There is an opportunity to learn something in everything we do. Here are a few things I learned in the 26 hours it took me to run my first 100 mile trail race at the Cajun Coyote 100 this past December in Louisiana.
1. The Moon Makes a Wonderful Companion – Twice
The Cajun Coyote trail race started on Saturday at 6:30am just as the spectacularly haunting “Full Cold Moon” (official name) was setting behind the long, skinny arms of craggy oak trees overhead. Being partial to trail running at night I was looking forward to seeing the moon again later that day. The moonlight, and my husband Leary as my pacer, would keep me company the entire following night until we were greeted by the sunrise and the finish line.
2. Clothes Make (or Break) the Race
On the race website it says:
LOUISIANA WEATHER: The answer is: “I don’t know”. This time of year in Louisiana can be muggy, hot, and humid, or in the wet 30’s. The weather may even change in a few hours (most definitely from hot to cold) this time of year. My suggestion is to bring BOTH hot and cool weather running clothes. It’s obviously better to shed or not use, then to wonder why the “F” you left your other gear in your closet. Also keep checking the weather because we know meteorologists are always right! Bahahahahaha!
I appreciate any race director who has the candor and honesty to say, “I don’t know” (and one who laughs at his own jokes). There were so many things that could get in the way of me finishing this race, but clothing was NOT going to be one of them. I packed everything from shorts and a tank top to long, fleece lined pants, a winter jacket, and those “hot hands” hand warmers that stay warm for 8-10 hours. And I packed socks. Lots of socks.
The weather started out rainy wet in the low 60s, got up the mid 70s with full sunshine in the late afternoon (hello tank top!), and then dropped down to the upper 40s with gusty wind in the pre-dawn 22 hours later (thank you hand warmers and running tights). I also discovered that my body’s ability to regulate temperature got more out of whack the longer I ran so it was nice to have options at the end of each 20 mile loop.
3. Say NO to Gels and YES to Olives!
I have been a student of sports nutrition since 2000. I have read books, experimented with a wide variety of sports fuels and gels, tracked caloric consumption and hydration on spreadsheets, and earned an advanced nutrition certification from the National Federation of Professional Trainers. Tired of not knowing “if” but “when” my stomach would ultimately turn sour during a long event, I took a completely different nutrition approach for trail running this year.
After trying a few new things at some key events earlier in the season, this is what my diet consisted of for 26 hours of running: chicken broth, chocolate milk, sweet tea, an almond butter sandwich, red licorice, Good and Plenty (black licorice), beef jerky, granola bars, apple sauce, rice crackers, peppermint candies, and good old fashioned body fat stores. I also tried single serving pouches of lovely, salty, green olives — what a fantastic treat! My taste buds loved the variety, my stomach was solid, and my energy levels were even. What I didn’t miss at all were gels.
4. Armadillos Can Hop
An armadillo scampering through the woods sounds like a bulldozer ripping through the underbrush. They make A LOT of noise for such little critters. What I didn’t know is they can also hop high and fast! While running, I would round a corner and come up on an armadillo which would proceed to bound off the trail and into the underbrush at an alarming rate for something that has such short, stumpy legs. Apparently ‘dillos run in Texas and hop in Louisiana – must be Cajun ‘dillos.
5. Good Pacers are Amazing!
After being together for 24 years, my husband Leary still amazes me with his caring and loving selflessness. Not only was he my pacer for the last 40 miles of the race (which would be the longest and farthest he’s ever run), he made sure I was eating, drinking, staying warm, and moving forward the entire time. He held my hand when we crossed the long, narrow boardwalk-like bridges across the swamps (hello late night, overtired vertigo!), repeatedly put the lid back on my iced tea bottle when my fine motor skills were shot, and was wonderful company even in the long stretches of silence.
When we made it back to the hotel they were still serving breakfast so he brought me a plate of scrambled “fake” eggs (which were the best eggs I’ve ever eaten), yogurt, a biscuit, and a cup of decaf coffee that tasted fantastic! After we got home, he filled a bucket with hot water and Epsom salts to soak my feet and then he rubbed each foot in an attempt to help me walk more normally. I jokingly questioned his abilities as a pacer when he started yawning just 2.5 miles into our run together. But he did everything perfectly. As always.
6. There is No Substitute for Cursing
Research has shown that people actually feel better and more “resilient” when yelling profanity after something happens*. Let’s just say that I dedicated all my ankle twists and toe jams to the “F” word throughout the run. And I apologize to anyone who may have been within earshot me when I’d let one of those babies fly! The trails around Chicot Lake are mostly dirt packed single track filled (and I mean FILLED) with long, gnarly roots and small stumps that stick out of the Earth like perpetual hands grabbing at your feet. Cover the trail with a 2-4 inch layer of large leaves and there is plenty of ankle twisting, toe kicking, “F-bombing” fun for everyone! I am so thankful for my crazy loose joints because otherwise I am pretty sure I would have torn something in my left foot during the 8-10 times (not exaggerating) I rolled that ankle. As for the bruise on my right foot middle toe – when it wakes me up at night, I take solace in giving it the “F” word.
