Sunday, June 29, 2014

Through Hell and Back!- Running the 777 Inferno

As a resident of the Alexandria/Pineville, LA area, the trails of Kisatchie National Forest are my home.  I have run them all, more times than I can remember.  Usually, anytime there is a trail race on "my" trails, I take part.  Even though it involves me paying money to run the same trails I can run for free any other time.  I just like taking part in promoting these trails, and bringing outsiders, who have never run them, into the fold.  Enter the 777 Inferno.  A spin-off from last year's "Out n Back" series, which offered distances of 5K, 10K, Half Marathon, and a 25.3 mile lolli-pop loop around Kincaide Lake, the 777 Inferno broke new ground by taking the 25.3 mile route of the Out n Back, and making it race #1 of a very intense stage race. 

The 777 Inferno would consist of three races of 20+ miles, run 12 hours apart, on the 7s (7am, 7pm, 7am).   Race #1 would be 25.3 miles around Kincaide Lake, Race #2 a 22 mile out and back route on the Caroline Dormon Trail, and Race #3 would be a point to point route on the Wild Azalea Trail.  A lot of miles, close together, compounded by the LA heat and humidity.  This would not be an easy weekend.

As this race got closer, my intentions were to do some two-a-day runs, a lot of hot weather runs, and run all three routes (one route each morning) at least one time before the race.  That sounded great didn't it?  Well, life quickly got in my way, and really none of that happened, with the exception of a few hot weather runs.  I did log some 20+ milers, but no two-a-days, and my plan to run all the routes in one weekend never came to pass.  To top it all off, I had strained my back the Sunday before the race, and was in a pretty good amount of pain.  At times, I was unsure if I'd even be able to run.  But, after a couple of trips to the chiropractor and a week of no running, I felt I was in good enough condition to try, even though physically, I didn't feel as ready as I would like.  After you have run a certain number of ultras, you learn to compensate your physical training with mental toughness, which is what I would have to do.  I wasn't quite where I wanted to be with my preparations, but I would muscle through it with my will power. 

June 21, 2014 
7 a.m.     
Stage #1      
Kincaide Lake
25.3 Miles

Stage #1 was definitely the busiest race of all.  In addition to this being the first stage race, it was also the Out n Back race series as well.  5Kers, 10Kers, and Half Marathoners, all lined up with the 777 racers to start the day.  The sky was clear and the temps were in the 70s.  My plan was to moderate my pace, and keep myself cool.  Unlike last year, when I totally overheated and walked a large portion of the last 6 miles. 

Day1- 777 and Out N Back starters.

All went well on this race.  It is a route I have run many times, and I know on a good day, with good temps I can run it in around 4:30.  I didn't want to be that fast, but I wanted to do better than last year's 5:15.  The route was pretty clean, and with the exception of the 3 very inexperienced mountain bikers on the trail, which would constantly pass me, but then seemed to have to stop for a rest break every 1/2 mile, only to be passed by me again, everything was going well.  Even as the temps climbed into the upper 80s, I managed to stay cool and hydrated, and finished with no problems in 4:44:44.

A little conversation and cold beer afterwards, a quick trip home, shower, ice bath, food, nap, return for the next race.  A sequence that became my new religion over this weekend.

June 21, 2014
7 p.m.
Stage #2
Caroline Dormon Trail
22 Miles

Caroline Dormon, the girl I love to hate.  I had never run this trail until I started prepping for this race, because I was always more attracted to her much better looking twin sister, The Backbone Trail, which has the same starting point, but heads in the opposite direction.  Caroline Dormon is a trail that is lacking in many ways.  Primarily a horse trail, it is wildly unkept, and judging by the condition of it, has very little foot or bike traffic.  Poorly marked, overgrown, unusual turns, re-routes, choppy/rutted portions left by the Forestry Service, a deep creek crossing with no bridge, cross trails all over the place......Need I go on???  I had run this trail 3 times prior to this race, and I had yet to complete an out and back crossing of it without getting lost.  Each time I went, I would drop yellow flagging along the route, so I knew I was on the right trail.  The spookiest part of this stage is that 3/4 of this race would be run at night.  As if I needed another challenge!!  The probability of someone getting lost or taking a wrong turn was high.

A dwindling crowd starting Caroline Dormon.
We started at 7 p.m., as expected.  A smaller group this time, as there were only stage racers now, and people had already started dropping.  I hadn't been on this trail in a month, but I had a definite advantage over everyone else, b/c I was the only one who had ever run the course.  The trail was as expected............shitty!!!!!  The Forestry Service decided to help us out by bush-hogging portions of the trail.  This actually made things worse, b/c now we had to deal with tractor ruts, in addition to the already poor conditions.  Whatever!!!!!!!  Just move forward, I told myself. 

I felt pretty good at first and moved well the first few miles.  I covered about 7 miles before having to turn on my headlight for the first time.  We got to a crucial, and easy to miss, turn shortly after, only to find that the flagging I had strung across the trail to block a wrong way, had been removed by someone.  Forestry Service, I guess.  This turn was nearly invisible, and I knew people would miss it.  I looked for flagging on the side, but it was gone.  Not long after, I picked up 2 runners who had missed that very turn.  They saw my headlight and yelled at me to see if I was on trail.  I waited for them to come to me, so they would be on course.  After that, we were in a tight pack of 4, which ran together all the way to the turn-around. 

