Friday, July 11, 2014

Merrill's Mile 12 Hour Run 7/5/14 (Race Report)

On July 5, 2014, I completed 31.68 miles in eight hours and 11 minutes at the Merrill’s Mile 12 Hour Run, finishing my first ultramarathon distance in 15 months. 

Photo courtesy of Deborah Williams
After an injury that caused my DNF (Did Not Finish) at the Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run in April of 2013, I took a vacation from long distance running that stretched out longer than I had intended, due to lackadaisical training and a handful of half-hearted race attempts that ended with more unfinished races under my record.  Over the past year, I had settled into a comfortable weekly routine involving shorter distance workouts to allow the enthusiasm for running to return in its own time.  The mantra, “Use it or lose it.”, applies to endurance running all too well, and many of us who have enjoyed riding the wave of multiple ultramarathon finishes can fall off of the map altogether when that wave figuratively crashes onto the shore.  As I stepped up my running game over the past three months, though, I was pleased to realize that I missed pushing myself through the ultra distances.  I missed those magic moments during the final miles of an ultramarathon when I was able to overcome a mental low point to let a renewed enthusiasm carry me to the finish line.  I missed sensing my body’s shift to survival instincts while participating in these extreme events where my health can possibly be at risk.  I missed my tendency to become cranky and irritable when my brain places all of its focus on simply putting one foot in front of the other when I am exhausted.  I missed the way that random people stare at me when I am painfully shuffling across a restaurant or grocery store parking lot like a 90 year-old man after I stop for a bite to eat during the drive home from an ultramarathon race.  I missed waking up the morning after an ultramarathon and having to place my hand on a bedpost to support myself for the first few steps before the blood starts to flow through sore muscles once again.  Those unfamiliar to the sport may be bewildered at my mindset, but fellow ultrarunners understand.  When I lined up in the back of the pack at the start of the one-mile loop course at Merrill’s Mile this year, my primary goal was to reacquaint myself with all of the above sensations that had been absent from my life for so long.  In other words, I was finally ready to step back out of my comfort zone.

The Merrill’s Mile Run, which takes its name from a mixed dirt and gravel track at Camp Frank D. Merrill, an Army Ranger training base in Dahlonega, Georgia, has been directed for the past three years by Willy Syndram and his ultrarunning organization, Dumass Events (Dahlonega Ultra Marathon Association).  This event has evolved to offer multiple fixed-time options over a two-day period, allowing runners to compete for an astonishing 48-hour run, or to register separately for 24-hour or 12-hour runs.  This year, Dumass Events was working in conjunction with a charitable organization, iCan Shine, which works to encourage children with disabilities through recreational activities, so that runners would be striving for a combined distance of 10,000 miles.  During the weeks leading up to this race, I realized that my own capabilities for earning a high mileage would likely pale in comparison to my performance at the inaugural Merrill’s Mile in 2012, when I had run 41 miles in roughly nine and half hours at a significantly lighter weight, but I also knew that the relaxed vibe of this loop run would be a great opportunity for me to return to the world of ultra distances.  As I woke up in the predawn hours and drove to the race, I decided that I would focus on two goals.  I had to finish a 50K distance, and I had to finish that entire distance on my feet without sitting down.  Since I had not run any distance longer than 12 miles since my comparably sluggish Publix Georgia Marathon finish back in March, I knew that I was in for several hours of painfully slow progress under the summer afternoon sun in the wide open space of the Camp Merrill track, but I was also yearning for that experience in an offbeat way.

Photo courtesy of Wendy Kent Mitchell
The weather was unseasonably kind to us at the start of the race, with temperatures in the low 60s and breezes that gave me a pleasant chill.  These morning hours, while the entire length of the mile loop is cloaked in shade from the surrounding trees, are a good time to go out fast and earn as many miles as possible before relentlessly overbearing sunlight takes hold.  I took advantage during my first seven miles by running the two long straightaways of each loop and taking walk breaks on the two short turns.  During these early miles, I enjoyed conversing with a longtime ultrarunning friend, Paul, who was employing the same strategy.  My running intervals consisted of an easygoing “forever pace”, since I was working through some mild soreness after completing the Peachtree Road Race 10K the previous morning by running nonstop through the massive crowds and long inclines to earn a finish time of 58:24, which was a satisfying time for me at this stage of my comeback.  I knew from past experience at Merrill’s Mile that most participants slow down to a walk as the sun approaches its midday position, so I felt assured that some relaxed running early on would get me started with a solid foundation of miles to motivate me along for the rest of the distance. 

An hour and half after the 9:00 AM start time of the event, my 12-minute mile running pace shifted to a 15-minute mile power-walking pace that I would employ for the next several hours.  I had eaten an orange from my drop bag after my first hour of running, but I soon fell into a routine of taking slices of watermelon from the aid station at the beginning of each loop and nibbling on these slices for the next half mile.  For the remainder of the day, these watermelon slices would be my only source of nutrition and my only source of hydration, since they worked wonderfully well in both regards.  The amazing aid station volunteers soon caught on to the fact that that the “watermelon man” was stopping by for a slice or two during each loop, so they always had fresh slices waiting from a plentiful supply of whole watermelons underneath the station table. 

Photo courtesy of Jake Moore
I finished my first 16 laps in just under four hours, and was pleased to be more than halfway to my preplanned distance goal, although the snowball effect of discomforts was starting to take a toll on me.  The small gravel of the race course occasionally found its way into my shoes, but I never stopped to take my shoes off, relying instead on my ability to keep the worst of the pointed pebbles at bay by kicking my feet into the ground until the pebbles shifted to a more tolerable spot.  The rising temperatures, while not as rough on this particular day as they had been in past years, still presented a hardship since my weekly routine of early morning short runs had not acclimated me to the midday climates.  I was thankful for my sunscreen and for my running hat with an extended flap to cover the back of my neck.  Since the loop fell just short of a full mile, I was comically annoyed at the notion that I had to complete 32 laps on this course instead of just 31 laps to earn the 50K distance. 

The company of fellow runners occasionally took my mind off of the task and provided a fun distraction.  I was enjoying catching up with several friendly faces that I had missed during my break from the ultra races, and I was reminded that the greatest asset of involvement in a local ultrarunning community is showing up at these events “where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came.”  I was astonished at the efforts of the 48-hour runners, who were still walking steadily despite having been on the course for a day and half.  I was also inspired by the faster 24-hour and 12-hour runners who were lapping me multiple times on the course with smiles and quick greetings. 

Photo courtesy of Jake Moore
My confidence was boosted by a handful of comments about my fast power-walking speed, and I was thankful that, despite my heavier weight in comparison to my 2012 self, I had regained the ability to employ my “Jason Voorhees” walk that had served me well in so many race finishes.  Almost three months ago, after a disappointing DNF at the Sweet H2O 50K, where sweepers caught me at Mile 11, I had kicked my diet soda addiction to the curb in favor of water, and had returned to avoiding processed foods.  On the day of this race, I was enjoying a renewed fitness thanks to having limited myself to fruits, meats, green vegetables, and water since April.  My reliance on watermelon for nutrition and hydration during this race was enabling me to keep the streak alive, although this strategy is rarely practical during ultramarathons.

Relentless forward motion is the key to ultramarathon success, as I have learned so many times, but relentless forward motion often demands the full use of my mental facilities.  During the hottest time of the afternoon, when I had finished over 22 laps and was now on the single-digit countdown to my 50K, I simply listened to a couple of friends as they talked beside me, because I was too exhausted to complete a thought.  As I approached the ultramarathon distance for the first time in over a year, I was now in uncharted territory once again in terms of endurance, and was pushing the distance envelope again to help me prepare for my fall race schedule.  Through it all, my zombielike power-walk kept me going.

Photo courtesy of Deborah Williams
At 3:00 PM, we shifted directions on the course from a counterclockwise direction to a clockwise direction.  The logistics of this change necessitated that I complete two laps without stopping for my watermelon fix, but I emerged unscathed from this minor alteration in routine.  In retrospect, I probably would have taken an Endurolyte capsule later in the day to help me replace some sodium and electrolytes that the watermelon slices were not replenishing, because this might have assuaged the mental low that overtook me from lap 22 to lap 27, but I still found a way to climb out of the lull when I reached a point where I only had five laps left to go.

After I had finished 27 laps, I started running again.  I maintained a power-walk during the first lengthwise straightaway of each subsequent lap, because that straightaway was now mercifully shaded from the sun in the late afternoon and I was enjoying the coolness for a change, but I decided to run the returning straightaway that was exposed to the sun simply to spend the least amount of time out in the open as possible.  This routine of running through the sun and cooling down with a walk through the shaded portion was oddly refreshing, because I was able to shake up my legs after walking nonstop for so long. 

