Race Report: Dances With Dirt Devil’s Lake 50M

Lead-up to the Race

In the 2 months since the last race I hadn’t done all the training that I really wanted to do. I didn’t lose any fitness but I definitely didn’t gain a ton either. At this point in the year I typically would have started getting in back-to-back 20 mile days on the weekends and logging 60-70 mile weeks. I think my longest week so far has only been about 50 miles and my longest weekends have been more like 16/12. Between work and grad school and working on a new business venture (more to come on this for you running fans) time has been at a premium. Two things that I have focused on (because they take much less time) are hill climbing and dead lifts. I knew going into this race that it wasn’t insane vertical gain (~6600′) but certainly respectable for the Midwest and that I wanted to see how I’d do with hammering the hills early in the race as opposed to the traditional walking the hills in an ultra.

The race was about 2.5 hours from my house so I decided to drive up the night before and stay in the Devil’s Head Inn since the race start was at 5:30am. I didn’t end up getting to the hotel until about 10:00 at night so I pretty much just checked in and went straight to bed. I got up at 3:45 and started my race prep so I could get to the start/finish in time to check in and pick up my bib before the start. The start/finish was only about 10 minutes from the hotel so I headed out about 4:45. I used the Google Map from the Devil’s Lake website to get me to the start/finish (since there was no address, just a big grass field off the side of the road) and it sent me in the wrong direction. I searched around for a few minutes and then just figured I wait to see a group of cars and follow them (there’s only 1 reason anyone would be driving around at 4:45am). My plan worked and I followed some cars to the start/finish. I got checked in and dropped off my drop bag and got lined up at the start. It was going to be a warm day so I went shirtless with just my compression shorts. One of the 50K runners sang the National Anthem (she was pretty good too!) and then we were off!

Start to South Bluff

The first part of the race started out in some open grassland areas but quickly got into forested trails that were a welcomed reprieve from the sun (even though the sun was just coming up). The trails during this first section were well groomed with gravel and were not technical at all. The first section of the race was mostly very fast and runnable with only a few small hills to contend with. Then the last mile and a half or so were run through a campground on the blacktop. This seems to be one of the dirty tricks that Dances With Dirt does in their races. I was just thankful that this first time on the blacktop was really early in the race and my feet weren’t yet beat up. The first 4.5 miles of the race flew by and I made it to the Lake aid station surprisingly fast. I downed a gel and topped off my water and took off to South Bluff. I knew this next section would have a pretty nice climb based off of other race reports that I read so I was ready to test out my new climbing ability. This section was pretty short (2.3 miles) but probably close to a mile of that was vertical. As predicted, all of the other runners started hiking when they got to the hill but I just powered right past keeping my steps short but strong. I must have passed 30 people on that climb! I could tell my quads were filled with blood and were a little heavy after that climb but just a little light running on the flats at the top had my legs back in tip top shape. Once to the top of the climb it was just a short little section that brought us around for a really cool view of the quarry. You could see the entire valley and it was definitely worth stopping for a few seconds to take a look. The South Bluff aid station was nestled right on a little rocky outcropping that had another amazing view of the valley. I topped off the water and headed right out towards the Meadow.

