Saturday, November 9, 2013

Ozark Trail 100 Mile Endurance Run 2013

The Ozark Trail 100 Mile Endurance Run, or OT100, was supposed to be my first 100 mile run in 2010. Other things in life happened and I settled on my solo Busiek 100. While that was a great experience, I was still hearing the challenge of the OT whispering in my ear. I was attracted to the race because not only is it less than 3 hours from home, it is a point-to-point race almost exclusively on single track trail winding through some of the most beautiful and rugged terrain in the Mark Twain National Forest in south central Missouri. It has numerous water crossings and over 12,000 feet of elevation gain. It is the perfect place to push yourself to a new understanding of your limits. And, it’s actually 103.6 miles, if you're a stickler for such details.

100 mile noobs aren't supposed to set time goals but everyone does. The standard dream seems to be 24 hours and that is what I stated my goal would be. On paper, running a 100 mile race in 24 hours doesn't seem all that fast. Maintain 5 mph, or 12 minute miles, to finish the first 50 miles in 10 hours, and then you can slow all the way down to 16 minutes miles, less than 4 mph, for the next 50 miles, and you still have 14 hours to get through it. Simple. Right? My first clue this might be difficult should have been the fact that out of 182 people who have been able to finish this race in its first 4 years, only 24 have done it in less than 24 hours.  That is the finishers, mind you, most years about half of the field drops out.  But I've never been one to choose my goals based on what other people are doing.

While I may have had a lofty time goal going into the race, I really just wanted to pit myself against other runners in a tough 100 mile race and not come out on the bottom. Not having much experience at all, I had no idea how to predict how I would do. I did all the training you are supposed to do and certainly had more experience than the first time I faced the distance, but, until you actually face a run like this and make it across the finish line, everything else is speculation.

We had to check in the Friday night before the race at the site of the finish line, Bass River Resort in Steelville, Missouri.  Being a point to point race, however, meant the starting line was 100 miles away.  The race starts at 6:00 am on Saturday morning and you have two main options for where to sleep the night before.  You can stay at the finish line and get on a bus at 3:00 am that will drive for over two hours to the start, or you can stay in Salem at the closest hotel which is about 40 miles from the start. We opted for the hotel in Salem.

Because of the 40 mile drive on country roads, I figured we needed to leave the hotel by 4:30 to make it to the start with time to make any last second preparations and to prepare myself mentally. We probably could have left much later but I didn't want to spend my final moments before the race worrying about making it on time. Not to mention, I had been up since 2:00 anyway so I was ready to get the day started.  I have sleepless nights before the hard stuff, always.  Sara drove us to the start and I went through my plans for the day in my head feeling like I had forgotten something important.

Start Bag
There was no reason to worry about forgetting something, though, because I had gone down my lists and packed everything for the day well in advance.  I had prepared 6 drop bags that had everything I would need to make it through each stage of the race.  One bag for the start, one bag for the finish, and four for different aid stations throughout the race that would be waiting for me when I arrived.

We made it to the starting line at 5:15 and I had 45 minutes to burn.  Because it is just a trail head where the trail intersects a highway, there is no parking for spectators.  They would have to drop me off and not see me again until I was 17 miles in.  Sara stopped on the road and gave me a kiss goodbye and I jumped out into the cold morning air.

It was in the low 40’s and only going to mid 50‘s.  A great forecast for running through the woods all day.  I would run in much less, but to be comfortable while waiting, I had worn thick fleece pants and a big puffy jacket.  I brought a thermos full of coffee and sat on the ground relaxing at the start enjoying the last few minutes of rest before a big day.  I was able to pack my extra clothes and thermos in the start bag and leave it to be delivered at the finish.

At about 5 minutes till 6:00 everyone gathered at the trail head.  I stood off to the side of the crowd.  There were some final words and a countdown but I don’t remember a word of it.  Everyone started running down the trail and I watched them all go.  I wanted to be the very last person to start, intent on running the conservative pace I had practiced and not getting into races with people who might not even be there at the end of the day.  At some point I realized that even though there were still like 25 people with head lamps on staring at the trail head, they were all spectators or race staff and not running.  After what must have seemed liked way too long of a pause, where I stood confusedly looking back and forth between the lights looking at me and the trail head, I stepped off.

