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Like the Blues Brothers in the clip at the top of this post, I’m on a mission from God. However, I’m not getting the band back together. I’m on a quest to conquer the Bighorn 50-mile trail run next spring.
And if you’re going to run trail races, you need to do your training runs on trails, which has proved difficult in my corner of southeast Iowa.
That’s why I nearly jumped for joy when we discovered Lake Geode State Park over the Fourth of July holiday.
The credit for the discovery goes to my daughter, Laura. She’s got a bit of tree-hugger streak in her — that’s a good thing. She enjoys the simple things, like hiking and biking and spending time with family and friends. So during her visit over the holiday weekend, she wanted to take a trail hike with her mother and I, and Laura’s internet search for nearby trails turned up Lake Geode, which is about a 40-minute drive from Keokuk. What a neat place.
The park features a 7-mile trail around the lake. It’s mostly single-track dirt and rock, has some decent hills and easy creek crossings. At times, the trail is just inches from the lake. At times, it’s a few hundred feet away. Most of the trail is tree covered, which makes it runnable even on sunny, hot, humid days.
The elevation gain/loss won’t compare to the trail in the Bighorns, but for Iowa, it’s a pretty good substitute.
Before this discovery, I had run some trails at Shimek State Forest. But there really aren’t any maintained trails, outside of the equestrian trails. You can run the paths in the winter, but in the summer, they are overgrown with tall grass and twigs. It’s less than ideal.
And we’ve run some trails near Peoria, Ill., where we’ve done a couple of trail races. But that’s a 2-hour drive from home, and really isn’t practical for routine, weekly runs.
I am so lucky to be able to head out my front door and be on some beautiful, low-traffic roads along the Mississippi River. I have a 20-mile route between Keokuk and Fort Madison that stays off of heavily trafficked roads for all but 4 miles, and much of it is along the river. It has both long, steep hills and some flat stretches. It’s a great road to run.
But running on the trails in Wyoming has driven home the point that I really need to get in more training miles on trails. And with that in mind, it appears now I’ve found some viable options.
For the first 6 months of 2014, I trained with just one goal in mind: Competing in the Bighorn 50-mile trail run in the mountains just outside Sheridan, Wyo.
When the temperatures in Iowa dipped below zero in January, I bundled up and headed out the door to log my miles. When we took a few vacation days, I rolled out of my cozy bed to get in a run. When I arrived home late one Sunday evening after a long drive across the state, I finished my 20-mile training run after 10:30 p.m.
Needless to say, I had a lot invested physically and mentally in competing in the Bighorns.
So when my race on June 21 finished at 34.5 miles instead of 50, was I disappointed?
Sure, I was disappointed, but I wasn’t crushed.
The muddy, snowy, rocky, broken trails and the constant downhill slope in the early miles took a toll on my quads and ankles. I rolled my right ankle completely over twice, one time taking a spill onto a huge boulder and uttering a few words of which my mother would not approve.
As I plowed downhill for those first 18 miles, I made friends with a fellow runner who was moving at about the same pace. We were keeping an eye on the clock, knowing that the first time cutoff was approaching. We’d make that first cutoff, I told her, but we weren’t going to have much extra time to spare after that. But between the quads, the hamstrings and the ankles, I thought I was going at the maximum controlled pace that I could manage, even if it wasn’t the pace that I had hoped for. I’m not a great downhill runner, and that was borne out.
We did make the Footbridge Aid Station about 30 minutes before the cutoff. Despite needing to replace the tape on one foot and dealing with some rather troublesome cramps, I hustled out of Footbridge by myself with about 10 minutes to spare.
From there, it was straight uphill for three miles, gaining 2,300 feet in that span. It’s a stretch of trail that’s aptly nicknamed The Wall.
Having met up with my friend again, we hiked and huffed and puffed our way to the top of the ridge at the Bear Camp Aid Station. My friend decided to return to Footbridge, where she could catch a ride back to town. For the next 13 miles, I was on my own.
With no one to push me, without the aid of my GPS watch providing information on my average pace and knowing I was already flirting with the next cutoff, it would have been easy to slack off. But I decided I was there to finish in the best possible time I could. I had family waiting for me at the Dry Fork Aid Station — my brother and his daughter had driven up from Casper; and my wife, who has always been there for me during these crazy adventures. I knew that by now my niece would have already passed through Dry Fork on the way to her own strong finish. I wanted to give it my all until there was no more left to give.
So I ran when I could, and I hiked when I had to. But, as my wife would say, I made forward progress.
