Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Pine Mountain 40 Mile Trail Run 12/5/10 (Race Report)

On December 5, 2010, I completed the Pine Mountain 40 Mile Trail Run with a finish time of 10:01:50.

Photo courtesy of Susan Donnelly
The Pine Mountain Trail at F.D. Roosevelt State Park is a deceptively rugged location for an ultramarathon. From a runner's initial perspective, the trail weaves through an idyllic setting of hardwood trees, meandering streams, and boulder outcroppings, where the sense of uncanny isolation is only occasionally breached by the sound of cars traveling down Georgia Highway 190, a road that seems to be miles away, although it is often hidden from sight just over a hilltop. In the windy chill of early December, however, when the leaves have fallen from the trees to obscure rocks along the trail, the experience of running at Pine Mountain can be a mental and physical assault.  After miles of trail running with intense concentration to avoid a stumble, the fatigued runner can easily succumb to a split second distraction by the sight of distant landscapes and fail to lift the feet high enough off the ground.  One foot catches the point of a hidden rock or slides on a leaf along the sloped trail surface and the runner falls to the ground to find that the thick leaf cover over the trail provides no cushion against the rocks that instantly bloody the hands and forearms.  The fortunate runner will stand up, wipe the leaves and blood off, and keep going.  The unlucky runner will stand up on a turned ankle that was caught in the leaves between two adjacent hidden rocks or wipe blood from a head wound.  In the last days of fall, the Pine Mountain trail can literally pound the exhausted runner into surrender or into serious injury.

In 2009, I completed the Pine Mountain 40 Mile Trail Run as my first ultramarathon.  I experienced dehydration when I ran out of water, I encountered the mental wall in the form of the rocky trail, I stayed one step ahead of aid station cutoff points, and I learned my first lesson about the importance of relentless forward motion when I kept moving and somehow reached the finish line with a dazed sense of amazement.  On the morning of December 5, 2010, I stood at the start area of this race eager to celebrate my one-year anniversary of ultrarunning, but the Pine Mountain trails did not welcome my return and their angular rocky surfaces gave me as much apprehension on this morning that they did a year ago.  The fact that I had completed this brutal race once before was no guarantee that I would finish it on this day.  Fortunately, I did have the lessons learned from a year of trail running mistakes under my belt and I intended to put those lessons to use on this trail.

After benefiting from a good night's sleep at a Marriott hotel in Columbus, courtesy of Tracy, a friend and fellow ultrarunner who had secured a free room from airline miles, I made preparations for the race to prevent the mistakes that had almost wrecked me last year.  Instead of the single handheld water bottle that I had carried in 2009, I would now be running with my 70-ounce Camelbak Rogue hydration pack.  I filled the bottom compartment of the Camelbak with as many Crank e-Gels as I could, so that I would be able to take in 300 to 400 calories each hour from the very beginning of the race.

When I arrived at the Pine Mountain group shelter, I enjoyed meeting with several friends from GUTS (Georgia Ultrarunning and Trailrunning Society) before we all went outside into the cold air to gather at the start line.  The Under Armour compression shorts and Zensah compression sleeves that had helped the blood flow in my legs for past ultramarathons now served the second purpose of keeping my legs warmer in the 35-degree start line temperature.  I was also wearing a running beanie and a pair of disposable gloves to ward off the wind that would sweep across the mountain ridges that day.

After a few words from the race director, Sarah, we took off from a road beside Lake Delano to loop around a campsite into the forest.  I started the race with Scott, a friend with whom I had run on these same trails during previous races, but I soon found myself alone as I settled into a comfortable running pace, using a small handheld flashlight to spot obstacles on the trail in the early morning darkness.  The cold and wind felt relentless at first, but my body warmed up quickly from the running.  I soon befriended another runner, Brett, and enjoyed several minutes of conversation as we finished the first three miles of pleasant terrain and crossed over Highway 190 onto trails where the rocky terrain immediately presented itself.  We ran on top of a ledge with beautiful views of the morning landscape to our right, but the demand of the trail terrain on our concentration did not give us much of an opportunity for sightseeing.  Even this early into the race, I noticed that the leaf cover over the trail was much thicker than during last year's race.  I would be cursing these leaves to no avail later on, but I initially responded by casually slowing my running pace along the stretches where the leaf-hidden rocks posed a threat.  Joel, a GUTS friend who had finished the Pinhoti 100 mile trail race a month before, trailed behind me for a short distance and finally passed me just before the first aid station six miles into the race.

When I reached the first aid station, I had plenty of water in my Camelbak, but I stopped anyway to grab a handful of food and to say hello to another GUTS friend, Amanda.  Since the daylight had arrived, I placed my flashlight into my pack and continued along.  I crossed over the highway again and made my way along a series of trail switchbacks that gradually increased in difficulty from pleasant leaf-covered singletrack to short rocky ledge trails that demanded sure footing.  My sweating had increased and, despite the wind chills, I made sure to follow my plan of taking an S-Cap every hour from the ziplock bag that I kept in one pocket of my shorts.  I also removed my gloves to place into the top compartment of my pack.  I briefly spoke with a friend, Lee, as we power-walked a couple of short hills and then began to follow a woman with a pink shirt as I sped up on the downhills that lead from the rocky ledges to a flat marsh trail covered with ferns.  I made the first of many audible sighs of frustration after one muddy water crossing and, when the woman in front of me asked if I were okay, I laughed and told her that I had not wanted to get my feet wet this early on a cold race day.  When I realized that I was power-walking up a hill faster than the woman was running, I passed her, but she soon caught up with me.  The two of us would continue to pass each other for the remainder of this 40 mile race.  I soon caught up with another GUTS friend, Amy, and we encouraged each other as we made our way to the next aid station together.

After crossing back over the highway just before Mile 11, I arrived at the second aid station, refilled my Camelbak with water, and thanked the volunteers for being there.  I grabbed a greedy handful of Oreo cookies, and took off down the trail, knowing that the harshly treacherous rocks of the Dowdell Knob trail section might very well shatter my good spirits as they had during my first Pine Mountain 40 experience.  After crossing another road and enjoying a series of easy flat trails alongside a creek bed, I made a sharp turn across a creek ravine and started the first of several punishing rock-strewn uphill climbs near the Dowdell Knob parking area.

As I made my way to Dowdell Knob, the hills became steeper and the boulders became larger. I had enjoyed a 14 minute-per-mile pace so far, but that pace soon slowed as the trails became less runnable and more challenging with the fallen leaves.  The insidious nature of the Pine Mountain 40 first became evident along this section of hill climbs and ever-present granite outcroppings, so I was soon concentrating on each foot strike to safely negotiate the trail.  I arrived at the Mile 14 aid station and was glad to see two friends, Scott and Len, helping to work the station before beginning their trail sweeper duties.  When Scott asked how I was doing, I told him only half-jokingly that I was already worn out and cynical.

The most difficult section of this race awaited as I left the cheerful company of the Mile 14 aid station and proceeded into a brutally rocky area of the trail system. Being careful not to slide on the dry leaves that made the sloping trail camber even more slippery, I stepped from one rock to another.  My ankles were soon crying out in pain.  Every technical trail race presents a challenge to unprepared ankles, but the ankle discomfort that I experienced on this day was far worse than anything that I have been through in my ultrarunning life.  I began to wonder if my concentration on weight loss during the past few months had taken too much time away from my ankle-strengthening practice runs along local trails.  On the other hand, my residual fatigue from my recent races may have been the culprit.  At any rate, my ankles began to shout at me that they had been through enough during the year of 2010.

I was happy to catch up to Jo Lena, an ultrarunner with whom I had run at Mount Cheaha 50K and Hot To Trot 8 Hour Run.  We were both struggling and, although I tried my best to joke and keep up the good cheer, I soon found myself whining about how much my ankles were hurting.  Since the only thing ahead of me was more trail, though, I had to rub some dirt on the ankle pain and keep moving along.  I kept running along a scenic flat area before descending a series of potentially tragically dangerous stretches of trail switchback to the bottom of the hill.

My longtime ultramarathon strategy of walking the uphill inclines and running the downhills and flats was soon altered for this particular race.  On these Pine Mountain trails, where several inches of leaves concealed rock outcroppings and occasional tree roots, I decided that I needed to run on any area where I could actually see the trail surface, regardless of whether I was climbing a steep hill or making a sharp descent.  Fortunately, my recent treadmill incline workouts and Sunday morning runs up the steep Kennesaw Mountain Road had paid off, so I was often able to jog up the hills with relative ease.  Of course, at Mile 17 of the Pine Mountain 40, I considered the mere ability to remain upright to be a state of “relative ease”.

Photo courtesy of Andy Bruner
I arrived at the Rocky Point aid station, a section that I would cross twice along the route, and was encouraged by two good friends, Kirsten and Paul, as I loaded up on Gatorade, topped off my Camelbak with water, and grabbed some animal crackers.  I was now on temporary reprieve from the dangerous rocky trails and I could run at a steady pace along the a pleasantly flat non-technical trail section for a couple of miles before hitting a snail pace on the multiple creek crossings later on.

I ran as much as possible along the flat terrain to make the best time that I could along this lollipop loop trail that marked the farthest point away from the race start. With every blessing comes a curse, though, and I remembered how my nonstop running along this section had given way to shin pain at last year's race. As if my thoughts of injury had summoned it, a dull ache began in my right knee.  Since the overuse injury pain my right knee had been one factor that led to my DNF on the same trails at The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile in October, I knew that this ache was not to be taken lightly.  Still, I was keeping track of the time on my Garmin wristwatch and knew that the minutes were whittling away toward the 6-hour cutoff time at the next aid station.  I needed to run along these flat trails while the running was good.

The wide open spaces of the flat non-technical trail soon ended and I descended into a darker fern-covered area on the way to the first of several creek crossings. The opportunity for nonstop carefree running was gone and my good spirits had departed with it.  The stepping stones over the water of the creek ravine made pain erupt in my ankles each time I stepped at an uneven angle.  The ankle pain, along with my rediscovered aches in the right knee, contributed to my downcast mood while I struggled to keep ahead of other runners as I heard their voices close behind on the trail.  I tried to cheer myself up by replaying Leslie Nielsen movie scenes in my head and singing lyrics to favorite songs, but the mental barricades that I had built to keep the rioting of physical pain at bay were being slowly battered down.  I soon began cursing under my breath with each uneven step along the boulders, because my ankles were dying slowly with each angled impact.

