Watered Down – The 2017 Run Under The Stars

Each and every race, regardless of if it is a first time event or one that has been run for years takes on it’s own personality. The 2017 R.U.T.S. in Oak Ridge definitely took on it’s own last night. The day started off normal enough, Ladonna had said she was going to go with me and stay throughout the event. Because it was an all night race we slept in late and then I proceeded to be lazy for most of the day, piddling around the house and going shopping.  We showed up an hour or so before the start and got set up. It had been sprinkling when we left Knoxville so we set up the tent and got the chairs set up underneath. Water, check, snacks, check, extra clothes and hats, check. Good to go!

Last year I had started off at a (for me) blistering pace. The first half had actually been at a personal best pace and at mile 20 or 21 I slammed into the wall. While I finished a marathon it was far from pretty at the end. This year the plan was to be more controlled and calculating and see where I was with Lilyan’s Run coming in five short months.

It was hot and sticky at the start, 80 degrees and humid. The plan was to set a pace that could be maintained and to use a version of Jeff Galloway’s famous 2:1 plan. I would run 2 loops of the course and then walk one, using the walked lap to hydrate and extend the total distance completed.

As with last year, there were some that were off to a torrid pace and there were some that started off walking. As we made the first turn I resisted the urge to stretch my legs and really go with everyone else. I briefly worried that I was actually going out too slow and had to constantly consult my Garmin to remind myself I was right on plan. At the end of the first loop I was behind the pack but already starting to catch some of those that had started faster. The heat was going to be a factor as I was sweating more than usual but surely the temps would start to cool later on? During the second lap I started to get more comfortable in my pace and actually passed a lot of runners who were already slowing and or walking.

At the start of the third loop I was in 16th overall and had to force myself to walk, to let some that I had passed come back by me. As I came to our tent my beautiful Ladonna was there handing me some water. The elite runners started to come by lapping me and I was once again amazed that they were here, planning to run that pace throughout the entire 10 hours! I finished the water and filled the bottle up with SWORD drink at the aid station as well as grabbing a wedge of orange. I did worry that this was much more fluid than I usually drink during a run but it was so humid and I was soaked in sweat already. As I tossed the bottle back to Ladonna as I came around on loop #4 I had about 24 ounces on board.

I glanced at the leader board as I came around at the end of the fourth and I was back up to 17th overall. More and more people on the course were walking, giving in to the heat and the pace they had set. I felt confident with the plan I had made and was sure that I would be able to maintain this plan well into the race. At the end of the next loop I was still feeling great, up to 16th and decided to extend the running portion until I got to our camp. Ladonna had run out to the store and I grabbed a hand full of trail mix and another water as I started my walking portion. I took the chance to check my phone and saw that she had posted to Facebook and several people had left likes and comments. Once again I finished the water and filled up with SWORD. As I tossed the bottle under our tent on the way by I had drank about 45-50 ounces so far.

The next couple of loops, still feeling good. I was completely drenched, my shirt and shorts completely saturated with sweat and felt like they weighed a ton. The air was so thick with humidity that it felt as though you could cut it; it offered no cooling effects as the muggy breeze carried heated moisture. There had been heat lightening consistently since the beginning of the race, that continued only serving to remind that it might be nighttime but it was still early summer. This was my walk lap and I called Ladonna to ask her to bring a change of clothes from the car. I reasoned with myself I would run part of this lap to make up for the time I would lose changing, but it would be well worth it.  Then it happened.

The heat lightening it turned out had less to do with heat and more to do with a massive storm front than any of us knew. I was at the far end of the loop when fat rain drops started to fall. By the time I made the turn back towards the start/finish line, the wind joined in and there were sheets of sideways rain. So much for pace or running a small portion of that loop. I took off at a dead run hoping that our small camp was surviving. The course is a serpentine one, looping back on itself, and I was able to see that it looked like Ladonna had managed to drop the canopy closer to the ground to survive the wind. I continued on and finished the loop before returning to our site. By then, it felt as if the wind gust were howling (we later learned that the NWS clocked it at 70-80 miles per hour) and almost all of the canopies and tents were suffering, in one stage or another of being flipped or torn apart. Still, I was not prepared for the site of my wife, desperately trying to hold what was left of our camp site from taking flight.  Most of our supplies were several feet away, out in the deluge, including my dry clothes. The frame of our canopy was sadly warped and extending out in odd directions. The top, only partially still attached. Ladonna, though as beautiful as always, managed to have the distinct look of a drowning rat. Together, we managed to bend the metal of the frame into some semblance of support and stretch the canopy across it once again. Mad dashes toward the car, after gathering our things and bring them under the dubious protection of the tattered tarp.

