I haven’t written a blog post in a while, but I kind of feel the need to now. In order to set the stage here, I’m going to go back a bit.
On November 7, I started my first 100 mile run, the Pinhoti 100 in Sylacauga, Alabama. I met my friend Britt there, and we headed out together into a rainy morning on a nice single track trail. The forecast was for the rain to abate, but it never did. And it just kept getting colder and colder. Britt and I got to mile 55 together, and I had to drop from severe hypothermia. Britt brought some warmer gear than I had, and she was able to keep going and finish that crazy race while I shivered and shook in strangers cars. I met her at the finish line the next day, and I cried a little…both with happiness for her, and frustration that we didn’t get to cross together as planned. When I got home from Alabama, I started searching for my redemption race. I didn’t want to wait too long, since I was trained already!
I looked at several races, all over the country, in December and January. A few got nixed because of course description, and a few got nixed because of my husband’s schedule. (He has to be around to hold down the fort at home while I travel to run around in the woods for a ridiculous amount of time.) The race that finally rose to the top was Cajun Coyote in Louisiana. I didn’t know a lot about it, but the course sounded pretty and I could get there for race day. I registered, bought my plane tickets and started counting the days and obsessively watching the forecast in Ville Platte, LA.
Cajun Coyote takes place in Chicot State Park. According to the race director’s online description, the woods were full of critters we don’t see in Maine…like armadillos, giant banana spiders, alligators, wild boars, and other funny Cajun wildlife. I love seeing new things, so I bought a little camera to carry with me for possible wildlife sightings. (My phone battery had to be saved on the outside chance I got mauled by a boar between aid stations and had to call for help.) I packed my camera, the fancy new headlamp I won in a bib number draw at Pinhoti, and all the things I wished I had at Pinhoti that might have prevented me from getting hypothermia. Cajun Coyote is a 20 mile loop course, which was comforting to me after the DNF. I brought so many layers that had it suddenly dropped to six degrees in Louisiana, I would have been fine. And because I would be running past my bags every 20 miles, I didn’t have to guess when I might need the thermal pants and the fleece buff!
I arrived in Lafayette, Louisiana on Dec 4, after a very long day of travel. I picked up my rental car and headed to Ville Platte, going straight to Chicot State Park to pick up my race packet, then I located my hotel, which seemed to be the only hotel in Ville Platte. I asked the lady at the desk what sort of restaurants were in town, and she listed McDonalds, Burger King, Quiznos, Sonic, and El Charro. All of those ‘restaurant’ names sent paroxysms of fear through my natural food eating soul, except El Charro, which I didn’t recognize. Turns out it was a locally owned Mexican place right next to the hotel, and their shrimp fajitas were actually quite tasty! And yes, I had shrimp fajitas again the night after the race. If I were to run this race again, I would bring a friend who wasn’t planning to run the 100 miler, and stay a little farther away to have a wider selection of food and beverage options both pre and post-race. Camping at Chicot the night before the race and enjoying the pre-race outdoor food spread would have been fantastic, too. I didn’t hang out when I was there because I hadn’t been to my hotel yet and felt like I needed to get settled in….but I know I missed some tasty gumbo!
Now to the race itself. I got there about 6:00 am for the 6:30 start. Our race numbers were written on our hands instead of having bibs, which I found to be really convenient. No pins and crinkly paper to be generally annoying and get in the way of changing clothes with the changing weather. The RD decided to delay the start of the race just a little bit, so we would not have to head out with headlamps for a mile or so of darkness, which was a great idea. He rang the unicorn bell to start the race as soon as it was light enough to see. I don’t really know the history of why there are unicorns in this race, but they were at most of the aid stations, in inflatable or stuffed form. I wonder if someone hallucinated a unicorn at some point, or if the unicorn is just about kitsch, which is probably the case…I should have asked. When coming across a purple stuffed unicorn on the trail in the middle of the night, the hallucination theory becomes more probable, however.
The first loop of the course was lovely…the sun slowly rose, igniting the tops of the cypress trees with early light. This was the lap where everything was new….the day, the scenery, and the layout of the course. “Ooh, more hills than I thought!” “Hey, check out these boardwalks!” “The cypress are lovely!” “Holy crap, dodge that giant banana spider in the trail!” I was going fast enough on the way out that the people in front of me had just taken out a small part of the spider’s web to allow them to get past, which left the spider to still occupy a good portion of the trail, at face level. I’m not arachnophobic, per se, but I didn’t want to get to cozy with one of those big spiders, no matter what the local guy behind me told me about them being really mellow.
The aid station folks were just getting set up. They had plenty of good snacks and hydration, and they let us know what they were heating up for us for later in the day.