South Bluff to Meadow

Leaving the South Bluff aid station there was a pretty gnarly part where you had to climb down between a couple of huge boulders. It wasn’t far, maybe 12 feet or so, but definitely something that required quite a bit of diligence so you didn’t go face first into a boulder. After that it was a short run on the nice groomed gravel trail until you reached the first out-and-back section down to the Meadow. These sections were on single track that had parts that were much more technical. It was a really nice long bombing downhill through the woods with a couple of small creek crossings. I was loving the downhill until I realized that we’d have to come back up this long descent after the run through the Meadow. I’d guesstimate the downhill portion to be about a mile or mile and a half until it spit you out into a huge grassy clearing. This was the meadow. It was still early in the morning so I made the most of it and ran pretty hard through the meadow so that I’d get back to the safety of the tree cover before it got too hot. The Meadow is a pretty expansive open area with the grasses towering 4-5′ tall. The trail is essentially a lane that has been mowed through the grassland. It’s pretty flat and cut wide enough for 2 or 3 people. There were a couple of swampy areas that got the feet wet and muddy but it felt pretty good to cool them off at that point. The Meadow aid station was out in the middle of the grassland and only offered a little reprieve from the sun with a canopy that extended from an RV that parked there. This was also the location of the drop bags. I didn’t grab anything from my bag yet because I knew I’d be right back there in about 3 miles. At this point I started seeing the race leaders coming back from the turnaround so I started counting to see how I was currently placed in the race. I slammed another gel, filled up my bottle and took off toward the turnaround which was 1.5 miles down into the Meadow. That 1.5 miles is completely out in the open and you are exposed to the sun the entire time. I knew this was going to be tough on the second loop. As I made my way to the turnaround I only counted 7 people in front of me! Holy crap, how could that even be possible. I wasn’t just in 8th place for the 50 milers, but that included the 50K runners as well. I’d never been this close to the lead before. I was feeling good so I just kept powering along. I hit the turnaround and headed back to the aid station to fill up on fuel and water. I stuck a few pinches of salt under my tongue, grabbed a couple of extra gels, and filled up my water bottle. Off I went through the last part of the Meadow and back up the long climb to finish out the first out and back section. It was more difficult going back because the trail was just single track and by this time everybody else was making their way down the hill as I was trying to make my way up. I still had some juice left in my legs so I ran my way up the long ascent back to the nice wide gravel trail where it was on to the second out and back section.

Meadow to Solum

The turnoff for Solum was about a mile or so down the nice gravel trail. This down and back section was again single track that snaked through the forest. The first 1.5 or so miles were pretty flat and runnable with some slightly more technical sections trying to avoid tree roots and rocks. At the aid station I downed some pop and some salt and filled my water bottle. It was starting to get pretty hot so I also tossed some ice in the water bottle. I headed off to the turaround which was about 2.1 miles down the trail. The first part of the trail after the aid station was pretty flat and runnable. The trail was a bit tricky because the sun peeking through the leaves of the trees overhead sort of made a camouflage pattern on the trail which hid a bunch of the roots and rocks. I hit a downhill section and still had enough juice in the legs to bomb down the hill without putting on the breaks any. I saw the leaders coming back up and figured they were about 3 miles ahead of me. I continued on down the hill which seemed like it went on forever. I was dreading the run back up this one. As I got close to the turnaround the camouflaged pattern on the trail tricked me just enough so that I caught a toe on something and went down like a sack of potatoes. Thankfully my training in Jiu-Jitsu has created some muscle memory which kicks in automatically and I tucked and rolled. Wasn’t the most graceful tuck and roll but it certainly saved me from serious injury. I got up and did a quick assessment…nothing broken and just a few scratches. Onward down to the turnaround. When I hit the turnaround I thought I was feeling a bit off…maybe lightheaded or something. I took some more salt and poured some water on my head and started power hiking back up the hill. It was really getting hot so I knew I had to lower my energy expenditure a bit to keep my body heat lower. This meant only running on the flats and easy uphill sections. I made it back to aid station and was still feeling a bit off. I downed some more Mountain Dew and salt to see if that would fix the problem. I was now steadily squirting water from my bottle on my head and body to keep cool. While I was making my way back to the gravel trail that would take me to the half-way point I did some calculation and figured out why I was feeling so crappy. It had been over 5 hours since my cup of coffee in the morning and I was tapping out of caffeine. Once I got back on the gravel trail I stopped and took 1/2 of a caffeine tablet and headed back down to Steinke. In about 10 minutes the caffeine kicked in and I felt fantastic! Problem solved. I made it to Steinke and loaded up on pop, salt, and water. I don’t wear a watch when I run so I had no idea what time it was but I thought I was doing pretty good. I asked at the aid station and they said it was just after 10:00. That means I ran the first half in about 4-1/2 hours! I was feeling great so I headed back out for the second loop of the race.

What the Crap?!

