Those memories and relationships are the reason I returned to this race last year, and again this year. And for the first time ever, I was going to be joined by Jo as a fellow runner.
I know what you're thinking..."But who is going to crew for Kelly?!?!?" That was my initial reaction too, but because of the massive amount of aid and so many great friends nearby, I was willing to attempt this one on my own.
I hope she doesn't plan to make a habit of this though! I freely acknowledge that I'm a high maintenance runner. I have no shame!
The course for Labor Pains consists of a 5 mile trail loop, almost entirely single track, a little double track and a tiny bit of pavement mixed in. The loop has a few steep hills, a few very technical sections, but a lot of very nice runnable trail. There is an enormous aid station at the start/finish line and a water stop at the midway point on the course.
As evidenced by the finisher's swag, this is a Race Director that really knows what a trail runner will appreciate!
Like all serious ultra runners, I take my pre-race nutrition seriously. That's why I won't compromise and will only eat the highest quality food available...from a bar...close to my house. I'm very particular.
My black bean burger covered in Mac-n-Cheese from Lucky's Last Chance. I strongly encourage all endurance athletes to check this place out. Damn good grub and an excellent place to carb load. They have a ton of awesome beer!!!
The race was scheduled to begin at 7:30, so we showed up early and started setting up our area at the start line. This is for the race as much as it is the post-race beer drinking festivities that are a key element to this event.
Beer/Crew tents being set up at the start line
Considering the significant role that ultra running plays in our lives, you might think we discuss our running goals and training ideas regularly. You would be wrong. Outside of specific race planning and preparation, we don't talk much about it at all. So keeping that theme alive, Jo had been very cryptic regarding her plans for this race. While it's a 12 hour event, most runners only intend to reach whatever milestone they're aiming for, then they pack it in for the day. This is what I've always done and I knew Jo planned to do the same thing. But how far does she want to run....?
After her marathon completion earlier in the year, I had heard whispers that she may attempt 50k at Labor Pains. She planted a few seeds, but evidently they failed to properly germinate and ultimately never took root.
Or maybe I wasn't listening...but that's highly unlikely...
To add to my confusion, our friend Jo Kappus made t-shirts for team "JO Squared". While they were cute, even the shirts weren't prepared to commit to any specific distance.
WTF...50K...or not? This hasn't cleared anything up for me.
Me and Jo before the gun
"Hey, Jo. How many miles are you gonna run?" This was my answer...
After only minor delays (by typical Pretzel City Sports standards), we were sent off onto the trails.
My race plan was the same as the previous year. I intended to run 50k as a training run, then stop my time, start my burger eating and beer drinking, then head back out on the trails to serve as a pacer for anybody that needed some encouragement.
This plan is great because I get the best of both worlds. I get an ultra distance finish AND I get to drink beer and cheer for other runners.
In my first loop, I ran every step with my buddy Leon Lutz. We were making good time and worked our way closer to the front as we went. Leon is quite skilled at finding a path around other runners, so I tucked in behind him and worked off his draft.
We flew past the aid station without stopping and continued to press on. It was warm and very humid out. I knew right away that this race was going to morph into my first topless run of the year.
When we got back to the start line, I lost Leon as I refilled my handheld bottle and I went back out on my own.
Shortly into the 2nd loop, it began to rain and it felt great!
As I settled into my second lap, I was getting into my rhythm and sort of zoning out. This is a big part of my overall race strategy. I can almost put myself to sleep, leaving my brain on autopilot as I cruise down the trail. I was enjoying the rain and relative peace of the trail while I moved along at a pretty fast pace. At one point, I made a mental note of how well the trail was holding up considering the rain and all the runners making loops on it. Slowly....very slowly...I began to realize I may be off course. Suddenly, the trail opened up onto a paved road that I have never crossed before. I was lost.
I want to be clear about this. This is likely the most WELL MARKED course I have ever been on. I'm well known for having the visual navigation skills of Stevie Wonder, but I don't usually screw up this impressively.
I looked down the road and saw a runner cross and head into the woods. I ran that direction, hoping it was the road crossing that takes me to the aid station at the midway point. NOPE! It's the road crossing that takes me back into the same loop I just ran.
Now I'm deflated, frustrated and am in the process of adding about 2 miles to my 5 mile loop. As I was passing runners that I had already passed earlier in the race, I decided to abandon all hope of an excellent finishing time and just enjoy the run.
As Forest Gump always said..."Stupid is, as Stupid does." This would technically make me Stupid.
After my second lap, I refilled my water bottle, grabbed a bean burrito from my cooler, and headed out hoping to shake off my frustration.
I ran the next 4 laps without doing anything terribly stupid. I maintained a strong pace and enjoyed chatting with other runners. At the end of my 6th loop, I headed out for a brief out and back section that would finish the remainder of my 50k.
I came in at 5:36 and called it a day. A long ways from a PR, but a solid run anyway and I had a blast.
I immediately grabbed a beer and got started on my recovery while I watched my friends continue to run and log the miles.
Our friend Tim Nash making it look easy. You can see the hill behind him that leads to the timing chute. It's not an easy climb to the top. You wouldn't know it by the smile on Tim's face!