I descended into a ravine by a waterfall and was greeted once again by Amy, who was back on the trail after making a wrong turn.  She seemed relieved to see me, because she knew that she was on the right path again, and I was relieved in turn to see a familiar face.  I tried to be on my best behavior around Amy and refrain from cursing with each uneven rock step on my ankles, but I visibly winced a few times when the pain was at its worst.   Still, I resorted to to a few lame joking comments as we power-walked and occasionally ran along the ravine beds.  Whenever Amy and I would climb out of the creek ravine, I would reassure her that I thought that we were finally out of the creek crossings, but the trail kept descending back down into the creek a seemingly infinite number of times.   Finally, the unsure footing of the creek crossings disappeared as we ran a gradual uphill to the Mile 23 aid station.

As I repeatedly looked down at my watch and saw the cutoff time creep closer, despair kicked through my mental wall and settled into my psyche.  I had experience of multiple ultra races under my belt.  I had lost 60 pounds this year.  I had timed my nutrition well and the loopy dehydration that had slowed me along this stretch last year was not a factor.  I still was not any faster, though.  Why not?  I was well-hydrated, I was well-fed, and I was walking less on this course than I had walked last year, but I was so tired. My ankles were killing me and my knee was aching again, but, more than anything, I was just exhausted.

I thought about the Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile trail race that I had scheduled for February 2011 and I made a decision that, if my aching knee did not allow me to finish this Pine Mountain 40 Mile Trail Run, then I would withdraw my entry to that 100 mile race in order to start from the very beginning and slowly build my long distance running base up from scratch.  If I were unable to complete a 40 mile trail race, then I had no business even attempting a 100 mile race in a couple of months.  I had no plans to drop myself from Pine Mountain 40 Mile, of course, but I was certain that I would be pulled for failing to make the cutoff times.

I reached the TV Tower aid station at Mile 23 to see the friendly faces of Jaydene and Tom.   Tom is the guardian angel of GUTS races and so many ultrarunners have made their way to the finish line thanks to his presence.  When Tom and Jaydene asked how I was doing, I told them that my knee was bothering me and that I was close to the cutoff time.  Tom poured me some Gatorade and told me that I was okay to keep going.  When Tom tells you that you can keep going, you keep going.  The runners whose voices I had heard behind me all along the creek crossing stretches appeared at the aid station right on my heels and I smiled to myself when I realized that two ultrarunning inspirations, Susan and Rob, were a part of the group.  All this time, I had been struggling to stay ahead of a group of runners without knowing that two of them were friends who always encourage me by the very sight of them steadily plowing along the trail.  One of the runners asked how close they were to cutoffs and, when Tom told them that we all had 15 minutes to cutoff, Rob smiled and said, “15 minutes is a lot of time! Right, Jason?”.  I sheepishly nodded my head and joined Rob, Susan, and their friends, Liza and Tracy, for a short stretch of invitingly flat trails to our second stop at the Rocky Point aid station.

The cushioned section of trails alongside a marsh leading away from the TV Tower aid station temporarily assuaged the discomfort in my ankles and I kept up with Rob and Susan for a mile or two to enjoy talking with them.  I am sure that I was quite the downer, though, as I told them that I was worried about my knee and that, if I did not make the cutoffs for this race, I would bow out of my entry to the Rock Raccoon 100.  Rob assured me that I was definitely going to finish this Pine Mountain race and that I would be surprised at how much easier the trails were at Rocky Raccoon.  Once again, I was helped by angels on the trail and, even after Susan and Rob began to outpace me, I found myself smiling with the realization that I only had just over 15 miles left in this race and that I would be able to keep going without being pulled at an aid station.  I decided with absolute conviction that I could not let my final race of 2010 result in a DNF.

I refilled my Camelbak with water at the Rocky Point aid station as Kirsten, Paul, and some other volunteers encouraged me.  I am always reluctant to take any ibuprofen during long trail races, but I inquired at this aid station and gratefully accepted two ibuprofen tablets from a volunteer.  Had this been a longer ultra race, I would never have considered such a strategy for fear of the effect on kidneys and I still took care to accept only two tablets, but I knew that I only had a few hours of trail running ahead of me.  I was happy to hear that I was now 20 minutes ahead of cutoff and that I had managed to make up good time as I had run with Susan and Rob from the last station.

A old ultrarunning saying, “It's always darkest before it gets pitch black.”, surfaced in my head as I soon passed a rocky stretch that taxed my ankles again and found myself on a tricky leaf-covered trail along the side of a hill.  I passed a friendly couple and gave them some brief encouragement, but I immediately slipped on some dry leaves aside the hill and fell on my side on top of some pointed rocks.  The couple asked me if I were okay as I stood up, inspected a patch of blood on my hand, and brushed the leaves off. I smiled, told them that I was alright, and kept running.

I ran for another fifty feet before falling a second time.  I cursed under my breath and threw a handful of leaves down the hill in anger before laughing wearily at the couple behind me.  I told them, “I'll be alright as long as I stop falling."  I stood up and kept running.

A few seconds later, I slipped on the dry leaves again and fell for the third time.  I pounded a fist on the ground and made a loud yell of frustration as I stood up and brushed the leaves away.  Pine Mountain Trail had scored three points while I was still at zero.

I stood up and nodded at the couple behind me.  Both of them smiled back at me with that same gracefully accepting, yet wary smile that people have when they encounter homeless drunks staggering along alleys with liquor bottles in hand.  Knowing that they were both watching me from behind and hoping that I would not fall again, I sped up my running pace on an uphill when I saw that the path was clear of leaves.

The leaves and rocks of the Pine Mountain trail had given me three reality checks in short succession, but I was uninjured and able to keep moving.  I ran when I could see a trail without leaf cover and then slowed to a leisurely jog or walk when the trail morphed into rocky terrain obscured by the leaves.  Despite the embarrassing falls, my mood was brightening as I realized that I had a chance of not only finishing this race, but securing a faster time than I did the year before.  The weather was heating up and, when the next hour hit on the hour, I took two S-Caps instead of one to ward off cramps.

As I negotiated the uneasy footing and cleared leaves out of my path on the climbs up to Dowdell Knob, I decided that I never wanted to look at a leaf ever again.  I hated leaves.  As soon as I returned home, I intended to delete the scenic fall leaf-change hiking photos from my Facebook wall forever.  The thought of a leafless world put a smile to my face.

I realized that my knee was feeling better.  This relief was too soon after the ibuprofen at the previous aid station, so I wondered if the improved knee was a result of warming up along the run in the afternoon temperatures or if it was a result of my change in attitude.  My ankles were still crying out in pain with the more treacherous angled steps, but I just told myself to push through this pain.  My good humor was returning, I was getting a second wind, and I wanted to ride the wave.

I saw a runner ahead of me stumble and take a scary fall on the rocks, but he smiled and told me that he was okay when I expressed concern.  I told him not to feel bad, because I had recently fallen three times just a short while ago.

I arrived at the Dowdell Knob aid station with a smile and joked with the volunteers as I filled my Camelbak, despite a brief irritating moment when I failed to properly secure the external fill Camelbak lid and spilled water all over myself in the cold wind.  I grabbed a handful of Fig Newtons and quickly left to make the most of my expanded time window away from the cutoffs.  The large boulders along this section of trail reduced me to a fast walk, but I stayed positive with a steady pace and was soon rewarded when I descended into the creek ravine to start running with vigor on a flat section of trail that I had enjoyed several hours before.

I crossed a road and followed the white ribbon trail markers up a hill, remembering to follow the trail correctly to prevent turning in a circle and having a meltdown like I did last year at this same spot.  With my improved disposition, my progress along this trail stretch was nearly effortless.  I was surprised and uplifted to see Joel at the next aid station, because I had assumed that he was far ahead on the trail.  He taunted me with some friendly competition and told me to catch him as he left the aid station for the trees.  I drank a cup of Gatorade and took a bag of watermelon GU Chomps with me as I returned to the trail.  Catching up to Joel seemed like the right thing to do and I soon ran up behind him on the trail, seriously impressed that he was making good time despite suffering from tendonitis after his Pinhoti 100 finish a month earlier.  We wished each other well and I hurried along to the next aid station, enjoying the easier trail on this marked route that took us to the final aid stop.

I arrived at the final aid station and was greeted by cheerful volunteers.  As I had before along every stop, I thanked the volunteers for being out there and helping us.  At this early December ultra race where the wind whistled loudly and made cold stabs at the skin on top of the ridges where most of these aid stations were situated, the volunteers were the real stars of this show for standing around without a chance to elevate their body temperatures by running.  I remembered my stretch of volunteer work at the Pinhoti 100 the month before and realized once again that these people were showing some real gracious fortitude for my sake and for the sake of the other runners.

I had 5.9 miles left to run and I felt better than I ever had this late into an ultramarathon.  My weight loss, my recent uphill exercises, and my unwavering commitment to consume 300 to 400 calories every hour from the beginning of this trail run had come together and I knew that I had learned well from the mistakes that I had made at last year's Pine Mountain race, even if my finish time might not quite show it.  I knew that I would not be beating last year's time by much, if at all, but I felt that I was running a better race this time around.

I made my way along a series of switchbacks by running the downhills and even tackling some of the uphills with a run to take advantage when leaves were not on the trail.  I made a sharp turn after a road crossing and quickly climbed uphill to the ridge trail with view of a crisp cold December afternoon landscape spread out below me.  I saw Amy for the third time along the trail and congratulated her on being so close to the finish for her first 40 mile ultra.  After quickly power-walking through one perilous boulder stretch along the ridge, I broke out into a run when the trail veered to the right away from the rocks.  I had four miles to go and I was exhausted, but the finish line was getting closer with each step.

I did something that I had never done during an ultramarathon before when I ran past the final aid station, a water stop at Buzzard's Roost by the final road crossing, without stopping for water or food.  I had enough water in my Camelbak to keep going and I was going to run while I had the energy to run.

