Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Pine Mountain 40 mile race

The Pine Mountain trail race is held in FDR State Park in Pine Mountain, Georgia, and is conducted by the GUTS running club. I did this race for the first time 3 years ago and really enjoyed it, so I decided to come back this year for the third time. I was happy to be joined by fellow teammates Sheridan Ames and Dreama Campbell as well as her husband Trey. My wonderfully supportive dad also made the trip to crew for me. Unlike most races which are held on Saturdays, Pine Mountain is on a Sunday, so returning back to the real world without a recovery day can be, shall we say, interesting because I’m usually hobbling around pretty badly.
Temperatures on race morning were much warmer than I expected, so I was able to start in just a Patagonia long sleeve tee and shorts. It was much colder in previous years, and I was thankful to have some relief from the cold, but little did I know that it would warm up so much that many runners, including myself, would struggle with the heat. At 7am, race director Sarah Tynes said go, and around 125 runners set off along a .5 mile stretch of pavement before turning into the semi dark woods. Thankfully, the sun rose within minutes of starting, so I chose not to start with a lamp, but those first few minutes on rocky single track were pretty tricky! I intentionally went out fairly hard because I remembered that the first 3 or so miles were pretty flat before starting the first and biggest climb of the day. As we started ascending, the sun rose and allowed for spectacular views from atop the ridge. I was careful not to look too long, though, because the trail is extremely rocky. Those sharp, jagged rocks that seem to just be waiting to bloody the knees of a runner who dares to look away. The trail follows the ridge before descending once again and then climbing right back up to the first aid station at mile 5.6. My dad was waiting for me there, but I still had plenty of fluid, so I said hi and kept running.
As we descended once again, it became clear that the leaves would again be a huge factor. Because this race takes place in late fall, the trail is so covered in leaves that it is almost hidden at times and blends in with the rest of the woods. You literally have to stop and look for flagging to know where to run. Throw in a whole bunch of sharp rocks under those leaves and you’ve got a dicey combination. I knew a fall was inevitable and just hoped it wouldn’t result in too much blood even though there is an actual award given out for “best blood”. I was able to settle into a nice rhythm and made good time to the next aid station at mile 11 where I refilled and grabbed some food. After each aid station, runners would descend, run a bit of relatively flat trail, and climb right back up to the next aid station. It was nice in a way to know that there would be aid and smiling faces waiting for me at the top of the hills, which seemed to grow as the day went on. I felt pretty good until mile 17 or so when I totally bonked. I had just about convinced myself that I was going to drop at the turnaround. The section leading up to this point is extremely technical with at least 10 creek crossing in less than 4 miles. Thankfully, after reaching the turnaround and running a short loop section, my spirits lifted, and I just tried to focus on running from aid station to aid station.
It was really starting to heat up now, and because of some tornado damage that devastated the area earlier in the year, several miles of the trail were totally exposed to the sun. The unseasonably warm weather also led to some nasty stomach issues for me, and I wasn’t really able to eat anything from around miles 22-34. I did my best to drink regularly but could tell that I was getting dehydrated. When I reached the final aid station at mile 34, my stomach had finally settled, and I inhaled a peanut butter sandwich made out of a honey stinger waffle. I swear it tasted like heaven. I knew we still had one good climb before a nice downhill and flat section to the finish. It seemed like forever to get to the top of that hill, but once the trail started to descend, I got a second wind and was really smelling the barn. With about 1.5 miles to go to the finish, I saw my dad waiting to run in with me. I still had a shot a breaking the female course record and was very thankful to have someone to push me to run hard in the final stretch. However, my stomach was not cooperating and I actually had to make an emergency stop with about .25 mile left. When I came out of the woods and saw the clock 100 yards across the field, I realized that I had the record by just over a minute. After crossing the finish line, I just laid down in the grass, exhausted and very grateful to not have to run another step. I feel very blessed to have had a good day and owe a huge thanks to all of the wonderful volunteers and the best personal crew man ever (my dad). Teammates Sheridan Ames and Dreama Campbell also had strong runs, and we all enjoyed cheering in each person as they finished a super tough course.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Duncan Ridge 30k

