Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Circus 12-hour race

[Most photos courtesy of Spectrum Racing]

Well, it was a wet one!  And a muddy one!  I signed up for The Circus to run in loops for 12 hours, partly because I really like the trails at McKinney Roughs and also for training.  At various times during the day I was "training" for upcoming trails races like Bandera, adventure racing in the rain, and occasionally even a tiny bit for the nasty weather/steep slippery hills of the Barkley.  I have no idea whether I'll ever get into the Barkley again, of course, but the thought of it is always good motivation when the conditions are less than ideal.

Several bright sides - it was obvious that it would be raining all day, so we could prepare.  It wasn't cold (low 50's), actually perfect running temperature.  It wasn't pouring rain, just rain.  I was running loops and could make adjustments frequently if needed.  And there was a warm building - with warm bathrooms - with a covered patio.  That last part made everything way better for spectators and crew.  Like John!

Part of the start/finish area, under gray skies:

Course marking arrow leading runners out on the "pink" 7-mile loop:

I suspect the photographer snapped those two photos during the lull in the rain early on.

The 12-hour solo runners and teams started at 6 am, in the rain (of course).  We had a choice of which loop to start on - 3-mile, 5-mile, or 7-mile.  Finish a loop, get it recorded, pick another loop and head back out.  The one rule, which made everything interesting, was that you couldn't repeat the same loop back-to-back.  How to maximize your miles and finish with the right combination of loops?

That line of thought went out the window when we ran into Joe Prusaitis before the race.  Hi Joe!  It was so great to see him again.  He had the super-awesome suggestion that it wasn't worth running the 7-mile loop - too much deep, sticky mud in the fields.  I had originally planned to start there (before the 30K and 10K runners stampeded through it a couple hours later).  Time to reassess and think about sticking to the 3- and 5-mile loops only.

Well, one decision to make - which loop to start on?  I had no idea what the trail conditions would be like, how my legs would feel, how the trails would degrade after repeated exposure to runners' feet, how my legs would degrade after repeated exposure to mud.  Maybe I could get 50 miles?  Starting with the 3-mile loop would be the most obvious way to reach that goal, so that's what I did.

Starting into the dark, rainy night, I tore off down the trail, trying to catch all the quick little turns right at the beginning.  The trail was great!  For a mile, anyway, nice wide flat gravel.  I scared up a rabbit, that was funny!  Next a double-track road, still good footing.  A runner came by asking how many had started on this loop, not a clue, sorry.  And is this the right way?  Yes, you're going the right way.  Yes, you're still going the right way.  The route was well marked, plenty of flagging along the right side (and along both sides in the out-and-back sections).  You just had to pay a bit of attention in the dark.

Down a long slightly-slippery hill, then into The Swamp (part 1).  The trail along the river was muddy and would only get worse every time someone ran through it.  I managed a combination of running, slogging, hopping, sliding, and eventually got through it.  The uphill on the other side was a bit slick but manageable.

Up to the top of a local maximum (and later a nice view of the river, once it stopped being dark).  I picked up a blue wristband, then continued on trails up and over a ridge, down some fun switchbacks, up another small hill, and back to the excellent gravel trail leading back to the start.  3 miles down!

Let's see what the 5-mile loop has to offer.  The long windy trail along the plateau was in great shape, ins and outs, little downs and ups, fun running.  Oh look, a road.  Oh wait, there's a huge puddle across the whole road.  I tiptoed around the edge, not minding getting my feet a bit wet but trying to avoid the deep wading while I could.

Good road running, and with glimpses of a zipline course that looks like fun.  At one turn the flagging all said to go left, but there was also a "wrong way" sign in the direction - ?  I flopped the sign face-down, figuring the flagging was correct, which turned out to be true.  Over the top of a high point with a nice view, quite lovely.

The trail dropped down into a drainage and along a little creek.  A group of runners was coming back toward me - ?  They thought they had missed the out-and-back and were coming back to look for it.  I assured them (or tried to) that we still needed to go up and over another ridge first, having memorized at least one section of the map beforehand.  Yep, there's the start of the out-and-back section, they had turned around just a short ways from it I'm guessing.

Down toward the river, it was getting light enough to actually see the river now so that was nice.  The first part of the river trail wasn't too bad, as long as you made it down the slippery chute without landing on your butt (somehow I managed).  But The Swamp (part 2) was worse over here.  Once we were right next to the river, the trail was covered in deep mud.  Wading required.  I tried various things like skirting the edges, running through the middle, walking in other footprints, nothing worked.  It was all deep and slippery.  I'm down with going through the middle of puddles if that's where the good footing is, but that wasn't the case here.

And it was an out-and-back, oh goodie we get to do it twice!  I went over and collected a green wristband, then made my way back through the muck.  Eventually I'd start resorting to wandering through the weeds to the side, which was equally slow but at least the ground was solid.  I suspected there might be poison ivy in there (later confirmed that there was, but at least most of it washed off my legs in the rain).

