The Mines of Spain would be my 1st hundred miler since I was injured pretty badly over 2 years ago at Kettle Moraine 100. Hundred milers and I have had a really “special” bond over the years. They seem to be that elusive race that I can never figure out. We also have a very special relationship that’s founded on excruciating pain and misery (this is why I keep coming back for more). I’m not afraid of many things in this world, but if I’m being totally honest I definitely had a bit of fear creeping into my mind as this race approached.
My training leading up to this race included much less volume than I typically would have for a 100 miler. I usually like to have multiple back to back long runs (20 miles each) on weekends leading up to the race, but that didn’t happen this year. I had a few back to back longish weekends but much less than typical. I did, however, race a bit more this year so I was comforted with the fact that I had a 50K, two 50 milers, and a 100K under my belt already. I also took a trip out to Colorado and ran Pikes Peak along with some other parks near Colorado Springs, and a trip to the Grand Canyon to run Rim to Rim. These were all amazing experiences that were great learning tools for this hundred. Rim to Rim was only a couple weeks before this race and I was pretty sore so I basically didn’t run much at all for the 2 weeks leading up to Mines of Spain.
It was a nice crisp morning in Dubuque, Iowa. The weather looked fantastic for all of the first day and into the morning of the second day. Highs in the low 60s and lows at night in the 40s. The race started at 8:00am after a brief announcement from the race director giving us some trail condition updates. There would be a few flooded areas on the trail but I wasn’t too concerned about that. The clock ticked down and off we went.
The race consisted of five 20 mile loops. The loop started out by heading out of Louis Murphy Park and down a paved bike trail to a road that paralleled a water treatment plant. Mmmmm, nothing like the smell of sewage and methane to wake you up in the morning. The road spits you out onto a trail that leads into the Mines of Spain park. The very first thing you hit is a short but very steep climb up rocks and rooty trail. From there, it’s a nice long bombing decent down single track until you hit a bridge that crosses Catfish Creek. You cross the bridge and then back to some very rocky single track trails that snake through the woods. This trail spits you out on a road that you must run to connect to the next trail section. This next section was one of my favorites, called Horseshoe Bluff and is where the background picture for this blog is taken. It looks almost like running through a canyon that’s tucked away in Dubuque, Iowa. The views were stunning and I almost forgot I was running a race when going through this section. Once through Horseshoe Bluff there was another long road section with a steady climb up to Aid Station 1. I was feeling good so I ran the entire uphill section which had me passing a lot of other runners who were walking. I got to Aid Station 1 and downed some liquid calories, refilled my water bottle, and headed back out.
There were some really amazing sections after leaving AS1. There were some hilly trail sections interspersed with sections that ran through wide open prairies. The landscape was absolutely beautiful and I wanted to soak it in as much as I could while I was still feeling good and was still appreciative of my surroundings. One of the prairie sections had a platform (almost like a deck) at the top of a hill that looked out over a vast expanse of grassland. As you run past the platform it begins a really long bombing downhill section that transitioned from grassland to really rocky trail. The bottom of this decent T’d off onto Eagle Scout Trail. You turn left at the T and continue running through very hilly sections of trail and grassland until you end up at a checkpoint where you have to punch a heart-shaped hole in your bib (this is to prove that you didn’t skip this section of the race). From there you head back to the T in the trail and take the 3rd leg of the T that you haven’t been on yet. This short section takes you over to Aid Station 2. I took another few drinks of liquid calories and filled my bottle and off I went. I was making pretty good time and feeling good. Now it was back to the T and then back up the trail to AS1 (which was only about 2 miles away). I stopped again at AS1 to swig some more liquid calories and then back down the long road that leads toward Horseshoe Bluff. Instead of turning right into the Bluff trail, you turn left into the woods and toward Aid Station 3.
