trail running

As I wrap up my year, I can say that it’s been one of my absolute best.

While I was recuperating from my fourth shoulder surgery just over a year before, I got several very-long runs and races in this calendar year, including my fourth 50K ultramarathon in September that had me PR by 37 minutes from my previous fastest 50K in 2017It's me, immediately after I finished the 50K. I'm smiling. Wearing my water vest and a pair of dorky glasses

Looking back, there were some key things that helped me get such a big personal best:

  • I set a SMART goal. That’s one that is specific, meaningful, attainable, relevant and time-bound. Not only did I decide that I would sign up for — and run — Woodstock again, but I decided that this was the year when I would get a personal record.
  • I cross-trained, even when I didn’t want to. I’m not a big biking fan, but I rode our Peloton stationary bike at least once a week, often for 45 minutes or an hour. I also did yoga at home once a week, took at least one rest day every week, and got between seven and eight hours of sleep most nights.
  • I followed Dr. Awesome’s orders. I see a manipulative-medicine doc about every other month. He’s awesome. And he’s given me excellent advice through the years. He fully supports my running, but he’s pushed me to really take care of myself, including the aforementioned cross training and resting. He also only cleared me to get back on the trails if I do my run/walk intervals. Just a good mix for my piriformis/butt/knee pain. It works for me.

As for the actual race, my friends and I arrived late afternoon on Friday, set up my motorhome at the nearby state campground and went to packet pickup for Run Woodstock at Hell Creek Campground.

the Hell Creek Campground map, showing the important spots for the race

Packet pickup was super easy and, thankfully, very close to the entrance. We could have just left, but we were hoping to see friends there, including two who had started their 100K race at 4 p.m. (We can’t math, so we were too early to see them.)

We still lingered for a while, checking out the pre-race festivities, and cheering the faster runners who were already coming through from their first loop.

The evening was uneventful (unlike the buckets of rain and the storms the night before my first ultra) and we made it to the race with enough time to take care of our drop bags and make a pit stop.

Picture of most of the members of our group, in the dark, but wearing headlamps. We're all smiling.

Because we’re the Mullet Crew (we’re the party in the back!), the going was very slow for the first half hour or so. The first bit is hilly, the trail is narrow, and there are literally dozens and dozens of people in front of you, plus you’re in the dark and not quite sure where you’re going.

The person in front of me; can only see them because I'm wearing a headlamp.

I was particularly grateful for my nice headlamp, which I wore for the first hour, until we got to a section that has fewer trees, the trail widens and the sun is starting to come up.

As with previous years, we brought fuel and hydration vests, but relied on the amazing aid stations, conveniently spaced about 4 miles apart. The food — and the volunteers — were as awesome as always. I followed my running coaches’ advice and made sure to eat and drink more than in previous years — especially after last year’s blood-in-the-urine fiasco.

Because I run with amazing people, my friends fully supported my goal of beating my best previous time. A couple of us stuck together for the first loop and, later, I ended up with my friend Walisa, who was running strong and made for great company — even during some miserable hills.

A selfie with Walisa in the background, with her hands up in the air, smiling.

About a quarter of the way into our second of two loops, Walisa was slowing down and I kept getting ahead of her. I went back a few times to make sure she was feeling well and she encouraged me to keep going, knowing of my year-long goal.

After a significant internal struggle, I trusted her judgment and ran ahead, alone.

The rest of the trail was particularly challenging because there are at least a gazillion (OK, more like five) very steep and looooong hills at a time when you’re just spent.

a photo of a particularly steep hill

Because I was by myself for quite a while, I dug deep and used self talk, including my mantra of “trust the plan,” to power through. As with other trail races, I encountered dozens of 100K and 100-mile runners who took the time to encourage *me.* It’s just an amazing feeling to know how far they’ve gone and that they’re thinking of others, despite what I’m sure is a ridiculously tough time.

I did stop to check on a few 100 milers who looked pretty rough, just to make sure they had enough fuel and to share words of encouragement. One told me he planned to quit as soon as he got to the next aid station. He was leaning heavily to the side (a tell-tale sign of exhaustion), but kept shuffling because that’s just what you do. He declined any help, but I made sure I told the volunteers about him so they could send someone out.

Another time, I stopped a few men for a moment to give a 100-miler a few seconds of privacy as she finished peeing while leaning on a tree, right on the side of the trail. They were incredibly understanding and went along, taking advantage of the very short break to fuel and check their gear.

It was these experiences, coupled with a strong training season and my Hamilton soundtrack, that gave me the second wind I needed to keep up with my run/walk intervals.

In the end, I was pretty sure I had made good time, but didn’t realize just how much faster until later that evening, while I sat, eating yummy Spanish food while waiting for our friend Shannon to finish her first 100K race. Watching her run in was one of the most-satisfying memories in my seven years of running.

