VHTRC Web site logo    
  Home | News | BRR | MMT | WHM | Search | Contact | Forum Index

From the Mountains, To the Prairie

By John Dodds

There are several of you out there who think that just because somebody runs a few road races that that somebody is now a roadrunner, or worse, a "road warrior." I'm going to tell you about three races I did this year, and I'm not going to quibble about whether they were road races or can somehow fit in that expansive category of a "trail run." Besides, "trail" leaves a lot to the imagination of the particular race director involved. A good example is the North Central Trail Marathon, which is a rails-to-trails course. This course is akin to an unpaved country road or back road. Two of the runs I did were flat out road runs, and the third one (Lean Horse 100) was a rails-to-trails course, which we can also consider to be a road run. However, the first edition of Trail Running e-magazine has an article on this race, which just goes to show that the "experts" somehow think this is a trail race. Anyway, an appropriate subtitle for this article is "On the Road Again" - you might want to slip that CD into your computer as you read this article. Along the way, I'm going to mention a few honest-to-goodness trail runs that I did as I morphed into a road warrior (as some of you think). I'm writing this report to let you know that there is another side to ultrarunning. So, let's get started.

Old Dominion Memorial 100 (May 28). This run begins in the parking lot of the Ramada Inn in Woodstock, VA, goes up the Woodstock Tower Road and down into Ft. Valley. Then you run around the valley for a while and then retrace your steps back to the Ramada Inn. Then you do all of this again. The entire course is either a paved road (on the I-81 side of the mountain) or a country road (going up the mountain and in Ft. Valley). Sounds like fun, huh? I chose this run as part of my preparation for Badwater, which most of you know is a 135-mile run on paved California highways. The OD Memorial was perfect training for Badwater.

Prior to this run, I had run a half marathon in Wilmington, DE; the Boston Marathon, and a 24-mile training run on the OD Memorial course. It's not that I had abandoned trails during this time as I also ran Holiday Lake 50K++ (is that a trail run?), the Greenway Trail Marathon (plus an 18-mile training run on that trail before the marathon), a 15-mile run at Snickers Gap with Russ and later that day an 18-mile training run with Gary at Bull Run, a 30-mile training run at MMT, a 34-mile training run at Bull Run, the Bull Run Run 50, one loop of the Wild Oak Trail with Russ, and was a pacer for 43 miles at MMT for Randy Dietz. Not bad for a road runner.

With all this training, I thought I was pretty well prepared for the OD Memorial, which had a 30-hour cutoff. My successive goals were to finish, finish under 24 hours, have a PR (my PR in a 100 was in my first 100 at Vermont back in 2000 - 21:15), and finish under 20 hours. As it turned out, my time was 18:42. With a 5:00 a.m. start, that meant I had a same calendar day finish as I finished at 11:42 p.m.

I was looking forward to this race because I had finally decided to abandon Gatorade for long races and to switch instead to Sustained Energy and Perpetuem, both made by Hammer Nutrition Products. I started using both of these on my daily runs, and I had used them on my long training run in Ft. Valley. They worked out very well during the race as I had no solid food whatsoever. Frankly, the aid stations were pretty poor so I wasn't missing much.

One of the things I decided to do this year was try to do some training runs specifically for a particular race. For example, I did the half marathon in Delaware as preparation for Boston. I did 2 runs at Bull Run (18 and 34 miles) to get ready for Bull Run. That's why I did the long training run on the OD Memorial course. I learned several things that day: (1) the Sustained Energy and Perpetuem seemed to work, (2) I needed more cushioned road shoes, which I later bought and used during the race, and (3) I ran up the Woodstock Tower Road from the Woodstock side and developed a strategy to run up that road (it is a killer, having 17 switchbacks).

Anyway, the race went very well for me. The more cushioned road shoes (ASICS Nimbus) worked well, I had no problems with the SE or Perpetuem (although my technique for mixing this at the aid stations needed some improvement, which I have since made; Mike Bur , who paced me from mile 75, kept referring to my "chem lab"); it was overcast a fair amount of the day, it rained once but only briefly; and I didn't have to change shoes, socks or clothes. I briefly had a queasy stomach about mile 89 going up the Woodstock Tower Road from Ft. Valley. Mike told me to take a couple Tums, and I told him I never carried anything like that. He made some comment how he couldn't believe that, as experienced a runner as I supposedly was, I didn't carry something for my stomach. If memory serves me correctly (and it usually does), I believe he called me "stupid." Which I also thought was a little uncalled for from a pacer at mile 89 in a race. But I ate the two Tums he gave me, and my stomach cleared up almost immediately.