The way back was a little tougher.  A lot more walking.  A lot slower pace.  My day was beginning to catch up to me.  When I got to the aid station, with 5 miles left to go, I was nauseous.  So, after a brief session on my hands and knees, puking by headlight (which seems to be my preferred way of puking during a race), I was off again.  Feeling a little refreshed after clearing my stomach.  I made it to the end in 5:21:15.  Certainly not setting any PRs, but at least I didn't get lost.  No time to socialize tonight.  It was already 12:30, and in a few short hours, race #3 would be starting.  We left quickly, so I could go home and get some sleep.  I also learned that quite a few more runners dropped during this race.  The numbers continued to dwindle.

June 22, 2014
7 a.m.
Stage #3
Wild Azalea Trail
26 Miles

The final day!!!!  24 short hours ago we started this expedition with 15 solo runners, 3 relay teams, and some 2 race runners.  For a total of around 22 total.  This morning we had 9.  6 solo, 3 from relay teams.  At this point, all of the relay teams had a member who did not complete and entire leg of their race, but the members who had this leg were still running it, as they should have.  Everyone moved a little slower on this day.  Runners were tired, sleep deprived, beat up and cut up from running the 2 prior races.  And where did this race begin???  In a parking lot, next to a cemetery.  Quite befitting, b/c we all looked like death.  After battling Caroline Dormon last night, I was happy to run Wild Azalea, which is my favorite trail.  I knew I wouldn't have to worry about getting lost.  All I had to do was stay cool, hydrate, and get to Valentine Lake to close this day out.

Final day.  Last idiots standing!

We started with 2 miles of road, which was a nice way to loosen up, then it was the hills of Wild Azalea.  My new trail partner, John Hansen, was on my tail, as he had been for the other two races.  We run at a similar pace, plus I think he was using me for my familiarity with the trails.  No worries!!!  It's always better to suffer in pairs. 

Wild Azalea was fairly uneventful.  I was moving slower; and rightfully so.  On a normal day, with moderate temps, I can make this crossing in 4.5 hours.  I was figuring on 6 today.  I just ran aid station to aid station, and stayed hydrated and cool.  Erica met me at Twin Bridges Rd, which was about 15 miles in.  I was able to sit, eat a little, and cool off for my final push.  I wasn't eating as much as I should.  I could no longer stomach gels, which had been my primary source of nutrition over the past day and a half.  After a 10 minute rest, I was on my feet again.

John had pulled ahead of me at this point, which was ok, because I certainly didn't have the strength or the will to try to catch him.  So, I made my way on my own.  I caught up to John in the last 5 miles.  He was fussing b/c his cigarettes were in his truck at the start, and he wouldn't have them at the end.  Yes!!!!!  You heard that right!  A smoking ultra-runner!!!  Anyway, at this point I was running in half mile segments.  Half mile sign to half mile sign was how I advanced.  It was after 1 pm, and I was hot and exhausted.  We finally came to the fire tower near Valentine Lake, which meant a half mile to go.  John slowly pulled away from me again, finishing about 2 minutes ahead of me.  I crossed the finish in 6:29:16.  After enduring Hell for a day and a half, I was done.  I had covered 75 miles in a combined time of 16:35:17.   I was greeted by the Forge Crew, Erica, and my run bud Lee, who had come to see me finish.  But, all I wanted to do was lay down and cool off, which I did.  Once I got cooled off, I was able to enjoy a little food and a cold beer.  2 of the 3 relay runners also completed the Wild Azalea course that day.

Post race dying time.
Best sign of the day!

When it was was all said and done, of 15 solos runners and 3 relay teams, only 3 of us would complete the entire race.  All solo runners.  Ed Melancon in 1st, Me 2nd, John Hanson 3rd.  Although these courses, when run individually, are only of moderate difficulty, couple that with the short break in between each, lack of rest, and the heat, and you have a pretty difficult race.  Thanks to Jeff Beck and Forge Racing for putting on another "ass-kicker" of a race.  Thanks to all the volunteers, and to my wife, Erica, for crewing me and supporting me. 

Only finishers: Ed Melancon (1st), Jeff Beck (Race Director), Me (2nd), John Hanson (3rd).

John, the incredible, smoking ultra-runner.


-Ed Melancon- 1st Place

7 a.m. Kincaid Lakeshore Trail 25.4 mi 4:22:31
7 p.m. Caroline Dormon Trail 22 mi 4:21
7 a.m. Wild Azalea Trail 26.2 mi 5:24:34
Total Time: 14:07:26

-Lane Gremillion- 2nd Place

7 a.m. Kincaid Lakeshore Trail 25.4 mi 4:44:44
7 p.m. Caroline Dormon Trail 22 mi 5:21:15
7 a.m. Wild Azalea Trail 26.2 mi 6:29:16
Total Time: 16:35:17

-John Hanson- 3rd Place

7 a.m. Kincaid Lakeshore Trail 25.4 mi 4:49:23
7 p.m Caroline Dormon Trail 22 mi 6:32:35
7 a.m Wild Azalea Trail 26.2 mi 6:26
Total Tine: 17:21:58