Sunday, May 16, 2010

Twisted Ankle Trail Marathon 5/15/10 (Race Report)

On May 15, 2010, I completed the Twisted Ankle Trail Marathon with a finish time of 7:26:32.

This race was my second Twisted Ankle Trail Marathon experience. The 2009 trail marathon was my first trail race and it was a incredible event that led to my current fascination with trail running. During last year's race, I met several new friends who convinced me to join the Georgia Ultrarunning And Trailrunning Society (GUTS) and I was introduced to the trail running community. I finished last year's Twisted Ankle Trail Marathon in 5:41:59 with a self-assured pace that gave me the confidence of knowing that anything is possible in endurance sports if I run a smart race and push myself.

The 2010 Twisted Ankle Trail Marathon was a different experience altogether, where I crossed the finish line roughly an hour and forty-five minutes slower than I did last year and faced some potentially deadly struggles with 88-degree afternoon temperatures and brutal humidity. This year's event was the closest that I've ever come to voluntarily dropping out of a race and, one day later, as I'm typing this report, I still can't decide if my resolve to finish was an example of bravery or an example of stupidity. Still, through it all, I had a fun day on the trails with some old friends and new friends alike. One of my favorite running quotes, “It doesn't have to be fun to be fun.”, perfectly sums up the Twisted Ankle Trail Marathon 2010.

Twisted Ankle Trail Marathon takes place in Summerville, Georgia at the James H. (Sloppy) Floyd State Park in a beautiful area of the Chattahoochee National Forest. The race starts with an easy trek around a campground lake before runners ascend an exhaustingly steep incline and are rewarded by some beautiful single-track trails and forest roads along a mountain ridge. The harsh climb in the third mile of the race, named “Becky's Bluff” after the race director, is the main attraction of the race, but a handful of other strenuous stretches await the runner after that ascent. While the trails of this race lack the exhaustingly technical leaf-covered rocky terrain of the Pine Mountain 40-Mile Trail Run or the never-ending assault of three-mile hill climbs of Mystery Mountain Marathon, the Twisted Ankle Trail Marathon presents its own unique challenges by way of a 9:00 AM race start in May temperatures, an early steep ascent that runners spend the rest of the race recovering from, and a few insidious stretches where relaxed runners fall prey to tree roots, loose rocks, or small stumps.

I arrived at James H. (Sloppy) Floyd State Park almost two hours before the start in my usual compulsively early fashion, although I had already picked up my race number the night before at a pre-race dinner in Summerville. I spent time catching up with friends at the start area up until the final minutes before the start, when Becky, the race director, stood on top of a picnic table to address the crowd and send us on our way.

As always, I started slowly in the back of the crowd and ran at an easy pace around the lake and down a paved road through the park campground before entering the woods. My expectations were low for this race, because my legs have a beating from recent ultramarathons, because I was heavier than I was at last year's race, and, finally, because I had recently bounced back from a recurrence of shin splints that had kept me out of running shoes for two weeks. These low expectations climbed down a few more notches when the effect of the humidity in the air became apparent even during these first two miles around the park. Still, I soldiered on and was happy to start the big climb to Becky's Bluff after a half-hour. I knew that, if I could finish this initial climb within the first hour, I would be in good shape for the race. For much of these beginning miles, I ran with two friends, Tom, an experienced runner known for his constant volunteer work with our trail running group, and Dan, who would stop every so often with his camera to take a pictures of the rest of us in action.

Photo courtesy of Dan Burstein
The climb in the third mile began with a tiresome trek up hills that are very much runnable, although most of us wisely decided to save our energy and walk, because we knew that the true Becky's Bluff climb hadn't even started yet. After a seemingly endless hill climb, the trail veered to the left, where runners were greeted with a sign that read, “Caution: Steep Grades” sign. The Becky's Bluff climb is a slow one, where the trick is just to take small steps and keep putting one foot ahead of the other. I was dismayed at how quickly I was running out of breath until I spotted several runners ahead of me who had stopped halfway through the climb to rest against trees. After hiking on, I finally reached flat ground and the first aid station on the top of the ridge. At this point, those of us running the full marathon turned to the right, while the half-marathoners turned to the left. I was happy to have reached this first aid station in 53 minutes. I was only slightly off schedule from the previous year, where I had reached the same point in 45 minutes.

