2007 ULTRA RUNNING ADVENTURES

 

   
 
Runtrails' Rocky Mountain Journal
 
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  HINSON LAKE 24-HOUR ULTRA CLASSIC
PART 1: THE CONCEPT & PREPARATION

SATURDAY, OCTOBER 6
(RACE DATE:  SEPTEMBER 29 & 30)

 
"The great thing about this race is that you are allowed to leave the course and go somewhere
and return to the race at any time and resume your running. The goal is to run
as many miles as you can in 24 hours whether it's 150 miles or 1.52 miles. It's all good!!!!
 
- Race director Tom Gabell on the race website
 

 

FIXED-TIME RACES

Ya gotta love the concept of a fixed-time race: run and walk as many miles as you can within the given time. Keep moving the entire allowed time, or stop whenever you want.

There are lots of advantages to fixed-time races, especially to ultra runners who are getting slower and slower and having more and more trouble making the cut-offs in 100-milers (like me!):

  • There are no DNFs from missing cut-offs. Every distance "counts" in the scoring.
  • You can stay on the course the entire time or take breaks whenever you choose (naps are usually necessary during events lasting more than 24 hours).
  • In a multi-loop course you can see and/or run and walk with folks of every speed and watch their progress continuously. In most ultras, you usually see only the folks going the same speed you're going (or everybody once on an out-and-back course).
  • You have a better idea of exact distance covered each loop than on most trails.
  • If you pace well and keep moving forward relentlessly, you can accumulate a lot of miles. Tenacity pays off.


Scenery along the loop at Hinson Lake 24-Hour Run

However, these same features also have a downside:

  • Although there are no DNFs, runners can still come up short on their mileage goals.
  • You can waste a lot of time stopping at the official aid station(s) and/or your own crewing point on the multiple loops. It takes a lot of discipline to stay out on the course and not sit down, nap, etc. if you have a serious mileage goal.
  • You have to stay focused on your own goal and pace yourself appropriately. It's easy to get sucked up into running either too fast or too slow when you get into conversations with other runners on the course.
  • Knowing how far you've gone every loop can be discouraging at the beginning and some people have major problems mentally with repeating the same loop over and over and over again. (Distances of the loops vary, depending on the race.) 

Fixed-time races come in lots of shapes and sizes. Jim did an 8-hour race several years ago (Howl at the Moon, in Illinois). Some other races last 12, 24, 48, or 72 hours. The 24-hour race is probably the most common, as many runners have the goal of reaching 100 miles in that time frame. Some multi-day races have a long history in the USA and England, such as six-day and ten-day events.

Venues vary from tracks to roads to trails. Loop distances range from 400 meters (standard track length) to several miles. Fixed-time races are held throughout the United States and abroad.

JUST MY CUP 'O TEA!

I've toyed with the idea of doing a 24-hour race for many years, but have never embraced the idea of doing multiple loops -- especially dozens or hundreds of loops! Jim and I aren't fond of even two-loop 5K races, let alone ultra distances. It takes mental fortitude to keep going back out there when you cross the start/finish line over and over again. My favorite course configurations are point-to-point, one or more loops that don't repeat, or out-and-back. But because of my problems in recent years with making cut-offs at the mountainous 50- and 100-milers I love, 24-hour races have been on my radar.

The race in which I've been most interested is Across the Years (ATY), held in Phoenix, Arizona in  late December. Our friend Lynn Newton always writes such interesting race reports about this event, and it has become one of the premiere multi-day venues for 24-, 48-, and 72-hour races. But it's a long drive from Virginia, especially after being in Wyoming and Colorado all summer, so we just never got 'roundtuit until we received an invitation to run it this winter. We felt honored and we eagerly accepted.

    
Logo for the Across the Years races       

Since we want to do well at ATY and have never done a 24-hour race before, we knew we'd better "practice" first. The Hinson Lake 24-Hour Run in Rockingham, North Carolina, immediately came to mind because of its timing, location, and the enthusiastic response we'd gotten about the race from our Roanoke friends Anita and Jay Finkle after they ran the inaugural event last year. They ran/walked 105 miles (Anita was first female) and loved the setting and low-key nature of the event.


