Scratched and sore
I survived another extreme trail race. The most extreme yet.
I’m sore and scratched and muddy. I’m tired. I probably have poison ivy rash somewhere.
This was “Dances With Dirt” — a wild and woolly, 50-mile relay at Brown County State Park near Gnaw Bone, Ind.
I’ve been wanting to run this event for a couple of years. Now that I’ve done it, I wonder what mad, over-the-top, crime against humanity I took part in.
Yes, some parts of the course were beautiful: ravines, gorges, overlooks and lush woods, all bright green following weeks of rain.
But this really was not a trail race. It was an outdoor survival test, much of which occurred far away from trails. We bushwacked through thick undergrowth, climbed the steepest side of an overgrown ski slope, mucked along creeks, splashed across rivers, and climbed hand-over-hand up steep, muddy hillsides.
And of course, that was the whole attraction for the hundreds of people who showed up.
How tough was it? I probably should have gotten a clue when I read the course description on the race web site: “This ain’t no place for wimps and it ain’t a place for pansy, ‘don’t get my shoes dirty’ runners afraid of a few roots and cliffs.”
Those guys weren’t kidding. Most of the course was as tough as Marine boot camp. You followed colored ribbons and markers, wherever they led, on or off trail, and you didn’t worry about scraping your legs on briar patches or getting soaking wet crossing a waist-high stream.
I have the filty, wet shoes and the scratched legs to prove it.
I also have a medal and a cool race shirt and lots of extreme memories.
The race has developed a cult following, with hundreds and hundreds of people coming back year after year, and competing for times and the best war stories.
But beyond the competition, the race is also about having fun and seeing which team could come up with the wackiest costumes and cars, and get the biggest laughs.
There were nurses, pirates, tutu dancers, circus strong men and even the knights from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” (This team got the most laughs. Every time a Monty Python knight came in from a relay leg, his teammates would join him for the last dozen yards or so, pretending they were riding horses and clapping coconuts together. Well, you had to see the movie.)
I ran on a team called Running Fit, made up of me and four strangers I met on a chat board sponsored by the race. We found each other, got acquainted on Saturday morning, and hit the trails. We had no theme or wacky costumes, thank God.
But we had something else. We had fervor. My teammates were very competitive, athletic kids in their 20s. I was the old, slow guy. My fellow runners — Chad, Ken, Jason and Lindsey — showed up to kick ass. They blasted the trails.
I chugged along and tried not to get passed too often.
The team captain, Chad, was extremely organized — a big factor in a complex race spread across hundreds of acres. He had a binder full of maps and directions, and an SUV full of dry clothes and food.
Doing well in this kind of event means figuring out where and when to drive to the next relay point, ready to go. That’s just as important as running fast. But Chad was a veteran of this sort of thing. Last year, he organized a team that competed in a three-day running relay in Michigan. So I felt our team was in good hands.
It was a beautiful day — clear skies, not too hot, a nice breeze. The trails were a bit muddy from weeks of rain.
The course was divided up into 15 legs. Each runner ran three legs, totalling about 10 miles over the day. Just about every leg was extremely punishing.
I ran legs 5, 10 and 15. That meant I was always last on our team to hit the trails. So in the morning, I waited nearly two hours before I started my first leg. Then I waited another hour or two to run again. Then I rested a few more hours before my my last leg — the final leg of the course. So there was a lot of intense racing. And a lot of sitting around and driving here and there to the next relay point.
Each of my three race legs was difficult, in its own way. I’m sure everyone on our team could say the same thing.
My first leg was a 2.75-mile run down a wide, steep muddy Jeep road, where my main objective was to avoid going so fast that I would wipe and crash into a tree. It was that steep and that slippery.
At the bottom of the long, long hill, the trail crossed a narrow creek, rounded a curve, and then ran back uphill on dry singletrack. This is where I could get some decent footing, so I ran it steadily. Even so, I was passed by a couple of fast kids from Michigan State and the University of Michigan, proudly wearing their team colors. I finished this leg in 22:15, did a high five to a teammate, and fell to the grass.
Later, I learned that this leg was called “Lunchmeat,” because that’s what your legs would feel like after running it.
Then another teammate ran down another trail, while the other four of us piled into an SUV and drove to another part of the park, watched other relays, and sat around and joked and waited.
Soon, there was the most interesting part of the race, a creek crossing. Runners had to plow through a three-foot deep creek, and everyone watching from the grassy banks cheered and jeered and had a great time, while the poor runners had to get very wet. Luckily, I didn’t run this leg.
But I did run the next leg, Leg 10, and if I knew what awaited me, I wouldn’t have been snickering so hard at the creek crossers.
Leg 10 is called “Lookout.” That’s because one small part of it involves running to the top of a lookout tower. But the course should have been called “Best of Times, Worst of Times,” because that’s what this section of the course involved.
For the first 20 or 30 minutes, I bushwacked through some of the most grueling undergrowth I’ve ever seen. There was no trail, just a line of blue ribbons hanging from trees that indicated an imaginary trail up and down the steep, overgrown hillside.