I'm absolutely convinced that having a pacer is a definite competitive advantage. Having said that, it might surprise you that Mike and I didn't talk about any kind of a pacing strategy beforehand or even during the race. He just ran whatever, and I kept up. If you want to know anything about how Mike approached this, you'll have to ask him because it's something we didn't talk about then - or since.

I had made a laminated card showing distances between aid stations, and I gave one of those to Mike. I didn't use it much because I pretty much knew what the distances were, but Mike got some use out of the card. From that card and his watch, he knew what our pace was and kept projecting a finish time in terms of elapsed hours. At one point, he was sure we'd finish under 20 hours, which at the time I thought was a pretty sure bet. Then he asked me what time I had started: I told him 5 a.m. His projections were conservative all along because he thought I had started at 4 a.m. During the run, we talked briefly about Badwater. Based on how well I was running, he said he would "pencil me in" for a sub-35 hour finish there. I had a number of successive goals at Badwater, one of them being to finish in 36 hours. I remember making the ascent up Mt. Whitney thinking that it was too bad I couldn't finish under 35 hours; as it was, I finished in 35:25. Sorry, Mike - maybe next time.

Badwater (July 11-12). I'm not going to talk about this race except to mention the long training runs between OD Memorial and Badwater. I did a 17-mile road run in Pennsylvania, the Arlington Loop (about 15-17 miles), and a 22-mile run in Ft. Valley. I also did Laurel Highlands (70 miles), which, arguably, is exactly the wrong type of training for Badwater. Nevertheless, with the past runs mentioned before plus these, I felt very well prepared for Badwater.

John on Smooth Road

Lean Horse 100 (August 20). As I said, this was a rails-to-trails course (the Mikkelson trail), part of it being in the famous Black Hills. It was probably the smoothest surface I've run on, apart from a paved road. In getting ready for this race, I ran on the Mt. Vernon bike trail and some of the C&O Canal towpath (total of 19 miles). I thought the towpath would be a surface similar to Lean Horse; actually, the towpath wasn't as smooth as the "trail" at Lean Horse. I also did a 14-mile trail run in Maryland and once again did the Wild Oak trail with Russ. Probably not your recommended training for a road 100. I ran this race mainly as an afterthought. I hadn't planned on doing it, but since I was trained for the roads and wasn't injured after Badwater, I thought "Why not?"

The elevation gain for this course was not that great, and all hills (going up and down) were gradual. Some of these hills were quite long - several miles. The race started at about 4,000' and went up from there. Most of the race was over 5,000' and at times approached 6,000'. Not a lot of elevation by western standards, but it is if you're from sea level. The altitude was very noticeable to me, and it did affect my breathing. My goals for this race were similar to my goals for the OD Memorial except now I had an added goal of finishing under 18 hours. It didn't happen.

It's easy to get to this race: fly to Rapid City, SD and then drive about an hour to Hot Springs, which is where the pre-race dinner and briefing were. The pre-race dinner was a barbecue in a very nice setting behind the Flatiron Café. The main feature was buffalo burgers, but since they looked twice the size of my stomach, I opted for a brat instead. I met Eric Clifton and his wife Noni there. Earlier in the spring I had ordered a pair of tights from Eric - he sews them himself. You have not "arrived" as an ultrarunner until you get a pair of JesterWear tights. This doesn't mean you are a good runner; in fact, it has nothing to do with your running ability.

Again, this race went very well for me. It was a nice sunny day, and I thought the temperature was pleasant - although it was a little cool at the beginning of the race, and I wore a windshirt for the first 16 miles. My calves started to get sore at mile 20, and I remember thinking this isn't a good sign. I drank Sustained Energy or Perpetuem the whole race (I had no solid food), and I also started drinking Coca Cola every chance I could get from mile 20 on. I would typically drink three cups of Coke over ice. For some odd reason, the Coke seemed to pep me up without upsetting my stomach. My calves recovered at about mile 30 and weren't a problem after that. Since this had been a railroad right-of-way, the hills were very gradual - all runnable. I think this is the only ultra I've been able to run the entire way (except for stopping at aid stations).

