2009 ULTRA RUNNING ADVENTURES

 

   
 
Runtrails' Web Journal
 
Previous          Journal Topics by Date            Next
 

  THE "MISSISSLIPPY" 50 ULTRAS
PART 1: SETTING THE SCENE

SUNDAY, MARCH 8

 

NEVER QUIT ON THE UPHILL
by Carl Touchstone

When things are hard and the going gets tough
When the trail is steep and the footing is rough
We can't go on and we just want to quit
The struggle's not worth the pain, not one bit!

Like the mouse in the trap, who's had enough cheese
"No more, no more, let me out of here, please!"
And a voice says, "Stop now and rest a while
For this steep incline goes on at lease one more mile."

But if we push on and ignore the displeasure
The pain of the climb plays out its full measure.
Then the crest of the hill comes into full view
And we reach the top of this problem so new.

Cruising downhill now with strength in our stride
The wind in our face, with job and with pride
"Thank you, God, for your grace and good will
To see that we didn't quit on the uphill."

 
- poem by Carl Touchstone, MS50 race director from 1996-2000
 
 
Dr. Carl Touchstone was a dentist by profession but I think he made a fine poet, too. That's an inspiring message for anyone, not just ultra runners.

Carl died an untimely death of cancer at age 59 in 2000. I had the pleasure of meeting him only once, at the 1998 Ice Age 50-miler in Wisconsin. He had a private plane he loved to fly to races all over the country, and often invited his local ultra running friends to accompany him. You can see photos of him and read tributes on the Mississippi 50 website. His widow, Brooke, still (wo)mans an aid station during the race.

The "Mississlippy" reference in the title regards the mud for which this race is notorious  ̶  even in a "dry" year:


Cody-pig inspects the second biggest mud hole on this year's course (note that it was a "dry" year).

Jim and I refer to a wet year we ran Sunmart as "Mudmart." That was before some of the bog bridging was constructed. The Chucknut 50K in Bellingham, WA is usually so muddy that we call it "Muckanut."

You get the idea. We like to use nicknames for courses with mud up to our shins.

NOW WHAT??

As our race plans evolved during January and February Jim and I were looking for a race for one or both of us to run after Rocky, something between the 50K and 50-mile distance that would be sort of on the way home.

We were also looking for an excuse to prolong our trip a few more weeks!

Research on our favorite internet race schedules ( http://theultramarathonstore.com/, http://www.ultrarunning.com/, and http://www.run100s.com/) turned up the venerable Carl Touchstone Memorial Mississippi 50 trail race to be held on March 7, one of several opportunities in the Southeast during the late winter.

The date and location of the MS50 were perfect for our schedule:

  • We went through Laurel, MS on our way back to Virginia from Rocky last year; it is literally "on the way home" without taking a detour.
  • Three distances are offered: 20K, 50K, and 50 miles, with very generous cut-off times for slower runners like me in the two shorter races.
  • I could run the 50K and Jim could do the 50-miler. Each would be good training for the summer races we have planned. (More about that in another entry.)
  • We'd also both get a new state in our never-ending quest to run a marathon or ultra in all fifty states.
  • Finally, the undulating, multi-loop course has soft pine needle and dirt trails with some roots, as well as wider dirt fire roads through the pine forests.

What does that configuration and terrain sound like? Huntsville State Park! We were already in the perfect place to train for the MS50. The main differences in the MS50 course are streams to ford (no bridges or bog boards), more potential mud, and hills that are a little steeper.

This is one of many races in the Southeast that I never got around to running when I lived in the Atlanta area. It first came on my radar about ten years ago after a "wet" year. There is mud even in "dry" years, but when it's been raining a lot  ̶  which isn't so unusual in Mississippi in March  ̶  this course is a total mess.

That makes for better post-race stories from the survivors, of course. I remember reading vivid race reports about runners losing shoes in deep mud and having to swim or cling to ropes to cross flooded creeks that were chest-deep on the tallest runners. And those weren't just the writers who were taking literary license to entertain their readers! Two times since 1996 the 50-miler has been cancelled or shut down early due to flooded creeks that were deemed too dangerous to cross even with ropes.

I don't think I mentioned these possibilities when I told Jim the MS50 would get my vote for which race to do next. <grin>  I dislike mud but flooded streams don't faze me that much after my adventures in Maine on the Appalachian Trail. In fact, streams are great to wash off any mud I've accumulated to that point.


Many miles of dirt roads and trails -- and a gator pond!