7. Unicorns are the Trail Runner’s Hallucination of Choice
I have read about other runners experiencing very vivid hallucinations – things like President Lincoln standing on the trail’s edge handing out candy bars, or tiny pink elephants bounding through the trees. When I checked in and got my race number, I couldn’t figure out why there were t-shirts for sale with unicorns on them saying, “I do ultras” or “I trail run”. Unicorns? Of course I bought one of the shirts because it was just quirky and random enough. Then the race director explained to me that for some reason people who run his races claim to see unicorns when they hallucinate so he thought why not have the unicorn as his unofficial race mascot.
At mile 56 I became part of the unicorn club. Fortunately the three multi-colored unicorns I saw on the trail’s edge were indeed very real and of the plastic blow up variety. The only thing that came close to a hallucination for me was that I thought I heard men’s voices in the last 10 miles of the race. They were always to my left and alternated between talking, singing, and doing sports commentary. Oddly enough, Leary heard these voices too.
8. Sitting or Stopping are NOT Options
I could never figure out why people would run into an aid station, sit down for 10-15 minutes, and then get back up and run to the next aid station…only to stop, sit down, get up, and run again. Unless someone is going to pass out, barf, or needs to change equipment, why stop? Or maybe I just know myself too well. Sitting or stopping would be my kiss of death.
During the entire 100 mile run, I sat down three times: once to change shoes, once to change shorts, and once to change socks. Otherwise I was standing while swapping out gear or replenishing food or water, and I would eat while I was walking or running. I saw other runners come into an aid station, pull up a chair, have some food, or just chat with the volunteers. At the start/finish area (which we passed through on each of the five loops), runners would have their feet up next to a heater, or be lying under blankets chatting with other runners.
I have to admit stopping by one of the aid station bonfires and enjoying some freshly made cheesy quesadillas, soup, hot chocolate, or pancakes sounded mighty tempting. But the poet Robert Frost was in my brain, “…the woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.”
9. I Command My Body to OBEY! Please?
I am extremely fortunate to have a willing and capable body (although sometimes not so much a willing or capable mind). I can recall only three times when my body has failed me in the last 25 years of sports: when the plantar nerve in my right foot got inflamed, when I ignored the initial twist-crunch warning and ultimately blew out my left knee (ACL) during sand volleyball, and when I tried to run during the last loop of this race. I just couldn’t run any more. My mind was willing but my body was not. I would start to run only to have my heart rate soar, my quads burn, and my ankles and feet wobble on already unstable ground. I was plenty hydrated and had enough energy. I just couldn’t run. I even imagined an axe murderer (or more realistically a Louisiana alligator) jumping out from the swamps and chasing after me. I don’t think it would have mattered one bit. My body was down, but it was not out. I still had enough oomph to power walk with purpose and determination to the finish line. And in the subsequent days of limping across a room, needing the assistance of a railing to take the stairs, or allowing a few extra minutes to go to the bathroom simply because sitting or standing could NOT be rushed, it made me appreciate my fully functional and ache free body even more.
10. If You’re Not First, You’re Second (or Third, or Fourth, or…)
One of the things I love about trail running is that at any given time during a race, I really have no idea where I am relative to other runners. But I found myself in a unique position during this race. At the start of the third loop at mile 40, all runners reversed direction on the course. I suspect the race director thought our bodies and brains could use some novelty considering this was a five loop run. As I was heading out “against trail traffic” on my third loop, runners coming in to finish the second loop started saying to me, “Well done! First female runner!” Truthfully I enjoyed the attention but found it hard to manage my competitive side. I had no idea how much I was in the lead or if I could even hold it. I held the lead through loops three and four without really trying. It wasn’t the idea of beating the woman behind me – heck I didn’t even know where she was! It was the idea of finishing first.
At the start of loop five, the last loop at mile 80, I asked my husband, “Am I still first?” At this point I could barely run and the deepest form of fatigue I had ever felt was setting in. He smiled at me and firmly said, “That’s not why you’re here.” And just like that, my competitive self relinquished control over my brain. Shortly thereafter a woman and man passed us on the trail. She looked amazing and still moved like a gazelle. I smiled and thought, “Well done for her!” At 8:35am Sunday morning, I was slowly making my way up the short, paved path to the finish line. With tears forming in my eyes, Leary and I ran the last 50 feet and crossed the finish line together. The race director gave me a hug, handed me the coveted belt buckle and an award plaque for 2nd overall female. Finishing was the goal. Placing was the bonus.
– Susan Farago
(Photos courtesy Leary Walker and Forge Racing.)
Posted on 19 Jan 2015