Eric Clifton led for quite a bit of the race, so I have to admit I was more than a tad surprised when I came up behind him around mile 62, going up the big climb to the Crazy Horse monument. He was running very, very slow. Frankly, I wasn't sure what the etiquette was to pass someone like him. I thought about Dietzing him. This is what Randy did to Steve Pero at MMT last year - you just blow by the person and yell "Hey" as loud as you can. I had previously seen this maneuver by Russ Evans at MMT as well but without the audio effect. Although I'm sure Randy and Russ would have done that, I just couldn't. Besides, I wanted to talk. So, he and I ran together for a while and talked. I must admit that I have watched Running on the Sun about seven times (Eric won Badwater that year), and over the past several years I have tried to pattern my running stride after Eric. I'm surprised more of you haven't noticed (truth be known, I don't think anybody has noticed). Anyway, I started to run ahead, and he said, "Don't let me hold you back." He dropped two miles later.

I passed another person at mile 81 and then passed Mark Henderson (whom I've met a couple times before) at mile 84. Mark was very complimentary to me, saying that I had a smart strategy of taking it easy during the day and saving my energy for later. I didn't want to tell him that I had no such strategy - I wasn't running as fast as I thought I could because of the altitude. Passing Mark put me in second place, and there was just no way I was going to catch the leader, Jeff Christian. I had run with him earlier in the race - he told me that he had actually dropped out at mile 16, thinking that he had a broken foot. But then he taped it up, asked if he could get back in the race, and was told yes. Since I wasn't going to catch him, I just enjoyed the last part of the run, watching the full moon that night. I just missed my 18-hour goal, finishing in 18:06.

Heartland 100 (October 8-9). Like Lean Horse, this race was an afterthought. The race starts in Cassoday, KS, the Prairie Chicken Capital of the World. Mark Henderson has run this race six times and hasn't seen a prairie chicken yet. And neither did I this year. This is another easy race to get to: fly to Wichita, rent a car, and drive about an hour up the toll road.

The course is 100% gravel roads, which were not real smooth at times. The roads also cut across ridges, meaning that there were times (but not many) where it was best to walk. This area is pure prairie, but it is in what is called the Flint Hills. Basically, the course is flat, and you can see forever. At times, I would just stop and turn around in a full circle and was amazed at how far I could see in all directions.

So, how do you train for a 100-miler on gravel roads? I took it easy for a couple weeks after Lean Horse and then started my training in earnest - on trails. I ran 13-miles at Bull Run, did Old Rag-Skyland-Nicholson Hollow route with Russ (about 25 miles), ran the reverse moonlight run course at MMT (14 miles), and then did Steve and Amy's Big Schloss (31 or was it 34 miles?) During the night run at MMT, I tried to stay up with Sean Andrish as best I could from the parking lot up to Signal Knob. This was a new experience for me: speed training at MMT. My token road run was the day after Big Schloss when I ran the National Capital 20-Miler on the Mt. Vernon bike trail (this was originally to get me ready for the Marine Corps Marathon that I had signed up for last April). And speaking of Big Schloss, I told Steve that it was the best marked course I've been on. He said he'd like to see that in writing - so now he has.

