Lou Jolene puts his hands on his head and chuckles to himself.
The “them” Jolene speaks of are the scissors he planned to use to cut bib numbers. Packet pick-up is under way for Jolene’s ultra marathon/adventure race known as “Dude, Where’s the Trail?” He sends a volunteer out to the parking lot to retrieve the scissors.
Jolene turns his attention back to checking in the first runner. He displays the course-markings and reiterates that there won’t be many of them, then hands out a map and directions before instructing the runner to grab a flashlight, emergency kit and T-shirt off of the next table.
“Oh, and you’ll need a bag. Now where did I put those?” Jolene says, looking around his booth in the back corner of the Blue Springs Fazoli’s restaurant before chuckling again. “Oh dear, I must have left them in the van.”
I signed up for this event four days earlier on a whim in order to run with Mindy Coolman who was back visiting from Florida. Already I can tell it’s going to be a good time.
WHERE’S THE TRAIL?
The sun is just starting the peek over the trees as we depart the marina parking lot at Lake Jacomo. We’re on the road, so we’re not lost – yet.
Despite the staggered starting times, our team – Mindy, Rick Troeh, Aaron Norman and I – pass all but a few early starters during the first mile and a half. We’re moving briskly, shuffling through ankle-deep leaves and hopping over logs (“Most were placed by Mother Nature and have no meaning,” Lou notes in the race instructions, “but the ones weighing several tons were placed by me to confuse you.”). We’ve been running for about 15 minutes when we realize we’ve already missed a turn and gone off-course.
Backtracking, we find our path forward entails plenty of bushwhacking. We slide down a rocky, rooty embankment, weave through trees in the valley below, and then scramble back up the other side. Mindy is in the lead, and soon spots a pink flag and a trail. We’re back on course. After a mile of single-track, we cross a road, run around the bison enclosure and dash back into the woods for another mile to the Sailboat Cove aid station.
While snacking there, Dan Lesh – visiting from Juneau, Alaska – joins up with us. Bushwhacking through the woods, the five of us return to the course – and get lost again two miles later. In search of an old cemetery landmark that contains an answer to one of the race’s quiz questions – we make a wrong turn, cut through the woods, hop a barbed-wire fence, run through a field, and hop more barbed-wire while completely circling the cemetery and missing it. Finally, we locate the cemetery, obtain our quiz answer, and head back into the woods for more bushwhacking.
FAST TIME AND LOST TRAIL
Lou’s instructions say most participants won’t be able to run through the bushwhacking sections, but our team proves otherwise. The slowest of the five, I push hard to keep up. The spirit of our group and the adrenaline rush of the adventure propels each of us. Frequent stabs from thorn trees and eye-level tree branches barely slow us down.
The third section might be our fastest of the day. The mostly single-track section hugs Lake Blue Springs (the second of two lakes on the course) for about a mile and then weaves through the woods for a few miles. No bushwhacking here, we cruise easily to the aid station at the end of the leg where cookies, Gatorade and water await.
The break from bushwhacking doesn’t last long. Sections four and five are almost strictly off-trail scrounging. We shuffle down into a ravine and back up the other side, hustle through a campground and back into the woods – lots of woods – and stumble over leaf-covered rocks and branches for nearly 10 miles. A dead deer carcass, a rotting raccoon decorate our path, and more thorns do damage to clothes and skin before we re-emerge on the road and reach the final aid station before making the final push to the finish.
FINDING THE FINISH LINE
From there, we split up. Mindy has a flight to catch, so she, Aaron and Dan bolt ahead while Rick and I – both hurting a bit – opt to take it easy for the final six miles. All that remains is some moew bushwhacking, a rope climb about 20 feet down the “fiscal cliff,” and a mixture of single-track and road.
Thirty-three miles, and 8 hours and 10 minutes after starting, Rick and I jog back into the parking lot where Lou greets us, a clanging cowbell in hand and the same giddy grin on his face that he wore the night before.
Lou doesn’t ask us if we had fun. He doesn’t have to. Our dirt and salt-coated faces, traces of blood, and smiles give away the answer. We lost the trail a few times, but we found it frequently enough to reach the finish line.
Chances are good we’ll find it again next year, too.