Dances With Dirt – Run Through Hell 50M — Race Report

September 30, 2011


Dances With Dirt – Run Through Hell 50 Miler (DWD) 
*Be prepared for a dissertation below*

Let’s just start with answering the most basic question… Why run 50 miles? 

To be completely honest, I don’t know. I’ve been intrigued by the idea of the Ultra Marathon (anything greater than a 26.2 mile race) for some time. I’ve had the honor of training with Lisa Taylor over the past few years – for those who don’t know her, she’s a Western States 100 mile runner, ultra runner freak, has run about as many marathons as the number of years I’ve been alive, and has competed with Team USA at the Duathlon World Championships on more than one occasion (in fact, just this past weekend she took 4th in her Age Group and 14th Overall Female athlete at the Duathlon World Championship in Spain). For me, watching her train for these events has been fascinating and what is more inspirational is the fact that she makes it seem normal.

Last year I read the book “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall. He talks about a tribe of “super athletes” from a very remote village in Mexico; they run barefoot everywhere and do it from a very young age. The adult men run an endurance event annually for fun, after drinking copious amounts of a home brew the night before. The event is very long, as I recall, over 100 miles. The book highlights the fact that the human body was designed to run. He documents specific anatomical features and covers some of the basics to human development. Another aspect to the book is about our feet and how modern day shoes hide our injuries rather fix them… describing that we wear shoes and orthotics that prevent the foot from landing correctly when we run. For example – when you run barefoot, you will likely land on the front or ball of your foot, but when you put on shoes that protect your feet you will land on the heel of your foot, which does feel better with all of the padding, but it jars your joints with every step. After time you become more dependent on supportive shoes and may be prone to ‘running’ related injuries associated with the knees and hips. After reading this book I felt the initial pull towards completing an Ultra run. I started training barefoot on the treadmill or with the Vibram Fivefingers shoes. I started retraining my feet and the accessory muscles that support my feet, I made a serious effort to land with a forefoot strike, a process that I still struggle with.

A few weeks ago I picked up the new Dean Karnanzes book “Run” and couldn’t put it down. I finished it in 2 days (practically a miracle for me). It’s a compilation of a bunch of short stories that I found to be very inspirational and motivational on the topic of long distance running. Then I picked up one of his other books “Ultramarathon Man” and again I was hooked. While this book was more about who Dean is and how he got started in running, it also hit home for me. Dean ran in school but never really ran after school until one specific night (I’ll spare the spoiling details – go buy the book) where he realized how out of shape he was. The point I drew out was that he was an adult when he started running long.

A couple of other things that prompted my desire to run Dances With Dirt – Hell were for the sheer fact of pushing past what I have ever thought was possible. I ran a marathon last year and have wanted go farther ever since. I couldn’t justify the distance training with my higher priority goals for triathlon. I also love going in to my annual duty physicals and talking to the doctor about my training and races (she also has competed a few marathons). Lastly, with the USAT Clinic coming up soon, I felt like the timing for DWD would be good for me on my race history list.

I called Lisa and asked her opinion… She told me that it would be “Crazy Stupid” to try DWD 50m. I listened, but still had that desire inside! So I did what I figured anyone else would do – I asked someone else. As a Boston Marathon runner and recent 50 mile runner (At the North Country race he was in the lead pack until an accident where he broke his foot during the race), Nick Gooch said to wait until my volume was higher… significantly higher. ‘Crap!’ I thought. I wanted someone to tell me to go for it. That’s when I decided to go for a long training run just to see how I could do and how my recovery would be.

I called a couple of friends, Ryan and Gus, and asked them to ride their bikes near me for a few miles. It was asking a lot… Someone to ride for several hours with a single objective: encourage me. These guys gave me that and a little humor as well. I’m grateful for their willingness to help out! We went 32 miles, it wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t as fast as I expected. I averaged a 10:15 mile pace. But finishing it gave me a huge confidence boost – after all, that was and ultra marathon distance. Recovery went well and a few minor aches worked themselves out relatively quickly. It was at that time that I decided to commit to the DWD 50 mile run.

