Rob Apple, Susan Donnelly and Jerry Frost at Sunday's 20K finish line
I met my good friend Jerry Frost at the I-44 commuter lot at exactly 3:30 pm Thursday afternoon, packed all of my gear into his Ford Escape and we were on our way. Jerry and I always have some interesting, and rather deep, conversations about life and this ride was no different. A few hours into the trip we were cruising along chatting away when all of the sudden the CD started shorting out and the lights began flickering; before we knew it the engine was sputtering. We pulled over to the side of the road just south of Salem, Arkansas, about an hour from Mountain View and in the middle of nowhere. Although I know nothing about cars I diagnosed the problem as either the alternator, the battery or more than likely both; this same thing happened to me before many years ago with my '84 Chevy S-10. As we got out of the car we could hear the thunder and see the lightning in the distance; we actually both kind of chuckled as the rain drops started falling, what luck! In a matter of minutes a young man stopped to help us out and then one of his neighbors also came out to help us push the truck off the road. Once off the road we called AAA for a tow and about 45 minutes later we were riding shotgun with Kenny, the tow truck driver, on our way to Mountain View. As we road along Jerry chatted with Kenny and noticed a picture of a dog on his cell phone. "That your dog?" Jerry asked. "Yep, that there dog's the best coon huntin' dog around. I trained him from a pup and he placed 1st in a national competition. Man offered me $10,000 for him but I said no way; some things are more important than money." We got to Mountain View around 11:30 pm, dropped off the Ford at an auto shop, said our good-bye's to Kenny and checked into our hotel. "I've never seen you that quiet," Jerry said. "I was just taking it all in and wondering what part of a 'coon' people eat." "Carey, people don't eat coons, they just kill them for the sport of it." "Glad I kept that question to myself then," I replied and with that we got our gear ready for the next day's race and went to bed.
FRIDAY - 50K
Jerry woke up early and walked down to the auto shop to sort things out with the truck while I hung out at the hotel, took a shower and ate breakfast. Since we didn't have a car Paul Schoenlaub was kind enough to come pick us up; he swung by the hotel around 8:05 am and then we headed over to get Jerry. As we pulled up to the repair shop Jerry had a disappointed look on his face, "I've got to stay here with the truck so we can get it fixed; I'm going to have to miss the race," Jerry said. Bummed for Jerry but in a hurry for the 9:00 am start, we bid him good luck and headed down to Blanchard Springs campground. We got there around 8:45 am and I scrambled around to get everything ready, pinned my race number on, signed in and filled my water bottles. I said a few hello's and headed over towards the start to listen to the pre-race instructions from Steve. I looked around at the field and saw some great runners; this year's field was much deeper and I knew that I didn't have to worry about repeating last year's 4th place finish. Josh Nordell, Ty Draney, Tom Brennan, Matt Hart, these guys are in a whole different league! A few minutes after 9:00 am Steve announced "OK, Go!" and we were off.
I started out near the front of the pack too fast like I always do and ran with Ashley Nordell, last year's first place female, for the first few miles until I tripped and fell flat on my face. Ashley said, "Looks like you got your fall out of the way early!" "I'm sure there will be more," I responded as I stopped off by the creek to wash up and let her go on. For the next few miles I was passed by several people; Pat Perry said hello as he went by and Andy Emerson introduced himself since we've never actually met in person. Before I knew it Stuart Johnson was coming up on me and I said, "You know, we've got to stop meeting like this! Seems like every race I start out like a banshee and end up dying about 4 miles in." "The trick is to take it easy today, it's going to be a long weekend," Stuart said as we settled into a slow, steady pace; we would end up running practically the entire rest of the race together. There was a lot of debris on the trail from the recent snow storm so we were constantly hopping over, going around and straddling the trees and branches that blocked our way; this made the going quite slow and tore up our legs quite a bit. About half way into the race we were joined by Paul Turner, I didn't know Paul but Stuart did so we ran along together for a while as they caught up on stuff; by the end of Saturday I would know Paul quite well.
