Race Report: Dances with Dirt

Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love(?) the Pain

So, begin at the beginning. Back in April I did a race called the Trailbreaker Marathon. While I was there I met this woman named Shannon who is a super-dedicated runner who loves to race. We hit it off, and she suggested we get the band back together for a trail race up in Merrimac, WI (about 55 minutes from here) called Dances with Dirt. After some discussion, we decided to do the marathon, and I thought no more about it for a while.

During May and June it rained most of the time, so I did only a few short trail run. This was probably, in retrospect, an error. But I’ve done a lot of trail races as a tourist–someone who runs trails infrequently.

Packet Pickup. Photo by Shannon.

Packet Pickup. Photo by Shannon.

Friday the 12th of July. I headed up to Devil’s Head Resort. Shannon and I ate a large quantity of pasta and picked up our race packets. Another friend of hers (Ruth) had come up from the Milwaukee area to do the 50k, so we all had a very early night. I unfortunately passed on the opportunity to sing karaoke to a bar full of intoxicated golfers. Next time. . .

The next morning, alarms were going off at various times. I tried resolutely to ignore them all, and I think I caught a few minutes of sleep between whenever Ruth’s went off (4:ohmygod) and mine (the much more sensible 5:35). I got dressed and put in my contacts. Then I decided something was wrong with my left lens and took it out briefly. Then I thought everything was fine.

Because checkout was 11:00, we would have to run a 4:30 or better to be back to the room by then. Since the course included about 3700 feet of elevation gain, we decided to err on the side of things taking a long time and packed all our belongings to put in our cars before the race. Then we had to jog to the starting line. (Call it a warm up.)

Just before the gun, when the announcer was saying “Thirty seconds until we start,” I noticed that my left contact was twisted. I have a pretty bad astigmatism in my left eye and need to wear special contacts for it. They’re called “toric lenses.” Anyway, when you wear this type of lens, if the lens is not properly oriented on your eye, things can look blurry. The clear vision in your other eye can compensate somewhat, but you still have a weird feeling of seeing…not quite double, but not quite single either. I tried quickly to fix the lens, but I didn’t have time (or clean enough hands) to take it out and inspect it. In retrospect, I should have MADE the time.
Hindsight is pretty much the only thing I have 20/20 vision on.

At the gun we charged off. The first half mile of the course was nice—flat, occasionally paved, and the weather was gorgeous. Then we hit the first hill.

I’ve mentioned before (I think) that I’m not a huge single track person, and this is why: As soon as we hit the hill, we started walking. The person in front of me (a guy in a green shirt and VFFs) controlled when I started jogging and stopped again, and he was in turn controlled by the person in front of him. In this configuration you can never feel rested from the breaks or ready to stop running because you’re not in charge of when you run or don’t run.
The hilly section didn’t last forever, though, and we settled down into some very runnable terrain, with the exception of a very rocky portion. I’ll get back to this later. At the time, I joked to Shannon that it was like running tires on a military obstacle course. There were some hills, but nothing seemed severe in light of what we had just traversed (everyone hiked that initial hill because it was steep).

The climb up to South Bluff. Photo by Shannon.

The climb up to South Bluff. Photo by Shannon.

Just after mile 10, we began a climb up a section of roughly paved cement steps. There was a tall rock to our left and a drop to the right. Occasionally we could see Devil’s Lake peeking through the trees on the drop side. After about two leg-killing miles of this, we reached the South Bluff aid station—possibly the most magnificent aid station I’ve visited. From there, we had a view of the lake and the entire valley. Hawks (or vultures, I couldn’t tell) circled above us. I felt a wave of vertigo and edged away from the cliff.

About three quarters(?) of the way up. That'd Devil's Lake behind us. Photo by Shannon.

About three quarters(?) of the way up. That’s Devil’s Lake behind us. Photo by Shannon.

On the way down the other side, Shannon said that every step of the last twelve miles had been worth it, just to see that view. I think about 80% of the steps were probably worthwhile.

The next part of the run, miles 13-17, were a very runnable bit of downhill single track. It was all firm dirt (with an occasional but not problematic mudhole). I celebrated by falling down. Actually I fell down three times between mile thirteen and mile fourteen. On the first fall, I bloodied my shin. The second and third falls just stung my pride, or so I thought. I think partly the problem was not seeing super clearly as I tried to make up time by flying down these narrow trails, and part of the problem was that as I become increasingly tired, I probably lift my feet less and less.

The view from the top. Photo by Shannon. Or actually by someone she handed her camera to. But her camera.

The view from the top. Photo by Shannon. Or actually by someone she handed her camera to. But her camera.

Eventually we emerged from the single track onto a flat grass prairie area. I heard and then saw two sandhill cranes flying over. Then I realized we were going to have to go up the hill we’d just come down again. Only first we were going to have to run across the grassland to a turnaround (mile 16-ish) and back. Fun.

After the turnaround, Shannon started putting on the gas. I suddenly realized that my right hip—which had taken the brunt of the third fall—was hurting, and I couldn’t keep up with her. Eventually she said she was going to push the pace to see if she could get back to the hotel in time for a shower, and I let her go. It was not going to be a day for breaking speed records.

This would be the point where I realized that I don’t hate singletrack nearly as much as I hate two-way singletrack.

The hill really stood out over the grassy area; I could see it rising up on the horizon well before I reached it. Shannon was gone by this point, leaving me to hike back up the hill using a ten/ten pattern I made up: jog for ten steps (counting each step when your left foot hits, so really twenty step), then walk for ten steps (counted the same way). Eventually I got to what I thought was the top…only to find that it kept going. That hill was basically miles 17-20. I thought about Napoleon invading Russia. I thought about the Bataan Death March. I thought about how much it would suck to fall down again (I was running over big chunks of rock or shale at this point). I noticed that going down hills was becoming increasingly painful; something had gone wrong with my left knee. That was weird.