Saturday November 19 marked the day for the first ever Duncan Ridge trail race in Blairsville, Georgia. I had several friends going up to do the race, which had a 30k and 50k option, so I decided at the last minute to see if I could get in. The race was already full, but Robert Lewellen, the race director, was kind enough to let me and my dad sign up late. Not only was it a last minute decision, but I was also just coming off of cross country season at UTC where we run a 5k, and I had not run over 10 miles in at least 2 months. I did my best to ignore the blatantly obvious fact that I was, shall we say, less than prepared for a 30k trail race with over 8,000 feet of elevation gain.
The race starts at Vogel State Park and follows the Duncan Ridge Trail and Coosa Backcountry Trails. While the 50k is an out and back, the 30k is more of a lollipop. Race morning was chilly and overcast with temps predicted to stay in the 40s all day, so I stayed in the car until the very last minute. After assembling at the start line, Robert gave some last minute instructions to the 150 or so runners and set us off on what would prove to be a grueling course.
Runners follow pavement for less than half a mile before turning onto singletrack, so I went out pretty hard to avoid the congestion. We immediately started a small climb before descending all the way to the 3.5 mile aid station. I was doing my best to keep up with R/C teammate Sheridan Ames, and he was giving me all I could handle. Immediately after the aid station, the trail starts climbing. Before the race, Dreama had told me about this climb, saying something like "It goes on forever, is really steep in sections, really technical..." That pretty much sums it up. Every time I though we were at the top, I would turn a corner and keep going up. Finally, after something like 4 miles of ascending, the trail turns steeply down, the quad killing, almost worse than climbing kind of steep. At the time, I though to myself how much it would stink to have to come back up this way, not knowing at the time that we would do just that. After maybe a mile of downhill, I arrived at the second aid station which also marked the split for the 30k and 50k. Words cannot describe how happy I was to follow the 30k arrow down a dirt road for about 3 miles rather than the the 50k arrow that went right back on singletrack and up another mountain.
I did my best to make up some time on the dirt road, and it felt nice to be able to stretch out my legs a bit. There was a nasty headwind for most of it though, making my thankful that I chose to wear two layers and gloves. 3 miles later, we were directed back onto singletrack that of course went switchbacking up and eventually spit us back out where we first hit the dirt road. This is when I realized that we had to return the same way we came, which meant that I would indeed have to climb up those nasty hills I had run down. When I reached those hills, Sheridan and I both let out an audible sigh. My legs were just about toast by now, and I was struggling to stay positive mentally, so it was nice to at least have some company even if we were too busy breathing to talk much. The one plus on the way back was that runners get to descend the 4 mile section of trail that they had to climb on the way out. This was a nice chance to recharge, but I knew that the last 3.5 miles to the finish would be tough because the first 2.5 are all uphill.
I took a GU roctane and refilled my bottle at this aid station, the first and only time I stopped all day, so I felt decent going into the climb. It is much more runnable than the previous section, and I managed to keep a steady pace. After reaching the top, it is a fast downhill mile to the finish. When I popped out of the trail and onto the last stretch of pavement, I was relieved to be almost done. At the finish line, I was greeted by Robert and several other volunteers who all worked extremely hard to put on such a great, yet difficult race. I told Robert that, mile for mile, this was by far the toughest course I have run to date, and I cannot even imagine the 50k. Overall, it was a strong showing for the Chattanooga crowd with Dreama taking first overall female in the 50k, Sheridan coming in 5th overall, and Cathi Cannon also having a strong race. I would recommend the race to anyone wanting a challenge, but don't expect to set any pr's on this course!

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Big Butts 50k

When I opened up the race packet for the Big Butts 50k and saw the giant pair of whitey tighty underwear in it with “Big Butts 2011” written on the back I busted out laughing and new right away that this race would not disappoint. Rock/Creek race team member John Brower puts on this race which is held at Butts Park in Clinton, MS. The course consists of a 6 mile loop that runners do 5 times for the 50k or 10 times for the 100k. There is a short road section at the end affectionately named “the highway to hell” to tack on the extra mile or two needed for 31/62 miles. When my dad and I arrived at the start on Saturday, it was already muggy, and the heat index was predicted to be over 105 degrees! As hot as it has been here in Tennessee, I don’t think I have really had experience running in this kind of insanely hot temperature for prolonged periods of time, so it was somewhat foreign territory. Add to it the fact that I originally signed up for the 100k, and any rational person would call me crazy.
Because this was a loop course, runners came back to the start every 6 miles, making it easy to set up your own personal aid station in addition to the fully stocked one already there and being manned by super sweet Beverly Brower. A few minutes before 8, John assembled everyone and basically said that it was hot outside so drink a ton. He also said that the course was impeccably marked, and if you got lost it would have to be intentional. After saying go, 55 or so runners set off in the woods to run circles all day in what would soon become an inferno.
My goal on the first lap was to get a good feel for the course and idea of how long each loop would take. The trail is primarily geared toward mountain bikers and had a few really short but steep hills in the first mile or two. After that it is pretty flat with only several rollers, almost no rocks, and largely coated in the soft pine needles that make for a near perfect running surface. There was one exposed asphalt section around mile 1.5 and a short powerline section around mile 5, but other than that, the course was well shaded. At least it seemed that way early on. A nice breeze was also blowing and the sky was overcast, which blocked the sun for the first couple loops. I finished the first lap in exactly 48 minutes and felt good. After a quick refill of my bottle, I headed out again. As I began the 2nd loop, I thought about my plan for the day. I decided that I definitely needed to drink a full bottle per lap and should probably aim for 48-54 minutes per lap for as long as my legs would obey.
Loop number 2 went by fairly smoothly as I drained all my fluid and finished in right around 49 minutes. I do remember noticing for the first time that it was really starting to heat up now and the sun had burned off most of the cloud cover. The wind had also mysteriously vanished, making the exposed sections of trail downright toasty. I was sweating a ton but felt like I was hydrating well and was pleased with how I felt on the 3 lap, but oh how quickly things can change! Heading out on loop number 4, I started feeling pretty queasy and it was all I could do to force myself to drink a sip of water every once in a while. I also had to concentrate on not puking when I took that sip. As if the stomach issues weren’t enough, I got some pretty nasty cramps in the intercostals muscles between my ribs as well as my abs. This had never happened to me before but they were so bad I could barely breathe. If you haven’t noticed, the wheels were coming off pretty fast now, and I did some reevaluating. I decided to run the 5th loop and make a decision of whether or not to stop at the 50k or keep going for the 100k based on my status then.
When I got back to the start to begin the 5 lap, my dad offered to run with me, and I was happy to have to company but not in a very good mood since I pretty much felt like do-do. By this point, I couldn’t drink much at all without seriously feeling like I would throw up, and the muscle cramps in my abs were getting worse. About half way through lap 5, I decided that I would call it a day at the 50k while I was still able to run semi decently. I knew if I kept going, things would just get worse, and it would turn in to a hike, something I didn’t want to do for 31 miles in 100+ degree heat. Coming out of the woods at the end of my last lap, I told Beverly that I was stopping at the 50k, so she directed me out to the “highway to hell” for my last mile. To be honest, it wasn’t as bad as I expected because there was at least some shade. I made my way out to the turnaround at 2 orange cones and back to the start/finish, thankful to be done and not have to run 5 more laps. I walked over to where my dad had set up our aid station and a very nice lady crewing for her husband offered to spray me down with some water out of one of those pressurized sprayers. It felt amazing, and after thoroughly soaking myself, I plopped down in a lawn chair with an ice rag over my head.
Although the terrain itself was not as difficult as a lot of courses, the heat more than makes up for it, and I can honestly say that Big Butts is one of the harder races I’ve done. John and his wife Beverly did an outstanding job putting on this low key event, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a summer time race, especially if you want to get some serious heat training!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Scenic City Trail Marathon

