Catsmacker Fun Run – a.k.a. My First Trail Run!

Thought I would write about a running experience that wasn’t a major race, but was still a big deal to me. I ran my first trail race this morning! After Joplin, I had the post-race blues with no other races on the calendar until Route 66 in November. So, on a whim, I searched RunningInTheUSA to see if there were any upcoming races here in Arkansas. I was pleasantly surprised to find the “Catsmacker Fun Run” listed for this weekend, and it was only an hour away! And the best part? No entry fee! (Although donations were accepted to help cover the costs of the aid stations and post-race food.) There were two distance options: 12 miles and 21 miles. Although I knew I could complete 21 miles if I needed to, I opted for the 12 miler since this would only be a week after the Joplin Marathon, and I’m not used to running on trails.

I was a little bit nervous about running without a partner on an unfamiliar trail, so I made plans to run it with a friend I had met during my first marathon here in Arkansas. Sadly, she had to cancel last minute. So, after getting up before dawn and following my GPS to Lake Sylvia, I found myself in a large group of seasoned trail runners not knowing a single soul. It was a rather intimidating way to start my first trail race. I went to fill up my handheld water bottle, and found that the rubber stopper had come out of the lid, so I would have to carry it very carefully the whole distance to keep it from splashing all over myself. Great. I hadn’t even started the run yet, and already, nothing was going to plan.

Fortunately, runners are some of the friendliest people around, and I soon found myself chatting with other people who said I was welcome to run with their group if I needed a partner. I was getting excited about the run again by the time we gathered for the trail briefing. The atmosphere was very low key and non-competitive. It didn’t feel like the beginning of a race, it felt like we were about to set off on an adventure together! I’ve always loved hiking, camping, and any other activity that involves being out in nature. Distance running is a relatively recent hobby I’ve taken up over the past couple years, and until today I had only seriously run on roads and the occasional rail trail. How cool was it that I was about to embark on a journey that combined two things I love!

There were no guns or horns to announce the beginning of the race, just the race director saying “Ready, set, go!” And off we went. I’m glad I didn’t look at the course elevation profiles before we ran, because I might not have been brave enough to sign up! The first 3 miles of gravel forest road were a steady uphill slope. I kept hoping that as we turned a bend, the road would level out, but it didn’t. At the 3 mile mark, we turned off the road to an extremely steep, rocky trail. I had to walk up the trail… even if I could have handled the steep incline, I was too worried about tripping on a rock to attempt to run. The climb was challenging enough even at a walk – my heart rate monitor read 180bpm, which is my usual heart rate for a moderately fast run! But the view at the top seemed to melt the previous miles away. Many of us stopped and took pictures. There was also a pile of blue cable ties for us to take as proof that we had climbed the challenging trail. After a quick picture, I grabbed my cable tie and headed back down.

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The view at the top of the trail made the climb worth it!

 

As I made the descent, I found the courage to run a bit down segments of the trail that didn’t look too rocky. I was afraid of falling, but amazingly, the only time I came close to a fall on this run was when we were back on the relatively easy forest road and I wasn’t paying attention to a rock in my path. Soon we turned off the forest road again onto a single track mountain bike trail. I caught up to some other runners who offered to let me pass, but I was glad to have some running partners to make sure I didn’t get lost! It turned out that all three of them were members of a running club in Conway! I’m hoping to join them on some group runs in the future. Running here will be so much more fun with others who know the area and can introduce me to good routes.

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Me with my new friends Wendy, Jodi, and Sherry!

Chatting with my new friends made the miles fly by. Unfortunately, my Baton Rouge legs were really feeling the hills by the time we neared the end of the race. I didn’t feel like pushing hard would be a good idea in the humidity and rising temperature, so I let my friends pull ahead and ran by myself for the last couple of miles. At this point, I was really glad I had only signed up for the 12 miler instead of attempting the full 21. I finally rounded the bend back into the start/finish area, where volunteers were busy cooking us hamburgers and hot dogs. My new friends were there to congratulate me on my first trail run. We all went down to the pier at Lake Sylvia to dip our feet in the water, and I couldn’t resist jumping in, running clothes and all! The cool water was so refreshing after the hot run, and felt great on my achy muscles. Lake Sylvia has a special place in my heart as it is one of the places Joshua often visited as a child, and the only other time I’ve been here was when we came for a swim day with his family while we were dating.

