Buckeye Trail Race Report

I decided to enter the Buckeye Trail 50K somewhat on a whim. I had been planning to do the Crown King Scramble 50K in March, and decided that the best way to prepare for an ultra was to run one as ‘training’. A friend had recently discovered the “joy” of trail running, and I believe she suggested we give it a try. I wasn’t sure how I would feel doing a long run less than three weeks post-Disney, but the course was a series of loops – 5 miles and 8 miles – so I felt comfortable that if things weren’t going well, I could bail.

I felt differently about this race – I mean fun run – leading up to it. The day before, I woke up thinking “oh crap, it’s tomorrow”. My partner in crime once again was Helen, and her friend Andy (not Andy Diamond, who I’ve written about before). We headed out of town around 5pm, quite different than how we generally spend the whole day prior to the race traveling and getting settled. We arrived in Peninsula, Ohio close to 8:30 or 9 (after stopping en route for dinner), settled down into our room and headed to sleep.

The next morning we arose around 5:30. The weather forecast was quite nice (40s) – in past years, participants in this run had dealt with 12 inches of snow, and temperatures in the single digits. It appeared luck was with us!

I was really seeing this as a training run for the CK50, so I suited up with my trail shoes and my camelbak. I had clif bloks and a builder bar to snack on, as well as hammer gel. Oh, and I packed a camera J The RD had recommended we bring along extra shoes and socks, so I packed those up in a drop bag, and wore a short-sleeved shirt and pants, with a hoodie, smartwool socks, and my white cap.

We headed out the door at 6:30 for the 7am start. It was pitch black, and I was concerned about the fact I’d considered bringing a flashlight, but forgotten it. We got slightly turned around en route, but arrived at the meeting place in plenty of time.

The staging area was different than any race I’ve done before. Perhaps 100 people in a small garage; the run had sold out its 75 spots, plus there were several volunteers milling about. We were given our bibs, and the rules were explained to us: throw your drop bag anywhere in the garage you like; remember where you put it. run as far as you like. Stop your watch when you finish. Come inside and tell us your time and give us your bib, and we’ll put your name up on the ‘finishers board’ and give you your vest. The RD was in great spirits, and jokingly said “when you come in and say you’ve run the 50K in 1:26, we’ll put you right here at the top of the board”. The premise of checking in before receiving your vest was explained: last year, 12 people had dropped out without checking in, and they were left not knowing if they were still on the trails or not.

Eventually we were all herded outside. The RD called out a little countdown, and we were off! It was still pitch black, and the fellow in front of me ran into a post preventing cars from driving onto the path. He righted himself, crossed the street and ran into the post on the other side of the road. This time his leg flew out behind me, and kicked me in the shin. What a way to start the race!

We followed the ‘crowd’ down a small towpath, across a field and into the woods. The first loop was the 5 mile one. I was relieved that it got light quickly. For the first 2 miles or so we moved as a pack. As we hit the first ascent, the group slowed and many people started walking. It was a bit muddy, but not too bad. Eventually Helen moved up ahead of me, as I concentrated on not pushing myself too hard too early. I quickly realized I was overdressed. Once we got to the first aid station, Helen moved to get something and I continued on. I was running behind a few people who were talking; the guy was asking the woman about the Towpath marathon; evidently she’s won her age group (40+) a few times. I entertained the notion of sticking with them, but it was soon apparent that they were more used to this terrain than I was. We ran across a wood boardwalk and I looked to my left to appreciate the gorgeous waterfall. The path lead through a grassy area, and then we had the first of several creek crossings. Some had bridges constructed of logs, others demanded we jump from stone to stone. By this time the field of runners had thinned out, and while there was often someone in sight, they were not particularly close. The scenery was absolutely gorgeous; we had plenty of switchbacks and vantage points where you could see for quite a long ways. As it got lighter, it was easy to see that the path was really quite muddy. I dreaded how bad it would get as we covered the same trails again and again. Initially I tried to avoid the muddy patches, but finally I realized the futility of that attempt and tromped right through.

I finished the first 5 miles in 55:52. There was another aid station at this midpoint, but I didn’t stop for sustenance. I ran inside, threw my hoodie into my general drop-bag area, and continued on.

