Monday, May 14, 2012

DWD Gnaw Bone 50 Mile Race Report

Gnaw Bone 50 miler is the first race where I reached the finish line and felt neither relief, nor happiness, nor a sense of accomplishment. Instead, I felt broken and spent, physically and mentally. There was nothing left to give or to get from this race. I gave it all I had and it took what it wanted. I left blood on the trees, sweat on the dirt, and curses in the air. To put it plainly, I got everything I paid for at Dances with Dirt.

The race organizers claim that this race has “a few stupid parts” and “crying is allowed”. A vignette to illustrate: At mile 49, my quads were the latest muscle group to cramp, sidling up with the clique of ‘mean parts’, along with the catty hamstrings and groin. I’d reached The Plunge, a (now-defunct) blue-square-rated ski slope that dropped 200 feet in elevation -- no trail cut -- just slippery mud and grass for ¼ mile. Though the finish line was neither within sight or earshot, I convinced myself that if I could suffer down this hill, the end was right around the corner. 

The Plunge: Yet un-ripened by runners here
When I hit the bottom, only shoulder-high grass and a narrow path spread out before me. My knees were blown and ‘trotting’ is a kind way to phrase what I was doing. The path dipped down into the creek, and I was running through ankle-to-knee deep water, my killswitch engaged, my body a “foul rag and bone-shop”, to steal a W.B. Yeats phrase. I came out on the other side of the creek and saw the finish. A smile forced its way into my mouth, eyes a-glazed, shark-dead. Finally, I crossed the finish line. I exhaled, put hands on knees, shook my head, and tried to delete the pain, like a 3am nightmare that upon waking, seemed like a repressed fantasy.

But let’s go back to the start.

My morning started at 4:20am, waking from the back of my Honda Element at my campsite in Brown County State Park, sleeping in the cab of my futon-cushioned car rather than the tent because, frankly, it was easier. This proved a fine choice since a large group of loud, obnoxious dudes played music and partied all night just a few sites over.Morning came and with it my camping treat: French press coffee. I boiled water in the camp stove, poured it into the press with Seattle’s Best, and enjoyed the steaming cup with Corn Flakes and a Greek Yogurt, and then drove to the race start.

I saw Jon, whom I’d met running the Poto as well as at Winona Lake 50M and Trail Marathon 50k, and he talked about the shoe-sucking muddy miles at the beginning of the race, so I made a last-minute decision to change shoes at the car into my trusty 350+ mile Saucony Xodus 2.0 runners, laced tight. After hitting the loo, I headed to the start, hearing the RD call out 5, 4, 3, 2, WTF! I gotta get to the start! I hopped the flags, crossed the start chip timers, and tried to find my running pals, Jonathan Clinthore and Jason Robertson.

We chatted up the first hill, a mud sucking rise where we climbed over a few downed trees, one of which took its first blood (Rambo-style!) from my knee. When we’d reached the ridge line, back on single-track trail, we continued to climb, rather steadily but not steeply up to Playground aid station. At this point, Jon pointed out that we were 1-2 in the race, which cracked me up a bit.  Turned out that the guy who won here last year, Joshua Wopata, got to the start last minute to register and would pass us later on, despite the delay.  He'd go on to win like 30 minutes ahead of everyone.

For the next several miles, we ran with an echelon of 4-5 runners, two 50kers and three 50Mers. The conversation centered on whether we were still on course, since every race report I’d read was about how EVERYONE got lost at some point. Jon and I seemed to be the only ones who wanted to talk out on course, so we chatted running, work, and everything in between. I knew I was running too fast, but this stretch of 8 miles was highly runnable and I felt great and I wanted to run with other people because it helps the miles fly by.  Ogle Lake was gorgeous, with mist rising off it and air perfectly still.

Ogle Lake dam

At Hesitation Point (10 miles), a few in our group stopped off to their drop bags, but I didn’t need anything, so I kept going down a long, steep downhill, which also featured our first bush-whacking section, leaving the perfect single trail and darting into the raw, unbroken woods. This was just a teaser of what’s to come, quickly connecting back to single-track MTB trails that were relentlessly up-and-down along this gorgeous ridge-line, but incessantly taxing on the legs with the up and down.

This other 50M guy was tailing me the entire time, quickly catching back up to me after I dusted the aid stations, then hanging off my coattails, never passing, so I thought we’d be running together the entire race. He said nothing, just sat there tapping out the miles. Well, ok, everyone has their style, but this guy seemed like the sniper in Full Metal Jacket.

Around mile 13, we hit this section where the trail markings showed a pink arrow to the left, but our pink flags to the right, plus there was this other guy running back toward us, everyone confused about where to go. Dude running toward us said he’d go up this other way to find pink flags, but then we saw Jon and a couple 50k guys going the other way so we joined up with them. It’s all part of trail running, I get that, but damn it was confusing.

Anyway, after we caught back up with Jon and the other guys we got to the first major bush-whacking section. The trail went straight up an unimproved, raw-woods section on this hill that was no longer runable. We’re talking about briars, branches, poison ivy covered ground, straight into the forest, using hands and feet to get up. The power hike was a dear friend here on the way to Aynes House.

Aynes House to North Tower is foggy in my mind, so I’ll refer to the course description.
“Difficulty is all in your attitude: A - Solid mountain bike trails with exceptional views or B- Feels like there is no way out and no relief.” First time through this section I felt like A, second time through I felt like death, er, B.

From North Tower to Hoosier’s East aid station (and 2nd drop bag) brought us to mile 20 and through another one of the toughest parts of the course. More bush-whacking, no footing since it’s running through the middle of the woods, and ridiculously steep hills. I knew this was draining my legs, but there was no way around it because it was so steep even a slow hike was tough. Good news: somewhere along the way here I found a crusty folded up $20 bill that looked like it had been there for years -- I’m rich!

