Blemish No More

Well, by the fact you are reading this post means my latest physical challenge didn’t succeed in killing me – yeah! So, as a quick recap for those that are not regular readers of this side of Intrigued, yesterday was a big day for yours truly. A day that has been nagging at me for two solid years thanks to a …hmmm… let’s just refer to it as a blemish on my running career. A mishap that ended up in with an unexpected ambulance ride to the emergency room. The event was the Cry Me a River Trail Run (CMAR) held along the bluffs of the Illinois River. Back in 2018 I had run the half marathon distance and learned just how hard this course was – beaten to hell, but left grinning ear to ear in absolute enjoyment – trail runners can be a strange lot ha (link here). So much fun, I committed to the 50K the following year. That was supposed to be 31+ miles (more on the ‘+’ later), but I only made it ~14 before dropping from heat exhaustion. Passed out and hit a box fan on the way down earning myself a 2 inch gash in the back of my head (link here). The minute I regained consciousness there was one thing dominating my thoughts – redemption .. actually make that two – redemption and that’s a lot of wasted blood. My first DNF (did not finish) in any race and it gnawed at me every day. Trained my ass off to make another go at it last year, but thanks to that damn pandemic the race was canceled – ANOTHER year of gnawing and hard training in hopes this was the year to rid my record of those three humbling letters.

2021 Cry Me a River Trail Race 50K
Cry Me River 2021 Race Swag

It all came to a head yesterday morning as I lined up at 8am on the CMAR starting line in an attempt to fulfill a commitment made on a ambulance gurney 2 long years ago. Hit the jump to find out if my attempt was successful… or was this another endeavor cut short with another ride in an ambulance.

2021 Cry Me a River Trail Race 50K
Feeling good at the start of the CMAR Race 2021

Like ’19, we decided to stay at Camp Wokanda the night before. It takes a whole lot of stress out of the equation when you can just wake up, put the gear on and walk across the parking lot to the start. Unfortunately, prep stress was replaced by weather stress. For the entire week heading up to the race Linda and I were watching the weather patterns. Rains had been hitting the area and heavier waves were expected towards the end of the week. The exact timing was constantly moving, but clearly it was going to hit on the weekend. We did get dowsed with a good downpour that night. The 100milers and 100Ker’s had to fight their way through that as they started at noon. Talked to a few of them before I headed to bed and learned that the trails were definitely wet, however were still fairly firm. That was promising until we made a last check of the weather before calling it a night – the timing had been pushed several hours, but massive storms expected the following day starting early afternoon. The half marathoners would probably be done, not so lucky for the rest of us as it lined up with the heart of the run – no doubt about it.

2021 Cry Me a River Trail Race 50K
Cry Me River 2021 Course

The CMAR course follows the ridges and valleys along the Illinois River. People outside of Illinois always laugh at me when I tell them about the elevation changes you have to endure – we just look flat because our peaks are at ground level – it’s traversing the valleys that will make your muscles scream. The course for the 50K is a 2 mile loop at Camp Wokanda, 2 miles out to Robinson Park, 3.5 mile trek to Green Valley and then 3.5 mile battle to the turnaround at Detweiller Park. Return to Camp Wokanda (9 miles) and then start a second loop and head back to the final turnaround this time only going to Green Valley (7.5 miles). From there, just fight your back to the finish line at Camp Wokanda (5.5). Did you happen to add up those miles in your head…did you make the mileage conversion from 50K.. notice anything odd? Yes, this course is LONG 2 to 3 miles too long to be clearer.

2021 Cry Me a River Trail Race 50K
A quick selfie at the point where I dropped during the last attempt in ’19

Base on the previous failure, I worked out a new strategy. Clearly, I could not wait until all the way back to Camp Wokanda before taking the first break. Just too far for how difficult this course is. This year I would have Linda meet me at Detweiller for the first break (PBJ, water and replenish the hydration pack). Then she would meet me at Robinson for another quick break before she headed back to Wokanda for the extended lunch break. The initial plan ended there, however, I ended up asking her to meet me at Robinson for one final break and words of encouragement to get me the final two miles to the finish line (sooo glad I did that).

