Thursday, December 2, 2010

Road Trippin': Owen Putnam 50K

Marty's race report...                                

With a GPS on the dash I lit the map on fire, threw it out the window and scouted all the bootleg routes. Road trip! I packed up all my expectations, my running toys and some beer and headed off for Indiana. Six hours of back roads, small towns, and Midwestern landscaping, where you’ll see plastic pools in the front yard, bowling balls used as lawn edging, pumpkins impaled on dead trees, and welded Trojan horse statues of derelict farm implements.

This is my first road trip Ultra, and I’m headed for a tiny town called Spencer in the middle of western Indiana. In Owen and next to Putnam County, for which this race and its home park are named, this is where the state stops being flat and rolling hills, valleys, and bat caves abound. The bat caves are closed, signs tell me, because of some white nose disease. The DNR thinks is spreading via people, carrying it from cave to cave on shoes. No matter, let the bats have their long winter in peace. It was a little past leaf peeper season even this far south, so the trails are covered in gold, the trees and hotels mostly bare. And the bats are asleep.

This is where the fun starts. Adventure! The unknown, the first Ultra where I didn’t know the course, the fellow runners, nothing. I arrived the night before the race, to scout the run location, check into my hotel, get some food and good nights sleep. I am not nervous for all of this, and maybe it’s because I’ve run three 50K’s in four months. Some assurance of being able to finish was in my mind. The hotel was a gem; an old Sanatorium called the Canyon Inn located in another nearby state park. Yes, in the state park. The hotel desk clerk was a crab, the food excellent, the room absolutely tiny, but the bed soft. I highly recommend it. They have horse trails, and you can even rent horses there.

Nightime race prep: For once, I didn’t need a Sherpa to carry my gear; I took the road to simple. I took one hand held, stashed my S caps in my pocket, and intentionally underdressed 20 degrees! Brrr.

Of course I did everything I could to get ready for this race effectively except for one small detail: Don’t be FRIKIN’ late! GAH! I thought I left plenty of time. I had a short 8 mile drive, and 45 minutes to get there. I had driven out to the course the night before, and knew exactly where it was. 3.5 miles out, and then 4.5 miles down a narrow country lane road.

Yeah.  One and a HALF lane road.

Currently the narrow country road was occupied by someone obviously carrying nitro glycerin and not wanting to spill it. 12 miles per hour? Are you serious? No time to panic, and no where to pass. I do get to the start line, just in time for the race director to say: “OK, that’s the instructions, everyone got that? OK, GO!”

Yeah!. I mean, NO, what the heck? So roll with it, take the road. So off we go. It’s dark. And I mean dark the stars are out dark I can see the constellations dark. Indiana is on the western edge of the eastern time zone, it doesn’t get light until almost 8:30 on this, the last day of daylight savings time. I run with my Fenix light, and I’m a beacon, a freight train, a shining star amongst the puny fire fly head lamp wearers. I get several comments about headlamp envy. Mere mortals, I am the eye of Pegasus.

So Running. I’m usually careful, not to get caught up the first wave, but for whatever reason here I am with the front pack. Wait, where are they going? The lead pack veers off at mile 1.5, and someone behind me is yelling for me to go straight. I do. And find I am in the front, yelling back at whoever, to tell me when to turn. I’m LEADING. Holy crap.

This is unusual. But it doesn’t take long for the leaders to correct and pass by. We are running the first segment of the race, called the powerline loop. A 5 mile sort of precursor to the horse trail loop that follows, it gave everyone a chance to separate out on a wider trail into respective pace groups. This is a small race, with only about 50 people in the 50K and 50 mile races. This loop passes by in the darkness and if it weren’t for other runners I’m sure I would have gotten lost. We are running in the scrub below the giant, humming powerlines, with no discernable path except some orange flag tape tied to a few twigs here and there. Still we seem to be doing all right until we get to a spot just before the ‘butt slide’ hill. I look ahead and there are the leaders, a constellation of fireflies all conferring. They soon sort it out and off we go again. We finish this loop with a 2 mile run down a gravel road. 50 minutes for me, it’s still dark and now we head for the forest loop. I blow past the aid stations, a strategy I have employed in the last two races with good success. Stay only long enough to grab and go.