Preplanning the Drop Bags

As race day neared I started making mental notes of what to pack for race day.  Prepping for a triathlon is always a multi hour process but packing/prepping for an ultra was all new to me. I called another buddy who would be running this race as well. David Potter has run Ironman triathlon and has been on a triathlon team that is well known for their speed (Team Fraser) and he was very encouraging. Now I was stoked! He gave me some great advice and I was on my way to start packing the ‘drop bags.’

In an ultra distance event you pack 2-3 “drop bags” that are placed at specific locations where you can access them upon arrival and use whatever you put in them. In each of my 2 bags I put in extra clothes, shoes, socks, nutrition and body care items (anti-chafing stuff, athletic tape, etc). The bags would be awaiting my arrival at the 22 mile mark and the 43 mile mark. While I always over pack for any trip, I figure this would be one instance where I couldn’t go wrong by over packing. I planned out worst case scenarios and even planned special “surprise” snacks for myself in case I got an urge for something that wouldn’t be offered at the aid stations. I planned to be out running for upwards of 12 hours but also knew that the race cut off time was 13 hours. I knew the race covered some water crossing and several hills, some of which would be off the regular marked trails. I really had no idea what was in store for me!

Race morning came quick. I was up at 0330 and out the door at 0345 on my way to Hell (true, the race is held in Hell, Michigan — The run takes place in the Pinkney Rec State Park). As I was just about 20 minutes away from home I realized that I had forgotten my iPod Shuffle. I normally have 1 earbud in while I run to help me keep pace and keep my mind off of how far I’ve gone or the how much time has passed, worse yet, how much time I still have to go. But not today, I would be running without music. I did bring my iPhone with me in case I got lost or needed some type of help, but with the possibility of some rain for the day, I had the phone packed in a Ziploc bag and stored in my Camelbak.

DWD Race T-Shirt

Once I arrived and parked, I noticed several things that would stick in my mind throughout the day. First was that it was so dark and the sky was so clear that you could see thousands of stars! I grew up in the country so this wasn’t a crazy new sight for me, but it was a simple thing that made me smile. As I approached the packet pick up tent there was something else in the air that was different than all of my other races. Everyone was chatty and outgoing. People were interested in everyone else and few people talked about themselves, rather shifting the focus on someone else or asking about me. I got my drop bags set and I was ready to go. Head lamp on and the announcer marked the countdown to the race start. Funny thing happened when the gun went off to start, people simply shuffled forward. There was no jostling or elbowing for position, no one even bumped into me or accidentally stepped on my heels. The “ReAwakening” was under way!

Please note: The Dance With Dirt organizers got pretty creative with the names of each of the stages of this race. On paper the event is broken up into 12 stages, each stage or ‘Leg’ is characterized by level of wetness, elevation and torture and then separated by aid stations.  Below is my account of the race as best I can recall. I didn’t take notes during the race and I didn’t really know what to expect. Part of the DWD disclaimer is that it is “an adventurous trail run with difficult and stupid sections. Crying is acceptable” Another advertisement for this run titles itself an “Insanely fun extreme trail run”.

Dances With Dirt – Race Start

Leg A – “ReAwakening” starts at Half Moon Beach and is 5.3 miles and starts in the pre dawn darkness, claiming to be a dry run with 479 feet of climbing and 472 feet of decent. I was still tired after not sleeping very well in anticipation for the run, but it was now 0615 and Go time and as the Leg is titled, it was time to reawake! I started out slow, as planned. It wasn’t long before I realized that we were already starting a slow ascent and before I knew it we were in the trails. This group run with headlamps was awesome! Most of this part of the race had to be single file due to how narrow the trails are, but still, no one was forcing anyone else out the way to get in a better position. When we hit some rugged area where there were ruts and roots someone would call it out and the pack slowed and then like a pack of sheep everyone would follow suit jumping left or right, weaving around the obstacle and then continue on. I planned to walk up every hill. As part of my preplanning for the long day ahead I followed the plan, even though some of the hills weren’t too steep, yet. I wondered how long it would be before the sun started to appear. While I recently did a night run to assure that I had my headlamp set right, this was different and everyone around me had one as well. I was anxious to see the sun start to peer into the woods and it wasn’t long until the light started to break the darkness. Now I could see some of the trails leading up the hills we were climbing, perhaps it was better when I couldn’t see them coming. Before I knew it we were at the headlamp drop off area and there was a small water/aid stand. I stopped, took off my headlamp and took off my long sleeve shirt, tied them together and dropped them in the box to go back to the race finish area. Again, I was off running.