Just minutes before the start of the trail marathon and half marathon on Raccoon Mountain, a helicopter landed in the field at Laurel Point. I had no idea what was going on until someone told me it was there to take pictures of the 500 plus runners participating in the race. Although temperatures were a bit warm for most people’s liking, I love hot weather and was glad that the sun was out and heating things up. Shortly after 8 everyone lined up at the start, and Randy sounded the start. I knew that I would need to go out fairly hard on the 1.5ish miles of pavement before hitting the trail in order to avoid congestion when we got to singletrack. Although a lot of trailrunners don’t like running on the road, I was thankful to have this section to spread everyone out, and the crowd was really not a factor by the time runners reached the entrance to the trail.
I continued to run at a fairly hard pace in the first few miles because the segment from Laurel Point to the East Overlook is pretty flat, and I wanted to take advantage of this while my legs were fresh. I could barely see Lance up ahead and did my best to keep him in sight, fully expecting him to drop me before long. As runners approach the East Overlook and first aid station, there are a few decent hills that mysteriously increase in difficulty on the second loop, but aren’t so bad the first time around. I ran through the aid station without stopping because it was a little crowded and this was only mile 4, so I still had plenty of fluid in my hand held. The trail gradually ascends for about a mile before a long gradual downhill to the switchyard. I love this section and made an effort to run pretty hard on the descent. Unfortunately, what goes down must come back up, and once at the switchyard, runners reach the biggest climb on the course. Raccoon Mountain is advertised as a flat and forgiving course, which is true compared to other trails in the area. However, if you go into the race expecting there to be no hills, you are rudely mistaken. My plan was to take the climb moderately hard the first time around the loop and not push too much early on. It’s not very steep except for a few spots and is maybe .5 to .75 miles long. The good part is that once at the top, you get a nice downhill to the visitor center and aid station #2.
The volunteers at this aid station were awesome. Everyone was so encouraging and I swear they refilled my bottle so fast I barely had to slow down. From here, the trail goes down a few steep hills on what is by far the most technical section of the course. Something about these next few miles always gets to me. It’s like the Bermuda Triangle or something, and I always seem to have a low point here. I don’t know if it’s because of the 3 or 4 stinger hills that are fairly steep or totally mental but whatever it is, I always struggle on this part. Thankfully, I managed to come out of my funk before too long focused on reaching the point where marathoners and half marathoners split. Those doing the half take a right to the finish, and marathoners go left up a nasty hill to the third aid station. I could still see Lance every once in a while which was a mental boost, and I was happy to see my dad and Dawson at the aid station. I quickly refilled and crossed the road to re-enter the trail. This marks the start of the second and final loop. I was still feeling pretty good and hoped to be able maintain a decent pace on the second time around.
It was definitely starting to heat up by now, but the breeze helped a lot, and I never got too hot. I did make a concerted effort to drink as much as I could. Getting dehydrated really impairs your ability to run and leads to more soreness the day after a race, so I knew that it was important to constantly sip on the HEED from my handheld. I went through the East Overlook aid station for the second time where Sam and Leigh Linhoss were volunteering. It’s great to see familiar faces, and their encouragement was much appreciated. At this point, I broke the remaining sections up into 3 parts, the one big climb, the dreaded visitor center section, and the hill leading up to the last aid station. I did my best to only focus on the section just ahead rather than the total number of miles remaining. The climb up to the visitor center was definitely much slower this time than before, and I was glad to get to the top and start the downhill. I didn’t stop at the aid station this time as I was anxious to put these next few miles behind me. To be honest, I was just hoping not to totally bonk on this part, and thankfully, it didn’t seem as bad as it had on the first loop. Before too long, I reached the split and again took a left up the hill to the final aid station. I said hi to Dawson and crossed the road for the final 3ish miles of the race. Ironically, I was thinking to myself about how I hadn’t fallen yet when I tripped and did a full superman before nailing the ground. At that point, all I could do was laugh at myself and be thankful that I hadn’t hit any rocks on the way down. I glanced at my watch for the first time all day and made it my goal to get to the finish in less than 24 minutes if at all possible.
This last bit of trail is rolling with a few little hills. I was starting to smell the barn but also knew that I still had a fair amount of running to do before I was done. Once you reach Laurel Point, runners pop out of the woods on to pavement and make a lap around the parking lot before crossing the finish line. Randy Whorton was doing and awesome job announcing names of runners on the microphone as they were coming in, not to mention adding some additional funny dialogue J. As I crossed the finish, I was happy to see so many friends hanging out and cheering on all the runners. I am so blessed to be a part of such a great running community and have the opportunity to run with some awesome folks. Rock Creek and Wild Trails did a great job organizing this event and making it a great experience for everyone. After getting an ice cold wet cloth and something to drink, I hung out and watched as other runners finished. Huge congrats to all that ran and a big thanks to all the volunteers who worked just as hard!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Byrd Creek 15k trail race