I ran across the road and was overjoyed to see Susan, Rob, and their two friends just ahead of me. I caught up to them and thanked them warmly for encouraging me during my earlier low point, because I would have certainly failed to finish if I had not encountered them at the right place and the right time.  I talked with Susan for several minutes as we ran together down the final hill before the trail flattened by a creek on the way back to the finish line shelter.  She cheered me along before waiting for her friends.

I had never run the final four miles of an ultramarathon without stopping for a walk break before and I wanted to test myself.  Exhaustion was creeping in and the wheels on my bus were about to fall off, but still I ran.  I passed by another GUTS friend, Kim, as we rounded a creek turn less than a mile and half from the finish.  I remembered the mantra of a running friend who always told himself, “The faster I run, the faster I'm done! The faster I run, the faster I'm done!”

The trail crossed over small creek bridges and dipped into a few ravines. I knew that I was on my last mile, but that last mile seemed never to end.  My legs were ready to fall off and I knew that several days of painful soreness awaited me, but I did not stop my continuous run. I picked up my speed as I sensed the finish area just ahead.  The faster I run, the faster I'm done! The faster I run, the faster I'm done!

I ran even faster when I saw cars through the trees and I rounded out one sadistically cruel final turn that veered deeper into the woods again before running over a small wooden bridge to emerge into the open space of the finish area.  I crossed the finish line of the 2010 Pine Mountain 40 Mile Trail Run in 10:01:50, six minutes faster than my previous time at this race.

Weariness hit me like a metal wrecking ball the second that I stopped.   The volunteers guided me to a chair as I explained that I had just run the last four miles without walking.  I probably lacked the dazed amusement that I had at last year's finish and I was more coherent this time around, but it still felt great to sit down.  I soon stood up again to cheer Rob, Susan, Liza, Tracy, Kim, and a few others to the finish and we all walked into the group shelter building.

I made short work out of some beef stew as I congratulated fellow runners and shared stories.  My final race of 2010 was the first race of the year where I had managed to improve on a previous distance record and I felt for sure that this was my best race to date.  One does not really finish an ultramarathon alone, though, and I was grateful for friends that pulled me out of a mental abyss when I most needed it.  I hope that I can do the same thing for somebody else during a future run.  I am now very much looking forward to my first 100-mile attempt in February of 2011.

One of my favorite running quotes states, “It doesn't have to be fun to be fun.”  The low moments of an ultramarathon are not fun in themselves, but the enjoyment comes with finding the ability to climb out of those rough spots and persevere.  When you finish 40 miles of a treacherously rocky trail in just over ten hours, you can then drive back home on an interstate highway, note the mile markers, and smile to yourself after you've driven 40 miles now that you know that you have the ability to run that distance.  That kind of experience is the most pure fun that there is, because it is the fun that comes with a sense of accomplishment and a small bit of insanity. 

Thanks to the race director, Sarah, and to the GUTS crowd for sponsoring another excellent race.  The 2010 Pine Mountain 40 Mile Trail Run was the best way for me to close the door on a year of races that I will never forget. 

See you on the trails.


Saturday, November 27, 2010

Atlanta Half Marathon 11/25/10 (Race Report)

On November 25, 2010, I completed the Atlanta Half Marathon with a finish time of 2:02:47.

The half marathon is a perfect race distance.  Ultramarathons and marathons are more fun for me, because of the epic scale adventure of each experience, but I am just happy to complete those races in one piece.  When it comes to competitively racing against others, the 13.1-mile half marathon distance appeals to my skill level. Unlike the local 5K and 10K events, where the races are over before I hit my stride, the half marathon distance allows me an opportunity to ease into my comfort zone speed before intensifying my focus and pushing myself to run faster.  Although I was recovering from the Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon that I had completed less than two weeks prior, I still welcomed the opportunity to test myself against others at the Atlanta Half Marathon.

The Atlanta Half Marathon, an annual Thanksgiving morning event sponsored by the Atlanta Track Club, lives up to its slogan by inviting the runner to “Earn your turkey!”  The 2010 race would be utilizing an out-and-back loop course that differed from the traditional point-to-point route in previous years, but the goals would be much the same for most of us who wanted to enjoy a run with few friends among the thousands of participants and to burn a few calories preemptively before joining our families in front of a massive table spread of turkey, dressing, and pumpkin pie.

I arrived at the Turner Field start area of this event just after 6:00 in the morning dressed appropriately for the uncommonly warm 50-degree temperature and I welcomed the rare opportunity to run a Thanksgiving race in shorts and a short-sleeve running shirt.  The start area was crowded, but I encountered a few friends as I waited in the bathroom lines and then found a place in my specified race corral section.  In the minutes before the race start, I talked with a friend, Lee, about the possibility of beating my previous half marathon time record (1:55:45 from the easier Atlanta Half course of 2008) and we both agreed that this race was probably too crowded and hilly to have any finish line expectations.  Visions of a new personal record for the half marathon distance were still dancing around in my head, though, and I made a silent promise to adhere to a pacing strategy that would allow me to beat my previous record.  For the first seven miles of this course, I planned for an average minute-per-mile pace of just under 9:30 before accelerating to a significantly faster speed to benefit from the momentum of passing the halfway point after the crowds had hopefully thinned.

For the first few miles, I enjoyed a 9:20 average pace and utilized Galloway intervals of running for four minutes and walking for one minute.  I have run a half marathon in the past without using the intervals, but I decided to err on the side of caution this time around, since I was was still recovering from the full marathon a week and half ago and since I was preparing for the Pine Mountain 40 Mile Trail Run in early December.  I have learned to appreciate the Galloway intervals as a forced pace strategy to keep myself from going out too fast early in a long distance race and I knew that this half marathon would probably not be an exception.   I had unfortunately neglected to program my Garmin watch for the run/walk intervals before this race, so I had no beeping interval alerts.   I was still able to follow the interval plan by watching my time, although I accidentally ran through a few walk intervals during the race when my thoughts were distracted.

The new course for the Atlanta Half Marathon was invitingly scenic as the race took us through the downtown area beside Centennial Olympic Park, behind the athletic center at the Georgia Tech campus, and through the recently-constructed Atlantic Station area, where families waved at the runners from their condominium windows.  My first encounter with the Millennium Gate, a classical Roman-style monument arch within the Atlantic Station area, was an unexpected highlight of the race.

The first noticeable hill climb of the course greeted me on the sixth mile of the course on 14th Street and I enjoyed the subsequent downhill run into Piedmont Park.  I was carrying an Ultimate Direction handheld water bottle with a couple of Crank e-Gels, but I took advantage of the Powerade offered at a race aid station as I entered the park.  Piedmont Park is one of my favorite places to run with my training group on weekends and I took in the fall leaf change scenery of the park as I proceeded along the narrow paved path with 10,000 close friends.  I passed by a small group of runners in Thanksgiving costumes.  A few of the runners wore Native American headdresses, but I wondered why one of the runners in their crowd was dressed like a penguin.  I then realized that my fatigue had gotten the better of me, because I had mistaken a turkey costume for a penguin costume.

After exiting the park, runners received a painful dose of reality with some insidious hill climbs on Juniper Street as we made our way back into the downtown Atlanta area.  The eighth mile of a half marathon is always a tricky part of the race for me, because I know that I still have five miles to cover as fatigue is starting to set in.  I took some Jelly Belly Sport Beans from an aid station volunteer, rubbed dirt on my worries, and soldiered on.

When I run a half marathon race, I am certain that I will complete the distance, but there is always the question of whether or not I will embarrass myself with a slow finish time.  As I encountered hill after hill along the eighth and ninth miles of this course through downtown Atlanta and through the historic Martin Luther King, Jr. neighborhood, the temptation to slow to a permanent walk for the final miles of the course seeped into my psyche, but I knew that sticking to my run interval plan would get me to the food and friends at the finish line faster and that it was best to keep pushing through with my 9:20 pace through the increasingly warm and humid morning.

My initial goals for the race had called for pushing myself to run a sub-9:00 pace during the last four miles of the course, but each new hill along the final miles of this half marathon stole a small piece of my ambition.  As poet Robert Burns would say, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.  The hills of the course sapped energy and the race was still too crowded even in the final miles to really open up my run. As it was, I still had to be careful for runners behind me when I started each Galloway walk interval, because I did not want anybody running at my heels to be taken off guard when I abruptly started walking.

When I realized for certain that my hopes for a finish time of less than two hours had evaporated, I decided to dispense with the Galloway run/walk intervals for the final 1.5 miles of the course and push myself through the pain by running nonstop to the finish.  This was easier said than done, because I soon found myself running up the toughest hill of the course with minimum energy in reserve.  I put one foot in front of the other for the uphill and looked down at my feet as I ran, oblivious to the view of the State Capitol building next to me.  When I rounded the final turn of the course and made my way down Hank Aaron Drive to the finish, I tried to run myself into exhaustion so that my finish time would not crawl too far over the two-hour mark.  I saw Wayne, a friend from the GUTS (Georgia Ultrarunning and Trailrunning Society) group, cheering me on beside the Olympic rings as I accelerated on the downhill to the finish line.

I crossed the finish line of the Atlanta Half Marathon with an official time of 2:02:47.  During the final mile and half of the course, I had lowered my average pace time from 9:20 to 9:13.

I received my race medal, grabbed a bagel and some cookies at the food lines, and spotted a handful of friends before making my way to my truck.  A pleasant afternoon with my family awaited me, along with the familiar joy of negating the health benefits of a long run with delicious food.  I looked forward to ending the day with an excuse to run again.

See you on the trails.


Monday, November 15, 2010

Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon 11/13/10 (Race Report)

On November 13, 2010, I completed the Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon with a finish time of 4:30:03.

The Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon takes place in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia along the roads of the Chickamauga Battlefield Park, the oldest military park in the country.  The park commemorates the Battle of Chickamauga, an 1863 Civil War campaign that resulted in the second highest casualty count of the war.  I have long held an interest in the history of Chickamauga, because an ancestor of mine survived there after more than half of his regiment was lost, and because one of my favorite short stories, “Chickamauga” by Ambrose Bierce, describes a harrowing scenario of the battle.  In present day, the pastoral landscapes of this area belie the carnage that once took place there, and a recent issue of Runner's World magazine named this race as one of the most scenic marathons in the country.  The double-loop course of the Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon circles through the park to provide views of elaborate war monuments, idyllic meadows, rolling hills, and trees with fall leaf change colors.

In 2009, I achieved a personal record at the Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon with my finish time of 4:20:10, so I was eager to revisit this race and put my current fitness to the test.  When asked by fellow runners about the chances of beating my record from the previous year, however, I replied honestly that I had no idea how I would perform this time around.  My recent 60-pound weight loss would work to my advantage, but I would also be approaching this year's Chickamauga race on legs fatigued from a series of challenging trail ultramarathons over the previous two months.  The pain in my right knee that had resulted in my first DNF (Did Not Finish) experience at The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile on October 16 had lessened after weeks of recovery, but I still felt a dull ache in the knee going into this marathon almost a month later.  My decision to concentrate on weight loss over the past five months in lieu of speed work would also fall against my favor for this event.  After months of mid-week anaerobic heart rate weight loss workouts and weekend endurance long runs, I had literally forgotten how to pace myself for speed at pavement races.  A wise man once said that, if you fail to plan, then you plan to fail.  I certainly did not feel that failure was a possibility, but I knew that I was going into this road marathon blindly without a clear strategy.

Strategy or no strategy, I was happily excited to run the 2010 Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon and I felt no real nervousness going into the event, aside from a few prayers that my recovering knee would make it through the race.  I was looking forward to spending time with friends, I was looking forward to a well-organized event on a cool sunny November morning, and, although I am not one to obsess over race medals, I looked forward to earning another one of the amazing Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon race medals that are based on different state monuments each year.  On Friday afternoon, I drove two hours north to Fort Oglethorpe with loud music blasting in my truck and with joyous anticipation of a fun race the following morning.

After picking up my race number, a race hat, and an impressive long-sleeve technical race shirt from the Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon Race Expo, I joined some local friends for dinner at Carrabba's Italian Grill in nearby Chattanooga.  I have never been a fan of traditional heavy carbohydrate loading pasta meals on the evening before a race and I normally do not eat a large meal after noon on the day before a race, but I threw my standard routine to the wind on this night by ordering pork chops, garlic mashed potatoes, and Italian bread.  Over dinner, I enjoyed the company of some fellow GUTS (Georgia Ultrarunning and Trailrunning Society) runners, Beth, Stacey, and Ami, and made a few new friends as we all discussed our plans for the race.  I told everyone that, while I hoped to approach my personal marathon record from the previous year, I really did not have a plan, other than to finish the race and to enjoy myself on the course.  For the first time ever, I slept soundly in my hotel room on the night before a race, and, when I woke up seven hours later, I was assured that my decision to eat a large evening meal was the right decision.

On the morning of the race, I was enthusiastic as I dressed in my road marathon running gear.  Since I knew that the cold early morning temperatures in the mid-40's would warm up to a mid-day temperature in the mid-70's, I dressed in a short sleeve running shirt with compression shorts underneath my normal running shorts.  As with my trail ultramarathons, I wore double pairs of Balega socks to minimize blisters after first putting baby powder on my feet.  I also wore Zensah compression leg sleeves to enhance blood flow through my shins.  Since this road marathon featured aid stations every couple of miles along the course, I opted not to wear my 70-ounce Camelbak Rogue hydration pack and, instead, I would be carrying a 20-ounce Ultimate Direction handheld water bottle.  I wore my favorite brand of road shoes, New Balance 850, because they are the ideal shoe for my low-arch overpronator running gait.  My standard NikeFit running shorts have deep pockets and, for this race, I stuffed each pocket with Crank e-Gels, with the intention of eating a gel every 20 or 30 minutes during the marathon to utilize the same strategy of taking in 300-400 calories every hour as I did during longer trail races.  I would find out later that these gel-filled pockets would swing out of the legs of my loose running shorts and flop around as I ran, resulting in a comical appearance, but I do not try to look suave while running anyway, so this was of no consequence.

The only undesired side effect of my 60-pound weight loss is that cold weather now wreaks havoc on me and chills me to the bone.  When I arrived at the start area behind the 6th Cavalry Museum, I remained inside my truck for a half hour before taking refuge in a heated tent to wait for the 7:30 morning start time.  Ten minutes before the start of the race, I emerged from the tent into the uncomfortable chill to line up near the back of the crowd at the race start.  I was happy to see Paul, another GUTS runner, waiting nearby and we wished each other luck while doing our best to stay warm.

The Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon really does start with a bang by way of a deafeningly loud cannon blast from the field behind the museum.  Since I knew what to expect from having run this race the previous year, I watched the cannon preparations and took secretly malevolent amusement from the startled jumps of nearby runners as the cannon was fired.  I wished Paul the best of luck one final time and then turned on my Garmin Forerunner GPS watch just before crossing over the timed start line.  As I picked up an easy running speed, I encountered yet another GUTS runner, Cindy, with whom I had enjoyed running at the recent StumpJump 50K race. As always, I was inspired to see Cindy's enthusiasm for another great race adventure. After wishing luck to Cindy and her friend, Alex, I increased my speed to take advantage of a low-key first mile around the Cavalry Museum field and to warm myself up in the cold temperatures.

As I always do for road marathon races, I was utilizing Galloway run/walk intervals of four minutes running, followed by one minute of walking, from the very beginning of the race.  The Galloway run/walk intervals are a constant subject of debate among marathon runners and the idea of taking walk breaks as strategy can stab at my male ego, but I found years ago that the Galloway training program appealed to me as a way to regulate my pace and energy expenditure from the beginning of a long run.  In early 2008, I ran my first half marathon without stopping for a finish time of 2:02. In the fall of 2008, I joined a Galloway Marathon Training program and soon completed my second half marathon with a finish time of 1:55.  Since then, I have been sold on the idea of the Galloway walk breaks as a solid strategy to vary the use of muscles during a long run and to keep some energy in the bank for the final miles of an endurance event.

My readiness for a race is normally a gradual affair as I casually walk or jog from a starting area before settling into a rhythm, so my fast-paced start to this Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon came as a surprise. I instantly kicked into a sub-10:00 running pace and felt comfortable in my skin at this speed.  As the runners thinned out on a brief wide trail road portion on the way to the main loop of the course in the second mile, I realized that I was able to comfortably hold on to a 9:30 average pace even with my Galloway walk breaks.

At this point, early in the race, I needed to make a decision about my pace strategy.  I knew that, if I could finish the race with an average pace of less than 9:59 minutes per mile, I would be able to beat my previous marathon record finish time of 4:20:10.  If I maintained a 9:30 average pace, I would also be able to push the envelope of my ability and complete a marathon close to the four-hour mark.  I had enjoyed a similar average pace of around 9:30 during the first half of the 2009 Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon before I succumbed to severe leg cramps during the last half of the race. Since I had planned ahead for the possibility of cramping at this second Chickamauga experience and brought S-Caps to consume along with my increased gel intake, I decided to follow the same pace strategy and go for broke to keep a 9:30 average pace as long as I could do so.  I knew that my decision to keep a fast pace above my comfort zone for the first half of this marathon would likely result in a breakdown during the final miles once again, but I rolled the dice as I found myself overestimating my post-weight loss running fitness.

The Jeff Galloway run/walk interval strategy is a strategy that allows the conservative runner to benefit from a negative split race, where the last half of the race is completed at a faster pace than the first half.  A runner employing the negative split strategy might decide that, if he does not have to ask himself whether or not he is running too slow during the first half of a marathon, then he is running that first half too fast.  On the other hand, a runner who decides to go for broke and employ a positive split strategy of running the first half of the race at a faster pace than the second half might convince himself that faster speeds in the first 13 miles will make up for any time lost due to fatigue over the final 13 miles.  By running at a speed beyond my comfort zone while simultaneously using the Galloway run/walk intervals, I was taking a gamble that my endurance training and weight loss would come together to keep me from breaking down in the final miles of the Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon as I had in 2009.  A voice of reason in the back of my mind kept telling me to slow down so that history would not repeat itself, but I was enjoying my 9:30 average pace on the rolling hills of this first course loop and I wanted to see how far I could ride the wave.

I would later realize that I should have listened to the voice in the back of my mind telling me to slow down. The back of the Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon race shirt describes this race as “26.2 Miles of History”, and I was willfully ignoring history to satisfy my ego.  I had broken down in the final miles of the 2009 Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon by following the same fast pace strategy that I was now using a second time around, but I kept convincing myself that history would not be repeated.  I would look down at my Garmin to see an average pace of 9:24 or so as I started a one-minute walk break, then confidently race out faster in the four-minute running interval when my Garmin would show an average pace of less than 9:30 at the end of the walk break.  With each subsequent run/walk interval, my average pace became more constant and I soon began holding onto a pace of around 9:27 even through my walk intervals.

During the ninth mile of the course, I started down a one-mile out-and-back segment down a side road that veered off of the main loop and was happy to see my friend, Beth, and a few other runners coming back along the same road.  Since I knew that Beth had a history of winning age group awards for her road races, the voice of reason in the back of my head yelled at me to slow down, because I had no business being this close behind Beth on the ninth mile of a marathon.  I temporarily smothered the voice of reason with my bloated ego and soldiered on, happy to see the 9:27 average pace display on my Garmin that might very well lead me to a new personal record.  I used my walk breaks to consume a Crank e-Gel every 20 to 30 minutes, as I had planned, while downing water from my handheld bottle, and I took advantage of the Powerade offered at each aid station to supply additional electrolytes.

My favorite part of the course, a long gradual downhill beside vast fenced pastures of cannon monuments and stone towers, gave me the chance to speed up and maintain the average pace beyond my pre-race expectations.  I passed an aid station next to a railroad track and enjoyed a brief departure from park grounds on the other side of the tracks before returning across the tracks in another half mile.  A race photographer was situated on the other side of railroad tracks on the return route and I briefly mourned the goofy appearance of my gel-filled running pockets that were swinging back and fourth under the raised legs of my running shorts.  I knew that the best deterrent to an unfavorable running photo was to run faster, so I picked up my pace yet again before hitting a walk break interval cycle after I passed the photographer.