Leg B – “Limbo” starts at Hiland Access and is a 4.95 mile dry section designated as a horse trail with 417 feet of climbing and 394 feet of decent. Organizers advise you to watch out for horse droppings, ha! This part of the run was nice and not too difficult. The air was warm enough that there was quite a bit of fog which looked very cool when we would run out of the wooded areas. The sky quickly brightened and though it wasn’t sunny, it was turning into a beautiful day. Time slipped away from me here. I found a groove and I was in it fully. We popped out of the wooded area and there was a fully stocked aid station. Already? Wow, I didn’t really know how far in to the race we were until a volunteer yelled out that we were about 10 miles in and had about 5 more to go until the next aid station. I didn’t let myself start doing the simple math but there was still 40 miles to go. I downed some PB&J sandwich squares and some cold boiled potatoes. Yup, you read that right and they were tasty!

Just another part of DWD trails

Leg C – “This Sucks, Less?” is a 4.75 mile section that heads out at Hell Creek Ranch. It is another dry section that claims to become “resistance running” with 400 feet climbing and 472 feet of decent. This was pretty much an ‘Out and Back’ section of the race. It went by quickly as I was quickly befriended by an old friend from my college days in the medic program. I saw him briefly during the packet pick up. Brandon Mulnix has been on an incredible journey in his weight loss and was in a very unfortunate car accident a few months ago; today he still has his jaw wired shut. He ran a 50 Miler a couple weeks ago and today was back at it. My hat goes off to him, there’s no way I’d attempt something of this caliber when I couldn’t eat normal food. “Hagerman, is that you” I heard a voice call from behind me. It was Brandon and the timing for him to run with me was perfect. Now I had some time to talk with, or rather to try to talk with. It’s rather hard to hold a conversation while running trails, let alone when you have your jaw wired shut. As we approached the mini aid station, he stopped to refill his water bottle. I took a quick drink of some Gatoraid type drink and I was off.

The Stripper Pole

Leg D – “Stripper Pole” is a 3.95 mile ‘moist’ trail with some “Chutes and Ladders” this leg has a demanding 492 feet of climbing and 456 feet of decent. While the name is slightly misleading, the description of this section includes terms like ‘wicked hill’ and ‘hands assisted climbs’ followed by the ‘Butt Slide’ downhills. Sure enough, these were some wicked trails! Flags marking the course led us off the normal trail and up the side of a hill that did, in fact, require the use of my hands to make the ascent. My heart rate was soaring and I wasn’t even half way up. I only briefly thought about WHY I was running this when I realized that this is part of what makes this run so stupid fun. I loved it! I remember just simply laughing and wondering else lay ahead. The “Stripper Pole” alone separates this run from any other mud run! When I finally got to the top of the ‘Stripper Pole’ I again just had to laugh! Ran a short bit and realized that it was now time to start the ‘Butt Slide’ down the hill. Wahoo!!