The next few miles of the race took place on gravel roads that the rock-plate sole protection of my Montrail Sabino trail shoes handled quite well. I felt my running mojo return while I power-walked the modest uphills and ran some fun downhills. Still, I was relieved when I left the gravel road to resume running along a single-track trail that descended two miles down to the Mile 8 aid station. I was already fatigued from the heat at this point, but I still ran at a good pace along this downhill trail. All the while, I was trying to ignore the fact that I would soon have to climb back up this same trail.

One of my favorite aspects of the Twisted Ankle Trail Marathon is that there are two points on the course where participants double back on the trails. I enjoyed seeing the fast front pack of runners speed along the trail in the opposite direction and I did my best to greet everyone. After I grabbed a handful of food at the Mile 8 aid station and turned back to begin the climb down the trail I had just run down, I enjoyed saying hello to the runners behind me who were still making their descent.

Fatigue soon replaced the joy, as I found the two-mile ascent to be rougher this year than I remembered and I could feel the heat working against me even in the early day. I also realized that, although I had brought several electrolyte S-caps along for this run, I had neglected to take some during the first 9 miles of this race. This was a novice mistake that would prove disastrous for me later in the race. I should have remembered to take S-caps early on in the day, because the stifling humidity was making me lose all of my sodium through sweat. Instead of my normal GU energy gels, I had brought some Power Gels that had four times the amount of sodium in each serving. Since I am still experimenting with the timing of my nutrition for these long races, I was hoping that the sodium and electrolytes in these gels would allow me to go on without taking as many S-caps, but I had not anticipated the extent of this day's heat and humidity.

By the time I completed the ascent 10 miles into the race, I was almost completely sapped of energy. When Lara, a friend whom I had met at Sweet H20 50K, ran by and asked me how I was doing, I told her that I was tired and that I was thinking about dropping out of the race when I got to the halfway point aid station. I continued alone on the trail after that, somewhat relieved that I looked back along the extensive trail view and didn't see any other runners closing in behind me. I would later find out that I was not the only person who had suffered an energy drop during this stretch and that many of the other runners had, in fact, dropped out at this point.

I crossed the halfway point aid station in 3:10. I was disappointed, because I remembered reaching this same aid station in 2:45 last year. Because of the 3:10 halfway split, I knew that my chances of finishing this year's Twisted Ankle Trail Marathon in less than six hours had completely evaporated. Since I was well under the recommended cutoff of four hours, though, I continued along. I was already wondering if I had made a mistake by not dropping out, but I knew that I would be able to pull out of the race at the Mile 18 aid station if I did not have a second wind by then.

I didn't realize that the damage was already done. The temperature was really picking up in the early afternoon and I had simply failed to replenish the electrolytes in my body that I had lost during the first several miles of the race. I slowly ran the downhills along the ridge, but found that my uphill power-walks were slower with each subsequent climb.

Fortunately, I was invigorated briefly at the sight of the faster runners who were returning from the Mile 18 aid station. These runners would pass by in the opposite direction, we would briefly congratulate each other, and I would be inspired enough to pick up my pace each time. I also saw runners pass who were clearly struggling and it was helpful to know that I wasn't the only person who was having a rough day on the trails. 

Photo courtesy of Dan Burstein
I knew that I was done for when I reached the gravel road downhill that led to the Mile 18 aid station. This gravel road descent is normally an easy way for runners to make time, so I was deflated to find that I was too exhausted and overheated to even run downhill for long periods of time. I would run for a few hundred feet, but then have to stop to resume walking. The fact that these gravel roads were unshaded in the afternoon heat didn't help my situation. A few runners ahead of me who were climbing up in the opposite direction asked me how I was doing and, when I told them that I was probably going to drop out at the Mile 18 aid station, they assured me that the watermelon at this aid station would energize me.

