I’ve heard people say that time seems to slow down when you fall, and you feel like you are falling in slow motion. But that hasn’t been my experience, quite the contrary. For the second time this year, I tripped and fell today and I barely was able to brace myself for the impact, just like the last time.
The first time I fell I was on my fifth loop of the WausaUltra Backyard Ultra in Wausau, Wisconsin back in late April. I was doing well and feeling pretty good as I closed in on twenty-one miles. But out of nowhere, something grabbed my toe, and down I went.
Today, I was pacing myself through a 10-mile run and was just coasting along on the paved bike path. It was pretty sunny and I had decided to head into the forest preserve for the much-appreciated shade. Once in the preserve, I had a choice to make; I could stay on the paved portion of the path, or I could live dangerously and run on the much more technical trail. Now, for the past few years, I had sworn off running on the dirt path because I was training for some big race and didn’t want to chance – get this – possibly tripping and injuring myself! But for some reason, my brain overrode that failsafe breaker switch, and happily, I trotted onto the tree root-laden path.
I wasn’t more than a quarter-mile into the path when I encountered a walker ahead of me, going in the same direction and wearing earbuds. I attempted to get his attention with two loud requests to pass and as I watched to see if I had got his attention, I got tripped up and down I went.
I seemed to fall with the same velocity as the first time, but I was actually able to instinctively tuck my arms underneath me and brace myself for the impact better than I did the last time. I kind of felt like a wide receiver that had been tackled by the ankles and was glad to know that I was still holding on to the football. It’s comforting to know that I’m getting better at falling. Maybe someday I will be able to do a tuck and roll and pop right back up.
As I lay there looking at some gnarly roots and groaning loudly, I could hear the gentleman asking me if I was okay, repeatedly. I guess I had his attention now. I took an assessment of what happened and I quickly came to the conclusion that I am one dumb-ass trail-running fool. It was nice to know that the guy was able to see me embarrass myself in front of him. I think it was the fifth or sixth “Are you okay?” that I finally answered him with a “yeah, I’m okay.” I also added, “Why the fuck does this keep happening to me?!” It was a rhetorical question, and he didn’t answer it anyway.
What’s the old saying? If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Well, if trees are anything like me, you bet your ass they do. There was a loud OOMPH! when I hit the ground. I got up and grumbled, and ran off down the path swearing loudly at myself – WTF? WTF? Dammit!
The last time I fell it was into some mud. You’d think that might have worked out better for me, but I must have hit the wooden plank footbridge first. This time I hit the dirt, but somehow managed to miss the bazillion roots that surrounded me. I looked and saw some abrasions, but no bumps or bruises this time around. I took my water bottle and rinsed the dirt out of my wound and continued down the path. Then I realized that I had to run the remaining four miles home looking like I had just ran a Tough Mudder or something.
I got home in one piece. I grabbed my phone to document my stupidity and then jumped into the pool to cool down and wash off the rest of the dirt from the fall. I think I’ll skip the trail running for a while. I’m not “falling” in love with falling.
I had a great time running a 25K trail race through a very muddy and challenging forest preserve course.
All Of The Muddy Details
Pre-race Course Reconnaissance:
Seeing that I have never run a trail race before, and because I have never run at this particular location before, I decided on Monday to drive the 30-minutes to Willow Springs and the Forest Preserve District of Cook County to see what I was up against. I’m glad that I did because I received an in-depth view of the course. There were lots of missed turns, lots of rocky terrain, and lots of hills. Seeing that there was rain in the forecast for race day, I bought a pair of trail running shoes for the race. Rain or no rain, the trail shoes certainly improved my traction on this trail system.
Mud can be fun, right?
It rained on Friday – a lot. I knew that this was not going to make for a good run, but what can you do? It was still raining on Saturday morning, and it was cold too. You can’t control the weather, so I always hope for the best conditions and plan for the worst. Of the bad weather races that I have done, this one ranks around fourth I would say, behind Leon’s Triathlon 2015 (3rd – downpouring rain), Ironman Chattanooga 2019 (2nd – extreme heat), and the Boston Marathon 2018 (1st – cold, downpouring rain, headwind the entire way).