The first half of the race was going along smoothly. I was keeping my pace under control thanks to settling in behind another seasoned trail runner. He definitely understood conservation of energy, kept a very steady, slow, methodical pace and made smart choices about when to run and when to throttle it back for power walks – just what the doctor ordered. Temps were definitely down thanks to the rain the night before with a slight cool wind from the coming front. At least the 100+ heat index worries were set aside. I did get a little irked they closed the bathrooms at the end of the first 2 mile loop (back at the start) for cleaning – WTF, they could have waited 30 minutes and we would have all been cleared out of there. Luckily there was another set at Robinson 2 miles away. Made it there, took in a few fluids and food at the aid station there and made my way down to Green Valley (GV). The miles before it are hard, but the sections below that are absolutely brutal. By then we had closed the gap with another lady (Emily) and the three of us kept our controlled pace all the way to the GV aid station. The weather was holding so far and the trails were still damp yet surprisingly firm. A number of runners were using poles for added stability – in fact, half way down my pacer pulled out a pair of poles from somewhere and started using them up the hills. There were two stream crossings along the GV route (was another one on the path to Robinson). Foreshadowing what was to come, the three of us noted our surprise there was very little water in them especially with the heavy rains overnight.

I was still feeling really good when we arrived at the Green Valley aid station. This place held special memories for me as it was the location I passed out in the previous attempt (on my way back from Detweiller). Joked with the workers there demanding to know which one of them advised my wife to hide my running shoes after I got out of the emergency room – they all denied it – liars. As Emily and I were getting ready to head out I overheard her mention to my pacer “so this is where you leave us”. Oh no, he was only doing the half marathon -bummer. We said our goodbyes and continued the trail down to Detweiller. Picked up another lady (Karen) along the way and passed the miles away chatting about the various races we had completed. By the time I made it to Detweiller I could use the break and extremely happy when I saw Linda waiting for me. She got me some water and made me a PBJ sandwich. Ended up letting another runner (Neil) use my Tiger Tail to work out a serious leg cramp. He was really struggling to put any weight on it when I caught up with him about .5 mile from the aid station. One of the reason I like the trail runner community so much better than the road cliques – everyone is much more laid back and always willing to help others out. Downed my sandwich, topped of the hydration pack, said goodbye to Linda and headed back to the most important milestone in the entire race.

2021 Cry Me a River Trail Race 50K
At my long break ~22 miles in and completely soaked

I was alone now as Emily decided to take a longer rest. Traversed the two wicked climbs back to GV and tried to stay calm and relaxed. Things went horribly south on this trek in ’19 and if that repeated Linda was going to clip my wings big time. All the core/weight work during the winter and hard training leading up to the race were paying off – not to mention I was a lot wiser about the course. I must have zone out a bit during this part as I was surprised when I reached the long set of steep stairs that led to the aid station. I had made it and I wasn’t delirious – what a great feeling. Took some extra time there and even took the selfie a few shots back to mark the accomplishment – note the railing you can barely see over my left shoulder is where I dropped. Not need to call for an ambulance this year – just a quick text of the picture to Linda to let her know I was still doing fine. Grabbed a few Oreos and headed out to what I think is the hardest part of this course. The ups and downs are nonstop. About 2 miles from the aid station I came up on another runner who was not looking good at all – bent over, hands on knees – the universal sign for being beat down. Stopped to see how he was doing and lend a hand if needed (been there and know how important a helping hand is). He admitted he was beaten and concerned he was done – “at this point I am just hoping for a miracle that my legs return”. Definitely said without a lot of optimism. Asked him if there was anything I could do or minimally call for additional aid. He had fluids left in his flasks but I was prepared to pour whatever I could spare out of my pack. He thanked me, but turned down the offers figuring he could take it slow and make it to the aid station. Told him to be extremely careful as I had dropped in this race and then reluctantly turned and continued on. I did tell the next runner I found to check in on him if they saw him on the trail.

The way back was definitely a mental challenge. The body was still holding together well beyond the expected toll, but then the mind starts trying to sabotage you .. sprinkling in doubts about your footing, did you miss a confidence marker and worst of all doing math calculations so you know EXACTLY how many miles are left in this journey – all bad things this early in the race. Finally came to the huge climb up to Robinson where Linda should be waiting for me. Definitely the first time that day I was happy to see a hill ha. Half way up, came upon a group of four people. Two guys slightly ahead and a couple further back that looked like they were feeling it. Right before I got there the guy gave the universal signal – bent down and put his arms on his knees gasping in pain. As with the previous runner, made sure he was okay. The lady with him turned back and saw him stopped. Informed him he was taking a breather and then learned he was on mile 80. I can’t even begin to imagine how he must have felt knowing my current condition having not even run a quarter of that. He started pushing the hill again so I carried on comforted knowing he had people with him (although the two ahead didn’t seem to have much sympathy for him and only really stopped when I caught up to them and let them know their friend was struggling a bit). When I made it back to Linda I asked her to grab me a cold bottle of water. She thought it was for me where it was really to give to the guy who was struggling. By then he had made it over the hill and was very appreciative of the offer. The lady he was with thanked me profusely.

