Jimmy and I arrived with enough daylight to put up a tent and a camp-hammock, knock down a light dinner, and tuck into bed by dark. It was cold, high-30s, with a bit of wind, but no rain. Nippy enough to appreciate the foam pad between my sleeping bag and the hammock. I set my alarm for 5am, with enough time to dress and lube, and have a light breakfast. I'd been having problems the past few months with my shoes and was going to try another new solution today. Yes, I'm taking a brand new pair of shoes out of the box and putting 'em on my feet. Good with Drymax socks, an extra thick long sleeve tech-shirt, a fleece half-zip, a wool cap, and gloves for the cold, but still enjoying my standard run shorts even in the 30 degree start. Only going out with a single water bottle with a pocketful of odds & ends: toilet-kit for my ass, repair-kit for my feet, and gels for my tummy. Not to forget, but I almost do - a good headlamp on my noggin, reloaded with brand-new fresh batteries. I plan to leave the light in my mid-loop drop bag to use as a backup on loop two. There's one drop bag station besides the start finish on the 50k loop, and I have it fully loaded with tons of extra clothes for cold and wet conditions. The weather forecast leads me to believe I may not need it, but Its better looking at it than looking for it. Its funny when everything goes right and all the drop bags come back completely unopened, but it aint so funny when I need something and I don't have it.
Early on in the dark, I can’t see much, but I do feel I'm on a hilly beach. Running on sand is much the same as running on hills, to the point that I sometimes suggest beach running to simulate hill running. Adding sand to hills is like doubling down on hill running. Even in the dark, seeing nothing but the moving spots of light, I am already getting my ass handed to me. I had started about mid-way in the starting pack of 40 odd runners, but I quickly slide back to caboose position as I walk up one hill after another. I match up with William Sprouse, who is surprisingly consistent. I walk up and run down, pass and get passed to the point that we tend to balance into each other's rhythm. After a bit, we each modify just a tad to the point that we end up walk/run together for another 10 miles.
After the first station, the sand finally gives way to bigger hills and sticky mud. I love the hills but not especially glad to see shoe sucking mud. It builds up and gathers pine needles in huge clumps on each shoe. Its slick in spots, causing as much slip and slide as the sand did, but in a completely different exertion. Hard to say exactly how different, but my lateral muscles are getting a monstrous dose of work way too early in this race. My brand new shoes have a big deep tread that helps minimize sliding, but assist in gathering a lot of ground crap.
William's in the 100mi so he's actively looking for the turn to the add-on miles. He cant recall where it's supposed to be, and is getting concerned he might have missed it, so we both make a sport of looking for it. I'd read it was soon after the 2nd aid, and we're past the 2nd aid, so his concern begins to creep up as the miles do. The lead 50k runner passes by and says we’re not quite to it. He’s right and soon enough, Edie’s son is there to manage the splitting of ways. William runs off to the right while I continue on alone, the closing of one door and the opening of another. I don't know if I would have connected with the ladies had William not split off, but he does and we do. I can hear their voices for a while, like swamp birds chattering away, such that I can hear the pitch and pattern but not the words. At first, I did think they were birds, but then they fly in and carry me along with them. Truth is, after William leaves, I have less motivation to run, and with nobody to hold me accountable, I just kept walking. That is, until the birds pass me. Cy Nguy and Keilynn Hopkins sound like two best friends out on a stroll, so I glom onto the high energy wave wafting behind them, hoping they won't notice. I say nothing for a while and they keep on as they had been, but eventually I get sucked into their orbit. Cy stops to do something, leaving me as the receiver for a moment. By the time Cy comes back, I’ve been assimilated, snd so I continue on with them as if I'm part of the family. The topics range far and wide, but it's all fun and light conversation, laughter and smiles. We stop to take pictures, then a short go-pro video. Everyone who comes by is intrigued and curious what we're doing. They don’t seem to think we're in the race so much as maybe just three travelers out for a rousing good time.
Surprising the number of hills we've been through to this point. I had not expected so much variety, and happy to see it. Not much I like about a flat course, so all this is moving my mouth into a smile. With all the tall pine trees, I’m surprised there are no roots on the trail. Maybe because the ground is so soft and wet, the roots have no cause to grow to the surface, but after running in Texas for so long, it’s rather nice to not dodge any roots or rocks. It's easy to shift from my shuffle-slide power-walk to a run and back whenever the trail transitions from up to down, so I have some fun playing with it.
