Monday, April 06, 2009

3/22/09 Grasslands Marathon

As noted in my last report, my 200th marathon was at Little Rock. I asked the great race folks at Little Rock for bib #200, but their numbering/corraling system apparently doesn't work that way. My next race, The Grasslands Marathon, was... obviously... my 201st. And I got bib #201 by sheer coincidence. I didn't ask for it.

Now then. There is a very specific reason why I wait a little while before writing my race reports beyond "sheer laziness" and "real life priorities". Well, those are reasons too :-). Also, some of these reports take a lot of work to make them readable (some of you would say, "apparently not enough, bud"). But the *main* reason why I wait is simple: I like to process that race experience. If I write about a race right after I finish it, I might GUSH! about the day. This is a fine thing, but if I do it too often and all races are GUSH! GUSH!, then it becomes a little like Roger Ebert giving all movies 3 and 4 stars. Actually, it's worse than that. Of all the races I've done, I've found things to like or love about almost all of them. It kind of IS like Lake Wobegon where everyone (every race) is above average. If too many of them are far above average, though, and I GUSH! GUSH! all the time, then my writing gets stale. And I miss things that I might like to remember a few years later.

Then there's the opposite issue.

Every now and then, I will have a rather crummy experience. Maybe it's because the race sucks. Maybe it's just because I ran the race in a grumpy mood. Or I was sick. Etc. If I think about this for a week or two, usually I can separate the "yes, that is important to remember" bad stuff from the, well, goofy stuff. And many times I can come up with some perspective on why something went amiss; perspective I probably did not have during the race. This helps a lot.

Welcome to the Grasslands Marathon.

Had I written this report during the evening after the race, you'd be reading something a lot darker than this :-). It is a stroke of luck that you are reading anything at all, actually. On the Friday before the race, I suddenly realized that the race was scheduled for Saturday and not Sunday. I had been working under the assumption that it would be Sunday for several weeks. Would have been a lonely Sunday.

The Grasslands Marathon and accompanying 50-miler and half marathon take place each March at the LBJ National Grasslands, which are (is?) located about an hour northwest of Ft Worth near the town of Decatur, Texas. I went to high school in Dallas and college at Texas Tech, located across the state in the panhandle. I passed Decatur many times on my way back and forth. I'm very familiar with the landscape of North Texas; 15 years after moving to Seattle, I still miss it. So I was very excited to run this race. When you picture the word 'grasslands' in your brain, you probably imagine rolling prairie with knee-high grass. As you can see from this picture, this is not wrong. HOWEVER, I was surprised quite a few times on the course by views like the one in the previous picture. Several areas had fairly thick trees (note: I mean 'tree' in Texas terms, which would be described as 'big scrubby bush' in Seattle terms). There were a few deep gullies and stream beds. And there was sand. Oh man, was there sand. Many miles of the trail had deep sand, which made running a lot harder. And falling a lot softer. The Bataan Death March Memorial Marathon is a race that is famous for a mile-long section of trail with ankle deep sand. Grasslands had about 12 miles of that. For race day, we had picture perfect weather - blue skies, light breeze, temperatures between 60 and 75. Springtime in Texas can offer up just about anything weather-wise, and I was certainly glad that it wasn't stormy. The sand and the gullies would have been so much more challenging in wet conditions. And believe me, it was challenging enough.

I can describe the course with one word: crazy. The thing to know about the trails, which I didn't really know ahead of time, is that they were created for horse riding. The trails do not have names; they are identified by colors. And they are marked periodically with little posts with horseshoes of the appropriate color. Usually. Except when they aren't. But I'll come back to that. Most of the trails consist of loops that originate and end at a central location, called TADRA Point. I have no idea what 'TADRA' actually stands for, but after running The Grasslands Marathon, I decided that it is "the place where dreams are created and ended. Also where you potty."

The courses for the three races (half, full, 50) utilized various trail loops. And this is where things get confusing. All races utilized "the yellow loop". The full and the 50 also utilized "the blue loop". The 50, but not the other races, utilized "the white loop" and "the red loop". Catch #1: depending on the race, the loops were in different orders. For example, the yellow loop was early in the half, but it was the second loop of the full. Catch #2: each race also involved a short, sneaky loop that was called "the correction loop", and the 50's correction loop was different from, and longer than, the correction loop in the full and the half. The correction loops were also, basically, not marked. Adding both catches together, you have a day where you would encounter runners going every which way... all at different miles in their respective races... with ample opportunities for choosing the wrong trail if you didn't remember your ordering. And, most importantly, because the euphemistic correction loop was the very first trail, it was an opportunity to get bad lost very early on. Which might, oh say, put one in a very bad mood and mess with one's head, leading to goofy issues later.