We read everything we could find on the internet about the race, e-mailed some friends who have run it previously, and researched our camping options before applying for the race. It fills up before race day, so it's not like we could wait until a week out to see what the weather prediction was. We're relatively tough ultra runners (!) and we'd deal with whatever happened . . .

Turned out, the National Forest Service was a bigger threat to the race this year than Mother Nature.

MONDAY: THE ROAD TO MISSISSIPPI

After camping in one place for a month it was a little weird to be on the road again but we were looking forward to one last adventure before heading back to our house in Virginia.

Remember all that nice warm weather we had at Huntsville State Park in February? Seventies most of the month, even 80 F? Well, by the time we were ready to leave on March 2 another cold air mass was dipping down into southern Texas and wreaking wintry havoc on several Southeastern cities and on up the East coast. Birmingham got slammed with a surprise six inches of snow. Atlanta and Roanoke also got a good dose of the white stuff.

Good thing we weren't going that way quite yet, eh? Or maybe not.

By the next weekend it was about 80 in the same cities. Such is the fickleness of Mother Nature in the springtime in the South. We missed the snow between Huntsville, TX and Laurel, MS but we did have a couple very chilly nights before the heat wave hit us on race weekend.

 
Logo on race website

It was a brisk 35 when we left Huntsville State Park on Monday morning. Bright sunshine warmed our leisurely excursion through some scenic sections of southeastern Texas on two-lane highways that avoided the entire Houston metro area and took us to I-10 in Lake Charles, LA. We passed many idyllic farms with ponds and bright green fields that contrasted beautifully with numerous purple redbud trees growing wild in the woods and along the road. We made good time on these "blue highways" despite the slowdown through several little towns.

We really should get off the freeways more!

The second half of that day's 408-mile drive through southern Louisiana on I-10 from Lake Charles to Slidell went faster although traffic was much heavier. My favorite part of that section of freeway is the bridging over about twenty miles of wetlands and waterways between Lafayette and Baton Rouge. Lots of yellow wildflowers brightened up the swampy terrain. This year's trip was much more colorful than last year's because we passed through the area several weeks later. It was springtime, not winter.

The temperature sure felt like winter, though. We spent a chilly night near 30 on Monday in the relatively quiet parking lot of a Sam's Club in Slidell, LA, which is north of New Orleans. We have found that Sam's Clubs are just as accommodating to overnight parking as Wal-Marts but much quieter because customer traffic ends by 9 PM; they aren't open all night. Trucks still come and go with deliveries 24/7 so we while we're at the service desk asking for permission to park overnight, we also ask where is the best place to park to be out of their way.

That was our last night with decent Verizon cell phone and internet connections for almost a week. I think I missed being "connected" to cyberspace more than Jim did. If you know our computer histories, you'll find that ironic.

TUESDAY: CAMPING @ TURKEY FORK RESERVOIR

Tuesday we had a relatively short drive of 131 miles to reach the campground at Turkey Fork Reservoir in the northern (Chickasawhay) unit of DeSoto National Forest near Sand Hill, MS. We stayed there our first night in the area. We weren't sure if we could get into the other national forest campground, Longleaf, at the start/finish area for the race. We did know most of the twenty sites at Turkey Fork would accommodate us.

 
Turkey Fork Reservoir near the campground

Only three sites in the loop with twenty water and electric hookups were taken when we arrived so we had a good choice of sites. We can recommend Turkey Fork for camping, fishing, boating, and swimming. The park is open year-round and has a beautiful lake/reservoir. The camping sites are spacious, shaded, and most have lake views.

 
Reflections on the lake

There is only about a mile of dirt trails to hike and run, plus paved roads in the area. I did a short out-and-back run before lunch to stretch out my legs and see what there was to see in the park.

WEDNESDAY: LONGLEAF TRAILHEAD CAMPGROUND

Nice as the Turkey Fork campground is, we wanted to be closer to the race site, if possible. We unhooked the truck from the camper Tuesday afternoon and took a drive of about 25 miles to the primitive Longleaf trailhead camping area farther north in the DeSoto NF.

There are two ways to reach it  ̶  from the south (Hattiesburg or Richland) and from the north (Laurel). We determined that the little dirt forest roads were better for hauling our camper in from the north than the south. We were pleased to see just how large the camping area is (it was empty until Friday) and decided we'd move there on Wednesday morning.

Not only is the Longleaf Trail campground right at the start/finish of the MS50 race, we also saved the $20/night camping fee charged at Turkey Fork. The National Forest Service has an interesting twist here: trail users have to pay a $3 fee to use the trails each day but camping is free!

