This was my third hundy of the year, precisely five weeks after the Flagstaff to Grand Canyon Stagecoach Line 100-Mile in September. As race week approached, I grew extremely restless and nervous, and for good reason. Everyone I spoke to who had run the race had worrying things to say: “This is NOT a course to go for a PR on.” “If the course itself doesn’t shred you, the creek crossings, cold and wet weather will haunt you through the entire race.”
Well, fair enough!
I was also told that if I had a pacer or crew available to me, I needed to use them and not try to hammer through this race solo, as was my original plan. So, reluctantly, I decided to save being “super woman” for another race and take advantage of the strong support that was available to me at this “home race.”
I recruited Mike Gallagher to pace me from Hazel Creek (65.4 miles) to Berryman (78.6 miles). I chose Mike for this section because he had run OT 100 last year and was familiar with the course and what it would take to get me through “Murderers Row,” as this section of the course is affectionately known.
My second pacer would be Tim Landewe, who would join me from Berryman to the finish at Bass River Resort (100.9 miles). I chose Tim to pace me to the finish quite simply for the comfort and understanding. Tim and I train together quite a bit; we’ve logged many long and unpleasant miles together during runs that required us to be up and going at 4 a.m., or out in 100-degree heat. So, I knew that Tim would recognize when I needed to push and when I needed a reality check to get my rear to the finish and accomplish my goal.
Ah! That brings me to my goal for this race: On the surface, I was looking at a conservative, 28-hour finish given all the logistics, terrain and elevation for this race — assuming that nothing broke down on me. (There are no guarantees EVER when running 100 miles.) Below the surface, I secretly wanted to push for the First Female Overall finish. But the only people aware of this goal were me and Tim.
Race: Ozark Trail 100 Mile Endurance Run
Organizers: Paul Schoenlaub and Stuart Johnson
Location/Course: The race headquarters and finish line are located at Bass River Resort. This is a point-to-point, 100.9-mile ultramarathon on the Ozark Trail through the Mark Twain National Forest in south-central Missouri. The race is mostly single track trail with several water creek crossings, some as deep as your knees or more depending on how much rain there has been. There is an elevation gain of approximately 12,000 to 15,000 feet. The trail surface varies from smooth dirt to technical rocks and roots. Adding to the challenge are lots of leaves covering the trail this time of year.
Time Limit: 32 hours (100.9 miles)
Runner: Shalini Kovach
Nutrition (approximately 2,200 calories):
A couple of us were staying at Bass River Resort the night before the race, so we could get up and catch the shuttle at 3:30 a.m. to be at the start of the race at 6:00 a.m. I had set out all of my gear and was in bed at 8:30 p.m., only to roll from side to side pretty much all night long. I was wide awake at 2:00 a.m. and, long story short, didn’t sleep well. I finally got up at 2:45 a.m. and started to get dressed. Did I tell you I was nervous?
On the shuttle, I sat with a few fellow runners and anxiously chatted for two hours until we came to a halt at the start line. “Just focus” was all I kept telling myself, repeating in my head to hold pace, start slow and keep that up until it was time. Time for what you ask? Time to make a break for it, time to start flagging the competition.
One thing to relay here: I’m normally not a competitive runner, so this was a whole new game plan for me. I had set out with a goal and was on a mission. Strategically, what this amounted to was trying to stay focused on pace and be aware of my surroundings and my competition. And not to stop and chat at aid stations or sightsee, as I am notorious for doing, something my pacers Mike and Tim reminded me about numerous times. So, get in and get out of the aid stations — that was also part of the plan.