The next loop was the 8 mile loop. We had to run along another little bit of towpath before heading into the woods again. Other runners told me this was the more challenging loop of the two. Again we battled muddy switchbacks, and a few times I found myself sliding a step or two as I eased into a descent. I felt strong, and felt I was really able to keep up with the others on the trails (primarily older men). When I did approach another runner, everyone was quite polite and encouraging (I got a lot of “go girl, lookin strong!”s). The RD had explained some general trail etiquette (stay on the right, if you pass another runner ensure you maintain speed, always yield to a runner coming downhill because chances are they’re out of control) that people were generally quite good about following.

The details of this loop are a bit fuzzy; once again, I recall creek crossings, log bridges, and running down several series of ‘stairs’. At one point we were crossing a street to enter another part of the trail, and I ran up beside a guy. “We’re going to be out here a long time, aren’t we?” I asked him. He said that this was his first 50K, so he was expecting to be done in 7 hours. We chatted for the next few miles. He was a local, so he was familiar with the trails. We came to a small gully and he warned me away from the makeshift bridge and told me just to jump the gap. As we approached one area, he told me it was his favourite part of the trail. It was reasonably flat, and pine needles lightly dusted the forest floor. He told me that when it was snow-covered, you could see where the deer would gather to graze; they’d clear off a circle in the snow to get to the acorns beneath. It was very enjoyable to run with him and see even more of the trail that was there that day.

Eventually his experience won out, and when we reached another set of ‘stairs’ he bounded down them as I was more careful about my footing. I never caught up again. The 8 mile loop was an out and back, and the leaders passed in the opposite direction when I still had about a mile and a quarter to the aid station. It was neat to see them, and there were kind words exchanged with every one.

I believe I hit the aid station 50 minutes after I left the midpoint. This time I stopped, had some Gatorade and a quarter PB&J sandwich. I used the restroom (a permanent building, much cleaner than a standard portapotty) and headed back out. I decided to take some pictures, so I kept my camera in hand. I’d barely started out again when I ran into Helen. We had our picture taken together, then I headed back. I enjoyed the run, but my feet were hurting as I ran over roots and slid through the thick mud. My trail shoes don’t have as much support as my road shoes, and I could feel the sides of my big toes hurting as I overpronated. As well, the tongue of my right shoe kept slipping and causing a hotspot on the top of my ankle. A few times I stopped to adjust and retie my shoe.

I passed the half-marathon mark at 2:39. Wow. I stopped again to use the restroom and add more water to my camelbak (I wasn’t sure how empty it was, but I figured better safe than sorry). I grabbed some Gatorade and set out again to do the 5 mile loop. For whatever reason, I found I really didn’t like the flat towpath parts of the run. I don’t know if it was psychological or what, but I found I liked the actual challenging trail parts much better. As I was heading out, the leaders were finishing their loop, they were now 5 miles ahead. A fellow running nearby made a comment about this, and we ran together for a short time before he pulled ahead. I still felt ok, but definitely not as strong as I had been. I had been taking gel every so often (I do like that hammer gel; it’s not near so sickly sweet as gu), but decided to try my clif bloks. I had a few as I made my way through this loop. As I had thought, the trail was getting worse and worse as the runners stomped through it several times. My pants were splashed with mud and the arch in my shoes was officially gone; caked with thick mud. A volunteer pointed out that the aid station up ahead was the 15.5 mile marker; halfway for the ultra runners. I hit the aid station at 3:05 and lingered a bit. My nose was running, and I was happy they had tissue! The volunteers were chatting about how the water in the creek had been so high the week before it was impassable and they would have had to alter the route if it was like that today. Eventually I headed off, and I decided to take a few more pictures as I headed back. By now I wasn’t seeing any runners at all around me.

I made a stupid wrong turn at one point, turning onto a paved road rather than crossing it to continue on trails. I had walked well up a hill before realizing my mistake – it likely cost me several minutes. Eventually I found my way again, feeling foolish. It’s a trail run, why would I have really felt the road was the right away (to be fair, there was a portion of the trail earlier that was on paved road)? As I headed out of the woods onto the towpath, I decided to take it easy and walked backwards, stretching out my hamstrings a bit. My feet were very sore at this point. I saw a woman approaching me, and I started running again.