As always, I am forever grateful to running for bringing these — and many other — people into my life. Because runners make the best friends ever.

A bunch of our ultramarathon-running friends, sporting our medals

Have you PR’d a race before? What did you do to get that personal best? Have you run an ultra? Do you want to? What’s your favorite thing about running? (You may have to click on “Continue Reading” to leave a comment.)

We’d just started our third 6.5-mile loop during the Loopty Loop Ultra in Rochester Hills when I checked in with el husbando letting him know we were having fun and doing great. Just two more trail loops to get our goal 26.2 miles with plenty of time to spare on our eight-hour clock.

Next thing I knew, I was splayed out on the ground, the wind knocked out of me, a scraped left knee and chin, and bruised left hand. My friends Shannon and Vicki waited until I could breathe and talk. It took me a few minutes to get myself upright and moving. I was dizzy and nauseous.

And just as quickly as it happened, I felt better and we got back on the trail. We eventually reached an aid station where a volunteer got me cold water and paper towels to clean my knee, and some antibiotic ointment, just in case.

That loop was by far our slowest. I wasn’t the only one who wasn’t feeling well, so we walked and regrouped. By the time we made it back to the start, I was feeling like myself and was able to run most of the last loop with Shannon and her husband, Corey, only walking a handful of times. I am certain that it was by far our fastest loop, but my watch died and I haven’t had the energy to ask Shannon to look at her watch’s stats.

Unlike the Old Farts marathon, the signs at Loopty Loop tried to uplift us, not taunt us.

Before the fall, the morning was uneventful. My friends Michelle, Vicki, Melissa and I met at 4:30 to make the hour-and-a-half-long drive. I made the last-minute decision to join them at dinner a few nights before, after they, ahem, convinced me that we could get the marathon distance on our ultra-marathon training plan done and get a medal.

I was a little nervous about registering for the race that morning, but registration was super organized and easy. The volunteer had me fill out a form, took my check and gave me a bib, bandanna and small towel. All in under 5 minutes.

We had plenty of time to go to the bathroom (they also had portable toilets), get our gear together, take a few pictures and line up at the start line. The race organizer made a few announcements (keep the pink flags on your right) and we were off.

We all started out together at a 2-minute run, 1-minute walk pace. About halfway through the second loop, we broke up into a couple of groups, which is pretty typical for us.

At one point during that rough third loop, we heard what sounded like ice-cream-truck music. I thought I was hallucinating. Once we reached the top of a hill, we were greeted by a volunteer handing out popsicles!

Despite taking a digger face-first into the dirt, this was definitely a great race. The course was relatively non-technical with some hills and lots of tree roots, but with plenty of shade. It was well-marked and the volunteers were all helpful and friendly.

Vicki and I walked most of that third loop. I’m grateful she didn’t kill me and leave me on the side of the trail.

The aid stations were generous with chips, watermelon, cheese sandwiches, Swedish fish, quesadillas, hot dogs, gummy bears, fuel and other treats. They had both Gatorade and water, too.

The race page describes it as having 6.3-mile loops. Had we returned from our last loop before eight hours, we could have run an extra 1-mile loop to get an official marathon distance.

As it was, our watches all said each loop was 6.6 miles, and several watches showed we covered our goal of 26.2 miles. This particular race gives out medals for the 4-, 8- and 12-hour time limits.

Race shirts were attractive, but the women’s sizes ran very, very small. Because I registered at the last minute, I didn’t get a shirt, but they also took $10 off my registration. We were offered plastic sunglasses and 26.2-mile stickers with our medals.

As a bonus, we also got to eat some really good square pizza and cake, and sit for a few minutes before cleaning up and getting in the car to head home. We were all tired, but glad we had made the trip.

We all met our goals for the day.

Now, we just have a 16-mile run next weekend, and 24- and 13-mile runs the two weeks after that. Then, taper.

There was talk of not doing the Run Woodstock 50K again next year because training takes so much darn time. I have to admit that yesterday’s race made me glad that we’ve been putting in the miles. It was proof of important the summer training is — both mentally and physically.

As always, everything wasn’t all rainbows and kittens. I came home to disgusting feet covered in dirt, a big blister under my big toe, sore muscles and a knee with road rash.

But it was all worth the pain and discomfort. I got to spend quality time with good friends, enjoy a gorgeous, sunny day and I even got a medal.


Have you ever taken a bad fall during a race? What’s your favorite race medal? (You may have to click on “Continue Reading” to leave a comment.)

I sit here, in pain, but content. This year’s Run Woodstock 50K was dryer and speedier that last year. Three of us PR’d and we all negative split (ran the second half faster than the first).

Better headlamps meant we started out with a clear course, even at 6 a.m., moving swiftly through the first hour through a hill, then a rails-to-trails path. My three friends and I set a slow, steady pace of four minutes running and one walking.