I finished the first 13.1 miles of the Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon and reached the halfway point of the course in just over two hours.  I was pleased that, despite my lack of speed work, my pace was still yielding the possibility of a sub-2-hour stand alone half marathon time.  I let that confidence rocket me along for another mile.

The second half of the Chickamauga course was insidiously exhausting as the same rolling hills that seemed easy on the first loop somehow increased in steepness the next time around and the temperatures that caused shivers during my first few walk breaks picked up in the late morning hours while the ball of sunshine edged overhead above the trees of fallen leaves.  As I finished Mile 14, the realization hit home that I would not be able to finish this marathon in one piece if I tried to continue at a sub-9:30 average pace.  I slightly slowed down my pace and assuaged my ego that I could still achieve a personal record even if my average pace crept up to 9:40 and, eventually, to 9:50.

My confident and happy frame of mind stayed intact as I began to talk to some of the runners that I had been leapfrogging for hours with my Galloway intervals.  I talked for an extended time with one runner who told me that he had traveled from Canada for the race.  He asked me how I was doing and I told him that I had paced out too fast for the first half of the race.  He laughed and reassured me, “I think that we all did that.” I had also leapfrogged two female runners who were running side by side and talking for the entire time.  As I passed by again during one of my running intervals, I overheard one of the women tell the other one that walk breaks were bad during marathons, because it was impossible to start running again after you mentally allowed yourself to walk.  I smiled to myself as I started another of my Galloway walk intervals.  These walk intervals had served me well so far and, even as I edged closer to fatigue and collapse, I stuck to the plan and kept up my four-minute running intervals, regardless of speed.

Photo courtesy of Beth McCurdy
After I passed Mile 19, I remembered that this was the point of the race last year when severe cramps had kicked in.  During that 2009 race, I had run by a large crowd of people by the crossroads of the park and alarmed them when a sudden shooting cramp in my leg caused me to stop running and double over in pain. Fortunately, I experienced no cramps this year and I smiled to the crowd as I ran by, waving at different bystanders and joking around.  I waved to one girl who was sitting on a bank and felt a brief pang of envy that I was not resting on the grassy hill as well.  I thanked the police officers for holding back traffic as I emerged onto the main park road and made my way to Mile 20.

The bloodthirsty hounds of fatigue and self-defeat were unleashed upon me at Mile 20.  When I asked myself what I had been thinking by running a sub-9:30 minute per mile pace along the first half of the course, I immediately followed that by laughing at my own stupidity, because I clearly remembered asking myself the same question at this same stretch of the marathon last year. 

I did not see Beth during my second trip down the one-mile out-and-back, but I did see another friend, Daniel, and the sight of a familiar face picked up my spirits.  I also enjoyed seeing another friend, Don, a group leader for a faster pace group in the Atlanta Galloway Marathon Training program.  I left the out-and-back and enjoyed my last extended running stretch alongside the beautiful pastures of the gradual downhill leading to the railroad tracks.  Before I reached those tracks, however, energy disappeared from my legs.  I swayed uneasily on my feet at the railroad aid station and a volunteer assured me that I was just four miles from the end.

My pace had slowed to over 9:50 minutes per mile and I was watching the possibility of a new marathon record fall from my view.  Still, I stuck to the plan and kept up my running intervals until I edged closer to the final railroad crossing and exhaustion took over.  I heard a train whistle and saw a train turn the corner just 500 feet from where I was going to cross over.  I started walking in resignation, because I realized that I would be held up by the train at the crossing anyway and that I could take advantage of the unscheduled walk break to conserve energy.  Unfortunately, this turned out to be a very short train with just five cars, so I laughed again at my stupidity as I tried to resume running through the cleared railroad crossing.

As I started running again, a fresh ache surfaced in my right knee.  I was relieved that shooting pains were not erupting in the knee, as they had during The North Face Endurance 50 Mile attempt in October, but this was still a pain that could not be ignored.  I fell into another walk break and continued walking for another minute after the scheduled one-minute walk interval ended.  When I resumed running, my running form was a mere failed imitation of my self-assured stride from the first half of the race.  As I approached a steep hill next to a majestic tree overlooking a pasture, I passed a girl who told me that she was going to walk the hill.  I decided to stick to my scheduled running interval plan and run the hill.  When I reached the top, however, my knees and ankles sounded their frustration in waves of pain.

My running pace slowed yet again and I was now edging out of the possibility of a marathon finish personal record.  I was still convinced that I could finish faster than my 4:20:10 record, though, so I attempted to pick up my cadence on an extended gradual downhill.  I could see several runners ahead of me who were walking in exhaustion and I knew that I needed to adhere to my running interval plan to pick these runners off.  My plan proved futile as my running became increasingly labored and staggering.  I entered Mile 24 by taking more frequent walk breaks that I needed simply to be able to stand upright.

My feet were hurting at this point from the tightness of my shoes.  The flow of blood down my legs through my compression socks had caused my feet to swell. I tried to ignore this pain, but reluctantly realized that I needed to stop and loosen my shoelaces.  I stood still on the road and leaned over to untie my shoes, but I was too exhausted and loopy to untie the laces with any semblance of coordination.  I tugged at the laces randomly over and over again until they finally came untied. I then tied the shoes again, being careful to leave some slack in the lacing.  My feet instantly felt better, but I had lost more than a minute standing still in on the side of the road.  When I tried to resume running again, my legs locked up in pain.  I finished Mile 24 marker with 20 minutes to go in order to beat my record.  For a short while, I tried to pick up my running cadence to get a sub-10-miles, but the pain in my right knee was quick in protest, along with the heavy fatigue in my legs and ankles.  The moment in a race when one senses the impossibility of increased speed is always a crestfallen moment, but I tried to lighten my mood with the realization that I was still going to finish the marathon with a presentable time.

I reached an aid station just before the Mile 25 marker and found some comic relief in the form of a volunteer who yelled, “Man, you're a big guy! You're tearing up this marathon! How much do you weigh?”  I replied, “226”.  The volunteer gasped, “Awesome! Look at you, outrunning all these skinny people.”  I laughed and broke into a labored run again.  Big marathoners represent!

I could not keep up my four-minute running intervals as I returned to the final wide road trail that took me off of the main loop back to the Cavalry Museum finish line.  I encountered a few runners who looked just as exhausted as I did, though.  I emerged from the trail road and, while I knew that it was too little, too late, I broke into a nonstop run during the final half mile of the course.

When I emerged onto the loop road around the Cavalry Museum field, I saw that the noontime Chickamauga Battlefield Junior Marathon mile was underway and that I would be sharing the finish line with a great many kids.  The timing of this kids' race is a grievance of several Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon participants, as I remembered from the reviews of the race on the Marathon Guide website.  I was personally uplifted to be sharing this final turn of the course with the kids, though.  After all, I am just a kid myself, except that I happen to be 38 years old.  I increased my pace when I saw the Finish banner and smiled for the cameras as I ran across the time markers and turned my Garmin off.  I finished the Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon in 4:30:03.

I graciously accepted my Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon finisher's medal, which was designed from the Tennessee Monument for the 2010 race, and made my way to the food tent of the finish area.  After grabbing a couple of Powerade bottles and a couple of pizza slices, I found some friends, Ami, Beth, Ashley, Daniel, Leta, Dena, Paul, and Stacey, and sat with them under the sun as we compared our race experiences.  My disappointment at not being able to top my personal record was quickly overcome by my gratitude at being blessed with the ability to complete the 26.2 distance in one piece yet again and then spend time with friends at the finish.

The 2010 Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon was a race that I approached without a plan and without proper speed work.  The end result of falling short of my record comes as no surprise, but I enjoyed pushing myself in denial and discovering that I can maintain a solid sub-9:30 pace for the first half of a marathon, even with Galloway walk breaks.  Could I have maintained a slower 9:45-minute pace throughout the 26.2 miles and kept energy in the bank to stave off exhaustion at the end?  I do not know.  All that I do know is that I reached the finish line of a marathon with a smile on my face once again and that I had a fun morning at the park.

See you on the trails.


Monday, October 18, 2010

DNF: The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile 10/16/10 (Race Report)

On October 16, 2010, I had my first DNF (Did Not Finish) at The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile race when I was pulled from the course after arriving 30 seconds too late to the Mile 23.1 aid station cutoff.

The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile, a part of the North Face Endurance Challenge series, took place in Georgia for the first time at the F.D. Roosevelt State Park in Pine Mountain.  This 50-mile trail course features many of the same park trails that I ran for my first ultramarathon, the Pine Mountain 40 Mile Trail Run, in December of last year.  The Pine Mountain Trail system is one of the most beautiful areas in the state for trail running, but it also features some insidiously difficult terrain.  A “technical trail” is any trail where a runner has to watch his or her footing amidst tree roots, rocks, and other obstacles.  Technical is the name of the game on the trails at Pine Mountain, where a pleasant rolling-hill elevation profile belies a trail surface covered with rocks that bruise feet through the most durable trail shoes and cause even the most alert trail runners to stumble.

The possibility that I had signed up for an ultramarathon that was out of my league dawned on me in full when I went to the hotel lobby on the day before the race to return a defective room key and saw Geoff Roes, the accomplished ultrarunner who set a course record at Western States 100 this year, standing in line in front of me.   I introduced myself to Geoff and, when asked about the trails, told him that all the hills at Pine Mountain were runnable, but covered with rocks.   As I returned to my hotel room, I laughed when the thought occurred to me that every hill in the world is probably a “runnable hill” to Geoff Roes.  Several other amazing ultrarunners would be lining up at the start for this inaugural Georgia race of the North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile.  Nikki Kimball, a female winner of Western States in multiple years, would also be racing these trails.  I was looking forward to seeing many of my friends from GUTS (Georgia Ultrarunning and Trailrunning Society), a few of whom would be competing in a 50-mile race for the first time.