I finished 32 laps (31.68 miles) in eight hours and 11 minutes, pleased that I had not only completed my first 50K in over a year, but that I had managed to do so with a somewhat respectable time considering my lack of endurance training over the previous months.  My first ultramarathon of 2014 was now in the books.  I thanked Willy and the volunteers profusely before sitting down for the first time in over eight hours and enjoying a shaded camp chair at the aid station for several minutes before starting my drive back to Atlanta. 

My completion of a nonstop run at the Peachtree Road Race 10K followed by this 50K the next day at the Merrill’s Mile 12 Hour Run was a much-needed shot in the arm for my confidence and motivation, and I am overjoyed to be adding another ultramarathon report to this blog at long last.  Thanks to Willy and the volunteers of Dumass Events for an outstanding event that got me back into the game.  I am now looking forward to what the future holds for my endurance that I am pleased to have rediscovered. 

See you on the trails. 


Friday, March 28, 2014

Publix Georgia Marathon 3/23/14 (Race Report)

On March 23, 2014, I completed my sixth Publix Georgia Marathon with a finish time of 5:41:23, earning my slowest marathon to date, but enjoying a return to the marathon distance after a year of shorter races.

I suppose that we all go through occasional times when our motivation is nowhere in sight and we are not living from day to day as much as we seem to be sleepwalking from day to day.  This past winter was one of those times in my world, as I approached my training with a half-hearted mindset and indulged in an unhealthy diet.  I have come to think of life itself as an ultramarathon race where I keep moving through the joyful high points and the numbing low points with the same relentless forward motion, and I suppose that this winter was one of those times in an ultramarathon when I just want to step off of the trail, lie down on a cushion of leaves, and wait for the sweepers to wake me up.  In fact, I actually did step off the route and lie down for a few minutes when I ran out of energy during a 22-mile training run just three weeks before this marathon.  I eventually picked myself up off of the ground, dusted the pine straw and leaves off of my running clothes, and resumed my run, remembering that the best course of action in all endeavors is to keep moving and keep smiling.

As I spent the past several weeks searching for ways to motivate myself into a return to decent fitness, my offbeat sense of logic decided that the best motivators would be a finish and a medal at this latest Publix Georgia Marathon, even if I showed up undertrained for the event.  A couple of well-meaning friends reminded me that I had the option to downscale my race distance from the full marathon to a half marathon at this event, but I remembered my regret from scaling down from the marathon option to the 12-mile option at the Mystery Mountain Marathon this past fall, and I decided that continuing to settle for half measures would not snap me out of my complacent lull.  Instead of dipping my toe into the icy cold water on the shallow end of the pool, retreating, and returning to the serenity of a comfortable lounge chair, I decided that I would be better off jumping into the deep end of the pool with a loud splash and being forced to swim and adapt to the conditions.  I may not have been in ideal shape, but I was ready to be a marathon finisher again.

Photo courtesy of Amy Delmas
Common sense had not entirely forsaken me on the morning of the race.  Knowing that the key to finishing this marathon would be to save my energy by starting at a conservative pace, I lined up with some friends in the 5:30 Pace Team.  As we started our race in Centennial Olympic Park and made our way through downtown streets with a two-minute-run/one-minute-walk interval routine, I enjoyed the camaraderie of the group and I eased into the pace with a sense of optimism about the day ahead.  The 50-degree morning temperatures were pleasantly cool, and, since weather predictions indicated that the temperatures would remain almost constant, the conditions were shaping up to be perfect for a marathon finish.  Since a marathon finish, however slow, was my only goal this time around, I was happy just to enjoy company and conversation in the midst of thousands of fellow runners.

I was repeating my strategy from the previous year by not carrying any food or water and, instead, relying on the plentiful aid stations that were placed every couple of miles along the course.  As I ran with the pace group along the first few miles through downtown Atlanta, midtown Atlanta, the historic Martin Luther King, Jr. neighborhood, and Little Five Points, the occasional small cup of Powerade was more than enough to keep me in good energy and good spirits.  The sight of Atlanta Falcons Cheerleaders in the Little Five Points area was an additional motivational boost, of course.

The Mile 7 split, where half marathon runners turn away from the marathon route to begin their return to Centennial Olympic Park, is always a comical, yet uneasy point of the race for me, as I joke with friends about how this is our last chance to scale down to the half marathon, and as I realize that miles of difficult hills lie ahead.  The increasingly arduous inclines in the neighborhoods around Ponce de Leon Road that normally mark the beginning of my energy drops during this race did not faze me at all this time around, though, and I credited the 5:30 Pace Team for helping me reach this point in the race with plenty of running mojo in store.  I had a tendency to run slightly ahead of the pace group, but I always kept myself in check by staying with them during the walk intervals.  The occasional greetings from friends who were cheering the runners at different points along the route provided another source of positive vibes, and the encouragement of a fellow ultramarathon runner at the start of a long straightaway into the city of Decatur kept me smiling at a point in the race when I am normally burned out.

My pace group and I reached the halfway point of the race in Decatur at the 2:38:00 mark on my watch.  The decision to have a few minutes banked for the challenging hills ahead was a wise one, and I remained pleased with my decision to stay with the group.  I knew from past experience that my relative lack of endurance would result in some energy drops over the next few miles, because I was rusty on the long distances.  This awareness kept me grounded whenever I was tempted to run too far ahead of the group on the luxurious downhill stretches, and I knew that the moment was approaching when I would be struggling just to keep up with everyone.  My favorite part of the course, a series of turns through the beautiful Emory University campus, turned out to be even more fun when I caught up with a friend with whom I had not run since my early ultrarunning days and spent a few minutes talking with him.

As I left the Emory University area just before Mile 17 and made my way to the daunting “It’s about to get real.” section into the Druid Hills neighborhoods, I started to feel cramps in my upper leg muscles.  I shrugged off these pains with the realization that this is what happens to an undertrained runner who has spent the past several months completing distances of 13 miles or less when he decides to run a marathon.  I resolved to take in more nutrition at the next aid station course, and soldiered on. The next two miles went by uneventfully, but the understanding that I had not properly prepared for this distance became increasingly evident with each hill.

By the time the pace group reached Mile 19, my energy level was starting to take a nosedive.  I told the Pace Team leaders that I was going to back off the pace somewhat, but that I would keep the group in sight and catch up on the descents when I could.  Despite my self-doubt, I still continued with the group for a couple more intervals.

A few minutes later, a series of sudden excruciating cramps up and down both of my legs stopped me in my tracks.  I leaned over and massaged one leg while pain erupted in the other leg.  I walked a couple of steps, only to feel the cramps return in full force.  A couple of friendly runners stopped and asked me if I wanted them to call for help.  I reassured them that I would be okay, but that I would have to walk slowly for a short while.  After I smiled and resumed walking, the cramps shot through my legs again, and I doubled over in pain.  Two of the runners offered me a handful of jelly beans, and I gratefully accepted, sensing that some added sugar and sodium would get me through.  After I thanked the runners profusely, but encouraged them to go on without me, I continued my slow walk and saw the 5:30 Pace Team run over the next hill and disappear from my view.

An often-repeated motivational quote surfaced in my mind.  “We cannot change the direction of the wind, but we can adjust our sails.”  I knew all along that I would succeed in crossing the finish line of this marathon, but I would have to adjust my sails to do so, in figurative terms, and adapt to the new conditions. If this meant continuing at a slow walk for the next mile until cramps subsided, then I was good for the challenge.

After walking nonstop for a short while, I was able to resume running on the downhill stretches.  Whenever I felt the leg cramps returning, I would simply slow to a walk and maintain a consistent pace.  A benefit of the relaxed speed was that I was unaffected by some of steepest hills of the course that climbed into the Virginia Highlands neighborhoods, and I was able to pass several exhausted runners along the way.  I enjoyed an extended downhill run that led away from Virginia Highlands and into Piedmont Park.  I encountered a visibly discouraged runner who told me that she was trying to finish her first marathon.  I walked with her for a couple of minutes, offering encouragement, and then made the most of a good descent once we turned at the end of a short out-and-back section.  I caught up with the runners who had helped me earlier when I was suffering from cramps, and enjoyed conversing with them for a while as we ran and walked through midtown Atlanta streets on the way to the Georgia Tech campus.  As I made my way through Georgia Tech, I took advantage of the last two notable downhill sections, because I knew that I would be reduced to walking for most of the final mile.  All the while, I kept hoping to catch up with the 5:30 group, even when I felt my energy failing me.

