On September 5, 2010, I completed my first 50-mile ultramarathon, the Long Cane 50 Mile, with a finish time of 16:59:00.
EDIT (9/10/10): Race Director Terri Hayes has changed the name of this event to the Long Cane 55 Mile for the official results, in light of several Garmin measurements showing at least that distance after the completion of the race.
The Long Cane 50 Mile took place at the Parsons Mountain Recreation Area within the Sumter National Forest in South Carolina and was one of the SC Ultra Trail Runs that ultrarunner Terri Hayes puts together every year. The race followed two loops of the Long Cane Horse Trail and consisted of pleasantly rolling hills, gravel roads, creek crossings, and old growth forest. As with all Terri's SC Ultra runs, this Long Cane 50 Mile race did not have a time limit, so it was a good opportunity for runners to test their endurance without the threat of time cutoffs at aid stations.
|Photo courtesy of Psyche Wimberly|
I will begin my report by discussing the race distance. In her pre-race emails to the race participants, Terri mentioned that the approximate measurement of the course was 52.3 miles. I did not use my Garmin 305 for this race, because I knew that the 10-hour battery life would not last me for my entire run, but Terri informed me after the race that several runners obtained Garmin results measuring roughly 57 miles. For the purposes of this report, I'll consider the race to be 56 miles in length. It's not uncommon for trail ultramarathons to have “Horton miles” (named after Race Director David Horton's propensity for races that measure several miles farther than the official distance) and I am pleased that I can add even more additional miles to my previous distance record from the Pine Mountain 40 Mile Trail Run that I completed last year.
All through the distance, Terri and her volunteers did a remarkable job to keep runners safe and to make the Long Cane 50 Mile a great day for everyone. Since this particular race took place in a remote rural area of South Carolina that lacked cell phone coverage for aid stations to contact one another, I am all the more impressed that this race was conducted so efficiently by all involved and I am looking forward to signing up for more SC Ultra trail races in the future.
On the afternoon before the race, I drove three hours to Parsons Mountain Recreation Area, accompanied by Julian, a fellow ultrarunner and friend who ended up placing seventh in the race. Julian is about to graduate from my alma mater, Georgia Tech, so we spent much of the drive sharing humorous anecdotes about our experiences at the school. I am usually not a fan of eating big meals the day before a race, but I was nervous about this race that far exceeded any ultra distance that I had covered to date, so Julian and I stopped at IHOP in the mid-afternoon for eggs, pork chops, and hash browns. We arrived at the campsite before dark and spent the rest of the day setting up our tents, talking with Terri and several other ultrarunners, and previewing some of the trail at the start/finish area.
As I tried unsuccessfully to get a good night's sleep in my tent that evening, I was thankful that I had gotten a ten-hour sleep the previous night, following Jeff Galloway's advice that the sleep two nights before the race is what makes a difference. I managed to drift off to sleep an hour here and an hour there, but nervous pre-race thoughts were running through my head. I had never completed a distance of over 40 miles before and I knew that I was in for well over 50 miles at Long Cane. The 50+ mile distance intimidated me. The 50K distances and the Pine Mountain 40 Trail Run that I had completed seemed suddenly tame compared to what I was about to attempt. With a 50+ mile run, I would be entering the real world of ultrarunning and I felt like a character who was about to take the red pill in the film, The Matrix.
Despite my nervousness, I was still in good spirits about my chances. After having a difficult time at Sweet H20 50K in April and the Twisted Ankle Trail Marathon in May, I had resolved to address the weight that I had gained over the past year and half due to rewarding myself excessively after each race. During the past two months, I had lost just over 40 pounds, so I would be going into Long Cane 50 Mile in better physical shape than I had been in all year. The benefits of my 40-pound summer weight loss cannot be overstated. Even during my worst moments at this 50+ mile race, I felt an energy that I had never had during my earlier ultramarathons.