Now it was time to fuel up myself. Finished off the rest of the PBJ and enjoyed some cold water as well. Although there was an aid station close by, this mini-break came at the perfect time. Said goodbye to Linda and headed back to Wokanda. By now it had started to sprinkle and that evil mind was already sending images of muddy trails and Woodstock. Mentioned to Linda I might go ahead and do the 2 mile loop at the start just to get that out of the way before taking the planned long lunch break. Soooo glad I did that. Half way back to the camp it started pouring. The tree canopy managed to hold back some of it, however, once that was saturated it was shower time. The trails already saturated from the night’s rain were starting to relent, pooling mud in the flat spots and making the slopes slippery. Still good for the most part. That assessment changed when I got back to camp. The rain was coming down even harder as I headed for the large climb to start the 2 mile loop. By the time I got to the top the trail was essentially gone. Water pooled over my shoes on the flats and the downs turned treacherous, especially the timber step and bridge areas that felt more like ice. The last thing I needed was to get injured with so many miles to go. Cautiously creeped down the steep inclines and prayed there were no holes as I sloshed through the pools. That was a miserable trek and felt like I had earned the long break. Back at the RV, tried to towel off as best I could. Thought about changing clothes and then looked at the forecast. This rain was not going to let up until at least my projected finish time – no need to peel the clothes off for a few minutes of dryness (not sure if that decision would have altered an issue that occurred later). Linda fixed me a couple of sliders and mac ‘n cheese – felt like a meal from a 5 star restaurant. Relished every morsel and enjoyed the extra rest. Eventually it was time to put the hydration pack on and continue the battle. The body was rejuvenated now (at least in spirit) – the mind didn’t waste any time getting back to injecting doubt. By now it was laser focused on reminding how much it was raining, how much longer it was going to be raining and more deflating how hard the rest of the trail was going to be thanks to the rain. The path towards Robinson was now just a mud pit. As with the Wokanda loop, the water was pooled over the feet in flatter areas and the slopes were slightly better than a slip ‘n slide. Two guys almost collided with me when they slid out of control down one of the hills right at me – managed to dodge them almost losing my balance in the process. This is where poles would have come in very handy – mental note, consider those for the next crazy run. Found that the once evil roots were now my friends as they gave the best footings to make it up the hills. On the tough courses like these I opt for the heavier shoes with the larger lugs. Kudos to ASICS engineers as their design kept me stable as others were doing the mud dance. I remember coming to the Robinson aid station and seeing the wall of rain coming down in the clearing. At this point didn’t even hesitate to walk into it – there wasn’t a dry spot on me so it didn’t matter at all. Grabbed some water continued on my way with one thought on my mind – make it to Green Valley aid station (make that one “productive” thought, there were doubting thoughts swirling around like crazy). One foot in front of the other – a lot of power walking just to maintain footing with a few sprints down the declines as it felt better on the legs not having to hold back. That did make for some scary moments that had a plus side of snapping my mental state the immediate present. Then two bad things happened. First the outside tended on my right knee fatigued. Every time the knee bent under weight it produced a pain sharp pain. As long as it didn’t give out entirely, I could handle those bites, the other issue was more concerning. On one of the steps my foot shifted. Shoe didn’t give, the foot shifted inside a waterlogged Smartwool sock inside a waterlogged shoe shifted. I had feared this might happen as I left Wokanda – sole of my foot had blistered badly – any foot fall that didn’t land squarely caused the foot to shift on the blisters – crap crap crap – sure enough, several steps later, the other foot did the exact same thing. With no way to fix it, tried to put it out of my mind – every time my foot angled on a rock or root it would quickly come to the forefront before pushing it back – “keep your feet level Bri and you will be just fine”

Recall the earlier mental note about being surprised that there wasn’t any water in the stream crossings. That had changed DRASTICALLY. It was now a full on rapids to the point I was concerned about the current. One crossing had 1 to 2 foot cement pillars you could use to dryly navigate across. Those pillars could no longer be seen. I could just barely make out a small swirl as the water rushed over the tops. Nobody around so this one was all on me. Guessed correctly at the first pillar, then the second and then there was no clue where the next was. Balanced on a tired leg and tried to locate the next one under the rushing water. Somehow found it putting me in the very middle of the stream. The sound of Linda saying “Make smart choices” was blasting in my head. Trying not to focus on how deep that water was, spied a small ripple and went for it – sure enough another pillar. Eventually made it across. Shuffle, jog, drag, slog and slide were the required traversal methods now – running was completely out of the question unless I wanted to hear those sirens again. About 2 miles from GV I came across the first exhausted runner I had met earlier. He was on his way back so I stopped and asked him how he was doing. Still not doing well and had submitted to the course. Found out he was a 100 miler and he now knew he wasn’t going to make it back to Wokanda before the last loop start cutoff at 5pm. Must have stung having put all those miles in (guessing about 76) and his focus was now on just getting back to an aid station. By then he had picked up another participant who was in a similar condition. Glad he at least had someone with him – they could talk each other through the final struggle. I wished him the best and continued on. I do remember hitting the 26 mile point and thinking about those “marathon wimps” hehehe. In running circles they always claim the halfway point of a marathon is around 20 miles. My new motto is the halfway point of a 50K is around mile 25.

