"Did we mention poison ivy, thorns, poor marking, bad (no) footing, a waiver that mentions your death 3 times … and that we charge you for this?" That's a line from the website for Dances With Dirt, which is the 'extreme half marathon' I ran on Saturday. The event also includes a 50-miler, a 50K, a full marathon and relays, but so help me god, those would've killed me dead. Thirteen miles, it was! Thirteen miles through the trails and trees and bluffs and rocks and mud of Devil's Lake State Park.
I went into the race knowing this wasn't going to be a race for me. Like, seriously. I finished gladly in THREE HOURS. A far cry from the 1:44 half marathon earlier this season. But I lined up at the starting line fully prepared to be miserable. I was tired, had to run it alone. I knew it was going to be hard, and 13 miles is far when it's hard. However, I'm not lying even a little when I say it was the most fun I've had running a race. Although I use the term 'running' loosely.
The starting area of the event was intimidating. These people - slathering on their sunscreen, tying their bandanas around their heads, tightening the straps on their hydration packs, strapping their gators to their shoes - were badass. My fuel belt was pink, for crying out loud. Nonetheless, I slathered on my sunscreen and my bugspray (slimy combo), hit the port-a-potties (*gag*) and lined up with the 400+ other half marathoners. I ran into my buddy Zach at the start, wished him well and darted back to 'my' people (the ones who wouldn't be finishing 7th overall, like Zach did). I came to the race that morning with my friends Miranda and Tom, the latter of whom also ran, but he came in just after Zach so, uh, nope, didn't run with him, either.
And so I was going this bad boy alone.
I had one strategy (well, maybe two: the second of which was don't die): stay with a pack. The last thing I wanted was to end up in the bluffs on the trails alone. The race packet clearly stated, more than once, that one can get easily lost. The entire thirteen miles were marked by colored ribbons, no mile markers. It was my duty to follow the orange ribbons (which marked the half marathon course). But these ribbons were tied in tree branches, around posts, on the ground. It would be later, around mile 6, that my group and I would miss an orange ribbon and tack an extra half-mile onto our race. Turns out, though, it wasn't hard at all to stay within a group of other runners. Thankfully.
When the starting gun sounded, it only took about a quarter-mile before we were at a standstill - a traffic jam, if you will - as one-by-one, runners were working their way through a congested area of sand and fallen trees. Within the first 10 minutes, I already had a bleeding cut on my left leg. Halfway through the first mile I was already losing footing on the uneven trail, dodging rocks and tree roots. Branches were slapping my arms and face, and I had to walk up what would be the first of many, many hills. But I was laughing. This was going to be AWESOME.
And that's how it went for over 13 miles. The course was broken into separate legs, and each leg was rated in difficulty and varied in distance. At the end of each leg, we were greeted with refreshment and friendly faces. I slammed some water and Gatorade, gnawed on Twizzlers, slapped high-fives to Miranda, all the while grinning ear-to-ear. It was at the end of the first leg - 4.2 miles - that I joined forces with then-strangers Sam and Nathan, who'd become my comrades for the next two-plus hours. She was a ball of smiles and energy, and he was our backbone, pulling up the rear, letting the ladies go first. We had a blast, stomping across every pile of mud we could find, laughing through mud-slinging fights and stopping to eat the raspberries on the trail. I am seriously so thankful to have come across these two. We turned it into an adventure that I don't think I could've had on my own.
From what I noticed of the course - when I wasn't busy staring intently at the footstrike of the person ahead of me so I could accurately follow their path, avoiding any rocks and uneven terrain - it was amazing. When we got to the top of the bluffs, we could see Devil's Lake in the distance. The second aid station was literally on one of the bluffs. Like, if the teeanage boy handing me a cup of Gatorade had taken four steps backward, he would've fallen 300-feet to his miserable death. Every single aspect of this race was badass, down to the volunteers, I swear to God. It was as we were nearing the bluffs that we literally had to climb. Like, up the uneven stairs made of boulders. Of course what goes up must go down, so we found ourselves dashing down what seemed like a ravine, hopping across gapes in the trail, from one stone to another, over logs. Still laughing.
I tweaked my right ankle over and over, and tripped over pretty much anything that got in my way, although I never fell. The fact that I have not one broken bone or even sore joint is a miracle. I escaped with only scrapes, mud and sweat. Lots of sweat. Although I was pretty sore the next day. Spending three hours twisting, turning and bracing yourself really works the muscles you don't regularly think about. Particularly my ass.
We came through the finish line as the timing clock struck 3 hours and 6 minutes. An awesome 3 hours and 6 minutes, too. Sam, Nathan and I exhanged information, I grabbed my finisher's medal and shot glass (oh, yes) and scarfed some food. The chest strap of my heart rate monitor and my shoes were the first things to go. My hair, tied back into my hat, was soaked in sweat, and I had dried mud smeared on my cheeks - I had to get the full warrior effect mid-race. My trusty trail shoes, which have seen me through a couple snowy winters have now seen better days.
I'll tell you one thing about this race - I'm signing up next year.