Sunday, December 7, 2014

Seriously?! A race report for the Blue Springs 50/50

By Andy Smola

I want to start by saying the people I spoke/interacted with were all very nice. Anything read in this report is not a personal attack on anyone. There were a lot of problems with this race that could be easily remedied and some ethical questions that should probably be addressed. The biggest question is why these things have continued to occur since the race has been around for multiple years.
I had a feeling things weren't going to go well from the beginning. Maybe I'm a little odd in the way I do things, but I'm generally conscientious of other people's inconvenience. So when the check-in was located in a corner booth at Fazoli's, my radar was already on high alert. Who would create such a bogged down process. At a Fazoli's. In a corner booth. Someone unorganized, that's who. It didn't help that the t-shirt was cotton and was not race or distance specific. Since this would be my first attempt at "real" ultramarathoning, I had a higher expectation. However, despite my initial thoughts (and after getting reassuring messages from Meghan), I decided it wasn't a big deal. Not only was it only $35, I wasn't doing the event for a t-shirt, just my own curiosity and a stepping stone to further future distances. 

Race Day/The Start
I woke up at 3am to eat and planned to go back to sleep. Yeah right. I was up watching comedy on Netflix. Aziz Ansari cracks me up and always chills me out before a race. I headed to the race start and got my gear together. I was ready in plenty of time. At about 10 minutes to start time, the Race Director, Lou, walks around asking for people's names so he can see who is starting at the early (optional) start time. 
"Make sure I get your name if you're starting at 6. You have about two minutes," Lou announces. 4 or 5 people come running up (those people are at every race I've ever been to) to make sure they are checked off. As we are standing there, Lou looks at his watch and says, "Uh oh, it's after 6. Go." For a split second we all look around confused, but then realize that's the "start." Off into the darkness we head. At the first intersection I get to, I'm lost. I look at the people behind me and they say, "we thought you knew where you were going." With no clear markings near or on the road, we begin looking around until someone points to the other side of the road. Off into the darkness we head again.
My plan was to keep myself at a 9 minute pace for most of the race. I had lofty ideas of an 8 hour finish, but figured a reasonable estimate would be a sub-9 hour. A 10 minute pace would be 8 hours 20 minutes. I thought that would give me a lot of cushion as I ventured out into the 19 unknown miles. 
There was a warning on the FAQ section of the BS 50/50 website (last updated in 2011) that said if you started at 6am, the first few aid stations would not be set up. I wouldn't see the first one until mile 8 (every "4" miles), but they only had a couple of bottles of water the guy had brought with him. I had my vest on so I wasn't concerned. I stopped anyway to fill up my smaller water bottles that were filled with dry Perpetuem. 
As I headed out, a group of three were right in front of me so I stayed with them. They were holding pretty steadily between 9 and 9:30 pace, so I ran with them. Two guys running the 50 miler and one gal running 50k. This is where I met Russell. 