The greatest joys of running and the greatest disappointments of running both lie in the fact that we can only take out what we put in, in terms of being rewarded for our efforts.  I knew that I was achieving the slowest road marathon finish of my running career by a considerable margin, but I also knew better than to complain about the results that I would not get from the work that I did not do.  I remembered a weekend in January when I used icy weather as an excuse to oversleep on a Saturday morning instead of joining my training group.  I remembered another winter weekend when I had traveled to my hometown for the funeral of an old friend, but had failed to make up my training run on the following day.  I remembered yet another weekend when I had just flat out not felt like running.  I was now steadily making my way to a marathon finish that would give me a much-needed shot in the arm of motivation and confidence, but my leg cramps and my inability to run for most of the final section were the price to pay for my lazy training and unhealthy nutrition choices over the winter.

I adjusted my sails to adapt to the direction of the wind, though, and I was able to jog a few brief sections during the last mile, when the CNN Center that overlooks the finish area at Centennial Olympic Park remained maddeningly in sight the whole time, but seemed never to draw closer.  I happily reassured myself that, despite my slow pace, I had still not lost my endurance during my extended vacation from distance running.  I was also invigorated by the sight of a few friendly and familiar faces cheering me on as I neared the park.  Finally, I realized that I was having fun, albeit an offbeat sort of fun.  Struggling to complete long distances on foot may not be most people’s idea of a good time, but I remembered that this is the sort of thing that I live to do.  Like a samurai who has finally found a battle after years of aimless wandering, I was once again doing something that I had been put on Earth to do.

I crossed the finish line at 5:41:23 on the timer, just 11 minutes behind the 5:30 Pace Team, but over 70 minutes slower than my marathon finish from the previous year on this course.  I shrugged off the notion that this was a bittersweet victory, though, and simply decided to file it as another victory under my belt.  I reunited with some friends from the pace group at the finish area and congratulated them before driving home with a medal earned and some lessons learned.

Thanks to the countless volunteers, police officers, and race organizers who make the Publix Georgia Marathon possible.  Thanks as well to all of my running friends who kept me company or volunteered at points along the course.  I am writing this report a day after signing up in a discount registration blitz for my seventh race on this course in 2015, and I look forward to another fun race, and to faster finish times in my future.

See you on the trails.


Friday, December 6, 2013

Atlanta Half Marathon 11/18/13 + Helen Holiday Trail Half Marathon 11/30/13 (Race Report)

On Thanksgiving morning, November 28, 2013, I completed the Atlanta Half Marathon with a finish time of 2:29:34 as a volunteer leader for the 2:30 Pace Team.  Two days later, on November 30, I completed the Helen Holiday Trail Half Marathon with a finish time of 2:44:13. 

Photo courtesy of Martin Kratzer Photography
After several humbling months of injury and inactivity, I am now training consistently again, and I am well on my way down the long road that will return me to peak fitness.  Unfortunately, the ability to function in sub-freezing temperatures is still not in my bag of tricks.  Many runners proudly claim that they love racing in cold weather, and that they would take winter temperatures over the summer heat any day.  I agree with this mindset, but only to a certain point.  I can stay outside all day in 30 to 40-degree weather, but temperatures in the low 20s push the envelope of my comfort zone a little too far.  When I found my way to the Atlanta Track Club Pace Team tent in the parking lot of Turner Field next to the start area of the Atlanta Half Marathon early on this 23-degree morning and waited for my fellow pace leaders, one friend observed, “Jason, you look like you’re getting ready to rob a train.”  Sure enough, I did look the part, since my face was covered in a polyester Inov-8 head wrap that resembled one of the cloth masks worn by Jesse James and other legendary train robbers in centuries past.  I will admit that the idea of holding up a train simply to come in from the freezing cold and stand by burning engine coals sounded quite good to me at the time. 

Thankfully, the brutal chill was somewhat alleviated when I took one of the 2:30 pace flags and made my way to the middle of a crowded corral to join my fellow Pace Team leaders Miranda, Crystal, and Dan.  The Atlanta Half Marathon, with its runner population of nearly 11,000, is the perfect race for those who want to be in close proximity with others for the duration of the event, so the human windshield stayed in full force as we crossed the start line and enjoyed the first couple of miles that led through downtown Atlanta.

In recent years, I have settled into a Thanksgiving tradition of volunteering to help lead the 2:30 pace team at this race event, because I enjoy the camaraderie among the runners, many of whom are participating in a half marathon for the first time.  In the past, the comfortable speed of this pace group has helped me to recover from longer-distance races during the fall season.  This time around, however, the half marathon distance would be the farthest distance that I had completed in several months, and I would need the pace to guide me to the finish.  In a sense, I felt as though I were a first-time half-marathon runner myself.  The 2:30 pace team has an established two-minute-run/one-minute-walk interval routine, so this strategy falls in line with the Galloway training that I utilize for many pavement races. 

The race course of the Atlanta Half Marathon features a luxurious downhill stretch for a long while after the roads leave the downtown Atlanta area to circle the western perimeter of the Georgia Tech campus.  The first notable hill greets runners just after five miles, as we leave the Atlantic Station and climb over Peachtree Road before descending into Piedmont Park.  After we run through Piedmont Park at the seventh mile, the rolling hills hit full force and keep on rolling for the remainder of the race.  Since the Pace Teams must maintain close to an even speed throughout the event, the ability to keep everyone running consistently up and down the hills in the final miles can be a challenge.  This year, my ability to keep myself running happily during the final miles was a challenge in itself.  My interval timer was keeping me grounded while the other pace team leaders checked their GPS watches to assure us that we were maintaining close to the 11:27 minute-per-mile pace necessary to hit the finish line at the right time.  Since I love motivating others, I took advantage of every opportunity to take my mind off of my own rusty endurance skills by complimenting the first-time half marathoners around me. 

Photo courtesy of Miranda Byrd
Our group crossed the finish line together at 2:29:34, and we posed for a photo after collecting our impressively-large medals.  I had completed my longest running distance since my fascia tissue injuries had taken hold during the early summer months, and my legs felt as though I had just completed a 50-mile ultramarathon.  As I returned my pace team flag to the Atlanta Track Club tent and congratulated others, I felt the need to keep walking so that my legs would not seize up with pain in the cold weather.  Fortunately, I was back to my good old self after an hour of rest, and I felt great for the rest of the day as I spent the holiday with my family just north of Atlanta.  The next day, I spent most of my time relaxing on the sofa in my apartment to watch movies, because I only had this one day to rest before my next half marathon the following morning. 

The Helen Holiday Trail Half Marathon, which takes place at Unicoi State Park in Helen, Georgia, was an inaugural race organized and directed by one of my good running friends, Sean “Run Bum” Blanton, and the entire event encapsulated the fun-loving aesthetic of his epic sense of adventure, while providing an excellent opportunity for beginning trail runners to discover the addictive charms of racing through the woods.  The 40-degree temperatures, while chilly, were noticeably more forgiving on this day than they had been on Thanksgiving morning, but my friend, Kate, and I were thankful for the 10:00 AM start time as we carpooled to Helen from Atlanta.  When we arrived at the start area in a field next to the Unicoi Lodge, I was thankful that I did not have to stand outdoors to help assemble a pace group, and I enjoyed remaining inside my warm truck until it was time for Sean to greet the crowd with his introductory speech. 

As the race started, I settled into the back of the pack with another of my local running friends, Elizabeth, since we had both decided that we would be taking plenty of long walk breaks on this trail course.  The first mile of the course consisted mostly of road running to thin the crowd before we turned onto a generously wide single-track trail into the woods.  An easy trek around the beautiful Unicoi Lake was just what the doctor ordered to get the blood flowing in my legs and to ease me back into running mode so soon after the half marathon two days before.  After circling the lake, we crossed some paved roads and continued to enjoy the wide trail that took us into picturesque marsh areas before ascending a few long graduals switchback climbs. 

Elizabeth and I had settled into a strategy of walking almost every notable incline, and, although my pace seemed sluggish compared to the effortless running of my pre-injury days, I was still happy that we were passing a handful of other runners.  Since this was my first time running on the trails of Unicoi State Park, and I had no idea what obstacles awaited me later in the course, I was content to save energy by running and walking at a conversational pace the entire time.  I kept commenting on the beauty of the terrain, because this course displayed the north Georgia mountains at their best on a sunny day.  Since Sean had described the course as a series of “30 to 60-second climbs”, our inability to reach the top of each peak within any remote semblance of that time frame became an ongoing joke. 

