Running, and, er, power hiking, the Post Oak Challenge

Body built by burritos. (Phillip J. Davis/Post Oak Lodge photo)

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.

Ouch.

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.

Success!

I look like someone who just got away with something.

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.

Bob Doucette

Race recap: The 2014 Post Oak Challenge

Relaxing at the Post Oak Lodge, trail dirt still on my legs, with a hard-earned finisher's medal.

Relaxing at the Post Oak Lodge, trail dirt still on my legs, with a hard-earned finisher’s medal.

Ah, yes. Humbled by the hills.

That was somewhat of the theme this weekend during my first race of the year, the Post Oak Challenge 25k trail race. I’ve done Post Oak once before – last year’s 10k. And my thinking was I was in better shape now than what I was a year ago.

This much is true. But after slacking off in December, getting pretty sick in January and training hard to regain lost endurance ever since, I was definitely not where I was in the fall when I PR’d the Tulsa Run 15k by 15 minutes and finished my first marathon. Not even close.

But that’s OK, and here’s why: I knew when I signed up for Post Oak that if I went with the 25k, it would be a struggle but would also be a jump-starter run for me. I could have backed off and done the 10k, and I might have shown improvement over last year’s time. Or I could step up the level of difficulty and push myself harder. I chose the latter.

This would give me a good idea where my conditioning is and possibly answer some questions as to where I go now. There are several more races coming up this spring, and I’m still eying that marathon in Oklahoma City at the end of April. Anyway, here’s the lowdown on the Post Oak Challenge…

This is a multi-faceted, two-day event held on a large rural property just northwest of Tulsa in rolling, hilly countryside. The first day has 10k, 25k and 50k events on trails; the second day is mixed road and trail races of quarter-, half- and full marathons. Some people run on one of the two days, others choose to do a doubler by running events on both days. I’m not that crazy. I just stuck with the 25k.

At nearly 1,500 feet, the elevation gain at the Post Oak Challenge 25k is like climbing to the top of this 667-foot skyscraper twice and still having to climb some more.

At nearly 1,500 feet, the elevation gain at the Post Oak Challenge 25k is like climbing to the top of this 667-foot skyscraper twice and still having to climb some more.

There were a couple of things that stuck out to me. First was just how hilly the course was. The 25k is estimated to have somewhere between 1,400 and 1,500 feet of elevation gain (that’s like climbing to the top of Tulsa’s tallest building, the 667-foot BOK Tower, twice, and still not being done), and about half of that shows up in the final 7 kilometers. What does this mean? It means the undulating first 18k saps you slowly, then the final 7 does you in.

Second was the level of athletes who showed up.  A friend of mine ran a 2:46 in last year’s 25k and was second in his age group (same as mine). This year, he ran a 2:25 and was in the middle of the pack in that same age group; the winner busted out a 1:55. That guy also won the whole thing.

And how did I do? A plodding 3:25. Hey, it is what it is. But let’s consider a few things. My showing put me in the back of the pack in my age group, something like 18th out of 24. But in November’s marathon, I was middle of the pack, and in the Tulsa Run I was in the top third. That right there speaks volumes of how different trail running is than road racing, and how competitive the field was at Post Oak.

I kept a decent pace early, but wore down. I’m coming in a bit heavy right now (180 pounds), but muscularly, I’m good. Cardio is what did me in. By the time I was near Holmes Peak, I was taxed.

Still, there was some fight left. A couple fellas made moves to pass me, so I ended up stalking them on the winding path up Holmes Peak. Then I passed them. And to put a stamp on it, I blasted as hard as I could up the final, steep pitch to the summit. By the time I topped out, I put a quarter-mile between me and the other guys who had passed me a couple of miles back.

But the cost was high. I would like to have bombed downhill and caught my breath, but neither really happened. I kept up a decent pace going down, but when I hit the bottom of the hill I was still winded, and I still had one more equally big hill yet to climb.

The last hill is dubbed “The Hill from Hell.” It’s wooded, somewhat rocky and steep in spots. What makes it particularly cruel is that once you’re about 40 feet from the top, a switchback takes you halfway down the hill and you have to regain all that elevation before reaching the top and the last, gentle half-mile to the finish.