My original plan was to do a semi long easy run over the weekend in preparation for the Rock Creek Scenic City Marathon on May 21st. However, when Mark Mason mentioned that he might go up to Cumberland State Park to do a 15k trail race, I decided that this would be a good tune up before next week’s race. This was just the 2nd running of the Byrd Creek 15k, and I didn’t know anything about the area or the course. I also don’t have much experience in distances less than a 50k, so my expectations weren’t very high, but it would at least make for a good tempo run. Because the race start is less than two hours from Chattanooga, Mark and I decided to drive down the day of, making for a very early wake up call. We left in plenty of time only to be stopped on the interstate for at least 20 minutes when a Suburban in front of us literally burst in to flames minutes before we got to where it was. We waited impatiently as the fire truck arrived and put out the fire, watching the minutes tick away and fearing that we might miss the start. Thankfully, it ended up not taking as long to get there as we thought.
After registering and talking a bit with the rangers about the course, it was time to head to the starting line where me, Mark, and about 50 other runners waited for one of the rangers to say “Go”. The first .5 mile or so is on pavement and goes down a pretty steep hill before entering single track. Mark always goes out hard, so I made it my goal to stick with him. When we hit the trail, I remember thinking how bad it was going to hurt to run back up that hill at the finish as well as how there was no way I would be able to hang with Mark if he kept up the current pace. There were mile markers along the course, and we passed the first one in 6:53 which may not be fast for some but is definitely a much faster pace than I can maintain for a 15k. We did slow down a tad and I tried to find a pace that I felt I could hold. The trail was absolutely gorgeous because all the plants have come alive and are in full bloom. I had no idea what to expect as far as terrain or climbs, so I just took everything as it came. The first 4 miles were fairly rolling with some pretty tough hills but nothing too awful. A lot of the trail was covered in soft pine needles, making for a near perfect running surface. However, there were a few rocky sections that were slicker than snot due to the recent rainfall, and I almost bit it hard on several occasions.
Mile 4 to 5 was mostly downhill and was a much needed break from the constant up and down we had been running. Somewhere around here there was also a small wooden swinging bridge across a creek. If you have ever tried to run across one of these, you know it’s comical. Each step is different with one sending you bouncing two feet in the air but not forward at all and the next shooting you forward like a rocket. This is by yourself, so imagine what it’s like with 10+ plus runners on the larger swinging bridges! From here, the trail steadily climbed back to the top of the ridge before descending once again. I passed the 7 mile marker and the second water stop where we turned on to a different trail to take us back to the finish. It ran right along a creek, so it was relatively flat but covered with roots, making it the most technical section thus far. I was taking such little steps to hop between the roots that it felt like I was in some kind of obstacle course or football drill where you have to step in those big tires. Around mile 8, we climbed one last time on the trail and ran for maybe another .5 mile before popping out the road for the home stretch. I remembered the hill that I had to make it up but it didn’t seem so bad since I knew it was at the end. After cresting the hill and making a right turn, I could see the finish area and came in at 1:12. A few minutes later, I found out that the boy who won intended to run the 3.6 mile race but took a wrong turn and ended up doing the 15k by mistake. My hat’s off to him for running a great race, even though it was about 3 times longer than expected J It was also his first trail race, and after speaking to him for a while, I’m pretty sure he will be back for more! All in all, this was a great, small town event put on by some very hard working rangers. The course is beautiful and challenging, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for cool low key race.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Ouachita 50 mile trail race

Last Saturday I was fortunate enough to ride to Arkansas in the Rock/Creek race team 4 runner with Dreama and Mark to do the Ouachita 50 mile race. We managed to drive through some pretty nasty storms only to find out that they were much worse in Chattanooga. After a long 7.5 hour drive, we picked up our packets and headed to find something to eat. It was already after 8pm, and I was a bit worried about having to eat so late, especially with the early 6 am start time. My stomach and I don't always get along real well during races, so I try to do everything I can to avoid any problems, and eating an early dinner is one of those things. Unfortunately this was just not going to happen tonight. I just crossed my fingers and hoped things would turn out ok. As it turns out, I probably should have crossed my toes as well.
After settling in to our room, we went straight to bed in hopes of getting some decent sleep before the much too early wake up call at some awful hour like 4:30 am. Driving to the start in the pitch black dark, I realized that I completely forgot to pack a headlamp, as did Mark, so we could only hope that the sun would come out enough during the first 3 miles on the road before hitting the trail. A few minutes before 6am, Dreama and I forced ourselves to shed our warm layers and step out of the car into the cold and extremely windy air. The 3 of us lined up along with 150 or so other runners and waited for the start which was no more than the RD saying "Go"
The first 3 miles are on pavement to the visitor center of Maumelle State Park, and I went out at a pretty good pace simply to try to warm up. The wind here was brutal and I just about froze the whole time. I also quickly noticed that my stomach was definitely not quite right but there was nothing I could do now but hope it got better or at least not worse. Once we turned on to single track, the trail descends steeply then flattens out until you hit the major climb of the day up Pinnacle Mountain. I had heard horror stories about this. People said it was more like rock climbing and that there was no way you could run it. If you are familiar with blue hell at mt. cheaha, Pinnacle makes it look like a cake walk. I was literally doing all I could to step from boulder to boulder up an extremely steep slope. Having one hand occupied with my handheld water bottle didn't help the situation. It was a pretty cool section though and definitely added something unique to the race. I was also very thankful that it didn't come at mile 28 like blue hell does because i'm not sure that I could have done it then. Going down was almost as difficult, and a fall here would not have ended well.
This next bit of trail was really pretty and ran along the lake with some great views. The sun had come out by now, and being in the woods offered protection from the wind. Me and my stomach were still going at it, so I was not able to eat or drink like I should have for the first 15 or so miles when it finally settled down. Compared to the other trails in Arkansas that I have been on, Ouachita is much less rocky and hilly but still has some very technical sections and a lot of rolling hills. The course is an out and back, and by the time I reached the turn around, I was really feeling it. I knew I had not taken in enough fluids early on, and it was coming back to bite me. However, I did get a mental boost by hitting the half way point and knowing that I would get a chance to see some familiar faces on the way back. That is the part I like best about out and back races-you get to see everyone, those in front and those behind, and get an idea of where you stand in the race. I saw Dreama who was looking really strong and was glad to hear that she felt pretty good which was more than I could say for myself at the time.
The 8 miles of trail leading up to the turn around that you obviously have to do twice crossed more creeks than I could count. In fact, I tried to count but soon lost track. Due to the heavy rainfall, some of them were pretty deep, and one even had a rope strung across it. Needless to say, my feet were constantly getting wet but the northface singletracks I was running in drained really well. I eventually made it out of the section with so many stream crossings and was the final 10 or so miles. Knowing that I was getting somewhat near the finish lifted my spirits some, and I really looked forward to hitting the road for the final 3 miles. Remember the part where I said the trail descended steeply from the visitor center? Well on the way back, the trail ASCENDS steeply to the visitor center. When I popped out on the road, I was never so happy to see pavement in my life, even if it meant 3 hot miles with the sun beating down in full force. I picked up my pace a bit, and with about 2 miles to go, Stan Ferguson blew past me like I was standing still. He said that he had been chasing me for 22 miles to which I replied, "well, you caught me." He offered some encouragement and was soon way out in front. To be honest, this last part didn't seem to last as long as I thought it would. I rounded a corner and saw the pavillion which serves as the start/finish. Running across the finish, I was greeted by RD Chrissy Ferguson who was there to shake each runner's hand and give them a finisher award. Mark, who had run the 50k was also there to give me a hug. In all his humility, he failed to mention that he was the 1st place masters finisher, so congrats to him!
As I thought about the race and how my day had not started out so well but also didn't get near as bad as it could have, I was thankful for the opportunity to run such a pretty course with outstanding volunteers and support. The race was extremely well organized and trail markings were awesome. I quickly found my favorite post race drink, diet coke (perfect for rehydrating, I know) and plopped down in Mark's lawn chair to watch the other runners come in. Dreama took 3rd overall female and had an awesome race, so all in all it was a great day for the Chattanooga folks and rock/creek race team!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