Here's the Cliff Notes version:
+ The 50 miler started first. It consisted of a 4.9 mile 'correction loop', followed by the blue loop, the yellow loop, the white loop, and the red loop.

+ The full marathon (my race) started 30 minutes later. It consisted of a similar-but-different 2.something mile 'correction loop', followed by the blue loop, followed by the yellow loop.

+ The half marathon started 30 minutes after that. It used the same correction loop as the full, followed immediately by the yellow loop.

One final thing. The trails merged in many places and then would randomly fork away when least expected. So, a runner might be on the yellow loop thinking "wait, I remember this area. Did I take a wrong turn?" Maybe. Or maybe it was just one of those places where blue and yellow used the same trail. The correction loop was like this. Turns out, it was both part of the blue trail and the red trail. The sharp eyed reader will note that the red trail is not part of the full. I got to learn about the red trail nonetheless by puzzling through the correction loop.

All day long, I encountered runners who probably weren't supposed to be where they were. Or maybe it was that *I* was where I wasn't supposed to be. Actually, some of both happened. I got lost once and had several confidence crises regarding the potential of being lost.

None of this was helped by the most confusing pre-race orientation I've ever heard. Ever. Five minutes before the start of the full, the race director explained the course to us. He explained it three times, and he said something different each time. In retrospect, I think he was having difficulty remembering the sequence for the various races, and while talking, he'd realize he was telling the full marathoners about the 50 or the half, so he'd stop and start over again. And oh yeah. To assist with marking, the race org had put flag tape in the trees. But based on the speech, there was supposedly pink tape in the trees on the yellow loop and (some other color) in the trees of (a different color's) course. TOO MANY COLORS! No way to remember all this. Ultimately, it wouldn't matter much as the tape was, shall we say, sparse.

The RD finished his briefing by telling us that the course was so well marked that if we got lost "it was our fault". Oh man. You have no idea how many times I'd mull over this comment in my head.

As I was panicking before the start, I threw out pretty much all my time-based goals. I wanted to finish upright, and since I knew that the course wasn't overly hilly, I figured 4:00-4:20 would be a rough approximation of my finishing time. Except that I didn't know about the foot sucking sand. I also didn't know how lost I was about to get, nor how goofy the answer I'd receive to the question "hey, roughly, where am I?" would be.

All I did know was that it was time to run and that I needed to do something called a correction loop, a blue loop, and a yellow loop. Ok then. I followed the big group of people. Now, as noted, at Grasslands, all the trails are marked by color. There is no color called "correction". Nor was there a loop really labeled that either. We seemed to be on the red loop, sort of. The people in front of me knew where they were going, so I followed them.

Until, about 10 minutes after we started, the first three guys stopped, turned around, and seemed to be heading back to TADRA with a whole "we're lost!" vibe. Uh oh. Pretty much everyone else seemed to think we were going the proper direction, so we continued. I panicked some more. We hit a place where some people decided to run on the gravel road, and some people ran on the trail that was near the road. Suddenly, 50 milers came barreling from the opposite direction of the trail. Yikes. After awhile (5 minutes? an hour?), the trail curved back up to the road anyway... and we all saw our first sign that indicated we hadn't yet screwed up. 50 milers and full marathoners, go <-- that way. So we did.

Soon thereafter, the three guys who had turned around caught us and passed us again. Huh. By this point, I was kind of feeling out the trail markings, even though I still wasn't sure what color 'correction' meant. I learned about the little posts with the little horseshoes. I learned about the paint spots on the trees. I learned that some of the little posts were knocked down and moved to little areas that weren't trails, and I learned that not all trees had paint spots. I saw a few examples of flag tape. The most important thing I learned was that some areas of trail would have posts fairly close together... but then there might be a quarter mile following a ridge or a pond that wouldn't be marked at all. There were gates every now and then too. Sometimes, we apparently were supposed to go through the gates. Sometimes around the gates. Turns and forks in the road were sometimes obvious. And sometimes, you needed to stop and peer down the road to see if there was a color down there somewhere to help you. On a positive note, aside from the sand on the trail, the landscape itself was exactly what I'd been missing. Sunrise was perfect. The weather was perfect. What a great day to stress out about getting lost.

Somehow, we stumbled back to TADRA Point. And now for one of the weirdest (but ultimately, least important) goofy things about this race. 3ish miles into it, we were all stopped at the main checkpoint start/finish area and our pull tags were collected from our numbers. What? In 99.999999% of all the races that utilize these tags, they come off at the end and are used to help race organizers know a person's time and finish order. Here, they were collected 3/26's of the way into the race and thrown into a box. I thought at the time that perhaps they were just doing this as a simple check-in to ensure they knew who was on the course. However, later on, I saw that box sitting in the same place with a jumble of numbers. I have no idea why they did this. Weird.

