We were a half-mile into the race and power-hiking through a 500-foot climb. It was the start of Day Three, a 20(ish)K that measured about 14 miles, and my hike matched Stu Johnson’s stride for stride.
Normally I wouldn’t be OK with this since I’ve never had any business being near Stu during a trail race. He’s one of the most experienced and accomplished trail runners in Kansas City, so in the past being near him was a sign that I’d started way too fast, and on those days the result was disaster. But, on this day I was fine with it – for the moment, anyway. I can power-hike with just about anybody, so this would work as long as we were hiking.
We began to chat, and Stu – a nine-year veteran of Three Days of Syllamo – offered a few words of wisdom.
“The thing about Day Three …” Stu said, “is that you go hard for as long as you can, and then you go hard for a few more miles after that, and then you’re done.”
It made sense. Day One of the three-day stage race in Mountain View, Ark., was a heavy 50K with more than 7,500 feet of climbing. Day Two was a 50-miler with more than 14,700 feet of gain. Survive all that, and every step of Day Three was one step closer to getting to stop, soak your legs in the cold creek, and take a week off to recover. Why not push it?
The conversation continued as we reached the top of the climb. The hiking ended. Stu began to trot, and he picked up the pace quickly. I went with him. The conversation continued…
THREE DAYS EARLIER: THE ARRIVAL
Pre-race nerves officially began Thursday morning when I pulled into the parking lot in Overland Park to meet up with Sherrie Klover and Chris Thomas for our road trip to Mountain View.
The nerves were mild at first, but they reverberated through Chris’ truck as all three of us were Syllamo newbies. Even Sherrie – who ran the 99th fastest 100-mile time by a woman in the United States in 2012 – was on edge not knowing quite what to expect.
Nerves transitioned to full-fledged jitters when we pulled up to race headquarters late that afternoon for packet pick-up. The start/finish location for all three days was in a beautiful, open park space. Try running in any direction from there, however, and the only direction was up. Way up.
I knew from previous reports that Syllamo would be tough. I also knew I’d never done anything of this magnitude before. I had one 50-mile finish under my belt, but my biggest mileage week ever totaled 57 miles. This would be about 97 in three days. On top of that, I’d had just two double-digit mileage runs in the previous seven weeks while dealing with cranky calves. I knew I was undertrained but hoped I wasn’t in over my head.
A dreamcatcher dangled above my bed in the cabin that weekend, but there were no dreams for it to catch that first night. I didn’t sleep a minute. My eyes were closed for about six hours, but my brain was wide awake. Did I pack enough gels? Did I remember TP? How about sunscreen? Typical pre-race night. So many unnecessary thoughts to keep sleep at bay.
My goals for the weekend were simply to finish each day, stay injury free, learn how to become a better trail runner with smarter pacing and nutrition, and to have an absolute blast on the trails with my friends. Accomplishing those goals would begin the next morning.
DAY ONE: “ARE WE LOST?”
It was chilly in the valley as Race Director Steve Kirk gave the official welcome to runners and offered up some final instructions before sending us on our way for the 50K.
We were warned to hydrate early and often, and to be sure to refill our bottles at aid stations because we would go as many as nine miles between aid stations and it was supposed to be uncharacteristically hot.
Sure enough, the chills disappeared after a mile as we marched single-file up a 500-foot climb. The higher we climbed, the warmer it got. From there, no matter up or down, the day got hotter and hotter. Temperatures cracked the 80s early and took a major toll.
Adding to the challenge was the fact that there were scarce course markings – something that was made clear on the race website as well as at the pre-race meeting. A few turns were tough to spot if you weren’t looking for them, and we got off-course for a half-mile at one point due to inattentive behavior. There were a few stretches of a few miles without marking, however, that created additional stress when going as many as nine miles between aid stations in the heat with water supplies dwindling (This would have been of much less concern on a day in the 60s or low 70s as had been anticipated).
Sherrie and I stuck together for all but the final mile. We latched on with Jeremy Day and Erin Miller at about mile 10, and Jeremy served as our pace car the rest of the way. It was a tremendous benefit to have his trail experience leading the way to keep me from going too fast too early and from crashing and burning during the second half of the race. My goal was to finish, and it was achieved after 7 hours and 17 minutes. I’d paced intelligently by sticking with more veteran runners, and I’d handled my nutrition pretty well throughout the day. I was pleased with all of that.It as a very good day, but my butt was kicked.
A few minutes after finishing, I got to see Sarah Henning cross the finish line. From there, we headed to the river to join the other finishers for some quality recovery therapy.
While sitting in the river with Sarah and soaking my legs in the frigid spring water, I didn’t feel good about the Saturday 50-miler. My legs were trashed, my lower back had tightened up badly, and the heat had sapped my system.
“Are you still running tomorrow?” she inquired.
Sarah had signed up for Days One and Three, so she would be crewing on Saturday.