After my swim, I had some potato salad and chips, then headed back to the car for the drive home. My pace had been slow. Despite trying to be careful with my broken bottle cap, I ended up wearing a lot of my Tailwind rather than drinking it. According to my Garmin, we had ascended 1,248 feet throughout the course of the race, which made my previous “hilly” runs look like child’s play. By the ache in my legs, I suspected that I would be more sore from my 12 miler today than I was after the Joplin Marathon last weekend. But… how does the saying go? “If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.” I know that difficult courses like these will make me a stronger runner. And despite the difficulty, I really enjoyed my first trail run. It was like hiking, except I got to go further and see more! And I was thrilled to find what a strong running community this part of Arkansas has. I can’t wait to see what new adventures and friends Arkansas will bring to my running journey.

Race Report: Joplin Memorial Marathon 2016

I just had the privilege of running the inaugural Joplin Memorial Marathon. The event evolved from Joplin’s Boomtown Days Half Marathon, which was cancelled in 2011 due to the EF5 tornado that claimed 161 lives and demolished thousands of homes and businesses. Many runners who were registered for the cancelled race came anyway to help however they could in the tornado’s aftermath. Since that day, the race has continued annually as the Joplin Memorial Run. For the first time this year, a full marathon was added to the event.

This marathon was especially meaningful because I would be running it with a friend, Carey Oster, who I knew from the church I attended as a teenager in Florida. He lost his father and sister in the tornado. He took up distance running so he could run in their memory at the first Joplin Memorial Half Marathon. Before I became a distance runner, I used to read his posts on Facebook and be amazed at his accomplishments in running so far. But more than that, I was amazed and humbled at his faith which remained so strong in the face of such a great loss. Running is more than just a physical activity to him, it’s a way for him to express his faith and trust in God. Seeing that faith has been a huge encouragement and inspiration to me in my own running journey. It was a privilege getting to run with someone who has inspired me so much, probably without even knowing it!

The trip up to Joplin was interesting. Joshua and I made the first leg of the trip from Baton Rouge on Thursday night, May 19. We decided that since I would be starting my new job in Arkansas on June 11, it would make sense to combine my trip to Joplin with our move to Conway. So, we had spent the previous week packing up all our material possessions and loading them into the UHaul. When Joshua got off work on Thursday, we divided our three cats, two dogs, and lizard between the UHaul and my PT Cruiser, and off we went. It was well after dark when we arrived at the house we will be inheriting from Joshua’s mom (the three of us will be living together here for a few months while we build her a smaller house on the property.)

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Our cats were not thrilled about the 8 hour car ride.
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They were happy to get out of their carriers when we finally arrived in Arkansas!

Friday morning was spent unloading the UHaul, with me fervently hoping that I wouldn’t drop something on my toes… I needed those for the race tomorrow! Finally we got everything unloaded, and started the chaotic process of unpacking. Finding places for all your things in a house where someone is already living adds a whole new challenge to moving in. I was pretty stressed out as the time drew closer for me to leave for packet pickup. I hated leaving such a mess for my family and friends to deal with, not to mention our menagerie of scared, confused animals. But that was just the way it worked out. I threw my overnight bag into the PT Cruiser, hoping I’d done a good job packing when I put my race gear in it a couple days before.

My mood improved a bit when, on my way out of the driveway, I found a package in the mailbox containing my beautiful new Marathon Maniacs singlet. Perfect timing! Joshua had bought me a singlet for my birthday earlier that week, but it was too big and I had to exchange it. I wasn’t sure if the new one would arrive in time for this race.

The drive from Conway to Joplin was beautiful. The interstate took me through some gorgeous mountains around Fayetteville. At one point, it literally took me through a mountain. I’m not usually claustrophobic, but the long straight stretch of road going towards that tiny tunnel in the mountain definitely made my heart beat a little faster!

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The tunnel! Photo credit Wikipedia (No, I was not taking pictures while driving!)

After a little less than four hours, I arrived at the expo. I knew I was in the right place when I saw a lady walk by with a Boston finisher’s jacket! The expo was one of the nicest I’ve been to. We picked up our bibs at the entrance, and then wove our way through the vendors’ tables to pick up our participant shirts at the exit. It was fun chatting with the vendors. There was even a booth for the Baton Rouge Beach Marathon. I have never run this race, but frequently used much of their course around the LSU lakes for my training runs in Baton Rouge. I really enjoyed visiting with the race director. Turns out he is a regular at the vet school, where he brings his dogs when they need medical attention. I wondered if I had ever seen them when I was a student there! There were lots of great deals on running apparel and accessories at the expo, but I tried not to go too crazy. I did splurge on some magnetic “RaceDots” which hold your bib on without puncturing your clothes like a safety pin. I’ve always been intrigued by them, and thought now would be a good time to try them out since I wanted to take good care of my beautiful new Maniac singlet. (I liked the RaceDots, except for the fact that the top and bottom ones would stick together whenever I bent over, and I would have to peel them back apart. Oh well! They did their job of keeping my singlet in pristine condition!)

