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November 23rd, 2003 – Ozark Mountain Ultra 50K

June 5, 2009

It’s all about appropriate clothing, really.  That may seem like an odd way to start a race report, but if anyone asked me how the heck I survived out there today, I would’ve replied “appropriate clothing.”  After all, a wise ultrarunner once remarked that there is no such thing as bad weather – only inappropriate clothing.
And the day started very nice – rolling out of bed at 5:00 AM, I got dressed and headed outside and was welcomed by balmy, 64 degree weather.  There was not a cloud in the sky, and thousands of stars glimmered overhead – where I live in the south suburbs, I do see stars, but nothing like this – not quite dense enough to be a blanket, but very tranquil, peaceful.  It was not to last.
The previous day (Saturday) was one of those wonderfully warm fall days that they write showtunes about.  (Well, Rodgers & Hammerstein, not Boublil and Scholeil). The sky was remarkably clear, the weather very picnicy – dipping into the 70s, it was a day that, as a runner, almost had me chomping at the bit.  As many of you know, I cut my mileage way back in the week or two weeks leading up to an ultra, and having ran only a five mile speed workout on Wednesday, I was getting pretty antsy.  FORTUNATELY, as my dad and I head to get an early dinner (see the early start up above), I see none other than my old pal Jim Justus running on one of the hilly backroads around Branson.  I excuse myself from the car (my dad’s used to such impetuousness) and I quickly catch up.  Jim’s one of my heroes – I could say it’s because he was a multi-term prosecuting attorney, or because he’s currently a judge; or because he’s always treated me as an equal; but mostly Jim’s a hero for two very personal reasons: he beat cancer when he was quite young, and he lost a lot of weight through running, and has enjoyed running ever since.   Jim was also with me when I completed my first ultra (a twelve hour run), finishing just a mile or so behind me over twelve hours, so I also respect the hell out of him as a runner. Jim’s not moving too fast (having already ran several miles earlier in the day) but he couldn’t let the good weather get away, and had to have one more good run before the weather turned. We catch up – Jim’s been getting my running updates through another great guy, David Rozell, and asks me about the Ozark Mountain Ultramarathon; I ensure him that I will be running, and after a mile or so, I head back to find my dad and he heads on his way.  Jim, always good to see you – Dave, send me Jim’s email! 🙂  – but it was also nice because I got to sneak in about a two and a half mile run in the day before an ultra on some great hilly roads.
So, this morning at about 5:30, my dad and I head out, enjoying the tranquil and quiet morning, and the weather – but we know what’s coming, and by 5:40, we’re getting radio interruptions from the National Weather Service, warning of strong thunderstorms near Ozark Missouri, with wind gusts of over 60 mph.
Ozark, of course, is where the race begins.
Five minutes later, we drive into rain, and dad has to slow down as the wipers can’t keep up.  He looks at me, grins, and says, “So, sure you don’t want to go back and curl up in your warm bed?”  He knew I’d say no, but I also admitted that there was a part of me that thought that didn’t sound horrible.
On the other hand, I did not feel much trepidation – the hard part of the front should pass through before the start, and the (presumably) light rain that would follow me the rest of the day should be refreshing. However, I was also worried by another part of the forecast – the temperature was supposed to drop fast, and keep dropping off during the day.  I do a mental checklist of gear and feel suddently just a little bit cold – it was probably 52 or so by the time we get to the starting area.
For those not familiar with the Branson area, let me describe our hosts for the start:  Lambert’s Cafe is a HUGE family-style restaurant (with exceptional pies) located just a few miles south of Springfield, at CC&J on the east side of the road.  It’s like a cross between Al’s Oasis, Wall South Dakota, and your local neighborhood restuarant.  With thrown rolls (it’s easier than negotiating through some of the narrower aisles, and the customers seem to love playing catch with their food. America.)
Fortunately, they’ve opened it up for us, and we gather inside; I hunt for some coffee to no avail (a really good thing that I had snarfed down some coffee and a pepsi on the way to the start line – I consumed no caffeine at all during the race).  The rain is coming down, but is a few shades short of torrential.  I pick up my race bib (2025 – surprisingly high, the first four digit bib number I’ve had in an ultra outside of LeGrizz (which never recycles numbers) and one of the best race shirts I’ve seen – Richard Johnson, the RD, did an outstanding job; the front is a well-done silk-screened photo of The Cut (more on this later), the back is the course map, with markings, complete with the roller-coaster elevation profile of the course.  Great schwag!
The race is actually five races in one – a 5K, a 10K, a half marathon, a marathon, and a 50K (for those who don’t like metric, that’s 3.11, 6.22, 13.1, 26.2, and 31.1).  Starting at Lambert’s at CC&J, it travels south on Highway 65, through some serious hills, and ends just inside of Branson at Skagg’s Hospital.   The course is – well, it’s overall downhill, but has 3500 feet of ascent and 4000 feet of descent (my estimates through a topo program) – the course profile can be seen here:
So yeah, there are some monster hills in the second half of the course – but I have to survive some seriously uncomfortable conditions to get there.  Lining up at a few minutes after 7:00, the race director genuinely wishes us luck and, in a moderate rain, we’re off.
“Clothes make the man – naked people have very little influence on society.” – Samuel Clemens.  Although I disagree with Mr. Twain on this one, clothing definitely was the order of the day – in addition to my normal tights, shoes, socks and LeGrizz shorts, I had a long-sleeve polar tec shirt, with a nike shell over that, and a tyvek jacket over that.  I would recommend more clothes for other people, but it was just right for me (I tend to radiate a lot of body heat.)  Covering my eyes from the persistent rain was my trusty running hat. 