Watching the GPS closely and trying to be as relaxed as possible, consciously holding myself back, I shuffled down the trail and tried to enjoy the feeling of strength before the feeling of overwhelming fatigue that I knew would be showing it‘s face at some point in the near future.  In the beginning there were lots of little packs running together. 3 people here and 6 up there. Everyone’s headlamp made it easy to see the little groups together even when they were far off down the trail.  There was lots of yo-yoing with different people.  You would get just ahead of them for a couple minutes but then stop to pee and they would then get back ahead of you.  It’s hard to hold the pace you think is best for you and not chase after someone, especially early in the day when you have extra energy in the tank.

One of the groups I danced with saw me take my only real detour off the course. There was a grassy field between woodsy areas where a couple of trails intersected. Flags were on the ground marking the right direction but I was watching the first hints of sunlight brighten the sky and I made it about 20 paces before seeing the group I had just passed heading down the other trail. I doubled back and decided since our pace was similar I would just stay behind them until we hit the first aid station at Grasshopper Hollow, 8.2 miles. When we finally reached it I filled my bottles and within a minute was ready to head out. The little group I had joined was not quite ready and as I left ahead of them they sent me off with a caution to make sure I stay on the trail.

I really enjoyed the morning portion but it was some of the most technical and difficult terrain on the course.  I had read in other blogs to take your time and look around for the first 40 miles to save your legs for later when the difficulty of the trail eases up. This is good advice. There is lots of off camber trail running along hillsides and I was feeling it go to on work my ankles and feet. I heeded the advice, and by taking it easy I hit the first crew stop at 17.5 miles feeling pretty fresh.

I could have gotten by without any drop bags at all since I only had them at crew access points, but, I wanted to be sure to have the things I needed if the crew for some reason didn't make it. As it turns out, I would have been fine and they made it to every stop on time. At the very first one, however, we arrived at exactly the same time. I looked frantically around the aid station before I finally saw Jake running my direction from the parking area. As the day went on, they were well ahead of my pace and had plenty of time to sit and wait around.

I met runners on the course that didn't have crews. I don't think I would have fared nearly as well if I hadn't had the support of four awesome people. Sara and Jake, who know me better than anyone, Jamie, a 2009 OT 100 veteran as well as close friend and training partner that I have literally shared over a thousand miles of road and trails with, and finally, Emily, who is like a sponsored national champion adventure racing superstar. You were allowed to have pacers from the aid station at mile 43 to the end. Jamie would run miles 43 to 68 (25 miles), Emily would run 68 to 97 (29 miles), and Jamie would finish out the day with 97 to 103.6. Over a marathon for both of them in the cold, no awards, no t-shirts, just babysitting me through a cold dark night as I curse and groan at the trail. I’m fortunate to know them.

They somehow escaped the camera all day leaving me no choice but to pick a couple pictures of them that I liked.  If you want to be successful, surround yourself with successful people.

The afternoon went by in a blur. You see so many things when you travel so far at such a relatively slow pace that it’s hard to remember all that happens. I met a group of horseback riders coming from the other direction on the trail and I remember wondering if the horses legs felt like mine. I spent a lot of time singing along with my iPod. I got caught singing a heartfelt rendition of Wagon Wheel by a group of 6 older men backpacking. I asked if they had heard me singing and one of them said, “oh yeah.”

Sometimes when the trail has worked on me for a while I find myself overcome with emotions and I just start crying for a couple minutes as I'm running through the woods. Former Marine running 100 miles for fun while bawling like a baby, the duality of character doesn't escape me. This happened around the 40 mile mark as I was thinking about how much my family meant to me. I have no idea if this is a regular thing for ultrarunners or not but I have had it happen a few times. It's usually at the end of races but this time it hit me hard right in the middle of the day. I was just flowing down the trail thinking about Sara and the next thing I knew I had tears streaming down my cheeks. Good thing the old backpackers didn't see that display.