River Gorge 6.5 mile race

Of all the Rock Creek races, the river gorge seems to be the one where weather is always a major factor, and this year was no different. I woke up early Saturday morning to the sound of thunder so loud it shook my apartment and rain coming down hard. "This could be interesting," I thought and battled with myself about whether or not to even get out of bed. I stared at the coffee pot for a few moments before ultimately pushing the start button and getting ready for what was sure to be a wet race. I really had no right to complain considering that the volunteers were already out in the cold, dark rain preparing for all the runners. When I arrived at Prentice Cooper, it seemed as if the rain had let up a bit, but a few minutes before the start, it picked right back up. I couldn't decide what to run in and knew that if I wore my rain jacket I would probably get hot, but I was not able to make myself shed it before the start because it was so cold. The race begins with about 1/4 mile of dirt road to spread racers out before making a left turn onto single track. I knew I needed to start off pretty hard to get ahead of the crowd and was ablet to avoid any major congestion. The trail descends for about a half a mile before a short climb and another long downhill. Surprisingly, the trail was in pretty good shape except for some puddles here and there. I fully expected to fall at some point and just kind of threw caution out the window and tried to run this downhill part as fast as I could because I knew the second half of the course was mostly uphill. About 3 miles in, runners come out to a dirt road where the aid station is located. It was here that I quickly yanked off my jacket with the help of volunteer Jim Johnson who helped pull it off of me. After turning right on the road, you climb...and climb...and climb some more. I dont know how many hills there are but it is relentless. The last one is the longest and steepest, but once at the top, runners cut back on to single track for the most technical descent of the day. This part of the trail was more like a river. Chris Gentry was just ahead of me and I did everything I could to keep him in sight. When you get to the bottom of the hill, the trail connects back in with the first part of the course and runners retrace their steps back to the finish, about a mile of steady climbing. I was hurting pretty bad at this point and just kept trying to tell myself it was almost over. After maybe ten or so "It's almost overs" I saw the parking lot and finish line. My goal was to break an hour, which I did by the skin of my teeth. Soaking wet, I walked over to chat with some other runners about how much fun we had running and getting absolutely covered in mud from the waist down. It didn't take long for me to get chilled, so I rushed to my car, turned the heat on full blast, and into some dry clothes. Thanks so much to Rock Creek for putting on a fabulous race despite less than stellar conditions. The volunteers really deserve a ton of credit for spending hours and hours in the cold rain to take care of all the runners' needs. Maybe next year it will be dry, but then again there is something cool about running in a thunderstorm :)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

3 days of syllamo stage race

The 3 Days of Syllamo stage race is both an awesome experience and, as I soon found out a very painful one at times. It takes place in the Ozark Ntl Forest in Arkansas. The race is over 3 days with Friday being a 50k, Saturday a 50 mile, and Sunday a 20k (at least they claim it's a 20k but more on that later). My dad was kind enough to drive the 8 long hours with me to the start on Thursday morning which gave us plenty of time to pick up packets and get a nice dinner.

