Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Dances with Dirt Gnaw Bone Race Report: Redemption at Gnaw Bone!!

Packet Pickup

My second race in the four race series is in the books. Dances with Dirt Gnaw Bone turned out to be a much better experience than the Disaster at Green Swamp. In fact, I loved the Gnaw Bone course, and it has now become my favorite of the 50ks that I have run.

Camp L&L on Raccoon Ridge
Leslie and I drove up to the campground Friday night and did packet pick-up. As we were entering the campground, we could see the course marker flags popping out of the woods here and there in the park. It helped raise our excitement level. We also could not believe the mountains around there. If we have hills in Michigan, then these were definitely mountains (albeit small ones by West Coast standards, but mountains still).
Leslie at highest point

Leslie and I both have the same pre-race favorite meal of mashed potatoes, so we left packet pick-up, went to Walgreens for some Ivy Block, and then stopped at Bob Evans for some pre-race carbo loading. We ordered this dish that is basically a biscuit with mashed potatoes on top, covered with chicken noodle gravy (with thick homemade-style noodles). Oink!! We were so full walking out of there we weren't even sure we would be able to run in the morning.

The next morning, 4:30 came around extra early because the inconsiderate guys in the camp site next to us had been blaring their stereo until about 11:30 the night before. As I got out of the tent to run to the outhouse, I could see all the other DWD people in the campground by the soft glows coming from the tents.  By the time we headed to the race site, it was still dark, but Randy  (the race director) had promised in the info sheet for the race that it would be daylight by the start. I was trusting him because I had no light.

He was right. By start time the sun was starting to come up and lights were not necessary. It was a great temperature, about 50 degrees I would guess. I had chosen a sleeveless bike jersey, removable sleeves, and shorts to run in. The bike jersey was so that I would have good coverage on my back for the hydration pack and a zipper up the front (I wonder why they don't make running shirts with front zippers and back pockets -- very handy).  I did not want a repeat of the chafing disaster from Green Swamp. I also did not want a repeat of the knee disaster, so I had taped my knee up again with the trusty Rock Tape, this time in a festive pink argyle design. I was a little nervous about the knee but much encouraged by its ability to make it through the Trail Marathon two weeks ago. I felt like I had a good chance of finishing this one without a problem.

There were more people at the start than at Green Swamp. I am going to guess close to two hundred in the 50k/50 mile combined start, with I don't know how many more in the full, half marathon, 10k, and relays. They started at later times. Leslie, in the  half, did not start until 9:00, so she had a long wait from my 6:15 start. I buried myself somewhere mid-pack. I knew from the course profile that we began with a long hill climb up to the ridges where the race was run, so I was already planning a slow start.

We ran out of the start area, crossed a bridge, and were soon on the muddy horse trail that would take us to the top of the ridge. When I say mud, I am talking deep, dark, shoe-sucking mud. There was not a lot of running happening on my end through this part; between the hill itself and trying to keep my shoes dry I was moving more at a forced march pace than a run. I resisted the impulse to check the pace on my watch and pushed out of my mind the idea that this would wreak havoc with my average pace per mile. Remember, I am running with a new "savor the moment" attitude.  As we neared the top of the ridge, I appreciated the slow pace because it let me have time to notice the really pretty pink and blue sunrise that was going on around me.

Once we reached the ridge, we moved onto a single track and the fun began. The next several miles were very runnable single track, with the usual ups and downs one would expect in a trail race. By that time I was warmed up and removed the sleeves. I again appreciated the bike jersey's back pockets and stuck an arm warmer in each side and forgot about them.

The next memorable section for me was a few miles later when we were running along a ridge approaching a lake. There was heavy tree cover, but I looked to the right, down the slope, and it appeared that we were running above the clouds. I knew that we had not climbed that high, so I knew that what I was seeing had to  be water. As we came down onto the dam at the end of the lake, I realized what I had been seeing. There was a slight mist rising off the lake which had created the illusion of clouds I had seen through the trees -- very pretty.

As the early part of the race progressed, I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of downhill and easy running. Although the course profile showed that there were lots of up and down,  the early miles of the race were actually very comfortable and fun for me. The course was also well marked, so I did not have a lot of worries about getting lost. I only had one moment of indecision. I had left an aid station and was on my own with no one in sight in front  of or behind me. I was padding along happy as can be when suddenly there was a pink streamer on a tree and another one off in the distance but not on any type of trail. Now in a normal trail race, I probably would not have thought twice and would have kept right on heading down the trail, but this is Dances with Dirt, and I know the race director's penchant for taking runners bushwhacking.

