Welcome back to the wild world of ultramarathon training and trail running. As many of you may know, 2022 was not my year. I collapsed at work in January which caused me to miss the 2022 Bear Bait 25k. From there, I endured surgery (March), two failed courses of medication (summer), a week where I was in the ER three times in eight days (August), and finally my desperate search for a doctor willing to take my case (September/October) and perform what was arguably life saving surgery (November).
Whew, what a year!
While many of you know I’m no quitter: I endure the pain cave like a champ and finally completed the Mississippi 50 in 2021, I’m sure many wondered if I would, or even could, get back to trail races and ultramarathon.
Honestly? I questioned it too. I spent a year in pain. I was in pain for so long my doctors would start writing “chronic pain” in my notes. I was sent to a pain management specialist. The scar tissue building up across my organs began to impinge on my hip and by October I walked with a visible limp. Fatigue from Lupron (AKA – the “hell drug”) made it nearly impossible to work, let alone work out. And at my lowest points, my only goal was not to die.
I can still remember sitting at my gaming computer, back to my rack of race medals, sobbing and whispering across Discord to a friend who was miles away: “I don’t even care about that anymore, I just don’t want to die.”
But thanks to friends who were able to link me up with doctors are Walter Reed National Military Hospital, I was able to receive the surgery I needed. I came out with five few organs and five new scars, but alive and feeling better than I had the entire year.
I hobbled out of Walter Reed on Veterans Day, 2022, and swore I would complete the race I missed that January.
Only nine weeks later, I crossed that finish line!
It wasn’t fast and it wasn’t pretty, but I met my very, very simple goals for the first race back.
Today you’re getting my full race report for Bear Bait Ultra – 25k (15.53 mile) Race
Bear Bait is run by a new race director as of this year, but the race maintained its same high quality, no frills approach. They offered two options for packet pick up, one of which was close to where I live. I was in and out in about five minutes and even had a chance to check on our Little Free Library to see if anyone picked up my copies of Pantheon and Pantheon 2: Ares & Athena from around Thanksgiving. (They had!)
For the 2021 race, COVID restrictions meant the race director was unable to get a permit to run at Bear Lake, the race’s namesake location. They had to do a rapid shift to Adventures Unlimited, a nearby outdoor park. The new course was so popular, the race has remained there while retaining its “Bear Bait” name.
I’m a big fan of the new course because while it is more technical terrain, the start/finish loop through a large barn and past a parking lot which allows for easy crewing. I was lucky enough to grab a parking spot at the final turn before the barn which made refills very easy.
New this year, they added a single four mile race and split the four races, into two days. This meant that, unlike last time when I started at 6:45, before the sun was fully up, I was able to start at an easy 8:00. And yes, like last time, the starting temperature was in the 30s. Brr!
I was glad to have seen this course before because it meant I could mentally prepare for its challenges. Fortunately, it was drier this year and I was happy to finish with dry feet!
Weather: A brisk 37F at opening and race start but warmed up to about 52F by the time I was done around 1pm. I started with every layer I had, including my windbreaker. The windbreaker, gloves, and vest came off after the first lap and I was relatively comfortable for the last three laps.
Trail conditions: Overall, great with only a few minor “I hate this” points. There were a few creek crossings but every single one had a bridge so my feet stayed dry! The trail was primarily single track but very technical due to the roots. The only breaks were one slightly swampy area that was mostly dry this year. There was also a slight change to the course route which still included the 0.25 mile long stretch of deep sand, but a jog over to the water line which was also deep sand.
Terrain: Flat. Mercifully, blissfully flat compared to BUTS. In 15 miles I had ~500ft of elevation change. There were a couple of steep drops but nothing terrible for a 25k runner. It will be a challenging course for those running into the night.
As a looped course, I came through the main aid station three times during the race and finished basically in the main aid station. A local running club also set up a small aid station on the far side of the course which is where I got my beloved M&Ms.
Last time they had everything in individual cups, a trend I hoped would continue, but this year it was back to communal bowls. I mostly skipped those, choosing the individual cups of M&Ms on the far side of the course. I also had my car parked less than 100 meters from the barn and was able to get my own snacks.
Did I hit the Pain Cave?
Nope. Not even close. My running partner and I did this at a walk and while my calves and glutes got a good workout, we weren’t moving fast enough to hit the pain cave.
The biggest unknown was me. In the nine weeks after getting out of the hospital, I worked diligently to get back to fighting form, but did not have the time to get any long walks in. We rolled the dice that my baseline level of fitness would be enough to carry me through. We also rolled the dice that my body would react well and I wouldn’t fall apart. The fact that it’s a looped course and I was never more than a half mile from the barn gave me some measure of safety. My running buddy having my Mom on speed dial helped too, just in case.