The aid stations at Edie Couvillon's Paix Running races are always well stocked and managed by experienced runners, so its hard to overstate how uncommonly friendly they all are. They not only help me, but I can feel the warmth of their whole attitude as they do what they can to help me along. I'm a lover of Cajun cooking, so it's a real treat to see what all they have to offer up, besides the quesadillas and grilled cheese. Suffice it to say, there was nothing I went without. I leave my headlamp & hat at the 3rd station in my drop bag, and continued on with my new friends. Our next favorite spot is known as Spa-21, a water crossing of large rock slabs that make for a pleasing water collection and drainage. Keilynn wants a photo of us together here, so she positions the camera and then we go back onto rocks for the shot. As I implied earlier, we’re certainly not in a hurry.
For the first time, I begin to see rocks, first one, then more. It's not enough to bother about, but is notable in that it reminds me I had seen none before Spa-21. We run a bit, walk a bit, but the talk never stops for very long. We roll through the 4th station and I begin to realize I'm a bit wet from sweat. It's been nice and cool all morning, and as lazy as I've been running, I'm still working a sweat, it seams. I'm still wearing the jacket over my shirt, but I'm without gloves or hat and perfectly comfortable. It starts to sprinkle a bit of rain over the last few miles to the finish, but it's not enough to change the comfort level or my wardrobe. More than anything, it's refreshing. I finally find a water crossing I cannot cross dry, so for the first time today, I get my shoes and socks wet. Usually this is no big deal, but because of all the sand, the combination of water and sand is a rather nasty method to produce blisters. The last mile or so, we're back into the hills and beach sand again, and we'r back to where we started in just under 7 hours. We make plans to head out together again as we each head off to take care of our own needs.
I go to my truck, which I'd already pre-set as my mid-race aid and changing station. My pack is already pre-loaded with rain jacket, food, gloves, and an extra bottle of gatorade. I change out shirt, jacket, hat, gloves, socks, and shorts, put the pack on and head over to find the ladies. I thought I'd taken a good bit of time, but they're still there messing with their gear. I eat a quesadilla while I regale them with some colorful commentary and get my picture taken by a park employee. Eventually they tire of my exuberance and leave just to shut me up. Back into the sand. Now that we can see, it seems even worse, or maybe it’s the rain, which is light but regular. It's not enough to put on the rain jacket yet, so I leave it packed, but the ladies both began this loop with their rain jackets on, and they regret it. It's a choice to be made: get wet from rain or wet from sweat. Eventually, they take their jackets off and pack 'em up. With one full loop done and the miles wearing on our legs, we tend to run less and walk more, but my walking pace is solid. This past year's 500mi hike on the Appalachian Trail has my hiking ability in rare form, so I keep walking away from the ladies. We manage well enough through the sand and the 1st Station, but once we get to the hills of mud, I lose 'em both. The mud is worse than before, as expected from the constant lazy rain. My shoes quickly load up to Frankenstein level, complete with pine needles and leaves, but I've been doing a good bit of mud running these past few months, so I manage quite well. I actively engage in the enjoyment and recreation of surfing the mud slopes. It's a bit exhilarating not knowing if I'm going to bust my ass or make it to the bottom without ending up in the sludge. I think about this for just a fraction, wondering what the downside would be if I fell. There's no rocks or roots. The ground is soft. If I end up all muddy, the rain will wash it off. What the hell and why not just go for it, so I do. I run, slide, and surf down and power walk back up. When I reach the bottom and look back, I see both the ladies hanging onto trees. When I top out, I check again and can't see them. I wait a moment, but then think better of it. I do another hill the same way, check again and realize I've disconnected. I had so much fun with them and they would be even better company after it gets dark again, but I should just keep on.
The rain does pick up and I put on my jacket, but maybe I wait too long. I’m really enjoying all of it, and especially the rain on my face, so I don't bother to put my hood up, and everything I have on gets soaking wet. Alone now and missing the good company I've had most of the day, I roll along without seeing another soul. Coming into the 2nd station, I refill my empty gatorade bottle with Ginger Ale and take another quesadilla as I walk out. The timing and milage is such that I should reach my drop bag at the middle station before dark. I'm thinking I should blow right through and make haste to get finished instead of killing time with a wardrobe change, but my inner thigh and nether region chaffing is causing me to rethink the idea. The rain gets harder but doesn't remain so for very long. The light drizzle from the clouds every now and then spills out some rather large dollops. All in all, the trail is not only getting more muddy and slick, but it's pooling up too, creating some good sized ponds on what used to be a trail. The chaffing has me coming into the 3rd station like a cowboy looking for relief. I ask for my drop bag and the whereabouts of a changing room, but there is no such thing. They suggest the port-o-jon, which is my last and only resort, so I head for it.