I headed off the trail (praying there was no poison ivy) through the brush to the pink streamer on the far tree. I stopped and did a complete 360. I could see no other pink markers except the one I had just left. I stood there trying to decide what to do. At that moment I heard runners coming down the trail, so I gave out a yell. It was three women whom I had been leap-frogging with for most of the race and a guy that had come up behind.  The women had run the course the year before, and they were sure that the course stayed on the trail at this spot. We decided to head up the trail a ways to see if we hit another trail marker. I tucked in behind them, and this started a beautiful relationship that lasted for most of the rest of the race.

Our group of four women ran together for the next many miles. I found out that one of the women was in my age group, one was 55-59, and that the other was in her 20s and had never run farther than a marathon before. They were running a perfect pace for me, and although I usually don't like to run in a group, I really did enjoy their company in this race. They liked to stay longer in the aid stations than I did, so I would usually leave ahead of them and they would catch me on the next big uphill (I am improving, but I do still suck on the hills).

On one of the times when I was alone after an aid station, probably somewhere around mile 13, I was passed by a 50 mile guy. As we were chatting, I made the observation that the hills were not as bad as I thought they would be. He laughed and told me that the second half of the course was much harder than the first. I appreciated the  heads-up and spent the next mile or so wondering what I was in for, but then remembered my new attitude and decided I would enjoy those hills when I came to them.

I will tell you that no words were ever more true than those. The second half of the course was definitely a bear.  As we pulled out of the aid station somewhere around 18 miles, one of the women said, "This is my favorite part of the course. This is where it gets interesting," or something along those lines. The next thing I know we are heading off trail for one of those "stupid sections" that the race director is famous for. The next two miles were mostly spent trying to follow the markers off-trail, climbing over downed trees, crossing streams, and at one point climbing straight up a muddy vertical surface on all fours. It was  a blast!

After we came out of that section, we had another aid station break and did some really nice running down to a second lake. As we ran along the edge of the lake, I could not help but think that we had to get back up to ridge level. I knew there was a climb in my future, but imagine my surprise when I found that to get back up to ridge level we had to climb about 20 flights of wooden stairs (about 6 to 8 stairs per flight). These were particularly annoying because the rise on the stairs was about two inches higher than my legs wanted to lift at that point. I guess it was that way for one of the other women I was running with too, as she took a bad fall on the stairs, really smacking her shin in the process. We waited while she tried to overcome the pain and start running again. Soon we were back on our way, but the group I was running with were starting to struggle some while I was still feeling good.

At about mile 26 we popped out of the woods and into the campground. There was an unofficial aid station there, so we stopped for some water and Gatorade. I was ready to go and happy to see this section. I knew this section because I had run it the night before to keep my streak alive. It was a little over a mile of pavement through the park before getting back onto the trail to head back to the finish. I also knew that beyond the pavement a considerable amount of those last few miles had to be downhill to get us off the ridges and down to the finish. On the pavement I was feeling good. I noticed that my group started to fall behind, but I did not realize how much until I hit the official aid station at the end of the pavement. They were nowhere in sight.

I did not need much aid at that point because I had fueled up at the unofficial station just a mile or so back, so I decided to head out. I was feeling a little guilty about leaving the group, but I also did not want to wait because I wanted the best time I could get. I started off down the two-track trail that would take us back down to Mike's Music and Dance Barn for the finish. Most of this section was good running, except for one little thing: more mud.

I was not as successful this time in staying out of the mud. There was just no way to avoid it in a few spots. I stepped carefully into the footsteps of previous runners, preferably males with size 13 shoes. I was doing alright until suddenly I lost my balance just a bit. My left foot missed the spot I was aiming for and went straight into the deep mud. My right foot, luckily, was on the bank. However, as I went to take the next step, I found that I could not move my left foot. It was stuck. I pulled harder and felt my foot start to slip out of the shoe. No way I was going to let that happen!! 

What to do?  Time is ticking! Well, the only thing I could figure out to do was stick my hands into that nasty black mud and dig out my foot. I started digging with one hand, using my other hand to balance so that I would not go face first into the slime. Finally I heard the satisfying "slurp" that comes when the shoe finally breaks loose from the suction and was able to pull out my foot, shoe attached, and make it to the other side of the mudhole. My shoes weighed about a pound each. I stopped for a second to use a stick to scrape the mud off my shoes and to rub my hand off in a patch of what I was praying was not something that would cause a nasty rash later.

