves, later in the race, I ended up talking to God a lot. There was some leaf-induced soul searching going on.

I had packed a back-up light (single, small headlamp) at 43.5 to make it to the next crew spot at Hazel Creek (68.5) where I had my night light gear. My original plan was to make it to Hazel creek by dark. But, the leaf factor had me running a little slower than my splits. And, thinking I had someone breathing down my neck in 2nd, I just kept pushing the pace on and off until dark. It got dark about 25 minutes from Hazel Creek and I had to switch on my light. With the hidden, challenging footing, it was definitely slow going once night fell.

I arrived at Hazel Creek at 5:45pm. But, I was feeling better with the heat gone and the night coolness setting in. I came in asking how far back 2nd place was and my crew told me they had mistakenly thought the hiker was a runner at 43.5 and that 2nd place was an hour back at 43. I told them I pushed pretty hard the last hour of light and hopefully gapped 2nd even more. I was off my original planned splits now by about 45 minutes and I told them I was not going to be pushing to get back on splits, just “gettin’er done” without hurting myself. The leaves and route finding was pretty tricky. I told my crew I’d see them in 13 miles at Berryman Campground and got moving again.

The next section was really slow going, as I had really pushed the last hour before dark and I now mentally knew I had a good cushion. I really slowed down from Hazel Creek to Machell Hollow. It was super slow going. I just was very unmotivated and almost exclusively oak groves (meaning, TONS of deep leaf cover on the trail). I got a bit of a second wind after Machell Hollow and there are a few pine groves, plus creek bottom trails not covered in leaves—so, I really ran those harder. If the trail opened up with no leaves, I started running harder until oak leaves hit again, then slowed down and watched footing. It was kind of like a long interval workout.

As you approach Berryman, the trail has heavier use (horses and mountain bikers) and was easier to see rocks and roots, even if it was leaf strewn. I arrived Berryman (mile 81.5) around 8:45pm, sat down, did a shoe dump—I was really getting tired of creek crossing by then. They come in nice even intervals. Right about the time your shoes and socks are good and dried out—time to wade another knee-deep creek. I told my crew that I was going to try to get in before 1am (sub 19) and took off to finish the last 20 miles.

About mile 89, just out of Billy Branch aid station, I kicked a rock under the leaves and did my 3rd and final face plant and bruised my lower quad above the knee and bruised my palm. I rarely, if EVER, fall on trail. But, not being able to see the rocks and roots was pretty crazy (and dangerous). Luckily I was wearing full fingered cycling gloves and carrying handheld bottles. So, it protected my hands. I rolled onto my back yelling, and slowly got up and walked it off. I’m glad I missed banging my knee cap. I got shuffling again on the slow going downhills. The one thing you couldn’t do on this course at night was hammer the downhills…too sketchy. As previously mentioned, I just ran hard on any uncovered trail sections and then ran all the ups because if you kicked or stumbled over something under the leaves, you could recover and catch yourself. But, downhill, your momentum is going too hard forward and you get a face plant as your consolation prize. It was a little frustrating at night, as I like to run hard in the dark, but I think that is the most challenging aspect of this course—trail running by braille for nearly 100 miles.

I finally hit dirt road that heads back to Bass River Resort and crossed the finish line for my 6th 100 mile win in 18:38:59. Ben Creehan crossed the line in 2nd place in 22:59 and Ryne and Dave in 3rd and 4th about another 20 minutes back from Ben (Nice job Dave on getting that first 100 mile finish!). Only 56 out of 126 starters (44%) of us got across the finish line…tough conditions.

Thanks a bunch to my family for crewing and taking care of me. It was great to have the whole family there (wife, kids, brother, sister, mom, dad, nephew, cousins, aunts, uncles….great time). It was killer to hang out with midwest ultrarunners and be back in the Ozarks. The hills aren’t huge, but it sure is beautiful (and tough) down there. Giddyup!

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