We’re decked out to start the Run Woodstock 50K.

We moved in the steady, relatively easy rhythm of people who’ve been training together for years. We told stories. Laughed with (and at) each other. And we enjoyed the beauty of our lush green surroundings.

The rain that plagued us last year — and that caused mud so deep and wet that we felt like we were skating more than running — was replaced by sunshine and temperatures in the 40s, later reaching into the 60s.

The course was tough, but not impossible. The hills were even steeper than I remembered, sometimes leaving us breathless and wiped out.

Our friends spent HOURS waiting around to cheer us on after our first loop and celebrate with us when we were done.

Like last year, the aid stations had plenty of yummy food every four miles. We made sure to grab sandwiches, Coke, M&Ms, pretzels, chips, cookies, gummy bears and other treats. Oh, and there was Gatorade, water and Guu.

Because this was our second time on the course, we had a much-better plan, helping our head game and letting us get through each aid station more quickly and efficiently. That said, we were plum tired and I suspect Vicki thought about stabbing me and leaving me on the side of the trail more than once.

Not all of us were smiling with about 7 miles left.

We had to dig deep several times to keep moving forward. We may be smiling in these pictures, but running a 50K is really, really hard. Getting all of the runs on the training plan each week takes hours and hours, and even then, race day comes down to mental toughness and the willingness to keep going when your body is telling you to just quit, sit and rest.

Having good friends with you helps a ton. Knowing that you have a crew waiting for you at the end can make the difference between giving up and continuing to move forward. I can’t stress enough the importance of a good support network for these longer races.

Thankfully, we had all of those things, so we were able to get past the life-sucking hills and tired bones.

And because we all got done so much earlier than last year, we headed back to the my motor home at the nearby Pinckney Recreation Area where we were staying for the weekend, had pizza and drinks by the fire, and reveled in our accomplishment.

Seeing the finish line gave us the boost we needed to finish strong.

Several people have already asked if we plan to run the course again next year. I suspect that we will.

Vicki, me, Corey, Melissa and Shannon all ran the Run Woodstock 50K.

There was some talk about tackling a 50 miler at some point. Much like with childbirth, I suspect we’ll all forget just how tough the 50K really was and that we may start thinking that it’s a really good idea. We’ll see.

What this race did give me was the assurance that there isn’t anyone else I enjoy making bad decisions with as much as these wonderful humans.

It also gave me a big blister. I’ll be the one hobbling around the rest of the week, but with a smile on my face.

Running’s not just pretty medals.

Have you done an ultramarathon? What’s your best advice for someone deciding whether to increase their race distance? (You may have to click on “Continue Reading” to leave a comment.)

I’ve been running for five years now (three of them on trails) and I still make newbie mistakes. But you don’t have to.

There are lots of ways you can run on trails without getting lost or getting eaten by mosquitoes. Here are my best tips:

  • Plan. Just last week, I headed out on what I knew would be a three-mile trail run with no water, gear or phone. Sure, I was fine, but I would have been a whole lot more comfortable in the full sun with a little bit of water. I also missed taking pics of the deer I saw on the trail. And a bit of mosquito repellent would have saved me from bites all along my ankles.
  • Leave a trail. OK, you’re not Hansel and Gretel, but at least tell someone where you’re going, how far you’re planning to run and when you expect to be back.
  • Know where you’re going. Get as much information about the route before you head out, whether that’s getting a paper map or taking a picture of the map on the trail head.
  • Learn to read a map. In Michigan, trail maps typically show you where each marker is. Most trails also are assigned a color and list a distance. For example, I just ran through the yellow trail around Fort Custer State Campground in Battle Creek, Mich. Because I looked at the map, I knew it was a four-mile loop and that I could pick it up right by my campsite. But you should know that the distance between each marker does not necessarily correspond with a particular mileage. So, there may or may not be a full mile between mile marker one and two. The map may or may not show the distance between the mile markers either.
  • Related: Use the map, but pay attention. I ran that yellow trail three times in the week we camped at Fort Custer. The first time, I had already been running for a mile around the campground, so I went out a mile on the yellow trail, turned around and headed back. However, the second time, I didn’t look at the marker by the campsite, so it took me a few minutes of looking at the map to see where the trail connected with the campground so I could get back to my campsite. Doh.

    After a while, most trails look the same, so pay attention.

  • Pick one trail and stick to it. If there are multiple trails that intersect, pick a color or a trail name and stay on it the whole time. If you’re new, you may notice that some trails appear to split off, leaving you wondering whether to make a turn. Remember that most trails are like the highway; you want to stay on the main road unless there’s an arrow pointing to your exit (in this case, trail).

    Look closely: The yellow trail continues on the left, but you would have wanted to turn right if you were following the red trail.