Part of the River Run – Not me

Leg E – “Styx, River of Death” is a 3.15 mile run listed as “Very Wet”  It also states 262 feet of climbing and 295 feet of decent. The leg description includes “Wet, wet, wet. Dangerous river rocks that cut. Deep holes. The path to Hell is the River of Death” “If a shoe comes off, just reach into the mud, there are plenty of them in there”. Through this section you cross the knee deep to waist high river waters 3 separate times; this ain’t no little creek! It was at about the 19 mile mark where I had my first real cramp, in my right upper inner thigh/groin. Crap it hurt. No way was I going to let this get to me so ‘early’ on in the run. I doubled up on my salt tabs and amino supplement. I refused to stop moving forward, I stretched out and walked for about 4 minutes. The cramping subsided and I was back into a run. I really found it amazing at how my body was able to quickly adjust to the nutrition change and quell the cramps – very cool. Just when you think you’re done, nope. Now it’s time to get really wet. The last part of this leg runs in the middle of the river and against the current for about a half mile. This is, of course, where the first photographers are. The water was very cold but it did feel rather good on my legs. I joked with a couple of guys that I was running with “if I would have known we would be walking this far in the water, I would have brought my waders and fly rod”. Still I could only laugh at how much fun I was having! When we reached the dam, we were officially welcomed to Hell by a man wearing a Satan costume. I was so preoccupied giggling to myself, I didn’t realize that I was at the first bag drop location – 22 miles in! Time for some more food at the aid station and a dry pair of shoes. For this first 22 miles I wore my New Balance MT10 Minimus shoes. They felt great, and my feet felt great except for a minor blister under my left big toe. The Minimus MT10’s were now mucky from the river and I thought that my next opportunity to change shoes wasn’t until the 43 mile mark, so I changed shoes. In my prepping and planning for ‘worst case scenario’ situations, I packed super glue and athletic tape for blisters. I popped the blister and filled it with super glue, just as I had been instructed by something in a Dean Karnanzes book. I got my socks and dry shoes on, they were warm. I took my time at this aid station. No rush and I got my phone out and sent a text message to Becky letting her know where I was and that I was having fun. A coworker, Mark, then arrived, he was supposed to be running the 50k but ended up working an extra shift until 7 am. He still came out to the event and started an unofficial run through the trails. He said he would run with me for a while. I ate a bunch of food at this stop, anything tasted better than more gel packs at this point.

Leg F – “Bad Out of Hell” leaves Hell, Michigan and starts the next 2.9 miles of slow torture. 325 feet of climbing and 331 feet of decent. I was almost instantly assured of the poor decision to change shoes. Something didn’t feel right, ah well, too late now. A significant portion of this leg was run on a hard packed dirt road with a gradual incline. As one of the shorter sections, this one went by fast. Again, it was good to have someone to talk with, or rather someone talking to me knowing that I wouldn’t always respond. Mark has run a handful of 50k’s and had also given me some pre-race advice, so at this point his words were encouraging and helpful.

Leg G – “Potto” is a long 6 mile dry jaunt with 577 feet of climbing and 591 feet of decent. My pace dropped significantly here, I knew it I could feel it. At one point I cramped up again, but now I was out of salt tabs since I had doubled up earlier. I couldn’t stand the thought of more gel packs, luckily I packed some sport beans. I downed them. The cramming eased but didn’t completely leave. By this point I had already drank through about 3 liters of water and I figured that I was somewhere around the 5-6 hour mark. Again, I found it crazy cool how the body can adapt to pain and utilize minor nutritional changes and the overcome a problem. This section of running had some running along the side of the hills where footing was blatantly uneven and then there were rock piles to run over. I let myself walk for a several minutes. Was I hitting the wall? I’d been there before in training and in last years marathon, where I found the wall at the 24 mile mark. What was it that I had just recently read about the wall? Dean Karnanzes wrote something to the effect of – when you hit the wall, just go around it. I was still enjoying the run, I didn’t want to quit early, I paid for 50 miles. I knew that this was the last section before the 50k finish. Soon enough I was there.