This is probably a good place to mention some of my odd health issues and how they impact my running. As you no doubt have seen, the title of my blog is Poopin’ in the Woods. There’s a pretty good reason for that. I’ve been dealing with gut issues for the last 10 years or so that the doctors are calling Ulcerative Colitis but I highly disagree with the diagnosis and have been treating myself for the past couple of years. It got to a point about 2 years ago that I thought I’d have to give up running forever because every time I tried to run I’d have an emergency and have to pull off into the woods. Didn’t matter how long the run was, sometimes it was 30 seconds after I started. I saw multiple specialists who couldn’t help, so I decided to fix myself. I radically changed my diet and figured out that the magic ingredient was sodium bicarbonate. The only other caveat is that caffeine brings on the crap attacks like nobody’s business so I have to make sure I have some sodium bicarbonate with any caffeine. I used to just drink club soda (which does the trick) but not great for running. I recently found sodium bicarbonate tablets which work perfectly. The only problem is that they only work…WHEN YOU TAKE THEM WITH THE DAMN CAFFEINE! Clearly I forgot to do that but remembered about 30 minutes later. Better late than never I guess. OK, back to the race.

Shit hits the fan

After leaving Steinke there is a small loop that circles around the open grassy area where the start/finish line is. Once that loop is complete, it’s back into the forest to start the second loop. The first aid station is Lake after the nasty run on blacktop through the campground. Right after I hit the Lake aid station my guts were starting to remind me of the mistake I’d made with taking the caffeine tab without the sodium bicarbonate. I slowed down to a walk hoping that would help out. I instinctively started looking around to see how many people were near so I could plan my dash into the woods. Lucky for me, the trail was PACKED with people! DAMN! This was not going to be good. I wasn’t worried about people up ahead that were going in the same direction as me but there were a bunch of 10K runners that just started their race that were coming from behind. I stopped a few times to pretend to stretch but it was really just to try to hold it until the coast was clear. I finally saw my chance and jumped into the ditch that was right next to the trail and executed one of the most flawless pit-stops in all of trail running history (I’ve had a lot of practice!). We’re talking less that 5 seconds and I was back on the trail. Apparently, even that perfection wasn’t good enough. Two young girls running the 10K came around the bend right as I was simultaneously pulling up my shorts and jumping back on the trail. They laughed as they passed me and I knew they probably never had to do anything like that before in their life. I continued walking in hopes that my stomach would settle. In my mind, it could go one of two ways. Either the sodium bicarbonate was just too late and would have no effect, or it would kick in and I’d be fine in another 30 minutes or so. If it didn’t work, I was in for a REALLY long day of diving into the woods every few minutes to empty my colon and would probably have to end my race early (these attacks usually have me stuck in the bathroom for hours at a time and I’ve even been hospitalized from them before). My mind shifted from “holy crap I’m doing really good in this race” to “DAMN, how am I going to survive this?” I felt another wave hit my guts and knew I had to dive into the woods again. The crowd had cleared a bit since the 10K trail diverged from the 50 Mile trail a little ways back. I did a quick look around and jumped behind a tree for another flawlessly executed pit-stop. Jumping back out on the trail 5 seconds later and I was caught again by a lady who was also running the 50 Miler. She didn’t say a word or even break stride (I think she’d probably been in that position before). I continued on my slow trudge still hoping that the sodium bicarb would kick in and save the day. The only positive about the whole things is that a good portion of the time that I was walking to calm my gut was on the huge uphill section to South Bluff. This means that I wan’t losing too much time and at this point in the race I would have been walking a few of those sections anyways.

South Bluff to Meadow (part 2)

I finally made it to the South Bluff aid station and decided to give jogging a try again. It was a nice flat section before the long downhill to the Meadow so I figured it would be as good a place as any to try it out. I was able to jog slow for a little while and then took it easy on the downhill to the Meadow. At this point I figured since I didn’t have another crap attack that my miracle sodium bicarb started working and I was good to go. It was getting toward the hottest part of the day and I knew the run through the Meadow was going to be really hot. My plan was to make it through this section as fast as I could so I wasn’t baking in the sun for too long. I was dumping more cold water on my head that I was drinking during this section. I made it to the Meadow aid station and stopped at my drop bag to grab the rest of the sodium bicarb tablets that I brought (just in case). I popped one of those and downed 3 cups of ice cold Mountain Dew to fuel me through the Meadow, took a few more pinches of salt under the tongue, and loaded back up with ice water in my bottle. Off I went to the turnaround making sure to stay diligent with keeping cool from periodic squirts from my ice water bottle. This time I counted a few more runners ahead of me as I got to see everyone coming back from the turnaround. Obviously I got passed by a few people as I spent about an hour or so walking and diving into the woods to relieve myself. I was making good time though and certainly couldn’t complain. It could have been much much worse. On the way back up the long climb out to the second out and back section someone coming down the trail warned me about a rattle snake that he saw near one of the creek crossings just up ahead. I kept a watchful eye out but didn’t see anything. I did happen to see a small fox jump across the trail ahead of me during this section but that was about it.