I met up with Jodi, the ultra-marathon crazy friend of mine who was running the 50K.
Jodi’s race started an hour earlier than mine, so I waited around and was soon joined by my friends Jim and Leah.
We lined up, wished each other well, and off we raced!
The race started on grass and 100 yards into it my feet were feeling the wetness from the grass. That soon gave way to much softer grass, and mud and I was trying my best to jump over visible puddles, but it was quickly becoming not worth the extra effort.
I bolted out from the gate a little stronger than I probably should have and found myself trying to keep pace with some faster runners that I had no business trying to keep up with. By a mile into it, I was passed by another more sensibly paced runner and watched him slowly pace away from me. I was starting to question the choice of layers I was wearing as I was getting a little warm. I took my gloves off, unzipped my pullover, and pulled the hat up to expose my ears. I was struggling with my eyes watering and my glasses fogging up. Miles 2-3 was the portion of the trail that most likely had the best conditions. We ran the Yellow Trail for about 3.5 miles and then came to the Orange Trail. I encountered the leaders of the 50K returning back to the start on their first loop. They were impressive. I saw that someone had ditched their jacket near the unmanned water station and I gave it a brief consideration but opted to keep wearing it.
The Orange Trail was one of the worst portions – a ditch that was basically full of mud. I made an energetic effort to run the ridge and make my way through it. Thankfully, it was short-lived and soon was on the very technical Blue Trail, with lots of hills, roots, and rocks. The Blue Trail gave way to the Green Trail, but I never noticed the markers. I was too occupied with watching for the orange course marking arrows painted on the ground to make sure I was going the correct way. Thankfully, I was seeing more and more of the 50K runners coming back at me, so I knew that I was on the right path. Around Mile 6 I was hearing another runner coming behind me and he must have been watching me dodge puddles and really muddy spots. He advised, “at a certain point you just have to commit to it.” As he passed I could see he didn’t give a damn about the puddles, just trudged right through them. I paced behind him for a while, but I still lacked the confidence to plow straight ahead through the worst spots. I wasn’t afraid of getting wet or muddy, I had committed to that a long time ago. I just didn’t want to slip and fall, possibly getting hurt.
From Mile 6 until the turn-around at 7.75 miles was some of the worst of the muddy trail. I trudged through and reached the turn-around and walked over the sensor pad. I refilled my handheld water bottle, grabbed a couple of pretzels, made a quick toilet stop, and then made the turn to follow the same trail back to the finish. I was happy that I hadn’t ditched the jacket, as the light wind was now in my face and it had started to rain a little harder.
I saw Leah coming at me and figured she was about a mile behind me. One thing to be said about the runners I was seeing heading to the turnaround, they were all seemingly having a good time. I will admit, I was having some fun too.
Thankfully, I had brought some gels with me or I might have run out of energy much earlier in the first half of the race. I was eating a gel every half-hour and it was keeping my energy up. I took my fourth and last one around the 12-mile mark and hoped that it would get me through the last 3.5 miles. Back on the Yellow Trail with it’s better conditions, I pushed my pace again and tried to keep it up. I could hear another runner behind me and as I reached a rather steep hill, I slowed to a walk and he went around me. A glance over my shoulder didn’t reveal anyone else, so I made an effort to try to reel him back in and was doing a decent job of it until I hit the grassy portion with another uphill climb that just took the wind out of my sails. I ambled around the picnic area, following the course, and saw Jodi just leaving out for her second loop. That was something I would not have wanted to do at that point! I was spent. As I crossed the finish line, a guy with a clipboard told me that I was the 2nd place finisher in my age group. I made my way to the car for some much-needed warmth.
I sat shivering in the car trying to warm up, which was made more difficult by the wet clothes I was wearing. I pulled my top layers off of me, found a long-sleeved shirt to put on, topped it with a couple of windbreakers and my sweatshirt, and then hopped back into the car. I texted Kari and advised her that I was done, and she texted that she and daughter Ashley were on their way, which was a little surprising to me, but I had left some extra shoes at home and she was kind enough to meet me with them. They helped me stay warm while we waited for the awards.