My blister after cleaning and more superglue

The 50k Finish and Aid Station – I refused to even consider quitting but there was an overwhelming sensation knowing that I had just completed my first ultra marathon. I could call it a day, go home and say that I ran my first ultra. I still had half marathon to run without salt tabs. Maybe Lisa and Gooch were right, I wasnt ready for a 50 mile run; what if I got 1 mile out and couldn’t take another step? As I approached the chute to the 50k finish there was a separate chute leading you off away from the glory of the finish line. People started cheering, I was running alone. I heard someone yell out “Way to go Ultra!” and another person yell “Go 731” – this was my race bib number and those who paid for the 50 mile run had a different color bib. No way would I stop now. I made the 50k cut off by more than an hour. I rationalized that I had time to make it to the next cut off at the 43 mile mark, even if I was slow and get some salt tabs and my extra goodies (as I put my second stash of them in my second drop bag so they wouldn’t get wet and ruined in the first bit of the race). Of course, I veered off to the Ultra side of the chute and dropped in to the aid station where there was more food and to my surprise I found the first drop bags waiting for us there. I grabbed it like a child who just found the secret stash of cookies. I had good stuff in there… some nutritional items that I didn’t have room to carry from the 22 mile mark. I sat down and was happy to be able to change my socks, which I hadn’t planned on being able to do. One small problem. My sock was superglued to my toe, apparently I didn’t wait long enough for the fast drying Krazy Glue to dry. Mark (form work) came over, his wife was volunteering for the day. They saw my problem. I had no choice but to rip the sock off, tearing the skin. I immediately grabbed the superglue and liberally applied it to the bleeding wound. I needed it to be fixed enough so that I could run the last 19 miles. I grabbed the athletic tape and this time, waited a bit longer for the glue to dry before covering everything up. Mark got me a couple of slices of pizza from the volunteer tent, it may have taken me almost 10 seconds to devour them. I shoveled food into my mouth after I got my shoes on. I ate every bit of food I could get my hands on, yet my stomach still growled for more. I felt better, the pizza tasted so good! I soon came to the conclusion that I should probably get out and finish my run.

The Abyss Muck – Not me in the pic

Leg H – “Abyss” is a 2.55 mile run starts with the muck. There is only 233 feet of climbing and 226 feet of decent in this section. Just outside of the 50k finish I realized that the last 19 miles of this run would be completely different than the first 31 miles. The muck is described as “suspicious stuff” with “a good opportunity to sprain an ankle.” I had just got new socks on and a fresh blister wound repaired and I was immediately swollowed up in the muck. With each step I sank up to my knees. A one point my right shoe got stuck, I couldn’t lift my foot out. Crap! I stuck some sticks to put under my left foot to prevent it from getting stuck while I tried to loosen my right shoe. I heard about people loosing their shoes in this muck and running barefoot to 43 mile mark. I reached down behind myself and grabbed the heel of my shoe with my hand and pulled it up… Whew, that was close. But I still had about 50 yards to go. Finally makiout making out, I started running and again just laughing at what had been created for me in this adventure. I found a groove again and while I continued to follow my plan for walking up the hills, I found myself walking up the small hills just a little bit faster.

Leg I – “Vertigo” is another long section with 5.8 miles of trails, crazy steep downhills and is mostly a dry section. This section also includes part of the previous years course “Where’s the F’ing Bridge” Here there are 545 feet of climbing and 525 feet of decent. I owned it here. I passed a guy who said I looked like I had just started the race with fresh legs. THIS was fun! My feet were trashed and mud still flung off my shoes with each step. I did manage to catch up with another guy and ran with him for a bit. He has been running ultras for a long time and has qualified for the Western States Endurance Run (the 100 mile run) two years running, but his name has yet to be drawn from the lottery. He is a addictions counselor and moved here many years ago from England. We mustered up a good conversation while he lead us through the winding trails. Suddenly he stopped… “Flags” he said. And I realized that there was no course flags in sight. How far off course did we get? We back tracked and found our way again and started to run with a few others. Maybe a half mile of course. There were warnings that some locals would go out and move the course flags or take down the course markers, in this case, we just missed an obvious turn.