Time for the blue loop. Up and down. Around. Into a deep gully. The guy I was running with told me that a few years ago, this area had 3 feet of water. Ropes were used to lasso people across. This year it was bone dry. I definitely preferred bone dry. The first section of the blue loop shared the trail with the yellow loop. I'd later see that these would repeat as the last miles of the race. Fairly soon, though, yellow went THAT WAY and blue went THIS WAY. I was so proud of myself for seeing this turn.

The really fast trail runners had taken off, and I was running with two other folks. Both were 50 milers. I was following blue markers when I could see them. When I didn't see any, I convinced myself that "keep going" was the right move, and I rationalized that the long sections weren't as well marked because they didn't need to be. I hadn't seen a marker in awhile. As we rounded a curve in the trail, I saw blue tape in a tree. Cool. I was still on course. More running along a fence line.

No more markers.

The three of us started wondering if we had missed something. Nope, there was nothing to miss. Then we realized that the "trail" we were on wasn't really a trail... it was simply just really short grass next to the fence. We kept running, but more slowly. About 10 minutes later, we hit a fence corner.

And the end of the line.

Uh oh. No trail. And no more short grass either. Bushes, trees, nasty sticker things. I scanned around. I saw some trail markers in a disconnected area. Orange trail markers. No blue. Uh oh. What to do? Now, if we had been thinking normally, we simply would have turned around and figured it out. Instead, we just stood there for about a minute dumbfounded. When we did turn around, we were amazed. 20-30 other runners had followed us! And there we were. Middle of nowhere, not on a trail, milling around. Ok, we had to go back. Or, I suppose we could have continued even deeper into The Land of the Lost.

15ish minutes later, we saw people making a turn we hadn't noticed and waving at us. Was this turn marked? Why, yes. Yes it was. Remember that blue tape I mentioned above? When I first encountered it, my brain had processed it as "this marker indicates that you are on the trail" and I had chugged on by. What my brain SHOULD HAVE processed was "look behind that tree and notice that there's a blue marker down there... TURN". Ooops. I felt really stupid, though in retrospect, this was an easy thing to miss. Seriously, it just looked like one of the sparse markers indicating "trail", not a special one indicating "turn".

But turn I did. And after not knowing if I was going the appropriate direction during the entire correction loop AND losing 20-30 minutes getting lost on the blue loop, I was now running slower and much more paranoid. "Running paranoid" is not a great strategy for a trail run if one has an important time goal. Luckily, I didn't. But I was getting bummed out, and this was sad because the day was truly glorious.

I reflected on all those who had followed my two buddies and me into The Land of The Lost. NOBODY took that turn. They followed the person in front of them like a sheep. Amazing stuff, really. Oh well. I kept on going. Not that I had a choice!

Towards the end of the blue loop, I came across one of my friends - Maniac Claude. We chatted as we finished the loop. I noticed that the end of the blue loop seemed to be the correction loop in reverse. Ok. As Claude pulled away, I encountered half marathoners coming through the loop. Mind you, this was about three hours into my race, so two and a half hours into their race. The correction loop was supposed to be the first thing that the half marathon folks did... and the blue loop wasn't part of their course at all. These people were lost too.

The end of the blue loop and TADRA point. I visited the potty. Now, you might wonder why I had not just utilized one of the many bushes. I invite you to google 'chigger' to learn why. In a report where my tone might seem a bit negative, BIG THUMBS UP for the portapotties. And the volunteers. And the great aid stations.

Speaking of, while refilling my bottle at the main aid station, I saw the race director. Trail runs almost never have mile markers, so I usually ask aid station volunteers "where am I?" After the smart-alec answers (Earth, Texas, "having fun"), I usually learn what I need. I spotted the RD, and who better to ask? So I did. "Where am I?" "You are at 18."

You are at 18.

Outstanding. So, this meant that the upcoming yellow loop would be 8 miles. I assumed that I was running about 10:00/mile pace, so this made for an easy countdown.


I should have remembered the challenges that our RD had with the pre-race briefing. I didn't.

Off I went, down the yellow loop. It was now warm enough that I switched to a singlet. 10 minutes went by. 19 down, 7 left. 10 more minutes... 20 down. I did not linger at the next aid station. Onward. 21 down. 22 down. I wasn't speeding up, but I wasn't slowing down. I pulled into the next, and I assumed final, aid station. I grabbed some cookies and coke. Woohoo. Almost done.

And there I made my fatal mistake. By habit, I asked, "where am I?"

You are at mile 21.

Holy crap. My brain melted down and poured out my ears. I was expecting to hear 24, 2 miles left. I had been running an hour since I left M18. I had encountered an aid station before this one. How could I have run for 60 minutes and 2 aid stations and only be 3 miles down the road??? GAHHHH.