Go time! It was 6 a.m., and I was running. I started at the back of the pack and decided to be patient and go out slow, not to rush. My iPod was playing “Fight for Your Mind” by Ben Harper, which was relevant to me because the lyrics reflected the state of mind I was in at the time:
Now, if you’re gonna step, step on in
If you’re gonna finish, you got to begin
Don’t you fear, what you don’t know
Just let that be, your room to grow
Grasshopper Hollow (4.5 miles) to Gunstock Hollow (31.3 miles)
From the start of the race until I hit Gunstock Hollow was pretty uneventful. I ran steady, held pace…then took a tumble and landed smack on my left kneecap. I sat there on the trail for a moment, shocked, and finally had to pull myself up by holding onto a tree. My knee hurt like a mofo. I walked and tried to shake it off. Was my race over before it had even really got started? After about a mile of tenderly testing my gait, I realized it was only when I stopped running that my knee locked up. As long as I kept moving, it felt fine — even with the ever-so-slight “click” I could hear at each knee bend. I told myself it was all in my head and continued onward.
Brooks Creek (40.0 Miles)
This is where my brain turned. I pulled into the aid station, refilled and turned to ask race director, Stuart Johnson, who happened to be there, what place I was in. He said I was the sixth female runner but should be able to catch the fifth-place female, as she had just left the aid station. Cool! I was in and out of the aid station, on a mission. I ran hard past the fifth place female runner and then, later on, past the fourth place female runner. I was in third place and holding steady when I hit Martin Road aid station at 55.8 miles. I had 9.6 miles to go until I hit Hazel Creek, which is where I would pick up Mike for the night stretch. I was hoping to catch up to the lead female runners overnight, although I had no idea how far ahead of me they were and if I realistically had a chance at it.
Hazel Creek (65.4 miles)
For multiple reasons, the 9.6 miles from Martin Road to Hazel Creek were the worst. It got dark, it got cold, and my shoes and socks were soaking wet. And, to top it off, I lost a glove on the trail somewhere during this stretch, so I only had one. My hands were freezing to the point of being numb. I don’t operate well in cold weather, and I came close to mentally shutting down with just 4 more miles to get to Hazel Creek. Two things kept me moving forward: First, I was really looking forward to seeing Mike and having company on my run. Second, I had a change of winter gear, dry shoes, socks and heavier mittens in my drop bag, so I could change out of my soggy clothes and continue forward in dry, warm ones. Oh, the things that you look forward to when running 100 miles!
Soon enough I was at Hazel Creek. I sat down and had Mike, John Goble and Kathy Brennan hovering around me to help with food, water and whatever else I needed.
Me: Where’s my drop bag?
Mike: It’s not here. Sure you packed one for Hazel Creek?
Me: WTF? Where’s my drop bag? I had all my winter gear in it. I need dry clothes and shoes. I’m freezing cold, and I can’t do this. Where the hell is it? What the F happened to my drop bag??!!
Yeah, I had a mini-meltdown. Shortly after I caught myself, as I realized what a brat I was being. Shit happens, and I needed to quit freaking out and get my head back in the zone. Just then, it dawned on me that I had an extra pair of dry socks in my vest, so I pulled those out and John and Kathy helped me change.
Me: I need a heavier jacket. I’m freezing….
John: Here, you take this micro-fleece.
He literally took the shirt off his back and gave it to me, so I could stay warm during the night.
Me: Gloves, I lost one and I don’t have….
Before I could finish my sentence, another runner came up behind me and handed me my lost glove. He had picked it off the trail on his way to Hazel Creek.
Kathy quickly added hand warmers to my gloves and filled up my bladder. Despite the fact that my shoes were still soaking wet, I was now comfortable enough to hammer through the night stretch of the race. As I sat there eating, I asked one of the volunteers what place I was in. He told me that when I had pulled into Hazel Creek I was holding third — and the second-place and first-place female runners were still there, too. In an instant I had forgotten how cold and miserable I felt and was telling Mike that we needed to get the hell out of the aid station!
Berryman Campground (78.6 miles)
The stretch from Hazel Creek to Berryman had a few creek crossings, one with knee-deep water, but Mike kept me running steady and I was holding my new position as first-place female. It wasn’t until we reached Pigeon Roast Road aid station at 73.3 miles that I realized I was being hunted. The second-place female runner was right on my heels. Every time we’d pull into an aid station, she was there with her pacer, so there was no room for trial and error on my part. I couldn’t just plod along; I needed to be aware and disciplined if I was going to hold first. So, we began to play a cat and mouse game. I was flying in and out of aid stations, with Mike edging me forward even when I wanted to slow down.