I have always been a slower “back of the pack” trail runner, but I was facing The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile with additional disadvantages that I had brought on myself by running the challenging StumpJump 50K on October 2 and then running a 5,600-foot elevation trail marathon, Mystery Mountain Marathon, on October 10.  Months ago, I had made the decision to test my capabilities as a beginning ultrarunner by signing up for these three races on consecutive weekends.  The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile would not be my first attempt at a 50-mile distance, because I had completed the Long Cane 55 Mile in South Carolina just over a month before on September 5, but this would be my first experience competing in such a race with strict cutoff points and a time limit that had allured me by its very nature of seeming unattainable to someone with my track record.  As reality set in over the previous weeks about my chances at this race, I informed anybody who cared to listen that I had no expectations about The North Face Endurance 50 Mile and that I simply wanted to treat this race as a long training run with plentiful aid stations and support.  On the day of the race, I would be going into The North Face Challenge 50 Mile with a slight overuse injury in my right knee that had bothered me since completing the Mystery Mountain Marathon six days before and with a lower body that was still recovering from residual fatigue.

Residual fatigue and knee pain aside, I was excited to line up at the start of The North Face Endurance Challenge 50.   October is my favorite month of the year and my resolution simply to have fun on the trails during leaf change season was working for me.  I had enjoyed some improved race performances over the past two weekends, thanks to a weight loss commitment that I had taken on in late June.  When I weighed in on the gym scales the day before this 50-mile race, I was surprised that I had lost two additional pounds since Mystery Mountain Marathon, bringing my post-June weight loss total to 57 pounds.  I had not intended to lose weight during the five days of recovery after Mystery Mountain Marathon and had, in fact, been eating more nutritionally dense foods to help my legs bounce back.  Just the same, I knew that two additional pounds lost would translate to racing this 50-miler with eight pounds of pressure eased off my knees.   On the day before this race, as I checked into my hotel and went down the street to Callaway Gardens to attend the pre-race panel discussion, I felt the occasional dull ache on the outer side of my right knee as I walked, but I was otherwise energetic and well-rested after the previous five days of icing and recovery.

I encountered several friends and acquaintances at the Callaway Gardens host hotel when I arrived to hear the pre-race panel discussion.  When I first walked into the convention room, I was greeted by one of the most inspiring people whom I have had the privilege of meeting over the past few years in my running life.   Kelly Luckett, an amputee runner who has completed multiple Boston Marathon races and ultra distances, always has a smile and words of encouragement for her fellow runners, so I was glad to see her listed as one of the panel speakers.   I first met Kelly at a GUTS Christmas party last year and had enjoyed running with her at Sean's Hellathon, an unofficial 50K race that some GUTS friends and I had enjoyed this past spring.

After giving my best good luck wishes to friends when the panel presentation ended, I ventured back into the convention room where several people were having their pictures taken with another one of the panel speakers, Dean Karnazes.  Dean Karnazes, author of Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All Night Runner, is an inspiration to me because his noteworthy running accomplishments and for his determination to make ultrarunning accessible to the public.   Dean's quote from Ultramarathon Man, where his father told him, “If you can't run, then walk. And if you can't walk, then crawl. Do what you have to do. Just keep moving forward and never, ever give up.”, is a mantra that has resounded in my mind during every one of my own ultramarathon experiences.  That concept of relentless forward motion is forceful in its simplicity, but also in its application to all aspects of life.  I did not want to take up time while people were standing around wanting as well to meet him, but I briefly shook hands with Dean Karnazes and thanked him for his inspiration, because ultrarunning was something that I had never imagined myself doing when I weighed almost 400 pounds a few years ago.   Dean, who was genuinely modest and encouraging in person, congratulated me and wished me luck.

Photo courtesy of James Rockwell
With my newfound energy from the sight of friends old and new, I went back to my hotel room to prepare for the early wake-up call, since the race was starting at 5:00 in the morning.  I loaded several Crank e-Gels into the lower compartment of my Camelbak Rogue 70-ounce bladder pack that has become my hydration method of choice during long races.  I pinned my race number to my NikeFit running shorts that I would be wearing over a pair of Under Armour compression shorts, as I always do for long runs.   My Montrail Hardrock trail shoes, which had proved invaluable on these same trails last year at Pine Mountain 40, would be part of my outfit once again.

One new running accessory for this race was a Mueller knee strap that I would be wearing on my right knee to correct the tracking with my kneecap.   My current “runner's knee” sensation that bothered me with my right knee was an affliction that I have suffered from occasionally over the years and I have always bounced back quickly from the problem after fastening one of these knee straps just below my kneecap during a run.   More often than not, my knee feels better after a long run than it did in the days before the long run if I wear the knee strap to alleviate the pain.  Because I do not want to rely on such an accessory, I have only used the Mueller knee strap a handful of times during the past couple of years as I have been racing long distances, but my current condition required such a precaution.

I woke up at 2:00 in the morning to get dressed and ready to drive to the parking location, where shuttle buses would take us to the start location for the race.  Since my feet had remained blister-free after StumpJump 50K and Mystery Mountain Marathon, I utilized the same protocol that had served me well during those races.   I applied baby powder to my feet, then put on double pairs of Balega running socks. I would be taking a drop bag to this race with a backup pair of running shoes, additional Crank e-Gels, extra socks, and a couple of bottles of Powerade.   I drove a mile down the street, parked in the Callaway beach parking area, and climbed on the first shuttle bus with a handful of other runners, all of whom were in good spirits in this early morning hour just as I was.  I met with Scott, a friend with whom I had run at Pine Mountain 40, before start of the race.  Scott had made pace cards for both of us with consideration for the minimum pace that we would need to run to complete The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile by the 14-hour time limit.

Scott and I started near the back of the pack after the faster participants ran across the field to the trees where the single-track trail started.   Since the first two and half hours of this race would be run in total darkness, I wore a Petzl Tikka XP headlamp that I angled down to view the trail directly in front of me, while carrying a smaller handheld flashlight to provide a different light perspective and to shine on distant objects.  The volunteers had worked throughout the night to place glow sticks within sight of one another on the trail for the first 16 miles, but the use of a headlamp and a flashlight was still necessary to negotiate the rocky terrain and the tree roots during these early morning hours.   The challenge of the terrain became apparent just seconds after entering the trees and starting the single-track. These Pine Mountain trails are tricky enough in the daylight hours and much more so in total darkness.

Another challenge became apparent shortly into the race. My right knee began to hurt almost immediately with a dull ache as I alternately ran and power-walked the uneven trail surface.   I had expected the inevitable knee trouble, but the onset of pain before five minutes had elapsed into this 50-mile race spread over me like a pall and instantly smothered my enthusiasm.  It is all too easy to let the disappointment of just one setback multiply exponentially during a long distance race, so I would have to struggle to remain positive.  I needed to rub dirt on this issue and keep on trucking, so I focused more on a less knee-intensive forefoot landing with each step as I ran along the dark trail.  As Scott and I joked with a couple of female runners that we passed back and forth for several miles, my spirits lifted and my pace increased.

Scott was wearing his Garmin for the race and he periodically notified me of our approximate running pace during the slower moments when we power-walked the uphills.  We had started close to a 3.0 mile-per-hour pace that we knew was insufficient, but this had accounted for a short period when we were standing by the trees at the start waiting for faster runners to line up on the trail.  As we ran on, the pace increased to 3.3, to 3.4, and eventually to greater than 3.5 miles-per-hour as I made my best effort to run in the darkness when the terrain allowed.  Scott complimented me at one point about how my power-walking pace was faster than the running pace of some people, so I walked quickly to pass people on the uphill stretches, although these same runners would later pass me on the downhills.  As we finished mile after mile to that first aid station, though, the pressure intensified.  We needed to be going faster than 3.5 miles-per-hour to meet the cutoff times. I reassured Scott that we would be able to cover ground faster in daylight, but I still found it possible to speed up on a few comfortable trail stretches even in the darkness.  I checked my stopwatch periodically, because, as with my previous trail races this month, I had resolved to eat one Crank e-Gel every half hour and to take a S-Cap once an hour.  The challenge of running in the darkness increased as I carefully navigated a muddy creek marsh area without sinking into the water.

On a rock-covered trail course that makes running hazardous, it is somewhat ironic that I experienced my only fall of the day on pavement at the first road crossing when I looked up to see a police officer directing us across the road and missed a step-up to the pavement.   I quickly stood up and made sure that my scraped hands weren't bleeding, then kept moving.  As we returned to the trail at the other side of the road, I joked in a gruff manner to Scott that I did not like running on pavement because there were too many things to trip over.  A few trail runners in front of us laughed at my observation, but we all resumed paying attention to the dangers on the trail as our flashlights and headlamps pointed out an increasingly rocky area.  After an eternity of trail running in the darkness, we reached the first aid station. I topped off my Camelbak with water, ate a potato slice, and grabbed two brownies to eat along the way.

As Scott and I entered the trails again and adjusted our eyes to the sights of rocky ground illuminated by our headlamps, flashlights, and occasional glow-sticks, Scott commented that this reminded him of a scene from E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial where government agents were chasing the E.T. creatures through the woods.  Once something gets into your head during a trail run, it is impossible to shake, and I found myself thinking about that movie for the next several minutes.  Scott noted that our pace was still increasing, so this knowledge provided a shot in the arm for my enthusiasm.  My knee pain was gradually getting worse, but there was something strangely uplifting about knowing that I “only” had 45 miles left to go after crossing the first aid station at five miles.  As we began to power-walk up a long hill, we encountered a couple of volunteers who were standing by the more precarious cliff sections to advise runners to watch their step and not fall over the ledges in the darkness.

After being passed by the two female runners after the first aid station, Scott and I were now the last two 50-mile runners on this course.  A runner named Troy who had emerged behind us informed Scott and me that he was a course sweeper and that he had been instructed simply to run behind the last 50-mile runner and notify course officials of the progress.  Troy carried a loud radio with him that crackled constantly with voices as status updates were communicated along the trail system.   I knew that our pace would increase in daylight, but the pressure was on yet again now that we had a sweeper at our heels.

