There are road races.
There are trail races.
Then…in the awkward, isolated corner of society; where it is damp, dark and full of poor choices is the strange, step-child hybrid: the gravel road race.
For the record I am going to make the claim that a demonic spirit, bent on ensuring my death is miserable and lonely, possessed me when I made the choice to sign up for the GOATz Gravel Classic.
Like an apple from the tree of good and evil; I could not resist the realization that this race was free, it was ‘close’, and “The Legend” was also running around in the event. Every piece of poor peer pressure (ironically placed on by myself…and no one else), said that this was a must do in my growing world of trail running.
Even if there was no trail.
I should have seen the apocalyptic signs in the world around me prior to this adventure; a tire blowout the day I was to leave for the
desolate scenic landscape of Blair, Nebraska. I should have turned away when I rolled into a town where everything (minus the Walgreens) closes at 9:00 PM on a Friday night, and I couldn’t find a tube of toothpaste. I should have politely turned down my hotel room, from the kind man in the lobby watching infomercials on his tube television resting on a milk crate, when I realized my Super 8 welcome brochure came with instructions on what to do if the nuclear reactor down the road went into meltdown mode*.
However, like all other trail experiences since lacing up in July of last year, I pushed forward knowing that this was something that would help me in the future. That was also accepting that I would have a future after this experience…
Saturday morning greeted me with 55 degree temperatures, clouds, and a light breeze. I bid my farewell to the quaint farm town of Blair, and drove south to Skinny Bones Pumpkin Patch (I am not making this up) for the beginning of the race. Here I found a
few other hopeless souls roaming through the dust and gravel with race bibs, and…that was it.
Gravel Classic: The Greater Omaha Area Trail Runners (GOATz)** hosts this crazy event each year. There is a belief (must like the belief of a very unstable man in the mountains of Tennessee, looking back this seems fitting) that races should not cost you an arm and a leg to participate in. The Gravel Classic is a 30k/60k race that has no fee. It also has no frills, no medal, no beer (officially), no t-shirt, and no coupons to Canfield’s in Omaha. There is also zero…none…as in nothing…by way of aid stations on the course. Each loop is 18 miles***, so you had best be prepared for the entire duration of fun without bacon, ramen noodles, and Fireball.
The lax sensation of the race was actually a relief. Being naturally slow gives me the peace of mind of knowing that it could be so much worse. Plus, thinking prior to the race,
“I grew up running on gravel! Our high school ‘track’ was nothing but gravel. Surely, this could not be that hard.”
We were informed that we would run three quarters of a mile through a disked field to spread out the field (running field, not the fertilizer in the field) a bit prior to hopping on the road. There was no air horn, no cowbell, just a RD laughing to himself as he started his two stop watches and simply, like a rustic track coach said, “Alright. Go get it.”
I wore my trail shoes. I have zero regrets about this. The rock plates on the bottom of them were huge when dealing with the gravel on the road. After the first 3/4 mile of laughter (aka: heavy breathing), we finally hit the road. There are a few key rules about this race in relation to the road:
- Stay on the left hand side
- Stay single file going uphill (yes, uphill…it is a real thing)
- Try not to spread out and cover the entire road
Recognizing my speed, and my tendency to run alone, the rules meant little to me. My mission was simple; this was my 18 mile long-run on a Saturday. It was part of my training, it was different from my days, I would hop along the road, head home, and call it a day.
DID YOU KNOW NEBRASKA HAS HILLS!?!?!?
Within the first 5k I had started to realize the very poor choice that I had made. I was out of breath in the first three miles. The road did not consist of my expected, large, white limestone gravel. It was pea gravel! Freaking pea gravel! Have you ever ran in that? Yes, yes you have. It’s called running the in the sand!
Imagine; you have trail shoes on with amazing grip. You are going uphill with pea gravel. Your quads are on fire, you are moving nowhere fast, and you have 15 miles remaining. The demonic possession truly was going to see my inevitable doom by the end of the course.
Scanning the horizon (easy to do in Nebraska) I started to notice the deep blue hues to my west. I also recognized that this was the second race that I had signed up for involving “The Legend”. The last one ended in flash flooding, lightning, and a stranded car. These elements combined together caused me, in my delirium of ‘tire spinning’ up a hill to note simply; rain was coming.
The wind picked up, the temperatures stayed at 55 degrees, and the rain came down (at me like air daggers) and completely soaked me to the bone. It remained like this for about a solid mile, almost two, before tapering off to sprinkles. At one point or another I yelled at “The Legend” for bringing this with her (she never heard me because, again, I was running alone).
Through the burning, raging, and raining sensations I was witnessing came the next adventure at mile four; the headless runner.
