Sunday, March 21, 2010

(Almost) Three Days of Syllamo

Julie Treder's Race Report - The crew to 3 Days of Syllamo grew from 3 to 6 between last year and this year.  Double the people means double the memories, right?!?!  Well, were we in for the memories with this edition…

Angela, Steve, Robert, Brad, Cassie, and I boarded Robert’s van, drove for 11 hours, and checked in to our hilltop chalet at 4:30 Thursday afternoon.  We shared this amazing cabin with four other ultra runners… Don Frichtl, Ellen Erhardt, Jim Wilson, and Lynn Saari.  After unloading all our gear, we were off to race headquarters at Blachard Springs Cavern Campground to pick up our race packets, meet up with the race director, Steve Kirk, and get an idea of where all the fun begins each day.

Friday morning started with a van abuzz with excitement, through the short ride to the start.  Time to get this race going!!  After a short briefing to detail the race course (“follow the lollipop-shaped course, marked by yellow and black striped ribbons”), we were off at 9am.  The 50K course was one of the more technical trails I have been on.  There were rocks.  There were roots.  There were downed trees to crawl over AND under.  There were briar bushes that tore everyone’s legs to shreds.  There were creek crossings.  BUT there were some great views of bluffs and rock formations, making the tough trail worth running (and cursing at!).
Since I was on my own through the run, it was very nice to see a familiar face at the aid stations.  Steve was at different spots along the course, offering support and taking pictures.  Running on your own makes you more aware of your surroundings, but I soon caught up to Jeremy from California close to the end and we just settled in for the last few miles.  The finish line should have been only 10 minutes or so away.  Unfortunately, the course we were running was now lined with blue and white ribbons.  What?!  Where did that happen???  While backtracking (all uphill, of course!), we were met by two other racers coming at us.  OK… who was going in the right direction?  The two racers knew they saw a yellow ribbon just a little ways back and continued on, but Jeremy and I decided to just keep backtracking until we saw those yellow ribbons… just to set our minds at ease.  Continuing up on hill, what do our tired eyes see, but the intersection that we (and those other two racers) passed an hour earlier.  Ahhh!!  What made things even better was seeing Angela coming up to that intersection to finish her race.  Bursting her bubble, I had to admit that I wasn’t at that intersection to cheer her on to the finish… but to use her to help me find my way to the finish line.
Day one ended with Robert and Cassie crossing the line together in 5:26.  Word has it that there were rumors of a top female runner in the 50K stopping at the water crossing to remove her shoes and socks before entering the waters.  Brad finished in 6:29.  And Angela and I crossed the line in 8:00.  (Angela, looking at the results, it appears the timing staff reviewed the photo finish and saw my last second surge.)  After a nice soak in the ice cold creek and a delicious meal of spaghetti, it was back to the cabin to get a little shut-eye before the dreaded 50-miler.

The ride to the start of the 50-miler was a little more subdued than the day before.  Was it the early start time or was it the fear of what was in store?  This time the RD told us that there would be no ribbons to follow, but to follow the blue marked trail (similar to how the IAT is marked here).  Pretty soon it was 6am and we were off.  The surroundings lightened up pretty quickly, which put my mind at ease for not carrying a light.  Lucky for my battered ankles, the terrain was not as rocky as yesterday’s course.  The scenery was no less amazing though.  Trails where one slip of the foot would send you quite a ways down to a creek below.  A trail that runs you right underneath a rock shelf, where you were nervous of bounding too high for fear of hitting the top of your head.  Another section where you needed to scurry along a pretty narrow passage between rocks.  Nature creates some amazing sights!
The 50-miler was an out and back course, taking you to a secret code word attached to a tree that you needed to relay to the manned aid station a mile and a half back.  Surprisingly, my brain was still functioning at that point.  The out and back course was great in that you got to see how everyone else was progressing.  Robert was moving great, which was amazing considering he had not been able to eat or drink much all day, no thanks to some stomach problems.  Brad wasn’t too far behind Robert, looking focussed and strong.  Angela wasn’t too far behind me, offering her usual smile and words of encouragement to show that things were going well for her.
Robert and Brad ran close to each other through the second half, draining the aid stations of all their ramen noodles… and, as word has it, even carrying some extra in Brad’s beard.  In the end, Brad pushed hard and finished in 11:25.  Robert, not wanting to be left out of his own stories of going off course, took a wrong turn, but realized it fairly quickly… and went on to finish in 11:33.  The fear of running any section of this course in the dark kept me motivated to finish before sundown… and lucky for me, my body cooperated – allowing me to finish in 11:59.  Angela maintained her strong pace and finished in 12:49.
While replenishing on the rice and beans dinner and cheering on the remaining runners, we talked with a group from Illinois who were waiting on their runner, Mike.  He had passed mile 41 in the early afternoon, but had yet to finish… and he wasn’t carrying a flashlight.  Not good any time, but especially on these trails.  Feeling helpless with our trashed legs, tired bodies, and lack of knowledge of the trails, we could do nothing but go back to the cabin and hope the lost runner was found.  Receiving a phone call from the local Sheriff’s department at 2am didn’t help calm our fears.  Robert offered his knowledge of Mike, since they ran near each other through the race… and we all waited to hear the best in the morning.

The somber atmosphere and lack of the appearance of the RD at race headquarters on Sunday morning told us that Mike had not been found.  The option to continue on running the 20K seemed silly knowing that our power could be better utilized searching the trails for Mike.  It seemed like a unanimous decision among the runners gathered around to help comb the trails after the helicopter completed their mission.
Close to 50 people were briefed by the local forest rangers… telling us how the search would be handled and how we should all be prepared to come across a body in any condition – alive, severely injured, or deceased.  Talk about the realities of running on unknown trails slapping you in the face.  Four groups of 12 people searched every inch of the last 9 miles of the course… up bluffs, in caves, under downed trees, in creeks, everything had to be checked.  All the while, the helicopter kept making it sweeps.  Our group, led by very experience ranger, Scott, combed about 1 ½ miles in nearly 3 hours.  Soon after we met up with the group searching the section in front of us, Scott got a radio call stating that Mike may have been found.  Luckily, soon after, it was confirmed.  Mike was found in good condition, but in a different section of the forest than we were checking… near where the 20K route was supposed to be run.  Thank God!!  You may not know all the runners at these races personally.  But with how close knit the ultra community is, when something like this happens… it hits everyone hard.  It was just amazing how quickly everyone came together to help make sure everyone made it home.  You have to love being involved with this group!

The celebration party could finally start!  OK, once Angela made her phone calls and came back into the cabin, THEN the party could start!  (Yes, Angela, the party can’t start without you!)  Wisconsin (and Illinois and Minnesota) made its mark in this dry county of Arkansas.  We’ll have to see whether Sarah and the Hilltop Cabins will allow us back next year, without a No Drinking clause.

All in all, it was a very memorable weekend.  You couldn’t ask for better travel companions – keeping you motivated through each day.  It was great to have Cassie back in the ultra world… thanks to a few glasses of liquid encouragement with Brad (bad influence!!) – and she just shined out there!  We also had the best support crew and photographer with Steve.  What better way to enter an aid station, than to the cheers of the crowd (sure, it may have been a crowd of one or two… but it all sounds the same!).

Now, where can I go next…

The results are at…

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