Had a huge burst of confidence when the tree line broke and I could see the GV aid station. That was a hard section to get through and now I could rest before taking on what I had always figured to be the hardest part of the entire race. Drained, tired, and in a bit of pain, the 3.5 miles section back to Robinson was going to take everything left in the can. Got some fluids – funny how thirsty you can get when you’ve been playing in the rain for hours and hours. Spied some sausages that the aid station had made for us and immediately grabbed a few. Man, were those links absolutely delicious. Each piece savored over the lips, past the taste buds and into the fuel tank. I had to sit a bit and enjoy another one of those along with more water and a few Oreos. Food of the gods I tell ya! It also felt good to be out of the deluge for a few minutes. Imagine someone continuously holding a hose on you for hours – not fun. Decide I could use a pick me up for the final 2 mile push to the end and seeing Linda would definitely give me a boost. Texted her and asked her to meet me at Robinson before saying thanks and goodbye to the aid station workers. Oh, and Emily had just shown up – didn’t recognize her because she had changed clothes. We laughed when she told me she opted for the change for the satisfaction of being dry if even for a few minutes. Brought up the pillar crossing and she also mentioned how scared she was of doing that also alone at the time.

If that water crossing was bad the previous time, now it was awful. No more swirls to help me guessing on foot placement. Found the first three with a bit of poking, all out guessed on the next (a total surprise to make contact with cement) and then looked at the 4 feet or so to the bank with a quandary. Try to guess right two times in a row or gutsy leap to other bank – not sure how long I stood on that pillar in the middle of the stream debating that, but I am sure waaaaayyyy too long. Opted for the leap and came up a few inches short thanks to the pissed off legs. “What the hell are you doing to us Bri, we are already screaming in pain and you want us to J U M P .. dumbass”. I’ll deal with that leg and foot insubordination later – lucked out and hit some solid footing not too far down in the water and used the momentum to carry across to the other side (blisters hated that). Damn glad that was over and hoping that everyone else would make it safely as well. Ended up passing a lot of people still heading down to GV. Each encounter took my mind off the struggle. The comradeship uplifted each other’s spirits as we offered up encouragements on the pass. I made it to the last uphill before Robinson – remembered the joy in reaching that point earlier and felt twice as relieved now. One big climb to make it to Linda which meant only TWO more miles to the finish. Linda took the shot below right before I headed out – certainly looked better than I felt – maybe knowing it was almost over and two years of dwelling on failure was about to end.

2021 Cry Me a River Trail Race 50K
2 miles to go to the finish – I got this!

I was surprised find out they had packed up the aid station at Robinson. There were still plenty of people on the trail that would probably appreciate a final boost to the end. At this point I noticed Emily coming toward the aid station as well and decided to wait a few minutes to see how she was doing. She immediately noted the lack of aid and called out to the volunteers that were still there questing the closure. A guy responded “Yes, but you only have a couple of miles to Wokanda”. I couldn’t believe my ears – to say that at this point in the race told me he had never run anything close to this distance and had no idea how asinine that sounded. Another lady then asked Emily if she wanted her to get something for her. To her credit, Emily said she wasn’t worried about herself, rather all the people still out of the course. Did I mention how wonderful and caring the ultra trail running community is!?! This aid station must have been run by noobs. Asked Emily if she was doing okay and offered to make the final trek with her. She needed to take a break and recommended I go ahead and she would try to catch up. Seeing Linda and getting the extra rest did the trick. There was renewed life in the legs and managed to run quite a bit more than expected blisters and ligament be damned. Still slopping in the puddles, but at this point less concern about turning an ankle and more determined to make it through this as fast as possible. Hit the point where the two guys almost took me out and stopped and stared down the abyss. I’ve snowboarded down black diamonds that looked less treacherous than this.