They have dressed-up the shitter impressively, with candles, floor mat, a book to read, and a candelabra. I lock myself in, and strip down nude, removing all my sopping wet clothes, to lube up the danger zones. Now, I’m completely covered in the dry clothing I left here in my drop bag specifically for this reason. Shirt, jacket, shorts, gloves, rain jacket, and super-heavy duty wool buff all combine to make me feel rather grand. All but my muddy socks and shoes, which would only be in the same condition in a minutes, and it seems rather silly to even bother. I feel a new man escaping the Shit House Changing Room, having readjusted my entire mood and bearing. Besides all that, I only need a Ginger Ale refill and another quesadilla. I was hoping my delay would allow time for my friends to catch me up, but no such luck. I leave feeling refreshed, dry, and still a bit lonely, heading into the dark. I already have a flashlight in my pack, but I take the spare from my drop bag just in case.
The light shuts down rather quickly under the tall trees and heavy rain, while the trail becomes a creek. I button up and cinch down much smarter than I had earlier, with hood up and pulled in taut. I stay warm and dry where I need to and the rest of me will just have to deal with it. There is nothing can be done to keep my feet and legs dry, so I don’t even think about it. There are places where the mud is abundant, and places where I wade from puddle to puddle, where the size, length, and depth are in question, but the circumstances that kick me the hardest are when I wade thru a muddy stream where the surface underwater is uneven to produce unexpected sliding. More than once I go down into the mud, sometime with just my hand, and sometime full body.
I have adapted very well to my poor vision, but in the dark, rain, and fog, I bumble about pathetically. The course markings are mostly the Kisatchie National Forest green arrows which are well placed and frequent enough to keep me from being completely undone, but I’m more content seeing the reflective markers Edie uses. I know I'm on the course of the green arrows, but I still get unnerved now and again for no good reason other than I'm alone at night in a forest I've never been before, in the rain and completely exhausted. I stop now and again to check behind me just to make sure I'm not missing a turn. The conditions are such that I’m not certain at all times I'm going the right way. On some occasions, I'm blinded by my own breath-fog, until I step through it. The rain, when it comes down hard causes such a racket on my rain-hood, and also on the pools of water I wade through. I hear different pitches on each pool and wonder if its the depth of the water that causes the deviation or something else entirely. Sometimes I hear loud crashes in the woods only to think it's just another effect of the rain. When the rain is light, my headlamp beam shining out under the hood, refracting through every rain crystal passing in front of my face produces the same visual effect as snow. Its amazing how many over-stimulated senses my poor addled brain is trying to process right now. The feel of the cold, rain, wind, and pain on my face, feet, and hands. The sound of my breathing and the cacophony of rain crashing into me and the forest around me. Visions of mud, water, and dirt all merging and swirling about, the flashing of lights and reflections surrounded by darkness, and movement everywhere. The smell of fresh rain and wet earth, merging with the stink of my wet sweaty clothes. It's too much for one person to process while walking alone in the woods.
Spending so much time in water or mud, or water and mud, I begin to feel the assemblage of sand castles in my shoes. I stop once to empty my shoes only to realize the lion’s share of sand has actually saturated into my socks. I think of removing and wringing out each sock, but wonder if its worth the time, and never do. I think of an experiment where I’d fill a shoe with water and sand, add a wool sock imbedded with more sand, then insert a water softened foot and swish it around for maximum abrasive rub, and determine how long takes to generate one or a dozen blisters. In the end, I end up playing a sand-in-my-shoe game. If the sand lump accumulates in a good spot, I let it be, but if it collects in a bad spot, I simply step in another puddle, dissolve the sand lump, and let it redistribute in another random location. And then of course, when I get it right and can’t avoid the next puddle, I start over again. So much of the water is lukewarm and of little concern, but there are places where the water is cold enough to cause my feet to tingle like it does in snowmelt. Now and again, I leave the trail to avoid busting my ass on a slick descent or a deep pool between two ridges. I cut up between the trees as close to the edge of the woods as I can. This was easy during the daylight, but after dark, it’s a gamble and not always easier or wiser.
Finding the 4th station is relieving, not only knowing I’m on the final section, but to know I'm going the right way after all. Believe me, I was not always sure. All I want is a Ginger Ale refill and quickly continue onto the final section. This last bit has everything already, but now there's more. We had loads of hills, plenty of sand, and beaucoup mud, but now the stream crossings are huge too. Knowing I'm almost done powers me on. My forced hike gets stronger and I finally remove my hood to let the rain once more fall on my face. I was never really cold, but for a short bit coming into the drop bag station. I’m not sure how my feet are doing, but feel the blister pop and know there has to be some damage. I’m so glad to be nearly done, and not heading for another loop, like the poor 100 mile runners. I could do it, but my feet would be ruined by it. I’ve had enough. I hope the girls are ok and suspect they are. They had it going just fine before I hooked up with them and figure they should be fine. I cross the finish in 15:31. Jimmy’s been been done for over 2 hours and his tent was wrecked by the rain, so we decide on a hotel instead, but first he allows me some time to eat some good local Gumbo.