I was still covering ground at a great pace without a lot of discomfort when I finally arrived at the next crew stop at 43.5 miles where Jamie would begin his first segment of 25 miles with me. I was excited to have the company and hear news of the outside world. While I am generally a loner, after 9 hours of being mostly alone I was ready to spend some time with a familiar face. A former college track stud and finisher of the inaugural OT100, Jamie was the perfect person to keep me moving at my very best pace. He knows what I need to hear to stay motivated. He isn't afraid to call out my weaknesses and keep me honest, I appreciate that about him. He went immediately to work hustling me down the trail.

Before we would reach the next aid station the sun would make it’s way below the horizon. We spent most of this section running with a guy who was in the Army. He had been a combat medic in Afghanistan and Iraq and was now serving as a recruiter. These short lived relationships that you develop on the course are awesome. As the sun went down, we switched on our headlamps and pressed on down the trail. I felt a little safer knowing I had an experienced combat medic running right behind me. Unfortunately, somewhere after the 50.7 mile aid station at Highway DD, our new friend’s pace dwindled and we had to leave him behind.

It was at this point I hooked up the portable battery charger to my Garmin. None of the currently available GPS watches are capable of recording a 24 hour or better run. At the suggestion of Facebook friends I picked up a portable USB charger and hooked the watch up to it when we were about 14 hours into the race. You aren't able to see a data display while it is charging but is does keep tracking distance. Two and a half hours later the battery read full and when I pulled the cord it had tracked every mile and I had plenty of charge to make it through the end of the run.

I was feeling the effects of running for nearly 14 hours at this point but I still had energy to push myself. We would often see headlights in the distance or hear voices over the hill. We were able to slowly draw in and pass several runners. We spent the time talking about what gravel races we wanted to ride next season, wives, bike parts, kids, and whatever else came up. Spend 6 hours running a trail with someone and you will learn all about them.

As the night grew darker and colder, Jamie and I finally made our way to the next crew stop at Hazel Creek, mile 68.4. This is where he would switch out with Emily and she would run the next 29 miles with me. I had put lots of warm clothes in my drop bag here. People have dropped from this race with hypothermia before and many of the race reports from former years warn of the bone chilling nights on the course. Having suffered with cold before, I planned accordingly and packed clothes I would be comfortable with well into freezing temperatures.

Until this point I had been moving along pretty much according to plan. I was on the slow side of where I wanted to be but had held a fairly steady pace all day. But as soon as I began my first stretch with Emily, my energy started to drop quickly. I hung on by a thread to the Pigeon Roost aid station at 75.9 which featured a giant inflatable snowman. A runner was leaving this aid station right as we arrived and another came in right behind us. I let myself get caught up in a race with these two parties that lasted the next hour. We could see their headlights and hear their voices for what seemed like miles.

We finally made it ahead of everyone and then held it precariously for a few minutes, and then I was cooked. Waves of nausea hit me like a ton of bricks, and while I was able to hold it off for a minute or two, I eventually lost the battle and puked up the last thing I had eaten which was a mango buddy fruit. It’s unfortunate too because I really like them and it will now be a long time before I won’t gag at the thought of another. I'm always a little embarrassed when I throw up in front of someone else. Mainly because of the sound I make while I'm doing it. I call it scream puking. I try to restrain it and lose my cookies silently, like a gentleman with composure, but once it starts, I have absolutely no control whatsoever and it comes out more like a, "BLAAAAAAAAAAAA...(gasp for air)..HOOOAAAAAAAA." Only you have to imagine me doing it at the top of my lungs, and it goes on for a little while, or it least that is how it feels. Anyone within a couple of miles was probably wondering what animal was being tortured to death. Emily got to experience all my best sides in one night. Several hours after the mango incident I might have had a bout of diarrhea that she got to witness as well. Pacing can be a tough job. She took it all in stride like it was no big deal.