Logo on this year's Hinson Lakes shirts

With only a four-hour drive and $24 entry fee -- most 10Ks cost more than that these days!! -- how could we go wrong using this race as practice for ATY? We could test the equipment and strategies we are considering using at ATY and see how crazy we got going around and around in 1.52-mile loops.

NEW TRAINING STRATEGIES REQUIRED

We started strategizing while we were still out West, gathering information from the race website and from friends who ran it last year. The website shows a map of the lake and the trails around it. Photos linked to Mike Day's NC Ultra site were very helpful, too. We could see the surface of the trail and how very flat it is, the general scenery, and where runners put their personal crewing items. It was easy to visualize the course before we even got there.

After returning home a month ago, Jim and I began running and walking more on the Wolf Creek Greenway in Roanoke. The crushed stone surface is similar to the trails at Hinson Lake and ATY, and it is mostly flat -- certainly flatter than we're used to running. Since we'd be using the same muscle groups over and over (unlike the variety of movements on a hilly course), we needed to train our muscles for flat terrain. We anticipated extra soreness after the race because of this factor, and we weren't disappointed. < grin >

Running Hinson Lake made for some schizophrenic training for Jim, however. He also has the Mountain Masochist 54-mile race coming up the first weekend in November. There's a reason it's called Mountain Masochist. If he trained just on flat terrain for Hinson Lake and ATY, he'd be an unconditioned, sore puppy at MMTR with its 15,000 feet of elevation gain/loss. Training for widely divergent terrain is as difficult as widely divergent distances, like wanting to do well at both a 5K and a 100-mile race a month -- the training is entirely different and you're not likely to excel at both within a relatively short time frame.


Mostly-flat and very smooth Lake Loop Trail at Hinson Lake

We signed up for Hinson Lake on August 8, just five days before I injured my knee during a mega-climb of two 14ers near Leadville, Colorado (details in previous journal entries). I remained on the race entry list because I wasn't taking anyone's spot. There was no limit to the number of entrants and people could even sign up on race day. That's as unheard-of in ultra races as the meager $24 entry fee! This gem of a race has a lot going for it.

Anyway, I knew full well my training would be lacking for any meaningful distance during the race. I didn't learn until a scant two days before the race exactly what my knee problem is. Since I was fearful of exacerbating the problem, I cut 'way back on my mileage. My longest run/walk was only seven miles in the seven long weeks I waited for the diagnosis. The most in any of those weeks that I walked and ran was only twenty-five miles. Had I known that it was "just" wear and tear on the cartilage, I would have continued running more in September.

NEBULOUS GOALS

Neither of us had definite mileage goals for Hinson Lake, which made it easier both for Jim to putz around as he put in 50 miles and for me to exceed my expectations.

Jim could probably have reached a hundred miles, or close to it. Even though he hasn't been running a lot since we got home, he's had enough 50-66 mile runs this summer and fall to prepare him for the distance. But he'd rather do well at Mountain Masochist than Hinson Lake, so he estimated more like the 50 miles he did. He knew if he felt great at that point, he could continue on for some more miles.


View of Hinson Lake through the trees on the North Lake Loop Trail

I figured on running and walking about 15 miles total, perhaps spread out over the entire day. Was I really well-rested or just under-trained?? Turns out I was more over-rested than under-trained, and I comfortably ran and walked a total of 39 miles in the race. I saved some miles for after dark and was on such a "high" that I had to force myself to quit at midnight, knowing I could be setting myself up for some overuse injuries if I kept on going. What might sound like "no restraint" to some folks really was restraint on my part!

LOVELY LAKE SETTING

We enjoyed the drive down winding, hilly US 220 on Friday from Roanoke, VA to Rockingham, NC, situated near the SC border between Charlotte and Fayetteville. After checking into our motel, we drove about two miles to the race site on the edge of town, past many beautiful old houses along US 1. We wanted to walk the 1.52-mile loop around the lake, find the parking areas we'd be using, and locate a good spot for our canopy on race day.