Lap 2 was mid –day beauty! Sun and green foliage and birds singing in the trees, geese flying over, warmth, but not too much heat. I was still keeping a good pace, trying to make sure I didn’t go faster than a 12 minute mile. It was a beautiful and perfect day, too easy to wear oneself out in the early miles.
Lap three. I picked up my headlamp and some warm gear before heading out. Before I saw the start/finish line again, it would be dark. I was going a little slower, but I still felt okay. The aid station folks knew the runners names by now, and they would yell your name as you approached their station, which was great. It really started to feel like a big family in the woods. Soup was on…lentil at one, potato soup at another, noodles and broth at another. Hot quesadillas, made to order, or pre-sliced for quick travel were at the ready, as well as lots of other snacks.
The evening on the bayou was gorgeous. As the sun set, the insects started to sing. I heard owls in the woods. Things started to scuttle through the leaves, and I finally saw my first armadillo! My son had asked me to take a photo, and I tried, but it turns out that armadillos are camera shy.
When it came time to turn the headlamp on, I started to see gleaming water droplets in the leaves. Thinking that was odd, I investigated, and found out that those were not gleaming water droplets, they were spider eyes! All day long I had run, and squatted to pee, in the woods (I made sure to stay hydrated!) and I had no idea I was running amongst thousands of rather large spiders. The only one I had seen was my one banana spider friend. So now I knew something else about the trail! Okay, then. I tried to squat a little higher the next time I had to pee.
By the time I reached the third aid station on the third loop, I was in pain. My right leg was on fire, and I was going very slowly. I got to the start/finish (less than 4 miles from aid station 3) and asked if I maybe someone could help me tape up my leg a bit. I removed my shoe and sock and this huge swollen ankle popped out. The RD and a couple of volunteers got me some ice, and convinced me to use it. They got me to a bench and wrapped my ankle with ice and wrapped me in a warm blanket. This was the point where the day became even more magical than it had been. I got to know some people. A few people I had run with finished their 100K at the same time I stopped for ankle icing. I chatted with them some more, and I got to know some other folks at the aid station. Jeff, the RD, and Benjy, who was dressed as Batman and offering me shots of Fireball to cut the pain, (and perhaps get me to stop running so he wouldn’t have to worry about me) were my saviors at that point. There was no way I was going to stop, but I needed some help to keep going, and they gave it to me. Other folks brought me soup and quesadillas. I stayed at the aid station for about 45 minutes, then headed out into the night, with a phone number written on my hand and orders to check in with them via text when I got to the next aid station.
Now things really slowed down. I was glad I had made such good pace in the first 60 miles, since I was going to need the time to finish. I was alone in the woods in the dark at this point. Regardless of my pain, I was happy. Armadillos crossed my path. Owls of all sorts were calling into the night. I heard a sawhet owl, which is a magical sound, and then one flew in front of me and landed in a tree at eye level and looked at me. I met another banana spider…this one had kindly located his web off the trail.
I was crossing a cypress swamp in the dark, and heard a huge splash, which I knew was a gator, startled off his dry perch by my stomping feet. There were other night sounds I didn’t recognize. The pungent smell of the swamps stood out as I crossed the boardwalks, much more notably than when I crossed them in the daylight. The sky was clear, and the crescent moon and stars provided a bit of residual light in the open areas, and glittered among the tree branches like the spider’s eyes glittered amongst the leaves.
I knew the aid station people and their fare at this point, and I’d walk for miles fantasizing about the lentil soup or the potato soup (yes, those were my favorites!). There was a longer gap between the 2nd station and the 3rd station than between any other aid stations, and it got longer with each lap covered. That aid station had a lot of funny things in the woods, and I looked forward to their bright orange sign on a tree before you could see the station itself. It was a huge relief to see, especially in this lap, since all the benefits of my earlier icing had worn off, so getting to the start/finish line for more ice was my goal. Reaching aid station four meant good food, and almost to an ice break!
In what seemed like forever, I reached the start/finish point again. I arrived to the aid station to cheers, and big hug from Jeff. “See, I told you I could make it one more time around!” I said….now just one more time and I’ll be done! I calculated that I could spare an hour at the very most at the aid station to ice my ankles…both, this time around. When you have 8 hours to go until the cutoff time, and you are worried about making it 20 miles in that time…well….you know you’re not at the top of your game! Jeff got me all set up with some ice. It was pretty quiet at the start/finish point at that time. All the 100 K folks were done…it was just us crazy 100 milers out there, and the aid station folks were napping in shifts, I think. They had been up as long as we had, without the benefit of endorphins from that relentless forward motion. Still, there was plenty of help, and cold ice and hot food and a warm blanket to drive off the shivers while I dealt with my swelling. I didn’t take nearly an hour of ice, though. I got nervous that I wouldn’t head out soon enough and I’d miss the cutoff for the finish, so I bolted before 30 minutes was up.
