Sunday, December 18, 2011

High Water Huff 50K

Mary Gorski's Race Report:

WHAT: The HUFF 50K, Chain O Lakes State Park, Northern, Indiana, December 17, 2011

Wading waist-deep in freezing water with snow falling all around me.  

It wasn't quite what I expected to be doing the week before Christmas. But there were warning signs in the days before that would have clued me in had I paid just a little bit of attention.

First, there was the weather report.  As usual, a few days before leaving for the HUFF 50K in northern Indiana, I looked at the weather forecast of neighboring cities. Fort Wayne, Goshen and other locales all reported pleasant temps for a late December run in the Midwest; highs in the mid-30s. And until the day before the race, no precipitation was even predicted. Finally, the HUFF –– with a reputation for brutal weather –– will finally make a change not only to new course at Chain O Lakes State Park, but to a kinder, gentler new weather system as well.

Alas, if I had only paid attention to the red warning banner than ran across the weather page. In my mind I saw red and thought of Christmas. The weather page is in a holiday theme. I love the holidays. Isn't that pretty? Now what were those predicted temperatures...

Had I read what was in the Red for Warning banner I would have noticed words like "FLOOD DANGER," and "GET TO HIGHER GROUND IF NEEDED." If I would have read the pre-race email a bit more carefully, I would have taken more seriously the caution about standing water on the road into the packet pick-up location. This was the only standing water that my friend and travel partner Kathryn Dunn and I noticed since we made a wrong turn or two and got to Chain O Lakes park in the dark. We didn't see the standing water in the woods until we were actually standing in it the next day. 

What you don't see might not hurt you, but it certainly can freeze your tootsies off the next day!

HUFF was filled with surprises. One of them came two minutes before the start when the race director said something about 50K runners doing TWO loops. TWO? The HUFF had always been a three-loop course. While the race site had changed I and many others thought that the loop number never would. It was the same distance but somehow two 15.5-mile loops seemed much more daunting than three 10+ mile loops. There was a shorter 10-mile race, a race that was billed as a ONE LOOP race, but their loop was different than the 50K loop. We quickly put this together in the seconds before the race started and I took comfort in the fact that I wasn't the only one discombobulated by the change in loop number. 

What if you needed something from your drop bag at 10 miles instead of 15.5? Well, what if you needed it at seven? Muddle on. 

Note the first three letters of the word I just typed: MUDdle. How apropos! Where there is flooding there is water. Where there is land recovering from flooding there is mud. I have never slip-slided through so much mud. Grey mud, brown mud and even black mud. Chocolate mousse-like mud. Toxic-sludge like mud (with sparkling flecks of green to give it a festive holiday look). And just plain shoe-sucking, ankle-wrenching, impossible-to-run-in MUD. 

That was about half to two-thirds of the slightly hilly course (through a beautiful forest, with light snow falling all about). The other sections? Some where very runnable -- for MOMENTS AT A TIME! 

And then there was the standing water. I knew that we would be running NEAR the lakes of Chain O Lakes park but I had no idea that we would actually be running THROUGH them. 

My first encounter with standing water was about five miles into the course. There was a slight gully with a stream about two-feet deep. Some opted to try to get across it on a log. I'm too clumsy. I figured that having part of me wet would be better than having all of me wet if I fell. And so I walked through the water. Frozen feet but just for a couple of minutes. 

"I can do this! It's not so bad," I thought to myself.

Shortly after we reconnected with the 10-mile runners who told us of several thigh-to-waist high water crossings they had already encountered. "Glad I'm not doing THAT course," I said to myself. "A 15.5-mile loop sounds good to me!"

And then we had our own aquatic fun. 

The first couple of flooded sections could be avoided by going through the muddy woods on either side. But with about four miles to go on the loop there were some long stretches that forced runners to do their Polar Bear Plunge a couple of weeks early. The longest was a slow, cold slog to the other side. I thought of Shelly Winters and the Poseidon Adventure. I wonder how cold that water was that she swam through in the upturned ship to save her fellow passengers. 

And then I stared to fantasize about being in an ultra-hot Bikram yoga room.

My mind quickly wanders when the blood flees from it to try to reheat my lower extremities. 

I came to the end of the first loop chilled but not frozen. I thought that I would trade out my vest for a full jacket and perhaps grab my camera for a few photos of the course. But when I got in the tent that had our drop bags I learned that all bags had been moved from the right side of the tent to the left side. I'm sure that there was a reason, but I decided that I didn't want to take the time to figure out what it was or where my bag ended up. Off I went to loop two. 

At first, the running was good. I rewarmed and was optimistic. I knew what to expect this time and knew that I could muddle through it since I survived the first loop. But then I hit the mud, mud that had been churned by the feet of several hundred runners. Loop one was sloppy, loop two was indescribable. I have never gone through such long stretches of slip-sliding mud. As my arm flew in the air for balance I thought of John Travolta rocking away on his Urban Cowboy bronco -- Kathryn and I had caught the last part of the movie before we fell asleep the night before. Little did we know that it was good prep for the balance moves we would need the next day. 

And then there was the water. "Heck, I made it through the first time, no need for detours; I am going to just wade right through and take the most direct route."  

This worked well for the first few crossings but then I got to the last and longest passage. "I can do this! I did it before!!" I silently cheered in my head. 

Midway through I turned into a frozen, hyperventilating, crying idiot, panicked that I'd never make it to the other side. "Freezing to death is supposed to be a calm way to die! I'm not calm! I'm going to die and I'm not calm!!!!" replaced the perky little "I can do this" self-speak.

Oh my.

But I did get to the other side, as did the two men who were right ahead of me and surely heard my emotional melt-down. Once I regained a little composure I caught up to them and apologized for sounding like a such a blubbering fool. 

"I was feeling the same," said one of them. "Couldn't look at you or I would have lost it too."

"The two women I was running with dropped after the first loop because they couldn't re-group after that crossing," said the other.

And then a guy -- wet head to toe -- came by us and said: "At least you didn't fall in!"

Oh my. 

The snow showers came to an end, and so too did the second loop. Manny -- a fellow runner from Wisconsin -- saw me at the finish and came out of his warm van to give me a hug. I held on for a bit not just because I was happy to see Manny but because the body heat felt so good. He was just what the doctor ordered. 

HUFF was well-marked, and fun in that "Oh my God I can't believe that I survived it" sort of way. Kathryn and I both finished with little more than a couple of bruises and some mud-encrusted shoes and clothes (I haven't had the guts to open my race bag yet). And for me, it was great to reconnect with so many friends: Fabiano and Danieli (the last time we saw each other was a year previous on sunny Peanut Island in Florida), Bruce, Lynn, Susan, Manny (and his warm bear-hug body) and a bunch of others whose names will pop into my head as soon as I post this. 

Happy holidays, and remember -- those red banners at the top of the weather page aren't just for holiday decoration. Sometimes they actually have pertinent information inside.

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