A little later I pulled away from Stuart and saw Pat Perry up ahead on the trail walking. "We must be at about the marathon distance because I'm hitting the wall," he said. "No, actually we're only at 20 miles; still a long way to go," I replied as I passed by him figuring I wouldn't see him again until the finish line. I ran by myself for a bit but before I knew it Stuart was back, with Pat in tow; somehow Pat had a new lease on life and was running again. For the last few miles we were running practically everything and as we came out on the road we all knew the finish was near. We picked up the pace and although we had decided to finish together I started running even faster, Stuart and Pat did too. I broke into an all out sprint for the last 100 yards or so crossing the line in 5:53:12. As we stood there, catching our breath, Stuart said, "We probably shouldn't have been sprinting that last part, it'll catch up to us tomorrow." "Yeah, I'm sure you're right, but I could smell the finish line and just wanted to be done!" I responded. Although I beat my time from last year by almost an hour the field was so strong that I ended up placing 17th. I was OK with that, now with no pressure I planned to take the rest of the weekend easy and just enjoy myself; little did I know I'd be racing against cutoffs the next day.
I headed back to set up my camp, soak my legs in the creek and shower before chowing down on the pasta dinner Chef Cal had cooked up. For some reason I felt really tired and worn down and assumed I had just let myself run too low on water, salt and food. I figured filling up my tank and a good night's rest was all I needed as I crawled into my tent around 9:00 pm, but sound sleeping just wasn't in the cards. Massive thunderstorms blew through the entire night; thunder, lightning and a torrential downpour which kept me in that world where you're not awake but not really asleep either. Around 3:00 am I thought, "If it's doing this at 5:00 am there's no way I'm leaving my tent," and then I dozed off again. As my watch alarm sounded I got up, looked outside and saw nothing but stars in the sky. "OK, no excuse now, I guess I'll have to run!"
SATURDAY - 50 MILE
Steve had to re-route the 50 mile course due to debris on the trail and the new course was said to be very challenging. It was an out and back on the Sylamore Trail for the first 18.5 and then continuing on the Ozark Highland Trail for another 6.5 miles to the turnaround; per the rumors it had 8,000 feet of elevation gain and loss EACH WAY! With our headlamps and flashlights on we headed out towards the Sylamore steps a little after 6:00 am; thankfully none of us knew at that moment just how long the day would be. I settled in with Stuart Johnson and Paul Turner from the beginning as we made our way slowly along the Sylamore Trail dodging debris in the pre-dawn darkness. We arrived at the Barkshed aid station around 8:30 am, 2 1/2 hours and less than 10 miles into the race; what was taking us so long? This would be the question of the day. We trudged on down the Sylamore Trail stopping at the aid stations along the way to refuel with coke and pringles. We reached the 18.5 mile aid station around 10:40 am and were warned by Liz and Steve's sister that the next 6.5 miles were tough; apparently a lot of very steep and long hills and a bit more technical. We were moving at a snails pace already and none of us were too stoked to hear that!
This next section was definitely challenging, there were some very beautiful sections that included cascading waterfalls, interesting rock formations and a few caves; in fact Paul and Stuart both joked about stopping to take a nap in one of the caves and for me to pick them up on my way back. Up to this point none of us were in the best of moods and it didn't get any better; usually when you hit a low point you can count on the people around you to pull you out of it but all three of us just continued to feed each other's negativity as we complained about how long it was taking, how hard the course was and how much longer we were going to be out there. We were definitely in a funk! We reached the 25 mile turnaround a little after 12:30 pm, 6 1/2 hours into the race. The "code" word listed on the paper at the turn was "Syllamo" (to prove you had actually gone all the way out) but I joked that the first thing I was going to say to Steve upon crossing the finish line was "You're a sadistic ass!" We now started our way back knowing that we only had 7 1/2 hours to make it to Blanchard Springs before the 14 hour cutoff; we were all a bit concerned!