Normally I have some kick at the end of a race. Even in November’s marathon, as beat as I was, I had enough in the tank to hustle across the finish line. But not this time. My hamstrings and glutes were done. My calves were tight. Cardio-wise, a quick sprint to the end was not going to happen. All I could manage was an even, slow lope.

A snapshot of some of the hilly countryside that hosts the Post Oak Challenge.

A snapshot of some of the hilly countryside that hosts the Post Oak Challenge.

But there are so many things to like about this race and its course. It’s beautiful out there. Those rolling hills offer spectacular views of the surrounding prairie. Even in their winter state, the woods are handsome. On top of Holmes Peak and the Hill from Hell, you can look down upon the skyscrapers of downtown Tulsa.

And the aid stations. Oh. My. Word. Trail race directors know how to do it. We’re not talking just water, sports drinks and energy gels. Sure, that stuff is present, but we’re also talking trail mix, fresh fruit, salty snacks, and, at the last station (at the base of the Hill from Hell), chocolate-covered bacon, beer and jello shots. Yep, you heard right.

Two days later, I’m still a little sore. I’d like to have run faster and made a better showing. But this race did exactly what it was supposed to do – shock me back into shape and launch me into spring race season. And my, what a beautiful way to do it.

Bob Doucette

Previewing the Post Oak Challenge trail race, Tulsa

Runners work their way up Holmes Peak at last year's Post Oak Challenge.

Runners work their way up Holmes Peak at last year’s Post Oak Challenge.

Well, it’s finally here. The beginning of my spring race season. And I’m starting with a hum-dinger.

Saturday and Sunday is the Post Oak Challenge, a cool trail race that takes places on a hilly patch of ground northwest of Tulsa. The Saturday races are all trail, while Sunday races are a mix of trail and road.

I ran this last year, doing the 10K trail race. It was a blast, and the course was at times both forgiving and relentless. By that, I mean that the trails are not technical at all (smooth, without the rocks and roots of what I’m used to), but the hills are significant, and the crux of all the races come at the final two miles.

I’m doing the 25K this year. There’s also a 50K for those ultra types. You know who you are.

For the truly insane is the opportunity to do some doublers. Sunday’s races include quarter-, half- and full marathons. Sign up for both days and you get that magic doubler trophy. (10K/quarter, 25K/half, 50K/full).

I can’t comment on the troad races, but I can tell you about the trail portions and what to expect (course map here). Like I said, the trail surfaces are wonderfully soft. There are some bottom areas that get pretty marshy, so race organizers recommend gaiters. Also, the singletrack nature of most of the course makes it tough to pass slower runners. So be ready for that. It mostly trends downhill until just before the fifth kilometer, then picks up about 120 feet before dropping back down and navigating smaller but frequent hills.

The course undulates a lot, and there are some nice hill climbs. But for the 10K and 25K runners, the crux of the race is at the end: two pretty big hills.

It looks like such a gentle little hill...

It looks like such a gentle little hill…

Just after the 17K mark, you hit the second-lowest part of the course, then abruptly begin the climb up the highest point in the Tulsa area, Holmes Peak. There is a slight drop in the middle of the climb, but between the 17K mark and the summit (21K) you’ll gain about 240 feet. The final push to the top is steep, but rewards you with a bird’s-eye view into downtown Tulsa.

From there, you begin a sharp downhill, dropping more than 250 feet, then gaining it all back on the course’s “Hill from Hell,” which includes a load of switchbacks, technical portions, mud and steep terrain. You start this climb at the 23K mark, then hit the top at just past 24K. The final kilometer is a gradual drop to the finish line.

That’s the end of it for the 10K and 25K runners. For the 50K crowd, they have to turn around and run the course in reverse. Ouch.

If you’re running this one, I’ll see you there. If you’re doing a doubler, hats off to ya. You’re going to have fun getting insanely sore.

If you’re doing the 10K, you can find your course map here.

If you want to check out the course maps for all the races, go to this link and find the races you’re interested in.

Bob Doucette

I’m ‘laying up’ and not liking it

I’m not really a golfer. I play on rare occasions, and I have a good time. A few hours outside with friends who don’t mind me hacking up the course is fine by me. But I’m no golfer.