The Mistake
Russell and I started talking. As it turns out, that would not be a very good idea for either of us. We learned a lot about each other as the miles ticked by. We had become separated from the others and were blazing a path to superstar glory. At the turn around and the aid station that followed, there was no check in or anyone to make sure no one cut the course. 
As I headed back to the start/finish line, I ate my peanut butter and honey sandwich. Russell and I began discussing our pace. We were holding an 8:30 most of the way back. We kept trying to tell each to slow down, but in the end we got lost in conversation.
After a quick stop at mile 22, we headed out only to realize the mistake we made. Our previously effortless pace was now much more difficult. By mile 25, Russell said he needed to walk. We did, but then I headed out. I was determine to hold the pace. I made my way to the next turn around. Here I found an unmanned "aid station." A water jug. No one taking names or checking numbers. I filled up my water bottle and headed out. I met Russell a 100 yards from the turn around. He was doing well. We were both tired. At mile 27, the first wave of cramps began to hit. Hamstrings. I was forced to walk and stretch, but I kept moving. Once they let up, I would start running again, determined to hold at least a 9 minute pace. 
Instead of slowing down as I seized up, I kept my pace to make up for my walking. I was back at the 50k start/finish line. Personal 50k records of 4:47 are not good when you have 19 more miles. Despite my bib having "50 miler" on it, the photographer stopped me at the line and ask to take a "finisher" picture. I looked at him and said, "I still have 19 to go." I change my shoes and started out again. 
The Unknown
I was struggling. I was hurting. I was walking. After a half mile, an older man and his pacer passed me. I mumbled to myself, "there's going to be a lot more that pass me at the rate I'm going." I waited a bit and started running myself. I was really in bad shape. The intercostal muscles of my ribs were very angry and screamed in pain when I tried to take a deep breath. As if that was not enough, my back hurt from my vest. Not from bouncing or rubbing, but from just being there. Any jostling was difficult to tolerate. My hamstrings continued with their threats of cramping. I was in a bad place.
As I started my walk/run method, I noticed the man and his pacer were walking in front of me. I passed him. I walked. He passed me. He walked. As we went back and forth, I realized I would not be able to stay in front of him if I ran based on how I felt. I needed to start doing so mechanically. I started walking for 1/20 of a mile and running for a 1/10 of a mile. I don't know how long I kept that up, at some point I looked back and there was no trace of the man and his pacer.
At mile 39, I arrived at the first manned aid station. I walked in and the volunteers were laying on the picnic table seats talking about husbands and relationships. They asked if I needed anything, but didn't make any attempt to get up. I asked for a water refill and one of them stood. I took off my pack and made several attempts to open the bladder, as the attendant stood and watched with a full pitcher of water. I was hot, dehydrated and miserable. It was difficult to focus on the clasp, but I finally opened it. She filled the bladder and I hurried to get it back on in fear I would be caught by my pursuer. Before I donned my vest, the two ladies were back to discussing domesticated life in the burbs. 
My run/walk method continued, but became more walk than run. About 20 steps is all I could muster before I stopped to catch my breath. I tried to eat too. But everything I tried was tasteless, spitting out chocolate powerbar. I might as well be eating dirt. The perpetuem was like drinking warm strawberry-banana flavored vomit. The only thing satisfying was water. Unfortunately, it was becoming more difficult to find. All the unmanned aid stations were empty or near empty jugs of water. 
By mile 40, I was looking around every corner for the turn around. It all look so familiar. "It's around this bend, I know it," I said to myself. But as I looked around every tree, I became more deeply disappointed. Nothing but dry dusty trail.
Finally, I made it to the turn around (again, unmanned with no one to make sure you didn't cut the course). A small family was walking by it as I made it there. I felt a little weird passing them, only to turn around and follow them. So I started running. I WAS in a race after all. All I managed was the standard 20 steps before resuming the walk portion.
At about a half mile from the turn around I spotted my pursuer. Running. He's a full mile behind me, but I was sure it wouldn't be long before he would catch me. I tried to increase my walk/run intervals but could not bear it. I even began thinking it was all in my head. That I had plenty of energy and I just hadn't been trying hard enough because I got so used to walking. I started running and looked down. My watch showed an 8:30 pace. It seemed easier. I thought I might just pull this thing off. I thought I just got my second wind. 
10 seconds later I was stopped, bent over trying to release the cramps in my legs and gasping for air. 
Guess not.
Another half mile passed and I found Russell. He had sat down on a concrete barrier. I stopped to talk to him. He was cramping, walking and miserable, but still going. He said he gave up running and is just going to walk the rest of the way. I told him I would see him at the finish and to keep going. I needed to keep going too, sure the man and his pacer would catch me at any moment.