The comfortably cool temperature dipped temporarily as the sun rose and evaporated the mist layer.  This brief dip in temperature is always a good sign to me during my early morning runs that daylight is on the way.  As we occasionally stole glances away from the trail over the ledge to our right, we were relieved to see the beginnings of sunrise to the horizon.  At this point, I was becoming irritable at negotiating the rocks with my flashlight and headlamp.   I do not mind trail running in darkness under normal circumstances, but my gradually increasing knee pain was weighing in on me.  I told Scott that I was apologizing in advance if I became grumpy later as my knee pain got worse, but I still enjoyed hearing his chatter behind me as we talked with Troy about the course.  Daylight was on the way and things could only get better.

Scott and I passed another runner who was standing still with a tired and dazed appearance.  We asked if he was okay and, when he replied in the affirmative, we continued on. Troy, the sweeper, fell behind to accompany this runner who was now in last place.  The mere fact that we had managed to pass another runner gave me a renewed energy, even if it was for the short-term.

We arrived at the second aid station, Fox Den, at Mile 11.2 without difficulty, although my knee pain had exacerbated to a point that I could not ignore it, and we quickly passed through after replenishing our supplies.  I took a couple more brownies in hand, as I had found these bite-size chocolate brownies much to my liking at the first aid station.  Troy joined us again after a few minutes, informing us that the last runner had dropped out after struggling with heart palpitations.  I wished the best for the first of the fallen, knowing that any of us could be close behind.

Daylight was approaching, but my knee pain was intensifying.  I periodically paused on the trail to adjust my knee strap. When we were climbing down a short rocky section, I had felt a couple of shooting pains in my knee and was alarmed, because I knew that this was only the first of many extensive rocky sections along the trail.   I was able to run ahead of Scott most of the time, but Scott is an intelligent pace runner and he was able to catch up with me again and again.  I enjoyed his company, so I found myself looking back to make sure he was behind me when I stopped to power-walk up the hills.  As the sun came up, I appreciated the sight of multiple-leaf-colored trees on the horizon and I was glad to be on the trail this time of the year, even if my body wanted to collapse.

As the challenge of darkness disappeared, another challenge greeted us on the trail.  The North Face Endurance Challenge 50K race had started a couple of hours after our 50 Mile race and, since the 50K course had cut off the longest early section of trail, the fast 50K runners were starting to pass us.  As my fatigue level increased while I was running along these trails with a more pronounced limp from my ailing knee, the unexpected problem of having to move to my right off the narrow trail to accommodate the 50K runner who were passing by proved to be another difficulty.  Fortunately, this difficulty was offset by my happiness at seeing a few 50K runners that I recognized and wishing them well for their run.

As much as I love running on the trail and as much as I love these ultra races, I was still gradually falling victim to negativity as the shooting pains in my knee became more frequent.  As Troy swept the trail behind Scott and me, he informed us about our pace when we asked.  He had told us that we needed to be running at a 16:46 minute-per-mile pace, so we were alarmed when he told us at one point that our pace had decreased to 16:35.  I found a few fun downhill stretches where I ran faster than usual and tried to experiment with finding a cadence that did not bother my knee as much.  These bursts in speed were rewarded as Troy would inform us that we had increased to a 16:20 pace, then to a 16:10 pace.  Still, I knew that we were approaching some harshly rocky sections later at the Mollyhugger aid station area and at the strenuous Dowdell Knob portion of the trail where the boulders were strewn all over the woods.  Scott and I were really going to have to pick up our pace if we wanted to finish this race, but my knee pain was not improving and the trail had been easy so far compared to the terrain that we were about to encounter.

My irritability peaked as I found that I could not stand hearing Troy's sweeper radio crackles right behind me.  I enjoyed running with Troy as he trailed Scott and I, but there was just something about that radio noise that made me let myself succumb to pressure.  I knew that this was not Troy's intention, but running just ahead of that radio was like having another person behind me during a trail run yelling, “Go faster! Go faster!”.  I started to run faster beyond my comfort zone over the rocks and tree roots of this trail to gain as much distance ahead of Troy's radio as I could.  Scott was running behind me and the sweeper had to stay behind him, so this meant that, although I was enjoying Scott's conversation, I needed to stay farther ahead of him on the trail.  Fortunately, Scott and I both passed another 50 mile runner with a blue shirt and were to talk again as this other runner fell behind with Troy now following him instead of us.  I apologized to Scott for leaving him behind back on the trail, but I just had to get away from the sweeper's radio.

I was glad to see Heather, a fellow GUTS runner, speeding along the trail on her 50K race, so I ran faster for several minutes to keep up with her and talk for a while.  I congratulated her on her relay race that she had completed the previous weekend and enjoyed listening to her stories about that experience.   I was able to gain some distance running with Heather, but I soon wished her well when we got to a hill and I began to power-walk as she ran ahead.

When I slowed to a walk after that extended run, my vision instantly blurred.  I thought that I had something in my eye, so I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand.   The blurred vision did not improve.  I continued to run at the crest of the hill and I found that, while I could see close objects, such as my stopwatch or the rocks directly below me on the trail, with clarity, objects in the distance were somewhat hazy and indistinct, as if I was looking at a low-resolution mobile phone photo.  I slowed to a brisk walk while I tried to understand what was happening.  After a few minutes, Scott caught up with me, with Troy and the radio following close behind.  Scott told me that my blurred vision may have been a result of dehydration, but I assured him that I had been drinking steadily from my Camelbak during the entire trail run.

I remembered reading occasional stories about ultrarunners, blurry vision, and corneal edema, but I had no idea what was causing this problem and I had no idea how to gauge the seriousness of the situation.  I am always nervous about potential eye problems, because of my medical history. I had five eye operations before the age of five and I still have a wandering lazy eye in my right eye.   Since I primarily use my left eye for reading, driving, and everything else, I am frightened by the idea that the vision in this left good eye might be adversely affected.   My blurred vision remained as I ran the flats and downhills of this Pine Mountain Trail and power-walked the inclines.  This new vision impairment, combined with the gradually increasing discomfort in my right knee, dimmed my hopes of finishing this race.

I was power-walking for extended stretches during this time and told Scott and Troy that I needed to walk for a while to figure out what was going on with my eyes.  The Pine Mountain Trail system is a bad place to have blurred vision problems, because of the vast array of obstacles and because of the potential to become badly hurt with a fall on the boulders.  Was I having problems with electrolyte balance? Was fatigue from the previous two weeks of long distance trail racing affecting my vision?  Had my eyes been taxed from the two and half hours of running in darkness and using the headlamp and flashlight to navigate?  I did not have a clue what was causing my blurred vision.  All I knew was that this was not good.  As I ran, Scott followed close behind and his jokes provided some much-needed levity to the moment, but the thought of continuing on this rock-covered trail with failing vision was scaring me.  Troy told me to let him know if he needed to radio someone to pick me up at the next aid station to drive me to the finish if my vision worsened, but I replied that I would keep running while I could.

Sometimes, the right person can appear at just the right time during a trail run.  Another cluster of 50K runners passed by and I was relieved to see John Dove, an experienced fast ultrarunner whom I first met when I volunteered at Pinhoti 100 Mile last year, running with them.  Since John had competed in multiple 100-mile races and was always showing good form on the trail, I realized that he might have some advice to give about my vision problem, so I quickly power-walked up a hill behind him and explained the situation.   John told me that the blurred vision could be a result of electrolyte imbalance or sugar excess, but that it was a common problem with ultrarunners and that it did not cause permanent damage.  He mentioned a woman at Mountain Mist 50K whose vision had blurred so badly that someone had to take her arm and guide her along the trail.   I thanked John profusely and my spirits lifted as he continued to run ahead.

I descended a short series of boulders down to a creek bed and sudden pain spiked up from my right knee.  As I winced from the pain, Scott asked if I was okay and I replied that my knee was getting worse.  I told him not to feel badly about running ahead, because I needed to be careful with my knee and with my vision.   Something about this admission stabbed at my psyche, though, and, when I passed another runner on the trail next to the creek bed, I started running faster on my own to leave everyone behind me.  The trail flats and descents gave way to a series of hills and my fast uphill power-walking allowed me the opportunity to increase the distance ahead of the other runners.

The daylight was in full effect now to reveal a beautiful October morning.  I enjoyed the scenic rolling hill landscapes amidst the rocks as I climbed quickly.  These “scenic rolling hill landscapes” were clouded with obscurity because of my inability to see faraway objects with clarity, but I decided then and there that I was going to have fun and just try to make the most of my day.  Scott caught up with me, with the other runner and Troy, the sweeper, not far behind, and I told him that I was not going to whine anymore.  I was not going to let myself be bothered with my vision, my knee problems, or the sweeper's crackling radio transmissions.   I had finished over 15 miles on some beautiful trails, despite having completed a demanding 50K race and an extremely hilly trail marathon during the previous two weeks, I was enjoying the outdoors on a cool fall morning, and I was just going to go as far as I could go.

We approached a hill and I picked up my fast walk speed to race ahead of everyone else.   When the hill evened out, I took off running over the rocks. As I climbed another hill, I passed an unfamiliar runner with a 50 Mile orange-colored running bib.  When I asked him how he was feeling, he told me that he was done and that he was going to drop out at the next aid station.  I continued to run along, because I knew that the next aid station was close. Ultrarunning is a sport of extreme highs and extreme lows.  At the moment, I was having an extreme high and using my energy to run nonstop when I could, to rapidly power-walk the hills when I could, and to make up for lost time as much as possible.   Did I actually have a chance to finish this 50 mile race?  I was going to give it my best shot.  I was soon all alone on the trails, with the runners behind me no longer in sight.

I emerged from the trail at the Mile 16.1 aid station, Mollyhugger Hill, and was surprised to see a friend, Sean, waving at me and cheering me on.  As I refilled my Camelbak, I told Sean about my blurred vision.   He told me that my vision might have been affected by looking closely at the trail during my two and half hour night running stretch in the early hours.  Sean advised me that, when I was power-walking on the uphills, to look up at the leaves on the trees instead of focusing down on the trail, so that I would be giving my eyes a relief from concentrating on the trail rocks.  I finished replenishing the Camelbak and grabbed a couple of peanut butter sandwich bites in lieu of the tasty chocolate brownies, just in case a sugar excess was a factor in my vision trouble.  Scott and the other runners were all arriving at the aid station, so I thanked Sean so that Scott and I could resume the trail running together.  We had seven miles of extremely technical trail and treacherous rocks between us and the next aid station, Rocky Point, which, at Mile 23.1, served as the first hard cutoff point, where runners would be pulled from the race if they reached that aid station after 11:26 in the morning.  I had roughly an hour and half to make it seven miles across some of the most tricky terrain of any trail race in Georgia.