When my alarm went off at 5:00 in the morning, I was tired from the lack of sleep, but still excited to get the race under way. I dressed in my running clothes and assembled my race gear. For this race, I would be using a 70-ounce Camelbak Rogue hydration bladder pack that would enable me to hydrate adequately between aid station, including one 7.1-mile stretch between two stations mid-way through the race. The Camelbak Rogue had two large compartments where I could store my running gels, sunscreen, Vaseline, toilet paper (Charmin moist wipes), and a small handheld flashlight. In one pocket of my running shorts, I carried S-Cap electrolyte capsules to ensure that I was taking in enough sodium during the race. After taking a new pair of Vasque Blur trailrunning shoes for a good 6.5-mile trail run a few days before, I had decided to use them on the first loop of Long Cane 50 Mile. The decision to use these Vasque Blur shoes was an ill-advised choice that would wreck havoc on my right shin during the race. Fortunately, though, I had a backup pair of shoes in my drop bag.
For my drop bag that I left at the campground aid station that I would return to after the first 32 miles, I kept my backup shoes, a brand new pair of Montrail Hardrocks (my final pair, since this line of shoes has been discontinued), a pair of compression leg sleeves, extra gels, and a Petzl Tikka XP head lamp for the final loop of the race, a handheld water bottle (just in case the Camelbak Rogue caused problems) and an extra battery for my handheld flashlight.
For this race, I had decided beforehand to take in 300-400 calories every hour and to take two S-Caps each hour, while drinking plenty of water from my Camelbak that I would completely fill at every aid station whether I felt that I needed to or not. Every hour on the hour and every half hour, I would take an S-Cap and eat one of my running gels (Crank e-gels, with 150 calories and 250 mg sodium apiece). I wanted to take in a thousand mg of sodium every hour during the race, because I sweat heavily, because I was still a large 240-pound runner, and because I've had problems at past races from a lack of electrolytes. I had also resolved to begin the race by power-walking until I broke a sweat, then easing into a run. After talking with several friends at the start area and listening to Terri give the race instructions, I followed my usual custom of lining up at the very back of the crowd as not to slow the faster ultrarunners.
As the race started, I power-walked for the short stretch of trail before easing into a slow run on the road leading through the campground area. As I turned onto the Long Cane Horse Trail, I fell into a comfortable pace of extended power-walking interspersed with slow running. During the first four miles of the race, I found that I was able to pass a handful of runners with my power-walk, so I decided that I would stick to this strategy to conserve energy. When my Ironman wrist stopwatch showed 30 minutes, I ate my first gel and took my first S-Cap, making sure to bite down on the S-Cap to break the capsule before swallowing it.
For this first portion of the race, I enjoyed the scenery of the old growth forest area, but I also paid careful attention to specific landmarks along the trail, because I knew that I would be finishing the race along this same stretch after dark. I walked over an odd steel bridge with water pooled in the middle. I ran by a park sign with a torn missing top half that gave an unsettling impression that a large animal had bitten the top of the sign off. I ran over a neat bridge at a trail curve that had been maintained by mountain bikers. Most of all, though, I paid attention to the white trail blazes that would keep me on the right course for the duration of the race. I was enjoying my Vasque Blur shoes at this point, because they were wide shoes that made ankle turns almost impossible. I had chosen these shoes because the description indications were that they were good shoes for low-arch runners like me who overpronate while running. Miles later, I would decide that these shoes weren't as suitable as I had first imagined. The shoes were heavy, but I like my trail shoes to be heavy and protective.
Long Cane 50 Mile consisted of two loops around the Long Cane Horse Trail, but runners had to extend the first loop with two crossings along a middle trail in the middle of the loop. The first 32 miles of the course were run in a figure-8 pattern by crossing the middle loop once before circling the top end of the loop and circling back to the start on the opposite trail. When I reached the first intersection for the entrance to the middle trail, I paid careful attention to the signs and arrows so that I would remember the correct route later when I was more exhausted. Shortly after starting the middle trail, I came to the first aid station, filled my Camelbak Rogue to the top to replace what I had drunk so far, and took a ziplock bag out of my pocket to fill with aid station food to take along for the run, as I had learned to do during previous ultramarathons.
