Sunday, June 26, 2016

2016 Mohican Trail 100 Race Report

"I've got to catch him," I thought to myself. "Maximum effort!" I had finally reached mile 99 of the Mohican Trail 100 and had spent the better part of the past 25 miles trying to pick off runners in an attempt to keep myself moving forward. I've found over the years that playing such mental games can keep a tired mind and body engaged and in the moment, and can mean the difference between a strong finish and a slow "death march". After an up-and-down day and night on the trail I was ready to be finished - but not after I tried to catch up to one more guy. The runner (whom I came to find out was named Paul) maintained a steady gait as we ran along the street toward the finish line. I was running all-out and felt there might still be a chance to finish alongside him. Despite some earlier struggles I was clipping off this last stretch along the road at around 7:30 pace. Not bad for an average Joe from Texas. I had run very well through the night and into the morning, filling my mind with "if-only" and "what-if'" scenarios that maybe this race could have turned out a little differently for me. But it was what it was, and now it was time to wrap it up. Crossing the final footbridge and running through the field adjacent to the finish line, I maintained hope I might catch Paul until I saw him make the final turn and raise his hands at the finish. I was very impressed with his steadiness over the last stretch of the race. 17 seconds later, I was crossing that same finish line. I was thrilled to collect my buckle from my crew and call it a day. I congratulated Paul on his effort, hugged and high-fived my crew, and went to look for a place to sit down. 


I came to the 2016 Mohican 100 for one reason - to finish, and by doing so collect a qualifying race for the 2017 Western States Endurance Run lottery. My training had been steady over the past few months, as mentioned in my previous post, though it was hardly what I would consider appropriate for a race like this. In fact, I hadn't even been on a proper trail since Wild Hare 50 down in Warda, Texas, seven months before. Much of my work had been on flat trails and roads in preparation for my spring road races. There was no race specific training, very little hill work, no "dial-in-my-nutrition" long runs, or any of the other by-the-book race preparation tactics. It just so happened that I could work out the logistics of being in Ohio at the time of the race. I would drive down from Cleveland and spend the weekend on the trails in Loudonville and take a shot at this 100 miler. What could possibly go wrong?

While I was not able to spend much time preparing for the race in a traditional sense, I did do some research leading up to the event to familiarize myself with what I was getting myself into. I read a few race reports and gave the race map a quick looking over. From what I could tell, the course itself consisted of 4 loops through the beautiful and lush Mohican Memorial State Forest in Loudonville, Ohio. The first 2 loops were approximately 27 miles each with the finishing 2 loops clocking in at around 23 miles each. The reason for the difference in distances is a short detour in loops 1 and 2 that would take runners through a densely wooded gorge that I heard referred to as the "enchanted forest". (More on this in a moment.) This section would be cut out of loops 3 and 4, but otherwise the same aid stations and trail segments would be utilized throughout the entirety of the race. The elevation changes did not seem to be too severe - roughly 14,000' of climbing and descending over 100 miles - so the primary challenges as I saw them would be staying patient, managing what would be a warm, sunny day on Saturday, and despite being a little under trained, figuring out a way to get to the finish line.

The race began at the entrance to Mohican State Park, a campground which on this particular weekend was packed with hikers, campers, mountain bikers, and outdoor enthusiasts. Since the 100 mile race began at 5am runners were encouraged to be mindful of the campers in the park and keep as quiet as reasonably possible. Thus, the nervous chatter that typically marks the start of a 100 miler was kept to a minimum. The countdown and race start were equally subdued. I barely heard the director whisper "go", and the typical whoops and hollers as runners charge off were non existent. We quietly shuffled off into the morning darkness. The first mile or so of the race was on the road through the state park - a move intended to help "thin the herd" before runners are funneled onto the single track trail network in the forest. (A substantial bottleneck would no doubt ensue otherwise.) The only sounds were the shuffling of shoes along the road and the sloshing of water in bottles and hydration packs. The relative silence only seemed to heighten the tension as we were all left to our own thoughts. Before long we had reached the trail. We crossed a small wooden footbridge, made a quick turn to the right, and we were off.