We made our way to Berryman aid station, where the plan was to pick up Tim, but when we arrived Tim wasn’t there yet. I shoveled food into my mouth and I took out my trekking poles. I had also placed an extra pair of shoes and socks in my drop bag here, so I was able to change those out. As I stood up, the second place female pulled into the aid station with her pacer.
Me: I need to go.
Mike: Tim’s not here…. I’ll go with you.
Just like that we were on the trail and running hard. It was about 10 minutes after we had left the aid station that we started to see a runner flying downhill behind us, almost as though they were trying to catch up to us.
Me: WTF? I can’t run any faster. They’ll pass us.
Mike: That’s not the girl and her pacer. It’s a single headlamp. That’s Tim!
I sighed in relief.
Me: Tim is that you?!
We switched pacers and Mike went back to Berryman while Tim continued to run with me. As we moved forward, I filled Tim in on what was going on and how I needed to put enough distance between me and the second-place runner.
Henpeck Hollow (94.4 miles)
As Tim and I left Billy’s Branch aid station at 84.1 miles, the second-place female was holding steady right behind me, so I grabbed two slices of PB&J and pushed forward hard.
It was about 90 miles into the race that I started to feel really sluggish and was slowing down, starving and whining and not running at all. Tim tried to motivate me to run, but I just wasn’t having it. I asked Tim if it was possible for me to finish in under 27 hours, as last year’s first overall female finished in 27:07 hours. “NO, not at the rate you’re moving,” came his blatant reply. I was a little irritated, but one thing I’ve learned about Tim is that he’s a no BS kind of guy. And I needed the reality check. I was barely pushing a 19 minute/mile, and Tim was no miracle worker. So, we pushed harder and made our way to Henpeck Hollow, the aid station I had captained last year. Our group was taking it on again this year, and I was greeted with a lot of cheers, smiles and positive reinforcement. A shot of bourbon and coke later, Tim and I were off to the finish.
But it wasn’t easy. In fact, my entire 100-mile run boiled down to this last 6.2-mile stretch.
We were about 95.6 miles in when I pulled over to take a piss. As I walked back to Tim, who was standing 15 paces ahead of me and waiting patiently while I pulled the draw strings on my tights, from the corner of my eye I saw the second-place female runner with her pacer. “Good work,” she said, passing me on the trail. She was maybe five steps ahead of me, and I shot past her straight to where Tim was. All I remember saying was, “Let’s go! Run fast. Don’t stop, and hold the pace.”
Tim did just that. We ran hard for the next mile or so, until we came to a turn in the trail and I got impatient, so I jumped in front of Tim and we ran a negative split all the way to the finish.
We were about a quarter-mile from the finish line when the conversation went something like this:
Me: My legs are going to hate me tomorrow. I am going to hate me tomorrow. It hurts!
Tim: That was freakin’ awesome! Did you think you would finish in under 27 hours?
First female overall, 16th runner at the finish line, 26:55 hours. Not only that, but this was my 100-mile PR, on a very technical and hilly course. Things I learned about myself: I don’t quite enjoy playing the cat and mouse game, as it takes the joy out of the “run free” concept. Now, don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t change a thing about OT 100, and I did enjoy the adrenaline rush of winning and all that comes with it. I wouldn’t have pushed myself as hard if I hadn’t set out with a definitive goal and had pacers that understood that and pushed my rear. But, there is something about being the frontrunner that just isn’t me. I run to free my mind and will continue to do so without the added pressure of placing in a race. So, to the year 2015, I say thank you and goodbye. Bring on 2016!
Author: Shalini Kovach is the founder and lead organizer of Terrain Trail Runners.