The middle section of trail was a beautiful and scenic trail, but the multiple switchbacks and road crossings were somewhat aggravating. Because of the constant progression in a given direction only to turn back around on a switchback, I felt that I would never get out of this section onto the outer trail loop again. Finally, though, I reached the outer loop and followed the signs to take a left to the north section.
A couple of miles later, I came to the second aid station and decided to sit down in a camp chair for a couple of minutes. I would follow this strategy of briefly sitting down at each aid station for the remainder of the race. The exceptional volunteers made sure that I grabbed a handful of food as I sat down. After leaving this aid station, I started alone down a long gravel road. Long Cane 50 Mile was a race ill-suited to people who have trouble with directions and this gravel road turn would have proved confusing if I had not spotted the white blaze markers on side of the road.
|Photo courtesy of Andy Bruner|
When I reached a crest on the gravel road, I broke into a run for the downhill and ran quickly for over a mile without taking a walk break, something that I had never done during an ultramarathon before. When I reached the end of the gravel road, I puzzled for a few moments on where to turn before I finally noted the trail blazes going off into the woods to my left. Since this section of the trail was mostly flat, I ran extended sections without taking walk breaks, but still made sure to drink from my Camelbak and to stop to take S-Caps and eat a gel every hour and half hour by my stopwatch. The trail crossed under a wooden railroad bridge before entering a long straightaway in a meadow area between the trees. At one point, the trail passed by what appeared to be a small cornfield. I thought about Stephen King's short story, “Children Of The Corn”, and I quickened my pace as I ran by this field.
The comic relief portion of Long Cane 50 Mile occurred when I reached the aid station on the top end of the trail loop. I told the volunteers that I needed to sit down and one of them pointed to some camp chairs. I chose the sturdiest-looking camp chair to sit in, unaware that the stitching in the camp chair was badly weathered and rotten. When I sat down in the camp chair, it instantly came apart and I found myself on the ground with my legs and arms in the air pinned up by the metal chair frame. The concerned volunteers rushed to my aid and helped me out of the chair frame, but I laughed the incident off and sat down in a more suitable camp chair. After I enjoyed a banana and refilled my Camelbak, I hit the trail again.
After running along the mostly-flat and non-technical portion of the trail through pine trees for a few miles, I found myself at a gravel road where the flags left me uncertain about where to turn. I remembered the Long Cane Horse Trail map that I had studied before the race and took a left. Thankfully, I saw a railroad crossing sign after running a short distance and I knew that I was heading in the right direction. As I crossed the railroad, a truck driven by one of the volunteers stopped next to me and let a runner out. The volunteer told me that the runner had accidentally gone three miles off course and that he was bringing him to a comparable location to continue the run.
The lost runner incident had apparently set the tone of the race for many. When I arrived at the aid station, I was told that several of the runners had gotten lost by taking wrong turns along the course and that the whereabouts of a few runners were unknown. I sent some prayers to the lost runners as I continued along my own way, paying careful mind to the white tree blazes and to the trail signs.
When I came to the intersection for the middle trail crossing, I begrudgingly started the final trip across the middle trail, not looking forward to the switchbacks that I would encounter again. Around this time, my right shin was starting to hurt. I stopped my progress a few times to lean against trees and stretch my calves, but the right shin continued to bother me. By the time I made it to the end of the middle trail for the second time, I realized that my shin pain could not be ignored. There are several obstacles during an ultramarathon that can be mentally overcome, but shin pain is not always such an obstacle. I realized that my chances of finishing this 50 mile race were diminishing and that shin pain would likely cause me to drop at the end of the first loop when I returned to the campground.
My spirits picked up when I saw Andy, a friend who would later win Long Cane 50 Mile, running along with Sarah, a fast female runner that I had seen at a handful of previous races. Andy and Sarah were already well into their second loop and they were the first runners that I encountered going in the opposite direction. After a short while, I saw Julian running on his second loop and, when he asked me how I was doing, I sadly told him that my right shin was hurting, but that I would go as far as I could.