The section running back to AS3 was very similar to the rest of the trail sections of this race. Some flat and fast areas and some nice steep hills. This out and back section contained one of the flooded areas which required us to wade through about 6-8″ of freezing cold water. It felt pretty good on the feet but they were definitely numb after wading through about 100′ of flooded trail. Heading up to AS3 there were a bunch of steps and then a little building where the aid station was set up. After leaving AS3 there was a sections with a bunch of steps going back down to the trail where the flooding was. This section of trail led back to the bridge that crossed Catfish Creek that I mentioned previously. The only problem now was that this side of the creek was the side that REALLY got flooded. We had to wade through two sections that were 24-30″ deep! They had ropes tied to trees that could be used to hold onto if needed. I actually didn’t mind the cold water, it was pretty refreshing and I’m sure helped with swelling knees and feet. Once across the flooded sections we crossed over the bridge to the other side of Catfish Creek and completed a quick loop that included a never ending string of stairs. There were over 200 stairs going up and over 200 stairs coming back down which brought us right back out by the bridge where we headed back up to the start/finish area. I didn’t wear a watch or keep track of my time or pace so I didn’t really know how fast I was going but there were a lot of hills (14,000′ total elevation gain over the 100 mile course) so I figured that if I could finish the first loop in 4-5 hours, that would be pretty good. When I made it back to the start/finish area the race clock read 3:45! Alright, ahead of schedule! Now to refuel and head back out for loop 2!
Things Just Got Interesting…
The race was spreading out by now and there weren’t as many people running close to me so it was nice to really be able to enjoy the trail alone for a bit. I was still feeling pretty good and was running up most hills and bombing down the decents. After leaving AS1 I was making my way down the long bombing decent from the top of the grassy area where the lookout platform was located. I hit the rocky section of trail and really opened up (bombing down rocky trails is my favorite thing). There were a lot of leaves on the trail and a cluster of leaves was hiding a nice big baseball sized rock that I hit just right…POP!!! My left ankle rolled so that the side of my foot was touching the ground. I heard the POP and immediately screamed FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK!!! I reached down to grab my foot, expecting that it would be facing the wrong direction. It was in the normal spot so I knew it wasn’t dislocated. I could stand on it, so I knew it wasn’t broken. It hurt like hell but what did I expect…this to be an easy hundred! As soon as the immediate shock wore off and I knew I could keep on going I literally started laughing out loud because now I knew what my mental challenge was going to be for this race. There’s always pain in a 100 miler, mine was just a little more acute and earlier on than most other people. Aid Station 2 was another 5 miles off so I gingerly made my way down the hill and started running again once I got on the flats and uphills. Running was painful but I was able to manage as long as the ground was fairly flat and I wasn’t worrying about turning it again. I made it to AS2 and a lively volunteer asked what I needed and I said something to tape my ankle up with and some Advil. He rushed off and within about 30 seconds had my foot propped up on his leg as he was wrapping my ankle with pre-wrap and then taping it up (ahhhhh, brings me back to the old high school football days). I popped 2 Advil and went on my way to finish out loop 2.
I had rolled my ankle at about mile 25 of the race. I got it taped up around mile 30. I figured that with the injury so early in this loop my time would be significantly slower this loop than the first. When I turned the corner to the start/finish and saw that the race clock only read 8:15 I was completely amazed. This meant that despite rolling my ankle 5 miles into the last loop and essentially having to walk down all the hills, I was only slower by 30 minutes from the 1st loop which was pretty fast in my estimation in the first place. I was pretty stoked! It took me a bit longer to get out onto loop 3 since I knew it would be getting dark during this loop and I wanted to make sure I was prepared. I ditched the handheld water bottle and went with the hydration vest so I could carry some extra layers and my head lamp for when it got dark. By the time I got out on the 3rd loop the race clock read 8:45…I was still way ahead of schedule.
My ankle wasn’t feeling too bad starting out the 3rd loop and the tape was holding up pretty good so I knew I had to run as much as I could and keep banking time because it was just a question of when the ankle would finally stop cooperating and I’d have to hike. The plan was still working out really well with running the uphills and flats and hiking the downhill sections. When I got back around to AS2, I graciously thanked the volunteer who taped my ankle and he was super stoked that I was still going strong. His energy was infectious and put a little extra giddy-up in my step as I headed back out on the trail as the sun was setting. Nights on the trail are usually pretty lonely and when most of the doubts start to creep into your head. I was really looking forward to the flooded sections where the freezing cold water felt amazing on my ever-swelling ankle. I was still feeling pretty strong when I pulled back into the start/finish and the race clock read 13:15! That was a full loop on a hobbled ankle 1/2 in the dark at 4 1/2 hours. I was feeling pretty good about that.