My body told me the answer should be “no.” Nothing felt injured or out of place, however. Fatigue was absolutely understandable and expected. I told her I planned to show up at the starting line Saturday morning and give it a shot, but I asked her to look out for me.
DAY TWO: DOUBT AND DNF
When I rolled out of bed at 4 a.m. from another sleepless night under the dreamcatcher, the first thing I noticed was that I could stand.
My legs didn’t buckle. There were no sharp pains to go with all of that stiffness.
If I could stand, then I could walk.
If I could walk, then I could start the 50-miler.
Two hours later, I was back at the starting line to give it a shot.
The day played out as I expected it to. I hiked the first mile along with almost everyone else, then coasted on a nice long downhill section, then hiked again, coasted another downhill, and resumed hiking.
I latched on briefly with Nikki Parkhurst and Genevieve Spivey around mile 7 and stayed with them for a bit before falling back. It was my only decent running mile of the day. I saw Sarah at the 9.5-mile aid station, told her I planned to keep going, grabbed a grilled cheese sandwich that an angel working the aid station had made, and continued marching forward. My legs continued to feel worse, though, and my pace dwindled.
I caught up to Jim Sheldon at around mile 17, and he was having serious stomach issues. I already knew my chances of making the first course cutoff were minimal, and they were almost nonexistent to make the second cutoff. I decided to call it a day, so I stayed with Jim to make sure we could get him to the aid station at 19 miles so he could get more food and fluid.
Upon arrival at the aid station, Sarah was waiting with her vehicle. Genevieve had dropped with a foot injury, and Jim and I joined them in calling it a day after 19 miles.
Typically I wouldn’t be OK with dropping from a race, but this time I was absolutely fine with the decision. My calves had started acting funny again, but I was moving slow enough that they didn’t get bad. I knew my pace wasn’t getting any faster and that my energy reserves were low. I also knew that by making the decision early I had an opportunity come back on day three and finish the weekend strong.
Perhaps I let too many doubts creep into my head. Maybe I could’ve picked up the pace and ultimately finished.
Regardless, the prospect of successfully finishing two of the three days seemed a whole lot better than slogging through a few more miles on day two, doing damage to my calves, getting pulled at the cutoff anyway and then not starting day three.
No regrets. Live to run another day.
DAY THREE: RUNNING WITH A LEGEND
It didn’t take more than a minute or two after Stu picked up the pace before the thought crossed my mind that this wasn’t a good idea. I’d been down this road before; I knew how it was supposed to end. My brain kept telling me to fall back and conserve, but our conversation continued and we settled into a steady rhythm.
A light drizzle fell as we chatted about the weekend (Stu had an extra 31 miles on his legs by finishing the 50-miler the day before), about previous years’ races, the tough conditions of the first two days, and about future races as the miles clicked by.
When we reached the lone aid station at mile 8.5, I grabbed a cookie and continued on while Stu stopped to refill a water bottle and chat briefly with a runner in an Ozark Trail 100 shirt (Stu is a co-RD for that race). It was during that short separation that my brain began to think about pace and fatigue. We had gone awfully fast, it seemed, so slowing down a bit might be a good idea.
I reached a gravel road and began to hike so Stu could catch up. Maybe 30 seconds later he flew past me, smacked me on the butt and said “No walking! Let’s go!”
With that, we were cruising again.
“Go hard for as long as you can,” I remembered, “and then go hard for a few more miles after that, and then you’re done.”
Go hard. We’re almost done!
I hit the next trailhead first, and set the pace for the final miles as Stu stayed right on my heels. We power-hiked the remaining climbs, and blazed through the rest. By now the trail consisted mostly of long downhill sections covered in pine needles, leaves and dirt.
Occasionally, Stu would call out to be careful of the slick rocks that occasionally popped up, usually just in time for me to hop over them or tiptoe through them and keep going.
Those final 5.5 miles seemed to go by in a flash, and soon Stu and I popped out of the woods and back onto the road that took us to the finish line where we crossed side-by-side in 2:35 – about 15-25 minutes ahead of where I’d expected to be that morning.
“Go hard for a few more miles after that, and then you’re done.”
We were done.
Stu is one of the runners I’ve looked up to the most since I started running trails in July 2010. Getting to share the trail and a few hours of conversation with him – and be pushed by him to run stronger and tougher – was the perfect way to close out the weekend. It was an absolute privilege.
LOOKING BACK; LOOKING FORWARD
It’s always nice to finish a race and have no regrets, and I feel that way about my inaugural trip to 3 Days of Syllamo. Other than completing the full series, I achieved all of my goals. I also put in 64.5 miles, which makes it my biggest single-week running mileage total. Can’t complain about that.
I also made some new friends on the trail and got to spend a lot of quality time with old friends on the trail, on the road to and from the races, and hanging out in our cabins.
In addition, I learned a lot of valuable lessons from my first stage race that I expect to pay major dividends at my next stage race – the Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race in June.
I already have Syllamo on my race schedule for next year and plan to sign up the day registration opens. I also expect to finish all three days in 2014.