I made it to the final aid station on the first loop and was happy to see a few runner friends minding the station. I told them about my shin, but I mentioned that I planned to change running shoes and put my compression sleeves on for the second loop. If that did not work, then I would likely drop out of the race when I returned to this same aid station on my second round. One of the aid station volunteers told me that the trail going back to the campground near the start/finish area was only 4.1 miles.
If this particular trail section returning to the start campground area was indeed 4.1 miles, then it was the longest 4.1 miles that I've ever passed through. I crossed over several uphill elevations and ran the downhills, discovering that my shin hurt less when I ran on it than it did while I was walking on it. My spirits were lifted each time I saw friends running in the opposite direction after starting the second loop ahead of me. I stopped to talk to Jennifer, a friend who had run Sweet H20 50K and Hot To Trot, and then talked and took a photo with Charles and Psyche, two friends that I also knew from previous races. All the while, I enjoyed some scenic trail stretches, including a pavement crossing over a big creek and a run through a pine tree field where I could see for a long distance between the trees. Still, this section dragged on and on. Around this time, I began to pass a handful of runners who informed me that they planned to drop out of the race when they reached the campground. I passed one guy who appeared to be in as much pain as I was and, when I told him, “If this section is only 4.1 miles, then I'm Kate Moss!”, he cracked up laughing.
I finally reached the campground area and sat on one of the picnic tables for almost a half hour as I changed into my second pair of shoes, the Montrail Hardrocks, after putting my Zensah compression sleeves on my legs, and then changed into a dry running shirt from my drop bag. I then took the headlamp out of my drop bag and placed it in my Camelbak, knowing that I would need it in a few hours, along with the handheld flashlight that was already in my pack. I hoped that this change of gear would help my shin pain, but I told the volunteers that I was going to drop when I got to the next aid station if the pain did not subside. This restful aid station proved to be a challenge in itself, since the race director Terri Hayes had given runners the option of finishing at this section and still being counted as a Long Cane 50K finisher instead of as a Long Cane 50 Mile finisher. All I had to do was just go to the pavilion finish line and I could still say that I had completed a successful ultramarathon on this day. Terri appeared at the aid station just before I left. I told her about my shin pain and asked if I was behaving stupidly for continuing to run. She encouraged me to keep going and to see if the new shoes and compression sleeves helped out before the next aid stop. The volunteers asked me if I wanted ibuprofen and I accepted, being sure to only take two ibuprofen tablets as to not adversely affect my kidneys. Another runner who introduced himself as Dan passed by the aid station to return to the trail, after telling me that he had planned to drop out, but had decided to continue. He also told me that his Garmin measurements showed that we had gone over 32 miles so far and that this Long Cane 50 Mile race was actually going to be well over 55 miles in the end. Ten minutes later, after I enjoyed some animal crackers and M&M's, I took off to begin the final outer loop section of the trail.
|Photo courtesy of Psyche Wimberly|
Aside from the shin pain, I felt pretty amazing going into the final outer loop. I had never felt this good during the final half of any of my ultra races. Due to the my determination to take an S-Cap and a gel every half hour, I believed that I had finally gotten my nutrition and hydration balance right after several failures to do so in other races. My spirits were up in the air, because I thought that, after reaching the 32-mile portion of the race in nine hours, I had it in me to achieve a negative split and complete the final half of this 50+ mile race in less time than it had taken me to complete the first half. In the past, I had been on fumes at the end of 30 miles during my races and I was prone to mood swings from the effect of the nutrition timing. This race was different. For my first attempt at a 50-miler, I was almost on cloud nine at mile 32. An experienced ultrarunner veteran of several 100-mile races had once told me that, as long as I was urinating on a regular basis during an ultramarathon, I was doing very well with the hydration and electrolytes. Since I had been stopping to urinate once an hour during this race, I felt in full control of my balance of hydration and electrolytes. The only thing that kept me from feeling on top of the world was my ailing shin, which I hoped would improve with the shoe change and the compression sleeves.