In all of my marathons and ultramarathons up to this point, I have established a personal rule that I will never pull myself from a race unless I feel that my health is at risk. If I'm pulled at an aid station for my own safety, then I will go along with a decision that a race official has made for me, but I don't want to be the person to make that decision. I simply keep moving, however slowly, until I finish or until someone else pulls me from the race. While I was descending this hot gravel road on the way to the Mile 18 aid station, though, I made peace with the idea that it would be okay for me to voluntarily drop out of this marathon after 18 miles. I kicked the idea back and forth inside my head. Several trail running friends of mine had dropped out of races and ended with a DNF over the past year. Some of them had dropped out because of injuries, some had dropped out because of food poisoning, and some had been pulled for not making cutoff. For this race, I would be dropping out simply because I was too fatigued and overweight to keep going. Could I live with this decision? As I neared the Mile 18 aid station, I decided that I would not regret dropping out.

I walked slowly into the Mile 18 aid station and, when the volunteer asked me how I was feeling, I told her that I was done. She pointed to a folding chair under the shade of trees and invited me to sit down while I ate watermelon. I grabbed a few slices of watermelon from an ice bucket, sat down in the chair, and relaxed. It felt great to sit down and I was eating the best watermelon that I had ever tasted. Some forest rangers drove up in a truck, got out, and asked me how I was doing. When I just looked at the rangers and shook my head, one of them told me that they could get me a ride back to the starting point if I needed it. I thanked him and told him that I needed to sit for a while longer and think about it. Fortunately, sitting on the chair longer meant that I could eat more watermelon.

Finally, after sitting in the chair for almost ten minutes, I stood up and told them that I would keep going. As I exited the aid station, a friend of mine, Paul, arrived and told me that he was going to drop out of the race. I left the aid station and waved at another friend, Cindy, who was just arriving as well.

Shortly after I left the aid station, I realized that my decision to keep going had probably been a mistake. The next 8 miles of this race stretched ahead of me like an endless tomb. The sun was beating down on me and I was beginning to feel a mild nausea after eating the watermelon. I ambled up the gravel road hills in a daze, sometimes stopping momentarily from fatigue. When I reached an intersection in the gravel roads, I began another uphill, but was so tired that I decided to rest for a few seconds by leaning against a metal gate. I saw Cindy climbing the road behind me and waited for her. Just as Cindy arrived, a truck pulled up at the gate and a forest ranger asked us if we were okay. He said that he had received a call that two runners needed to be picked up and that he had wondered if we were those runners. I looked longingly at the truck, looked at Cindy, and then finally told the ranger that I was alright. The truck left for the Mile 18 aid station as I watched it depart and decided that I was probably putting myself in danger for not accepting a ride. Cindy and I talked about how exhausted we both were as we climbed up the hill and I was grateful for her company. When we reached the ridge trail at the top, I told her that I was unable to run, but that I would keep walking. A few seconds later, a volunteer in an all-terrain vehicle appeared on the trail and asked us if we needed a ride. After a second or two of internal debate, I told him that I was okay to keep going. I resumed my dazed amble along the trail, knowing that I'd probably accept a ride if I saw just one more vehicle on the way back.

Why did I continue along the trail when I knew that I could be possibly setting myself up for heat exhaustion? Aside from my obsessive policies that I've followed so far to not pull myself voluntarily from a race, I also felt the need to push the envelope of my comfort zone, because I am signed up for a 100-mile ultramarathon in 2011 that will surely place me well outside my comfort zone for a very long time. I felt like I needed to become accustomed to continuing when I wanted nothing more in the world than to drop out.

When I reached the Mile 20 aid station, I had to sit down again. A volunteer gave me a bag of ice, which I stuffed underneath my runner's cap to bring my body temperature down. After a few minutes of talking with the volunteers, I thanked them and went on my way. I looked down at my Garmin and realized that I had been on the trail for almost six hours and that my finish time of 5:41:59 from last year was an unattainable dream for this race.

With 6 miles left to go, I realized that my Garmin wristband on my left arm and my Road ID wristband on my right arm were feeling incredibly constrictive. I looked at my hands and was surprised to see that both of them were hideously swollen, as if I had turned into the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from the movie, Ghostbusters. I loosened the wristbands on both arms as I became alarmed at my situation. As a Galloway pace group leader, I've long been aware of a condition known as hyponatremia, where the sodium levels in the blood are diluted with too much water and a water intoxication state is the result. Aside from the swelling and occasional mild nausea, though, I wasn't feeling any other the more serious symptoms (confusion, extreme faintness, etc.) and I didn't feel that I was suffering from hyponatremia just yet, but I knew that my condition was a cause for concern. I took a couple more S-caps as the swelling remained and my compression shorts felt increasingly uncomfortable.

