|Photo courtesy of Janice Dehaye Anderson|
The biggest challenge of the day became apparent the second I walked out the door to my truck first thing in the morning. Here in Atlanta, the temperature was 18 degrees F yesterday and the temperatures stayed below-freezing for the duration of the ultramarathon. I know that some of you northerners may be laughing now, but, here in Georgia, 18-degree weather is uncommon and it's a hardship for those of us who aren't accustomed to it. Below-freezing temperatures that make it hurt to merely be outside and where the coldness and wind penetrate your body to the bones.
For this ultra, all 100 participants were instructed to park at a nearby corporate parking lot and then be shuttled a half mile to the start area. In this case, the "shuttle" was a pickup truck that a bunch of us climbed into the back of for the ride. Riding in the back of a pickup truck in 18-degree weather at 7:00 AM is not particularly recommended. A couple of us joked that, since we made it through the truck ride, nothing else that day would be a problem.
I spent a while hanging out with different friends at the start area, which was complete with outside fires, tents, and food tables on the lawn and garage of the race director's home. At 8:00 AM, we were all herded out to the street to begin the race.
The Atlanta Fat Ass 50K started with a one-mile pavement loop around a neighborhood to start with and then four 7.5-mile loops trail loops with all of us checking in at the start/finish area aid station after each lap. The trail itself is a mixture of gravel forest road, easy single-track, a few challenging uphills, and one very rocky technical stretch.
That first pavement mile was a rough "march of the penguins" as we all started slowly to warm up while facing the cold temperatures out in the open. I started running with Joel, a friend from the trailrunning group who was running this as his very first ultramarathon, and we stayed near the back of the pack to let the faster runners venture out ahead. I started to take my first sip from one of the two handheld water bottles that I was carrying and realized that the nipple to the bottle had frozen shut in the cold. I worked with it for a few seconds and was able to sip the water.
The first trail loop was completed quite leisurely, as Joel and I walked every uphill and ran the downhills and flats. During one half-mile uphill that ascends a gravel forest road, we fell in with a couple of accomplished ultrarunners, Rob and Susan, who had both just completed another 50K the day before, and enjoyed conversing with them during this uphill walk. After that, we went out on our own down a single-track trail to a stream. The route called for a stream crossing at this point, but many participants opted to run a short extra distance to a nearby wooden bridge in order to avoid getting the feet wet in 18-degree weather. I fell in line with this strategy, realizing that dry feet are happy feet in this weather.
After my first ultramarathon, the Pine Mountain 40 Mile Trail Run on December 6, 2009, I was bothered on and off by some calf tightness/soleus muscle tightness that resulted in a weak feeling with my right ankle and Achilles. I wouldn't quite call this an outright injury, but it deserved caution as one of those conditions that could have developed into an actual injury if I had not given it attention right away. I simply filed this under, "Jason needs to recover after a 40-mile ultra.", and took appropriate cautionary measures. Thankfully, the "weak ankle" feeling subsided after a couple of weeks of scaling back on my mid-week runs and massaging my calf with a foam roller and frozen water bottles. Despite the improvement, I still made the preemptive decision to run carefully during the Atlanta Fat Ass 50K and to take more frequent walk breaks.
The first trail lap proceeded without any real bother from my ankle, but I maintained my decision to stay careful on the trail downhills.
After stopping by the aid station to check in and indulging in some peanut-butter-filled-pretzels and brownies, Joel and I ventured back out into the cold for the second lap.
The other real challenge of this ultra, aside from the sheer coldness, was that the aid station was a pleasant place to be...with fires going, chili cooking in a big kettles, and several comfortable camp chairs to relax by the warm areas. Every time I stopped at this aid station after a lap, I found it more difficult to venture back out into the below-freezing weather for the next lap.