Then the hail started. Seriously. If you’ve never heard the distinct “thwonk” of hail hitting surface, it is an unnerving sound, especially when the surface is the canopy that’s resting on your back as you stand bent over and spread eagle attempting to hold the remains of your camp – and hoping against hope that if it flies, it doesn’t take you with it. Nearby we could hear the screams  and giggles of our four neighbor women who had given up on their canopy, leaving it for the wind to decimate, and crawled inside their two-person tent for the meager protection it offered. Although the lightening and rain continued, the wind settled down to a mere 20 to 30 mph gusts and the hail seemed to pass.  We realized there were people still on the course as one or two walked by wearing ponchos, despite the recent downpour.

I wanted to stop. Who in their right mind would go out to run in this? Then I realized, who in their right mind would sign up for a ten hour run in the first place? But we are not in our right mind – we are runners. Besides, this was about more than just me, this was about Lily. How many times must she want to stop, to give up? I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel yet – wet as they all were at this point! We took stock of our situation and supplies and determined that the canopy would no longer collapse as it should, but if we took the tarp off, it would likely not be blown away either. There might be a couple of dry shirts left in the bottom of the bag and the rain coat seemed to have survived. Ladonna began carrying some of the remaining supplies to the car while I disassembled the canopy as much as it would allow. Putting the raincoat on, I was off again, slogging through the soggy grass toward the trail. Wearing a raincoat while running is a very different thing than wearing one while sitting, walking or almost any other activity.  I had worn this raincoat before during cold rains, in forty degree weather and it had served me well. Now I was finding out that this was a different thing entirely! The coat trapped and radiated my body heat and circulated it back on me. Combined with the steamy air outside, it felt as a though I was in a sauna. Within a half mile, it was sticking to my skin and I was far worse off wearing it than not. At the end of that loop, I returned to the car and my still soaked wife and threw the coat and my shirt inside. The pouring rain was cold on my skin, but, I reasoned, my shirt must weight several pounds saturated as it was. The next couple of laps mother nature continued to play havock with all of us. The lightening continually made the lights on the course flicker disconcertingly. What was once a nice gravel path was now becoming a treacherous, muddy obstacle course and the nice ditch line had become a roaring creek overflowing its banks. I was surprised in the sudden darkness to find myself in flowing, ice filled water above my ankles as I crossed over what had been a dry culvert. In that moment I frantically wondered if I had actually left the path and was somehow in the ditch itself. Returning to the same spot later in the loop, since it is the crossing point going both ways, I confirmed the worst; part of the course was completely underwater and there was no way to know if it remained intact. Still, several of us slogged on. At the scorers table, they were calling off distances and I was short of even a half marathon still. I couldn’t stop yet, Lilyan deserved more.

The rain continued on, now a steady, hard downpour, the creeks and ditches overflowing their banks at every turn. I began to feel as though I signed up for a tough mudder instead of an ultra marathon. That loop, I discovered that we were making potholes in the mud as a slid sideways in a large puddle, turning my ankle and almost going down. Everyone, elites or not, were forced to slow down, walk portions and choose each step with care. Anyone that has run knows that part of the rhythm is keeping your eyes on the horizon; but when you are forced to look down, that rhythm is broken and form and speed suffer. A half was in the books, now to push just a bit further, give just a little more. When I arrived back at the scorers table and they announced I had fifteen miles, I decided that discretion was the better part of valor and called it a night.

3 hours and 22 minutes, with a significant portion spent bent over desperately trying to keep our campsite on solid ground. Not the showing I might have wanted or planned on, but I wasn’t interested in swimming any of the course, and 15 miles while 16 short of my goal, was still very respectable given the circumstances. I hadn’t started to slow or cramp and I know I had much more left in the tank.

In the next five months, I will have several opportunities to meet that goal and more but a serious injury would have derailed those plans.

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