I hustled out of Cow Camp Aid Station knowing that with 6 miles to go, I wouldn’t make the cutoff. I wolfed down fried potatoes and 7Up with another runner, and he suggested that we might as well walk and enjoy the scenery because there was no way we’d make it to Dry Fork in time.
But I was still committed to recording the best time possible. I broke out my music player for the first time and left the aid station with the strains of Bonnie Raitt urging me on. (Love this song, and its reference to “small house under a Big Sky” always reminds me of Montana.) I probably ran the hardest in the last few miles before Dry Fork, knowing I wouldn’t make the cutoff and fearing I’d be caught up in the sweepers.
In the last 13 miles — from Bear Camp to Dry Fork — I passed 16 runners. It wasn’t about a better finishing time than someone else — hell, I was going to miss the cutoff time and be a DNF — but it was a way to measure and push my effort. I was going to give it my all, although on this day, my all wasn’t good enough to complete the 50-mile race.
Even if I had made the cutoff time, I’m not sure I could have gone on. Maybe a better statement would be “should have gone on.” I know I would have tried, just because I’m stubborn that way. But when I topped that last brutal hill at Dry Fork, there wasn’t much left in the tank.
I fell short of my goal — finishing the Bighorn 50 — but I learned a heck of a lot about the race’s overall challenge, about the course and about myself. And when the third week of June rolls around in 2015, I know I’ll make a better run having put forth the best effort I could in 2014.
My plan for conquering the Bighorn in 2015
After a week or so to reflect, I have a good idea what I need to do to get better:
- Coming from the flatlands, my quads and calves weren’t prepared for 18 miles of downhill on an uneven trail. My son is a big fan of weighlifting, and I told him those opening miles were like doing squats for 4 hours. To prepare for next year, I’m going to add weight room sessions.
- The treacherous footing posed by the mud and snow had me concerned about starting in my Hokas, so I started with my trusty Asics Nimbuses. But these shoes lack the stability in the heel to deal with the precarious footing, and my heel kept kicking out to the side.
- I need to run more trails. There aren’t any trails near my home, but I’ll have to make the effort to drive to some or find some races that will give me time on the trails. Iowa trails aren’t the same as Wyoming trails, but any trail time is better than road time.
- I need to run more hills. There’s a one-mile long hill on my running route, and I ran repeats there several times. But I need to do that several more times … with more repeats.
- And I need to simply run more miles. My longest run was 30 miles, although that was part of back-to-back long days. I had planned a 35-miler, but time lost to injuries kept me from making that run. I need to start my training cycle far enough out so that I can still make a 35-miler or at least two even longer back-to-back runs.
Here’s my video race report of the 2014 Bighorn Mountain Wild and Scenic Trail Run 50-miler. It was my first ultra in the mountains, and the trails were challenging, but the scenery was thrilling. Enjoy!
I’ll post a story in the next few days.
Here we go: Wyoming or bust.
By Thursday night, Barb and I will have trekked the 1,000-miles to Dayton, Wyo., and bright and early Saturday morning, my niece, Melissa Davidson, and I will hit the trail on the Bighorn Mountain 50-mile trail run.
I can’t wait.
After a few setbacks in training after the first of the year, I was finally able to ramp up my mileage in May, logging 173 miles. This is the highest monthly mileage I’ve ever run. Since I limit myself to four runs a week, that means my average run was 10.3 miles. By the end of the month, I had completed long runs of 20, 25 and 30 miles, and those were all done one day after doing medium-long runs of 8-10 miles. When mapping out my training, I had hoped for a 35-miler, but time got away from me.
Most recently, I’ve been on a three-week taper, and my form and speed (all things are relative) seem to be returning. The break from the long runs was needed.
Some of the best news I’ve received in the past few days is that the trails, even at the highest altitude, are snow-free and passable. But there are plenty of “shoe-sucking mud bogs.” Since there have still been flurries on the mountain and the overnight lows have remained in the mid-30s, the lack of snow on the trails is really welcome news.
We’ve rented a cabin less than a mile from the start of the race, which is a real plus from a logistical standpoint. I hope to get in a short run on Friday morning to test the trail and get a feel for the challenge. The race begins at 6 a.m. Mountain time on Saturday.
- This link from the race organizers will provide updates at three checkpoints in the race. For the 50 milers, it is will give updates at mile 18, mile 34.5 and the finish. According to the website, “Each time the participant reaches one of these timed points, their pace is recalculated giving you a view of where your runner should be at their current pace on the course map.”