Photo courtesy of Wayne Downey
The climbing was balanced out by some of the most fun downhill stretches that I have ever encountered, since the wide trails provided ample room for me to watch my step and to pass by, or be passed by, other runners.  All the while, the glorious scents of late autumn, namely fallen leaves, crisp air, and burning fireplaces in the distance, kept a smile on my face.  After roughly seven miles of running and hiking up and down these scenic trail hills, we turned onto a paved road leading us through the town of Helen.

Helen, Georgia, a former logging town that was subsequently transformed into a re-creation of a Bavarian village, always impresses me with its well-played balance of rustic charm and tourist trap atmosphere.  A notable feature of this small community is a funnel cake business that I always loved visiting during my nutritionally carefree days, because these fresh funnel cakes are usually worth the six months that each one probably takes off of my life.  Since the race course veered along the outskirts of Helen’s main street, however, I was spared the dilemma of even having to decide whether or not to halt my run for a funnel cake stop.  Temptations always seem to find their way to me instead of the other way around, and, as we climbed a hill to the second aid station of the course, I found myself staring at a vast table spread of fresh pumpkin pie and various other baked goods.  Since I had finally rebooted my Paleo diet over the past month, and stuck to the plan even on Thanksgiving Day, I simply grabbed a banana, thanked the volunteers, and resumed my run.

After a mile and half of gentle climbs and speedy descents, Elizabeth and I arrived at the Mile 9 water crossing, where we quickly made our way across 20 feet of a calf-deep mountain stream.  After running for a short while, though, my shoes and socks felt completely dry. 

The Helen Holiday Trail Half Marathon ultimately ended up being slightly short of a half marathon distance, but we resumed our casual pace of downhill running and uphill hiking to conserve energy for the unknown terrain that lay ahead.  I was proud that my legs were still functioning after completing a half marathon so soon before, but I also realized that it would be quite a while until I had my full ultramarathon mojo back.  This particular race lived up to its promise of being a perfect light course to introduce runners to the trail, though, and my high spirits soared all the while because of the easy trail stretches.  I will not go so far as to say that the trails of this course were groomed, but they were noticeably less technical in nature than the terrain that I am accustomed to running. 

The finish area greeted us much sooner than we expected, and I thoroughly enjoyed an easy descent that took us into the open, where we ran around the perimeter of the parking area field and crossed the finish line.  I had completed this race in 2:44:13 and placed 151 out of 190 runners.   I gave Sean a high-five as I passed through the finish chute, and then enjoyed hanging out with other runners for a few minutes while I ate some orange slices from the food table. 

Since I have been completing short distances now that I am running pain-free again, it was a tall order even to finish two half marathons back-to-back.  I am grateful that I made the most of the Thanksgiving holidays by completing both the Atlanta Half Marathon and the Helen Holiday Trail Half Marathon in one piece, and returning to my workout routine immediately after.  It is a blessing to be running consistently again. 

Thanks to the Atlanta Track Club for another perfect Atlanta Half Marathon and thanks to Sean Blanton and Run Bum Tours for their brilliant inaugural event with the Helen Holiday Trail Half Marathon.  My plans for next year’s Thanksgiving break are already written in stone.

See you on the trails.


Friday, October 18, 2013

Mystery Mountain 12-Miler 10/13/13 (Race Report)

On October 13, 2013, I finished the Mystery Mountain 12 Mile in 3:06:04, and enjoyed my first pain-free trail run after several months of injury. 

Photo courtesy of Lisa Montreuil
The Mystery Mountain Marathon and 12-Miler races, which are organized by the Georgia Ultrarunning and Trailrunning Society (GUTS), take place every October at Fort Mountain State Park in Chatsworth, Georgia.  This event, which takes its name from an 855-foot rock wall of unknown origin at the highest point of the course, is my favorite Georgia trail race because of its scenic views at the beginning of leaf season and because of the fun camaraderie between the runners and the dedicated volunteers. 

I have enjoyed running the full Mystery Mountain Marathon course over the past four years, but I reluctantly decided to scale down to the 12-miler race this year so that I could continue to recover from a heel injury and get back in shape after several mostly-sedentary months of physical and mental recharging.  After almost four years of running ultramarathons and marathons on a monthly basis, I found out the hard way that my body will force me to take a break one way or another if I do not take time off voluntarily.  I will not bore anyone with the gloomy specifics of my downward trajectory of fitness over the past few months, except to say that a series of injuries led to burnout, which, in turn, led to laziness and weight gain.  Since my DNF at the Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race in June due to pain in my left heel, I had half-heartedly participated in the Hot to Trot 8-Hour Run in August, where I finished 17 miles in just over four hours before calling it a day, and the Yeti Snakebite 50-Mile in September, where I ran an easygoing 10 miles before heel pain and fatigue compelled me to drop out at an aid station near the parking area.

On the morning of this race, I woke up humbled and uncertain of my ability even to finish the 12-mile race option.  The 12-Miler, which follows the first loop of the full marathon course up and down several challenging hills on technical trail terrain covered with boulders and tree roots, may not be as relentlessly grueling as the full course, but it is still no joke.  Since I had not run over 10 miles over the past two months and was still uncertain about how the aggravated fascia tissue in my left foot would respond to the uneven trail surfaces this time around, I had no idea what to expect from my trek through the Fort Mountain woods on this day.  Relieved that I had kept a couple of my old trusty extra-large black running shirts, I begrudgingly dressed in one of them and tried to keep myself away during the two-hour drive to the race start by blasting U2’s The Unforgettable Fire in my truck. 

My energy and enthusiasm were quickly dusted off and reawakened after spending an hour catching up with friends at the race number pickup building, and I made my way to the back of the pack at the start line with a smile on my face.  I had spent too much time alone in my metro-Atlanta apartment over the past few months, so I guess that the mountain air and the sight of familiar faces gave me the necessary spark to kick off this short adventure.  As the leisurely first mile of the course circled around a beautiful campground lake, I shared some jokes with a couple of friends and fell into a relaxed pace with no pressure to finish with any particular time goal.  During the 2012 Mystery Mountain Marathon, I had rushed out from the parking lot and achieved a 5:30:17 finish time while I was at the all-time peak of my running fitness.  This time, my one and only goal was to return home with a 12-Miler finish instead of adding yet another DNF to my year. 

I was in good company behind a line of runners as I walked up the first notable hill after the trail course left the campground area and joined the Gahuti Trail that circled the inner perimeter of the state park.  As I jogged at an easy pace over the next couple of miles that wound around a series of mountainside ledges, I enjoyed the company of a local running friend, Aaron, as we exchanged gallows jokes about the hills that awaited us.  When we finally did arrive at the first long climb, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I still had most of my hill-climbing mojo that had served me so well during races of the previous fall season.  I passed a handful of runners on the way to the first aid station, where I downed a cup of Powerade before resuming the uphill climb to the Overlook area that provides one of the most awesome views in all of north Georgia.  I was soon passed in turn by a few running friends who were on their way to impressive finishes for the full course, but the conversation kept me smiling as I trudged up the steepest hill of the 12-Miler course that led to the picturesque stone tower above the mysterious stone wall that attracts most of the park visitors. 

As I ran with a couple of friends and took my time to enjoy the fall wilderness five miles into the course, I was pleased that I had felt no pain at all in my left heel so far, and I hoped that my good fortune would continue.  I caught up with a couple of the marathon participants and spent a couple of minutes encouraging one girl who was nervous about race cutoffs for the full course.  I spent several miles leapfrogging with one friend, Paul, whom I would pass on the hill climbs only to be passed by him on the technical descents, where he had a downhill running finesse that I lacked.      

 As I climbed one long ascent on the way to the eight-mile aid station, I saw Lauren, one of my pacers from last year’s Pinhoti 100 race last fall, ahead of me in the distance.  We amused ourselves by quoting scenes from the movie, Blade Runner, as we crested the hill and approached the aid station at the park entrance road crossing.  After thanking the volunteers and downing another cup of Powerade with a handful of Gummi Bears, I joined another friend, Joseph, with whom I had run several previous ultramarathons, and enjoyed talking with him for the next couple of miles as the trail evened out along a forest road that continued on one of the most fun downhill stretches that I have ever had the privilege of running. 

