Sunday, January 17, 2016

Ouachita Switchbacks!!!

It's Sunday evening, and I have finally decided to take 800 mg of Vitamin I to help with the soreness of my legs. Still, I am still a little giddy about the race yesterday. Ouachita Switchbacks was not as much a run for me as it was an endeavor of endurance. It was my measuring stick to see where I am--what I might be able to do. Was it possible for me to cover 18 miles with over 3000 feet of climbing? And would doing that put me out of commission? The answers--yes, and no.

The race takes place on the Ouachita Trail--a trail which spans two states running from Talahina, Oklahoma 223 miles eastward to Little Rock Arkansas. Around 50 miles of the trail is in Oklahoma, and this race covered about 16 miles of that 50. We started in the Pashubee Trailhead campground. Both the 25K and 50K started together, and ran west toward Winding Stair Campground. We'd go 9.2 miles to the Mountain Top Aid Station--a hiker's shelter near Winding Stair. From there, we'd come back. 50Kers would then go around 6.5 miles eastward to their turnaround, which was just past a waist-high water crossing in the frigid Kiamichi River.

Our caravan left Tulsa at 3:45 am and got to the race with plenty of time to spare. I picked up my hoodie and race bib then retreated to out vehicle and tried to get in a 50 minute catnap. That nap turned into a 70 minute nap, and Jenni woke me up with two minutes to get my Camelback on and trot to the starting line. I stated my race about two minutes late, which was no bother to me at all.

Quickly catching up with a party-like contingent of our group, I was immediately in good company. Tammy Cryer was rocking the OU poncho, as it was raining lightly--more than enough to saturate, but not enough to impair vision, or slop up the trailz too much.

A little more than a mile into the race, we came to the Toilet Tree. I am sure MANY a hiker has used this tree for just that.

I tried in vain--I needed a magazine to read. There was no way to flush it anyway.

When we ran here a few weeks ago, the trail was heavily leaf covered. Not so much here though. In the Ouachitas where the mountains run east and west, pine trees grow on the southern side of the mountains and leafy trees grow on the northern side. With 200 runners in the race, most of the leaves were smunched down or kicked out of the way. Running on pine needles is heavenly.

Lisa McManus snapped this picture of me. I was a little overdressed. I had a fleece vest under my Gortex jacket. Shortly this I tied the vest to my Camelback.  I was a little cold, but still quite comfortable when moving.

I moved ahead from a good group of friends, and ran alone for the next few miles. I hit the first aid station (around 4 miles in) and then headed down the hill to the lowest point on the course, and of course a water crossing. 

Instead of trying to find rocks to hop skotch across, I plowed on in. I don't mind wet feet in a trail race. Not a big fan of mud, but wet feet is not so bad. Slipping on a wet rock sticking out of the water might mean a polar bear plunge--not really what I had in mind for this day. 

From here, the course climbed steadily for almost all of the next five miles. As bad as it looked on the elevation profile though, it was a more gradual ascent. I found I could shuffle easily and that seemed to be slightly faster than my walk.

Jeremy caught up with me. He evidently started a bit later than I did. We ran together off and on for the rest of the race.

The trail followed the edge of this stream for around a mile. I was amazed at how green the water was. 
There were several primitive campsites here, but these were not places where you could drive in. You had to load your camping gear, tents, food, cooking utensils, and them pack it all out. Still--I want to come back and spend more time here.

The rain had let up, but it was cloudy, foggy, and mysterious. Clouds at times engulfed the distant mountain tops.

I make no claims to a good pace, but I did push and managed to catch up with Deana. I also started seeing runners coming back from the turn-around. Josh Snyder, Victor Brown, Clay Mayes all sped by like they were out for a leisurely Saturday morning run. Relaxed but FAST. I eventually caught up with Deanna and we ran together for a mile or so. When we got to the top of the long gradual climb, I picked up the pace a little. (Gravity helps the fat man on the downhills.)

I caught up with Jenni and Johnna, and we ran to the bottom and shifted gears for the final ascent up a series of switchbacks on the final climb to the Mountain Top aid station. The climb was around 750 feet, and it seemed to get colder as we went. Bits of sleet and snow was falling, and the mountain was not far from being white.

I hate hearing "You're almost there," when it's still a half mile away with 200 feet of ascent, but someone told us it was "just a few bends away," so we started counting the switchbacks.

Finally, close to an hour of marching, we reached the top. The wind was brisk, and with the dampness in the air, I started chilling. Kate Ellisor was manning the aid stop. She had spent the night there, and I don't know how she kept from freezing. Her dog was wrapped in a fleece blanket, and she seemed happy.

They had a cook stove, but the propane bottles kept freezing up. Getting a campfire started was not working either. Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant could start a fire with wet logs by rubbing two icicles together. Those skills could have been used up here.  We made a shredded cheese burrito Popsicle, which believe it or not, was so delicious. I guess I needed the calories.

We stopped at a scenic vista and took a couple of pictures. Our selfie blocked out part of the vies, so I took a pano without heads in the way.
Down the mountain we were on, up the next one, then down then up--that should get us there. We counted switchbacks on the way down and there were 33 hairpin turns on the way. It was runnable, but with the cold, the occasional rocks and roots, my knee history, and the fact that my legs felt like telephone poles meant my pace was a shuffling slog. 

I had seen pictures of this rock slide, and I thought the "trail" went right up this way. Wrong--although the trail did cross it. It was just a matter of bunny hopping across.

Miss Congeniality poses for a picture.

Here's the area with the green water and lots of fire rings where campsites have been. This looks like a decent swimming hole. Not today though.

The stream crossing--the last one where you basically had to get your feet wet. It felt so good on my tired dogs. 

Some people worry about getting your feet wet on a run--and getting blisters. I did not get one blister, although I did administer a generous amount of Happy Feet to my toes before putting on my Smart Wool socks. This is a winning combination.
Johnna did the wade thing too.

Deanna caught up with us and ran with us for the rest of the race. She took a crash at a water crossing early in the race. She was pretty cautious after that.

The last 2.8 miles seemed much longer. There were no super bad climbs, but the route seemed flat when we ran it in the morning. There would have been no way to get off course from this point on--unless you turned OFF the well marked single track trail onto a two-track forest service road, but it seemed to take us so long to get to the finish that I began to wonder if there was any way we could have made a mistake. But my delirious mind hung onto logic, and we kept pushing on. Finally--finally--we saw vehicles and people, and knew we were about 200 yards away. Johnna took off--gotta look good at the finish. I was not competing, but I still needed to kinds-sorta look good... so I increased my shuffle by 2-3 inches per stride and go to within a half-a-sneaker of her as we crossed the imaginary finish line.

We finished in 7:57. Hey!! We broke 8 hours. I looked at my Strava data to see if I had a notably fast mile, and it never really happened. My splits are embarrassing, so I'm not posting them. Running with a stuffed Camelback, extra clothes, cold temps, gimpy knee, tired legs, aid station stops, stopping for pictures, stopping to pee--oh I have lots of excuses. I'm ok with it. Deep down, I believe I passed the test I submitted myself too. I didn't drop. I had a smile when I finished. I felt good. I still feel good. The one good note--our outbound trip was 4:01. We finished in 7:57 for a negative split--aided by a lot less climbing on the way back.

I'm way impressed by those who did 50K here. I know how I felt after doing 18.5 miles--having to go out for another 13ish, and two 1100 foot climbs?? WOW!!

I kinda-sorta think I'll be back next year--and if I don't beat myself up doing something silly like Athens/Big Fork the week before, I may try getting 50K in here.

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