Sunday, February 2, 2014

Running With 78 Friends

Many years ago, I remember running in January in the Ouachita Forest and having a great long run.  After 15 or so miles on a cold day, the trail came out of the forest and into a clearing and the sun had begun to shine bright enough to begin to warm me up.  I was enjoying it so much that I thought it would be great to invite friends along to enjoy the Ouachita Trail which so many people even close by are unaware of.  Years would pass by and every winter I would find myself on many weekends on a long run and often thinking the same thing.  Wouldn't it be great to have a trail run out here.

Finally last year I just decided to do it.  I set up a great course for a 25K and a 50K and set up a website here on my blog - and then set up a facebook page and we had 30 people come out and run.  It was a great day just like when I ran alone.  The only down side was that I was so busy and concerned with directing the race, that I didn't get to run.

So this was the second year and thanks to a great bunch of volunteers, I was able to run the race myself.  With the help of so many people and especially the Choctaw Nation that made the race a part of their PACE program and helped with financial support, our numbers more than doubled and we had 78 people line up for the two events.

It turned out to be another beautiful sunny day and perfect weather for running the Switchbacks.  In this report I am just going to describe my run and give information on what the course is like.  I will post more information and race results on the website soon.

The one good thing about putting on your own race is that you know the course like the back of your hand.  I had spent about 20 or more hours clearing the trail in the weeks leading up to the race and I've run parts of that trail for 13 years or more.  We started off and immediately Josh and Justin had taken off at a strong pace.  I stayed with them to the first aid station at 3.7 miles but I had no interest in trying to stay with these young guys and so I backed off the pace and tried to enjoy it.

Those first 3.7 are like the rest of the Switchbacks course, very technical.  Lot of rocks and little stream crossings and while there are no major climbs, there are a lot of little ups and downs.  There are also two scenic wildlife ponds that a really nice.  At the first aid station my wife was the Big Cedar aid station captain and I had my daughter playing the clarinet for everyone's entertainment and she played beautifully.  I let Josh and Justin go as we made the creek crossing which was only about ankle deep.

The next five miles is steadily up.  At about 5.5 miles is a spring and a campsite area.  Then you have some more climb for nearly a mile and then about a half mile down hill to a little saddle where there is another campsite.  Then begins the race's namesake - the switchbacks!  30 plus switchbacks that go to the top of Winding Stair Mountain.

As I head up, I catch up to some of the early starters and it was great saying hi to all of them.  The wind really started blowing the higher you get until at last you get to the top and the aid station which is at the Winding Stair Backpacker Shelter.   The shelter was only completed last fall by FoOT and Americorps members and it is awesome.  What a great location for an aid station.

Turning around, it is nice to know that you have nearly 5 miles of almost all downhill all the way back to the Big Cedar Aid Station.  This is a fun section and it goes by fast because you see so many of your friends and say high and give words of encouragement.

After visiting with my wife for a bit, I began the 3.7 miles back to the Pashubee Trailhead which is the Start - Finish area but also is the 17.4 mile aid station for the 50K.  I had prepared mentally for this section ahead of time because I worried it would seem really long.  Every time I have run this trail, this 3.7 mile section seems to go on forever.  It seems as though when I prepare myself ahead of time for a tough section of the trail, it always seems okay and this time it went by pretty smooth and I had really taken it easy too with a lot of walking breaks.

A little over 3 hours I was back at Pashubee where my Mom and our friend Deanna were in charge of that aid station which is a big job because they have to not only make sure there is hot food and beverages but also are trying to account for all of the runners.  I visited with them and then it was time for Penny's debut in ultra trail running.

Penny is my golden retriever that I just got in November.  She has been a great running partner these last few months and always listens and stays by my side.  I left her in the car while I did the first half of the race because I worried it might be too hard for her to run the entire thing.  But now it was her time to run.  I opened the car door and she was so excited.  I think she must have watched me and the others take off at 8 that morning and was more than just a little upset that she was not included.

Penny and I took off for the Eastern part of the trail.  On this part, the trail goes down a small hill right after Pashubee and there is about a half mile of very technical trail with huge rocks and boulders.  It's very pretty and then the trail begins a nearly two mile ascent to the top of a  mountain.  This climb is nearly as tough as the Switchback climb.  Once at the top, the trail goes slightly downhill along a ridge with expansive views on either side and then makes a long steep descent to the Kiamichi River.  As you run along the ridge and down the hill, you can see out over the Kiamichi river valley and it is stunning.  That River and that valley is where we are going.

After getting to the bottom, we follow an old jeep road and get away from the Ouachita Trail.  Now we follow the jeep road for about a mile to a forest road and across the Kiamichi River.  The river is not real deep (maybe shin level) but it is moving swift and is very cold.  On the other side of the river Brian Hoover who is the founder and organizer for TATUR (Tulsa Area Trail and Ultra Runners) has a great party going.  He has moving blaring and it looks like so much fun.  He even had pineapple daquiris.  I couldn't refuse one and so I visited for just a little bit while I drank one down and it was really good!!

I went back across the river and we ran the jeep road back to the Ouachita trail and began the final ascent.  At this point, the 50K runner only needs to concentrate on getting back up this mountain.  It is a long hard climb with many false summits because once you reach the ridge where you can see the other side, you keep going up for at least a mile and it is real technical.

The plus side is that once you make it to the top, it is so easy from there on.  You know you are at the top when you see a beautiful camp spot to your left and then a steady descent from there.  It is really surprising how easy it is to the finish from there.  In a way, it makes the second half not seem so hard.

Once at the bottom, you have just a short little run back over the boulders and creek beds and then one final short little climb to the Pashubee trail head which you can see up ahead.

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