Photo courtesy of Lauren Gray Castor
This had turned out to be a perfect morning so far.  I felt no pain whatsoever in my heel.  More importantly, I felt like a runner again.  During my shorter runs and workouts over the past few months, I had been down on myself about my injury and my backslide into weight gain after my hard work from the year before, and I had let that “negativity snowball” become larger and larger to the point that it had sucked the joy out of an activity that I had always loved.  On these Fort Mountain trails, though, I was riding a wave of happiness that put a newfound spring in my step.  Long distance runs are good metaphor for life itself, because we often have to go through debilitating low points before we reach the exhilarating high points.  On this particular day, I was having a good time, and I sensed the promise of better times over the horizon. 

As we reached an unmanned aid station just before Mile 10, I was grateful to make my way through a rock garden section with no trouble, since that type of terrain had wrecked my heel during previous trail runs over the summer.  I heard voices behind me and decided to stay ahead of them by running nonstop for most of the next mile that looped down to a creek crossing next to a small waterfall.  Since I had let my endurance skills slide over the past several months, I felt the energy leaving me as I passed a couple of people on the arduous climb to the Mile 11 aid station, but I kept moving since the finish was only a mile away.  When I saw some friends turn off of the Mile 11 aid station to climb the massive power line hill that signaled the beginning of the second loop for the marathoners, I felt a brief regret at my decision to scale down to the 12-Miler, but that regret was admittedly extinguished by my relief that I did not have to climb that hill this year. 

I ran for most of the final mile that circled back around the campfire lake and crossed the finish line at 3:06:04 to place 84 out of 108 finishers for the 12-Miler event.  This may not have been my finest hour, but it was a welcome shot in the arm of running bliss that I needed more than I had realized.  Almost immediately after crossing the finish line, my relative loss of endurance fitness caught up with me as my legs cramped and excruciating pain shot up and down my calves.  Several friends were hanging out at the finish area, though, and I enjoyed their company as I chilled out for a couple of hours and watched the first wave of marathoners finish their race with new course record times.   

My gratitude goes to the GUTS crowd and to Race Director Kim Pike for putting another perfect Mystery Mountain Marathon and 12-Miler day together.  I cannot wait to return to the full marathon distance at this course next year. 

It feels good to add a race finish to my blog instead of penciling in another DNF.  I still have a long way to go to return to my previous level of fitness, but I am familiar with ups and downs of the yo-yo effect and I am glad that my injury has recovered enough for me to return to a routine running schedule.  I will be taking my time returning to longer distances, though, and I plan to spend the next several months devoting my full attention to the Publix Georgia Marathon in March.  In recent years, I have simply shown up for marathon races between ultramarathons, so I am looking forward to training specifically for a marathon for a change.  I know that one successful race finish will not solve everything, but this Mystery Mountain 12-Miler marked the return of some actual motivation to my running life by way of a fun-filled fall morning in the company of great friends. 

See you on the trails.


Thursday, June 20, 2013

DNF: Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race 6/14/13 (Race Report)

On June 14, 2013, I had a DNF at the Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race when I arrived at the finish line of the first 18-mile stage after the four-hour time cutoff. 

Photo courtesy of Charlene Simmons
The Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race, part of the Rock/Creek Trail Series, consists of three stages over three days on the beautiful trail systems around and above the city.  The first stage takes place at the Raccoon Mountain Reservoir, along 18 miles of moderately technical trails overlooking the city of Chattanooga and the Tennessee River.  The second stage is located a few miles away at Lookout Mountain, along 22 miles of hilly trails and creek crossings.  The third and final stage poses a challenge to the toughest of runners with its 20 miles of rocky climbs on the Signal Mountain trails just north of the city. 

Since I was still running cautiously due to the overuse injury that had led to my DNF two months earlier at the Umstead 100 Endurance Run, where I had reached Mile 37.5 with an aching left heel and inflamed Achilles tendons before being advised by the medical staff to drop from the race, I knew that a successful finish of all three stages of the Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race was a tall order.   This would not be the first time that I had shown up for a race with insufficient preparation, though, and my enthusiasm blinded me to the downward trajectory that my running fitness had suffered so far this year.  I had not run farther than an 11-mile distance over the previous two months, and I arrived in Chattanooga the day before the race with the assumption that I might be pulled from the race sometime over the weekend, but I was all smiles as I picked up my race number and settled down with friends at The Crash Pad hostel that would serve as the race headquarters.  I simply told others that I was just there to have fun and to run as far as I could. 

An apparent premonition of things to come factored into my choice of running attire when I woke up from my comfortable bunk at The Crash Pad on the morning of the first stage.  I knew that I would never hear the end of it from running friends if I neglected to wear my trademark fluorescent orange running shirt at least once during the event, so I joked with others that I was wearing the shirt for the first stage just in case I did not make it to the other two stages.  Since runners were encouraged to carpool from The Crash Pad to each stage location, I caught a ride to Raccoon Mountain with two local friends, Heidi and Lara.  Lara and I had run together at comparable paces during several previous events, so we had decided to partner up and try to beat the cutoffs together for this first day. 

I have always enjoyed the attention to detail that Rock/Creek gives to each Chattanooga race in the series, and this event was no exception.   The sight of the elaborate race banners at the start/finish location gave me a jolt of enthusiasm and adrenaline that amplified over the next hour as I greeted several friends and acquaintances.  Lara and I settled into the back of the pack as Race Director Randy Whorton counted us down to the start over the loudspeakers. 

Photo courtesy of Katie Fisher
The first mile of the Raccoon Mountain course was completed at a snail’s pace, as I found myself near the back of a single-file line after a short stretch of pavement turned onto the trail.  I have always enjoyed starting my races in a relaxed fashion, so the brief setback did not concern me.  Since this stage took place on the same trail system where I had run the Rock/Creek Scenic City Trail Marathon in 2011, I knew that the runnable single-track trails that twisted back and forth in endless switchbacks would enable me to open up into a comfortable pace soon enough.  Once the crowd thinned out, Lara and I took advantage of the easy terrain by running nonstop for several minutes at a time up and down gentle inclines and descents, slowing down to a fast hike only occasionally when the hills were steeper than normal.  We had been blessed with unseasonably cool weather for mid-June on this particular morning, and I was grateful for the 70-degree temperatures.  A thunderstorm had swept through Chattanooga the previous afternoon, but most of the trails were dry, and my shoes had plenty of traction on the rocks.    

The first several miles of this stage were pleasantly uneventful as Lara and I ran back and forth on switchback trails with gentle slopes.  I would later regret my decision not to eat any of the gels that I was carrying during the first half of the event, but I was feeling energetic early on, and I assumed that the remainder of the course would be just as forgiving.  We caught up with two more local friends, Woolery and Amanda, and enjoyed talking with them as the trails ascended to a ridge that overlooked the city of Chattanooga before twisting back to the first aid station at Mile 4.7.  My water bottle was still full, so I grabbed a small piece of cake from an aid station bowl and kept moving.  The most luxuriously easy section of trail greeted me over the next mile or two, and I ran nonstop as the trail emerged from the woods onto a gravel road next to an electrical switchyard.  Time flew by and the miles must have accumulated faster than I thought, because I soon arrived at the second aid station and was surprised when a volunteer told me that I was at Mile 8.

Photo courtesy of Katie Fisher
Upon arriving at this aid station, I was also warned that I had reached this point in the race just under the cutoff time.  I remembered being held up during the first mile after starting in the back of a long line of runners, though, and I was confident that my current pace would enable me to finish well within the four-hour limit.  Lara and I ran out of the aid station and entered a maddeningly repetitive series of switchbacks that doubled back and forth on themselves several times over.  It was on this particular stretch that I started feeling the same ache in my left heel that had led to my failure to finish Umstead 100.

The pain in my left heel felt similar to plantar fasciitis, but the ache was accompanied by inflammation in my Achilles and ankle.  After my Umstead DNF, I had enjoyed two weeks of complete rest before returning to my local running group for Saturday morning training runs on pavement.  Since the symptoms were not as apparent with my road shoes, I gradually felt my running mojo almost return to full force over the next few Saturdays as I enjoyed 10-mile distances on local Atlanta routes.  As I passed the halfway point of this first stage on Raccoon Mountain, though, I was dismayed to realize that my injury was still present and that the pain was amplified in my trail shoes as I ran on rocky surfaces.  I was still moving at a decent clip, though, and I temporarily shrugged off the ache to keep running. 