Surviving the Dark
Miles 60-80 are always the miles that are mentally toughest for me. The race is usually really spread out by that point so you typically don’t see anyone else. You’ve been out there for a really long time on your feet and it’s dark throughout this entire period. The sleep monster usually rears his ugly head during this time and now is when the pain likes to settle in on all your muscles and joints making it a matter of just surviving. By this point, I pretty much knew every twist and turn in the 20 mile loop by heart. A strange thing started happening which made things even more interesting. I’d had my contacts in all day and my vision was starting to get really cloudy. Not usually a big deal, except for the fact that I really wanted to make sure of my footing so I didn’t roll my ankle again. I figured I just had some build-up on my contacts, so I took them out and just put on my glasses…No help. I tried eye drops…No help. I was now stuck in a permanent haze which was eerily similar to when you spend all day in the pool and your vision gets cloudy. This really slowed my progress because I was getting nervous about my footing on all the trail sections where there were rocks and roots just waiting to turn my ankle again (which did happened a couple more times but not nearly as serious). By mile 70 my foot and ankle were really swollen and the ankle finally decided it didn’t want to work any more. Any slightly uneven surface caused my ankle to give out and my foot was really hurting. I knew this time was coming and was extremely grateful that I was able to run 45 solid miles on a pretty badly sprained ankle before I needed to start power hiking. I put a pretty big focus on power hiking while training for this race because I know it’s usually inevitable in a 100 miler that you’ll be hiking at some point. This really paid off because when I started power hiking I felt right at home and the foot/ankle handled it much better than running. The best part of being relegated to power hiking is that I got to start eating solid food again (I only take in liquid calories while I’m running). This meant I got to stuff my face with bacon, breakfast burritos, Ramen, and even pancakes with maple syrup! As I was making my way the last mile before the start/finish area my headlamp started flashing which meant it was just about out of juice. Definitely not good, there’s still a few hours of dark before the sun comes up. I decided I’d have to take a brake between loops to charge my head lamp in my car. Definitely not ideal, but necessary. I made it back to the start/finish and the race clock read 19:40. Another pretty solid loop and I had to power hike 1/2 of it. My confidence was pretty high at this point that I’d be able to make the cut-off of 33 hours.
I rushed to my car to plug in my head lamp and grabbed my first aid kit. I went back up to the start finish area to see if someone could help re-wrap my ankle while I was waiting for my head lamp to charge. I was able to give a Physical Therapist some great practice in wrapping an ankle. This was the first I’d seen it in over 50 miles and it wasn’t looking good. After it was wrapped, I made sure to eat something at the aid station and keep moving. My biggest fear during these times when you need to stop is muscles getting stiff and not working anymore. I patiently waited about an hour for my head lamp to charge and decided to roll the dice and head back out knowing the sun would be coming up in about 2 hours or so. I headed back out in the dark for my victory lap and the race clock read 21:00. I was hoping to make the last lap in 7-8 hours.
My ankle was hurting but I was still able to move with a purpose. Now on the last loop, I knew exactly what I had to do and just put my head down and plowed ahead. I must have been moving pretty well because I ended up passing a few people as I was power hiking and they were moving like the Walking Dead. I was giving them words of encouragement as I passed but was usually met with grumbles. My head lamp started going out just as it was getting light enough to see without really needing it (SCORE!). It was also about this time that I was starting to get really sleepy so I put in my head phones and rocked out to some Hard Rock until the sun came above the horizon and reset my circadian rhythm. Once the sun was out, life was good and I was a happy man! I was chipping away at the last remaining miles of the course and was sad that this was last time I’d get to see some of the really cool spots. I made it back to the start/finish with a total race time of 27:37. Not too shabby for busting your ankle at mile 25. I even had a fellow racer come up to me after I finished who’d seen my ankle when it was getting taped up the first time at AS2 and said he couldn’t believe how strong I looked for the rest of the race.
Mines of Spain 100 was a fantastic race which I’d highly recommend to anyone. The race was very well put together, the aid stations were awesome, the food was great, the atmosphere was great, the runners were amazing, and the scenery was unbelievable. This is certainly a race that I will not soon forget.