I figured for my first blog post, I would post a race report from the Shawnee Hills 100k. A modified version of this was also posted to my personal Facebook.
My alarm goes off. It’s 4am, and I’m waking up in room in the Saint Noel center at Camp Ondessonk in southern Illinois, twelve hours from home. I had my crew chief Annie, along with my roommates Shad and Stacey Vanatti to brighten my morning and ease my nerves. We had the option to stay in “treehouse cabins”: open-wall rustic cabins, organized in clusters throughout the park, with outhouses and an occasional shower house.
Having decided I was not “rustic” enough to sleep with spiders weaving webs and wasps buzzing in the near vicinity, I rented a room at the center so I could make sure to get a good night’s rest. Once we wake up from our air conditioned, bug-free slumber, we are frantically preparing for the unknown: an inaugural race in a national forest we’ve never been to. 100K is a new distance to me. The furthest I had run prior to this was 40 miles – a failed attempt at the Black Hills 50 mile, back at the end of June. I knew this race would be a challenge, but I could have never predicted the things that happened in my 24 hours and change on the trails of the Shawnee National Forest.
I always love the energy at a race start, and this race was no different. Everyone buzzing with manic excitement. The possibilities of an ultramarathon are enough to make anyone giddy. The horn sounded at 6:00am and we were off to run a short stint on a road that ran around Camp Ondessonk, and then drop into the trails of the forest. The first 5.7 miles to the Trigg Rd aid station were gnarly, technical, and challenging, full of rocks and roots to stumble over. I, of course, tripped for my first time around mile 1 – pretty classic Alyssa move that would happen what felt like thousands of times during the remaining miles of the race. The trails were gorgeous, full of naturally occurring rock formations unlike anything we have in South Dakota. I took several pictures but I don’t feel like they really captured the size or beauty of them.
As with every race, I felt like I had never run a day in my life until mile 4-5, and then I got into my groove and started feeling good around the time we hit the aid station. I had already spent some time with Gina. Her energy was infectious! We leap frogged a bit, but always seemed to find each other again. I went through the Trigg Rd aid station, saying hi to Annie, grabbing my gels, and getting back out onto the course.
The next 6.1 mile section went up to the Jackson Falls aid station, which was both the most beautiful and most difficult section on the course. Three miles into this rocky wilderness was a stream crossing – not too deep, but very muddy. I used a rock midway through the stream to find some stability before crossing over to the other side, steadying myself on a boulder, and suddenly hear buzzing. I look down, and as if from nowhere, I am suddenly covered with yellow jacket wasps, which had flown out from their nest beneath the mud. I was completely paralyzed and had no idea what to do. The runner behind me saw something was wrong and shouted at me to run, so I did. For the next couple miles, I ran as fast as I could. I felt the wasps stinging me repeatedly all over my body. They had gotten up under my gaiters, all over my torso, and on my back, feet, and scalp. I tried to pick off the ones that I could see and asked for another runner’s help once I felt I had outrun the swarm that had been following me to pick off the ones left on my back and shoulders. My only focus was to get to the next aid station, and as I would learn later, in my panic, I didn’t remember most of this section, aside from a noteworthy and challenging boulder scree. I made it into the Trigg aid station and word had gotten back to Annie that I had been stung by the swarm. She had Benadryl ready for me, but I was too scared of the drowsiness it may cause to take any of it. It hurt like hell, the pain from the stings radiating through my body in waves. I swore some of them were still on me because it felt like they were still stinging me an hour later. But I vowed to take my nutrition from Annie and just keep moving.
At some point, I met up with Gina again and learned that she was stung also! We decided to suffer better together and made out way to the Cedar Rd aid station 4.8 miles later. I don’t remember many specifics of this section either, other than still being surprised at how technical and rocky the course was. Rocks EVERYWHERE. They were already wreaking havoc on my feet and ankles, which the wasp stings made worse. We were happy to reach the aid station, and I continued to eat the sports nutrition I had brought – alternating Salted Caramel and Toasted Marshmallow Gu gels, and Mountain Berry Clif Bloks. I think I also picked up my first solid food at this point, which were peanut butter crackers. Emily Orchard Wanless got me hooked on these at a 50k in February when she emergency crewed me and they worked like a charm! We set out for the 8.3 mile stretch back to the Trigg Rd aid station.
