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Grasslands: 50 miles of mud

Photo by Nick Polito
Photo of my feet by Nick Polito

At mile 30 of the Grasslands 50 Miler, I had this blog post written in my head:

I made it through more than 30 miles of my first attempt at a 50-mile run. Due to a late start, a few wrong turns and horrendous course conditions, I packed it in after completing 50 kilometers …

But as fate would have it, I found myself — after some exasperating words with friends, a handful of chia seeds and a shot of something that wasn’t Gatorade — heading back into the bush for 20 more miserable miles.

There was mud. More mud than I have ever seen, and I have seen mud. Different varieties of mud, which I will now list in order of how much I hate them, from least to most despised.

Packed sand — soggy, silty dense sand, like the ocean shoreline, a pleasant enough ride

Muddy water — sludge pools that soak socks and shoes, but don’t much hinder your stride

Deep wet sand — this ankle-deep slimy silt covered a large part of the course, at a glance it almost looked like the dense sand, but when your feet hit, they sunk, and so did your hopes and dreams

Wet cement — you know that sexy scene in “Ghost”? Take Demi Moore’s pottery muck, pour it all over your feet, and you’re off!

Red clay mud — orange-y red glutinous goop that aggressively sucks shoes off feet, each slap, slurp, slap, slurp-sounding disgusting step feels like prying free from a vacuum.

Negra mud-zilla (black mud) — all the characteristics of red clay, but this tacky terrain also managed to work its way inside socks, forming large clumps between the toes and balls of your feet

Sometimes one or more of the muds mingled.

One woman became stuck in a mucilaginous mixture of black and red. Fellow runners dislodged her.

Some altogether lost shoes.

Over the hours, the mud formed an adhesive that glued shoe to foot.

In places, large piles of green-ish horse manure topped the mud, a thing that barely registered.

Through trial and error we learned that a thicket of thorns hid amid the trailside grasses and that any attempt to run there would result in mutilated flesh.

Also, when slipping into the mud, clutching a bush for support would result in stigmata-style palm injury.

I spent the night before the race at the Ramada Inn in Decatur, because I did not want to be late to the race.

I pulled up directions to the race the night before the race, noting that it was about a 25-minute drive from the Ramada. I gave myself more than an hour to get there, because I was afraid I might get lost, and I did not want to be late to the race.

635628151275264975I got lost, badly, on the dark, unmarked backroads of Alvord, TX, and was about 40 minutes late to the race.

Driving in the predawn hours, I did not see a soul for some 30 minutes — when I finally saw another car, I flagged it down and the driver happened to be coming from the starting line, and he pointed me in the right direction.

When I arrived, a kindly volunteer told me not to worry. She would jog me to the trail entrance.

It was 6:45 a.m. (the race began at 6) and still pitch dark.

I bid her farewell and headed into the darkness alone.

The first stretch is a 4+ mile out and back before commencing the first big loop, so I almost immediately encountered runners heading back. I saw my friend Novle, who I was supposed to run alongside, and he said he’d wait for me back at the first aid station. I caught up to him just past said aid station, thank the gods, because there was ample opportunity for getting lost, which we did anyway, but not as bad as I would have had I been alone.

Once I found Novle — sure we complained about the mud and how much extra effort we were exerting and how our hammies were already screaming, but — the first 18 or so miles were quite enjoyable. On the second loop, however, from 18-30 miles-ish, frustrations ensued and mounted.

For one thing, we took some wrong turns — the course is well marked, but it is difficult to mark 50 miles of wilderness, so when you stop seeing markings, you know you are lost. So you turn around and go back until you see the proper markings.

The mud on this loop was particularly debilitating — when my watch was still working, I noted that a certain mile took almost 19 minutes to cover. I stopped noting after that one.

During this loop, Novle mentioned that an old calf injury was acting up, so he told me to go on. (He threw in the towel after that loop, but he hung around until I finished — even though I, on multiple occasions, threatened to end his life).

