Great Mississippi River Levee Run

By Jason Boyle

Great Mississippi River Levee Run
Intrepid souls who think running 130 miles continuously is a good idea

When I knew I was going to be moving to New Orleans, I immediately began looking for new races to run.  There was a cool race called the Rouge – Orleans and it was a relay from Baton Rouge to New Orleans that was about 130 miles long.  I thought wow what a cool race. Well it was canceled for a variety of reasons and I kinda let that thought of running this race slip away.

After living here a while, I connected with Louisiana Ultra Runners and got to know these crazy runners. I found out that Jerry Sullivan, one of the members used to do the Baton Rouge to New Orleans run as a fat ass run around Thanksgiving every couple years or so.  Well it so happened that this was the year for a crazy 130 mile fat ass run. Thus the idea to run the Great Mississippi River Levee run was formed.

37 hours after beginning, I completed the Great Mississippi River Levee run and had a great experience along the way. For those that don’t know; the Mississippi River is forced to follow a specific path at least in southern Louisiana to the Gulf of Mexico by levees or earthen and concrete dams.  The levee is anywhere from 18-20 feet above the river and is about 6-8 feet wide on top and serves to protect the communities.  The run takes place on the top of the levee where there are a few paved sections mostly in the beginning near Baton Rouge and the last 20 or so miles into New Orleans. The rest of the time the levee is topped with gravel and rock and this fine dust that penetrates everything.  The levee runs through farm and grazing land close to Baton Rouge, then past petrochemical plants, refineries, and granaries in the middle section, and finally through urban areas with housing and businesses you get close to New Orleans.  Meanwhile the one constant is the Mississippi River always on the runners right, sometimes separated by a wide batture with trees that obscured the view and at times close enough to see the sailors working on the large bulkers and tankers plying their products.

Great Mississippi River Levee Run
100 miles in – 30 to go

Enough set up what I want to talk about is how the race went.  Couple things made this run different than a race. First, there were no aid stations, each runner had to have their own crew to meet all their needs. Second, there was no cutoff time – you just had to make it to Audubon Park in New Orleans. An intrepid group of 10 runners started at the USS KIDD and took off down the levee at 1 pm.

My strategy at the start was to run for 8 minutes and walk for 2 minutes. This worked pretty well for the first 5 or so hours until sunset came and I found myself running solo.  I knew we had some sketchy areas to run through overnight, like an abandoned leper colony from the 1990’s so I began walking until some of the other runners caught up.  I ended up running with several of the other runners for the remainder of the night but we ended up shifting to a 5 minutes running 5 minutes walking routine to accommodate all of our abilities.  As the sun rose, the two ladies I had been running with decided to separate and shift back into our own running patterns.  I went back to 8 and 2 for several hours and this worked well, but as the day heated up to over 70, I went back to walking more. This went on for the full day and me and one of the women runners from the night before had stayed pretty close to each other so we partnered up again as we entered the second night of running.  We stayed together pretty much the rest of the evening and finished together at 2 in the morning on Sunday morning.

Overall, the run went well.  I generally felt pretty good the whole time with the only real physical challenges coming in the last 26 or so miles where I began to get tendonitis in my right ankle.  I never cramped up which was nice and for most of the run I was able to eat well.  At the end, I didn’t want anything to eat and was a little nauseous feeling.

My feet definitely took a beating but not too bad.  The fine dust on the course ended up causing some pretty gnarly looking blisters between my big toe and my second toe.  I wear Injinji socks and on the only other 100 mile race I changed them every 25 miles and that course was wet and muddy versus dry and dusty.  I only changed my socks three times around 40 miles in, and I went to a second pair of Injinjis that took me to mile 80 and then I switched to a pair of Smartwool thin running socks that I wore to the finish. I never noticed the blisters between my big toe and second toe until looking at my feet the following day.  The second area that the fine dirt did a number on me was on the balls of my feet.  They felt like someone had rubbed them with sandpaper all day.  Like my toe blisters there was nothing apparent until the following day when a large quarter shaped blister was obvious in the center of the ball of my foot.  Other than these two areas I had no other blisters.  I used Endurance Beast Chafing shield on my toes and it was instrumental in keeping my toes and other sensitive regions chafe free. I highly recommend it.

