I approached the Ozark Trail 100 like it was described to me, which was “a lot tougher than the Mark Twain 100.” I’d done the MT100 14 months earlier and had gone about it all wrong. It had been my first year of running ultras, and I went from the Double Chubb 50K in March to the Berryman 50 mile in May to the MT100 in September. You name a problem, and I’m pretty sure I had it during the MT100. But it all boiled down to lack of experience. So, with another year of experience under my belt and a different approach to fueling, sodium intake and all around training, I toed the line with 62 other hopefuls.
We had to be at the bus by 3:00 a.m. to check in and leave from Bass River Resort just east of Steelville, Mo. My wife, Sheila, and I had stayed the night in a cabin at the resort, so she drove me down to the departure point. We managed not to get poisoned by the carbon monoxide from the bus idling with the heaters full blast as we sat waiting for a couple of stragglers that never did show up. The temperature was right at freezing, so everyone was pretty bundled up. About 10 minutes late, we finally started our slow, bumpy, 50-mile ride to the starting point.
The race began on time at 6:00 a.m. The starting line was on a gravel road, and we had to run that out 1.2 miles, around a cone, and back. Then a little jaunt down a blacktop road and a right turn, and we were in business. I had a CamelBak without the hydration pack in it. In its place was a bottle of Coke, a banana, four protein bars and five mini PayDay candy bars. I was carrying my 20-ounce Nathan bottle filled with water and a pouch that held five more mini PayDay candy bars and my dope bag. The dope bag was a baggie with a couple of Tums and 10 S-Caps.
I’d run eight ultras and eight marathons up to this point and had bonked on all of them except a 50K and a 50 miler, and I’d fueled every one of them using GU. So, for this race, I did some pretty intense training using nothing but S-Caps and common ultra food. No doubt, it was going to be a test for me.
The first 40 miles were pretty uneventful beside some lower back pain that started about 12 miles in. I hadn’t been training a whole lot with my CamelBak on, so I slid it off and hugged it to my chest for a few miles. That seemed to do the trick, as it didn’t bother me the rest of the run.
I came into the Brooks Creek Aid Station and met my crew for the first time right at 3:40. My wife and good friends Rich and Renie KinKade told me I’d been running 13:20 minute miles through the first couple of aid stations. I was puzzled and asked them how they knew that. Rich said he was following me through the website. HAM radio operators were calling in our times at every aid station, and he’d just done the math. I knew they were going to be doing that, but I was impressed that it was working out — and that I was doing so well at this point. I had a piece of paper the aid station mileages on it, and I’d been jotting down my times as I left each station.
I changed my socks, cleaned out my shoes, restocked my CamelBak, stuffed my face and was out of there at 3:50, which had me averaging 14:25 miles at that point. I knew I had to stay at less than 18-minute miles to reach my 30-hour finish time. I also knew it was about to get real rough.
I’d read multiple race reports about the OT100 and was amused that the next 40 or so miles was referred to as “Murderer’s Row,” because this is where the majority of the DNFs occur. I’d run all of my previous races and training runs naked — as in no timing devices or other modern trinkets. However, I’d stopped at WalMart in Potosi on the way down and purchased a $10 watch at the last minute. Now, in my cold, miserable state of confusion, I was looking at that watch way too much.
I was between Martin Road and Hazel Creek on a 9.6-mile stretch. According to my calculations, I should’ve been to the next aid station already. I stopped at a creek, the biggest one so far, and watched in amusement as a runner waded through it holding his shoes and socks, trying to navigate the rocky crossing barefoot. To each his own, I thought, and took off through the knee-deep water a little too fast, splashing it up to my crotch. I hit the very well marked entrance on the other side and said “hey” to the other runner as I went by him. I could hear his music jamming through his ear buds. Not sure he even knew I was ever there.
It was cold, and now I was wet and second guessing myself. I stopped for the third or fourth time, thinking I’d somehow missed the Hazel Creek Aid Station. This stretch was probably the most runnable part of the whole course, and there I was jacking around and not going anywhere fast. I contemplated going back to the creek and seeing if I’d missed a cutoff somehow. I started getting mad at myself for not having more confidence. The mind games had begun, and I wasn’t handling them too well.
I took out my aid station mileage list and saw it was nearly eight miles to Pigeon Roost. I told everyone within ear shot (nobody but me) that I must’ve missed the Hazel Creek Aid Station and I’d be damned if I was going to backtrack! I took off, totally demoralized, and came to yet another wide, knee-deep creek. I crossed that one and started climbing out of the bottomland. I got real cold real quick, so I start running to stay warm. Then I heard muffled talking drifting through the woods and saw the lights of Hazel Creek. I’ll be damned, I hadn’t miss it.
I ran into Rich as I entered the aid station and he said, “You alright, bro?” I’d warned my crew earlier that I might have mood swings and get stupid late into the run. I don’t hide my anger very well, and I responded with something like, “I need some light, a seat, some coffee, my wool socks and I guess I just shot 30 hours in the ass didn’t I?”
Renie and Sheila hugged me and got me seated. The next thing I knew, I was the center attention, as members of the St. Louis Ultrarunners Group (SLUG) and Terrain Trail Runners were hugging me and congratulating me on an awesome pace. I had six people helping me, and I was overwhelmed, smiling ear-to-ear and shaking like a leaf.
Someone tried to get me over to the heater, and I responded with a “Hell no!” I knew I had to keep away from there, as the place was packed with runners just standing around trying to get warm — or that’s what it seemed. I recall Lee Dougherty getting my jacket out for me and Shalini and Bethany getting me some of the best potato soup and coffee I’ve ever tasted. My crew was busy helping me change my socks, putting new batteries in my light and I can’t recall what else. I knew I was getting colder the longer I sat there, so I darted out and jotted down the time at 11:10 on my paper. Later, my wife told me how impressed she was with the way everyone took care of the runners.