When I arrived at the midpoint again, the volunteers asked if I needed anything. They gave me some Gatorade and I asked if they had tissue. One guy said “I remember you from that other station!” He ran inside and got me one of those individual packages of Puffs to carry with me. I was starting to get tired and I jokingly asked why they didn’t have an 18 mile category. They responded that they’d just started one, but I passed. I went inside and changed into my road shoes. I figured that they were broken in and comfortable and not caked with tons of mud, so I would give them a try. I used the restroom again (I was just appreciating the fact they were heated!) before heading out again. By this time, I had been running for just shy of 4 hours; about the time I’d completed marathons! That idea really resonated with me; that this was the longest I’d ever run before. I headed out for the 8 mile loop along the towpath. Run run run, feeling the difference between my road and trail shoes. Eventually I noticed that things looked slightly unfamiliar. I was directly beneath the turnpike; I should have been up in the trails NEXT to it. Crap! Dismayed, I realized I’d gotten lost again. I turned around, frustrated. I wanted to run to recover the time I’d lost, but I felt that was a waste of energy. As I got back to where I’d gone astray, I saw six – yes, six – orange flags directing the proper way. How had I missed them? Three runners were just heading into the woods at that point. “Did you get lost?” They asked. I said yes, and turned in with them. Honestly, I’m glad they were there because I had been considering just heading back to the store to quit. As I started running with them, I mentioned that I was a bit concerned that my error was a sign that ‘my head wasn’t in the game’. I didn’t feel too bad overall, though, so I kept going.

One thing I was very happy with during this race was my energy and hydration. Having the camelbak, I never felt thirsty. I also never felt as hungry as I have gotten during marathons. There was one time my stomach felt a bit empty, but I had food with me to take. These were some concerns I’d had, so I was glad to see how things went. There was one point where I felt a bit ‘weird’, it’s hard to describe exactly what it was, but it felt like things were just a bit off, perhaps in the area of electrolytes. I felt ‘salty’. Later on in the day I found myself getting very hot, and I wonder if this was related. It wasn’t that I felt dehydrated, I just feel as though my body temperature was maybe not quite regulating itself as well as it could have been. It was a fleeting feeling, however, so I’m not overly concerned. I was talking to Helen later, however, and saying that I wished I could have had some Gatorade with me, rather than just water. I may have to see about carrying a smaller flask or something with me.

When I met other runners, they would ask if I was running the marathon or the 50K. By this point in the game, I responded with “I’ll see when I get back to the midpoint”. It was getting late, and I knew my pace was slowing dramatically. I had run for a longer length of time than I ever had before, and I wasn’t sure how long I wanted to extend that. I saw Andy as I headed towards the aid station. “Is Helen behind you?” He said he hadn’t seen her. I had figured she had to be ahead of me due to my getting lost and everything. I was curious what had happened to her, and hoped she was all right.

When I hit the aid station on the 8 mile loop, I chatted with the volunteers there, and mentioned I was in “no man’s land”, I’d been running for over 5 hours, more than an hour than I ever had before. One fellow chatted with me about when he stepped up from a 50K to a 100 miler. Eventually I decided I should go, and headed out. I thought I heard a voice, but kept going. A few minutes later, the 100 miler guy can up to me “want company for the last few miles”? I said sure, and I chatted with (well, mostly listened to) “Steve” for the next 4 miles. It was nice to have someone to keep my mind off the trail and the roots and the mud. He was a VERY experienced runner and he had some interesting opinions on things. As we got closer to the midpoint, he asked if I would be continuing or not. I really wasn’t sure.

I got to the midpoint, and Andy and Helen were there. Helen had dropped at 18 miles, and Andy had finished his 26.2. they were eating what looked like absolutely delicious chili. They asked if I was going to continue on. I looked at my watch. It was 1:10 in the afternoon. I’d been running for over 6 hours. We were supposed to check out of the hotel by 3. “I don’t know.. will we have time to check out?” Helen said they could take care of it. I looked down the trail. I looked at their chili. I looked at the mud on my shoes and back at that really delicious looking chili and I stopped my watch.

So my first attempt at an ultra, I didn’t finish. But I did finish my first trail marathon! That’s how I’m looking at this. I did complete an event that was challenging and interesting and when all is said and done, a lot of fun. Oddly enough, I wasn’t overly tired or thirsty or sore (except for my feet). I went in and grabbed my vest and some food. The volunteers were all eager to get me anything I needed, and I really felt like part of a running community, as opposed to part of the herd, as in some major road marathons. We sat and relaxed and talked about the day. Andy had the ‘first marathon’ limp going on, the guys I’d seen when I returned to the trail after getting lost teased me a bit, and it was just a really great time.

I can definitely see why people who start to run trail races often don’t want to turn back. I’m writing this the next day, and I really feel fine, definitely not beat up like after a road race, despite the fact I was out there for much longer than I ever have before. I can definitely see myself doing more trail runs in the future, and I know that ultra will happen!!!