Day 1-50k
One of my favorite things about this race is the start times. The race director obviously knows that runners will want all the sleep they can get, so the 50k didn't start until 9AM. By this time, the sun was out and warming things up nicely. It was still cool but temps were supposed to get in to the upper 60s. When Steve, the RD, said go, we all set out on the first part of what promised to be a long 3 days. Because the start is in a valley of sorts, each day begins with a pretty hefty climb of about 2 miles. I was feeling pretty good early on and ran most of it to avoid the congestion. Once at the top, the trail rolls along some ridgelines with spectacular views. The theme of the day and the weekend for that matter was rocks. Big rocks, little rocks. loose rocks, and any other type of rocks you could possibly imagine. It made for some very technical running, but the awesome views and weather more than made up for it. The course for the day was an out and back, so I was able to get an idea of what the second half would be like. There were several steep climbs along bluffs which abruptly descended right back down to the river in addition to a lot of very runnable sections. As far as strategy goes, I felt like I should just run how I felt the first day and not worry about taking it easy because I figured going slower just meant more time on my feet and more soreness. Therefore, I ran pretty hard throughout the day and made it to the turn around point in about 2.5 hours. In order to prove that you actually went all the way out, Steve put a hole punch at the turn around for runners to punch a hole in their number. The only problem was that it wasn't a normal hole punch. I don't really know how to describe it except to say that I had a very hard time making it work and was afraid they wouldn't believe that I went the full distance :). I did the best I could and started making my way back, looking forward to seeing everyone still making their way out.

Very shortly after turning around, I saw the next female, a super nice lady named cassie from Colorado followed by Jill Perry who I knew was very strong. I tried to just stay relaxed and run as best I could keeping in mind that this was a 3 day race. I also got to see Abigail, Susan, Rob, and several other familiar faces on the way back. The good part about climbing at the beginning is getting to descend at the end, and when I finally hit the last downhill, I was really smelling the barn. My dad was there to meet me and I finished the first day in something like 5:06.

Day 2-50 Miles
No 9AM start time for this day but rather a cold, dark 6AM. I felt a little sore before the start but nothing too bad. However, I knew that it was going to be a LONG day. My goal was to try to keep a positive mindset and focus on running the best I could, whatever my body would allow. My body wasn't too thrilled about the idea of running 50 miles, at least not at first but I did fortunately loosen up after a few miles. The theme of today's race, according to the RD, is "this is where the fun starts" . I would love to know his definition of fun! The course for this day was like a clover leaf that followed a lot of mountain biking trails. Don't let this fool you into thinking it's easy by any means. The rock were still present and I blame them for all 3 of my falls during the day. After climbing at the start to get to the top of the ridge, the trail constantly rolls with only one really nasty climb about half way through. Although we were on bike trails, there were times when it was so technical or steep that I thought to myself "there is no way I would even attempt to ride my bike on this!" Like Friday, the sun heated things up quickly, so I ran in my Patagonia singlet and shorts for most of the day. There were several creek crossings where you had to get about shin deep. I had a love hate relationship with these. It felt good to cool off a bit but it also made my shoes feel 10 pounds heavier for a mile or so until they drained. I was thankful to be wearing the North Face Singletracks which drain really well and kept my feet as dry as possible. By about the 50k point, I was feeling very fatigued and struggling to keep a good attitude. The aid station with home made brownies did wonders for this however as well as picking up my Ipod from my dad. I made it to the 45 mile aid station where they told me it was a fast finish from there and mostly downhill. Although I really hesitated to believe them, they were telling the truth, and before I knew it, I was seeing tents and smelling campfires which told me I was close to the finish. Day 2 was coming to an end, and I think I finished the 50 miles in 8:59.

Day 3-20k (yeah right)
Thankfully, the 20k started at 9AM which allowed me to get a decent night's sleep. However, I soon realized just how sore I was when I had to walk down the set of stairs to the car. I just laughed at myself and found the idea of trying to go run a 20k comical. On the one hand, you tell yourself it's no big deal after running so much the past two days but on the other hand the idea of running at all is just not very appealing. To make matters worse, there are quite a few people running today who were not in the stage, so they have fresh legs and are ready to bust out a speedy 20k. I was just hoping to manage some sort of a run. Perhaps a "wog" is the more appropriate term (combination of a walk and a jog). When Steve said go, we all made our way to the single track which would be a loop following a lot of the 50 mile course but in the opposite direction. It took me a good 2 miles to loosen up but when I did I actually felt a lot better than I thought I would. My pace was by no meanst fast, but it felt like I was running pretty well. That's what I told myself anyway. There was just one unmanned aid station at mile 7 but because it was still pretty cool, I didn't take the time to top off my handheld. I did find it odd that Steve told runners at the start that the water stop was "at mile 7, almost half way throught the race". If you do the math here, a 20k is 12.4ish miles so if 7 miles marks the half way point, this course was actually more like 14-15 miles. In the big picture, who really cares, and I figured if we had run 81 over the last 2 days what's an extra 2 or 3? Well my legs would beg to differ but they didn't have much say in the matter. After the aid station, the course weaves along the ridge before taking you up a nasty climb to a gorgeous overlook. Another mile or two later, and I found myself on the last descent to the finish. I tried to reflect on the weekend and my experience, wanting to take it all in. When I crossed the finish line, Steve was there to give everyone who ran the stage their finisher award and shake their hand. I had an awesome experience at Syllamo, met some really cool people, and learned a lot about you can almost always do more than you think you can. I am truly blessed to have the opportunity to run and look forward to going back to this race next year if possible.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Mt. Cheaha 50k

After doing this race for the first time two years ago, I fell in love with the course. It's one of the toughest in the area but also one of the prettiest and most diverse. Race director Todd Henderson does an outstanding job. The fact that it is point to point makes it even more appealing to me, so I was very excited about getting to do the race for a second time this year. Tyler and Mary were kind enough to let me ride down with them and split a room at the lodge which is also the finish line.