I don’t recall going through Pigeon Roost, and I quit writing down my times after Hazel Creek. I passed through a couple minor creek crossings in ankle-deep water and then had an animal attack somewhere on this section of the trail. I was running a good pace, nice and light, water bottle in my right hand, when out of the dark came a big black object at my right foot. I jumped about three feet in the air and hopped off the trail. It took me a few seconds to realize I’d just been attacked by the shadow of my Nathan water bottle.
A little later, I came across three runners walking on a gravel road I’d just crossed. I hollered at them that the trail was over where I was. They were laughing and carrying on about how they’d lost the trail. As they filed in about 100 yard behind me, I recognized in their lights the green shirt one of them was wearing but couldn’t place who was wearing it. I’d started speed walking, as my quads were shot, and in a short time the green shirt caught up to me. “Oh, Mike, how’s it going? I thought that was you.” It was John Gobel. I’d met him on the Berryman earlier in the year. John had gotten lost getting to the start line and was 20 minutes late starting. He’d passed me hours ago, and now I’d caught back up to him. He’d done the Arkansas Traveler recently in 22 hours, so I was surprised at the problems he was having here. We ran and walked off and on until we were about a half-mile out from the Berryman Aid Station, then I had to stop to change my dead batteries and take a hike into the woods.
I don’t know what time I got into Berryman, but things started getting a little clearer in my head. My crew helped me get my frozen shoelaces undone with a pair of pliers. I changed socks for the last time and restocked my PayDays and Coke. Rich informed me that not only was I going to get in under my 30-hour goal, but I had a good chance of hitting 28 hours. John headed out before I did, as he was having a hard time with the cold. I spent more time at Berryman than I did at any of the other aid stations, just getting situated for the last leg. I left there with a renewed confidence and energy.
I got a half-mile or so out and realized I hadn’t had any S-Caps in a while, so I went for the pocket in my Nathan, but my dope bag wasn’t there. I stopped, and a frantic search of my CamelBak turned up nothing. Turns out I’d left it laying on the table at Berryman after Sheila restocked it and handed it back to me. No biggie, I figured. I’d been doing pretty well, so on I went.
Another half-mile, and I came upon John walking up a forest road I was about to cross. Somehow, he’d lost the trail again and run down the road about a quarter-mile before turning around. It was a straight-shot crossing, and that’s when I realized he was having some major issues. We stayed together for about another mile, but he couldn’t keep up with my speed walking and started falling back. I figured I had a run to make, so I’d better get going, and that’s the last I saw of him.
I was feeling real good. The miles were falling behind me. This was an 8.5-mile stretch to Billy’s Branch, and I was just about there when I felt a sugar crash coming on. I pulled three PayDays out and wolfed them down, walked another five minutes or so until I felt better, and took off running again. At some point right about there, I was looking down the trail and saw a stop sign standing right in the middle of the singletrack. I laughed, looked down and back up, and it was gone. At least I didn’t have shadows attacking me anymore.
I took my headlight off before I got to Billy’s Branch Aid Station and put it away. I’m guessing I’d run maybe six of the last eight miles, and I was feeling real good. I passed maybe four runners in that stretch. In and out of Billy’s Branch in just a few minutes after mooching some Endurolites, and onto some real nice trails. I passed the runner from Japan right before I got to Hen Peck.
I ran into Hen Peck high as a kite. I was excited, checking my $10 watch and trying to do the math. I think I jumped up and clicked my heels together going into the aid station. I gave a couple of quick hugs to my crew and fired a few questions at Rich to check my math and make sure I was thinking clearly. I tossed my CamelBak to Renie and grabbed a PB&J while someone filled my Nathan bottle, and off I ran a little too fast. This station was run by Terrain Trail Runners of St Louis, my running buddies, and I didn’t even take time to greet them all or check out their buffet or anything. I felt bad about that a few miles down the trail.
I passed a real young fella walking and having some major issues with cramping. Then I passed another runner, Scott Poling, who I found out later was a pastor out of Oswego, Ill. I was starting to fade quickly when out of the woods appeared this mountain. It may not have been a mountain, but it sure looked like one to me at that point. I speed walked up that monstrosity and ran the best I could when I got to the top. I was thinking there should be only a half mile left when I came to a sign that said, “Congratulations, only two more miles.”
Back down the mountain, only to have to climb it again and run back down again. “What sadistic bastard put this mountain at the last two miles of a 100-mile run,” I thought. Not much later, I came to a horse pasture and a sign that said one more mile. I couldn’t run or speed walk. I was just totally shot. I staggered through campsites and over a concrete bridge and past the cozy cabin I’d slept in for a few hours on Friday night. Checking my watch, I realized I might make it in under 28:30 if I could run the last quarter mile. I did, and I crossed the finish at 28:25 — and immediately started falling apart.
All the blogs and OT100 run reports I’d read, all the running I’d done in the Valmeyer, Ill., bluffs, the training I’d done with Terrain Trail Runners and the SLUGs around St Louis, the experimenting with different foods, the hundreds of pushups (sometimes 200 a day) and all the local running around my hometown had all paid off in the end. With the help of my crew and over 100 aid station workers, I beat my goal by an hour and 35 minutes. And, yes, it was a lot tougher than the MT100!
Author: Mike Gallagher is a 56-year-old runner that thinks he's 30. He's a pie aficionado, with coconut cream being his favorite, and when he's not running or at work, he has a flock of chickens that keeps him busy.
Our blog writers are members of Terrain Trail Runners, local athletes just like you, who want to share their love and knowledge of the sport.