Then, a bit past the top, I fell down again.

I got up and cried a little. I was rude to some passers-by. And then. . .I kept going, shambling along at a steady run-walk. I think I was hitting about 12 min/mi, a bit faster on the flats. I had ten kilometers left to go. Any idiot, I told myself, can run a 10k.

I was back at the first major aid station (major means they have food). It marked the 20.5 mile point. I grabbed half a boiled potato, dipped it in salt, and scarfed it down. I would have had more, but I didn’t want to overload my stomach and cause myself even more grief. I dumped a cup of water over my head too, because it was getting hot out.
The last few miles of the course were the same as the first few miles, except backward. So remember that really rocky section I mentioned earlier? At full health I could probably have done that at a goodly clip, but this time I was reduced to hiking. A few people passed me, not many, and I watched the clock tick toward five hours, then past. I was pretty sure I was going to be the last one finished. How embarrassing.

I rolled in the mud. Photo by Shannon.

I rolled in the mud. Photo by Shannon.

At one point, a guy came up behind me. He crashed along for a while, slowing down when I had to slow down on the downhill. He said, “Just keep putting one foot in front of the other.” Then he passed me. A few feet later he fell ass over teakettle.

He got up, laughed, and said it was the first time he’d fallen all day. Luckily he left before I could hit him.
At just about 26 miles, which is to say .2 miles from the end, I emerged from the woods onto a paved bike path. It looked flat, so I decided to make a concerted effort to hustle for the finish line and at least cross it looking strong. The bike path turned suddenly into a gravel road that went up a hill, and then halfway up it turned right into a thicket of bushes. I started into the bushes, pushing myself down the hill there, and suddenly I was airborne again.

I sort of rolled over in the dirt and cried. I was never doing any trail races ever again. I was never doing any marathons again. Obviously my ACL and my meniscus were probably torn or shattered. Nothing would ever be good again.
Then I realized that the 50 milers and 50k runners who were still behind me were going to find me lying in the dirt, and I had to go another hundred feet to finish. So I got up. I staggered, bloody and covered in mud, across the finish line in 5:18:42.4.

One woman, an older lady, looked at me as I shambled up and said, in the kindest possible voice, “Would you like some ice cold water?”

YES, I would. I asked about a first aid tent. But before I could hustle off, a woman with a clipboard asked my age group and told me I’d got fourth place.

I won a pint glass.

I won 4th place! First place was a bucket.

I won 4th place! First place was a bucket.

Fourth place! I’ve never placed at the marathon distance before. I felt perplexed, and somewhat better than I’d been feeling a few minutes before. I hazarded that if my knee survived, I would probably run again (a good thing, since I’m already signed up for The Baltimore Marathon).

The paramedics working the first aid tent sat me down on a cot. They carefully washed my legs off and diagnosed me with road rash. I got a big bandaid and some antibiotic ointment on the big gash on my shin and something called “chigger cream” on my other scrapes. The chigger cream had lidocaine in it, so soon I was able to hobble back to my car, free from the obnoxious grating in my knee. I still had enough water left to wash off my hands. Then, like Tricia McMillian, I finally fixed my contact lens.

I turned on the AC and played rock music at an unjustifiable volume all the way home. By the time I arrived, I’d recovered my humor. Also, Bryan was making brownies. He didn’t know they were post-marathon-for-Em brownies (he thought they were for some friends who were coming over). They were delicious.

A post-script on my knee: After our friends left and Bryan went to rehearsal, I looked up the symptoms of ACL tear (key words: knee instability, pain so bad you want to puke) and meniscus problems (key words: knee freezes or locks up) and realized I had neither of those problems. When Bryan came home, we determined that the problem was in fact my SI joint had got stuck. I probably jammed it when I fell the third time (a fall that left a lovely constellation of bruises on my right thigh). We unstuck it and my knee was back to normal the next day.

Finish: 5:18:42.4, 4th in my age group, 9th woman overall. 43rd overall in the race. What I didn’t realize—the fastest time was only 4:09. Compare to other recent, local marathons: Grandma’s was won in 2:11, Lakefront 2012 was 2:27, Green Bay was 2:18. This is the difference that 3,000+ feet of climb over rough terrain makes: about two hours.

My hair ALONE is worth a medal.

My hair ALONE is worth a medal.

4 Comments

  1. logiwonk
    Posted 19 July 2013 at 10:37 | Permalink

    Wow. Great job! You’re going to school the Bmore run!

  2. Laura Simon
    Posted 20 July 2013 at 07:11 | Permalink

    So, if you win the Dances with Dirt marathon, you get a bucket because now you can cross it off your bucket list (if you have one)? Congratulations on a heroic run!

  3. nikki
    Posted 28 October 2013 at 13:31 | Permalink

    thank you for this! i can’t wait to run this marathon! i’ve run/hiked/camped in devil’s lake state park so i can practically picture everything as you were relating it. such a beautiful place! i can imagine it must have been quite frustrating falling all those times but falling is par for the course in trail running.

    great job!

    • Posted 29 October 2013 at 10:01 | Permalink

      I’m surprisingly good at falling down–I do it on trails, on sidewalks, on the steps at my house…I even do a martial art (aikido) that involves falling, so you’d think I would be good at it by now. But anyway, I think I will be back next year, possibly doing the half instead of the full. It’s a great course, very beautiful, and totally worth the trip out. Good volunteers and aid stations too.


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