Monday, May 2, 2011

Race Report: Leatherman's Loop 2011

In my previous post, I mentioned that there is always a bit of adventure in the Leatherman's Loop race. This year was no exception.

Little did I know that my adventure would start pre-race. I'll spare you all of the disgusting details, just suffice it to say that my youngest son got rather intensely car sick on the way to the race. Ugh. Had to pull over a couple of times to try to clean him up and help him settle down. It was stressful, and made us arrive late to the race site.

That's a bad choice with the Loop, because it's a crowded race and there is a narrow entrance road, with a slow process of parking your car. Needless to say, it made the pre-race hour a blur of action - cleaning the car, getting bib numbers, establishing meeting points for the babysitter, trying to find a port-a-john, running around in circles ... you get the picture. And all of this on a day that turned out sunnier and warmer than expected. In retrospect, I was perfectly set up to have a disastrous race.

With each passing year, and as I continue to get slower and slower (see bottom of this post), I come to the crowded start of this race, look around, and have this immediate thought, "I will never be able to compete with all of these young, fit, talented athletes!" Mind you, that's not me being humble, it's me looking around and seeing a lot of guys who look like they will simply run away from me at the start, never to be seen again.

Two friends and teammates were on hand to try their first Loop. Matt Rosetti, hoping to be with the leaders, and Morgan Thompson, who downplayed his plans (but had that competitive twinkle in his eye). I found my wife in the crowd for a good-luck kiss (she was not planning on racing, she just wanted to have a nice run in the trails), and I could tell she was still stressed about our little one's problems in the car.

The Start.
After the customary race greetings and blessings, there was a rather confusing start, with Tony Godina saying something like, "Okay, let's get going" and then having to repeat himself and wave his arms before the hesitant and confused field finally charged across the damp prairie. I didn't get a bad start, considering. In fact, at about 150 meters I think I was holding around 20th place, but as we began the sweeping left hand turn to head into the trails, another dozen or more guys went right past me. I could tell that I was on the anaerobic edge at that moment, and just had to let them go. Hmm, not so good.

As we tip-toed through the first little stream and ensuing mud, a familiar voice said, "Hey, Douglas, you're supposed to be at the front!" It was Eric Scheffler, long-time friend and powerful ultra-runner, right on my shoulder. I couldn't think of anything witty to say, and blurted out, "This IS the front!" or something like that. Maybe I was actually trying to convince myself.

As is my custom, I set about the task of trying to weave through the pack over the next few miles. Post-race, Eric thought we'd been around 50th place, but I think it was more like 30-35th. Anyway, it was clear that it was going to be hard work.

It's also common in my experience at this race to have that one guy who is absolutely killing himself to stay ahead of me in the first couple of miles. This year it was some guy in a yellow shirt, who I kept passing every time the trail got technical or downhill, but who charged up every hill or flat spot to pass me back. His breathing was really labored, and I tried to ignore his tendency to bump into me every time he went by - maybe it was unintentional. This went on for nearly a mile, including the first water crossing (a fast-running stream, not quite waist-deep), which was rather slimy underfoot and not easy to clamber out of on the opposite bank.

Eventually, I managed to get by him and stay there, so that I could focus on my own race and what lay ahead. Looking forward, there was literally a line of 8 runners who I was pulling back slowly. I had no idea what place I was in at that point, I was thinking just inside the top 20, which matched my pre-race expectation. Hey, not so bad after all.

The next couple of miles included the "new" water crossing, which was the deepest of the day. I had pulled up onto the heels of the pack of eight, and we all hit the water rather clumsily within seconds of each other. George Buchanan, just in front of me, tried taking a dive and swimming across. Looked good to me, plus I was feeling rather hot and could use the cool dunk in the water. I executed a perfectly terrible dive, and thrashed away for a few strokes. I'm no competitive swimmer, that's for sure. Then again, none of us were. We must have looked laughable, really. A bunch of skinny guys flailing away, making a lot of noise and splashing like madmen, but barely moving forward. Comical.