Maybe the aid station volunteers were confused. Nope, they seemed sure of themselves. Maybe I had gotten lost. Very possible, but if so, then what was that other aid station? It's a heck of a race with aid stations in lost areas. Plus, other people had been running with me. One guy told me, "sorry, my Garmin says we're at 21."

I couldn't wrap my brain around it. Nor could I overcome the fact that I had a whole lot more than 2 miles left. A small piece of me kept hoping that everyone was wrong. Off I went. All I could think about was the math. What had happened? Did I run through a rift in the space/time continuum? It was a spectacular day on trails that mean 'home' to me. And I was missing it because I was preoccupied with being bummed out.

I started encountering people on horses, the first horses I'd seen all day. These seemed to be volunteers out looking for lost people. Great. Search parties. "Am I lost?" "Nope, you're fine."

Another aid station. "Where am I?" "24.4. 1.8 left." They were adamant, and this time I was a believer. I was also completely dead on my feet, so I didn't have much choice but to believe them. During the last 1.8, I finally figured out the probable answer to my question. Maybe I didn't get lost. Maybe I didn't imagine running so far and the extra aid station. Maybe, just maybe, I was told a fib. Perhaps TADRA Point was not really M18.

I passed a few spectators who told me that I was almost there. I believed them, just like I believed in the aid station. The only place on the whole course with spectators would have to be close to the start/finish. And there it was. And there I was.

Done. 4:55. 4:55! Oh dear.

The RD gave me my medal. As there were no other finishers coming in, I asked him again about the distances. "You were at M15.5. I said 18? Oh sorry, I thought you were a 50 miler." And indeed, you may remember that the 50 miler had a much longer correction loop at the start of their race. Ooops. It all made sense now. And I couldn't really be mad at him. I can see how he might have been mixed up - I had come into the aid station with several 50 milers.

I cleaned up and drove to my parents' house near Dallas.

That was some day. Like I said at the top of this report, I'm glad I wait awhile sometimes before I write my articles. At the time, I was not loving life. But I wasn't super down at the end either - I remember taking pictures for a couple walkers who finished the half just behind me. I was upbeat and coherent.

Looking back, it really was kind of a fun course. It was a perfect day, and I love that part of the country. The aid stations and the volunteers were OUTSTANDING. The M15.5 vs M18 thing was a simple mistake. I did not like getting lost, not at all. But even that was a weird deal. The trail should have been better marked, but the turn I missed WAS, in fact, marked. I missed it. So did a bunch of other people. The correction loop was bizarre and needed to be better marked too.

Without the stress, I would have run faster. And without getting lost, I certainly would have finished faster. But as it turns out, that was a fairly challenging course regardless. My 4:55 landed me 28th overall out of 70. A 4:35 (removing my time in The Land of the Lost) would have put me in the top 15! Well maybe. It is almost certain that some of the other people who finished near me had gotten lost with me.

Many of my trail loving friends look at getting lost kind of like they look at falling: it's gonna happen and you sort of have to embrace it. My issue wasn't that I got lost. My issue was that I freaked out about getting lost and it dragged me down. This made me tentative and slow. Had I seriously been trying to race, this would have been a hooooooge liability.

I wasn't really trying to race though. I was out for a nice day in the sticks. I got that. It's a shame I missed it.

Overall, the race organizers did a fine job. If you had asked me that day if I would return, the answer would have been a simple "Hell no." Looking back, the answer is "Probably." It is reasonably convenient to my folks' house and aside from the deep sand, that course almost certainly offers up more fun than I had. Now that I know how it all works... and what doesn't work... I don't think I'd get so stressed about things. Probably.

So maybe I'll come back! Fingers crossed that it doesn't rain. I can't imagine doing that course in rain or fording deep streams. No sireee.

Next up? It already happened. The race known as "Dizzy Daze". 10 loops of a 3.2 mile path around Green Lake in Seattle. The day started at 40 degrees with steady rain. The rain stayed and the temperature dropped. Every time I went around, it was a little cooler. By my 5th loop, it was 35 and still raining hard. I couldn't feel my fingers. The RD had put up a special out-and-back so that folks who ran 8 loops and this out-and-back could finish with a marathon. And that's what I did instead of 10 loops. 4:35 to do a frozen, wet marathon. This was ok. I stopped several times in the middle to eat, talk to people, and use the facilities. Then I went home and found the big blister on my achilles tendon. Yikes. It was not a fun day, but I *did* get to see lots of my friends who I hadn't seen in a long while.

And Maniac Linda ran 50k in a dress.

Next up after that? The Yakima River Canyon Marathon, which was also the first Marathon Maniac Reunion in two years. More on that Real Soon Now.