Joel noticed that I was slowing down on the second lap during my uphill ascents and remarked about it. At that point, I had felt the slight occasional weakness in my healing ankle, so I made the wise decision to increase my walking breaks. Since this was Joel's first ultra, he wanted to start out slow as well and he kept pace. Towards the end of the second lap, we found ourselves being lapped by the first three ultrarunners in the lead. The lead female, Sally, ran out ahead of us before a road crossing and I picked up my pace to run alongside her for a short stretch, joking that I could now tell everyone that I had run with Sally during the ultra.
Joel and I both arrived at the end of the second lap at the 3:30 time, putting us on track for a sub-7-hour ultra if we kept pace. I knew at this point that I needed to walk more during the third lap, though, so I left the aid station early, telling Joel that I was going to walk for a long stretch and let him catch up. Joel eventually caught up with me halfway through the third lap and, near the end of this lap, he decided to run ahead.
|Photo courtesy of Perry Sebastian|
I reached the end of the third lap to see a multitude of runners gathered around the fires at the aid station. Several of these runners had already finished the entire race, but a few others had decided to call it a day after three laps. I'll admit that this temptation was difficult for me to resist. The only thing separating me from a bowl of warm chili and a chair at that point was one final 7.5-mile lap. I decided to return to the cold for that one last lap.
I began my fourth lap with an easy walk and a couple of brownies in my hand to eat along the way. I saw several runners going in the opposite direction who were now finishing their fourth lap. I cheered them on and high-fived several of them, while inwardly jealous of them for being finished with the ultra while I still had a lap to go.
I knew at this point that my sub-7 had fallen out of the picture, but I still strived for a sub-7:30. I ran when I could run and walked faster when I could walk faster, employing the same "relentless forward motion" that served me well during last month's ultra. Even by this time in the afternoon, the temperature was still freezing cold (although the nipples of my two handheld water bottles had not frozen over as they did during my first couple of laps!) and I just wanted to get back to the finish, sit by the fire, and eat chili. Still, I was enjoying myself. Despite the cold, the day was beautiful, with a crisp cloudless sky where I could see the horizon through leafless trees as I climbed each hill. Even during my tired moments, I always enjoyed the view of the trails and tried to take the moment in.
Something uncanny happened during this final lap, while I was walking casually and singing U2 lyrics to myself for motivation. I actually passed two other ultrarunners! Even with my slow tortoise pace, the relentless forward motion enabled me to catch up, persistence-hunting-style, with some other racers. The mere fact that I had passed someone at this point in the race gave me increased motivation.
After climbing the last extreme uphill of my final trail lap, I found the second-wind energy to run my last mile back in to the finish.
I arrived at the finish in 7:23:23 and quickly grabbed a bowl of chili to sit at a camp chair. Joel was sitting by the fire. He had finished in 7:18, just a few minutes before me, and I congratulated him on running so strongly for his very first ultra. I had finished this ultra with a comparably slow time as one of the last placing participants, just as I had at the 40-mile race, but there was still a handful of other runners behind me and I enjoyed hanging out by the fire to congratulate them along with the volunteers.
One of the runners had ordered a massive cake-sized MoonPie for all of us to enjoy, so I took advantage and ate a piece to see what the world's largest MoonPie would taste like. It was everything that I had hoped for.
I thank all of the GUTS volunteers from the bottom of my heart. The only thing more painful than running in 18-degree weather is standing still in 18 degree weather at an aid station. I applaud the volunteers for braving the cold in order to support all of us and for making this 50K such an enjoyable experience.
One day later, it's all good. My decision to enjoy a comfortable slow pace during Atlanta Fat Ass 50K served me well. I only felt minimal soreness when I woke up this morning and I haven't had any problems with my ankle. Still, I plan to enjoy a few rest/recovery days before I resume outdoor running again. My next scheduled ultra race is the Mount Cheaha on February 27 and my plan is to concentrate on weight loss and lower-mileage runs between now and then. I have a few long runs with the Galloway grouop that I meet with on Saturday mornings, but I'll benefit from two months with no marathons or ultras.
I'm still a beginner in all of this, but I'm happy to have learned from my mistakes at my first ultramarathon last month and I'm glad that the improvements in my strategy made for an exceptional starting point for 2010.
See you on the trails.