I have learned that for the most part I stick out at races for sheer size versus most runners. At 250 pounds and 6’5 that is just something I accept (along with never touching a basketball…ever). Suddenly, almost like a ghost, a man came up next to me, matching stride for stride. He was bubbly, smiling, and talking; all the things I dream of doing when I run. Most notably though, he was a staggering four inches taller then myself!
When he came up next, assuming he saw the struggles, he said he was doing a 3 on 1 off combo. Meaning three minutes of running, one minute of walking. He was also running the 60k; bless his heart. For the first time in my entire running career/life/experience I decided that I would run with a complete stranger, at least for three minutes. It turns out running with other people melts the miles away. We talked politics, family, jobs, running, mutual friends (the trail world is connected), next races, imaginary, abandoned towns on route (Washington), and life in general. Granted, I should note he was doing the majority of the talking. My short laughter or, “…*gasp*…yeah…” was about all I could get out. It was a hard pace for me. However, we hit the half marathon mark in just over two hours. Meaning, personally, I was cooking. We also found photographers along the route, him knowing them being local. This is where I learned about the “headless runner”. As it turns out, the majority of race photos, for joking purposes, that feature him and other runners include the others, but usually just him from the shoulders down. This gave him the monicker “headless runner” in the GOATz community.
Probably most importantly, I learned why he ran. Ask any trail runner out there, there is a reason why they run the way they do. All of them have a unique story; including the headless runner. Him, and his wife (also running the 60k), run as a way to encourage their daughter. He, being in the medical professional, has a strong connection to movement, the body, and how the well being of people are frequently connected directly to how much they move. It was inspiring to listen to a runner talk about his drive, his family, and that a crazy, absurd amount of miles makes such a strong impact on his entire family.
With that said, as inspiring as the story was, it did not stop the fact that I was dying internally from the mass amount of hills on the course. While he continued to trudge through them, my pace was getting slower and slower. The course doesn’t do ‘flat’, it does uphill and downhill. It ensures that your quads fire, your calves activate, and your soul slowly dies with the dust. My life on the gravel was playing out like an archaic Kansas song.
Turning on the final long stretch, the headless runner and myself saw the construction of
a large barn. Now, being smart, we realized that prior to the race Skinny Bones was also building a large barn. These connections, like a sliver of hope, allowed us to see that the race was nearing its completion. I was going to make it!
And just like that glimpse of good fortune, the morsel of hope and well being, the devil of distance and perception arose and crushed what was left of my heart into the pea gravel of life! Turns out in Nebraska a lot of people like to build barns, and the outline of the barns look eerily similar. A mile heading towards that structure allowed us to realize; we had three more miles. I cried.
The headless runner took off in front of me. We bid our farewells, and I slowed down to a walk for about a mile. The sun came out, the wind kept blowing (did you know that the wind of Nebraska will blow in your face regardless of direction that you’re running), and I began to shutdown like a vampire. With only two miles left I put in my earbuds and tried to move up the final large hill. Listening to Krewella scream into my earbuds, “Somebody help me, I am only human…” brought a knot to my throat, and at the same time a knot formed on my leg. A photographer, driving around taking photos of
corpses runners pulled up next to me. Just when she was preparing to push the shutter button, I nearly collapsed into a pile due to the insane sensation of pain running through my leg.
They call these things cramps. It was the first cramp I have ever had while running. In front of a photographer, already nearing the level of tears from…well…gravel. She drove past me, I think laughing (I wouldn’t blame her), while I did an impersonation of throwback 70’s “Party Off The Pounds” with Richard Simmons trying to get that softball tumor of a cramp out of my leg.
Only one mile left.
The final section was the beginning of the course. Flat, past the tornado sirens in the middle of corn fields, heading directly towards Nebraska Route 133 like a trail runners version of Thelma and Louise. Prior to diving headlong in traffic, I turned down the driveway into the finish line. Completing, honestly, the hardest 18 miles of my life.
The RD came up and asked only one thing…
How was the course marking for you?
I wouldn’t have known if I had gotten lost even if I had wanted to at that point. I gave him a thumbs up, waited for “The Legend” to come in behind me with her husband, listened to her talk about the desire she had for another 30k, laughed out loud, cried inside silently, got my 30k sticker and headed home.
Death? Contemplated it.
Stickers? Got them.
I went back to Kansas City that evening to runners laughing at my story of trying to survive gravel. It turns out running on that stuff isn’t easy (or fun for several people). It really is its own brand of insanity.
Would I recommend it?
I mean, it is a free entry…
And it is on UltraSignUp…
*In event of meltdown; grab some marshmellows and a stick
**Two different races that have been my hardest are hosted by these people
***IT WAS 19 MILES