Sunday, April 25, 2010

407 Minutes at the Ouachita 50KM

The Ouachita Trail 50KM
( Wikipedia-pronounced: WOSH-i-taw or WAW-shi-taw)

This is one average runner’s experience at the Ouachita 50KM on Saturday, 17 April. The race is an Out-and Back format that started and finished at Maumelle Park, just outside and southwest of Little Rock, Arkansas. I finished the 50K course in 6:47:19, equal to 407 minutes and 19 seconds. I thoroughly enjoyed this event and highly recommend Ouachita for several reasons.

The course is a very challenging route, as most trail ultra events seem to be. This route, though, runs up and over Pinnacle Mountain, and then down the backside of that terrain feature. Runners meet Pinnacle at about the 4.75 mile point of the course and are basically climbing almost hand over hand up the boulder-strewn trail until they reach the top at about 1100 feet. The inherent uniqueness in this part of the overall event, and the 360-degree view from atop Pinnacle makes the Ouachita 50 worth running. That said, I’d also say that the Pinnacle mountain portion of the event will almost ensure that Ouachita does not lend itself as a source for Personal Bests as far as 50K or 50 mile events; Pinnacle is steep and challenging and time intensive in terms of overall distance covered.
                                                                Pinnacle at a distance

     This was the Ouachita Trail 50’s 20th straight year, so this is a proven, time-tested event executed over a demanding and challenging course. 2010 marked the 10th year under the Race Director team of Chrissy and Stan Ferguson and all that experience really resulted in a cohesive, extremely well-run event. There is a well-developed core group of runners and volunteers that seemed to lend an annual, reunion type of camaraderie across the course and to the events at the start-finish line. Every aid station was thoroughly stocked with anything runners could have wanted to drink or eat, and every aid station had signs with exact information; where you were on the course in terms of mileage, distance to the next aid station and exact distance to the finish line on the return portion of the route. The aid station volunteers also voiced these critical statistics while you were in the aid station.
     Race finishers all receive a very unique ceramic finisher’s medal. RD Chrissy Ferguson makes these medals herself; they are white, with the Ouachita Trail 50 emblem from the website emboldened on the front and are very cool. I also picked up a terrific Ouachita Trail 50 wind-shirt that has a shoulder and waist pocket. These were available at the finish line. Black Dog photography was also on-hand providing low cost, printed pictures of each runner reaching the Pinnacle Mountain zenith much earlier in the race.
     The Ouachita Ultra has both a 50 kilometer and 50 mile option. Runners who register for the 50 mile option can re-evaluate and opt for the 50KM route during the course of the event, as late as the moment of truth where the two courses deviate.
Race Results: As of 25 April:
50 Mile:
1 Tom Brennan   M    38   Poteau  OK  7:56:41! (New 50M course record)
2 Stan Ferguson  M  46   Conway AR   8:40:35
3 David Murphy  M  37   Wasola  MO  8:47:07

1 Natalie Sims     F    36    Signal Mountain TN  9:57:52(9th overall)
2 Karen Martin   F    38     Jonesboro         AR  10:37:31(13th overall)
3 Jenny Weatter  F    29     Maumelle          AR 11:24:38(20th overall)

50 KM:
1 Matt Sims          M   38     Signal Mountain TN  4:41:02
2 PoDog Vogler    M  43     Russellville         AR   4:58:51
3 Jake Anderson   M  28     Jonesboro          AR   5:45:00

1 Shirley Hyman  F     42      Fort Smith  AR       6:38:18(16th overall)
2 Carrie Tracy     F     36      Richardson TX       6:38:39(17th overall)
3 Hillary Looney  F     36      Little Rock  AR       6:40:45(22nd overall)