After exiting the expo, I met Carey, who had been volunteering there all day and had taken a break to get a bite to eat. It was so good to see each other! It had been eight years since we both moved away from Florida, he to Joplin and I to Searcy, Arkansas for my freshman year of college at Harding. We headed to his house where I was greeted by his wife Shirley and their two adorable Shih Tzus. They reminded me of Oliver, the sweet little Shih Tzu I used to dog sit for them when I lived in Florida.

By the time I got my stuff inside, it was time to head back out to the Walk of Silence. This takes place the evening before the race and is open to the public. Carey, Shirley, and I joined about 1,000 other people walking down Joplin avenue, a record number for the event. On either side of the street were 161 banners, each with the name of someone who lost their life in the tornado five years ago. My heart hurt for these families who had lost so much. And at the same time, I was humbled and encouraged by their faith and resilience which has carried them through such unimaginable loss.

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Walk of silence the evening before the race. Photo credit Podium Images.
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Banners with the names of those we were remembering stretched for half a mile. Photo credit Podium Images.

After the walk, we went to a local bar and grill for a belated birthday celebration – Carey and I shared a birthday earlier that week on May 16th! We met some of his running friends there, a really fun group many of whom would be running the half marathon tomorrow. It was 10pm by the time we left, and I tried not to think about how early I would need to be up for the 6:30 race start the next morning.

I got to bed at around 11:00 and slept like a rock until my alarm went off at 4:30. I was so tempted to hit the snooze button, but knew I would regret it later if I didn’t give myself enough time for some breakfast and coffee. Since the house was only a few blocks away, Carey and I walked to the start line to meet some of his friends before the race. The walk was a great little warm up in the cool of the morning. Carey introduced me to Ben, a friend of his who would be running his first full marathon and planned to run about my pace. Before we started, we gathered in a circle and Carey led a prayer, praying that we would place our faith in God in the coming miles and trust Him even through the painful moments. I’m always a little nervous before a race, and this was just what I needed to calm my racing heart – a reminder that God would be with us every step of the way, just as He has been in my previous marathons and in my many miles of training.

I had decided when I completed Oshkosh four weeks ago that I would not attempt a PR at Joplin. I didn’t want to set myself up for disappointment with hotter weather and a hillier course. And besides that, I felt like I had missed a lot of the race experience at Oshkosh with all my energy focused on maintaining my pace. This was a special race, and I wanted to slow down enough to take everything in. It felt a little strange starting a race without any real goal or strategy besides simply finishing. I had prayed last night that God would keep me from worrying about pace or time, and simply let me run this race in a way that honored Him.

After the anthem was sung, we made our way to the start line. We all ran together for about the first mile, at which point Ben and I pulled ahead. It was great having a running buddy and no real time or pace expectations. We ran the first 12 miles or so together, walking every couple of miles for a water break. The miles flew by as we chatted. He was in training for some triathlons later in the summer, something I’ve always been interested in but never had the courage to sign up for. Sadly at about mile 12 his knee started giving him some issues, so I pulled ahead by myself. (Ben did end up pushing through the pain and finishing his first marathon strong! It was such a pleasure meeting him, and I hope to see him at a future race. Maybe one day he can help me get through my first triathlon!)

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Before the race start, we observed 161 seconds of silence in memory of the lives lost 5 years ago. Then, 161 balloons were released into the sky. Photo credit Podium Images. 
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The race begins! Photo credit Podium Images
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Half marathon and marathon runners take off down Joplin Avenue! Near the front, you can see me in my yellow Maniac gear and my new friend Ben in his orange singlet. A couple paces behind us, you can spot Carey in his grey T-shirt and black cap. It was great getting to start all together! Photo credit Podium Images
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Ben and me at mile 5!

The course was very hilly throughout. I’m probably in the minority here, but I actually enjoy hills. Flat courses can be monotonous, and the repetitiveness is hard on my muscles and joints. But hills force me to constantly adjust my form and stride, giving some muscle groups a break while others work harder. And I just love the feeling of being carried down by a downhill slope as I catch my breath after a challenging climb. The terrain reminded me a lot of Jonesboro Arkansas, where I ran my long standing half marathon PR of 2:01.

I got to meet some other runners along the way. One lady had a dog portrait tattooed on her shoulder which I complimented as I caught up with her. We ran together for a bit as she told me about her beloved little pup who likes to ride in a backpack on hiking trips.

