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Hocking Hills 60k – September 2011

This race has been a bit of a bug-a-boo for me. It is not a true “trail race” as nearly 40% of the course is on asphalt or packed dirt road, and I don’t train for long runs on asphalt. It truly lives up to its name in terms of the hills, but most of them are not too difficult – just one section that consists of a 3/4 mile of quad-thrashing descent on asphalt immediately followed by a sadistic 1/2 mile dirt road ascent that is as steep as steep can get. Of course, because you complete three loops in the 60k race, you get to hit this section at mile 3.5, mile 16, and eventually mile 28.5. In past couple of years it has on the warm side, so you are left to bake during the exposed sections of the course. Fortunately this year, the temperatures were cooler, so the third issue was resolved – that just left the roads and hills to deal with…

Ok, so here is how you prepare for one of these things – in the dark (the start occurs just after sunrise) you dig through your bags and coolers, trying to imagine what you’ll need during the next 6+ hours of running. Inevitably, you pull out a lot of things that you won’t need (an extra pair of socks or spare bottle) and forget the things that you will need (that extra pb&j sandwich).

preparation is never easy in the dark

stuff - you have to come prepared...

Once the race begins – you find a comfortable pace and try to relax. You know you are going to be running for a long time, so this is not the time to try to “shave off a few seconds” or “make your move”.

For this race, I settled in with a fellow named Eric and we proceeded to talk about families and politics and such. We grimaced through the down/up section, enjoyed the woods and trails, and generally worked together to maintain a consistent pace. It worked perfectly as we cruised through the first loop in 1:50, exactly where I wanted to be.

a typical road section

a typical trail section - one of the lesser hills...

You really enjoy the time in the woods – it is gorgeous, and you feel very “in the moment” – you have a very simple purpose and you work with what the land gives to you to accomplish it.

Cedar Falls - you don't see it during the race, but pass right by

During the second loop, I was on my own, but I felt solid and focused on keeping the pace I had set. Unfortunately, about 16 miles into the race, I slipped then tripped in some mud and went down hard. I managed to tweak my right calf, and it turned into a knot of cramping muscle… not good. Shortly after, my left calf decided it wanted to cramp up as well. Then my right hamstring joined in the fun. I went from feeling strong to panicking that I wouldn’t be able to even finish 2 of the 3 loops. By the end of the second loop, I was cramping badly enough that I was forced to walk every incline, and my stride on the more runnable sections was forced. I finished the second loop in 1:55, having slowed a bit, but much less than I had anticipated.

When you get tired in these races, there is a lot of time to contemplate your situation. You can dwell on the possibilities – “maybe if I take enough electrolytes I can beat the cramps”, or “maybe I’ll be hobbled completely by the time I hit the next hill”. You have lots of time to relax and focus and get yourself through the rough spots, but those rough spots can go on for a long time…

Another pretty spot...

I set out on the last loop with a sinking feeling. Last year, I was reduced to walking much of the last loop and it took me over 2 1/2 hours to find my way back. So my thinking was that no matter what I could at least make it through, but it might not be pretty. This year, I felt much stronger, but the cramping was much worse than anything I have experienced recently.

In the first part of the loop, my balky stride worked ok, and I passed several other runners in the 60k race. As the cramping worsened, I was forced to walk more and more. Painful and frustrating. I hit a real low point about 30 miles into the race – all strength had been sapped from my legs, and I was feeling light-headed. For several miles, I felt like I was stumbling along the trails. I kept looking at my watch, seeing the minutes slip by, any hope of finishing under 6 hours seemed fleeting.

You can try lots of different ways to inspire yourself during these races: Picking on a simple mantra, or singing a song, or thinking about the finish. The problem is that every race is unique and requires a different approach to getting through. You never know what will get you through, but the one constant is that you try.

I’m not sure what happened, but within a mile of hitting my lowest point, my legs were back underneath me. I had made my way to the campground, so I was running on paved roads. And I was running. It was not the most elegant stride, but I felt as good as I had the entire loop. I made my way through the campground and back onto the trails. I kept waiting for the fatigue to reclaim my legs, but it did not happen. I made my way onto the final section of road, passing a few folks that had gotten by me when I was hurting, and I cruised in. Well, it definitely was not that easy, but I stayed solid and worked my way up the final hill to the finish.

5:57:26. I had finally made it under the six hour barrier despite all the challenges. I finished 15th overall – there was a lot more great competition this year than the last couple of years. I wished it had felt better, and maybe that I could of “raced” more seeing that there were lots of other comparable runners on the course. Regardless, I was very happy and wandered around a bit, getting my bearings, re-hydrating, and looking for some salty food.

Rob Carroll relaxes after an excellent run. I knew I should have brought a chair...

after the finish - only a bit of blood'n'mud, but a big grin

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