179 total runners started the combined 50M-50KM event
166 total combined finishers for both events
111 finishers in the 50K; 75 Males, 36 Females
55 finishers in the 50M; 43 Males, 12 Females
7:56:41: The new 50 mile course record by Tom Brennan Saturday!
29.6: Exact mileage showing on my Forerunner 305 at end of the 50K
68: Age of oldest 50 mile finisher
23: Age of youngest 50 mile finisher: Rich Easter, Memphis, TN
79: Age of oldest 50K finisher
19: Age of youngest 50K finisher: Caleb Manis, Cabot, AR; 5:56; 5th overall
15 different states with runner representation including California, Colorado, New York and New Mexico
5.1 miles: Runners are only 5.1 miles in the course atop Pinnacle and 5.3 at the bottom.
12 Aid stations on the 50K course counting the Start-Finish Line Pavilion
10 Aid stations on the 50M course counting the Start-Finish Line Pavilion
16.75 miles; runners hit the North-shore aid station turnaround point and start back
Personal 50K Statistics:
407 minutes on the course
26th overall place
21 Males finished ahead of me
5 Females finished ahead of me
14: number of 40 and older finishers ahead of me

     It was still dark when RD Chrissy Ferguson gave a pointedly thorough and interesting pre-race briefing at 0545 before the start of the race. The conditions really could not have been better; it was about 60 degrees, not too humid, and a little overcast. I wore my Nathan Hydration 2.0 system with 1.5 liters of water for a second straight ultra, had my walkman on and my Garmin Forerunner 305. I started with 10 S-caps, some Ibuprofen and 4 vanilla GU gel packs and my small digital camera balanced across the two front shoulder pockets. I decided to assume risk by bringing the Olympus Camera because it’s small, and ultimately, I wanted to record some digital memories of the event.

View from Pinnacle to North-Northwest

      The Ouachita 50 proved to be the 22nd race I’ve completed of either marathon or ultra marathon distance, with a breakdown of 9 marathons and 13 ultras at this point in my cumulative distance portfolio. It’s pretty easy to say that I’ve developed some good lessons learned in every event to date, but Ouachita really felt like a true progression point for me in terms of applying some previous and critical lessons learned against some decent training base. I ran in the Sweet H20 50K on 4 April, so Ouachita was my 2nd major event in 2 weeks, and third ultra in 2010 going back to 1 February. The main point I re-learned, and feel like I finally applied at Ouachita for the first time I think, is that a runner has to be prepared to take what the trail gives them when the trail dictates. Every trail event is obviously different, even in terms of running an out and back on the same trail. Runners, especially non-elite runners, are only going to be able to move fast and capitalize on certain areas of every trail and are going to have to slow down on the trickier, more challenging technical areas no matter where these areas manifest themselves.
      Plainly speaking, the front half of the 50K portion was much more difficult than the back half at Ouachita. At least it seemed that way to me. The race started promptly on the Lake Maumelle access road in front of Pavilion 8 at 0600. I started exactly in the very back of the entire group of runners as I do in every event; for some murky un-defined personal reason, I just like to start every race at the very rear of the formation and then try to work my way forward as the event unfolds. The day started breaking as we covered the first 2.75 miles of access roads into the park, to the point where it was full daylight when I personally hit the Ouachita Trail at the 2.75-mile point of the event. This is one of the main reasons I really enjoy using my Forerunner 305. I understand all the counter-points a lot of runners seems to make about exact GPS accuracy; GPS are not exact. But, for my purposes, my Forerunner is plenty close enough for what I want out of it, and in this example, I knew when I eventually came back off the trail, I would have 2.75 miless of smooth, mostly down-hill asphalt between me and the finish line.