2021 Cry Me a River Trail Race 50K
It’s finally over!!!!!

One cautious foot in front of the other. The good news either way I was going to make it down – although I had surprisingly made it this far without getting my clothes muddy (everyone asks me why I didn’t look muddy in all the shots – good lugs I tell ’em). A couple of arms up slides and a small hop to make it over an unseen root tried their best to soil my day -not today evil mud gods. Of all the things that day, those two slips hurt the most as they put a tremendous amount of stress on my sore ligament – all was good, the clothes were still clean (life is about priorities). Made it through another flooded stream crossing – fortunately this time the large stones/concrete junks were barely peeking out over the muddy waters. Another half mile and I was at the finish line.

2021 Cry Me a River Trail Race 50K
Cry Me River 2021 50K finisher tile

My Runkeeper showed over 34 miles. The race coordinators were not lying, their course was at least 3 miles long by my tracker. Unlike the last ultra race, I didn’t have to run an extra mile on my own at the end to officially say I had completed a 50K (Farmdale’s race was slightly short – link here)

Time for some interesting stats. The pace chart below is a bit deceiving as I kept my tracker on during the breaks. You can see the big jump from the longer lunch rest and then the impact of the rain/mud and yes the wear on the body from the middle on. To my credit, I did suck it up and run through the badly blistered feet for the final couple of miles.

2021 Cry Me a River Trail Race 50K
Some Runkeeper stats over the 11 hour long race

The second chart is the elevation gains and losses. My phone tends to a) go short on distances so, if anything the distance was even longer than shown and b) tends to shorten the overall elevations gains especially in the trees. It gave a sum elevation gain total of 6,428 feet or a little over 1.2 miles. As you can tell from the elevation chart, there is very little flat area in the entire course.. make it to the bottom, assume you have to make it back to the top immediately after. The CMAR website states the 100 milers have 23,500 feet of elevation gain – my hats off to those finishers. Typically they do not hand out finisher medals which has always been a bit odd based on what it takes to complete these runs – especially the 100K and 100milers which cross multiple days. Assuming this was the case this year, I crossed the line confirmed I was a 50Ker to the time keeper followed by “Please tell me I’m done!”. They confirmed and immediately told me they would take care of getting the chip off my ankle so I wouldn’t have to bend down – I really appreciated that. During that process, the race coordinator handed me the tile shown a couple of shots back. How cool is that, it even has the elevation chart on the bottom which I am sure most non-runners would never catch. Note, I had to angle the tile in for the shot as it looks like a basic black tile until the light catches it just right. I clutched that in my hands like it was a precious metal. When the pain in the body is all gone, I’ll now have a long term reminder of the accomplishment.

2021 Cry Me a River Trail Race 50K
That’s me at #27

Ultra running is not about the time for most of us. In fact one of the reasons I left the road circuit was to get away from constantly checking my splits. These events are more about enduring and finishing when your body, mind and the environment are trying to make you quit. Admittedly, I still like to peruse the stats, they just don’t mean as much to me anymore. After 11 hours I had logged more than 34 miles through a very tough course. On the secondary front, I did finish 27th out of 44. Overall 24th male and FIRST in my age group 50-60.

2021 Cry Me a River Trail Race 50K
Yes, these include the breaks

Winner completed it 5 hours and 16 minutes and the last place made it through in 15 hours. Found it interesting there were only 4 participants under 30 (3 men, 1 lady). Also noted that over half were from outside the area (a common theme when I looked at the other race distance categories). The best stat of all .. wait for it .. wait for it…ZERO visits to the emergency room. My one blemish on the race record has been wiped clean in all the rain.

I need to give a huge thank you to Linda. Without her help I would still be mentally beating myself up whenever this race came up. I don’t take failure very well and I am sure having to listen to me whine about it for two years was a pain in the ass. Beyond putting up with that and the fretting as race day quickly approached – “I can’t believe I hurt {insert body part} x days before the race, all my muscles ache already, can you check the weather for the 1,000th time, are you sure you understand the chase plan, where did I put my bib pins, did I forget something” and the rest of the annoyances that comes with being married to a neurotic ultra runner. Then on race day to deal with the dogs, the weather, more of me and making it to every stop point to perfection. To my credit I had to endure her constant reminders I shouldn’t be doing this race, but we both knew she was probably right. As the race coordinators proudly state on their website – NO CRY-BABIES ALLOWED! I passed the test and didn’t shed a tear – the same can’t be said for Mother Nature who truly took the name to heart and cried us a mighty river. Right now the body is absolutely battered and hobbling around on blisters and a very tender ligament that really dislikes stairs, yet I couldn’t be happier.

Next up, the 50 miler scheduled for this October … stay tuned!

16 thoughts on “Blemish No More”

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