Sarah Johnson – Legends Trail 2016

Legends Trail 250k Race Report

2016 Race Statistics

  • 47 starters: 42 males and 5 females.
  • 15 finishers: 14 males and 1 female
  • Top finisher: 57hours and 21minutes
  • Final finisher: 61hours and 47minutes
  • Male finisher rate: 33%
  • Female finisher rate: 20%
  • Overall finisher rate: 31%
  • The race directors created the event with the idea of a 30% finisher rate. They were spot on in their predictions.

 

What Made it Challenging:

  • Obviously the distance. Legends is a single stage run with a cutoff of 60 hours. However the day before the 2016/inaugural race the course was rerouted a bit and the cut off was extended to 62 hours due to trail conditions and weather report.

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Course Map

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Elevation Profile

  • Trail Conditions: MUD. Loads and loads of MUD. So much MUD it practically pulls your shoes off your feet! The slippery effect of the mud slowed down pace significantly as stability was quite limited. And constantly trying to find stability in your foot placement is very heavy on the leg muscles. Additionally wet trails meant wet shoes the entire length of the course. A lot of extra time, energy and care went into trying to avoid blisters and “trench foot”. Even with great attention many participants suffered from horrible blisters and trench foot.

 

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  • Course: On paper the course doesn’t look too tough. 7000meters elevation gain across 250k isn’t a ton. And there are no real LONG climbs or descends. But if you have ever been to the Ardennes you know how unforgiving the terrain is. The frequent climbs are steep. There is so much variation in terrain it’s difficult to settle into a rhythm. Slippery rock. Grassy marshy fields. River crossings. Fallen trees. Thorny bushes. Random connection points through tiny villages on cobblestone roads. It generally feels like more of an obstacle course than a path.

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Training run on the Legends Course.

LT7 One of many river crossings

  • Weather: Rain and snow. Body gets very cold, very quick when its energy reserves are depleted. Some runners suffered from hypothermia.

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On one of the higher points of the course. The one benefit of fresh snow is having tracks to follow (see next bullet point)

 

  • Unmarked: The course is not marked so participants have to self-navigate. This requires almost constant attention and is another fatiguing element.

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At the start line checking on our GPSs to make sure they are working properly and the signal is strong

  • No Crew or Pacer allowed: The RDs really want this race to be about self-sufficiency.
  • Distance between checkpoints: The average distance between checkpoints is 50kilometers so each participant has to carry enough supplies to last between checkpoints which means a heavy pack. A 50k on this course can mean 10 hours between checkpoints. Beyond calories and hydration, runners need to carry spare batteries, required first aid and emergency equipment, extra clothing, bivy, headlamp, etc.

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My pack weighed 7.5 kilos

  • 6pm Start time: Participants have already been awake a full day when the race starts. It also means a larger percent of the course will be navigated in the dark (ie- at a slower pace).

What Makes it Legendary:

Honestly all of the same things that make it a challenge are exactly what make it so special. The Ardennes (located primarily in Belgium and Luxembourg, but stretching into Germany and France) are rich in History as well as Fairytale. It is said to be the place where gnomes and trolls and fairies derive from. And when you are in the woods, that magic can surely be felt. It’s unlike any other place I have experienced. Every time I am there I feel incredibly blessed to witness the beauty and enchantment. They really do hold a spell over me.

REWIND to My Registration:

When I happened upon the Legends website it was still in its infancy stages. The RDs were collecting applications and the deadline to apply was the following day. I read the race description and fully knowing it was a bit out of my league, I filled out the application form anyway. A few months went by and I kind of forgot about it. Then I got a random Facebook message from some random dude named Stef:

Him: “Hey were you still interested in Legends?”

Me: “Uh…maybe. What is Legends? Lol.”

Him: “An Ultra in the Ardennes you filled out an application for. We sent you an email but never heard back from you.”

Me: “OMG!! Yes! I want to do it!! Is there still space? Are you the RD?”

Him: “Yes. And Yes.”

Me: “Eek! I’m so excited!! Thank you for finding me on Facebook and reaching out! I really want do it! But ummm….I should probably check with my husband first?”

I adore being married to a man I can casually approach with “So hey there’s this 250k I want to do on March 4” and without any reservation he replies, “Yeah. Go for it.”

So I paid the 90Euro registration fee (after double checking with the RD. I thought for sure 90Euro was a typo! He assured me it was correct) and secured my spot.