The 25 pounds or so that I had regrettably gained over the past seven months with my injury setbacks and poor diet choices since my Pinhoti 100 finish back in November were not so easy to shrug away, though.  I was still much lighter than I had been during my previous years of trail running, but the recent loss of fitness still took a lot of wind out of my sails, and I was reminded of my need to return to peak condition.  The true annoyance of an injury setback for any runner is that, once the runner returns to a consistent training routine, the runs and exercises that used to feel effortless are now difficult and burdensome.  Many runners can deal with this in stride, so to speak, but I have always had a tendency to fall into a psychological downward spiral where I continue to compare my current fitness lows to my previous highs and get down on myself for being slower and heavier.  Fatigue hit me like a lead brick this time around, and, when I finally arrived at the third aid station in a tired daze after running and walking switchbacks for an eternity and was told that I was only at Mile 12, my shoulders slumped and I expressed visible disappointment.  A mile or so after leaving the aid station, the increasing pain in my left heel reduced me to a slight limp, and I slowed down as midday temperatures rose.  I asked Lara to run on ahead, telling her that I was over this whole running thing and that it was time to stick a fork in me at this particular event. 

Photo courtesy of Katie Fisher
I was embarrassed at having shown up for this race in such terrible shape, but I shifted my focus and decided to concentrate on simply enjoying the beauty of the trail instead of trying to finish within the time limit.  There was no shortage of beauty on these trails, fortunately, and I was always pleased to see the Tennessee River below me whenever the trail route skirted the periphery of the mountain.  I knew from my previous experience on these trails at the Scenic City Trail Marathon that I would soon reach an awesome section at the foot of the massive rockfill dam, and I looked forward to arriving at that point. 

Anticipation soon gave way to frustration, though, because the rockfill dam section seemed increasingly unreachable as the trail kept turning back on itself so that I felt as though I was always getting farther from my destination instead of closing the distance.  The pain in my heel had reduced me to a walk, and I was trying to conserve the last few sips in my water bottle.  Woolery and Amanda caught up with me as I finally reached the rock trail at the foot of the dam, and I gratefully accepted when Woolery offered me some water from an extra bottle that he was carrying.  As they continued ahead, I looked at my watch and realized that I would be hard-pressed to finish the next couple of miles in time. 

Photo courtesy of Katie Fisher
After limping along on a beautiful trail section that gradually ascended to the park grounds, I broke into a slow run as I made the final turn and laughed when I saw that volunteers were taking down the finish line banner.  I had finished the first stage of the Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race six minutes or so after the time limit.  I shook hands with Randy Whorton at the finish and told him that I looked forward to returning to this event in better shape next time.  I greeted friends and spent the next several minutes resting my legs in an ice bath that volunteers had set up in an inflatable pool.  I felt no disappointment, and I was actually pleased with myself for finishing 18 miles on trails when my previous two months of running had been limited to shorter distances on pavement routes.  My injury was a concern, so I resolved to visit a doctor this time, as I should have done after my Umstead DNF two months ago.  I have long ago learned not to complain about results that I did not get for work that I did not do, and my easygoing demeanor after my DNF was an acceptance that I needed to put more effort into training properly for my next big event. 

My race was over, but my weekend was fortunately far from over.  Since I was booked at The Crash Pad for the weekend and since I was enjoying the company of running friends, I decided to stay involved in the Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race by returning the next day to cheer for friends as they ran the second stage at Lookout Mountain.  After returning to the hostel from Raccoon Mountain and having lunch with several runners, one friend, Justin, and I decided to take a bus to the North Shore area of Chattanooga to look at a vintage record store.  When we finished browsing the stores, we were amused to discover that the North Shore bus routes had ended for the day and that we had to walk back across the river.  This was a blessing in disguise, because walking a few extra miles in the late afternoon completely removed my soreness from the morning run.  The heel pain remained, but my legs felt otherwise normal by day’s end.  Once Justin and I returned to the hostel, I took advantage of a sports massage setup to have my injury examined, and I was told that I was suffering from a strain of my left abductor hallucis muscle. 

The following morning, I carpooled to Lookout Mountain from the hostel, and walked the first mile of the route with a friend after the runners started so that I could take some photos of two notable waterfalls.  We then drove up to the highest point of the race at Covenant College so that we could cheer for runners as they climbed a steep power line trail to arrive at the halfway aid station.  Upon returning to the start/finish area, I cheered for friends next to a bridge aid station as they embarked on their final loop of the stage.  After some volunteers abandoned the bridge aid station, I noticed that a few runners were still approaching the station for water and food after crossing the finish line, so I jumped in to work the aid station for a short while. 

I have discussed races in long-winded detail on my blog, but I have never written about my volunteer work at running events.  It is easy for us runners to take the presence of volunteers for granted, and I always have to remind myself that the aid stations that I see on forest trails out in the middle of nowhere are not simply beamed down from an aid station mothership in the sky.  The setup of an aid station at a trail race often involves the transport of tents, bulk water bottles, food, and medical supplies up and down remote forest roads, and volunteers must work long hours to support the runners after setting up the station and before taking the station back down.  On general principle, I like to volunteer at one race for every two or three races that I participate in as a runner.  This is a fun way to make new friends and earn some good karma for my next race, although I usually feel as though I have run an ultramarathon of my own after I work an aid station for a day. 

Photo courtesy of Mark McKnight
On the final stage of the race, where runners would complete 20 brutally technical miles at Signal Mountain, I decided to take advantage of the full volunteer experience by arriving at the Mile 11.8 Signal Point aid station location before the supplies had arrived so that I could help carry the supplies down a hill to a beautiful mountain overlook, help set up the aid station itself, refill water bottles and hydration packs for the runners, and help break the aid station down after the last runners had passed through.   I was admittedly envious of my friends who were still competing in the event, but I also knew that they would be happy to see a familiar face after climbing the treacherous steps up to this particular aid station location.  For the next few hours, I was inspired by the sight of many talented friends who reached the aid station in good spirits on their way to the finish line, and I enjoyed spending time on this scenic overlook above the Tennessee River. 

Although my own Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race experience did not turn out quite the way that I had expected, I still had the time of my life hitting the trails for a run at the first stage and then cheering for my friends for the remainder of the event.  Trail races are like family reunions in so many ways, and I am always blessed to spend time with old friends while making new friends.  Spending a few days in the coolest city of the Southeast was icing on the cake. 

Thanks to Randy and Kris Whorton for putting the Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race together with the Rock/Creek crowd.  The dedication of the race workers and the camaraderie of the runners inspire me to return to Chattanooga as soon as possible after participating in Rock/Creek races, and I have already decided to return to this stage race next year for another bite at the apple.  I have my work cut out for me with a patient recovery from my injury and a running comeback over the summer, but my fun weekend at this event has given me a shot in the arm of enthusiasm to tackle these challenges. 

See you on the trails.


Saturday, April 13, 2013

DNF: Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run 4/6/13 (Race Report)

On April 6, 2013, I had a DNF (Did Not Finish) at the Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run when I dropped out of the race at Mile 37.5 due to Achilles injuries. 

Photo courtesy of Ashby Spratly
The Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run consists of a 12.5-mile course that participants must complete eight times to earn the finisher’s buckle, and the terrain of finely packed gravel roads up and down rolling hills through the beautiful forests of William B. Umstead State Park in Raleigh, North Carolina is a long-distance runner’s dream come true.  After completing my first 100-mile race on the rugged single-track trails of the Pinhoti 100 in Alabama this past November, I was eager to experience this course on luxuriously smooth roads where the technical trail obstacles that normally reduce me to a frayed mental state would not be a concern.  This Umstead event, which includes two elaborate aid stations and a handful of smaller unmanned water stops along the course, offers the ideal conditions for a race of this distance, and the dedicated volunteers actually outnumber the runners so that the needs of every participant are addressed with the utmost care. 

A 100-mile race under ideal conditions is still a 100-mile race, though, and the distance demands a level of training and respect that I did not properly acknowledge in the months leading to this event.  After completing Pinhoti 100 and the Pine Mountain 40 Mile Trail Run less than a month apart at the end of 2012, I was stopped in my tracks with an IT band injury that left me unable to complete any run longer than 10 miles for almost two months.  During this down time, I gave in to burnout and a loss of motivation, and I even broke from the Paleo eating lifestyle that had served me so well through the previous racing season.  I fortunately bounced back from my lull with new personal course records at the Mount Cheaha 50K in late February and at the Publix Georgia Marathon in March, but these improvements were too little and too late in the big picture of my Umstead 100 training.  On the morning of April 6, I showed up to a gunfight with a knife. 