I made it back to the aid station and refilled my water again. They asked me if I wanted food. All they had were some doughnuts and bananas. I sat down and ate a banana. They asked me how close the others were. I said I didn't know, got up and headed out again.
It continued to get hotter. My spongy cooling rag became dry and stiff. I tried to soak it in water at the last unmanned aid station, but there was no water. I continued on, frequently looking behind me to see the man who would most certainly catch me. At one point I walked backwards for quite a while to see if I could catch a glimpse of him. He never appeared. 
At some point in the last 4 miles I broke down emotionally. I was miserable. I couldn't see going any further. The longer I walked, the longer it would take. I tried to run but still didn't make it more than 20 steps. I felt hopeless. 
And then I laughed out loud.
I was crying, but no tears welled up in my eyes. I had the horrible "cry face," but none of the water works. I was so dehydrated that no tears would fall. How ridiculous! It was then that it occurred to me: I was almost done. That I had come this far. That this, too, would eventually end. I pulled myself together, walking faster and, while it was still only 20 step, continued to run.
The Finish
I was within a quarter mile and I could see the finishing area. I looked over my shoulder again, sure that the man would pleasantly say hello as he jogged by. No man. No pacer. No hello.
As I closed in on the last 1/10 of a mile, I told myself I was going to run it in. It was downhill, I told myself. It was the finish and no respectable finisher would be caught walking to the finish, I told myself.
I walked. I didn't even try to run.
I came to my glorious moment. My pains and breakthroughs all coalescing in the final finishing moment. The cheers and bells would be deafening, even if it were only coming from two people. The moment captured in time with a photo that I would look at and say to all those who would listen, "that was when I finished my 50 mile run."
"What distance did you run?" was what I heard. "50 miles," I replied. 
"How far are the others behind you?"
"I don't know."
That was it. No picture. No grand finish.
I sat on the curb. Exhausted, but happy that it was over. The sun baking my skin. No shade. I just sat there. Then I heard, "let me get a picture of you." Lou pulled out a little, and ancient, digital camera that may have been an instamatic (still haven't seen that picture).
The other man asked if I needed anything. "Water," I said. He brought over a Dixie cup and poured me some water. I drink it. He asked if I wanted some Gatorade. "Sure,"I replied. He walks to his van and pulls out a gallon jug filled with red fluid. He pours me the Gatorade. I realize it's warm once I hold it in my hand, but I don't care. I drink it. 
It's not warm. It's hot.
It settles down into my stomach. Hot, sugary fruit punch. As the seconds tick by, my mouth floods with saliva. I'm going to hurl. I realize I cannot get up and do not want spew all over my shoes, body or on anything close to me, because I will have to sit next to it for a while.
"Can you get me a bag?  I'm gonna puke." I say out loud.
A lady returns with a trash bag and I realize it may be that I just need to get blood back to my head. I lay back on the hot grass taking deep breaths. The sensation passes and I sit back up. 
Lou is standing in front of me with cardboard box. At this point I think that I am the first person from the 50 miler that has come in. He says, "here's a prize in this box, you can take your pick," and sets the box on the plastic bin next to me. Solar powered dancing flowers and one Frankenstein. 
Of course I take the Frankenstein.
I take off my shoes and socks, cramping the whole time. I start grabbing my gear and walk stiffly to my car. I begin wondering how I'm going to drive if I keep cramping so bad, but continue to gather my things. I sit in the car with the air blasting and my calf muscles threatening to cramp. It's 91 degrees and I'm staring at Frankenstein.
I'll never run this far again, I tell myself.
I made it back to my friend's home, took a shower and ate some sugary food. Nothing tasted good, so I didn't have more than a bite. I laid down on his couch and tried to nap, but I was violently awoken by leg cramps. "I'll never do this again," I repeatedly muttered. 

By Monday, I was better, not 100%, but emotionally I was in a much better place. I was willing to entertain the "possibility" of another Ultra. By Tuesday, moving better and by Wednesday I was running again, shocked at the difference only three days had made.
Race Summary/Recommendation
There are obvious problems with this race. At the top of my concerns are the ethical issues of not having checklists of names to make sure no one cuts the course. Not that anyone would do such a thing, but who would know if someone did? For all I know, the person who actually got 1st place never made it to the 50 mile turn around.
The aid stations were a joke. The volunteers were not helpful. And the overall support for the 50 milers was nonexistent. No medals or buckles. No race specific t-shirts. Other distances might have had a better experience, but the 50 miler sucked! It seems like it was an afterthought. My recommendation would be for them to drop the 50 mile distance. The 5 people that registered seemed more like a pain in the ass to the RD and volunteers. 
I would not recommend this race to anyone.

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