My gear kit was pretty standard for me.  I wore Nike Pro Combat compression shorts, Nike Dri Fit shorts, and lightweight tech tee shirts. I rotated shirts, short sleeve during the day and long sleeve at night, but did not change shorts.  I wore a ball cap during the day and a Buff at night.  Nights were cold, in the 30s, so I wore a Salewa Pedroc Jacket as my outer layer and it did a good job of keeping me warm but breathed so I didn’t get soaked from sweat.  During the day I wore adidas Evil Eye Pro sunglasses.

I used the Cotopaxi Veloz hydration pack and the Ultimate Direction Marathon vest to carry my gear.  I used the Cotopaxi on the longer sections where I wouldn’t see my crew for 10 or more miles. It has a 1.5 liter hydration bladder and large storage pockets on the back and easy to reach front pockets on the shoulder straps. The rest of the time I used the Marathon vest and a Ultimate Direction Hand Bottle since I knew I would see my crew ever 4 to 7 miles.  Both of these items worked well.

I used three pairs of shoes for the run – Altra Olympus 2, Lone Peak 2, and Torin 2.  I started the race in the Olympus 2 because I wanted the cushion.  Overall they worked well for the first 60 or so miles, but as my feet swelled, the right side of my right foot felt like it was being squished and hurt.  I switched to the Lone Peak 2 and this sensation went away, the LP 2’s are very wide in the toe box and my feet needed the room to spread out I guess, but they didn’t offer as much protection from the rocky top of the levee.  After 15 or so miles, I went back to the Olympus but they still hurt my feet so I only wore them for one additional five mile section.  At this point, I was almost to the paved section leading into New Orleans so I switched to the Torin 2 a comfortable road shoe with a super wide toebox and finished the race in these shoes.  I am surprised that the Olympus hurt my feet, but to be fair the farthest I had run in them prior to this race was a 50k.

I used my Princeton Tec Axis headlamp for the night portions.  The first night I tried to use it on the spot and wide beam setting on high.  It was supposed to have a burn time of 50 hours on this setting, but it was only good for about 6 hours before it was dim offering minimal light, and yes I started with a fresh set of batteries.  My guess is that the cold affected the performance of the light.  The second night I used the headlamp again with new batteries on high flood mode and the performance was consistent and bright for the last 8 hours of my run.  It was also about 10 degrees warmer that night.

Nutrition was pretty standard for me. The mainstay of my nutrition is CarboPro and Tailwind. I switched between the two because sometimes I don’t want flavor and I use the Tailwind variety stick packs.  I also had normal ultra fare – cold quesadillas, m&m’s, Pringles, sausage balls, fudge covered Oreos, honey stinger chews and waffles etc…  My crew also used a small camp stove to heat water for coffee and soup for me. I had a couple of Sprites and Cokes for additional calories and caffeine.  One of the great things about running near civilization was that my crew was able to bring me donuts and an ice coffee from Dunkin Donuts and some chicken from Popeyes. At the end of the run though, to be honest I didn’t want anything, Tailwind was making me feel nauseous so ended up running the last several miles of the race with just a Coke bottle for hydration and that seemed to help settle my stomach.

Great Mississippi River Levee Run
At the finish with my wife and daughter

A huge thanks to my crew – Travis Collier, Anthony Williams, and my wife and daughter Alison and Addison.  My crew was vital to my success on this run. They were the lifeline that really kept me going.  I never looked at this run as a 130 mile run, I was only running between aid stations.  At the beginning this meant around 10 miles at a time, but as the run progressed 5-7 miles was the sweet spot and at the end it was every 2 miles.  My crew were the real heroes dragging all my stuff up and down the levee so that I never had to come off the levee during the run.

Great Mississippi River Levee run
The Bling

Thanks for reading my run report, hopefully it helped you learn something that can help you with your run.  Ultras don’t have to always be about races, but rather sometimes it is about the adventure you find along the way.