I start running my own race, my own road. I am pretty good about not getting caught up with someone else’s pace. Still, I have designs and goals for this race. Its small, and the winning time last year was 5:53.

5:53?  For a 50K? Huh.

I think I can do that. Or maybe at least break into the top three. I keep track of the leaders for a while, but realize that I am pushing my pace just to that edge. That bone edge where it hurts, just a little. That claw edge where it feels uncomfortable. That urgent edge where you are running like you stole something. And that’s where I settle in. The leaders are gone. The next segment is a 3 mile out to the forest loop and the horse trails. It’s still dark, but the sun will also rise and turn this into a beautiful but chilly day.

This segment I will see 4 times: the 8 mile forest loop is run twice, and this 3 mile out is also a 3 mile back to the start area. So out and back, out and back with the forest loop twice in between. This segment is the only somewhat flat area on the course. There still are hills along with 7 or 8 stream beds descents and climbs that are completely unrunnable, but climbable. Most of the stream beds are dry this time of year, but I have to hop skip a couple muddy ones. Navigation.

So I am running, and settle in with a pack. One guy picks up his pace and is moving ahead. I let him go. I run with a guy I call Cowboy Bob because he is wearing a blue foam cowboy hat. We lose the pack one by one. The horse trails are soft, forgiving, but the elevation is surprising. It looks a lot like the Kettle in places: basically no flats to speak of, and sprinkle in four significant climbs/descents. It’s beautiful, and the leaves are so fresh on the ground they are a yellow gold carpet and kick freely away from the trail.  I stay with Cowboy Bob until the next aid station, where he decides to drop due to a nasty gash on his thigh. Ouch. I didn’t see the fall but it must have been a doozy.

I am running alone in the forest loop now. And of course, I get lost. The RD is pretty good about markings, and he has a particular way of tying his flagging tape. I notice this later, after I follow a pink flag instead of an orange one. Pink and orange, by the way, look a lot alike when the rising sun shines from behind them. I am in a wide open clear cut area, and no flags. I back track; I only lose about 7 minutes, and I’m back on course.

I catch and pass that one guy I let go earlier, as I’m coming back to the start area and completing the first loop. This is the last time I will see another runner on the course. I run the out loop at a good pace again. I’m into the second lap of the forest loop and I reach an aid station at mile 25 in 4:30, faster than I had run Glacial. I figured I would easily beat my predicted goal of 6 hours, probably make it in 5:40.

Except for two things.

I had 8 miles to go, not 6. The course was 33 miles, not 31. OK, everyone runs the same course, so I could live with a 6 hour = 33 miler. No problem. But I had another problem. I had rolled my ankles in the soft trails so many times, and those rolls were affecting not my ankles but my IT bands at the sides of my knees. I have never had issues there before, but wow someone was stabbing an ice pick to me with every step. I left the middle aid station and was hobbling. Busted.

So the last 8 miles took me about 2 hours to run/walk. Stomach felt good, had energy, and I could actually run UP hills, just not down. I asked at one aid station about runners who had come through, and was told I was 20 minutes behind the next guy. I had no real chance of catching him in my state (unless he was worse off than me). So.

No regrets. I gave it my best shot, and shuffled it home. So I finished.

My time of 6:33 was good for 5th place overall. I had 20 minutes on the 6th place guy, and the 4th place guy was 25 minutes ahead of me. I had lots of room to run.

The race is very low key: no post-race stuff, no awards, not even for first place. Still, it was well run, well stocked, and well marked. Fired up the GPS and home we go. A road trip worth taking.


  1. Great job Marty! Those foam rollers work wonders for rolling your IT band...keep an eye on that man, that can evolve into a serious issue . Again, congrats on the race and the report, it was a good read.

  2. Great report, Marty -- and thanks for the reminder to take the plastic pool out of the front yard.