Emily has competed in events longer than 24 hours before and she was able to evaluate my situation and let me know what exactly she thought I should do. This was what I wanted in my pacers. At the next aid station, Berryman Campground, mile 81.3, she said I would sit under blankets to get warm and eat until I had energy again. I ended up drinking 3 cups of hot chocolate, a half a cup of ramen, a pierogi, and a handful of pretzels. While this turned out to be the longest stop of the race at just over 30 minutes, I think it was an outstanding decision that provided me with the juice to make it through the next 9 mile section which would be one of the hardest segments of the race.

As they pulled me up out of the chair they had lined with someone's nice warm blankets, I remembered something I should have remembered before I sat down. Do you ever do something and while you are doing it you say to yourself, "now remember you are doing this?" That is what I was thinking to myself when I put the half-eaten peanut butter gel into my back pocket. I told myself not to sit down with that gel in there. I had done exactly that. Not only had I sat right on it and ejected the uneaten gel out onto my back, and all over my jacket, I had squirted it all over the nice aid station person's blanket. In case you don't know, gel has roughly the same consistency as thick honey. What a mess. My emotions over amplified by exhaustion had me feeling really horrible about it but there really wasn't anything I could do and I hoped whoever it belonged to would forgive me. Sara told me later she had tried unsuccessfully to clean it up but everyone had been a good sport about it.

Elevation. My GPS tends to read low on every long race, sometimes by as much as a couple thousand feet. 
Knowing that, Garmin gave me 10,568 feet of climbing and Strava said 11,193. Like teeth on a saw blade, while there were no giant climbs, each one took its toll.  
That next section, from Berryman Campground to Billy’s Branch, 81.3 to 90.1, was so dark and so cold and so long. Emily did her best to keep me focused on moving. I had mainly been fighting muscle fatigue but now I was starting to get loopy and strongly felt the need to sleep. I had been up for over 24 hours now and covering trail for 20 of those hours and it was catching up with me. I had caffeine pills in my gear but was afraid to take any and upset my stomach further. Every stump or fallen tree I saw looked like an inviting place to sit. At one point I caved and said I would only stop for a second. Emily said I could have a minute and a half. She gave me a 30 second and 15 second warning which I absolutely hated and loved at the same time. Must keep moving forward.

I tripped and fell down a lot throughout the night. Once I somehow managed to stumble into a pose that Emily thought looked like a downward dog. It was actually pretty comfortable too once I was in the position but it was difficult to get out of. One of my more graceful falls was on a descent with lots of loose baseball size rocks that went to rolling and I just kind of gently laid down onto my back. So smooth.

Emily tried to keep the mood light and we had conversations about every topic we could think of. Once we looked up to see a little white owl sitting on a branch only a couple of feet above our heads. She had me take a second to turn off the headlamps and look up at the stars which filled the night sky and they were huge and brilliant. It helped that she had ridden all these trails extensively in mountain bike races and knew every tough obstacle we would encounter down to specific rock ledges and ditches. When she would tell me we were almost to a ridge line that would be gentle and easy I was happy for the news. When she told of a climb that would go on for a long time, I secretly wished she would just shut up. You know I truly care about you though, Emily, that was the miles talking!

After what seemed like an eternity, we finally arrived at Billy’s Branch, mile 90.1, only a half marathon left. The aid station volunteers were so helpful, not just at this aid station, but all through the course. As soon as they could see your headlight coming they were cheering and ringing cowbells. When you first arrived it was easy to pause the race and allow them to pamper you with any request. You need water, soup, hot chocolate, can I make you a grilled cheese, how can I help you? This luxury would be soon interrupted by the next runner coming in behind you. Stay and be pampered a little more, or jump up and get out of town. I was caught at Billy’s Branch by fellow former Marine and two time Badwater 135 finisher, Tony Clark. I don’t know if it’s really a fair race if the other person doesn't know about it, but staying ahead of him for the final 13 miles was my new motivation. I stood up on shaky legs, said thank you and goodbye to everyone, and shuffled back onto the trail. Every sound I heard in the forest after that was him catching up to me and I would try to shovel a little more coal on the fire.