- If you’d like to track the results on your iPhone, look up “It’s Your Race” in the App Store or click on this link to go directly there. Or scan the QR code here to go straight to the site. For even quicker results, you can narrow it down to: 50M race, male, 50-59, Smidt.
- Here’s a link for the Android version of the official tracking app, via Google Play.
- Barb will post occasional updates to either her Facebook page or my Facebook page.
I’ll let you know next week how it went.
You can wish me well in the comments below. I could use all the support I can get.
FRESH, SEASONAL INGREDIENTS can make unique mixed drinks, so if it’s spring in the Midwest, the tart and tangy rhubarb is an excellent candidate for a drink.
Growing up in a small, rural town in Iowa, rhubarb always seemed like a “farm thing.” When we visited the grandparents, rhubarb was plentiful on their farms, and various rhubarb treats — rhubarb crisp, rhubarb topping, rhubarb pie — were common.
For the uninitiated, rhubarb is a perennial plant that grows from an underground rhizome. If you pick up fresh ginger at the store or the farmer’s market, ginger is a rhizome. From this rhizome, the rhubarb plant shoots out long stalks that look almost like celery, except often with a reddish color, and the stalks are topped with large leaves. It’s the stalks with their tart taste that we use for cooking — or drinking.
RHUBARB IS SO TART that it is generally mixed with sugar to make it palatable, whether you are making a pie or a mixed drink. Many drink recipes call for the creation of a syrup, boiling down the rhubarb stalks to extract the juice and adding sugar to the mixture.
Finding the right proportion of rhubarb juice to sugar for the syrup is an art form. In the recipes below, the Sweet Rhubarb Syrup follows a pretty standard ratio used in simple syrup, plus the addition of the rhubarb juice. But adding enough of the syrup to a drink to impart the rhubarb flavor makes for a pretty sweet drink. If you don’t want something quite that sweet, try cutting the ratio of sugar just a bit.
I have a tremendous sweet tooth, so I enjoy the Sweet Rhubarb Syrup. But we have one friend who doesn’t like sweet drinks at all. When I mix her a Sazerac or a Mint Julep, I go light on the simple syrup. For her, I concocted the Tart Rhubarb Syrup. It will add a lot of rhubarb flavor without a lot of sweetness. You might try both syrups, adjusting the ratio in the drinks to suit your own taste.
Following are a couple of drink recipes that I created or tweaked from various sources. I think both worked well. For the Martini, you can definitely taste the rhubarb, but it’s still a sweet drink. For the Collins, the strawberry adds a very strong flavoring, so you may want to use the Tart Rhubarb Syrup or a bit of both syrups.
Rhubarb Gin Martini
- 2 oz. Gin
- 2 oz. Sweet Rhubarb Syrup
- 1 oz. Cranberry Juice
- Fresh squeezed lime juice to taste (Less than 1/2 oz.)
Add ingredients to martini shaker. Add ice cubes. Shake 1-2 minutes. Serve in a martini glass wheel with lime wheel on the rim.
Yield: 1 Martini
VARIATION: Use River Rose Gin from the Mississippi River Distilling Co., located in Le Claire, Iowa. The gin from this craft distillery has a strong floral bouquet that adds a different dimension to the drink.
Rhubarb Strawberry Collins
In a pint glass:
- Muddle 1 strawberry in the bottom of the glass
- 1.5 oz. Gin
- 2-3 oz. Rhubarb Syrup — Sweet or Tart, to your taste
- A squeeze of fresh lime juice
- Top with Club Soda
Yield: 1 drink
Sweet Rhubarb Syrup
- 2 quarts water
- 8 cups sugar
- 4 cups roughly chopped rhubarb
Add the water to a pot and heat to a slow boil. Add sugar. Turn down heat slightly. Add rhubarb and stir gently for 5 minutes, breaking down the rhubarb. Turn off the heat and let cool completely, stirring occasionally and breaking down the rhubarb further. Strain and store in the refrigerator for up to a month.
VARIATIONS: This recipe makes A LOT of syrup. I actually cut the recipe by 1/4th, and it yielded 1 gallon of syrup. Also, I added additional rhubarb to taste, feeling the syrup didn’t quite have enough rhubarb flavor and tartness.
Tart Rhubarb Syrup
- 2 cups water
- 2 cups rhubarb, thinly sliced
- 1 tablespoon sugar
Prepare the same as Sweet Rhubarb Syrup.
Yield: Just over 2 cups of syrup.