Monday, May 22, 2017

Gnaw on This: "Dances with Dirt" Trail Marathon

In my continued search for new adventures and new trail races across the US, I came across the "Dances with Dirt" series of trail races.  The one in Gnaw Bone, Indiana (yes, that is actually the name of the town) caught my particular attention.  How could I resist a race called "Dances with Dirt" in a town called Gnaw Bone?  Besides, the state of Indiana was still on my "to do" list in my quest to run a marathon or ultra-marathon in every state.  As I read more into the race details, it became clear that this was the type of event for me - lots of hills, lots of mud, and all sorts of "this race is not for wimps" warnings on the event website. Sign me up!

Marathon elevation profile for the Gnaw Bone race.

Only three weeks removed from the Hyner Trail Challenge 50K, I still felt that my body had time to recover.  However, I hadn't done any long runs since that 50K race.  My weekly routine had become a series of shorter 4 to 6 mile trail runs and nothing of any significant distance.  Regardless, I felt that I was still in a good position to give the Gnaw Bone trail marathon a good effort.

Due to obligations at Country Squirrel Outfitters, Miranda was unable to accompany me on the trek to Indiana.  So, I would have to fly this one solo - something I hadn't done in several years.  I made the 8 hour drive to Gnaw Bone and found my way to the registration and packet pickup location the evening before the race.  Mike's Music and Dance Barn was the staging area for the race packet pickup and would also be the site of the start and finish of the race.  Mike's Music and Dance Barn is precisely as you would expect.  It's a good 'ol country honky-tonk barn with line dancing and live country music.  Not really my thing, but to each their own.  After-all, I'm in a town called "Gnaw Bone," so who was I to judge.

The race would feature several different distances for nearly every level of runner - 10K, Half-Marathon, Marathon, 50K, 50 Mile and a Relay event.  The lists of folks that had per-registered for the various distances were hanging at the registration table.  Upon examination, I discovered that it was pretty clear that the marathon distance was the least popular.  The 10K and half-marathon each had over 200 runners.  The marathon had a measly 35 pre-registered runners.  Even the 50K had more registered runners than the marathon.  I guess if you are going to run 26.2 miles, why not run a few extra miles for the 50K, right?  Truthfully, I kind of felt like I was wimping out a little bit by only running the marathon.  I signed the "if you die, we're not responsible" waiver and picked up my registration packet and bib number.  The young man at the registration table explained to me that my meal ticket and beer ticked were attached to the bottom of the race bib - what an evil thing to do to a runner.  So, you're telling me that not only do we have to run a 26+ mile race, but we also have to make sure that we don't accidentally loose our beer ticket?  That's a lot of unnecessary pressure and responsibility to put on a runner.  I made sure my beer ticket was firmly attached, then I inspected the race shirt.  The shirt featured a sweet design on the front, which featured a skull and cross bones type of logo.  The back of the shirt, well, that concerned me a little:

The back of the Dances with Dirt, Gnaw Bone, Indiana race shirt
The morning of the race I arrived at the "Dance Barn" in ample time prior to the start of the marathon.  I actually made it in time to see the start of the 50K race.  The 50 mile runners had already departed for their own journey.  After the start of the 50K there were a lot less folks hanging around.  A few of the half-marathon and relay runners had started to arrive, but it was mostly just the 30 or so marathon runners that were making some last minute adjustments to their shoes and hydration packs.  After some really brief announcements from the race director who explained; "Sorry about the trail conditions. We had some storms here recently and a lot of trees came down on the trail.  We didn't have time to clean them up.  There's also a bunch of mud.  So, the first part of the race is going to suck and the trail conditions are shitty. But, after that, you'll be running on some really nice trail." The race director then said "Hold on a second. ___ will start the race.  I'm going to pull my truck up the road here and make sure you all find your way through the junk yard."  Junk yard? He must be joking, right? After the race director pulled away in his pickup truck and out of sight, one of the other race workers started the race with a simple "Go." 

Sure enough, about a quarter mile up a dirt road, we found ourselves running through a junk yard.  After finding our way through the junk, we were immediately greeted with some muddy trails.  Less than a mile into the race and soggy socks syndrome was upon us.  The first 3-4 miles was mostly a gradual incline with muddy trails.  There were also many down trees, which would set the stage for the rest of the day.  After leaving the Dance Barn and junk yard behind us, we would leave the private property and connect onto the trails within the Brown County State Park system.  For the better part of the next 25+ miles, we would run within the State Park.

Although the race didn't feature the intense, long climbs that I have grown accustom to in my training runs and recent races, the course did feature sufficient amounts of rolling hills and short, steep climbs.  What the trails didn't offer was any rock.  Any of you that run/race in PA know that we have plenty of rocks - small rocks, medium sized rocks, big rocks, boulders and giant rocks.  In fact, some of the trails more closely resemble boulder fields than any type of "trail."  It was actually refreshing to have trail surface that was actually relatively rock free.

A scramble up the slope
Being that much of the race course was within the Park system, that meant that it also featured a variety of obstacles and a variety of terrain.  This ranged from stream crossings, wooden stairs, wooden bridges, fallen trees, mud, short sections of gravel roads, steep climbs, and even a few sections of paved road through a campground area.  However, overall, the trails were largely smooth, rolling and winding single track.

Around mile 15 we encountered what some would call "bushwhacking," but I prefer to call "orienteering without a map or compass."  After descending down a steep section of single track and then crossing a small stream, the race course flagging had us head up a steep slippery slope of leaves and mud.  There was no trail.  Just a forested hillside and the evidence of other runner's failed attempts at finding traction on the leaf littered, wet and muddy surface.  After clawing my way up the forested slip-n-slide, I crested the top of the ridge and found nothing but more forested area.  Again, no trail.  You could occasionally see some pink flagging hanging in a few random trees off in the distance.  This "orienteering" section would last for another 2 miles.  It required a lot of concentration as you had to keep an eye open ahead to make sure you could find the flagging to keep you on course, but you also had to keep an eye on the ground to make sure you could find your way over the vegetation, tree branches, logs, and other woodland features as you scurried your way through the countryside.  Eventually, we would follow the flagging to a fence.  After scaling the wooden fence, we would find ourselves back on some established single track trail.

A view of the stream channel "trail"
After several more miles of rolling hills, mud and varied terrain, we would find ourselves nearing the last few miles of trail before the finish line.  One word to describe the last section of the race would be "wet."  The last few miles would include some swampy areas and about a half mile of stream running - the act of actually running up a stream channel.  After emerging from the water like a mayfly, we made the final run across the grassy field to the finish line.  My finishing time was 6 hours and 14 minutes.  I was 10th overall out of 30 runners that completed the marathon distance.  Maybe more importantly, I was able to hang onto my beer ticket during the whole race.  After crossing the finish line, I made sure to cash it in for an appropriate beverage from Big Woods Brewing Company.  Overall, my Dances With Dirt experience in Gnaw Bone was a good one.  I'm glad that I chose this event for my Indiana running.  I may consider one of the other Dances With Dirt events in the future.
Steve, crossing the finish line of the 2017 Dances With Dirt Marathon in Gnaw Bone, Indiana

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