I need to write this before I forget all about this race...it was already two weeks ago.
New Balance was a big sponsor of the Bass Pro Shops Fitness Festival in southern Missouri, so they offered to fly Kyle and I out there to compete in the 50K or 25K trail races that were occuring the first weekend of the Festival. There was $1000 for 1st in the 50K and $500 for first in the 25K, so we decided, "Why not?"
My plane out of the Springs was delayed so I missed my connector and ended up getting into Springfield, MO about 5 hours later than planned. No problem. The next morning, Monty from the local running club met me at the hotel they put me up in and drove me down to Dogwood Canyon for the race. We picked up Kyle along the way. All in all, Bass Pro's hospitality during this weekend was top-notch.
The night before, Kyle had decided to run the 50K, too (he'd originally been planning on the 25K), so we did a quick 15 minute warm-up together on the course, shed our warm clothes and lined up for the start. It was our understanding that there would be gels on the course, so we both just carried a bottle and a couple gels to get started. I also had a couple salt caps because it was more humid than I was used to.
We started with the 25Kers, and a few of them shot off the front right from the start. Kyle had met a local Kenyan at the pasta dinner the night before who was running the 50K; apparently he'd just won the Kansas City Marathon the week before. After shooting out to a quick lead in the first couple hundred yards, this fellow looked around for Kyle and I and quickly dropped back and tucked in behind us. It was pretty clear he was just going to stick with us.
The course was basically a big 25K loop that had a little lolli-pop loop and a short out and back stemming off of it. The 50Kers would first run this loop clockwise and then complete it backwards the second time. The course was layed out in Dogwood Canyon, which, as far as I could tell, was the several thousand acre private ranch of the owner of Bass Pro.
It was surprisingly pretty country--covered in deciduous trees, occasional limestone cliffs/outcroppings and a lot of water in the river at the bottom of the canyon. The course itself essentially popped in and out of this canyon a bunch of times resulting in a 50K course with ~4500' of climbing in a series of 10 or 12 ~400' ascents and descents. Which was tough. The climbs and descents were almost always steep.
And the footing on the course was often extremely tricky. It was real trail running for sure even if it was almost 100% double-track. Much of the course was really rocky covered with a lot of fallen leaves so one could never be confident in one's footing. I turned my ankle and went down hard on one downhill, which isn't a big deal, but it was a surprisingly rocky, technical course. Kyle's feet were beat up for days afterwards.
Anyways, after an initial flat mile on a paved bike path the course led into the canyon where we started crossing the river for what would be a total of almost 30 times during the race. It was fun, but Kyle and I were almost certainly going a little too fast unconsciously trying to show this Kenyan what trail running is all about. The stream crossings were a blast, and I was glad I'd worn my hot RC130 New Balance flats whose open mesh upper drained like a dream.
On the initial climb, Kenyan buddy stuck pretty much right with Kyle and I, dropped a little right at the top, and then caught us again on the screaming descent. We led him through some more stream crossings went up a couple more hills and then tackled one of the steeper hills on the course where he just cranked it. I went with him for some reason (despite having some pretty well-founded doubts about my fitness---I'd only been running for about 3 solid weeks) and we dropped Kyle and even caught a couple of the top 25K runners (one of which was hiking the hill--it was steep).
At the top of this hill Kyle eventually caught back up to us (he had tripped over some barbed wire on the course...pretty crazy) and Kyle and I eventually put a little gap on Kenya. There was a short, technical out and back singletrack section where I could check out the competition and I noticed that A) I was only about a minute back from the 25K leaders, and B) Kyle and I seemed to be building a tiny bit of a lead. It must be noted, though, that the 25Kers weren't going slow...Kyle and I were just going too fast.
At about 50 minutes into the race we came to the 2nd aid station (we'd already gone by it once) where Kyle stopped for a few seconds while I jogged on ahead and the aid station workers directed us back down the canyon to repeat all the stream crossings we'd done earlier in the race. Kyle and I were cruising along feeling good about the fact that we'd seemingly dispatched with the competition when we came to the intersection to begin the "lollipop" loop and knew that we couldn't be going the right way. We'd also stopped seeing 25K signs. So, after going out 9 minutes and standing around for about a minute trying to decide what to do (and repeatedly expressing our chagrin at seeing our $1000 disappear) we started running back to the aid station we'd just left.