Finally we reached the ridgeline and Hoosier’s East. Jon and I were running together now and I’m not sure what happened to everyone else, just that it was the two of us left. We were feeling pretty confident, chatting away and saying that the RD, Randy Step, puts on a good show, etc when we missed the turn, of course. We’d run down this long steep gravel road and got to an intersection with no flags. Shit. So we turned around and ran back uphill, almost all the way back to the road at the ridgeline, where we saw the flags head back into the brush, off the nice trail we were following. 

Brutal. More climbing over fallen trees, terrible footing, steep pitches that were hardly runnable, even being downhill, and you had to keep your eyes on the pink ribbons tied to trees or get lost in the middle of nowhere. All this in order to reach what I thought of as Jacob’s Ladder, a set of 160 stairs that climb back up to another ridgeline at the Nature Center, where we were treated to a mile or so of paved road before heading back into the hills and reaching Playground aid station. Now I’m betraying this first loop, where I was having fun, sharing some laughs with Jon and feeling really good, just thinking ‘man, this is really hard’.

Playground (mile 25) is where 50 milers could drop down to 50k, and according to the Running Fit volunteers, many people took this option. But we flew through there and onto the 2nd loop, talking and running and enjoying the woods. I noticed I wasn’t peeing enough, so I started taking down a lot more fluids, but in the end, I was too late on this. Should’ve gone with two handheld bottles rather than one because of the humidity and temps rising into the 70s, which isn’t scalding, but hotter than what I’ve been running in lately.

At Hesitation Point, Jon and I both switched shoes “to get some new and different hot spots for a while” as he put it, and I grabbed salt tabs and GU brew to nix the dehydration issue arising. We headed downhill, through the brushy section, and back to the roller coaster MTB section. And here’s where I learned the most about running long. It can all change in an instant. At around mile 34 I was having more trouble on the climbs staying with Jon. My heart rate and RPE were way too high for even easy hills, and I couldn’t get my breathing down. I knew it was dehydration, and I’d been trying to stave it off, but by mile 36 I pulled the plug and told Jon I was falling off and I’d see him at the finish line.

Hesitation Point
At this point, I went into training mode, telling myself, ‘just keep moving forward, control your breathing, and take in as much fluid as you can.’ The smallest hills were a struggle, and I actually looked forward to the really steep stuff so I could power hike and not feel so bad about not running like I knew I was capable. My Garmin was mocking me and I was glad to see it die at mile 44 so I didn’t have to watch my pace slow to a crawl.

The aid station volunteers were awesome; they were so encouraging and helpful, filling my bottle and asking what I needed, but for some reason they didn’t have a new pair of legs and lungs hiding behind the GU gels. Dudes, come on, I need you here.

By mile 40 my breathing was better but now the cramps were setting up camp in my groin, so I could only climb the downed trees by leading with my left leg, but the front of my right ankle was in pain, so I could only land hard on the downhills with my left leg, so I hobbled about in this manner for the next 5 miles. I was on the section of the course that I knew from the first loop, so I didn’t make any navigational mistakes, but I also knew all the terrible sections that were coming.

The heat had risen and the deer flies were out, circling my head and dive bombing my flesh while I trudged up the mud-and-shoe-slicked hills, hamstrings and calves cramping along with my groin, death march in full effect.

At the Playground aid station, they told me I had 6 miles left, and when I gave the volunteer a look of horror, he said, “um, just under 6 miles, like 5.6 miles! Oh, and you’re in third!” I thanked him for that courtesy, but the race finale was playing out like a Puccini opera -- I’m thinking Tosca here -- where everyone gets killed, and even though Scarpia gets the knife, you know Cavaradossi is going down too, and Tosca is not making it out of the tower alive. Um, *spoiler alert* there I guess (from like 1900).

The quads joined the ‘mean parts’ clique, and I made it to the final aid station at mile 47.2, running along a ridge line horse trail with mud sucking sections, more fallen trees that I would get halfway over and bear-hug for a while, then plop back into the mud. Then came The Plunge ski slope and I was totally wrecked, dragging my sad sack to the finish where I congratulated Jon on a great run and great 2nd place OA finish for him.

I headed to the creek for an ice bath and Jon brought me the champagne of beers, which no doubt was the best tasting Miller High Life I've ever had. After cooling off for a spell and sharing war stories with other finishers, I sat at the finish line and cheered athletes into the finish while enjoying several Sierra Nevadas and Bell’s Kalamazoo Stouts. 

Perhaps the best part of the whole event for me was sitting at the finish line with a great group of trail runners, enjoying pulled pork sandwiches and beer under the sun and having some laughs while yelling encouragement for the muddied, bloodied ultrarunners and the wacky, costume-donning relay teams coming across the finish line, and especially for those coming in close to the cutoff with looks of pain much more severe than my own. That was awesome.

The Shot-Ski: Relay-ers finishing the race together

Thanks to Jon for running 36 miles with me, to Jason Robertson and his wife Arden for the campfire and the stories, to the guys from Kentucky at the site across from me for jump starting my car at 9pm the night before the race, to Leslie and Lori from RUT for the entertaining stories, to Scott and Chris for cheering everyone in with me, and to everyone at Running Fit for putting on a real good show at Dances with Dirt Gnaw Bone.



  1. great read Ryan. It hurts so good to leave it all out there.

  2. JuSt 3 more of those to complete the series and get a fancy buckle!

  3. Wow! Thanks for the nitty gritty this will be my first DWD. Death waiver signed.Don

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