My friend Glen and a few others have been talking up this event for years. What’s not to like about running an ultra in the woods, in the dark, in conditions likely to be cold and rainy? Oh, yeah, on trails primarily used by horses. Uh, right. But being just up the road from our house and outside of the normal tri season, convenience beat out other concerns and I signed up for my first ultramarathon. The 2010 edition. Then Clearwater 2009 happened and I ended up with a broken foot. January came and went and I didn’t run a step. Coming out of Clearwater 2010 relatively unscathed, I signed up for Bridal Trails again.
The weather forecast called for cool conditions, in the 30s with possible rain or snow. It rained through the night on Friday, but was mostly dry on race day. The course promised its usual mud, but at least we wouldn’t be drenched from above as well.
At 3pm, the 5.2 mile (one lap) runners were off, then the 10.4 mile runners left five minutes later. At 3:09 I found myself on the starting line with the crazies, the 6 lap runners. A minute later, we were off with little fanfare, 75 runners filing across the start line. Very quickly I found myself in a great rhythm along with Francis, Wendy and Andrew. We ran the first lap in 40 minutes, made a quick stop at the aid station and were underway again. Lap two was similarly fast. Andrew and I picked up our lights, but stashed them in pockets just in case. We started lap 3 with enough daylight left to see well and finally turned on the headlamps with maybe a mile to go. Leaving the aid station to begin lap four I saw 2:02 on the watch. A little faster than expected. 25k down and 25k to go.
This time I found myself running alone, striding through the woods. The early part of the lap was relatively fast and mud free so I felt pretty confident that I could maintain the pace. Then on the more technical eastern side of the course, I started struggling. The trail was narrow with lots of roots, rocks and mud pits, and even though by now I knew what to expect, I had to slow way down just to avoid tripping. I felt like I had no ability to anticipate the terrain ahead of me and without that my knees were taking a beating. Near the southeast corner of the park, Francis caught up. I’d noticed someone gaining on me for quite some time, a strong beam of light flickering behind me through the trees. As he finally caught up I understood the trouble. My lights were much less powerful than I needed for the pace. I finished the lap with Francis, running close enough to benefit from his light to help guide the way.
Back at my drop bag I found the extra batteries and with fumbling hands tried to change them. A race volunteer came to the rescue. With fresh cells in my headlamp it was significantly brighter. Still not what other runners had, but much better. I was able to blaze through the first third of the lap, but hitting the thick mud on the southward leg it felt like my legs still wanted to move quickly but the mud and off-kilter trail was threatening to break my ankles. The fifth lap was finished by walking anywhere I was uneasy about footing and running conservatively in between. The fourth lap wasn’t fast, but this one was downright slow.
At the aid station, someone in front of me was handed a steaming cup of soup. After 26 miles fueled by two gels each lap, the draw of solid food was irresistible. I asked for the same. Thick and salty soup in hand I was happy. Remembering my goals for day, primarily not to push too hard and get hurt, dropping out and sipping soup didn’t sound so bad. My goals for the day had been accomplished. Standing in the cold it didn’t feel like running one more lap in the dark on tired ankles was a smart plan. My previous aid station visits were two minutes or less, but after 15 minutes I was still there when Glen came in, finishing his fourth lap. With some friendly cajoling from Glen while he refilled his bottle and pockets, we left the station together.
It turned out the last lap was the most fun. Beginning the climb out of the aid station up to the north, Glen and I shuffled along. But once we really settled into the slope my ankles loosened up, then soreness went away. I pulled ahead and turning the crest of the hill, I could no longer see Glen’s light. The rest of the race went in a continuous flow. Features appeared in the darkness as if on cue. “Step over the rock. Run this puddle on the left, grab the tree and jump. Run a puddle on the right, then use the curve to cross the trail to run the next puddle on the left. Don’t step in the hole on the right. Take the side trail around the small trees to avoid the roots.” Other than a couple of sections of thick pancake batter mud I ran nearly the whole lap alone in the dark, but feeling one with the forest.
And then there it was at the bottom of the hill, the finish line. Instead of passing I stopped at the table and heard the race director say, “Number 54! Daniel Tomko, six laps completed!” Francis walked up, shook my hand and said heartily, “Congratulations, ultrarunner!”