Half way across, I was putting my feet down looking for rocks to push me along, and found that I could barely touch the bottom! Gulp. But through a combination of thrashing arms and hopping on my toes, I somehow managed to scramble out of there and pass three guys in the process. As I cut across the road and back into the mud, I thought, "My wife is going to kill me over that water crossing". She is a talented trail runner, but she likes RUNNING, not wading, and certainly not swimming, and if that water was up to my chin, she was going to be in over her head.

I managed to get past two more guys in the next half mile or so, leading up to the notorious sand "wall". This is impossible to run, you just have to hike it, and maybe use your hands to help you along. I do have a technique for this: use short, quick steps, and place your feet carefully. Most guys tend to lean too far forward, over-stride, and as a result lose traction at the moment of push-off. I was doing well until just near the top, when my right foot slipped on a push-off and I came to a dead stop. Argh.

Once over that hill, there was a bit of technical stuff remaining, then mostly fire roads until the third and final water crossing just before the finish line. I tried to push myself on the single-track, knowing that each guy I passed was probably capable of running me down on less-technical trails.

Pride cometh before the fall.
With about 1.5 miles to go, I made a typically human and stupid mistake. I started feeling good about myself. I thought, "Hey, I'm having a pretty good race!" and I stopped concentrating for just a few seconds (on a non-technical, double-track fire road). The next thing I knew, I was face down in the gravel. I must have clipped a small rock at just the wrong moment. Nearly knocked the wind out of me, but I'd managed to catch myself with palms, elbows, and right hip, so I hadn't smacked my knees or ribs. I hopped up, did a quick check, no major bleeding, no protruding bones ... okay then - run! Yeesh.

Shortly after that, old George came flying past me. He must have been saving something for the last mile. I did all I could, but I just could not match his pace. We have dueled on these short trail races for years, he usually gets the best of me, and he did that again on this day.
Approaching the final river crossing, I tried to muster a kick, but with no real speed training it was probably not noticeable to anyone who was watching. Pushing across the river and struggling uphill into the sun, I somehow managed to grab 9th place overall. Results.

In front of me, Matt had garnered 3rd place, and Morgan 4th. If it had been a team competition, we'd have done all right. Matt talked about how much he'd been in oxygen debt throughout the race, even on the downhills. I talked to him briefly about the trail runner's need to detach breathing rhythm from running rhythm, not an easy task but one that can separate champions from pretenders.

Jogging back to the river crossing, I watched for my wife to finish. Along came our friend Cassandra (5th woman, first in her age group) and Heidi Schaller (6th woman, doing her first trail race, "fell down only a couple of times"), and then Monika. She splashed across with our friend James Redmond, then headed uphill. I could tell she wasn't in the mood to kick it in. Still, she finished as the 7th woman overall, not bad for "not racing" the event!

By a stroke of luck, I somehow managed to win my age group (and the story is nearly identical to this race two years ago). The overall winner Tommy Nohilly is in his 40s, and of course actually "won" the 40-49 age group, but they eliminated the winner from the age-group awards (which is appropriate). George Buchanan is a old guy like me, but he's in his 50s, so his 8th place overall gave him first in his age group, leaving the 40s to me (the last time that will happen in this race, I'll be 50 years old this fall). My prize: a delicious fresh blueberry pie. Perfect.

Post-race, tracking down my family and chatting with friends, the warm sun shining ... a pretty good day. And Monika didn't seem too angry with me about crossing three rivers, partly because the people around her had been helping each other through the obstacles (trail runners rule!). I suppose I really should not complain. But I'm a runner, so I will, just a little. My left foot is sore and slightly swollen. I hope I just twisted it a bit and will recover this week. Think I'll do some cycling for a couple of days to let it rest.

The best news of the day? The little guy didn't get sick in the car on the way home. Whew!

My history at the Loop:
Year Time (Place) Notes
2000 40:22 (2nd) My first loop at age 38, much too late. I should have run this race earlier.
2002 40:51 (6th) Very competitive year.
2003 41:54 (4th) Getting older, getting slower.
2005 43:45 (6th) 1.5 years after reconstructive surgery on my Achilles.
2006 44:23 (3rd) Year of the raging river detour, and my now-wife Monika won the women's race.
2007 49:39 (30th) After only 2 weeks of training following months off with hip injury.
2011 45:05 (9th) With the added water crossing, I think the time compares well to 2009.

Found an awesome gallery of photos online here:

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