Training:

Now to train. I felt like it was going to be a bit crammed since I was late to join the party. I had all of 3 months to get my butt in shape.

In December I did an 80k stage race in December in Houffalize which provided very similar terrain to that of the Legends course.

In early January I did an 80k “fun run” in the Dunes. This was unmarked and self-supported. It was my very first time ever using a GPS.

From mid- January to mid- February I completed four long training runs (60k to 80K) on the actual Legends course which allowed me the opportunity to see almost the entire course.

These longs runs were in addition to numerous shorter local runs and early morning cross training sessions. The training was a lot on my family, especially the four consecutive weekends I traveled to Belgium. I am beyond grateful for their support and patience with me in the process.

In late February my grandma was diagnosed with cancer and given a very short prognosis. And while the timing was hard because I had already spent so much of February away from my family and would be missing my kids’ Spring Break, I knew I needed to make it back to the States as soon as possible to see her. One week out from Legends my youngest son and I traveled to New York to say goodbye to Grandma. Our time together was very special. I showed her pictures of the Ardennes and told her I would be dedicating my run to her.

 

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My Grandma and my son. Together. Their first and their last visit. She passed away 15 days later.

Ironically my Legends training partner, Sander Boom also happened to be in New York at the same time on business. We bonded over access to Dunkin Donuts and used the excuse we were calorie loading in order to justify our indulgence.

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He went with pink frosting

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I went with the super decadent cookie dough heart shaped donut. Also note the slogan on the bag 😉

I was new to some of the gear I would be using during Legends so I made sure to test it out in advance. I wore my weighted pack all the time…around the house, running errands, taking the kids to school, etc in order to get used to it.

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The day before Legends I decided to test out my bivy while eating some ate some ice cream. (ahem, calorie loading. )

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More calorie loading with flufflernutters. I was taking this calorie loading business very serious.

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We were allowed one drop bag that we would have access to at every check point. Here’s what I put in my drop bag:

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https://youtu.be/Gr55QrajZiU
=> I will edit this later Sarah, don`t worry!!!

March 4 At the Start Line:

Running late as usual, the RD playfully tapped his watch and shook his head at me when I arrived at the start. Picking up my bib I was all smiles and giggles. Happy the day had finally arrived.

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It was so great to see the other runners; many of whom I had met during training runs or on line in our Legends Facebook group. The energy in the air was full force! Lots of positive vibes floating around as we were all happy and eager to start!

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Well except Sander was a bit nervous as evident in his high heart rate during his medic check. But nothing a little pre-race beer couldn’t help fix. 😉

LT20I met these two goofballs during training runs. Both are very talented runners and I was looking forward to seeing how they would do. There’s something comforting about sharing a course with familiar faces. It helps ease the unknown of the whole experience.

Medic check. Kit check. Drop bag check. Nurse the wee one. Whew. Ok I’m ready to rock. Then I realized I haven’t had time to eat any dinner. Buzz found some hummus and crackers in our car. I scarfed that down while he pinned on my bib. I handed him some paper maps and asked him to tuck them in my bag. He asked me “Why do you want these?” I said “I don’t. But we are required to carry them”. As he buried them into the bottom of my bag he teased me, “Do you even know how to use a map?” Ha. Ha. #ohtheironythere

LT21 The boys are used to hanging out at ultras and easily entertain themselves with very little

LT22 Start line was at a Brewery. Seems fitting for a race in a country known for their Beer.

LT23 LT24 Goodbye kisses at the stat line.

LT25 Lining up for the countdown. It was truly an honor to be alongside these athletes. Some pretty fierce peeps in this group with crazy impressive race stats. I was hiding in the back, lol.

LT26 And we’re off

The next several hours are a bit of a blur. I mostly remember feeling happy, positive and determined. Sander and I had developed our race strategy together and our plan was to stick together. We moved along steadily through the night. Sander is good company on the trail. Talkative but not annoyingly so. Level headed and logical. Knowledgeable but humble. He has a subtle wittiness that I appreciate. And he is probably the most observant person I have ever known. We share a similar viewpoint and respect for Mother Nature. We are not entitled to that patch of Earth known as the Ardennes, but rather we were gifted the profound privilege to be there. It was communicated between us both overtly and implicitly.

I knew there were many people watching the live runner tracking and that kept me motivated. It’s as though I could feel their support on the course.

