If you remember, a couple of weeks back I confessed to falling off the wagon as a trail runner. It had been awhile since my feet ran on dirt, and I expected the price for my sins to be high at last month’s Post Oak Challenge. I signed up for the 10K on a course that’s known for being difficult, regardless of distance.
I also mentioned that the forecast for the weekend’s races looked like rubbish – lots of rain, which would make a course known for holding water that much tougher.
Boy, was I right on that one.
It was a rainy January and February – Tulsa is already a couple of inches of rain above normal for the year, and the folks at Post Oak Lodge had to cancel Sunday training runs at the site because the trails were too muddy. And then it rained the week before the races. And then on each of the first two days of the three-day race series, including a nice dump the morning of my race.
Post Oak’s course runs through a series of dirt-and-grass trails that undulate on the sides of hills and in the bottoms of valleys and ravines of the Osage Hills northwest of Tulsa. Toward the end of the race, you make two climbs – one that goes most of the way up Holmes Peak (the highest point in a four-county area), then another that meanders up and down what’s dubbed as the Hill from Hell. We’ll get to that in a bit.
I’ve run here before, so I know how muddy it can get. Well, at least I thought I did.
Things started well enough. Everything was nice and runnable. The route took us downhill, things got muddier, but we all plowed through it. Somewhere down there was a creek crossing. No big deal.
And then it started. For the next couple of miles, the trail consisted of a viscous mix of mud and water that resembled lubricant. It wouldn’t stick to your shoes, but it gave you little to no traction. Suddenly this “run” turned into a hike.
There were briefs moments of respite: a dried-out section here, rockier trails there, even a farm road that drained nicely and actually allowed me to run. But then we’d head uphill, the slop would resume, and it was three feet forward, two feet back. Power-hiking resumed.
This wasn’t true for everyone. Fleet-footed runners ahead of me somehow found a way to keep surging ahead, and one of my coworkers in the race actually won the damn thing while clocking in at an 8:30 pace. How, I don’t know.
I groused to myself every now and then, complaining about what had turned into an $80 hike, but eventually got over it and made the best of things. I ran where I could. I hiked when needed. I chatted up fellow sufferers and kept things moving.
Probably my favorite part of the race started on a long downhill on the side of Holmes Peak. I shortened my steps (some of us call it “logrolling”) and zig-zagged downhill, piecing together a nice, long, enjoyable stretch of technical trail running that made me feel like I wasn’t a lost cause after all. But eventually we bottomed out and the slop-fest resumed.
The Post Oak Challenge pins its reputation on another one of its big hills, the Hill from Hell I mentioned earlier. I vaguely remembered its trials, but I figured the worst of it was behind me.
At the base of the hill was the last aid station, where local trail legend Ken “TZ” Childress was serving up Fireball along with the more traditional water and Gatorade. Usually I don’t slam booze during a race unless I’m tanking hard. Just Gatorade for me, being the serious runner and all.
Anyway, the Fireball was particularly tasty. We clicked plastic cups for a short toast and I rumbled up the hill to tackle the last of it.
What I remember of the Hill from Hell is that you meander uphill a ways, then go downhill, and regain all that precious lost elevation one more time before you end the race. The reality is you go up the hill, back down some, up a little, down some more, back up, top out, then do down, circle its upper flanks and finally emerge from the woods to go run in the grass, around a pond and across the finish line.
Making things more fun was the trail was about as slick and treacherous as anywhere else in the race. I bit it hard once, landing on my butt with a heavy splat before regaining my feet and sliding my way forward. Running/hiking in conditions like this looks hilarious because your body is twisted one way while your feet are going somewhere else. It’s a great core workout for sure. But utterly absent of grace or any other appearance of athleticism. Or maybe that’s just me.
When I left the horrors of the hill behind and started the last grassy loop toward the finish, I surmised that now I’d finally be able to run again, but was somewhat disappointed to find that the grass was mostly a shoe-sucking bog that, again, undermined any attempt at speed.
The race ended with 80-something people finishing ahead of me, 60-something folks behind. In my age group, I finished 19th out of 22.
It could have been worse. I had one friend who fell hard enough that she thought she may have busted her jaw. And I did accomplish both of my goals: to finish and not finish last.
Post-race, we all gathered for free grub and a couple of beers while talking about the race, the trail conditions, and the strategies used to cope with it all. I was informed by perennial Post Oak competitors that the course conditions were actually worse the year before.
So I suppose the trail gods did show me a little mercy. My long absence required penance, but it could have been more severe.
And I got the last laugh. Despite the conditions, my miserable finish time, the over-abundance of power hiking, the mud caked in all the wrong crevices, I had fun. You heard me right. This was a good time. I embraced the suck and was rewarded not with hardware, glory or any sense of achievement, but with something simpler – a grin on my face akin to a little kid who did something wrong and got away with it.