Within a few minutes we ran into a 25K runner and another 50K runner running at us and we turned them around and followed them back to the aid station. Somewhere in this ~1.5 miles back to the aid station Kyle and I both lost a whole lot of mental competitive steam. Kyle was ready to just do a training run if not drop out at the aid station altogether.
When we got to the aid station we saw our Kenyan friend standing there tying his shoe or something and a whole slew of 25K and 50Kers taking the correct turn into the woods where the aid workers had directed us incorrectly the first time. So it goes. Kyle spent a long time at the aid station (a minute or so) convinced that we had lost 20 minutes on the field and there was no way we could make up that amount of time on the rest of the field over the next 20 miles or so. However, I saw Mr. Kenya there (who I perceived as our main comp) and thought "Well great, the race is still even, then!" and proceeded to try to get my mind back into race mode over the next couple minutes.
Immediately after the aid station the course got particularly gnarly--we had to scramble throught a little ravine--and then began yet another climb. On this climb I fell into a much, much more relaxed pace than my earlier effort and began running with Matt Laye--the 50Ker who we'd met on our way back to the aid station during our bonus miles excursion.
Matt and I kept running comfortably--I was solidly into training run mode at this point, as Kenya was nowhere to be seen (he would never be a factor again and would finish more than 20 minutes back )--and eventually Kyle caught back up to us. By this point I'd resolved to at least finish the race as a nice training run and Kyle seemed to be debating back and forth with himself to join me or whether to drop at the next aid station.
It turned into a very nice training run. The conversation between Matt, Kyle, and I was interesting and widely varying (Matt was moving to Copenhagen soon to get his PhD in Physiology and had spent some time running in the Springs, Kyle and I caught up after not seeing each other for a few weeks, etc., etc.). I stopped taking gels.
Then, on the way up yet another hill a woman directing runners told us that we were in 5th or 6th place. We could see some runners in front of us and when we passed them they turned out to be 50Kers (the lead runner at that point was an ex-college XC runner--Drew--from DePauw, who is in Colorado College's conference and knew some of my best friends) and the three of us quite unexpectedly were leading the race again.
However, less than 2 hours in and it seemed like we were back to the start of the loop already, which didn't seem possible considering our 20 minute excursion. We were convinced that we had somehow cut the course, launching ourselves into the lead (even though we were clearly running quite a bit faster than the former leader). However, when we got to the next aid station we were congratulated on our first place status and when we suggested that maybe we'd missed something someplace everyone was sure that we'd run everything.
Kyle was certain we were going to be disqualified--even with aid station workers cheering us on--and once again was ready to drop out but the three of us kept on running. Every time we came to an aid station, we'd come in with the attitude of, "Ok, let's try to attain some sort of clarity here" and end up leaving with the workers there cheering us as victors.
Eventually, we knew were running the right course (it was just the initial loop backwards, afterall) and figured that we'd finish out the course together and just talk to the race director afterwards to try and figure out where we went wrong.
And that was pretty much it. Kyle, Matt, and I eventually made it back through the canyon, splashed through the river crossings, and then picked it up a touch the last 10 minutes or so into the finish to cross the line three abreast in 3:48:58. It seemed a bit preposterous that--if we hadn't gone off-course--we would've run a sub-3:30 50K, so it's my feeling that the course is substantially short. Probably a couple of miles (1 mile per loop).
Immediately afterwards we talked with the person who had designed the course and the race director to try and determine if we'd run the whole course and should be disqualified or not, and apparently we ran everything plus the extra 20 minutes or so and had still won the race by a lot. It was a weird day. We ended up splitting the prize money three ways, and then Kyle and I went for a short cooldown and then a great soak in the gorgeous river flowing right past the start. A couple hours later we were back on airplanes and back home later that evening.
All in all, it was a really fun--if slightly chaotic--race that I would do again. It was Bass Pro's first year and they got a lot of things right, but for future editions I would suggest having a few more course marshals, especially people whose job would be to make sure that every bib number went through every aid station. For instance, at the out and back turnaround point on the 2nd loop there wasn't even anyone there to record your number to make sure you went around the cone. It was completely on one's honor---which is like a lot of things in ultrarunning---but with that much cash on the line, I think it's important to assure some measure of fairness.