Liza Howard. Ultrarunning Mom.

Ultrarunning Mom

The Greatest Race (No One Ever Saw) by Chris Russell

Intro: When the book Born to Run was released out it drew attention to the Copper Canyon Ultramarathon and billed it as the greatest race the world had never seen. However, on Nov 10,2013 in the desolate and primitive area of western Texas hill country, eight of the most elite trail runners in the world came together to compete in one of the most unusual trail races ever held. This race wasn’t advertised, there were no appearance fees or prize money. It was a totally spontaneous testosterone driven competition that included one of the greatest collection of trail running athletes. These athletes were:

Sage Canaday – Bandera 100K, Tarawera 100K, Lake Sonoma 50M, Speedgoat 50K  Champion, Ultrasignup rank 97.6%

Max King – 2010 Xterra Trail Running Champion, JFK 50M course record holder, Ultrasignup Rank 99%

Jason Schlarb – Run Rabbit Run Champion, Ultrasignup rank 96.0%

Dom Grossman – Angeles Crest Champion, Ultrasignup rank 90.1%

Jason Bryant – Uhwarrie Mountain Run Champion, Ultrasignup rank 95.8%

Matt Hart – Tahoe Rim 100 and Jemez 50M champion, Ultrasignup Rank 92.5%

Paul Terranova – Kona Grand Slam, Runner up at USATF 50M championship, 8th at Western States, Ultrasignup Rank 91.6%

Chris Russell – 8th at 2011 Cactus Rose 100 miler, 1984 400M State Semifinalist, Az, Class 2A (only 3 classes back then). Ultrasignup Rank 66%

This is my (Chris Russell) story of how I unwittingly became involved in the greatest race the world has never seen.

Setting: I was a volunteer at the Team RWB Trail Running Camp at Camp Eagle. Camp Eagle is located at the headwaters of the Nueces River near Rocksprings Texas. The camp uses trail running as a vehicle for interaction between military veterans and civilians. After 2 days of learning and practicing trail running skills the participants get a chance to show off their skills during a diabolical 2.6 mile obstacle course containing man-made and natural objects.   As a volunteer I was assigned to work a section of the course that consisted of rock ledges along the river that participants had to traverse. After most of the participants had traverse through my area, Jason Bryant asked me if I want to do the course. Definitely! He sent someone down to replace me. Little did I realize the adventure that would await.

The race begins: I made my way to the start finish area at the pavilion to see if I could find Jason Bryant. I didn’t know if he wanted me to start at a certain time. However, I couldn’t find him and not knowing how long it would take me before it got dark I decided to go ahead and start. I ran down the dirt road to what I call the mine area. It was a bunch of structures to play on that looked like an old mine. When I got there… volunteers Brian Ricketts, Jay Danek and Mac Smith pointed me to a mine tunnel that I was supposed to go through. I went into the tunnel and slid down a short ways before landing into a pool of wet plastic balls. It was gross! This area was a room with an opening where one could use a rope to climb out of. However it was a fairly good climb and the rope was missing a couple of knots. I went ahead and tried anyway but my strength to body weight ratio isn’t what it should be. Total fail. I rationalized there had to be another way out but it was very dark (the lanterns that had been in there were taken out). I felt around and tried to find an exit but had no success. I then made another pathetic attempt to climb the rope. Again….utter failure. By now I am starting to panic. How was I ever going to get out? I sure wasn’t going to call for help. My good friends Brian and Jay would never let me hear the end of it! I would spend the night in there before that happened!! I searched again for an exit. Eventually I found a small opening in the corner. I went through the opening which led to a circular tunnel that I slid down and I was out of that forsaken mine tunnel.

I was then directed to go climb some steps  and traverse this plastic, bouncy area. Sounds simple but part of it had collapsed. Apparently I was supposed to use the ropes above me to get past it but I didn’t notice them. I just plunged in and then used my height to get out. I then grabbed a sled, climbed up a ladder and then climbed up a short, steep hill to go down the slide. I was surprised how much work carrying that sled was!! I hopped in the sled and went down the slide. It was fast! Also fun. After the slide I was directed out of the mine area and onto a trail heading towards the river.

I soon came up to this small pond I had to run through. The pond looked innocent enough so I ran right on in. However, it was shoe sucking mud at the bottom and I almost lost my shoe. So I just elected to walk through it. The trail then had me go under some 2 foot high branch. Seriously? I’m 6’8”! Not fun but I got past it and towards my favorite part of the course…the river rock ledge section.

This section was right along the river and was a narrow trail that was nothing but rock ledges below a cliff. It was a lot of fun hopping up and down the ledges. Definitely an area where long legs helped. I actually felt like I was moving pretty fast through this section and even heard some people cheering for me atop the cliff.

After the rock ledge, the trail continues along the river but is more of a traditional dirt trail. I ran along it for a ¼ mile before I got to the next obstacle. The infamous rings. Here they had set up rings we had to use to cross the river. Dave James, who was working this section told me I had cross over to the other side and come back. I could either use the rings and stay dry or swim across and back. Given my previous pathetic attempt with the rope I knew there was no way I could get across using only the rings. Knowing I would get wet I pulled some stuff out of my short pockets (didn’t want to litter the river but turns out I lost valuable time that would cost me later) before I dived in. As I was about to dive in the river, it occurred to me that I didn’t know how deep the river was and diving would be risky so in mid dive I tried to change it to a regular feet first jump. It ended up being a half dive, half jump. I must’ve looked stupid because I heard Dave James laughing. However it was a good thing I aborted the dive because the water was only up to my stomach. I swam across and swam back.