I was thirsty and had plenty of Gatorade in one of my handheld water bottles and water in the other handheld, but I felt that I needed to limit and closely monitor my hydration for the time being. I found that I was more relieved by squirting the water over my running cap onto my head than I was by drinking it. I was disappointed at my inability to run the beautiful single-track along the ridge that I have enjoyed running in the past. I occasionally broke out into a run, but would have to resume walking when I felt my body temperature going up.

After an eternity, I reached the Mile 23 aid station before the ridge descent. Instead of loading up on water and Gatorade, I simply let one of the volunteers soak a cloth in cold water and place it over my head. After a few minutes, I stood up and began running the downhill mile to the campground. I was pleased to finally run for an extended period of time, but I had to resume walking after a while when my leg began to cramp. I ate a Power Gel and began alternately running and walking to the Marble Falls waterfall area. When I reached the Marble Falls, I put my runner's cap into the cool water, placed the wet cap on my head, and continued the downhill run.

Photo courtesy of Dan Burstein
The final two miles around the campground seemed to go on forever. A pleasant flat stretch along a lake dam that I normally love to run was now a sadistic ordeal where I was completely unshaded and out in the open in the afternoon heat. I amused myself by remembering how, before the race, I had dreaded the water prediction of scattered thunderstorms. At this point, I would have given anything for a thunderstorm to rain down on me. Instead, I was finishing this race under a relentless sunny sky.

In the final half mile, I was extremely thankful to see my trail running friend, Tom, who had returned to the start/finish area earlier in the race and was waiting on the trail to accompany me to the finish line. I asked him how how the other GUTS runners had done at this race as I continued to move, tortoise-like, to the end. Twisted Ankle Trail Marathon has the greatest finish line stretch that I've ever seen in a race. Runners cross over a lake on a wooden boardwalk to cheers before reaching the finish line clock on the other side. I couldn't help but laugh when I found way across the boardwalk slowed by a family who was standing halfway along the walk and taking pictures of the lake. I thanked them as they saw my approach and moved over for me. I crossed the finish line and turned off my Garmin to an unofficial time readout of 7:26:32.

I spent a long time sitting with Tom and some other friends at the finish area while I waited for the swelling in my hands to go down. A friend of mine, Jenn, whom I had run Twisted Ankle with last year, was still at the finish area after running a very fast race and offered me a chocolate milk, which I gratefully accepted. Jim, a new friend of mine from the Runango running forum that I occasionally post at, gave me a Twisted Ankle race medal that had been made for the group of runners from the forum that meet at the race every year. Amanda, a GUTS trail running friend hung out with us and had some Mint Crunch MoonPies, my favorite cookie in the entire world, that I consumed as the swelling in my hands and forearms finally went down.

A forest ranger and EMT person stopped by to say hello and, when I told them about my swollen hands, they mentioned that several runners had been given medical attention for the same problem during this race. Thankfully, everyone was now safe.

Most of the crowd departed, but I wanted to stay to cheer in the the remaining runners. I was overjoyed to see Paul cross the finish line, because both of us had initially resolved to drop out at the Mile 18 aid station. Paul told me that he had stayed at the Mile 18 station for a half hour to recharge before soldering on. After cheering for a handful of final runners to reach the finish, I felt good enough to drive home. To give myself some additional recovery time before leaving the country roads to drive on the interstate highway, I stopped at a Zaxby's restaurant and enjoyed a large dinner of chicken fingers and toast.

My second Twisted Ankle Trail Marathon was not a time improvement for me by any remote stretch, but I consider it a personal victory for the simple fact that I made my way through such a humid 88-degree day on the trails. If life begins where our comfort zone ends, then I experienced life at its fullest on this day.

Thanks to Becky, the volunteers, and everyone else involved for putting on another incredible Twisted Ankle race.

See you on the trails.