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This looks might familiar to those of you who were watching my the live runner tracking through out the weekend.

We made it to Checkpoint one and despite attempting to get in and out quickly, everything took a little longer there than anticipated. I pumped. Ate some soup. Drank some tea. Changed shoes and socks. Reloaded my pack.

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Drop bags at Checkpoint one. Huge kudos to the volunteers. They had to carry every.single.bag UP and DOWN the stairs. Most of the bags weighed nearly 20kilos! (The max weight we were allowed).

We left the checkpoint renewed and energetic. And now we were moving along in day light which meant we could enjoy the views.

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We arrived at checkpoint 2 and I was so filled with emotion to see my family there. Not sure exactly why but I even cried a little when I held Malachi.

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Happiness

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I nursed Malachi while the medic taped my feet. I ate some potatoes. Drank a cup of coffee. Because of the “no crewing” rule Buzz and the kids simply stood back and provided moral support. However their presence alone definitely recharged me. Sander got his feet worked on and a bit of a massage from the medic staff. We both felt incredibly pampered and left there ready to tackle the next section.

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Seriously the most amazing and attentive volunteer medics I have ever encountered at a race.

We moved along steadily again. While our pace was slow, we were consistently moving along. We started to catch up to other runners. Some were dropping and waiting to be picked up. Some were just moving at a slow pace. And some were resting along the trail. We followed racer’s etiquette and checked in with every runner to make sure they were ok and had everything they needed. Sometimes others joined us for a bit but mostly Sander and I moved along at a steady pace without stopping. At one point we passed a runner on the downhill and he said he was fine, but a short while later we heard him calling for help. He sounded really panicked. We hiked back up and helped him. We encouraged him to join us along with another guy. The four of us moved together as a unit.

My mood was still really positive. I believed I was going to finish. The blisters were really the only issue I was facing and while annoying, they were tolerable. I told myself they were minor and in no way a deal breaker. It worked and in time I didn’t even notice them anymore. I did get really tired at one point and told Sander I was going to rest on the trail in my bivy for 20 minutes and would catch up with him after I rested. He very gently explained why it wasn’t a brilliant idea, offered me a caffeine pill, and told me to keep talking. I listened to his advice. I don’t even remember what I talked about but I chatted about nonsense and let him take the lead.

As we got closer to checkpoint three we realized our plan to rest there for 90minutes wasn’t going to happen. We simply had run out of time. About a kilometer out from the checkpoint, Sander told me he wasn’t continuing on. I somehow translated this into thinking we had missed the cutoff. I wasn’t thinking clearly because of the exhaustion. I got really quiet trying to sort through my feelings of defeat. When we arrived at the checkpoint a volunteer brought me some warm water to soak my feet in. This immediately perked me up. I told him I felt like I was at the spa.

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Thoughts of defeat wrestling in my head thinking I had timed out.

A few minutes later the medic approached me and asked if I was going to continue on. “Wait. Hold up! You mean I have a choice to continue?!?”

“Yes. But I don’t advise it and here’s why”. He went on to explain his reasons. Which were all extremely valid I am sure. But I wasn’t listening. I looked up at the RD Stef and he gave me some kind of pep talk. Well it was more like a very candid “Get your ass moving so you can get out of here before the cutoff!” Apparently Buzz and Stef were texting one another during that time. Buzz told to Stef make me continue. They knew I still had a lot left in me.

My head was developing a revised strategy of how to pull this off. I had like ten minutes to be out of the door before the cutoff. I needed to eat, pump, get dressed, and ideally find someone to join me. I really didn’t want to go through the next section alone. It was pretty treacherous terrain even on fresh legs and a good night’s sleep. There was a tiny but mighty woman asleep at the table. She had barely opened her eyes and I said “Hey do you want to go back out with me?” It was the very first time we had spoken to one another. “Ummmm. Yeah. Sure.” She replied as she wiped the sleep out of her eyes. Then she said “But I don’t have a working GPS. How’s yours?” “Mine is great” I replied. Which was true. I hadn’t had any issues with it at all.

We scrambled to get dressed and out the door. Volunteers were literally duct taping her clothes onto her.