My hopes for my shin were miraculously rewarded, at least temporarily. As I ran along the downhill and flat sections of this course, I felt the shin pain gradually ebb. For the first time ever during the last half of an ultramarathon, I was running more than I was walking. I sped up on the downhills and hoped to catch other runners before darkness fell in a few hours. Shortly before I came to the first aid station on the outer loop, I passed Dan, the runner who had left the campground aid station ten minutes before me. I told him that I was considering staying with him for the remainder of the course, because it would help me to have another runner with me after nightfall. He told me that he was going slow and taking breaks because of foot pain, but that he might surprise me and catch up quickly. As we both left the aid station after sitting for a few minutes, I decided to run ahead, comforted with the thought that another runner was behind me in case I got in trouble.
The section of the course between the approximate miles 36 through 45 were almost a blur to me, as I tried to run as fast and as often as possible to get as much distance behind me as I could before the daylight went away. I knew that my progress would slow considerably when darkness fell after 8:00 P.M. and that I needed to take advantage of the day. I ran each downhill section without a walk break and I even found it in me to run up a few short inclines, although I had never done this during an ultramarathon before.
My newfound running enthusiasm was rewarded by a harsh reality check when I tripped over a tree root on a downhill, fell, and skidded on trail gravel for five feet. I stood up quickly to find that my running shirt was torn on the shoulder and that my entire right side was covered with dirt. Thankfully, I was wearing a pair of compression shorts under my regular running shorts to prevent chafing and these compression shorts prevented the skin on my hip from being torn to pieces when I landed. I uttered a few choice word combinations unsuitable for recalling in this race report, brushed the dirt off myself as much as I could, walked along the trail until I was no longer shaking, and then resumed my running.
I reached an aid station that had been converted to an unmanned stop, due to volunteers being needed at strategic locations later in the race. I filled my Camelbak at this station and took a package of peanut butter crackers, praying the entire time that I would not be stung by the many yellow jackets that were swarming the deserted table. From there, I returned to the gravel road and enjoyed a very fast downhill run to the trail at the end. The next several miles were a race against the disappearing daylight, as I really wanted to reach the second-to-last aid station before dark.
In retrospect, my extended running stretches during this trail section may have been a factor that led to an unsettling situation miles later. Because I was running more often, I was not sipping as much water from my Camelbak as I had earlier in the race. I was still taking an S-Cap and a gel every single half hour, but my water intake had gone down. I even realized this at the time and kept reminding myself to drink more, but my hurry to reach the next aid station in daylight distracted me, because I didn't want to slow down my running on the flats and downhills.
My haste to reach the aid station was not in vain, because I emerged from the trail to the station just as darkness fell upon me. I jokingly told the aid station volunteers, “Give me a chair that doesn't break this time!” I was in somewhat of a cranky mood by now, because I knew that I had at least 10 miles ahead of me in total darkness. I told one of the volunteers, “I know what I have to do, but I just don't want to do it.” The volunteer asked me if I had a flashlight and, when I pulled my headlamp and handheld flashlight out of my Camelbak, he reassured me that I would be okay. I ate a banana and drank some Powerade as I inquired about the whereabouts of the runners who had become lost on the course. I was relieved when the volunteers told me that the runners had been found. They showed me their list of runners accounted for and asked me how far Dan was behind me. I told them that Dan and I had left the previous manned aid station together and that he probably was not far behind me at all. I then reluctantly stood up and embarked on the first extended night run of my life.
I had been trail running at night before, of course, but those night runs were all Tuesday night 6-mile runs with my GUTS (Georgia Ultrarunning And Trailrunning Society) group where I was surrounded by other runners and having fun on a local trail that I knew by heart. That trail led through the woods behind subdivisions and streets as well, so I was never in complete darkness or solitude.