I ended up with 12th place overall and second place in my age group and was very happy with that. And it was a fun and memorable experience that I won’t soon forget. Turns out running in the mud can be fun.
It’s winter here in Illinois, and although mostly mild this go around, we’ve had a little bit of snow added to our area and it’s just enough to cover the trail and make it icy after people start packing it down. This forces me off of my usual running route and onto the local side roads where there is better running traction and little traffic, but not as much scenery.
Don’t get me wrong, I am glad I have the option to still run outside when the ice-covered trails make them difficult to run on. I have my favorite route too, it’s hilly and has enough variety that it’s a much better option than running inside on the treadmill. But after a few runs on this route, I started thinking about branching out from it and try some off-the-beaten-path trails. I am still signed up to do a “last runner standing” style trail ultramarathon and getting some practice and familiarity with running on trails would be a good idea for me.
One of these trails is located in the Van Horne Woods portion of the Hickory Creek Preserve located off of Route 30 in Frankfort, IL. The path starts just as you enter the preserve. There used to be a sign there where the unpaved portion of the trail began that said it was for use by the “Environmental Learning Center ONLY,” but that sign is now gone, and when I Googled it it said that it was permanently closed. A Facebook page for the site says it was closed in 2017. Seeing that the trail is still pretty heavily used, on Wednesday I decided to explore the icy path for the first time.
I ran from the lower part of the trail north and onto another natural surface trail just north of the creek.
Trail running, where have you been all my life?! I loved it! Although the trail was a mix of snow, ice, and a few clear portions, my trail running shoes handled them fairly easily. I slowed down where it was necessary, but otherwise it was runnable. There is a fairly steep ravine that had some great views and lots of twisty paths through the wooded area.
On Thursday, I decided to do it again, this time running it in reverse. Another awesome run, but there was a lot of rough running going on. I still had pretty good traction, but it wasn’t the best. Occasionally the tread of my shoes would nick my ankles and that is no fun. On Friday I stopped at the local hardware store and picked up some 1/2 inch sheet metal screws and screwed them into the bottom of my shoe. This is an old trick used by runners, but one I have never tried.
Saturday morning I woke up to a new coating of about an inch of snow and I was super excited to get out there and run through the woods again. The traction I now had with my modified shoes was unbelievable. I ran like there wasn’t any packed down icy snow at all. It was a game-changer. Even my pace picked up for the run from the previous days. This time I decided to explore some more of the off-trail segments and found myself following a set of fat bike tire tracks in the freshly fallen snow. I followed those tracks for almost three miles until I ran into those two bikers on the trail. I realized that these were the same two guys that always post pictures of their rides on the local biking Facebook page that I belong to. I got to get a fat bike someday. It looks like fun.
I ran until I realized that eight miles had passed and that I had three more to get to home, and without any water or gels to fuel me along, I decided to save some exploring for Sunday. I came home and told my wife that this was one of the best runs I have ever had.
A little bit of a warm-up occurred on Saturday afternoon, melting what had fallen that morning. But I woke up again to light snow on Sunday and decided that this was going to be another amazing run. This time, however, I drove to the forest preserve so not to waste energy running three miles to get there and have to save enough energy for the three miles to run back home. I’m glad I did, this run was an awesome repeat of Saturday, only more so! I explored further east along Hickory Creek until I got turned around and lost my bearings. I found the creek and knew what side I was supposed to be on, but I truly believed that I had crossed it somehow. It wasn’t until later when I reviewed the gps map that I realized how turned around I was. I ended up backtracking until I saw some familiar things that I thankfully took the time to study for just this reason. I had also drawn some arrows in the snow to make sure I knew where I should turn at a few of the adjoining trail spots.
I was getting a little tired and a little worried that I was overdoing it, so I decided to head back and save some more of the unexplored areas for another time.
In all, I ran 53.5 miles this week, which is very high for me, and all because this little off-the-beaten-path rekindled a passion for running that I hadn’t realized was missing. I certainly felt like a kid again. I will definitely be running more natural surface trails in the future.