Finally, after one of the longest nights of my life, Emily pointed out the first signs of sunlight in the sky. My attitude was instantly lifted. I hadn't done any real running at all since the mango incident, but with the new life the sun had given me, every so often I was able to throw in a hundred feet of running, when the terrain was just right, but any sort of rocks or elevation change in the trail would bring the pace back to the power hike.

Around mile 95, when I knew we were getting close to the final aid station I was starting to know for sure I had the run in the bag. I still had some distance to cover but I had time on my side and was feeling much better than I had for the last 6 hours. The final aid station is Henpeck Hollow at mile 97.1 and I decided I wasn't going to stop. Emily took my bottles and vest with instructions of what I needed and would have Jamie catch up to me with my bottles so I could charge through without stopping and finish this thing out. I didn't ask for any food, I hadn't taken in anything but water since Billy’s Branch.

I marched through the aid station telling everyone I loved them without breaking stride. The sun was beginning to shine brightly and the sense of impending victory over the challenge was becoming more powerful than the pain of pushing harder. Jamie caught up to me within minutes and I told him I was pretty sure if I kept this pace up I was going to beat his run time when he tackled the course in 2009. He jumped in front of me and slowed the pace to a crawl, but only for a second. We laughed and then got to work.

While we only had 6 miles left, they were not miles that would come easy. There are a couple easy miles in this section directly after the aid station, but use them to catch your breath, because in the last 3 miles there are 3 hills that seem like cruel and unusual punishment at the end of a race that is already 3 miles longer than it should be. It's even worse if you think there are only 2 hills but then suddenly find yourself in a valley after the second hill realizing you are about to climb another. But that is what we pay for.  A test.  A challenge.  I cursed the hills and kept marching, trying to match the pace Jamie was laying down for me.

And then finally, when we had gone up and over every hill the race directors could possibly squeeze in, we exited the forest onto the property of the Bass River Resort where the finish line was. Of course it still wasn't quite over. The markings took us around the property and then through another rocky ditch, just let this damn thing be over my mind was screaming. But soon you hear the first cheers and clapping, you get a little further and see everyone waiting for you. Jake and Sara are standing at the finish line and Emily is there taking pictures. I had the strength to put together a pretty good run for the last 200 feet, as if I had been running the whole time or something.  28 hours and 37 minutes later, it was finally time to stop.

Sprint Finish

I finished 18 out of 65 people who had bravely lined up the morning before. By the end of the race, the course had thinned the pack down to 38. While I didn't hit my 24 hour goal, I was more than satisfied with the experience. I think the big prize you get from taking on a challenge like this is the fresh perspective it gives you on what is truly meaningful in your life.  In the finisher's tent they had a cooler full of drinks and I'm always craving soda after a long event, specifically Coke. I opened the lid and saw a sea of ice cold Pepsi. After the night I had gone through it didn't matter. As I reached in for one of the cans of Pepsi, Sara produced a shiny red can of Coke from somewhere, "I brought you this," she said with a smile, and I remembered why I had been crying on the trail the day before.


  1. Every time I read your blog I like you I guess it's good that you post so infrequently that I don't end up being some kind of Kathy Bates-inspired scary super fan.

    Your wife knowing EXACTLY what you needed at the end was such a great moment, and you made me laugh out loud with your description of attempting to puke with "gentlemanly composure".

    What an amazing experience and achievement. You're exactly right about surrounding yourself with successful people, but the flip side of that is being the kind of person who attracts successful (and awesome) people to your side.

    1. Just don't crush my ankles with the sledgehammer and we will be all good, Kate!

  2. Jim, you are a force of nature and an inspiration. Next time I'm running up the three flights of stairs and work or bike up one of Springfield's mild hills, I will think to myself, "If Jim can run 100 + miles in 28 hours, I can do this!!"

    Great blog. Always interesting to read.


  3. Great job getting it done, Jim! I was in the pack that was running with you when you made the wrong turn in the grassy powerline strip, then spent the rest of the day/night seesawing with you and your pacers. You summed up the race, particularly the night, really well. I'm glad to cross this one off my to-do list!!

    Be well!

    joe miller