      Ouachita Trail reminded me off a couple other ultra events in New York, the Wakely Dam and the Escarpment Trail Run (ETR). Granted, ETR is not an ultra, as it is “only” 30 kilometers, but more to follow on that. Ouachita reminded me of Wakely specifically because Wakely runs almost exclusively on the Norville-Placid Trail (NPT) in the Adirondacks. While the 32-mile Wakely stretch of the NPT does not have any of the giant up and down that Pinnacle Mountain provided, NPT is just really hard to run on because it is so full of rocks, roots, and generally is up and down. Ouachita was like that all the way out to the North-Shore Aid Station turnaround point. As soon as you enter at the Trail access point, the first 10 to 12 miles out towards North-Shore, except for the stretch right along the edge of Lake Maumelle, require you to run up and down small ridge lines made up mostly by rocks that you want to run through, but you have to be more than just a little cautious in.
      Pinnacle Mountain really reminded me of Escarpment Trail. That’s a point to point 30K where you cross 6 peaks in the Catskills above 3000 feet. Runners are forced to start climbing Pinnacle Mountain at around 4.75 miles and in less than a quarter of a mile, you hit the boulder field and are pretty much reduced to pulling yourself hand to foot to the top of Pinnacle. That was very reminiscent of Blackhead and Stoppel Mountains in the ETR. While Pinnacle was not as high, the trail piece was very steep, even coming down the backside. All in all, it probably took me longer to come down than ascend. The view from atop Pinnacle was outstanding in every direction; coupled with a nice cool breeze up there, it was pretty refreshing. It was also a little mentally and physically sobering to have expended what felt like so much effort once I reached the trailhead parking lot again at only 5.5 miles into the race.