On Saturday morning, runners all load up on one of three buses which take them from the lodge to the starting line. The race has grown a lot in the past two years, so the buses were packed. After making it to the trailhead, we unloaded and it seemed as if everyone made a beeline for the 2 porta potties. I swear the line was a mile long! We had about 30 minutes before the 7:30 race start, and because it was pretty cold, I did my best to stay warm by moving around a bit. I knew it was supposed to warm up a lot but it sure seemed cold at the moment. Finally, Todd told everyone to assemble at the start line under a big banner. Runners have maybe 50 feet to spread out before hitting the single track, so if you don't want to get stuck in a huge conga line you are pretty much forced to go out hard. Also, there is a railroad crossing about 3 miles into the race, and a train goes by like clock work at the same time everyday about the time that many of the runners reach the tracks. Therefore, this was yet another reason to start out quick and try to avoid the train which delays you at least 5 minutes. Unlike any other race I have done, the signal to start is when the song "Sweet Home Alabama" starts blaring through the speakers.

I went out at a pretty good pace, not overly ambitious, but did manage to get ahead of the crowd. Nevertheless, I found myself in a small line of runners. I was content with the pace until Sally who was just in front of me mentioned that we needed to make a move in order to avoid the train. This worried me because I really didn't want to lose any time, so I followed her lead and passed the small group until we had clear running room. The first bit of trail is rolling and covered in pine needles, making for a near perfect trail. After about a mile, however, you hit the first climb of the day. It is one of many and we took it pretty hard, still trying to beat the train. After the climb and a short decent, the trail pops out on the road where you run down for about .25 miles, cross the RR tracks and hit the first aid station. Because this was just 3.5 miles in to the race, I ran straight through it and made the sharp left back on to the trail.

Tyler and I ran together for a bit before reaching a dirt road that climbs for about a mile. Not long after leaving the first aid station, we both heard the train and were very thankful to have just beat it. After reaching the road, he took off like I was standing still while I tried to just manage a decent pace and take advantage of being able to run a little faster than when on single track. After what seemed like forever, the hill flattened out and started descending. Less than 2 miles later, I was at aid station #2, mile 8.5. This stop was manned by what I guess were some high school students. A couple of them would dance as you ran by them, and I couldn't help but laugh. It was great to have them be so energetic. After quickly filling up my handheld, I got back on the trail.

This next section of trail is VERY rocky and narrow in spots. The rocks are loose and go rolling out from under your feet making running a constant test of balance. Also, the trail is cambered, so any stumble at all sends you flying down the hill to the left. After a few miles, though, it gets a lot smoother but there is at least one good climb. I think it was around here that I caught back up to Tyler and Sheridan and ran with them for a bit. The trail then goes back to the rocky narrow stuff before a short out and back to aid station #3. As I was making my way out, I saw John Dove and Marcus on their way back looking strong. I topped off my bottle and headed out, seeing Emily and another female runner making their way to the aid station. We said hey to each other briefly and continued on in opposite directions. I knew Emily was really strong and that there was a good chance she would catch me.

The trail becomes a lot more runnable here as it dips down to the creek and runs along the bottom of the gorge for a bit. You cross the creek multiple times but as there was almost no water, I barely got my feet wet. It soon occurred to me, however, that if we descended to the bottom, we would no doubt have to climb all the way back up to the ridge. Sure enough, after crossing the creek one last time, the trail started switchbacking up the mtn. It wasn't that steep, so I was able to keep a slow run up it. Not long after reaching the top, I arrived at the mile 18ish aid station. It was here that I had to fill up with HEED for the first time. I normally drink gatorade because HEED sometimes messes with my stomach, but this batch was mixed just right and happened to be strawberry flavored, my personal favorite, so I left out of the aid station one happy camper.

Shortly after leaving the aid station, I saw Marcus again, but this didn't last long as he soon put quite a bit of distance on me. Every once in a while, I could see him way ahead. Although I knew I wasn't going to catch him, it helped to have someone to try to keep in my sights. After rolling along for a few miles, the trail takes you along the river with some awesome views of little water falls. You then have to cross the water. Two years ago when I did the race, it had rained so much that they had to put a rope up to help you get across. This year, I rock hopped without getting my feet wet! After a short out and back along the creek to the aid station around mile 22, the trail goes up a pretty steep hill. All I had eaten thus far was 1 gu and a few orange slices, so I was feeling pretty low, not to mention that my legs were starting to fatigue. I remembered that I had an espresso gu with caffeine, so I took it and felt ten times better in just a few minutes. It's amazing what a little sugar and caffeine can do for you both mentally and physically :).

After climbing to the top of the ridge, the trail rolls along for several miles. It was here that I saw Byron and ran/chatted with him for a bit. Runners then pop out on an unpaved road for 1.5 or so. It was totally exposed to the sun which was beating down in full force. Also, you could see for ahead for what seemed like mile. I could make out Marcus and one other runner. The dirt road comes to an intersection with the main park road which is paved, and the course makes a left to head into Cheaha State Park. At this point, I really didn't mind the road because it was a mental break from having to constantly focus on the trail below me. I also knew that it meant I was getting close to the final aid station at the base of "Blue Hell". About a mile later, I entered the main park area by a lake and saw the aid station in one of the pavillions. I topped off my handheld for the last time and headed out to begin the tough climb to the top of Mt. Cheaha.