I passed Scott just as we hit the trails again and we talked about our chances for this race.  We both knew that we had to pick up our pace, but we were realistic about the fact that the most difficult seven miles of the trail were between us and the first hard cutoff.  The other runner with the blue shirt who had fallen behind earlier passed both of us and I sped up to keep pace with him.   This other runner, who introduced himself as Hank, wasted no time making the most of the short non-technical stretch before Dowdell Knob and I wanted to be right there with him.  Scott was not going to be left in the dust, though, and he hurried along not far behind. I heard Scott joking with the sweeper that he had kept me on a leash so far, but that he was about to unleash me so that I could speed off and outrun both of them.  I laughed, but my knees and ankles were not laughing with me.  The shooting pains in my right knee were still ongoing and my left knee was starting to hurt as well.

Hank and I were soon on our own and I hurried behind him as we ran down a flat section before the trail turned uphill to the Dowdell Knob scenic area.  I was running faster, but I knew that I was not running fast enough.   I eventually lost sight of Hank as he sped on.

A new dismay was creeping into my heart about this ultramarathon.  In the past, I had finished my ultra races by the sheer force of resolve.  I am a slow runner, but I am always able to bridge distance with a steady “If it feels like working, then you're working too hard.” running pace and a fast powerful walking pace when I am unable to run.  Relentless forward motion had gotten me to the finish of my six previous ultramarathons.  At the Long Cane 55 Mile, I had finished in last place behind 31 other finishers after 32 other runners had dropped out of the 55 Mile course option.  At Sweet H2O 50K, when I was 57 pounds heavier and in terrible condition on the first real day of spring heat, I had walked the last 17 miles of that course with a forceful resolve to finish second-to-last.   For my first ultramarathon, Pine Mountain 40 Mile, I had braved dehydration issues and self-doubt to soldier on and finish 85 out of 89 runners.   I was slow, but I finished races.  I was the tank that kept plowing forward, however slowly, to reach the finish line.  Right now, though, at The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile, relentless forward motion was not enough to make the 14-hour cutoff.  I had to run faster, faster, faster.  I was moving with a relentless forward motion, but I was moving too slowly.   The reality surfaced in my head that I had signed up for a race without having earned the physical capability to run fast enough on the trails to finish.

How did I react when I realized that I did not have a prayer of making it to the finish line of The North Face Endurance 50 Mile?
I ran faster. I rubbed dirt on my dismay and picked up my pace.  I did not know how I was going to do it, but I was going to make it through hard cutoff points, I was going to complete the 50 miles, and I was going to go home with The North Face Endurance Challenge medal around my neck.  If I was not fast enough, I was going to become fast enough.

The elevation picked up on the hill to Dowdell Knob and I passed a couple of runners with blue-colored 50K race bibs.  The trail section that weaved around the Dowdell Knob parking lot was strewn with large rocks that demanded caution, but I ran when I could and power-walked with a second wind energy when I did not want to risk running and falling on the rocks.  My knee was hurting too much to run for extended stretches.   I also remembered encountering an unfortunate runner with a broken ankle during this section at the Pine Mountain 40 Mile race last year and I did not want to share his fate.

A few of the faster 50 Mile runners were starting to run by me in the opposite direction as they made their way back to the start.  Matthew, a friend and fellow GUTS runner who would go on to a great finish in 20th place, passed and told me to hang in there.  That is exactly what I did as I worked my way around several rocky turns.  I was mostly reduced to a power-walk at this point and the power-walk was mostly a “power-limp” as my right knee continued to hurt.  The knee was not the only part of me in pain. After negotiating rocks for the past eternity, my ankles were toast.  I had been fortunate to avoid severe ankle rolls with my Montrail Hardrocks, but the ankles were on their third weekend of treacherous rocky trail races and they were at the end of their chain.  I looked at my watch and hoped that the Mile 23.1 aid station was close, because I only had a half hour before the cutoff.

On the bright side, my vision had improved.  I had followed Sean's suggestions to look up at the trees when I had a chance to deter focus from the trails and his suggestions had worked.  I felt like the luckiest person in the world now that I was able to see clearly once again.

After climbing one of the steeper ascents, I reached one of my favorite places on the Pine Mountain Trail system, a comfortably flat trail section with endless trees across the landscape with no underbrush.  There were plenty of small rocks to work around, but the beauty of this trail stretch gave me a new energy.  I could only run for short periods of time before giving into knee pain, but I took advantage with the best of my ability to make pace while the trail was flat.  I soon descended a series of switchbacks and, when I reached the bottom, I looked up to see Scott in the distance behind me.  I could not see a sweeper behind him, but I still hurried to increase the distance.

I climbed a series of rocky sections along a small cliff and knew that I had finally reached the end of the most dangerous technical area of the trail course.   The trail would smooth out all the way to the Rocky Point aid station and, if I made the cutoff time, I would be rewarded with three miles of easily runnable single-track before a series of creek crossings.

I looked at my watch and saw that I had less than ten minutes to reach the Rocky Point aid station before the time cutoff at 11:26.  I broke into a run and, although the pain in my knee intensified, I kept running.  I could walk as needed after the next aid station, but I had to run to that aid station first.  I was reduced to a slow run, but I was running nonstop.  After several minutes, I saw a volunteer at a fork in the trails who directed me to the left and said that I was almost at Rocky Point.  I sped up and ran through the pain when I heard voices and saw the aid station through the trees.   11:26:00 passed, but I sprinted and reached the aid station at 11:26:30.   I called my race number and my name to the volunteers as I ran to the aid station table.  One volunteer pointed at a man in a yellow jacket and told me, “You need to talk to him.”

I quickly stepped over to the volunteer in the yellow jacket and told him that I had just reached the aid station 30 seconds after cutoff.  I asked, “Did I make the cut?”.  The volunteer wrote down my time, told me that he had to ask somebody, and walked over to a nearby vehicle, presumably to speak to someone on a radio.   After a couple of minutes, he signaled another man from the other side of the road, pointed at me, and explained that I had just reached the aid station by less than a minute.  The man shook his head at me and said, “We have to cut runners off here at 11:26.”  I smiled, shook the man's hand, and thanked him for being there to look out for all of us on the trail.

My race was over.  Of the 124 runners that started The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile, I was one of the 30 that did not finish.

As I waited for Scott, I greeted a few friends who reached the aid station for their 50K race and wished them well.   When asked about my race, I told them that I had just missed the hard cutoff by roughly 30 seconds and, when they expressed surprise, I simply replied that The North Face had to draw the line somewhere.   My knee was hurting and I was ready to sit down, but I enjoyed seeing familiar faces.

Five minutes later, Scott emerged from the trail and stated his race number to the volunteer in the yellow jacket.  When the volunteer told him that he could not continue to run, Scott pointed at the aid station table and said, “Okay, that's cool. Let's eat some good food.”  Good food sounded fine to me, so I picked up a couple of small bags of M&M's to eat while Scott and I waited for a ride to the start/finish area.  At the start/finish area with the giant inflatable finish chute that I would not be crossing through today, Scott and I walked around and enjoyed talking with volunteers as we waited for Scott's wife, who would go on to finish second place in her age group for The North Face 5K trail race the next day, to give us a ride back to the parking area.  I considered waiting at the finish to congratulate my GUTS friends, but my knee was hurting too badly to stand for extended periods of time and I wanted an ice bath to help the legs recover.  I sent a few prayers in the direction of those friends and returned to my truck for the drive home.

I have no regrets about my race performance at The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile.   I will not say that I did my best, because we are always capable of doing better than our best, but I am proud that I pushed the envelope of my endurance by finishing a 50K race, a trail marathon, and the first 23.1 miles of a rocky trail course in three consecutive weeks.  I slept for 12 hours the night after the race and woke up the next morning with minimal pain.  My knee pain has diminished, as it usually does when I run with the Mueller knee strap, but a week without running is in order before I resume short runs before my next big race in mid-November.

Would I have finished The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile if I had reached the Rocky Point aid station 30 seconds faster?  I will never know for sure, but I do not think that my knees and ankles would have allowed me to finish after the races of the two previous weekends.  Regardless of how painful those final miles of a long trail ultramarathon are, those final miles are nowhere near as painful as having to type “DNF” at the beginning of a race report the next day.  DNF races are a part of the ultrarunner's life, though.  Almost every veteran ultrarunner has a DNF on his or her record, because we cannot push past our limits without sometimes finding those limits, and I have completed another rite of passage on my way to becoming a better runner.  I am at peace with the fact that I did not make the decision on my own to drop out of the race and that, instead, a race official made that decision for me.  I was not fast enough on this day, but I am grateful that I tried.

Thanks to The North Face for coming down to Georgia to sponsor a rugged race.  Congratulations to Geoff Roes for winning The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile and thanks to all the elite ultrarunners who traveled here to give these Georgia trails a try.  Thanks to the 120+ volunteers who made this a safe experience for the large number of runners competing in multiple races on these trails.  Thanks to Kelly Luckett, Dean Karnazes, and everyone else who inspired me before the race.  Most of all, thanks to my GUTS runner friends for motivating me every step of the way.

This lengthy race report has one of those abrupt French movie finales where the main character is close to a happily-ever-after ending, only to be killed in the final scene.  I ran faster than I thought possible during a rocky technical trail race, I rose above the difficulties of knee pain and vision problems, I experienced a second wind that allowed me to pick up speed when I needed it, and then I got pulled from the race.  I am sorry to put a reader through all that, but I want to preserve the DNF race memories next to the memories of successful finishes.  I will look back on this race in years to come, I will remember the fun that I had pushing my limits, and I will know that I would not have traded that for the world.

See you on the trails.