This time, however, I was starting out on the final 10 or 11 miles in total darkness miles away from any houses or lights on a trail that I had only run through once before earlier in the race. I was completely alone, I was tired from already completing 45 miles of this ultra, and I was in the middle of a remote green area on the South Carolina map far away from home and friends. My tired legs were walking on an unfamiliar trail lit by my handheld flashlight and my headlamp, so the world closed in around me onto a limited field of vision while noises of crickets and birds sounded out. I heard dogs barking in the distance at one point along this dark trail and I prayed that these dogs were domesticated and locked up in a pen somewhere.
My progress was also slowed to a constant power-walk. My right shin was feeling better and I was tempted to run along the trail, but I didn't want to risk a fall in the dark where one of my two light sources could be damaged. The final 10-11 miles of this ultramarathon took me four hours to complete in the dark, since I had left the second-to-last aid station around 8:00 P.M. and I made it to the finish just one minute before midnight. I power-walked as fast as I could, but I am convinced that I could have subtracted an hour from my final finish time if the entire race had taken place in daylight. Ultramarathons aren't known for convenience or comfort, though, so I soldiered on.
As I became more comfortable with the night trail experience, I was increasingly reassured by the frequency of the white trail blazes that marked Long Cane Horse Trail. As I crossed through meadows, I noticed the clear sky full of stars along the tree lines and felt fortunate to see something so beautiful. I kept hoping to reach the railroad crossing gravel road and trail to this road felt much longer than I remembered, but I eventually arrived at the road.
I was grateful to be back on a gravel road stretch, because this meant that I could run fast, even in the darkness. I broke into a run, smiling to myself that, although I was already almost at mile 50 and had already covered 10 more miles than my previous distance record, I still felt energetic enough to run at a good pace down a gravel road. I'm sure that most of this running stretch was fueled by adrenaline, though.
Shortly after I crossed the railroad on the gravel road section and turned into a dark trail again, I began to experience a condition that greatly alarmed me. Until this moment in the race, I had been urinating once an hour or so along the trail and I felt in perfect control of my hydration and nutrition. On this dark trail, though, I began feeling a constant faint-to-normal urge to urinate. When I stopped to urinate, only a few drops or a short stream came out, but the constant urge to urinate never went away. I knew that kidney problems and urination issues were common with ultrarunners in the later parts of long ultramarathon races, but I was sadly unaware of what to do to remedy the situation. I was not hurting and I did not feel an overwhelming painful need to urinate immediately, thankfully, but I was feeling just a constant urge that I should. I would power-walk for ten minutes or so, stop to urinate a few drops, then continue walking for another ten minutes. There was no discoloration in the urine at all when I did stop.
I remembered that cool heads prevail and, because I was still energetic, I was able to evaluate the issue with a clear mind. Something had gone wrong with my sodium vs. water intake. Had I been taking too much sodium in by ingesting an S-Cap once every half hour, along with a gel brand that had more sodium than other gels? I multiplied the sodium grams in my head and knew that I had been taking almost 1,200 mg of sodium every hour, but I had believed that my larger-than-normal size and my propensity to drink a lot of water would justify the amount. I had not taken into account the food that I had been eating each aid station, though (a handful of cookies, a piece of watermelon, a pack of peanut butter crackers, a handful of Cheetos, etc.). I had figured the aid station food into my total planned calories, in addition to the 300 calories per hour that my gels provided me, but I had not taken the additional sodium into consideration. I also knew that, because of my increased running over the past 15 miles, I had not been drinking as much water as I had been drinking during the first half of the race.
I arrived at the final aid station and, when I sat down, I informed the volunteers of my situation. I explained to them that I was feeling energetic and I was able to keep moving very well, but that I was feeling this constant urge to urinate, although only a little bit of normal color urine would come out each time. The volunteers did not really know what to make of the situation, but one of them advised me to drop the race. He told me, “I'm not a doctor, but I know that something is not good if you started having this problem a mile back on the trail. I'm not going to tell you what to do, but I would drop out right now if I were you. We can drive you to the finish in ten minutes. You know that you've already run 50 miles by now, don't you? This course is longer than anyone thought and you've already got in your 50 miles, so you've finished. You've got a least five or six more miles to go in the dark and it's going to take you two and a half hours, probably. You're going to be away from everybody on the trail and we're taking this aid station down after the last runner behind you comes through.”