I headed further down the trail and caught Leon making his way toward the timing chute. Fresh off the Trans Rockies race, he was logging miles at a strong pace and looking good. Leon, always acutely aware of the latest fashion trends, has neatly braided his beard in celebration of this event.
The ever present and always persistent John Schultz was making his way in to be counted for another 5 miles. John is in his 80's and will log 35 miles on the trail today. Badass! While most people his age are worrying about falling down, John is tackling some technical single track.
About the time I was ready to pour my 2nd beer, I saw my lovely bride coming in to the timing chute. She was looking strong and confident. I hadn't had a chance to see her up close for several hours and had no idea how many miles she had logged. As it turned out, she was wrapping up 25 miles and ready to go out and get some more!
I would be lying if I said I wasn't a little surprised. Not that I ever doubted her abilities or anything...just saying...
I gave her a quick kiss and a bit of encouragement, and off she went!
Jo at mile 25. I don't smile that much at mile 25...
A little while later, our good friend Shasta Moore came in and got timed for finishing 30 miles. I had agreed to pace her from miles 35 to 40, assuming she intended to run that far. I wasn't sure how serious she was about it, so I had settled in and continued my beer drinking while I waited to be summoned to pace.
Shasta at mile 30
To my surprise, she WAS serious about running 40 miles and was less than impressed when she showed up and saw me in my jeans with a beer in my hand. After she explained her sense of urgency, I stripped my jeans and shirt off, dropped the beer, and we headed out. She was in no mood to wait, so I had to sprint to catch her.
Shasta was running a ridiculous pace, especially considering the fact that she has never run passed 26.2 miles. I soon learned that her logic dictates that the only way to stop the pain, is to finish running, which she only intended to do after 40 miles. So we RAN and we RAN hard.
It was a blast cruising down the trail, watching her suffer, knowing she was getting a tiny taste of what it's like to be an ultra runner.
She complained about the pain and I assured her that she must be doing it right, because it's supposed to hurt. All of her whiny comments were met with a congratulatory response, welcoming her to the world of pain and discomfort that most runners never cross over into.
After a blistering run, we came to the finish line together. Shasta knocked out 40 miles like a champ!
Me and Shasta finishing her first ultra
More than happy to be done and to join the spectators
While pacing Shasta, I thought there may be a chance for us to catch up to Jo on the trail. When Shasta finished I hadn't seen Jo yet, I knew she must have finished 30 miles and was headed out to wrap up her 50k with her 1 mile out and back run. Leon confirmed that Jo and just left, so after dropping Shasta, I started sprinting back down the trail, hoping to catch Jo so I could pace her in for her first ultra finish.
I caught up Jo and our friend Heather Peters and we all ran together as Jo ran through her final mile.
For runner's that have successfully completed new, or challenging race distances, you can relate to the high level of emotion associated with such a significant accomplishment. That last mile was a mixture of swelling emotion that is almost too overwhelming to describe.
Being a part of Jo's first ultra finish is as powerful as the emotions I felt after my first 100 mile trail race. Maybe even more powerful. I was truly amazed and impressed by what she was able to do.
Jo headed to the finish of her first 50k
Smiling as always
Arms in the air!!! Done!
After a brief celebration, Jo joined me and Shasta as spectators. There are still HOURS left on the clock for other runner's to reach their goals.
Leon wrapped up his day after 40 miles. He ran strong and had fun. As always I was very happy to share another winning adventure with one of my best friends.
Typical post race reflection for Leon. Or maybe he's going puke? Either way, the camera was ready!
Another friend, Stacey Keener, stayed on course and logged an impressive 45 miles. A new distance for her!
Stacey Keener, post race. Great job!
It seemed that every runner was completing a new distance, breaking a PR, or simply having fun on the trails. As the race for the overall winner was still underway, the celebrations were just getting going.
My buddy JC in his "Leon costume".
Three great ultra running women and I'm proud to know them all and share the same trails with them. Jo, Beth Auman, and Melissa Creason.
Need to plug a quick endorsement here...Straight out of the box, I laid down 38 miles in these shoes during my run and liked them a lot. This could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
Happiness is a pair of muddy trail shoes
I have written about this race before, and will probably do so for many years to come. No matter where we live or what happens in the future, I know that I will always return to this event so I can continue to bear witness to so many amazing stories of success and endurance.
I have been fortunate enough to have been a part of several very epic trail races, but Labor Pains will always be the most significant race I have ever been a part of.
When I completed my first 50k at this event in 2010, I was proud of my accomplishment. I was physically drained and emotionally moved. I was forever changed. But all of that pales in comparison to what I experienced when I watched my wife cross that same finish line two years later. For me, it was one of my proudest moments in my running career. It was truly awesome and inspiring.
And I am also proud to witness the amazing things that other runners are accomplishing out there. It's truly moving and inspirational on so many levels.
As runners, or as athletes in general, I think the greatest accomplishment is to inspire others to work toward their goals and to find the motivation to try to do things that have appeared to be beyond their grasp. If ultra running has taught me anything, it's that we all have the ability to do far more than we ever imagined. I've seen it hundreds of times and I never tire of witnessing individual greatness.
Thanks to Ron and Helene Horn for providing this excellent event. They're doing great work for the benefit of so many and we all love and appreciate them for it.