Saturday, October 18, 2008

Bizz Johnson Trail Marathon

October 12, 2008
Susanville, California

Although I’ve participated in two (finished one) 50k trail runs, Bizz Johnson was my first official marathon. As always with me, I was full of nervous excitement for the couple of weeks leading up to the race. The marathon is run on a rails-to-trails system, and is imperceptibly downhill after a slight, hardly noticeable incline over the first few miles.

Susanville sits at the edge of Lassen National Park, at an elevation of a little over 4100 feet. The race starts at a little over 5000 feet, and you end up with a total elevation drop at the end of approximately 1300 feet. It’s a gorgeous place with lots of Ponderosa Pines (one of my favorite trees), aspen, and open prairies.

I left on Friday and drove 3.5 hours to my niece’s house in Ft. Jones, spent the night with her, and on Saturday, drove the 3.5 hours over to Susanville. It was a beautiful drive that took me right past snow-capped Mt. Shasta - which gave me the shivers.

I already knew it would be cold for the run, as my water bottle, which I had left in my car at my niece’s, was almost frozen solid when I left her place at 10:00 a.m. I was not looking forward to that aspect of the run.

My coach, Bill, was driving to Susanville on Saturday, and we ended up in town right around the same time, and eventually caught up with one another around 2:00. There had been an express ½ that same day, and many of the runners had requested a late checkout at the hotel where we were staying. Since we couldn’t check in yet, we headed over to the Train Depot to pick up our bib numbers, and I readied my drop bags. There were going to be three drop bag sites. I was used to a single bag being taken to the various stations, so this was the first time I had ever had to figure out 3 different bags and what I would need at that point in the run. Yeah, basically a crap shoot. In the end, I ended up not doing too bad on the guessing.

Before leaving, we visited the “expo tent” being run by Fleet Feet, and I snagged a couple of pairs of Injinji socks for only $5 each! I had just bought 2 pair from ZombieRunner for something like $12-$14 each, plus the cost of shipping. I probably should’ve grabbed more, but I didn’t want to be a sock pig. :o)

Figuring we’d probably wasted enough time, Bill and I headed back to the hotel, checked in, and hung out talking for a little while. My room ended up being right next to the laundry room, which brought it’s own surprises. First, when I got there, the toilet was full of suds. Perplexing, yes, but I figured the cleaning person had forgotten to flush or something. However, when I flushed the toilet, it didn’t seem to want to drain properly, and I thought the thing was going to overflow. Then, while Bill and I were sitting in the room talking, I heard this gurgling noise coming from the bathroom. Went to investigate, and the toilet water is actually bubbling! Like someone with a really big straw was on the other end blowing air into it. Ends up they’d been having problems with the drainage between the toilet and the washer. Luckily, I never had any significant problems, but it did give me worries a couple times during the rest of my stay.

Also, when the washers would go into spin cycle, the wall that the beds were against would start vibrating like crazy. I told Bill, “Yee haw! Free vibrating bed, and I didn’t even have to put a quarter in anything!!”

He took off after awhile to grab some food for himself for the next morning, and when he got back we headed over to the Black Bear Diner, stuffed ourselves, bid each other ‘nite, and headed off to get some sleep before the long day.

Sunday dawned a tad overcast . . . and freaking cold! When we left the hotel at 7:00 a.m., it was 18 degrees outside! 18 frigging degrees!! I had on my winter running tights, a pair of running pants, a long sleeve tech shirt, a thicker tech pullover, a sweatshirt, and gloves, and I was freezing my rear end off. People were hanging out in the Train Depot building trying to stay warm until we hopped on the shuttles to head to the start of the race.

There were 4 races that day: a 5k, 10k, and Half, which were each out/backs, and the marathon, which was a one-way ticket. Soon everyone was being herded onto the shuttles, and I ended up sitting next to 3 guys from the Fresno area, who were really nice and fun to talk to. When one of them was using the bus facilities, the another told me they expected him to finish the race in about 2:45. I just shook my head, hoping I’d finish in my desired 5.5 hours.

Once we got to the start, I headed off to use Mother Nature’s restroom as opposed to standing in line for 10-15 minutes waiting for a stinky porta toilet. Many of us chose the first option, so you had to pick your tree carefully, lest you find someone else baring all on the other side. I then began reluctantly peeling off layers and put my extra clothes in a bag and into the trailer that would be hauling them back to the finish. The RD eventually called us over to the starting line, gave us the requisite last minute instructions, we sang the National Anthem (a first for me at a race), and then we were off!

Having never run the upcoming distance on flat terrain before, I was going to start out nice and slow and try to pick up the pace as I determined how I was feeling. Whenever I’ve run trail events, I’m usually by myself pretty much from the beginning. With this, there were a lot of people around me, and it was hard not getting sucked into somebody else’s rhythm and pace.

We headed off down a dirt road for the first .9 miles, then turned around, went .5 miles back, and then hit the trail. I looked in front of me and saw a very long, very straight, well, almost more of a dirt road than a trail, and realized how much more of a mental game this would be. When you’re running trails, you usually can’t see that far in front of you.
This felt like you could see for miles ahead of you - 26.2 miles to be exact. The good thing about it, though, was that people were in front of and behind me almost the entire time. Rarely did I go far without seeing another runner. I was feeling really good about my pace, but I was so cold. I felt like I just could not get warm.