I do understand the term “lay up.” In golf, it means to purposely hit short of the green because taking a long shot at that target presents too much risk: things like sand traps, water hazards or other obstacles that make otherwise sane people lose their minds. (It’s a lot easier for me to accept the fact that I suck; the fact that I don’t get mad on the course is a testament to that humble act of acceptance.)

Back in the real world, I laid up this week. And I’m not happy about it. Fine with the reasoning behind the decision, mind you, but not happy about it.

A view across the Arkansas River, looking into south Tulsa, from Turkey Mountain's Ho Chi trail.

A view across the Arkansas River, looking into south Tulsa, from Turkey Mountain’s Ho Chi trail.

I was out on the trails last weekend, plowing through the usual suspects of rocks, roots, hills and woods. My goal was to pound out about 10 miles. The weather was good, and the trails were in fine shape. I had time to spare. It didn’t really matter to me if it was 8 or 10 or whatever. I was just going to run for awhile, challenge myself and continue preparations for what was turning out to be an aggressive (for me) race schedule.

The one race that was giving me trouble was the upcoming Post Oak Challenge on March 2. There are a ton of races in this one of varying lengths, but the one I was eyeing was the 25K trail race. That’s about 15 miles, and would be a good-sized step up from what I’ve been doing as of late. I’ve got a nice-sized schedule of races after this one, too, including another trail event two weeks later. I was registered for that one, but not yet for Post Oak. I just wasn’t quite settled on the 25K. It’s not that I can’t do it. But with what style? If I had to hike half the thing, what would be the point?

Somewhere around Mile 6, I started to bomb. I did a winding, hilly 5-mile loop, then hit my personal fave, the Powerline Trail, for another mile or so, which ended with a quarter-mile hill climb. That always leaves me beat, but I can normally take a quick breather and soldier on.

This is about the place where the running gave way to bouts of hiking.

This is about the place where the running gave way to bouts of hiking.

And that’s what I did. But heading back on that last 2-mile stretch, my body felt heavy. My legs were lead. Joints were creaky. Man, I was just tired. I bagged it at 8.5 miles, went home and thought about how I felt. I realize that taper weeks always help with this, but I couldn’t help but to think that had this been the 25K, I’d still have about 7 miles left to go. I have no interest in limping across the finish line in last place just so I can get a medal that says I finished the race. Style over substance? Maybe.

So I logged on to the Post Oak’s website and registered for the 10K.

I laid up.

And I don’t feel good about it.

There are plenty of reasons I should. For starters, it fits in well with my training and race schedule. Two weeks after Post Oak, I do the Snake Run, a three-hour trail running event in which you try to go as far as you can in the allotted time (there’s also a six-hour event, but that’s not for me yet). A month after that is the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon. I’ll be doing the half in that one.

The goal for the Memorial is to finish with a respectable time. So every race and every run between now and then is aimed at getting me stronger to achieve that goal, which hopefully will springboard into something bigger later in the year.

So the 10K at Post Oak makes sense training-wise. It also makes sense given my performance right now.

But still…

I know my body will thank me as I ramp up the intensity gradually over the next couple of months. However, laying up just seems kinda like weak sauce.

I’m reminded of a scene from the movie “Tin Cup” in which a supremely talented head case of a golfer played by Kevin Costner is presented with the opportunity to either lay up on a tough hole or try to make a ridiculously difficult shot to the green. He refuses to lay up and hits the green. But only after wasting a ton of shots where his ball repeatedly falls short, lands in a water hazard and costs him a tournament win.

Pride got him to the green, eventually. Pride also cost him the victory.

So I keep telling myself not to be prideful. Not to compare myself to some of my runner friends who can bust off 50K-, 50-mile and even 100-mile ultras. Sorry, but I’m just not in that league.

We’ll see if this strategy is correct. Or if I’ll be kicking myself when the 10K is over because only then will I realize that the 25K was well within reach (Route 66 reprise!). Or perhaps the shorter race will prove sufficient.

All I know is I’ll be running that one hard. I’ll have a bit of a chip on my shoulder. My cautious side often crops up in stuff like this, be it a race or a climb or whatever. But my pride hates laying up.

Bob Doucette

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