Amazingly, with all the time I wasted, there was still nobody coming up behind me. I started running again and soon reached the top  of the grassy ski hill that I knew was very close to the finish. I picked my way carefully down the slope, keeping my eyes open for snakes they had warned us about, and started through the high grass. The trail at this point was about a shoe's width wide and through grass that was higher than knee deep. Things were going well until I caught my foot in a clump of grass and fell. This has been my biggest fear since the ruptured spleen. What would happen if I fell?  I am happy to report that what happened is what had always happened before that fateful day of the ruptured spleen: I got back up and kept running. I felt ten pounds lighter, though, to be relieved of the weight of that question. I could fall again, get back up, and not break myself.

The next section of the course, the last half mile, was classic Dances with Dirt. We ran up the middle of a stream. The water level was low this year, so the stream was anywhere from ankle deep to knee deep in places, and it felt absolutely fabulous!! What I did learn about my Pure Grits at that point was that they are rock magnets. I had forgotten to put on the gators that I had brought, so ended up with about a dozen little pea-sized pebbles in each shoe. The last few hundred yards to the finish were like running barefoot on a gravel road because of all the rocks in my shoes, but I did not care. I was finished, and the race had been, as my son would say "a blasty-blast."

I crossed the finish line in 6:47:25, which was not the sub 6:30 that I had hoped for, but which was still respectable, I thought. I was absolutely shocked when I told them my age group and they said I had gotten first place and handed me my "gnaw bone."

Leslie and I with our bones
I was not sure if Leslie was in yet or not, but I grabbed a muffin (I was starving) and headed out to find her. She was in, so I proudly showed off my bone. She said, "How did you know you placed?" I said they asked me at the finish. (Unlike road races, at trail ultras awards are often given out as you cross the finish line because with the runners finishing over such a huge spread of time, a post-race awards ceremony is usually not practical.)  She said that nobody had asked her. I told her to go check. She did and came back proudly displaying her bone as well. She had also gotten first in her age group.

Post Race Party Getting Started

The post-race party was already starting at that time. The keg had been tapped and people were stretched out on the ground or in lawn chairs cheering on the finishers. We were anxious to join the party, but the bite valve on my hydration pack had been leaking throughout the race, and I was soaked in blue Gatorade from the waist down. I REALLY wanted to get out of my soggy shorts, so we made a quick trip up to the campground to change clothes.

Country band at Mike's Music and Dance Barn

By the time we got back, most of the 50k people had finished. I saw my three women friends at the finish line. They had a rough final section and had finished about 13 minutes behind me. I was glad to see them and thanked them for helping me through the race. Then Leslie and I settled down with Leslie's new friend from the half to wait for the woman's husband to finish the 50k. 

By that time the country band was playing, and the food was ready.  Mike's pulled pork, ranch beans, and cole slaw definitely did not disappoint. Leslie enjoyed the beer on tap while I stuck to Diet Cokes so that I could get us back to the campground in one piece.

We spent the next several hours cheering in the late 50k runners, the 50 milers, and being entertained by the costumed relayers finishing their race. It was a great atmosphere, very fun and laid back. I also saw one of my RUT friends, Andrew, who finished the 50 miles. His next race is Western States!! How exciting!  

Red Hat  Hot Ladies Relay Team
Eventually, things started to wind down (somewhere around 6 pm, I would guess), and Leslie and I decided to head into town in search of more grub (I was still hungry  even after two pulled pork sandwiches).  We drove into the town of Nashville, which is a really cute little arts, crafts, and antiques town and a popular tourist destination. We found a local ice cream shop and got some ice cream and walked around a little. Amazingly the legs did not feel too bad at that point.

All in all, the entire race, from start to finish, was a great experience. I will be heading back to Gnaw Bone next year and look forward to tackling the course again. It is a beautiful and challenging ultra, with a little bit of everything. 


  1. What a great race, and perfect weather! I hope to tackle the 50K course next year......I want to see the mud wall and endless stairs! Maybe Lori will opt for the 50 mile?

  2. As locals (who will also be running the 50k this year) my wife and I were well pleased to read about your positive experience at Dances with Dirt, the Gnaw Bone version and our community. Best wishes to you and Leslie on May 10th!

    1. How fortunate are you to live in that area!! Not only is the trail fantastic, but it is a wonderful community as well! The people were very friendly everywhere we went! Good luck to you. We won't be able to make it this year. If you would like to do a guest report for me, I would love to hear what we missed!


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