Don't expect electric and water hookups, though. It's boon-docking. There is a primitive restroom (i.e., pit toilets; no showers or sinks) at the trailhead but nothing else, not even a water pump or dump station. We used solar and generator power for four days, got water at the forest service headquarters south of Laurel, and dumped at a Flying J farther up the road on our way to Virginia. The main downside was "extended" Verizon service and a weak signal that made phone calls challenging for us and internet connections impossible.

We had the campground and trails virtually to ourselves until Friday afternoon. Like Huntsville State Park in Texas, there were a few day-use visitors on weekdays (equestrians, cyclists, hikers, runners) and then the campground suddenly filled to capacity for the weekend.

This time the campers were more entertaining, though  ̶  the people as well as their rigs. Most were horse folks, despite neon yellow signs announcing over 200 runners and 100 spectators would be running the MS50 races on Saturday. This is a very popular horse trail, which explains the horse and rider on the entry sign in one of the photos above.

This is an interesting bunch of people and they were all friendly to us, even though runners camping in the forest were in the minority. It appears they are a cohesive group of local riders who frequent the Longleaf system of trails most every weekend in the warmer months  ̶  and this was apparently their first really good weekend to congregate. When the first couples arrived on Friday morning we could hear them calling their friends to urge them to get there soon so they could get their usual spot (we never heard whose "usual spot" we got!). They made use of every available square foot of grass under the tall pine trees. I took the next photo before everyone squeezed in:

The rigs ranged from a rather new 45' horse trailer/camper combo that parked across the little road from us (wouldn't want to have to back that puppy into a space; it's 13 feet longer than our rig!) . . .

. . . to an old converted bus hauling a mule/horse trailer and wagon:

Which somehow morphed into this (I took a stealth photo from behind our truck):

That was the first couple to arrive with an unconventional (to us) set-up. After that, we wondered what was next!

Some pulled into circular formations that reminded me of old cowboy movies with wagon trains. Horses and mules were tied up to their trailers or nearby trees. Several dogs had the run of the campground, just as they do on their own farms. Cody was barely fazed by all the critters and activity. The humans spent Friday and Saturday nights around their campfires, kept their big generators going all night (we never do that), and rode all day Saturday. Many were still there when we left Sunday morning.

At least half a dozen of the families brought wagons and offered rides (and lunch) to their friends. The wagons were as varied as the camper-trailer combinations.

There are a lot of dirt roads through the DeSoto NF that are suitable for these horse-drawn wagons. They may be common in this area, but they were new to us. Reminded me of the Pennsylvania Dutch. Very interesting.

I thought I'd see horses all over the race course on Saturday but I passed only three riders in one group as they were taking a break. The equestrians knew which loops the runners would be using and apparently rode on other trails in the forest. That definitely made it easier on both groups. I did see several returning wagons on the road near the finish line after I got done running the race.

THE LONGLEAF TRAIL

The 26-mile Longleaf Trail system is named for the very tall longleaf pines which dominate the DeSoto National Forest and are common throughout the Southeast.


A stand of longleaf pine reaches for the sky.

These long-lived trees can take 100-150 years to reach mature heights of over 100 feet. Some are 500 years old! The needles ("leaves") can reach 18 inches in length. Their pine comes get big, too. I collected some of the larger ones but didn't bring them home. They are as big as any pine cones I've seen in California.

The Longleaf Trail is comprised of three loops ranging from 5.6 miles (Middle Loop, marked in green on the map), 11.2 miles (North Loop, marked in yellow), to 15.1 miles (South Loop, marked in red). I couldn't find a map quickly online so I took a picture of the map in one of the brochures we picked up at the ranger station:

This year's original course for the MS 50-miler was three X  the loop at the top (yellow on this map) and two X the loop small loop (shown in green). The 50K runners were supposed to do the top loop twice and finish on the smaller loop. But that plan changed, testing the adaptability of the race management, volunteers, and runners.

About ten days before the MS50 race the Forest Service did a controlled burn, necessitating a course re-route. Jim and I are familiar with the whole concept of prescribed burns and why they are necessary to protect soil, water, wildlife, and timber from catastrophic fires.

But what were the rangers thinking when they burned this forest right before our race?? 


Trail about a mile from the end of each loop

They were thinking about the long-term health of their forest and its wild inhabitants, that's what!

We talked a while with Ranger Dave Barons at the Chickasawhay HQ when we went into the office on Tuesday to get trail maps, camping information, and water. Prescribed fires are conducted under a stringent set of conditions including wind speed, relative humidity, temperature, and other factors. The timing this spring just happened to be ideal right before the MS50 race, so we got to run through a lot of burned-out forest.