The first stretch of the race consisted of several short rollers before a long climb that would take runners up a couple hundred feet of mountain bike trails and deeper into the forest. The sun had not yet crept above the horizon, so the beginning of the race was in darkness, punctuated only by a string of headlamps extending in front of me and behind me in the night. I was joined on the trail by my 2 good friends from Texas, Reece and Josh, who were both looking for solid races on what we expected to be a good weather day with exceptional trail conditions. Josh's wife Leslie made the trip to be our "crew extraordinaire", tending to the three of us as best she could throughout the day. (She did a phenomenal job.) The trail did not disappoint - the relatively dry conditions over the past week in the area had left the trail firm, clean, and in very runnable shape. We ran the first 8 or so miles together, but I decided to slow my pace a bit and let them continue on ahead. I stopped for a brief time at the second aid station, Fire Tower (mile 9), to collect my thoughts and make sure I was in good shape with my nutrition. 

The woods were lovely, dark, and deep....

The trail was always very well marked and the course was easy to follow.

Early morning on the trail...

The segment of the race from the Fire Tower aid station to the Covered Bridge aid station on loops 1 and 2 is a pretty good hike, clocking in at around 6.2 miles. The rolling hills would eventually lead to a long wooden staircase that would bring us down to the base of a sheer rock wall and a trickling waterfall several stories high. From there we would wind through the "enchanted forest" - a deep valley overgrown with ferns and other fauna that culminated at a steep "wall of roots" that we must climb to leave the valley and rejoin the mountain biking trail.

The stairs down to the falls.

The falls. There's water there, trust me.
I found the "enchanted forest" to be simply breathtaking. I did not expect such a spectacular geographical feature in this race and was taken aback by the sheer scale of the cliff walls and the size of the fallen trees that were strewn about (and in many case, over) the trail. Given that the trail was so overgrown down here it would have been a difficult section to really "run" so I slowed to a hike and enjoyed the scenery. 

There is a trail through here....
And here.....
A botanist's dream.
The wall o' roots!

The "root wall" itself was not particularly difficult to navigate. In short order I had emerged back onto the mountain biking trail and was heading toward the next aid station. Not far from the root wall - maybe 1/2 mile - the trail opened to a large crew area overlooking the river. It was refreshing to see the enthusiastic "crew-ers" as they congratulated every runner who emerged from the forest. We would follow another long stairway down into a valley and onto a footpath that paralleled a tranquil stream for about a mile or so until we reached the Covered Bridge aid station, named for - well, you know. 

Heading down the stairs into the valley...

Hey, a covered bridge! They should name an aid station after this thing!
So up to this point, things were moving along according to plan. (Except that I really didn't have a plan, but no matter.) I felt good, my stomach was in check, and I was moving well. I kept my pace dialed back and stayed at what I considered to be a relaxed, "all-day" pace. I hiked the hills, ran the flats and downhills, and kept my heart rate low. Upon my arrival at Covered Bridge, I was somewhat dismayed to learn that due to a communication glitch, our drop bags had not been delivered yet. My backup nutrition of tailwind and stinger waffles would be delayed for another 30 minutes! (Gasp!) So I had to improvise. The next stretch of the race would be more challenging, with a very long, steady climb awaiting us coming out of this aid station and a number of subsequent climbs afterwards. We had roughly 5 1/2 miles to our next oasis in the woods, so I made the best of it. I refilled my water bottles and grabbed some aid station food (PBJ sandwiches) and hit the trail. 

The road from Covered Bridge to Hickory Ridge is tough out of the gate, as almost immediately we turned and headed uphill. The next mile or so was a series of long climbs followed by short flats followed by more climbs. The trail eventually flattened out into some very runnable stretches here, but not before we were treated to a steady diet of long climbs and short descents. We would climb up and around ridge lines, over roots and rocks (a very prominent feature of the course - "Rocky Raccoon on steroids" as Reece called it), roll over hills and down a long straight lane bordered by majestic trees that stood like like watchful sentinels over the forest floor. 

Hickory Ridge was a smaller but no less enthusiastic aid station that represented the final stop on the way back to the state park. The final stretch of the race was very runnable; in fact, despite the fact that it was nearly 7 miles from Hickory Ridge to the state park, I found myself able to make great time by running it in nearly the entire way. There were a couple of short, steep hills approaching the campground followed by a short stretch through the camp and then around 2 miles of road running. I felt at home on the roads and was able to quickly dispatch this segment. I cruised into the state park aid station and before long headed out for loop 2.