Cows on Lean Horse course
Cows on Heartland course

Back to Heartland: it had a very cold start - 33 degrees. I wore tights and a windshirt, and my mistake was wearing them for too long. I wore them for the first 36 miles, and I got overheated. It was such a relief to exchange them for shorts and a short-sleeve shirt. Because of the surface (gravel roads) and the small hills, I seemed to be running slower than planned. At least in this race my calves didn't get tired (see photo at right). But it didn't help matters when I made the stupidest mistake in a race when at mile 47 - in broad daylight - I walked across HUGE arrows on the ground marked in flour that CLEARLY indicated where to go. The only way I can describe it is as if one had walked across a red ribbon at Bull Run or MMT. Which meant that I was now heading down the wrong road to nowhere. That little frolic and a detour cost me at least 30 minutes. What it also did was take the wind out of my sails, so to speak. I had once again set a goal of breaking 18 hours, and now that pretty much seemed to be out of the picture. Once you make a stupid mistake like that, you get skittish (this happened to me at Arkansas Traveler several years ago). Later in the nighttime, I was running down a road which was supposed to be marked with glow sticks. It wasn't. Being unsure, I would stop, ponder, and keep running. After doing this several times, I decided I would turn around and run back to the runners not too far behind me - a guy named Paul from Missouri and Ron Ely. I came to Paul first, and being frustrated, I told him that I was going to run the last 20 miles with him. But he patiently explained to me how to get to the next two aid stations and then the finish, so I took off again.

At the last aid station, Ron caught up to me. For the last 40 miles, he and Paul would arrive at an aid station shortly after I left or when I left. But now Ron arrived alone while I was just getting ready to leave. In other words, he was closing the gap. I needed a diversion. The guy manning this aid station had all the ingredients for omelettes, so I asked Ron if he wanted an omelette. He said he was only interested in getting to the finish line. Dang! It didn't work. So, Ron and I left together and ran the last eight miles together. My left quad had been getting tighter and tighter for some time, and I thought it would snap (or whatever quads do) at some point. I had never had this problem before. With five miles to go, I expressed my concern to Ron, and he cavalierly said I had another five miles left in that leg. No sympathy there. And we were cruising by this time. For those last five miles, we were running a 9:20 pace (Ron did the math). I was never so glad to hear a cowbell in my life - that was the signal for the start of the race and when each finisher crossed the finish line. Actually, I would have preferred to finish to the theme from Rocky, but the cowbell did the trick that night. After we had left the last aid station, Ron and I had talked about the possibility of finishing under 19 hours (the 18-hour goal had long ago passed), and we pretty much decided that we couldn't do it. But with such a strong finish and much to our surprise, we did finish under 19 hours - in 18:57.

Arlingtonians. It is pretty much recognized that Arlingtonians are the best runners around. And I'm not saying that just because I happen to live in Arlington. Let me give you a good example - his name is Ed Demoney. At the pre-race dinner, I mentioned to Ed that it might be hard for me to get my drop bags after the race. I had planned to go back to my motel after the race 20 miles away in a town called El Dorado (door-ay-doh) and then continue on to Wichita. It hadn't dawned on me that my drop bags wouldn't be back by the time I would finish. That now meant that I would have to come back to Cassoday. When the race was over, I went to El Dorado for a nap and then came back to Cassoday for the awards ceremony and to get my drop bags. When I walked in the community center, Ed was there (he had finished the race about an hour before then) and had rounded up all my drop bags. I thanked him and told him I'd take them out to the car. But he insisted on helping me carry them out to the car. So much for being tired after a 100-miler. And in his post-race report, here is what the RD said about Ed: "Edwin Demoney at 71 years old received the largest ovation at the award ceremony and is now the oldest runner to finish the Heartland 100. His time of 28:19:10 was well under the 30-hour time limit." Now Gary and Frank have something to shoot for in another 10 years.

Both sides now. Some of you probably think that I'm so shallow that I ran these races just to get a belt buckle. Actually, it's about experience - getting out and seeing some place I may not have seen before. This year I've seen a pretty good part of this country - from the mountains in Virginia, the desert and mountains in California, the hills in South Dakota, to the prairie in Kansas. We are fortunate to have race directors and volunteers out there who are willing to put on these events for us. It's a great way to see America.

Since late 1999, I have been pretty much a trail runner. And I still consider myself a trail runner first. Although I did run several road races this year, I still did quite a bit of trail running as I mentioned above. Take a look at the picture Russ took of me at Old Rag a couple weeks after Lean Horse (see photo below), and you can see that I do enjoy trail running. It's finally time to end this, so I'll just say:


John on Old Rag
John on Old Rag

Virginia Happy Trails Running Club
Home | News | Events | About the VHTRC | Members Only | Features
Bull Run Run 50 | Massanutten Mt. Trails 100 | Training Runs | Links