Even parts of the Longleaf camping area were burned. We chose our particular site not only for its length, but it also had the most green grass around it. When we corresponded with RD Dennis Bisnette in late February about camping for the race he wrote back, "The USFS yesterday [2-25-09] control burned the campsite/trailhead where the race starts. I would suggest you look at the site and possibly visit the USFS office for alternative campsites within the forest if you just can not stay there . . . We usually have some burned areas each year. We have no control over what happens."

Race management understands the drill and took quick, appropriate measures to re-route the traditional MS50 courses to ensure the safety of the runners. Registration director "Running Bear" (Elmer?) sent an e-mail to all the runners with a new course map five days before the race: " . . . Below are some final instructions and reminders. Note that one big change this year is the temporary course change for all runners! The NFS burn program has turned much of the usual courses into a bleak war zone! Print out a copy of the course map enclosed and look it over. Bring questions to the Friday night briefing . . ."


Revised 2009 course map

About half of the course wound through burned areas, some of which were still smoking on Wednesday and Thursday. That was pretty weird but since all of the fuel on the forest floor had already burned I didn't worry about getting caught in a fire.

One of the characteristics of longleaf pines is their ability to withstand fires, both controlled and not. So while the accumulated under story brush and some other trees are burning, the thick, scaly bark of the longleaf pines protects them from the flames. Although there are other tree species in the DeSoto National Forest, the dominant one is the longleaf pine.

After we moved to theLongleaf campground on Wednesday I went out alone for an 11+-mile run on the North Loop, which is yellow on our Forest Service map but designated the "Orange Loop" on the race map. On this training run I didn't do either of the two out-and-back sections that we ran in the race but I saw where they were. Any concerns I had about my ability to follow the trail were quickly dispelled after a couple of miles when I realized the intersections were well-marked, the configuration of the loop corresponded well with both the NFS and race maps, and some flagging was already in place. The numbers posted on some trees did not correspond to the mile post markings on the NFS map, however. 

I was pleased that many sections of the loop were runnable for me; even though the time limit in the 50K is very generous, this gave me more confidence before the race  There are more miles of rather smooth dirt road and double-track trail than single-track, which has some roots but fewer than at Rocky and Sunmart.

Despite relatively dry weather recently, there were some muddy sections and I could see where this course would be a real mess after a good rainfall. When the mud dries out, hikers and runners get to dance around the holes left by horses. The numerous streams were all very low and I could hop over all but one. I noticed several rather steep little ups and downs but figured they wouldn't bother me that much in only two loops for the 50K.

Jim and Cody came out on one of the dirt roads (201C) to greet me near the location of the second aid station that would be set up during the race. That was a nice surprise!

Bottom lineduring my training run the weather was warm (mid-60s) and sunny, I had an interesting run somewhere new to me, I didn't get lost, and I was able to take photos of the majority of the course so I wouldn't be tempted to take the camera with me during the race. Jim also took a few pictures of a different section he ran. I'll show more photos of the course that we took on these training runs in the next entry about the race itself.

I wasn't bothered physically on Wednesday by the lingering smoky sections through which I passed. That concerned me after the breathing problems I had from allergic reactions to something growing at Huntsville SP the previous two weeks.

Thursday the smoke was a BIG problem, though. The air was fairly clear early in the morning when Cody and I explored the little lake at the campground (it's called a "gator pond" on the NFS map). What a pretty place in the early morning and late afternoon light!

Mid-morning Jim and Cody went out for a six-mile run part way down and back on the new section of the red trail (South Loop) on the race course. I had planned to walk or ride out bike that direction in the afternoon but by then the wind was blowing a lot of smoke to the campground from another burn taking place farther south in the national forest. We both ended up staying inside our camper with the doors and windows shut all afternoon and evening, it was so bad.

The good news is that the air cleared up significantly on Friday and we were able to stay outside as much as we wanted.


Second-worst mud hole on the race course; it's best to just plow right on through these.

The bad news is that neither Jim nor I saw the very worst mud hole on the course until we were running the race.

Oh, wait. Maybe that's actually good news! The red (South) loop isn't normally on the course. Jim and I really didn't care for the it, and from what I heard I don't think most of the other runners liked that section either  ̶  and not just because of the mud hole.

Next entry: pre-race activities on Friday and the race itself on Saturday

Happy trails,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the Ultra Lab

Previous       Next

2009 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

-