I woke up two and half hours before the 6:00 AM race start after a surprisingly refreshing sleep in one of the historic four-bunk cabins less than a half mile from the start area.  The cabin, which lacked any heat or electricity, was cold in the 39-degree overnight weather, but my warm sleeping bag was comfortable, and, since none of the other three reserved roommates showed up, I enjoyed the dark solitude and the pleasant experience of dressing for the race without having to worry about waking others.  I could not have asked for better pre-race circumstances, and I was confident that my good luck would continue for the remainder of the weekend.  After catching up with friends inside the large main headquarters camp building, I walked out into the predawn darkness with my headlamp and made my way to the back of the pack of runners. 

I was in no hurry when the gunshot sounded to start the race, because I had planned for a conservative pace of three hours for each 12.5-mile lap from the beginning, with the intent of holding this pace as long as possible with enough flexibility to allow for slowing down even more after the first few laps and still making the 30-hour time limit.  Although Umstead 100 was billed as a much easier course than Pinhoti 100, I was cognizant of my less-than-stellar training this time around, and, as such, was adopting the same basic strategy that had led to my success at Pinhoti.  Run the first marathon in less than six hours, run the second marathon in less than seven hours, run the third marathon in less than eight hours, and finish the rest of the distance in less than nine hours.  After walking steadily up the first gradual hill, I settled into an easy plodding jog that would mark my fastest pace of the entire event. 

After leaving the half-mile road from the race headquarters, the course followed a 0.75-mile out-and-back Airport Spur side route with gentle gradual elevations and a view of the Raleigh airport in the distance.  Despite the easy topography, I reminded myself to take short walk breaks every couple of minutes to ensure a relaxed pace.  I was considerably more relaxed and cheerful along the first couple of miles of this course than I usually feel at the beginning of long races on more technical trails, and I enjoyed conversing with other runners around me as the morning sunlight appeared.  After turning around on the Airport Spur out-and-back and passing by the headquarters road, the route continued on the main Headquarters Spur for another mile and half before starting a counter-clockwise loop. 

Shortly after the beginning of the loop, I enjoyed a beautiful nonstop downhill run for one mile before I reached the bottom of a valley and crossed a creek bridge.  The smooth gravel road then climbed for a gradual one-mile ascent that was relentless enough to force everyone ahead of me to a walking pace.  I knew that there were a great many previous Umstead finishers competing in this race, so wisdom dictated that I should take walk breaks on the course whenever I saw everyone else start to walk.  I have never met a hill that I cannot walk, so I enjoyed the opportunity to hike along while meeting new friends.  I caught up with a couple of friends from previous races and enjoyed their company as we crested the hill and maintained alternating runs and walks on several subsequent lesser descents and climbs. 

A massive aid station on a bridge greeted us at the bottom of a hill just before Mile 7, and I was surprised to see every type of food imaginable underneath the series of tents.  I grabbed a couple of orange slices to supplement the Sport Beans that I had been eating at every half hour mark on my stopwatch and continued on.

The next two miles of the course, affectionately known as the Sawtooth Section, followed the smooth road up and down several steep climbs and descents through some scenic countryside above winding creeks and old trees that were still bare from the winter season.  Countless runners had advised me before this race to walk every single hill along the Sawtooth Section, and I quickly understood why.  Even at my brisk hiking pace, these short hills demanded respect. 

Photo courtesy of Mary Shannon Johnstone
Even along this toughest section of the course, I was overjoyed at how different the Umstead terrain was from any other ultramarathon that I had participated in to date.  Instead of constantly negotiating rocks or tree roots on narrow trails, I was able to turn my brain off and simply move forward on the smooth gravel roads that were wide enough to allow me to run alongside friends. 

The ease of the running terrain and my happiness at sharing the weekend with friends old and new kept me from being concerned when the Sawtooth section of the course summoned the initial warning signs from both of my Achilles tendons.  After finishing the Publix Georgia Marathon with my fastest time on that pavement course three weeks before, I had exercised lightly for a few days before enjoying a solo Saturday morning training run in the cold pouring rain, and returned home to discover an unusual tightness around my Achilles tendons on both legs.  The tightness in my left Achilles and lower leg had resulted in a mild heel pain similar to plantar fasciitis symptoms, while my right Achilles had swollen to a noticeable lump.  Knowing that my extended recovery from my IT band injury over the winter had reduced my fitness and slowed my recovery rate from long distances, I had taken advantage of the remaining two weeks before Umstead to massage both of my Achilles tendons with a foam roller on a daily basis while icing both legs at least twice a day.  The tightness in both of my lower legs gradually subsided as the race date drew closer, and I decided that I would be fine for a 100-mile attempt as long as I wore my compression sleeves.  The initial signs of Achilles tightness in my right leg and an increasing pain in my left heel as I approached the Mile 10 mark of this race did not go unnoticed, but I was confident that I would be okay as long as I kept my pace in check.  I looked down at my stopwatch and decided to slow my already-relaxed pace, since my stopwatch indicated that I was approaching a first lap time of two and half hours, faster than my preplanned three-hour lap times. 

After enjoying another extended gradual descent along the loop to a clear power line stretch at the bottom of a valley, I slowed to a walking pace to the hill climb that took me to the end of the loop and back to the Headquarters Spur that would take me back to the main aid station at the start/finish point of each loop.  After proceeding with a series of short run intervals and one-minute walk breaks on the rolling hills of the Headquarters Spur, I arrived at the end of the first lap in roughly two hours and 35 minutes.  I felt great at the end of this first 12.5-mile lap, but promised myself nonetheless to take my pace down another notch so that I would finish my second lap in roughly three hours.  I sat down at the main aid station for less than a minute to remove a small pebble from inside one shoe, and then continued down a hill from the headquarters while I greeted runners behind me on the out-and-back with smiles and high-fives. 

I returned to the Airport Spur out-and-back section mindful of the need to slow down even more, so I made sure to take walk breaks with increasing frequency.  Even at my reduced speed, I was still leapfrogging several friends on the course, and we all congratulated one another on great progress so far.  The temperature was steadily rising even during these morning hours, but I was still comfortable in my white long sleeved shirt. 

As I made my way back to the main loop and enjoyed the one-mile downhill stretch to the creek bridge once again, I caught up with two unfamiliar runners and soon found out that they had both finished Umstead a few times in previous years.  I stayed with these runners for the next couple of miles at a seemingly effortless pace, although the slight aches in my lower legs were noticeably worsening.  I assured myself that I was well on track for my plan of finishing the first marathon distance in six hours, and that I would then be able to relax my pace even more to stay on track for a strong finish.  I continued to take Sport Beans out of my vest pocket every half hour, and I soon decided to supplement this nutrition with a half-and-half mixture of Gatorade and water in my water bottle when I arrived at the halfway point aid station once again. 

My second trip through the Sawtooth section was more cautious, but no less optimistic, as I leapfrogged one friend by passing her on the hill climbs only to be passed again on the descents.  The weather was warming up, but I enjoyed the clear skies and beautiful scenery all the more as I turned out of the Sawtooth climbs and enjoyed the long downhill stretch to the open power line clearing.  I reminded myself that I needed to apply sunscreen before my third lap to protect myself in the open areas. 

During the final miles of the second loop, fatigue started to get the better of me, but I remembered that this was a routine lull for races of this distance and that, after all, I was about to reach a marathon distance.  The pain in my left heel had become more pronounced, and my right ankle was becoming uncomfortably tight, so I slowed occasionally to stretch the Achilles on both legs.  I finished my second loop in roughly two hours and 50 minutes, pleased that I had successfully slowed down as planned.  I was also starting to feel slightly dazed, though, and knew that my choice to slow down even more would not be a choice at all. 

I sat down for a couple of minutes at the main headquarters to gather myself, and was approached by one of the main helpful volunteers who refilled my water bottle and asked me if I wanted a hamburger from the aid station table.  The idea of consuming some protein at this point to alleviate my daze appealed to me, so I gratefully accepted the hamburger and ate it as I walked back out to the course.  In retrospect, I believe that I made a mistake eating a whole hamburger at Mile 25 when the noon hour was close at hand and the heat of the day was climbing to its peak, but logic does not always prevail when one has completed the first quarter of a long race while dealing with leg pain.  Thankfully, I had the presence of mind to stop at my drop bags, which were located at a tree stump alongside the course near my cabin, and change out of my white long sleeved shirt into one of my trademark fluorescent orange short sleeved shirts.  Sadly, I neglected to apply sunscreen from my drop bag, and I would later regret this oversight.