  • Run with friends if you can. I don’t mind running trails by myself, but running with friends is a whole lot more fun. Plus, you get validation from them that, yes, you are definitely approaching a hill and should walk instead of run for a minute to catch your breath. And the jokes about just needing to be faster than all the other runners when encountering a bear never get old.
  • Have fun. Trail running — at least for us back-of-the-packers — is supposed to be slower and more enjoyable. Look around. Enjoy the view and the sounds. Maybe you’ll even fall in love with trail running. And remember: not every stick is a snake!

Do you run on trails? Any tips for newbies? Any mistakes you’ve made that you’ve since corrected? (You may have to click on “Continue Reading” to leave a comment.)

We had heard the stories beforehand: The time when Shannon almost died. The steep hills. The shoe-sucking mud pit.

But nothing prepared us for just how hard it would be to get through one of two loops for the Old Farts Running Club‘s The Mummy Trail Marathon and Half in Lowell, Mich. It kicked our butts!

With a bum knee bugging me for the past couple of weeks, I signed up for the full marathon on race day, thinking that I would DNF (did not finish) halfway if I had to. I really wanted the gear, which was pretty awesome and included a zip-up jacket, neon-yellow running T-shirt and a towel. All items had either the mummy logo or the name of the race.

Race organization

I arrived at 7 a.m. for an 8 a.m. start. Registration was super quick and organized.

There were stacks of jackets, T-shirts and sweatshirts to riffle through, but each runner got to pick exactly what they wanted. There were stacks of even more clothes after the race and each runner got to pick another item which now included stacks of sweat pants, track pants and shorts.

The gear was stacked on a picnic table, but we all took home a really nice jacket or sweatshirt and there were plenty of sizes and styles to choose from.

There are flush toilets in a building right by the start line and the race is small enough that the line was short.

Speaking of the start line, the race director gave clear instructions, we all lined up and we started right on time.

The trails were very clearly marked with small flags, spray-painted arrows and homemade signs that both encouraged and taunted us.

One of the many taunting signs along the trail.

The race organizers also have some sort of sick love for Chuck Norris who managed to make us feel unworthy every time we saw his face.

Hold me.

Water stations were tidy with plenty of cups and big trash cans. The station at around mile 8 had three of the Old Farts whose names grace some of the toughest spots along the course. They lulled us into a false sense of security by giving us sliced watermelon, cookies and Coke.

Don’t let these smiling faces fool you. The men were friendly but the portions of the race named after them were brutal.

Difficulty

It quickly became apparent that if we were going to do two loops and finish with 26.2 miles, we were going to have to reserve some energy, so we did a lot of walking. Looking back, that was one of our biggest mistakes. One mile had hills so steep, it took us 45 minutes.

How steep, you ask?

We had to crawl on our hands and knees a few times before reaching ropes that helped us climb, but that also made us feel like we would fall backward and plunge to our deaths.

But because climbing up steep hills wasn’t hard enough, this one had huge rocks.

Rocks? Sure, because the hills weren’t steep enough on their own.

And the trees. Oh, the trees. Trees blocked the trail so many times that even when we were running, we quickly had to stop to go over — or duck under — downed trees. At least two of us banged up our knees and got nice cuts and bruises. Never say I didn’t bleed for my running!

We crossed a few streams and slid down a few extra-steep spots on our bums.

 

We were grateful for the ropes, but wanted to lie down and cry whenever we spotted them because we knew what they portended.

No happy ending

We survived the toughest trail race I’ve ever seen. Even the Two Hearted Trail Half, which I considered relatively technical, and the Run Woodstock 50K were easier than today’s course.

Toward the end of the first look, the course gets a lot less technical, so my friends and I discussed going back out to do a second loop. My knee was holding up pretty well, but we were all plum tired. And we must have looked it because one of the race organizers (who happens to be a coach) basically told us we were done.

And we were perfectly OK with that. He even gave us half-marathon finisher medals and told us we did great. So we technically didn’t DNF and it felt like we earned those darn medals.

Lessons learned

There is no way I could do the full marathon at Old Farts. Well, maybe at some point. This was definitely not my year.

Would I sign up for the half? In a heartbeat. And I would run a lot more than I did today, knowing that we “only” had to do 13.1 miles (or more like 13.5 by my watch), making it a shorter trip.

I also was very glad that I had my friends’ support. I can’t imagine going through all of that by myself. There were many times when we encouraged each other, helped each other face our fears and pushed each other to get to the finish line.

The chicos both finished the full, but the chicas and I did one loop instead. That we’re all smiling after the race is a testament to our friendship.

In the end, it wasn’t the race I had signed up for, but I wouldn’t trade the experience — or my crew — for anything.

What’s the toughest race you’ve ever done? Would you consider our change of plans a DNF? Have you ever DNF’d? (You may have to click on “Continue Reading” to leave a comment.)