I stumbled from step to step, tripping over logs, sliding on mud and plowing through briars that slashed my shins into hamburger. After this, I climbed up a deep gully filled with decaying logs and a foot of leaves. There was absolutely no footing. It was all hard climbing and falling down.
At the top of the hill, I crossed the road to a small lookout tower, climbed a flight of steps to the second floor. Then I squinted around the gloom for a book that was hidden somewhere. We were required to rip a page out of the book, carry it with us and turn it in at the end of the relay leg.
I looked around the tower for 10-15 second before I finally saw the book, hanging from the ceiling from a plastic rope. I grabbed it, ripped out a random page and without looking, folded it up, dashed down the stairs and headed out the back door of the tower.
So that part was the “Worst of Times.” The next part, I think, was the best running of the day, the “Best of Times.” It was a hard-packed mountain-bike trail, gently rolling, that wound through the hills for a very fun, scenic couple of miles. I trotted this part at a steady pace.
The entire leg was five miles long, but the first half was so tough that it took me an hour and five minutes to get to the handoff. My teammates took one look at my bloody, slashed legs and made lots of sympathetic comments, like “We were wondering what took you so long.”
I hobbled across the parking lot, changed my filthy, wet shoes, socks and shirt. Then I relaxed on the grass for an hour or so. With blood trickling down my shins and dirt all over my shorts, I felt like I had just completed Army Ranger training.
After I recovered my strength, I took a walk around the parking lot to look at some of the decorated cars and runners. It was a festival of craziness, wackiness and fatigue.
Over the next few hours, while my teammates were running their last legs, I did a bit of sightseeing. The park has some pretty amazing sights, including an old fire lookout tower (which I did not climb, although others did) and a spectacular overlook of the valley, where you can see for miles, even without climbing a tower.
Finally, after about nine hours after the race started, it was time for my last leg. This was the toughest of all.
First, I had to trot down a soggy, muddy singletrack alongside a creek for about a half-mile, with very mucky footing.
Then the trail stopped at the bottom of an old, abandoned ski slope, several hundred feet high. There was no way I could run this. I settled in for a power hike and climbed to the top as best as I could. It wasn’t manicured or beaten down or anything. It was knee-high, scratchy grass and muddy tractor ruts.
About 10 minutes later, at the top, the course led into the woods. But no, it wasn’t a trail. It was more bushwacking, climbing up and down thick, wooded hillsides, trying to find footing among all the weeds, bushes and fallen logs. I felt like I was a wounded animal, trying to outrun a bear, just plowing through the woods without a real idea of why or how.
The blue ribbons led me to a creek, where I splashed upstream for about 10 minutes (the creek banks were too steep and muddy to hike). How do you run up a creek? Incredibly, two runners passed me on this section, splashing upstream on strong legs, giving me a cheering greeting. On my creaky, sore legs, I could just stand and stare.
Then I got to the toughest part of the whole day: climbing up a nearly-vertical hillside. I had to go hand over hand in some sections, reaching for trees and roots, while my heart hammered in my ears. What the hell? Was this a trail race or a trip through some sadist’s mad prank?
Finally, at the very top of that hill, the course finally led to dirt trail. I cheered. Finally, some runnable ground! Hallelujah! I happily trotted downhill along a singletrack, which led me to the edge of the ski slope. I ran down the slope, out of control, through the mud, to the very bottom, rejoicing that this cruel insanity was nearly over. For the next 10 minutes, I trotted back along the river, through more muck on a winding trail, trying to catch the runner ahead of me, without luck. My legs were just too shot.
Finally, I hit the meadow, where the finish area was set up. My teammates were waiting about 100 feet from the end of the course, and they ran with me across the field to the finish line.
It was finally over. This leg, only 2.75 miles long, took me 44 minutes to run.
Overall, it was the most grueling race I’ve tried.
But it actually could have been much tougher. Several dozen masochists signed up for a 50-mile, 50K, marathon or half-marathon individual run.
And I could have gotten lost. Many runners did get lost in the woods. They ook a wrong turn at a fork, or ran in circles, or followed the wrong-colored ribbons, leading them far away from the relay point and their waiting teammates. I had no such experience. As long as I remembered which color section I was running, I was OK.
Still some people got lost this time, including a few of my teammates, for a few minutes. They were running too fast to notice the ribbons steering them this way or that. I was never running fast enough to have that worry.
Each team member ran a total of about 10 miles. But the course was so tough it felt like 20.
We finished in a decent time, I think. I forgot to check, and didn’t hang around for the awards ceremony. At one point, about halfway through the race, we were in the top 10 out of 70-some teams There were also dozens of solo runners doing a half-marathon, marathon, 50K or 50-miler on the trails.
At the finish line, I got a medal and some photos. Then we all got cleaned up and helped ourselves to a picnic dinner, while a hillbilly band played country music. Yee-haw!
UPDATE: The race organizers posted the results on Tuesday, May 12. Our team finished in 8:54:41. That placed us 16th out of 94 relay teams that finished. Trail Boy acknowledges that his contribution was very small. Still, it was fun. I think.