Solum to Finish

I made it to the Solum out and back section and remembered that there was a long downhill that I bit the dust on during the first loop. I was still moving pretty good at this point so I figured I’d just keep pressing on until my legs completely blew up. I was getting pretty good at calculating how much water I could pour on my head vs drink until the next aid station. I hit the aid station and topped off my ice water and headed out for the 2.1 miles down to the turnaround. When I hit the sign to turn I made a huge gamble and decided to take another 1/2 of a caffeine tablet. This time I made sure to take the sodium bicarb with it. I figured there’s only 5 miles left in the race so even if I have an issue it won’t hit for a couple of miles and walking the last 2-3 wouldn’t be that big of a deal. On the positive side, I figured that last boost might be enough to help me power back up the hill and pick off 1 or 2 runners that were in front of me. The strategy worked and I ran most of the way back up the hill, passing a few other runners. I made it back to the aid station and was feeling really good. I downed some Coke, took in some more salt, and refilled my bottle. Only 3 miles to go and I was running pretty well. I sailed all the way to the finish line and felt stronger than I have in any other 50 miler. I was stunned when I saw the race clock and it read 10:19! I was two and a half hours faster than my last 50 from 2 months ago! I gave my name to the volunteer at the finish line and he said I was 3rd in my age group (turns out I was actually 4th, but still pretty good) and finished 16th overall.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

There were plenty of things that I think went well during this race. I guess here is a good time to list out my goals for each race and talk about how I did with each:

  1. The number 1 goal is to make it out HEALTHY – I definitely executed on goal #1. No broken bones or major soft tissue injuries. Just a couple of days recovery and I’m back out running.
  2. Have fun – Check…I had a blast at this race! DWD puts on a great event and what could be better than spending the day playing in the woods.
  3. Never Quit – I have to be honest, the seed of doubt was planted when I started having gut issues but I pushed through and had a great race.
  4. Finish the race – Yep, this one’s a big check! Now if I can only bring my success at 50 up to 100.
  5. No stomach issues – I failed at this goal but it could have definitely been much worse. The lesson was learned loud and clear at this race!
  6. No tripping/falling – I did bite it once, but again it could have been much worse. I’ll have to continue to put a lot of focus on foot placement and keeping my leg swing a bit higher when I fatigue.
  7. Execute fueling plan – Fueling wasn’t flawless but continues to get better with each race. I now know that caffeine timing has to be taken into account when coming up with the fueling plan.
  8. Execute hydration plan – The hydration plan was as close to flawless as I can be. I don’t know what I could have done better. It was a really hot and humid race and I didn’t have any under- or over-hydration issues (I even peed a few times during the race and it was perfectly light apple juice colored).
  9. Finish Top 3 in Age Group – I thought I had this one in the bag, but it turns out someone sneaked in before me. Still the best placing I’ve had at any ultra.
  10. Finish Top 5 in Race – Not really close here, but that’s why it’s at the bottom of the list. I would need everything else on the list to go flawlessly for this one to hit. Didn’t happen today, but this race did give me a little confidence that it’s possible.

Overall it was a great race with a surprisingly good outcome. I really liked how the hill and strength training served me in this race. I’ll continue to make that one of the staples of my training program. I feel like my overall training for this race was much better than I thought, which just goes to show that huge training volumes aren’t required for ultras. After this race, I’ll be thinking less about hydration and fueling and just sticking with a very easy plan that seems to have worked out well for me. I do most of my training runs in a fasted state (even long runs up to 20 miles) so I have a really good fat burning engine. The only carbohydrates I consume come from 2 bananas that I eat every day, so when I have single sugars during a race it acts like rocket fuel and I don’t need very much since my body burns mostly fat. Really the only 2 bad parts of the race were my mistake with the caffeine tablet which led to the gut issues and tripping into a tuck and roll which could have led to serious injury. All in all it was a great day and I highly recommend this race to anyone in the Midwest looking for a cool local 50 mile trail race!

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