I walked the entirety of the Airport Spur out-and-back, since my right Achilles and my left heel were both hurting by this time, but I still summoned the strength to run on a couple of the short descents on the way out to the main loop.  When I reached the one-mile downhill, I jogged nonstop, hoping that the Achilles pain would magically go away.  I stopped running at the creek bridge which marked the lowest point of this stretch, and realized that my body temperature had shot up from the run.  I started the slow hike up the long hill climb, surprised at how hot the temperature seemed to be in the open area of the road, despite the fact that the weather predictions only called for highs in the 60s.  Apparently, I was not the only runner who was caught off guard by the early afternoon sun.  As I trailed behind two men, I saw one of them walk over to the side of the road and vomit while his friend stopped to make sure that he was okay.  Both men soon resumed walking and started reciting military cadences as they climbed the hill.  I soon caught up with them and wished them well as I passed by, only to see the two of them pass me minutes later on a subsequent downhill after the pain in my left heel forced me to a walk. 

I passed the Mile 31 mark of the course and gave myself a figurative pat on the back for finishing a 50K distance in seven hours.  I had completed almost one-third of a 100-mile course in only seven hours, and had 23 hours to complete the rest of the distance, but pessimism still washed over me in waves.  My training over the past several months had left me ill-equipped to spend the rest of the day on my feet, and I was realizing that my Achilles problems in both legs were more serious than I had previously imagined.  I have soldiered through enough ultramarathons to make a distinction between normal wear-and-tear physical pain and pain of a potentially debilitating nature. 

I was wincing with almost every step as I walked into the midpoint aid station, and one of the volunteers led me to a chair.  I accepted a chicken sandwich, but only ate a few bites.  The volunteer, who seemed to know exactly what I needed before I asked, told me that he was going to leave me alone for a minute or two so that I could simply enjoy sitting down, but that he would be watching in case I needed anything.  After a couple of minutes, I staggered up out of the chair to resume my march of pain.  The volunteer asked if I were okay, and I replied that I was alright to keep moving, although the last thing on Earth that I wanted to do at the time was leave the chair.  The volunteer must have read more into my expression, because he put his hand on my shoulder and asked me once again if I were really okay.  I thanked him profusely and told him that I would be fine to continue the rest of the lap. 

The ups and downs of the Sawtooth section were murder on my inflamed Achilles tendons and my pace had slowed to a deliberate walk, but those two miles of hilly road were otherwise uneventful.  I reached the end of the Sawtooth road and, when I turned out of the trees onto a road under the sun, I knew that this was going to be my final lap of the race.  I did not feel any sadness or regret at this epiphany.  The situation simply was what it was.  I was participating in an event that my poor winter training season had not prepared me to complete, and I was paying the price with my two injured Achilles tendons that had lost their conditioning for keeping me on my feet for this amount of time.  Runners have to respect the distance, because the distance does not forgive, and I had shown up for Umstead 100 without respecting the distance.  I ascertained that this third loop would take me a little less than four hours to complete, and that I would not make the 26-hour final lap cutoff if I continued to walk the course at that pace.  I had never voluntarily dropped out of a fixed-distance race before, but I knew that I would rather spend one month recovering from 37.5 miles than be pulled from the race at 87.5 miles and spend six months to a year recovering with the same end result of a DNF.  As if to prove the wisdom of my thoughts, my left heel exploded in pain when I stepped on a stray pebble on the smooth road. 

I reached the top of a gradual hill climb that completed the loop section to lead me back along the Headquarters Spur road and sat down for a couple of minutes on a bench next to one of the unmanned aid stations.  I felt my right calf underneath my compression sock and was dismayed to find that it had swelled to a golf ball size lump right above the Achilles.  My left Achilles was also inflamed, and, although no lump was present, the tendons hurt to the touch.  I shrugged, stood up, and continued walking.  Despite my pain, I still smiled and waved to encourage the runners who were approaching the main loop in the opposite direction.  This race was no longer about me, and I realized that I could at least offer helpful words to other runners. 

I had known all along that my chances at Umstead 100 were less than favorable, but I was still mildly annoyed at the degree to which I was falling short of even making a memorable dent in the distance.  I reminded myself that, up until a couple of years ago, I would have never imagined myself even completing 37.5 miles, and I was also happy that I would be completing 37.5 miles in roughly nine hours despite injury setbacks. 

I arrived at the main headquarters aid station and saw two friends from my local trail running group, Georgia Ultrarunning and Trailrunning Society (GUTS) standing by the route waiting to pace some other runners.  When they asked me how I felt, I shrugged and told them that I was done.  An unwritten rule among friends in my trail running group is that we do everything possible to talk runners out of dropping from races, and my friends encouraged me at least to go back out for one more loop to get credit for a 50-mile Umstead distance, and then see how I felt after that.  When I replied that I was dealing with a lot of Achilles pain, one of them helpfully suggested that I visit the massage tent inside the main headquarters building before making the decision to drop out.  This idea made good sense to me, and I complied. 

I passed through the electronic timers that marked the end of the lap, and walked into the headquarters to see Denise, a massage therapist whom I had known from several previous race events in the Carolinas, waiting with an unoccupied massage table.  She took a brief look at both of my lower legs, and expressed concern after I flinched when she touched the Achilles area on my left leg.  She called one of the EMT medical volunteers to look at the leg.  The EMT briefly inspected both of my inflamed Achilles areas and advised me that I needed to stop the race, ice my legs several times on the spot, and make my way to an Urgent Care Center to treat my left Achilles as soon as possible.  I assured her that I had dealt with Achilles tightness injuries a few times before, and that I would probably be fine after icing my legs and letting my legs heal for a couple of weeks.  One of the other EMT volunteers offered to take my electronic ankle timing band to the race officials and notify them that I was done.  My Umstead 100 race was over. 

I kept my lower calves on ice for 20 minutes as recommended by the EMT, then grabbed my headquarters drop bag to limp over to the shower building.  Along the way, I spotted Race Director Blake Norwood, thanked him for putting on a brilliantly-organized event, and promised that I would return to Umstead another year to take care of unfinished business when I was better trained for the challenge.  The walk to the shower area was not pleasant, but I was all smiles as I encountered friends and acquaintances, because I had an instinctive feeling that I had avoided a brush with a harmful long-term Achilles injury by stopping my race when I did.  I showered, dressed in everyday clothes, and returned to the headquarters area, where I spent the rest of the afternoon encouraging various friends who were resting between laps, and offering help wherever needed.  During this time, I occasionally made my way inside the main building to ice both of my legs periodically to reduce the inflammation. 

As early evening approached, I eventually made my way back to my isolated cabin, slept for nine hours in my sleeping bag as cold seeped between the boards of the cabin windows, and drove the six-hour trip back to Atlanta at the break of dawn the next morning with good music playing from the stereo speakers and mixed emotions wandering through my mind.  I resolved to enjoy two weeks of complete rest to see how both of my legs would recover with daily massage and stretching therapy.  Right now, six days after the event, my Achilles tendons still do not feel fully recovered, but the improvement is noticeable, I am walking around pain-free at work and during routine errands, and I can even stand and walk on tiptoes without trouble.  My next two weekends are going to feel strange without any training runs, but absence makes the heart grow fonder, and I know that I will feel better after the break.  I have no races for two months until my next event at the Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race in mid-June, so I have returned to fundamentals by taking time to reboot my Paleo lifestyle and return to optimum fitness over the next few weeks. 

My goals and strategies are evolving, and I have decided that I need to focus on slowly building up my endurance running skills through everyday training, instead of signing up for frequent races and using the races themselves as training runs.  For a long-distance runner, I have never really done a whole heck of a lot of running during normal non-race weekdays, and I believe that I will do well for myself by simply building up my weekly mileages for longer stretches between events to allow my body to develop its own tolerances to the mileage.  This will be a gradual process, and, in fact, it will likely be a lifelong process, but I am excited at the possibilities.  I have proven to myself that I can finish long distance races time and time again, but something that is worth doing is worth doing well, and I like the idea of training specifically for fewer key events each year instead of spreading myself thin with frequent events as I have done for the past few years. 

I am grateful that I did not back out of my Umstead 100 attempt as I had debated doing for weeks before the race took place, because I would have never known whether or not I was capable of completing the distance if I had not tried.  I had a fun vacation weekend at the Umstead State Park, and enjoyed meeting several new friends so that I can enjoy crossing paths with them at future races.  Ultrarunning has become a fulfilling activity in my life, and I would not trade the experiences for the world, even when reality drop kicks me to the floor when I show up ill-prepared for a race. 

Thanks to Race Director Blake Norwood and all of the Umstead organizers for one of the most fun events that I have had the pleasure of experiencing.  Thanks to the countless volunteers who were trained to sense what the runners needed before the runner themselves could.  Thanks to my friends old and new, who kept me company on those wide gravel roads. 

See you on the trails.