Since the race had no time limit and since I was not being pulled from the course, this decision was mine alone to make. I took the volunteer's advice under consideration and told him that I was going to stay at the aid station for a few minutes to be sure. Since some of the volunteers from the previous aid station had arrived after closing down, I asked them about Dan, the runner that was still behind me. I was surprised when one of them told me that Dan had come into the aid station an hour and 40 minutes after I did. I could not believe that I had gained that much ground ahead of him in such a short time. The volunteers told me that Dan had decided to take a break every time he got to a trail sign along the course, so he was moving along very slowly. One of the volunteers advised me, “If you do decide to go on to the finish and you have trouble, just stop on the trail. Dan is a long way behind you, but he will be coming along, so you'll see another person on the trail eventually.”
The realization that another runner was still behind me on the course was the final factor in my decision to continue and finish the last section of this race without dropping out. If I had been the final runner, I would have been more inclined to throw in the towel and let the volunteers all close up and go home. Since another runner was far behind me on the course and the volunteers all had to stay out until he passed through, I was not holding anybody up on my own.
I weighed my options carefully. My kidney condition had appeared to improve, or, at the very least, it had not worsened during my stay at the aid station. My shin was still aching, but it felt much better than it had before I had changed shoes and put on compression sleeves at mile 32. Other than the shin pain and the urge to urinate, I was still surprisingly fit and able to continue moving. For the hundredth time during this race, I thanked God for my recent weight loss.
Finally, I stood up and told the volunteers that I would keep going, but that I was not going to take any more S-Caps and that I was not going to eat any more running gels. For the remaining five to six miles to the finish, I would simply drink water at normal intervals and hopefully offset any sodium buildup that I had.
Although I had traveled this section of trail at the beginning of the race, I asked one of the volunteers who was familiar with the trail if there was anything that I should pay close attention to in the dark. He answered, “Just be sure to follow the white trail blazes the whole way and take a right at the intersection so that you won't go down the middle trail section again. Also, after you cross over the steel bridge with the water in the middle, you're going to see a bunch of empty creek gullies that look just like trails, but they aren't trails at all. When you see these, just be sure to follow the white blazes and to double back whenever you don't see any white blazes.” I thanked all of the volunteers profusely and then left the aid station for the final stretch of the ultramarathon.
I power-walked as fast as I could as I followed the white trail blazes with my lights. As I had done since the start of nightfall, I had my headlamp tilted down to focus on the trail immediately in front of me, while using my handheld flashlight to shine way ahead of me to see the trail blazes in the distance. I even ran for short stretches when the trail surface appeared flat and non-technical, but I quickly abandoned this strategy when I tripped over a small rock and almost fell. I was alone in the dark again, I was worried about my kidneys, and I was feeling increasing pain from foot blisters and from my right shin, but I had no choice, but to keep moving and to keep moving as fast as I could.
Every backwoods horror movie that I had ever seen in my life began to run through my head. The white trail blazes on the trees looked more and more like the blank white face mask of Michael Myers from Halloween. Every creek crossing looked like it contained a bloated corpse like the ones in Cabin Fever. Every noise that I heard along the way reminded me of the child's laughter noises from The Blair Witch Project. Every scurry noise from the bushes near me sounded like one of the cannibalistic inbred mutants from Wrong Turn. I thought to myself, “So this is why runners like to have pacers with them at the end of 100 mile races.” I began to regret leaving the last runner behind, instead of staying with him to have the company on the trail. After an eternity, I found the steel bridge and I negotiated the white blazed trails without mistaking an empty creek gully for a trail.