We discussed our strategy for making it back within the allotted time. First and foremost we needed to turn our attitudes around and start being more positive, we had to push ourselves by running more and walking less and we needed to stay properly fueled and hydrated; these three things were key to a successful finish. We saw a lot of our friends still making their way towards the turn; they were also a bit concerned about the cutoffs and commented about how long this course was taking. A short time after picking up the pace I could feel that familiar wave wash over me and I started sweating profusely; I was not feeling well at all, I didn't just hit the wall I was actually in it. As we reached the 27.5 mile aid station I dumped my water bottle over my head to snap out of it and was zig-zagging a bit as I approached the table. Billy Simpson and Greg Eason could tell I was bonking hard and asked if I was OK. "Yes, I just need soda and food," I replied as I began slamming 3 cokes and ate almost a half a can of pringles. Those really hit the spot which meant my salt was low too and I knew that I would be feeling better within minutes. We left that aid station around 1:15 pm knowing that the next few miles were the toughest on the course.
About a mile later Paul said, "It's been great running with you guys today, you go on. I need to walk a bit and can't keep up this pace." "OK, man, but keep going, don't stop, you can finish this thing!" Stuart and I said and with that we continued running on. "Do you think he'll make it?" I asked Stuart. "Yes, if he just keeps moving. Paul's one tough dude!" Every now and then we would see Paul just a short distance behind us continuing to hammer on and he caught up to us again at the next aid station where Liz and Steve's sister were working. "You guys were right, that section was tough! Steve's one sick dude to come up with a course like that!" I said. "Yes, it's brutal. I'm not like him, he enjoys causing you guys pain. He figures the harder the better," his sister replied. More pringles and coke and we were out.
Around mile 39 I was feeling really good and began pulling away from Paul and Stuart. None of us said anything, I just started running more and a bit faster and the next thing I knew I had left them. As I came down the hill to the Barkshed Aid station at 4:30 pm the volunteers were cheering me on and said "Only 9 more miles to go!" "Yes, I know. I've run the Sylamore 50K a few times and definitely know the way back from here!" I quickly grabbed some coke and pringles and was on my way. I ran practically the entire time for the rest of the race and was feeling really strong. As I approached the Sylamore steps there was a little girl and her Dad out on the trail, "You're almost there," she said and I smiled back, "I know, it's all downhill from here!" Running down the steps I came out into the field and saw Pat Perry about 200 yards from the finish line with his hands up celebrating his finish. "How great would it be if I could pass him at this finish line?" I thought and at that moment I broke out into a full on sprint. The spectators all saw me coming and began cheering but I couldn't make up the distance finishing just 19 seconds behind him in 12:17:59 for 11th place. As he turned around he said, "Where did you come from? You must have been flying for the last 25 miles!" "Yeah, I was feeling good and ended up running a negative split. Something like 6:30 for the first 25 miles and 5:45 for the last; it was my slowest 50 miler but probably the best race I've ever run," I replied. "Great job!" Steve Kirk said as he came over to shake my hand. "Next year, I'm running the 5 mile St. Patrick's Day fun run in St. Louis. That course was ridiculous," I half-jokingly said. "What do you mean? You'll be back next year, you know it," Steve replied. After grabbing a fleece I returned to the finish line to welcome the rest of the runners in and found out that some very experienced people were actually pulled due to the cutoffs. As we stood around talking many of us agreed that it was one of the toughest courses we had ever run. After soaking my legs in the river, taking a shower and mowing down on some red beans and rice I headed to bed; I was absolutely beat but the end was near!