Back out of the mud and up some nice stairs, a good solid climb toward more solid ground and another good view.  The road up top had a lot of puddles, but it was in pretty good shape in comparison to other parts of the course.  After a long gentle climb, it was back to the start.  5 more miles down!

I was running in shorts, a short-sleeve shirt, plus a rain jacket, and that combination (along with the speed I was keeping up) was plenty warm.  A Buff and cap on my head, thin Smartwool socks, that was working too.  The only change I made was swapping my overmitts for a thin pair of Smartwool gloves (just purchased the day before - thank you, REI!).  The overmitts were collecting water, I suspect rain that was running down my sleeves and into the gloves.  Not cold, but not fun to deal with.  The thin wool gloves were perfect for that day.

John and I developed a system where he'd put some water in my bottle, I'd drink some Spiz, we'd record my lap time, and that was pretty much it.  Quick turn-arounds once we got going.  I told him he didn't need to hang around all day just for that, but he found a place inside to do some work while I was running and it was awesome to see him as I finished each lap.

The next part of the morning went great!  I was running faster than I had expected, the rain slowed way down, and it was mostly fun running (except for the swamps, but they were relatively short).  I was so glad Joe had suggested skipping the 7-mile loop.  The 5-mile loop was in great condition (except for the swamp, which continued to get worse) - the road coming back actually dried and had fewer puddles for a couple laps.  The 3-mile loop was not so great.  It kept deteriorating, not just by the river but the entire climb back up.  Slippery gray mud, hard to find purchase to get up the steep slope.  But at least it wasn't raining much.

The 30K runners started at 8 am, doing the 7-mile loop twice.  I did not envy them.  Our friend Art was running, and the photographer got a couple shots of him (I don't see how it was dark, not sure what's up with the lighting in these photos):

And oh yeah, it was raining again - hi Art!

The 30K'ers finished with one 5-mile loop so I saw some of them, but missed Art.  It was fun seeing him after his finish later, and John got to hang out with him for a bit.

The 10K was all on the 7-mile loop (slightly shortened for them), so I missed that crowd entirely except they were waiting to begin as I came through the start/finish area at 9:45 am - hi and bye!

My running was going well and I started wondering if I might be able to fit in an extra loop at the end for 56 miles total.  I had some leeway, but I knew I would be slowing at least a little over the course of the day.  The problem was that this slowing occurred right as the rain came back in force and the trails got significantly worse.  I pushed hard around the 3-mile loop, putting in some extra effort but still losing quite a bit of time because of the mud.  Dang it.  Then the 5-mile loop started getting crappy too!  Mud, mud puddles, sloppy mud, slippery mud, sticky mud, squishy mud.  Hey, I never lost a shoe in it (it was close), that was something.

The photographer didn't capture any photos of me (and it certainly wasn't a priority for either me or John to get our own photos), so here's a stand-in of someone else's feet that pretty much sums up the situation:

I wasn't running quite fast enough to look like this, however:

I finally gave up on the 56-mile goal and figured that 51 should be straightforward as long as I held it together.  I also gave up on the rain ever going away.  It's wet.  It's muddy.  Just run.  The best thing about going through something like this is gaining perspective - because I could honestly say I was happy it wasn't snowing (a la The Bear a couple months ago).  And that it was only 12 hours long.  I knew the hardest part would be the middle miles, and that was true, just get through them.

My acceptance of the situation seemed to help with my lap times too - they slowed to something manageable and then stayed there for the rest of the race.  Wow, I actually could have ALMOST fit in another 5 mile loop if I had been 10 minutes faster overall.  Well, what can you do.  It's not like it mattered.

Actually, it almost mattered.  There was another woman making a run for the top female spot, Lise from France.  Toward the latter part of the race, John started giving me reports of how I was doing, and we were pleasantly surprised to see that I was in 3rd overall and currently the top woman.  In fact, I might have made a mistake in starting with the 3-mile loop.  As it turned out, I would have had time to get 53 miles if I had started with the 5-mile loop instead.  And Lise might have been able to do that too.  Except she went for the 7-mile loop early on, and now the math wasn't in her favor anymore.  Phew, that was almost quite unlucky!  One of the attractions of this race is the fact that it's a "3-ring circus" and there is strategy involved.  Definitely something I would love to try again, especially in better weather  :)

In the end, I had only to finish what I had started - 6 times on both loops plus an extra 3-mile loop for 51 miles.  Lise was far enough behind me (15-18 minutes) and lacking enough time to run an extra loop.  I could (mostly) take it easy on the last 3-mile loop, finishing right past the 11 hour mark and glad (very glad!) to be done.

That was a lot of fun, and that post-race shower was the best!

The relay teams were fun to watch - some very fast runners kicking up all kinds of mud and water while tearing around the course, and a woman who could run uphill in the mud, inspirational.  I was really glad I didn't have to run, stop and wait (and get cold) and then run again.  Kudos to all runners out braving the elements that day!

And I love that one of the teams is named "Taco Cat" (it's a palindrome...):

Thank you Spectrum Racing, and THANK YOU JOHN!  Big hugs (after I got clean and dry).

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