Starting the Pinnacle Ascent

Downward view of Pinnacle Boulder-Field

Heading down the bckside of Pinnacle; slow going

      Once off of Pinnacle, we re-entered the Trail for a short section before we came out of the wood-line, crossed Route 113 and ran on that for just about a mile or so before re-acquiring the trail again on the west side of the highway. There was a very flat, run-able, single-track 1.5 to 2 mile stretch of trail right along the near edge of Lake Maumelle, until we edged into the woods away from the lake. The Trail was mostly technical though, from the point where we crossed the highway and re-entered the trail, until at least the aid station at the 15 mile point. Most of the time, runners were either moving uphill or downhill, up one small ridgeline, down the backside and through the bottom of the draw and then back up another gradual or steep ridge. And, on the “out” portion of the run, I swear it felt to me like when we were moving uphill, the trail was nice and smooth, albeit uphill, and on the downside once I would crest a ridge and headed downhill, rocks, rocks and more rocks. I never fell, but really almost rolled both ankles a couple times and started to really work at maintaining a slow steady pace. My reasoning was that since the down-hills all just looked like rocks to me I was more tired than I thought I was coming off of Pinnacle that early in the event.
       I hit the aid station somewhere one mile shy of the separation point of the 50K and 50M courses and the whole event started to take a strangely foreign, albeit good turn for me. I had already decided that I was not running the 50 miler, so I moved through that aid station, read the information sign and knew I was less than 2 miles to North Station and turning around for the Finish line. The trail really flattened and smoothed out leaving that aid station and continued in that manner at the 50K-50M fork and through the winding turns that lead into the North Shore aid station. There were some hills and there were some rocks but all in all a very run-able section of the course. I hit North-Shore, right at 17 miles into the course at a pretty slow point in time, maybe right at 4 hours into the event. That seemed a little discouraging upon first, but after some reflection over a cup of coke, I developed some positive thoughts. I did not have to go back over Pinnacle, and therefore, North-Shore was well over the half-way point. While I was slow getting to that main turnaround, I felt pretty good, especially from the point of clearing the previous aid station forward. I decided that I would push as hard as I possibly could at every point, rocks or no rocks, in an attempt to reach the finish line under 7 hours.
      Things really picked up and went smoothly from North-Shore, and really, the aid station before North Shore for me throughout the back half of the course. That’s the “strange” or “foreign” point of this whole event for me. I always try to get to every finish line as hard or fast as I possibly can, and I did that in this event from the start as well. Usually, I finish every event struggling from point to point over the final 10 miles; I’ll run as far as I can, and be reduced to walking, pick up the running, then walk some more until I can run again. I’ve even “built” in “run 5 minutes, walk 1 minute” game plans and other course of actions to get through the last 25% of most events. I’ve improved in every event, but that’s generally the way things tend to work. That’s exactly how SweetH20 had gone two weeks prior to Ouachita; I ran a much stronger first half than second. Gravity just seemed a lot stronger from Mile 20 forward.
        I literally was able to run the entire second half of the Ouachita course from the point where I cleared the aid station around Mile 15, except for the hills that were just too steep for me to run. It was awesome.
My best description, again, this is a strange and unknown area for me, is that the whole second half just went great. For whatever reason, the Trail’s technical construction was just a lot easier to run moving towards the finish line; the really rocky portions headed back were almost all on the uphill sides of ridgelines, or at least it seemed that way to me. I was really able to get some real downhill running into the course on the way back without tripping and falling all over myself, as it seemed headed out. Every aid station was manned by wonderful people, fully stocked, and exactly where the team in the last station said they were. I did not linger in any station; I’d drink a cup of coke, make sure my Nathan had at least 1 liter of water, thank the team and move out with a peanut butter & jelly triangle.
       I made what felt like a conscious effort to push the trail the whole way as opposed to previous events where the trail pretty much dictated terms. I would push through the tough uphill sections until gravity started working for me and then just consciously pick up the pace again. This worked pretty well and I caught a bunch of racers, or it seemed like I did. I did have a couple of challenging points. I hit a tough point somewhere around Mile 25. I had been moving pretty well along the near trail edge to Lake Maumelle and had crossed back over Route 113 for that 1 mile stretch. I was really sucking wind once I picked the Trail back up into the wood-line and started heading up the steep ridgeline between 113 and Pinnacle Mountain. One young lady, #90-Melanie Baden I believe, went past me going up that hill like I was standing still, like she had only just started running and I had been running for 6 hours. Come to think of it, I might have been standing still….I forced myself to drink a lot of water, consumed my last gel pack and an S-cap or two and pushed forward until I recovered shortly.
      I was moving pretty well again, when I made a boneheaded navigational error, or more specifically a non-error that cost me about 10 minutes worth of time in my estimation. I broke over the ridge and cleared the woods around the side of Pinnacle, and skirted the Pinnacle access parking lot, and one of two last sections of woods prior to the 2.75 miles of asphalt access road. I knew there was about three quarters of a mile of woods, followed by a hardball road the trail would cross, followed by a last steep ridge trail that spilled onto the access road. I worked through the single trail piece, and hit the firebreak trail and literally ran a beautiful stretch of wide smooth 1/2 to 3/4-mile firebreak trail as hard as I could run it downhill all the way to the asphalt road, which was great. Except when I discovered I had missed the right turn in the woods.
While running down the firebreak, I missed the point of the trail where I was supposed to turn off the firebreak, turn up hill, and follow the steep single trail where it crossed the asphalt road and ran up through the woods to Access road. When I mistakenly hit the asphalt road, I didn’t even know if I was uphill or downhill in terms of directions from the trail; I just knew I missed the turn, so I turned around, ran back the way I’d just come, uphill this time, nice, and found the little tiny turn-off I slept through five minutes earlier.
      I hit the access road about 8 minutes after correcting my navigation error, and it was just as I remembered; 2.7 miles of smooth, mostly downhill asphalt. I was able to maintain somewhere around an 8 to 8:30 pace over that last stretch and caught up to some folks that had passed me when I missed the turn and had to re-acquire the trail in the woods. The access road seemed longer, of course, than it had 7 hours earlier but there were several runners on the road ahead of me; trying to catch them made the last couple miles go by faster.
      Ouachita was a great, fun event, filled with local runners that all have a history together around this event. A big group of them all set up camp chairs right at the finish line, opened a beverage or two and greeted every runner as they came into the Pavilion 8 finish line. There was a lot of great food, family members and children, and even a llama (or maybe a large alpaca) in a paddock across the road watching the event. I heartily recommend Ouachita Trail 50 as a “must do” event to anyone that can build this race into their schedule. As mentioned, I re-learned a lot about tactical patience and execution attending this race, and spent some significant travel effort getting there from Augusta, Georgia and it was well worth the effort.
Ouachita Trail 50 Finish Line

Tim Hardy
25 April 2010

Neighboring Spectators

Made Pinnacle!
View West from MT Pinnacle

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