So I was mostly alone. Approaching mile 30, I decided that I was done. I would get to the next aid station, conveniently located at the start/finish area, and I would alert the volunteers that I was bailing. With that, I was excited. I was happy that I was going to be done, 30 miles in the bag, not bad, I told myself. A 50k in those conditions, I assured myself, not bad at all. Good, in fact. You know, I probably should do a 50k before a 50 miler anyway. This is for the best.

Yes, I had it all worked out.

When I arrived, my old friend Nick Polito was there. A badass ulrarunner, Nick is coming off an injury, had run the half and was volunteering the rest of the day.

“I’m done,” I told him. He asked if I was hurt. “No.” Was I puking? “No.”

“Then you are not done,” he says. “Why are you here, Nick?” I whined. “Go away.” Then: “You aren’t even close to done,” another person says to me.

“I am going to kill you,” I say to Nick and to this other person I do not know. “I hate you. And I hate you,” I say to them, respectively looking each in his eyes. Like smug assholes, they just smile at me, and I tell them to remind Novle that because he convinced me to run this race, I am going to kill him as well.

They promise to pass the message along, and I head back out.

The next 10 or so miles actually were the least muddy and most runnable. I kept a steady jog going through most of this.

At mile 30-something, a herd of deer crossed the running path. I thought I might be hallucinating, but a couple of other dudes saw them too.

I approached a guy walking who was from Iowa. He had run Leadville and done a full Ironman, but this was just too much, he said, noting that he was going to stop at the 41-mile pass.

My cell phone kept buzzing, which bugged me. Thing is, I did not have my cell phone with me. Yes, mild sensory hallucinations occurred.

In fact, I carried nothing. It was cool enough that I was OK without a water bottle. I carried one on the first loop, attached to my hand with a tube sock, courtesy this DIY video, because I forgot the handheld.

At mile 41 I came back through the start/finish area. Still, Nick was there. I said to Nick, “WHY ARE YOU STILL HERE?” I really still wanted to quit. The Ironman/Leadville guy was quitting. I wanted to quit too. I was pretty mean to Nick.

Nick and the other volunteers ushered me off on to the final loop, the loop marked in red, the 9-mile, muddiest of all loops loop.

Four or so miles into this loop, I passed two guys. They were chatting. They told me they were taking it easy, that they wanted to “take it all in” and I say, that is exactly not what I want to do.

I passed them.

It started raining.

It felt good.

I heard voices, in a good way.

Nicole (100-mile record holder): The faster you go the sooner it’s over.

Tarahumara Indians: When you run on the earth and run with the earth, you can run forever. (I had the earth all over me, literally, so theoretically I could run forever).

Nick (who I have now forgiven): It’s OK to cry on the trail. I’ve cried on the trail.

At this point I was no longer trying to find ways around the mud; I was just landing inside it, sinking into its depths, splashing, sticking, withdrawing. My shoes were no longer coming off. They were glued to my feet now. I was one with my shoes.

Eventually, I saw two posts with the word FINISH on them. This is the finish line, I thought deliriously. Where is everyone? They must be gone. I must be the last one here. Then I realized, no — that is just a post pointing toward the finish line ahead.

Then, about a quarter mile from the real finish line, I missed a turn.

Fortunately the guys I had passed earlier saw me and began screaming at me.

I turned back and followed them to the actual finish. Conspiracy theory me thinks they waited a hair longer than necessary to holler.

I was pissed that they passed me. But happy that I did not continue along the path back into the wilderness and away from the finishing area.

When I finished, Nick and Novle and a spattering of other people were still there. I like them again, and no longer wish to inflict their deaths.

“You are the third place female,” a race volunteer told me, and gave me a belt buckle (for finishing) and a glass (for placing). Realistically, I think there were hardly more than three females who completed the race, so I might have been as close to last as first.

Now it was raining and cold.

My shoes would not come off, so I found some scissors in my car and surgically removed them. When I finally was separated from them, I chunked them in the trash.

In my bare, muddy feet, I returned to the Ramada.

This night, there would be no insomnia.

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