I saw lots of fellow Marathon Maniacs and Half Fanatics on the course, and I loved the feeling of instant friendship as we waved and cheered each other on. I got really excited around mile 20 when I caught up to a fellow Maniac wearing the same new lightning print top that I was wearing! It still doesn’t feel real that I’m part of this incredible group. Many of them have hundreds of marathons on their running resumes, so when a fellow Maniac asked me how many I had run, I felt a little sheepish telling them that this was “only” my fifth!

The water stops were fantastic. Many had energizing music, and at least three of them had ice water soaked towels for us to wipe off our sweaty necks and faces. I gratefully squeezed the towels out onto my head before tossing them aside (and I wonder why my hair is so messy at the end of a marathon!) One sweet volunteer spotted me pouring Tailwind powder into my water bottle as I approached her water stop, and she was ready with a big jug of water to fill it up when I arrived. I also loved the superhero themed water stop with all the volunteers in costume. One young man held a sign which said something to the effect of, “Touch here for power!” and I gladly hit the button. I think it even helped a little!

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Volunteers at the superhero themed water station!

The volunteers were all enthusiasm as they cheered us on, and high fives were plentiful. It was freeing not being so tied to a pace goal that I missed out on all these fun aspects of the race. I felt relaxed, even as the miles wore on and the now familiar end-of-marathon aches crept into my legs. I even allowed myself a quick porta potty break around mile 20, which I probably could have made it without… but why be uncomfortable when you don’t have to be? One of the volunteers gave me a good laugh in the last couple of miles when he shouted that he loved my outfit – that if he were a girl, and if he ran marathons, that’s what he would wear. I guess the new Maniac singlets do make for a pretty crazy looking outfit… but they are so fitting for the crazy group they represent! I did a lot of smiling throughout this marathon, and made a point of thanking everyone I could for making it such a great experience.

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Still smiling in the late miles of the race! Photo credit: Podium Images

The most emotional part of the event for me was the last turn back onto Joplin Avenue. It was a long, straight stretch of road to the finish line, where once again we passed the banners carrying the names of the 161 people in whose memory we were running. I couldn’t feel sorry for myself as I ran this last half mile. Compared to everything that the people of Joplin went through five years ago, my physical pain was so insignificant. It was a privilege getting to be here, running in their honor, and in support of the loved ones they left behind. I didn’t know any of them on this earth, but someday in Heaven I look forward to meeting the people behind the names on those banners.

Finally the finish line was close enough that I felt I could work up my end-of-race sprint. And I did. Though the vast majority of the spectators didn’t know me, they cheered like I was family, and the announcer made as big a deal of my middle-of-the-pack finish as if I had been the winner. I was all smiles as I accepted my finisher’s medal, as well as a beautiful finisher’s hat that I didn’t know we would be receiving!

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Sprinting to the finish, and still managing a bit of a smile! Photo Credit Podium Images

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I found Carey in the finishers’ area, and we congratulated each other. He and his friends had had a great half marathon. I really appreciated them waiting around for me to finish long after they did. I made my way to the results tent, where they were printing out nice finisher’s certificates for each person who completed the race. 4:22:53. I was pretty happy with that, especially for a race in which I didn’t push too far out of my comfort zone, and even made a bathroom stop! When I turned from the results tent, I was delighted to see my Facebook friend Jessica Jones who had finished a little while earlier. Although she lives in Louisiana and we had run three of the same marathons previously, we had never managed to meet each other in person until today! She had run the full marathon today while her sister had run the half. Since her sister lives in Little Rock, I imagine that we’ll be seeing each other again!

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My finisher’s certificate, which was available seconds after I crossed the finish line. Joplin went above and beyond in so many ways to make sure their runners had a great experience!
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I finally got to meet my friend Jessica!
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Finisher picture with Carey in front of the memorial sign.

It was great being able to go back to the Osters’ house for a leisurely shower before facing the 4 hour drive back to Conway. In most of my previous races, I’ve had to jump straight into the car to endure a trip in my stinky running clothes. After I got cleaned up, I proudly donned my participant tank and finisher’s hat. Every gas stop on the way back would know that I ran the Joplin Marathon today! I said my good byes to Carey and Shirley and hopped in the car, hoping that it wouldn’t be another 8 years before I saw this sweet couple again.

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All cleaned up and enjoying my finisher’s gear!

What a special weekend this had been. What a privilege to be a part of it. What a reminder that every day is a gift we cannot take for granted. May I live my life in recognition of this fact. May it be reflected in the way I treat those around me, especially the loved ones I am closest to.