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We managed to catch another group of runners as they were headed out too. We stayed with them for a bit but between needing to adjust my pack and having to pee we lost them. Shortly after that my GPS stopped working. I could turn it on but I couldn’t get the map to load. I messed with it a bit. Turning it on and off. Taking the batteries out and rebooting it. Putting in a fresh set of batteries. And still I couldn’t get it to work. We tried to look for tracks from the other runners but the trail was just a huge muddy mess at that point.

I said “Well I guess we are doing this old school” and pulled out my paper map. The very one Buzz had teased me about now knowing how to use. I knew it was going to be a tough go but I was still determined I could make it happen. Although at that point I didn’t even know where we were on the map and pretty sure I hadn’t touched a compass since I was ten years old at Girl Scout camp.

We could hear cars and decided to walk down to the street thinking if we were near a main road we could orient ourselves and get ourselves back on course. Meanwhile as our bodies stopped moving, the cold started to set in fast. We were both shivering while trying to make sense of our maps. Neither of us was thinking clearly or at our full capacity. Tick tock. Tick tock. Time was wasting away. This is probably the point at which I realized (with full comprehension, unlike my earlier sleep deprived confusion at checkpoint 3) that a finish wasn’t in my future.

After some communication with race headquarters, we were told to stay right where we were and someone would pick us up. Tim the RD was closest to us but at that point he had no map or GPS with him. Headquarters navigated him to us via cell phone using the tracking system. The delay on the tracking system made that an extra fun rescue.

He eventually found us. We sat in his van. Someone covered us with a blanket and gave us potato chips (bless him!) and hot tea. We didn’t officially time out because we were in between checkpoints. Although Tim did the math for us and when he told us the pace we needed to maintain in order to finish before the cutoff, I knew it was time to retire.

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Tim drove us back to checkpoint. I had been awake for 51 hours (since 6 am on Friday) at that point. I was literally asleep within 20 seconds of sitting in his car. When we arrived at the checkpoint I startled awake and nearly attacked Tim “You are NOT Buzz!”. I was completely disoriented and didn’t recognize the “strange” man next to me, lol.

I went inside. Sent Buzz a message to pick me up there. And sent a few more messages to people I knew were watching the live tracking, would see the “retire”, and wonder what happened. Oh and I also ate some more chips.

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Reflections, including WHY:

I get this question often. Why would you want to do that? Sounds like torture! And in the midst of heavy training for Legends, I often asked myself that question. What are you doing out here Sarah? And I waited for the answer to reveal itself. Because I didn’t automatically know why the call to be there was so deep. However on race weekend as I moved along the course I kept thinking about how instinctive being on a long journey by foot felt. I thought about all the reasons throughout history people would embark on such a journey. In the past human populations often migrated out of necessity. In search of food, safety, refugee, shelter, land, opportunity, spiritual enlightenment, freedom, and more. Maybe as humans we were designed for trekking and our modern day society has removed us from that innate function? Being there allowed me to connect to something deeper than my present self. It felt like a rite of passage in ways.

A few days after Legends was over….after all the mud had been washed off my shoes and my skin…I bumped into a friend on the street. She asked me if I was disappointed. Without reservation I said “No. I’m actually kind of proud of the whole thing”. Oh yikes! That answer just slipped out. Am I gloating? Am I sugar coating? Am I giving what would become a fake smile Pollyanna syndrome response when talking about Legends? Most people assume there is disappointment when one does not cross the finish line. And so they try to “cheer you up” with comments about how hard you tried or how great you did. But her simple question was so direct and poignant that I have been pondering it ever since. And I have concluded that I don’t feel disappointment. Initially I did. But I am not sure that was even my own authentic reaction. Rather a somewhat superficial or expected response. One that would reduce the experience to a start line and a finish line; a linear movement from point A to point B. But it’s far more dynamic than that. And as time has allowed me to reflect on the experience the most prevalent or predominant feeling I have is one of change. And the gut reply “proud” I expressed to my friend wasn’t one of pride or gloat, but rather of growth and gratitude.

We are only granted a limited amount of time on this earth. And that’s even more evident in the passing of a loved one. It serves as a painful yet powerful reminder to live fully and revel in the richness of your existence. In loving memory of Lois Waldron, laid to rest on March 10, 2016.

A Special Thanks:

To the Race Directors Stef and Tim for their tireless and relentless effort to turn their vision of Legends into an extraordinary event.

To the volunteers for their nurture and care.

To the participants for their sportsmanship and comradery.

To my family for their unconditional support and trust in me.

 

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