At the Mile 12 aid station (there were stations every 2 miles), I picked up Stan, who worked for BLM (?) and was riding his bike up and down the trail taking pictures of runners and making sure the aid station workers were doing okay. He ended up riding with me for maybe half a mile. I said something about it being so cold, and he informed me that at that point we’d only dropped about 100 feet in elevation. However, by the time we got done, we’d end up dropping about 1300 feet, and once we dropped down into the canyon, it’d be warmer - only that was a ways away.

Stan eventually left me, and I proceeded on my own, passing a runner here and there, getting passed as well. There seemed to be a core group of us (maybe 6-7) who passed one another at various points until about Mile 18, when I eventually was left in their dust. Right before the Mile 16 aid station, I started having trouble with my left hip flexor, which I knew was not a good thing, and was where my race started falling apart. I ended up laying on the ground for a few minutes at the aid station trying to stretch things out, and tried various standing stretches at different points along the trail.

By Mile/Station 18, I could run - though not well - for a short while then BAM! It’d feel like someone stuck a pointed sharp object right in my left butt cheek and it would literally stop me in my tracks with a few 4-letter words. Let me tell you, it hurt! I would walk for maybe 30 seconds to a minute and start a slow run again. I never knew how far I’d be able to go before THERE IT WAS AGAIN! GOTCHA! This little scenario would play itself out for the rest of the race.

This had happened to me once almost 2 years before. Only that time, things got so bad, that once I stopped running, my entire left hip seized up on me and I literally could barely walk for about 3 days and I couldn’t run for a month. It was extremely painful, and the thought of that happening again scared the crap out of me. Plus, we had been told that if we decided to drop from the race, we needed to make it to at least Mile 20 to get a ride back to the finish before the end of the race. Otherwise, we would have to stay at whichever aid station we’d dropped at until the end of the race, which had a 7-hour time limit. When I got to Mile 20, I figured I’d gone this far, I was going to make it the final 6.2 miles no matter what. . . . . although, I have to say that the ambulance waiting at that station was a very tempting sight, indeed! (Kidding!)

Around Miles 21-23, the trail took us through two tunnels. Strangely enough, I felt unbelievable great running through each tunnel. It was like I had some kind of renewed energy, and I really wished they were longer. Maybe it was because you could see the light at the end, I don’t know. The feeling I got is hard to explain, and I still don’t understand it. But I do remember that it wasn’t until around this time that my hands finally warmed up and I took off my gloves. It literally took me over 20 miles before I finally felt warm.

With a little less than 1.5 miles to go, I came up on a guy who was really struggling. As I pulled up along side him, I asked if he was running the race and he was. His name was Aaron, he was from the Bay Area, and, from what he said, I don’t think he’d run anything longer than a 10k before. He told me there were parts of his body hurting that he didn’t know could hurt. I was laughing and told him I felt the same way, then asked if he wanted to limp/walk/run the rest of the way together. When you’re struggling yourself, and someone comes along who can sympathize, knows what you’re going through, it gives you a kind of energy. Aaron and I ended up running that last bit faster than I thought possible. And if it wasn’t for the fact that another zinger launched itself into my ass, we probably would’ve made it in under 6 hours. As it was, for the last quarter mile we were doing a 10:08 pace, which shocked the hell out of me, and we crossed the finish line together in 6:00:15 and received our finisher’s medal - a wooden train whistle with Bizz Johnson Trail Marathon on one side and 2008 Finisher on the other side. Very cool.

Although I was (and sort of still am) disappointed with my time, I’m proud of myself for finishing. The next day, my hip felt like someone had kicked the crap out of me, and it was tough walking around, let alone sitting for the 5.5 hour drive home. Lots of stop-and-walk breaks. I did, however, console myself that night with a big container of mini powdered sugar donuts and ice cold milk. Oh, they tasted so good!!

Would I ever run Bizz Johnson again? I don’t know. I don’t like being that cold for so long, I think a lot of precious energy was expended trying to stay warm. Plus the long, straight, you-can-see-forever aspect was mentally hard. I don’t know how people run road marathons with miles of asphalt in their face. But it’s a beautiful course, and if those two things don’t bother you, I highly recommend it.


RunninRob said...

Great job toughing it out to finish! As I have told Dan the Breakheart Trail Runner, one never has the total trail experience without one (or multiple) of the following: blood, select four letter words, body crapping internally, body crapping out externally, etc. Thanks for posting your Bizz Johnson experience. -Rob

Dan said...

Hey Leslie
I love reading you race reports because you never leave out any of the gruesome details. I admire your determination to get to the finish no matter how difficult your situation.

fatozzig said...

Hi Guys - Thanks for the comments. Dan, what I didn't share (but will in the future!) is the fact that I have terrible, shall we say, "bloating" problems with distance running. Ugh! Will be trying new remedies with the next run.

rustyboy said...

Nicely run and a well written account! Congrats!

And I hear ya: I'll take a trail 50 miler any day over a straightaway marathon. I'd much rather not know what was coming up next.