After three or four miles, we came to a confusing five-way intersection on the course that had no apparent markings indicating where to go. We decided to go a quarter of a mile up each section, looking for course markers to no avail. Once we walked back to the entrance to the intersection, we saw that this was supposed to be a hairpin turn straight backwards onto another trail. We later learned that the course had issues with vandalism – people were maliciously removing course markers, which seriously affected the runners. Almost every person we ran into had gotten lost at some point on the course. A similer thing happened to us two more miles down the road, which lead to us taking a wrong turn, running back through the hardest section – another four miles straight up to Jackson Falls – yet again. We knew we were headed to the wrong aid station after a few miles, but we had been out of food and water for so long that we had no choice. They directed us to head back the way we came for six more miles to get to the correct aid station. Thankfully, Annie was STILL waiting for me at Trigg Rd, HOURS later than she thought she would be seeing me. She was ready and raring to go, helping me with anything I needed. I did my best to get out quickly.
Knowing we were at least headed the right direction helped us mentally, but we also knew that between all the times we had gotten lost, we had added almost 14 miles to our course. Gina and I told each runner we passed that we were running the Shawnee Hills 77 miler and had resigned ourselves to the fact that we would be out longer than we had thought. I was not going to DNF this race unless I was physically unable to move forward, and that had not happened yet. So we continued on to Cinder Rd, 4 miles out, which was a net downhill section. Part of it was on gravel and pavement, which felt great on my feet. It started to get dark in this section and we turned on our headlamps around 8:30pm. We saw glow sticks hanging in the trees, lighting our way into the aid station, and they made me so happy! I had piping hot ramen noodles, boiled potatoes covered with salt, and handfuls of pretzels here, overjoyed to be eating warm food once night had fallen.
We were power hiking almost the entire time by this point, but coming out of Cinder Rd was a 1.5 mile or so steep technical uphill climb that was incredibly difficult. However, at the end of it, we were rewarded with a mile of relatively flat and shorter uphills, followed by a crossing of a suspension bridge over Lake Echon, draped with more glow sticks. After another half mile of walking, we realized we were back in Camp Ondessonk and saw the start/finish. This should have been mile 32 for us, between 9-10 hours in. In reality, it was mile 44 and over 15 hours had passed.
Word of Gina and I and our 77 mile planned run had somehow spread back to one of the race directors, even though the aid stations had no way to effectively communicate with each other, and he approached us and said that we could re-route the second loop so that we ended as close to 62 miles as possible. We were so elated to hear this! We picked a new route, which entailed a run out to Trigg Rd, back down through Cinder Path to the Start/Finish, then an out-and-back to Cinder Path and back to hit the finish line at 63 miles. I grabbed backup batteries, the charger for my watch, and some saltines and skittles (my favorites!) from Annie and we hit the trail yet again for our final “loop”!
We made it back through to Trigg Rd, where I picked up my pacer, Shawn. He was so positive and full of energy! He got way more than he signed up for pacing me, but he made it so fun and exciting. It was an adventure with him through the night, as my eyes began to play tricks on me. We also encountered a disgusting amount of massive spiderwebs, which housed huge and terifying spiders like I had never seen before. They were harder to see in the dark and seemed to occur every tenth of a mile or so for our entire last stretch. Shawn helped guide me to the correct ways an ensure me that we were NOT getting lost – a concern I had frequently – and we pushed through. I wanted to run so badly through these final 11 miles or so, but the course was just too technical and I was not going to risk injury so close to the finish. Fatigue and exhaustion was setting in. Eventually, after getting back to Cinder Path and eating some mashed potatoes, we started heading to the start/finish and the end of this adventure. The sun was rising and I felt renewed, bursting with energy. Shawn and I shared some great conversation until we hit the bridge over Lake Echon. In the daylight, I saw how far down I would fall if the bridge were to break, and became terrified. After some encouragement, I made my way across and to the finish. I ran it in with a finish time of 24:49:09 – not the time I wanted, but a finish that I am proud of. I was the youngest finisher of the 100k out of the 28 starters and 20 finishers.
Photo courtesy of Shawn (@flyovertrail)
It was hard, and painful, and much more difficult than I had ever imagined. And now it is done and I have stories from it that will last a lifetime.