I then continued to run along the river for 100 yards before coming to the next obstacle which was stones across the river. Apparently we were supposed to cross the river using the stones. I took one look at those wet stones and thought, “Forget that, my feet are already wet”. So I just ran across the river. The trail continue along the river for a bit (and it was a fun trail to run) until we were directed to head back towards the finish area at the Pavilion. First we had to cross this open field area that had some obstacles. As I started across the field I heard a lot of cheering and commotion coming from the rings area but had no idea who or what it was. I will say I was running pretty hard and my body was getting tired. I was surprised how tiring the obstacles could be.

The first obstacle in the field was this small tire about 4 feet off the ground we were supposed to climb through. This was not a fun obstacle. I made the mistake of trying to go through head first. Remember this is a small tire! Consequently I got stuck on the tire. To get myself unstuck I reach for the ground and kicked my legs up. After a couple of kicks I eventually got unstuck and made a rather ungraceful entry onto the ground below (I found out later Max King was coming up behind me and he said all he saw was me reaching for the ground and my long white legs sticking up in the air…he said it was really funny although he was concerned about me getting through it in time and not slowing him down).

After that horrendous tire, the next obstacle was about 50 yards later and was a balance beam. Balance beams and I don’t exactly live in harmony. Plus this balance beam rose up at an angle and it also turned at a 90 degree angle halfway through.  I was in the process of carefully walking across the beam and was at the 90 degree turn when I heard footsteps and heavy breathing right behind me. I turned around and it is Max King flying across the beam. Well I didn’t want to slow him down so I hopped off to let him pass. He said something about wanting to set a record and flew past. I hopped back on the beam and completed it while thinking it was nice that Max was out here trying to set a record. Little did I realize what else was happening behind me.

After the beam I continued to run across the field until I came up to a couple of short metal structures we had to hurdle across. As I am hurdling across, Sage Canaday comes flying past me saying he is trying to catch Max. I thought, “Max and Sage are having a race on this course. That’s cool”. It then hit me that I could claim I was in the same race and the final standings would be King, Canaday, Russell. Top 3. Not too bad!!

The course goes up a small hill where we then cross a suspension bridge. As I am about to start across the bridge, Jason Schlarb goes blowing past me. Schlarb is running this race to? Who all is out here?? Okay so it is now King, Canaday, Schlarb, Russell. 4th place. Still that is pretty good and just on the other side of the bridge was the homestretch into the finish line. I have no idea who else is running this but I though I should be able to hold onto 4th.

Unfortunately when I cross the bridge I was directly immediately down a hill to my left where I would soon enter onto a single track trail into some trees. Shortly after entering into the trees, Jason Bryant comes cruising past me. Drat!!!! Ok it is now, King, Canaday, Schlarb, Bryant and Russell.  5th place. Hopefully I can hold onto 5th! We run a short ways in the trees before being sent down into a creek bed. Once in the creek bed the markings on where to go aren’t real clear. I then see Joe’s trail markings up ahead that take me straight up a short, very steep hill. Dang, I’m tired. As I’m about to climb up the hill I then hear Dom Grossman’s voice shout out, “Where do I go?”. It was here I made the first of 2 critical mistakes with Dom. Without thinking I hollered out, “Over here Dom”. It then hit me that if I don’t finish ahead of Dom I would drop to 6th. My goal became to get up the hill before Dom (not an easy task) and then try to find my 53 second HS 400 Meter speed to beat Dom into the finish (which was about 100 yards away). I quickened the pace up the hill but heard Dom moving up very quickly behind me. As I got near the top, Dom cut inside into my right. Rather than give Dom a solid hip check and send him flying down the hill I passively let him pass me. He got to the top of the hill before I did and I didn’t have the energy to race him into the finish. I looked behind me and saw no one else was coming up behind me so I cruised into the finish.

After I finished someone said something about taking a picture of us. Because all the elites weren’t wearing any shirts I was told I had to take mine off to be in the photo. The exhaustion of the race got to me and without thinking I took my shirt off for the photo (only to notice Brian with a big wide smile watching all this). As we were about to take the photo, Matt Hart comes sprinting across the line and joins in the photo. After the photo was taken, Paul Terranova finished. So the final standings were 1. King, 2. Canaday, 3. Schlarb, 4. Bryant, 5. Grossman, 6. Russell, 7. Hart, 8. Terranova. However, word has it that Terranova was out for a training run. Katie Desplinter came in after Paul T. to win the women’s elite division. Sure some may say I had an unfair advantage of “a bit” of a head start but I prefer to think of it as appropriate handicapping.

Final thoughts: It was a lot of fun hearing the elites talk about the race. Max and Sage got to the rings at the same time but Sage couldn’t hold on and fell into the river and Max seized the lead he never relinquished.

I also learned in hindsight I didn’t play dirty enough with the elites. Word has it that the elites were doing a lot of jostling in the mine area to gain advantage. In fact Schlarb went flying over Canaday’s stuck sled at the top of the slide. There is no etiquette in these scenarios. If I had to do it over gain I would have chucked Max off the beam, tripped Sage as he was hurdling over the metal structures, blocked Jason on the bridge, knocked Bryant into the trees and of course I would have dealt with Dom appropriately. Having said that….it was still a lot of fun to be a part of the greatest race no one ever saw.

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