There were a couple of unsettling moments when I was unable to see a white blaze ahead of me and there were a couple of occasions when I took a turn for five feet or so before realizing that I was leaving the blazed trail. For the most part, though, I stayed on course and power-walked as fast as I could. I questioned the wisdom of my strategy for power-walking most of the early parts of the race when I could have, instead, tried to run those sections and covered more distance in the daytime, while I had the chance. On the other hand, though, I knew that I might have run out of energy by going out faster at the beginning. This was my first attempt at the 50+ mile distance and I ultimately decided that my conservative strategy in the first half had been the wise one.
When I became discouraged at following the white blazes in darkness, I remembered a discussion that I had had with a fellow runner, David Ray, a year ago when we were both volunteering at the Pinhoti 100. We talked about why ultramarathons appealed to us and David asked me, “What else can a person do to have an adventure in this day and age?” I realized that, right at this very moment, I was having a true adventure. I was facing exhaustion, leg pain, and physical troubles as I negotiated a confusing trail with a flashlight and a headlamp after I had already traveled well over 50 miles on foot in less than a day. My ordinary life is fairly unremarkable, with my undergraduate Biology degree, my struggles to make ends meet living single in Atlanta on a government salary, and my commute to work in the morning along with thousands of other vehicles on the road. Right now, though, I was an adventurer and, although I was the second-to-last runner out of almost 40 runners to finish the 50+ mile option for the Long Cane course, I was still completing a crazy journey that most people only daydream about. Most importantly, I felt alive. This was what I had signed up for and this was what I wanted.
I felt relief as I walked over the final road crossing before reaching the campground area. I was reduced to a limp as I walked the trail and started to see the lights from campsites near where the trail ended. I came to the campground where the turnaround 32-mile aid station had existed earlier in the course and then started down the paved campground road to the final section of short trail leading to the finish pavilion. As much as I wanted to run this paved section, I was hurting too much to do so. After an entire day of feeling energized, I was now at the end of my chain. With my blisters and ailing shin, I felt like I was walking on a bed of nails with each step. At long last, though, I emerged from the trail to see Terri and two other volunteers waiting for me at the dark pavilion picnic table area. Terri cheered me on as I walked to the picnic table and sat down to stretch my feet out.
I had finished a distance of roughly 56 miles or so in 16:59:00, just a minute shy of 17 hours.
Terri asked me how I was feeling and I spared no detail talking about the kidney issues. My urination issues had not worsened during my final trek, but I was still scared. Terri and the others told me that I would probably be okay after a few hours. I sat at the finish picnic table for almost an hour, eating hamburgers and drinking sweet tea. I was in a talkative frame of mind, as I always am after ultramarathons, and took this as a good sign that I still had a clear head. When the volunteers asked how close the final runner was behind me, I told them that he had been at least an hour and 40 minutes behind me at the last aid station.
One of the volunteers, Greg, kindly drove me to my camping area, where I limped around changing clothes and getting into my tent. Julian was still awake and I congratulated him on finishing seventh place. I was happy when Julian told me that Andy had won the event. As exhausted as I was, I was hurting too much to get any sleep in the tent. I was simply happy to lay still with my feet elevated on a duffel bag. Julian told me that he was unable to get any sleep either, so we talked about the race for a couple of hours while we lay exhausted in our adjacent tents. Hurting, but unable to sleep, we waited until 6:00 in the morning, when we knew that the campground gates would be opened, and packed up to leave before daylight. We stopped at IHOP for the second time in two days and downed some breakfast food. By this time, my urination issues had resolved themselves and I was assured that I would be okay. Three hours later, I arrived at my apartment, showered, bandaged my blisters, took a five-hour nap, then rested, iced my shin, and posted on the computer until going back to bed at night for an eleven-hour sleep.
My first 50-mile ultramarathon is now in the record books. The fact that it was actually more like 56 miles is just icing on the cake. A day later, I am walking around like E.T. and I am hoping that my shin condition is not anything more serious than a shin splint, but I've got a smile on my face.
See you on the trails.