Once again, the day was changing. It wasn’t quite dawn yet, but the animals of the forest knew dawn was coming soon. Things had quieted down out there towards the middle of lap 4, but there was movement again. The crepuscular creatures, most active in the pre-dawn, were making themselves known. Calls rang out in the dark. Birds, I imagine. Glowing eyes ran past me…raccoons, I think, and I saw two rabbits hop across the trail in the light of my headlamp. Soon the sky began to glow a bit. I had made it through the night. I think it was my first time being awake all night since college, and you don’t want to know how long ago that was!
As the sun rose, I’d like to say I picked up my pace, but I really didn’t. My right leg was in so much pain. I had read that article about pain being alleviated by swearing, and since I’d already tried the pharmaceutical approach without success, I thought I’d try obscenities. I started singing out loud, replacing every word of common songs with common expletives. “Fuck shit fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck, fuck sh-sh-sh-shit, fuck fuck fuck shit.” (To the tune of ‘Deck the Halls’). It made me laugh, and I swear it helped with the pain! (See what I did there?) I mean, I was alone in the woods at dawn, why not? Then two fresh faced young women came prancing over the hill on a morning run. Oops. I shut my trap and greeted them cheerfully. I do wonder if they heard me…and I wonder, if they did, if they will ever run a 100 miler some day and will have the sudden realization of why they heard what they heard in the woods that morning. Anyway, I kept my audible swearing to a minimum after that.
Tick tock, tick tock. “How long can I lie down on the ground with all the spiders and put my feet up a tree to get the swelling down?” Tick tock, tick tock. “I wonder if Jeff (the RD) would really tell me I can’t have a belt buckle if I come in 5 minutes late.” Tick tock, tick tock. “I wonder if there is any potato soup left?” (There was!). Finally I saw the ‘Your mama’ sign in the woods. Aid station up ahead, 4 miles to go until finish! I was feeling like celebrating, but I still didn’t know if I could cover all those miles in the time I had left, at the snail’s pace I was going. I grabbed some soup from the dedicated aid station volunteers, who were still awake and were way more cheerful than I felt, and I plodded ahead. I got my camera out and started taking photos of the mile markers and bidding them good riddance.
I was going to take a photo of mile marker 19, and was possibly going to spit on it, but something wonderful happened before that. A woman came running through the woods with a guy on a bike behind her. “THERE you are!” the guy on the bike said, and I looked up and he was talking to me! It was Benjy (Batman!) in street clothes, and he had come out to pace me in to the finish. The woman running went on her way to catch up to her husband, who she was planning to pace in, and Benjy turned his bike around. “I have something for you.” he said, and he pulled out a cold beer from a pocket. Now, I admit to being kind of a beer snob, and this was a Bud Light, which is usually not on my list of palatable beers, but I swear the can was glowing like a cold and bubbly gift from the Gods. Being delirious, I asked if I could drink it, and he said “That was the plan.” I popped that can of Bud Light open and I have never tasted a more delicious beer in my entire life.
With support at my side, I knew I would make it…my mood lightened, Benjy and I chatted about things other than how brutally long it took to run 100 miles, and soon we were turning onto the road to approach the finish. Holy crap. I was going to finish this thing! And with encouragement from my wonderful bike support, I actually ran the last 15 feet or so to cross the finish line.
There were hugs and cheers and a belt buckle was slipped into my hand that I will cherish forever. An amazing egg burrito was made for me, and another beer was opened. Chairs were pulled up, more ice bags were prepped, and I can say I was the happiest person in the world, sitting amongst this crazy new family I had just met less than 30 hours earlier.
This was my first 100 mile race completion, and it won’t be my last. But I cannot imagine any race experience being better than this one at Cajun Coyote. Everything was magical. I keep using that word because there is no other way to describe it. The mix of everything was perfect. The course, the weather, the other runners, and wow, the support. I’ve never met such a group of cheerful and dedicated people. 30 hours and they were still smiling, still dishing out hot soup, still apologizing that the home made organic energy balls got crushed by a six pack of beer so they weren’t nicely round anymore. The Cajun trail running community made this Mainer feel totally at home on the bayou.
I read an article today about the incursion of commercialization into ultra running. It made me so glad to had chosen the race that I did for my first 100 mile completion. Nothing commercial, just a bunch of crazy people testing their limits in the woods and having a darned good time doing it. The way ultra running should be.