SUNDAY - 20K
I slept about 11 hours and woke up around 8:00 am Sunday morning; as I headed up to the race pavillion you could feel the excitement in the air. We were all exhausted but this was the last day, a 20K victory lap if you will! I chatted a bit with Pat Perry as we ribbed each other about who was going to win the stage race; only 16 seconds separated us so it all came down to this race. "I don't know if I feel like racing today, we'll just see how I feel," I told Pat but secretly I really did want to beat him. He had run two great races but I knew that I was faster, I figured he had been running out of his mind and that there was no way he could keep it up. As we headed over to the start line Ashley Nordell came up to me and said, "You're Carey, right?" "Yeah, we've never really got to talk much since you're always way out in front," I replied. "You met my friend, Cheryl, at a race down in Oklahoma. We have a thing where when we meet people from different states we always email each other," she responded. "It was at Turkey & Taturs, yes, I remember her. She was really cool, we chatted quite a bit out by our cars after the race." "Small world," she said and with that we turned attention to Steve for the last day's instructions. The plan was to stay with Stuart the entire race as he was really going to put the hammer down because he definitely wanted to beat Pat and a little after 9:00 am we were off. We started towards the front; Stuart, Pat, Ashley and I cruising along and I knew within a few minutes that there was no way I could keep up this pace for long. We started going up hill and I did my best to hang on to Ashley and Stuart but I just couldn't, Pat was on my heels and I could hear him breathing heavy but I was too. About 2 miles in we came to a tree, I went off the trail to go around but Pat went under it and passed me. "Oh, I've got you," he joked but I thought to myself, "Yes, you do!" He was only 20 feet ahead of me but I was tired, my legs were heavy and I just didn't feel like racing anymore so I let him go.
It usually takes me 7-8 miles to warm up but in a 20K you don't have that long. I was passed a lot during the first half of this race and kept telling myself that I just needed to push on. I was only carrying one water bottle and drained it about 6 miles into the race; thirsty and hungry I arrived at the unmanned aid station, filled my water bottle and headed out for the last 5 1/2 miles. I was feeling a bit better and mentally convinced myself that it would be easier to run than to walk. Veronica Battaglia was on my tail for the entire last 4 miles and with about 1 1/2 miles left was less than 100 yards behind me. Heading into the last downhill section I thought there is no way I can let her pass me so I started flying at an 8:00 minute pace; downhill, technical running is my strength so I easily pulled away. Heading out on the road I saw Paul Schoenlaub and Stuart at the showers, "Great job, Carey. Looking strong, you're almost done!" they shouted to me. "Man, Veronica's on my tail. I'm beat, she's been pushing me this entire race. I can't let her pass me!" and as I crossed the bridge I looked behind me and there was no sign of her. I was relieved but still needed to push on this last bit to the finish. I got into the field and started my usual finish line sprint to the cheers of the spectators. Crossing the line in 2:38:55, Steve congratulated me on finishing all three days and gave me my hand-carved Ozark Hoot whistle finisher's award. Pat was there and I congratulated him. "You did awesome this weekend and we're a better man than me; great job!" He ended up beating me by less than 10 minutes for the entire stage race.
I headed over to grab my camera and snapped a few pictures of my friends and runners coming into the finish before breaking my camp down and showering. By about 2:00 pm Jerry and I were ready to start the journey back home and I was excited to have another 3 Days of Syllamo Stage Race under my belt. For the complete results of the 2008 3 Days of Syllamo Stage Race click HERE.
As many of you know I've been having a rough time mentally during my races lately. I've been wallowing in my low points and unable to get myself out of them; I haven't been enjoying the journey and just want to get to the finish. This weekend was no different as I was down quite a bit but continued to push on because that's what I do. I love the feeling of finishing and the sense of accomplishment I had on Sunday when we were driving home BUT this is only a small part of ultra-running. I am doing some real soul searching and trying to turn around my mental attitude to be more positive during the actual experience, this is much easier said than done! In order for me to keep going out there and running these races I've got to have a better outlook otherwise I will burn out and just be checking them off the list; or worse yet I will just quit running races all together. There's so many things I love about the sport; the friends I've made, the new lease on a healthy life I have, the confidence I've gained through these accomplishments, knowing that I'm inspiring others to get out there and push themselves and the list goes on. The trick for me is to remember all of this when I'm tired, hungry, thirsty, cold and hurting 20 miles into a race knowing that I have many hours left to endure. As David Horton says, "Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional." I've been suffering too much lately and it's time to put that to an end.
Hope all of you are well and Happy Running,