Although there are only 3 miles left at this point, the first mile or so is straight up a trail called Blue Hell because it is so steep and rocky that you have to follow the blue blazes painted on rocks to stay on the right path. At times, you are literally rock climbing. There is no way to run this bit of the race, but given the fact that I had already run 28 miles, I kind of welcomed the idea of walking. I still kept a pretty good pace and was smelling the barn at this point. I managed to pass about 4 people on this section. It was really heating up now and I think the unusually high temps became a huge factor in the race. I talked to quite a few runners who struggled with cramps throughout the day but especially near the end on this portion of trail. After reaching the top of Blue Hell, my legs had decided that they didn't feel like climbing anymore. Unfortunately, the trail continues uphill for maybe another .25 mile before runners again get on pavement. I ran the road segment at what felt like a good pace and passed by the marker noting that it was the highest point in Alabama, thinking that it must be all downhill from here, right? The course then turns back into the woods one last time for maybe a mile. It was generally flat or downhill, and I knew the finish was close. When I popped back out on the road for the last 200 meters, I rounded the corner and heard a man with a microphone call out my name and welcome me to the top of Alabama. Crossing the finish line, Todd greeted me and shook my hand. I met fellow Rock Creek team member Owen Bradley who won the race in a blazing time of like 4:35. After getting something to drink, I sat down to watch everyone finish and in no time at all saw a bunch of familiar faces all crossing the finish line. We hung out for a bit before heading home from a great day in the woods. Overall, I had an awesome experience and would tell anyone to put Mt. Cheaha on their must do list of races.

Here's the link to the website and results

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Black Warrior 50k

This race was kind of a last minute decision for me. I had not planned on doing it because Mt. Cheaha 50k was the week after, and I wanted to be well rested. However, Black Warrior has 25 and 50k options, and a bunch of Chattanooga folks were going down. My decision to go ahead and run was made for me in a way when Mark registered me for the 25k :). This sounded like a good plan because it would be a good last longish run before Cheaha. As the week before the race went on, however, the idea of doing the 50k seemed more and more attractive, probably not smart, but appealing nonetheless. I emailed the RD who switched me to the 50k. In all, there was going to be no less than 20 people from Chattanooga running at Black Warrior, so I looked forward to seeing everyone down there. On Friday night, I carpooled down with Mark and met up with most of the other guys at our hotel in Cullman AL, about 40 minutes from the start.
Race morning was probably the warmest day we have had all year. Temps had to be around 60, allowing me to start in short sleeves and shorts. I was so thankful to not have to wear a ton of layers and freeze my butt off waiting for the race to start. I had run this race the year before, but because I have a horrible memory of courses and no sense of direction, I didn't remember much except that it is rolling, muddy, and mostly horse trail. The course is not flat by any means but compared to the trails in TN, its pretty tame. The race starts on a dirt road that is a gradual uphill for about two miles before flattening out for a bit before runners make a hard right onto single track.
I really had no race plan but I did want to go out kinda hard to avoid the crowd and try to keep a good pace for as long as I could to try to possibly get a new PR for a 50k. When the horn went off, I ran probably the first 5 or so miles with Randy and Sal. The trail was pretty muddy in spots, the kind of mud that almost sucks your shoe right off your foot. There were a few uphills but nothing major, and I got to the first aid station around mile 6 feeling good. I ran straight through it because I still had enough water to make it the next 6 miles before filling up at aid station 2. I think it was somewhere around here that I met and ran with Joe Fejes for a bit. He was very nice, and talking with him made the time pass quickly. At the second aid station, I saw Fallon who quickly filled up my handheld and got me on my way. The course seems to get a little harder from this point, but that might just be my head playing games with me because I was starting to get tired. Nevertheless, the hills seemed more frequent with some shorter, steeper, rocky sections thrown in. Also, because the trail is open to horses, runners encountered quite a few as the day went on. Everyone was very courteous, but when a horse sees a person running at it, they often freak out a bit and understandably so. I did my best to slow down and walk around all the horses because I know what it's like to be on a spooked horse, and it's not a good feeling.
Aid station 3 is about mile 17. I was still feeling pretty good at this point but my legs were definitely hurting. I did my best to keep a good pace. Although I had no idea if it was even possible, I really wanted to see if I could break 5 hours, and so far, I was on pace, so I just hoped the wheels wouldn't fall off in the next 14 miles. Aid station 4 is at mile 22ish and is the same stop as #2, so I got to see Fallon again and meet Dan's parents. It's always cool to see people you know on the course, so this gave me a much needed mental boost. I knew there was just one more aid station where the trail pops back out on the road and runners return the same way they came at the start. Unfortunately, I also knew that it would be a decent climb to get back to the road. This section seemed to go on forever. I kept thinking I would turn the corner and see a clearing with the road. This went on for probably half an hour before I finally climbed up the last hill and saw the aid station. I was relieved and looking forward to running on the dirt road because it meant I didn't have to constantly focus on the trail below me.
The volunteer said it was 2.5 miles to the finish which was shorter than I thought, so my spirits got even better. I slammed a cup of mountain dew and headed off down the road, looking forward to being done. I checked my watch and was pretty sure I could safely break 5 hours but wanted to still run as well as I could on this last stretch. What I did forget about was how long you have to run on the road before hitting the downhill section that we ran up at the start. It seemed like an eternity before I rounded a bend and started descending. Late in a race, downhill hurts worse than uphill because of the pounding but it was nice to have gravity on my side for once. Also, the finish line is at a campground about .3 miles past the start line, so if you aren't expecting this extra bit, it can be pretty demoralizing. Finally, I crossed the little bridge where we started and ran the last part of road to the finish. I think the clock said 4:37 ish, so I was thrilled and very thankful to have had a good day. Kris and Mark were there as were Alan, Kevin, Michael, and Lance, who super speedy and had already finished. Shortly after getting something to drink and heading back over to the finish area, the rest of the Chattanooga folks can streaming in one by one. Randy, Yoli, Dreama, Dan, Wendy, Cassey, Charlene, Nik, Janice and probably a few others I'm forgetting all did awesome. It was really cool to get to spend the day with so many awesome folks.