I knew coming into the race that loop 2 would be the most difficult, as the midday sun and humidity would wreak havoc on my digestion. This, unfortunately, did turn out to be the case. I made it back to covered bridge at around mile 42 before things started to get rough. I had a tough time taking in calories, but I was still persistently trying. It was far too early to abandon my nutrition and I was going to go with my Tailwind as long as I could stomach it. I would fill buffs and handkerchiefs with ice at each aid station, walk as much as I could, and just keep pressing on. The second loop, as predicted, was much slower than my first. On the bright side - and this is important - most of this course is in shade. There is very little of the course that is exposed, so even though the heat could be stifling, at least the sun was hidden above the canopy of trees.

Upon finishing my second loop, my stomach completely gave out, leaving me hiding behind a tree purging the scant nutrition that I had managed to get down over the last several miles of loop 2. This did help me feel modestly better, but taking in food was still going to be a problem. I hoped I could walk it off, so I had a few small items at the aid station and headed back out. The 4.5 miles from the state park to the Gorge Overlook aid station was tortuously slow. I arrived at Gorge Overlook ready to call it a day. I couldn't eat, I was becoming dehydrated, and I was in very bad spirits.

With Josh. A couple of not-so-happy campers.
My day was saved with the help of some anti-nausea medicine I picked up at the aid station, which allowed me to start eating again. When my appetite returned, I ate plentifully at the aid station buffet and soon felt my strength return as well. I would take it easy for another segment, but it was not long before I was able to pick up the pace and resume running hard. As the sun went down and the first chills of the cooler night air began to cover the trail, I thought I might just pull this off yet!

I ran strong through the night, checking off aid station after aid station. (Note: the disco aid station, Fire Tower, was crazy at night, with its pounding house music and laser light show.) I focused on eating real food - the Tailwind and Stinger Waffles were long since gone from my nutrition plan, as they seemed to trigger the nausea - and supplementing occasionally with a Huma gel if needed. But I was making great time and didn't need much supplementation between aid stations. I did hit a few low spots along the way, and unfortunately the nausea did return later in the race, but it was not nearly the problem I had to deal with earlier. I was able to manage it with some papaya enzymes I had in my drop bag.

With the morning came a renewed sense of energy and purpose. Remarkably, there was a refreshingly cool breeze that permeated the trees that accompanied the sunrise that lifted my spirits tremendously. My pacing had become somewhat erratic again, as I would charge ahead only to be shortly feel overtaken by fatigue. I would slow and recover, then push ahead, and the cycle would repeat. I focused on the "little" picture, getting from aid station to aid station, and making continued forward progress.

With the exception of several miles that I ran with a guy from Philadelphia (also named Chris) I spent most of the race running solo. My friend Reece had built a lead on me that I couldn't overcome, even when I was running well. (He bested me by exactly one hour.) Josh had to bow out after dealing with a crippling case of plantar fascitis for nearly 60 miles. So I spent the last 20 miles trying to pick off runners just to keep up the pace. I was eager to call it a day. As I left Hickory Ridge for the last time, I thanked all the volunteers, grabbed one last handful of food for the road, and headed out. I only had 6.2 miles to go.

I could finally sense the finish line approaching. I ran up and over every hill, throwing all caution to the wind. Finally, as I emerged onto the road for the last couple miles to the finish, I saw a guy in a red shirt up ahead of me. 

I thought to myself, "I wonder if I can catch him?"

Damn, it feels good to be a gangsta....

Team Texas! Me, Reece, Leslie, & Josh

Finish:  27:44:37

Quick Hits:

  • Staying at one of the adjacent campgrounds to Mohican State Park would be highly recommended. The race start & finish are easy to find, but race day parking is limited and stretches a pretty good distance from those locations.
  • If the weather cooperates, there are some very runnable stretches of trail where you can make up time lost on the climbs. The climbs are frequent but not too severe. The toughest I recall were on the first segment about a mile and a half in, the stretch between Covered Bridge and Hickory Ridge (especially right after leaving CB) and the short steep climbs just before you arrive back in the campground area.
  • There are a lot of rocks and roots on this course. It's not technical by any means, but don't shuffle along.
  • The aid stations were fantastic. They were well stocked, and while the food was the standard stuff, the volunteers were wonderful. 
  • We had a glitch in getting the drop bags to Covered Bridge in time for loop 1 runners this year that seemed to upset some people. I am sure this was not the norm for this race, as everything else from top to bottom seemed very professional and well organized. 
  • 250 registered runners (largest field ever for this race). Only 121 finished. I was fortunate to be one of them. It was a tough day.

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