Yes! For the first time, I had what could be considered a crew. Namely, my usual running partner. He was under strict orders from my Mom not to let me run and served as my safety net in case things went wrong. Things went well and we had odd conversations about which Muppets we would fight, which American President we wanted to punch the most, and what we would do if we had won the Mega Millions drawing from the night before. (Spoiler: neither of us won.)
The finish line:
Low key as always. We were some of the last folks in, having done the course at a brisk walk. (Or “power hike” in ultra lingo.)
4:35 for 14.72 mi (the course was just shy of the billed 25k). The unofficial results showed me as the 54th of 80 racers. That was a full 1.5 hours slower than in 2021, but I achieved my main goal: finish!
My timing goal was sub-5:00. I’m very happy to have been nearly 30 minutes under my goal given the circumstances.
Comparatively, it was an agonizingly slow race, despite holding a brisk walking pace. But I genuinely didn’t care about the time or pace, I wanted to finish and prove to myself I could make it back. To have gone from crying to a friend, not wanting to die, to walking across the finish line feeling more alive than I had in a year was the right way to start 2023.
The Gear List:
I’m going to start adding gear lists to all my runs so folks can see what I’m carrying and how it changes between courses and weather. Some affiliate links, most aren’t.
Top: Nike Women’s Dri-Fit Element Long Sleeve Running Top – This one is a good top (45-55F) or middle layer (<45F). Plus, thumb holes and it covers half my hand.
Tank top: My race shirt from the Charlotte RaceFest. What can I say, I love the color!
Bra: SheFit ULTIMATE SPORTS BRA – a qualified “good.” I like that you buy based on cup size and both the chest band and shoulder straps are adjustable; it’s probably the most comfortable sports bra I have. I had found these tore up my back at the metal cinch, but at a walking pace I had no issues.
Tights: Curve ‘n’ Combat Boots Empowered Black (V1) – These were the same tights as the 2021 race and they showed their age. The elastic is going and I was pulling them up constantly. That said, they’re five years old and I got my money’s worth.
Socks: Balega Blister Resist Quarter Socks – These are thick and comfy but the “blister resist” is only as good as how well you lace your shoes. I did not lace my right shoe tight enough and have a small blister to show for my slipping around inside the shoe.
Shoes: Altra Olympus Trail Shoe – These have the thickest soles of my trail shoes which was good for all the roots on the trail. If it hadn’t been as technical, I might have considered dropping down to my Lone Peaks which have a thinner sole and are lighter weight.
Gaiter: Altra Trailer Gaiter – Designed specifically for Altra trail shoes and fits well (will not work on other shoes!). Kept out the sand pit I slogged through around mile 3 of each loop.
Gloves: Cheap ($1) knit cotton gloves bought from either Michaels or Hobby Lobby a few years back. I highly recommend finding a very cheap cotton glove to carry. Expensive bougie gloves are great but get lost so often… buy the cheap ones and they’ll never disappear on you.
Hat: Brooks and probably some type of dry fit? It was a gift so I have no idea where it was purchased. Wears well and kept my head warm.
Vest: Ultimate Direction Ultra Vesta 4.0 – This is my “new to me” but “older model” vest I got on sale for half price. There’s a new version but I’m glad I gambled on buying this one as it’s been a real champ. Lots of easily accessible pockets, good bottle holders, and the bladder holding set up keeps it from rattling around or slipping its loops like my other vest. Not as easy to access the bladder for refills once it’s on but I didn’t need a refill this race so it hasn’t impacted me yet.
Snacks: Both the Honey Stinger Organic Energy Chews (caffeinated version) and the Honey Stinger Organic Waffle. For the cold, this wasn’t a great pairing. The waffle was stiff and hard to chew from cold and since the chews are caffeinated, they aren’t a good “only” option. I supplemented with snacks from the aid station during this race. But for a race in more normal temps, they work really well for me.
GPS: Garmin Forerunner 945 – Y’all know I love this watch and I’ve talked about it before, the good and bad. I didn’t have any track walk offs today and I’m confident in the recorded distance/time. Also, can confirm the Incident Detection worked as advertised… except that it doesn’t send if you have no cell service. Probably a good thing or I would have scared the hubs! I was rattled enough that I didn’t have my wits about me in time to halt it sending the distress call. Fortunately (for today) it couldn’t complete the send.
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