Call me an old fool
What’s the best way to start a dark and stormy Sunday? Splashing through the mud, of course. And paying good money for the privilege.
Today was the Fools 50K and 25K Trail Run in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park near Akron, Ohio. It’s held every year around April Fool’s Day.
And when it comes to trail running, I’m as big a fool as you’ll find. So this race had my name written all over it.
I gladly plunked down $50 and drove 600 miles (round-trip) to take part. I decided to run the 25K distance option. This early in the year, my legs weren’t ready for an ultra.
These trails were wonderful — a mix of challenging hills, rock ledges, old-growth forests, rolling meadow and lake loops.
In addition, the surface had a little something for everyone: roots, rocks, groomed trail, singletrack, grass and steps.
Some trails were firm and relatively dry. But long stretches of trail were covered with gooey mud, giving my leg muscles a workout. And the hills kept coming. My Indiana flatland legs weren’t used to them, and started aching after the 15th or 20th steep climb.
Other than that, it was a great way to spend a few hours, in the company of running fools.
According to the entry list, fools came from all over — Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Indiana, Kentucky and even Canada. The run has been growing in popularity since it was launched a few years ago, originally as an informal fun run. This year, the organizer capped the field at 250 runners.
Most of the runners, of course, were local, and probably were familiar with the trails. I used to be local, too. When I lived in Akron, I ran these trails (and other like them) countless times, so I generally knew what to expect. But a few short sections were brand-new to me. So it was a little adventure, along with a homecoming.
It was also a chance to run for an hour or two with my old training partner from Ohio, Denny, who has kept me company for many a race and plenty of workouts over the years.
At 7:20 a.m. or so, we all gathered near the starting line, high up on a grassy ridge.
The sky was growing dark, threatening rain. And most of us probably knew the ground was already soaked, making for a muddy few hours. But I saw lots of smiles at the prospect of a long, wet run.
Like I said, we were a bunch of fools.
At 7:30, we took off, across a soggy field and the first of many hills. Denny and I aimed to finish in under three hours.
The first hour or so was sheer fun. I had strong legs and lots of energy. We ran across meadows and through woods, and up and down stairs and hills, and even through a few tunnels.
The course was well-marked. The volunteers were friendly and helpful, which brightened the mood on this chilly, damp morning.
But after about 75 minutes, I had an unexpected problem.
A small pack of runners apparently had been drinking or beating their chests or doing something really macho, because one or two of them were talking in extremely loud voices. One of them was regaling his friends, in a booming voice, with every race he had ever run since the dawn of time. His voice echoed throughout the woods, and grated on my ears. Who wanted to hear that for another hour or two?
Not me or Denny. So we turned on the speed for about 10 minutes and put some distance between us and Mister Motormouth.
But that was a mistake. About 20 or 30 minutes (and several hills) later, my legs started to protest. I had surged too early, and still had about 8-10 miles of tough running ahead of me. I could feel my legs getting heavy. I started slowing.
Meanwhile, I could hear Loudmouth coming up from behind, blathering at 120 decibels about his strategy for drinking water. Oh God, spare me! Denny was running much stronger, so I told him to run ahead, don’t worry about me. My plan to was walk for a minute, let my legs recover, and let Loudmouth get ahead of me.
But the damage was done. After two hours of running in the mud, my legs were taking a beating.
Then it began to rain, and the trail got muckier. My shoes started sinking in the ooze. I slowed to a trot. No sense dying in the woods, with muddy pants and shattered eardrums.
I kept plugging away, enjoying the scenery of ravines and deep woods. The course led us on one loop after another. (See map here.)
I chatted with a few other runners. Some of them were planning to do the course twice for the 50K distance. “I get to have double the fun,” a woman told me. I couldn’t tell if she was kidding.
Finally, I hit the last hill, and pushed myself across the finish line. My time was 3:03-something. So I wasn’t Trail Boy today. I was Snail Boy. I guess if I hadn’t stopped to take so many photos, I could have met my goal.
But I wasn’t running this for all-out speed. I really just wanted to enjoy my old trails. And looking on the bright side, I’ve never run this race before. So it was an automatic PR. Next year I will definitely finish under three hours and set another PR.
I caught my breath and watched a few other runners splash across the finish line.
Then I walked over to the snack table and gladly accepted a chocolate milk. Others were eating some vegetable soup. I talkd to a few finishers.
“I was going to do two loops, but after all that rain started falling, I said the hell with it,” one guy told me.
I couldn’t blame him. By now, the footing was terrible. But I also saw a few brave souls continue for a second circuit.
I wandered over to see Denny, who was hanging out near the finish line, by his red truck. He told me he finished in 2:48, so he had a nice, strong run to the very end.
I congratulated him. He also said he saw Motormouth running alone, coming across the final stretch, and still jabbering his jaw at full volume.
“Who was he talking to?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Denny answered. “To himself, I guess.”
Yes, when you enter a long trail race on a dark and stormy day, you’re likely to run into just about anyone.
They let all kinds of fools into this thing.
The official results haven’t been posted yet, although the race director sent out an e-mail this evening to say results would be posted by Monday.
Farewell, Cuyahoga Valley National Park. See you again in a few months. After you’ve had a chance to dry off.
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