One of the things that is different about a multi-loop timed race is the opportunity for runners to have their own fixed crewing point along the course, a place for their personal canopy or tent, chair, table, sleeping bag or cot, extra clothing, special fluids and foods, cooler, and other gear and supplies. A runner doesn't need a crew PERSON at this spot, just a space to call his or her own to supplement what is available at the race's aid station. From photos we've seen and descriptions we've read, these areas look like tent villages right along the track or trail. It's the same at Hinson Lake, as you can see in the photo below:


Personal aid stations along the dam at Hinson Lake on race day

We easily found the two parking areas that access the trail around Hinson Lake. They are separated by a quarter-mile long earthen dam. The trail crosses the dam with enough room on either side for all the runners to set up their canopies, tents, tables, etc. just past the location of the race's start/finish area and official aid station.

Below is a partial map of the park that shows most of the lake and the trail we used in the race. The Rotary Lodge is in the upper left corner with a pedestrian bridge just below it that crosses the dam outlet. The timing table and aid station were just past the bridge. The trail over the dam is the red line extending down the left side of the lake, and a beaver pond is to the left of that. In the bottom left corner is the second parking area. Runners put their personal aid stations on the dam, between the two parking areas.

Now follow the trail CCW around the lake. At the right lower corner it turns north toward the 300-foot long Leath Footbridge, which crosses a marsh full of lily pads, other aquatic plants, and trees that love to have their feet wet. The trail continues north to the upper right side of the map, then turns left (west) back toward the lodge. That whole loop is the 1.52-mile course for this race -- repeated as many times as you can or want in 24 hours..

The lake looked very pretty from every angle on the course. This view is from the dam looking east toward the marsh and long footbridge. You can barely see a boat with fishermen toward the left:

Although there are some side trails, it's impossible to get lost on this course. Tom Gabell, the RD, put out some arrows to indicate a couple turns during the day and he had lots of chem-lights glowing at night, which really surprised me because I didn't think they were needed.

Jim and I walked the loop around 4 PM on Friday in mid-80 degree temps -- similar to race day -- under bright sunshine. The towering deciduous and pine trees (below) shaded 90% of the course, making it a pleasant excursion. Shade is good -- it kept us cooler and we didn't need sunscreen during the race.


The course is mostly shaded even at mid-day

The only open spots are the long wooden bridge along the eastern end of the lake through a marshy area and the parking lot and dam at the start/finish.


Water lilies blooming in the marsh

The trail is even flatter and smoother than it looks in photos, with hardly anything for a clumsy person like me to trip over! The almost-white crushed rock was dusty from the drought and soft like sand in a few places, but in general the footing is as good as it gets on a non-paved trail.

The "sixteen bridges" in the race description sounded interesting. I expected to see lots of creeks flowing into the lake. Turns out there are only two wooden bridges with railings on the course, the attractive Leath Bridge across the far end over the marsh (below) . . .

. . . and a shorter bridge that connects the dam with the lodge parking area:


Anita and Jay Finkle near the end of the race on Sunday morning

The other fourteen "bridges" are bog bridges, wide and sturdy boardwalks that cross areas that would be wet if it actually rained around here any time soon (sorry -- getting a little cranky about the drought in the East!). Some of the boardwalks, like the one below, are about a hundred feet long. Most of them are much shorter.

The Lake Loop Trail winds around enough to be interesting. I thought I might get bored with it, but I never did after twenty-six loops. I was too busy talking to people all day and evening, taking photos, enjoying views of the lake, marsh, and beaver pond, and reveling in the fact that I could RUN again. I think I'll do OK with the shorter loops at ATY. Jim's less sure but intends to train a lot on little loops to condition his mind.

There isn't any pre-race dinner at Hinson Lake. We knew our motel room would have a refrigerator and microwave, so we took our own supper with us and ate it there. We got a quiet night's snooze and enjoyed the fact that this race begins at 8 AM and not 4 or 6 like most 100-milers. And since our personal performance expectations were pretty low, there wasn't the usual pre-race stress that makes us toss and turn.

Next entry: the race

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater

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2007 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

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