Leg J – “The Stupid Lake” 3.65 miles. Hahaha! Really? Yes. This part of the run has 266 feet of climbing and 243 feet of decent and is listed as “Very Wet”. The section description reads “Aquatics Running 101 is taught here” “Failure is not acceptable” “Who’s stupid? Trail Dog measured the lake with his bike” We ran on the edge of some corn fields and quickly found… Guess what… a lake. Yup, a lake. Run it. Not beside it or in the marshy area next to it but IN it. At this point the course for the100k Relay runners matched up with the 50 mile course. Several of the Relay people caught up with us here, with their fresh legs they also passed us here. I heard things like this – 5 times “Are you doing the ultra?” Yes “the 50k or the 50 Miler” The 50 Miler, the 50k mark was about 10 miles back. They always laughed at us and wished us luck. It was rather fun to inform them that this was our 4th time in the water… They didn’t get the same adventurous course that we did. But man, they were all FAST! At one point I found a hole under the water that managed to dunk me down to my chest, brrr. At the end of this section is the 43 mile mark and the final aid station with food AND our second drop bag. I changed my shoes again, this time my socks came off easily. I was drenched. The volunteers at this station were absolutely great! I had a nurse and a massage therapist tending to me. They made me laugh and asked if they could fill my Camelbak, while they stripped it off of me. They wanted to change my socks for me, help me with my shoes. I declined the offer, I wanted to do this on my own. They asked if they could do anything for me – I just smiled and they laughed.  I noticed that I had some seaweed stuff stuck in and on my shoes, it made me laugh out loud. The volunteers found it funny too. I changed my clothes in the middle of the parking lot, relay runners were there, support cars everywhere. I ducked behind one to change my shorts. Fresh socks and another pair of dry shoes, I was clean and ready to rock! As I geared back up to head out for the final 7 miles I KNEW that I was going to finish. It was then that Mark Koonter found me. We have trained together quite a bit over this spring and summer and he had an offer to join a relay team for this race. He said that he would be running their final leg to the finish, so we would probably see each other during the final few miles. He offered to run with me – heck no! I knew there wasn’t a chance I could keep up with him now. But I did wonder how long I could hold him off from catching up to me…

Leg K – “Don’t Get No Better” is a dry and sandy 2.85 mile run with only 210 feet of climbing and 180 feet of decent. Lots of raspberry and pricker brushes, but I didn’t care, I busted through them. I felt light on my feet. I was ready for the race to be done, but it was MY race now! I caught up with and passed some of the slower relay runners and that was a huge mental boost. I still made a slower progression up the steep hills but I was holding an 8 minute mile pace on the flats and downhills (I figured this out after reviewing my Garmin data back at home). Quickly came up onto the mini aid station where they asked if I needed anything, I thanked them without stopping and kept running. I heard the relay team members cheering for me as they awaited their runners to come in, only so they could soon smoke me to the finish – it was great!

Leg L -“Dirt’s Revenge” Is the final 4.15 miles of the race. It boasts 371 feet of climbing and 453 feet of decent on a final attempt to kill each and every one of the runners out there. The climbs seemed more difficult and I was still walking them – no sense in cramping up again and being forced to walk in the final Mile of the course. I heard another familiar voice yelling from behind me, it was Mark Koonter and he was flying up the hill that I was walking. We exchanged a few short words as he flew past me. Now I was on a super mental high, this leg was mine. Stay focused on the markers, hold tight on the turns… Go get it it! Go, Go, GO! I wished my wife and girls could have been there to see my finish. While to them it wouldn’t be any different than any other race finish, this was going to be one of my personal biggest running accomplishments ever!

Back Home

Finally there! I run into the park, and jet down the final hill with what felt like a blazing pace, my lungs burning and legs on fire. There are several relay teams cheering on their own runners as well as yelling out “great finish ultra!”

Then I was there, the finish – I completed Dances With Dirt Run Through Hell 50 Mile Run! Mark Koonter met me at the finish. 11 hours and 21 minutes was my final time. 7th in my Age Group of 11 Men and 36th Overall out of 62 People. Koonter gave me a beer and I walked around to cool down. What a huge day. I feel hugely accomplished! I left it all on the course.

The last aspect to this day was to drive home. I felt good and my body felt pretty good. When I finally got home I realized how jacked up my legs and feet were. The recovery is going to take a while and there’s quite a bit of swelling in my feet.

I own this pain! This race was mine!

Much thanks to Marsh Findley at Escapes Theraputic Massage for prepping my legs and getting me back in shape after this run!

*More Pictures to follow soon – several of the above photo’s are from Brandon Mulnix.
Pictures above are from the sites listed below: 

One Comment

  • dvd ripper says:

    Hi, just stumbled on your page from reddit. Its not an article I would typically read, but I loved your perspective on it. Thanks for making a blog post worth reading!

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