Of course, we start with all of the runners from all of the races together, so holding my legs back took some mental determination. My dad takes a few pictures of me starting – from the warmth and dryness of the car, and heads back to town. Fortunately, the rain hasn’t pooled too much on the road in the short 1.2 mile out and back section they put in to get all of the distances right, and since the rain is out of the northwest, and we were running south, and since the rain was solid but not soaking, I settled into a fairly quick pace to get warmed up, knocking out the first three miles in 22 minutes, then settling into a slower pace once I was warm. 
The first 12.5 miles or so are really pretty easy – a little bit of up and down, but nothing that can’t be run comfortably.  I talk to several people during this time, including a guy doing his first half marathon.  He states that he’s inspired quite a few people just by being able to run 5k and 10ks, and he’s quite proud of his running.  It’s always nice to be able to talk to other people who try to inspire others – ok, it doesn’t have to be running, but it is always amazing what you can get your body to do if you just put your mind to it.
After the half-marathon mark (2:00 even), the fun begins.  Running along the shoulder of a major highway, facing northbound traffic (and semi’s and RV’s in particular” has its own set of perils – OK, really, it’s just two – the sudden burst of spray that tends to blind you, and the accompanying backdraft impact that nearly stopped me in my tracks on a couple of occasions. Plus, I’m running on asphalt – I hate asphalt. I mean, OK, I run on paved trails up in Chicago, sure, but running what feels like a track race just doesn’t feel right – and not just because my legs begin to fee a bit stressed after the first fifteen miles or so.  But I’m feeling pretty comfortable, and hit mile 19 in three hours – I’ve slowed a bit, but I’m in good shape.  I hit the bottom of the S curve,  and begin the hike up to 176 and the cut…
If you look at the topo, you’ll see a really long downhill beginning at mile 20, that drops about 450 feet in elevation or so in about three miles.  The downhill, which starts just south of the Missouri 176E turnoff on 65, is fairly steep but not too hard to run (living in Chicago, I’ve had to practice this type of running on a treadmill, bleh!); you’ll also see that it has a false summit on the way back up to the top through The Cut; the top is actually at the 160 interchange, and is considerably lower than the former height of the ridge (I’m guessing another hundred feet or so, but I’ve forgotten.)
The Cut is so named for the deepest blasting through solid rock in Missouri – about a hundred feet deep, through some very solid Missouri rock. This was widened when 65 was widened to four lanes, and it’s a very noticable cut (or scar, if you’d prefer) for the highway to pass through. There was also a cave accessible on the north west side of the cut for quite some time, but this attractive nuisance was filled some time ago.
Actually, the climb up to the cut and then to 160 was quite pleasant, as after the false summit, a VERY supportive and happy aid station had been set up; the staffers at all of the aid stations were very good, but this one stood out for its pure enthusiasm. After all, we still had 7.5 miles to go, up and down some more steep hills, but they made sure you left feeling pretty good about yourself.
The run down the other side of the 160 junction (to the old go-cart place) and back up to F highway (the Freeway to Forsyth – though I doubt anyone but me calls it that) was uneventful; the rain had actually mostly abated, and I was only soaked thanks to the passing motorists (not their fault!).  I start running down the other side of F, and I know I’m home free – I used to live very near this very hill, and have ran it many times, and have ran all the way back into Branson and back on other, more demanding backroads.  With only four miles left, I was feeling pretty good despite having ran more than a marathon on wet, somewhat slippery (due to runoff of oils on the road) asphalt. About this time I ran into a gentleman from LA – he was moving slow but steady, and he had on a shirt that demanded my respect:  3X finisher of a marathon in every state including District of Columbia. Zowie!  I also note a Sunmart bottle belt, so I know this is a guy that knows how to cover miles!  I pull alongside for awhile just to get to know him, but offer him anything he needs, as I have plenty of gu, salt tabs, etc.  Turns out he took the early start (meaning he REALLY ran in nasty weather!), and does a marathon or longer, as he said, “every weekend somewhere in the world.”  Damn!  However, he felt bad that he was slowing me down and urged me on ahead.  I bid him adieu, wished him luck, and pressed on.  The next aid station was also interesting, as the two people who manned it had ran the 10K earlier in the morning!  I wondered if they had been dry at all today, but they assured me that they’d showered and gotten dry clothes on.  A good thing!
The run into Branson itself to the hospital was a bit anticlimactic; I see my parents drive by about a mile from the finish, and they’re there to welcome me at the finish, along with a time keeper and, oddly, noone else.  He directs me to Skaggs where I meet up with my grandfather, change into some dry and warm clothes (and am elated to not have any blisters once again!) and get another cup of coffee. Mmmm.  My final time of 5:20 is fairly slow compared to my last (4:47), but was ran in bad weather on a tough course, so I feel pretty good about my time. I feel even better when I somehow won my age division (being a young ultra runner does have its perks!) and I met a couple more neat people. My mom oggles at the ultrarunners gathered around – she’s struck by the fact that all of us look very athletic, but not sticklike, like most hard marathoners. (I don’t know about everyone else – I keep a couple extra pounds on so I don’t get cold as easily in the winter!)
It really wasn’t too nostalgic running a route that I have driven hundreds (if not thousands) of times; it was odd, actually having a feel for the distance (honestly, it’s hard to even imagine 5 or 6 miles, at least for me!), but the weather and general challenges of the course made it an enjoyable test of endurance.
Next run is January 10th, at the Bandera 100K in Texas.  Enjoy your Thanksgiving! – Jason

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