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.
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.
Monday, October 18, 2010
Tuesday, October 12, 2010
On October 10, 2010, I completed the Mystery Mountain Marathon with a finish time of 7:21:08.
Mystery Mountain Marathon, a trail race sponsored by GUTS (Georgia Ultrarunning and Trailrunning Society), takes place on the strenuously hilly terrain of Fort Mountain State Park in Chatsworth, Georgia. The race takes its name from an 855-foot-long rock wall of unknown origin that runs along the top of the highest part of Fort Mountain. The wall, thought to have been built by Native Americans as a fortification or for ceremonial purposes, is a scenic highlight of this course when runners pass by it shortly after the first aid station.
Mystery Mountain Marathon features a full marathon and a 12-mile option. For the first 11 miles of the course, the marathoners and 12-mile racers both run along the Gahuti Trail that circles the inner perimeter of the park. After 11 miles, the marathon runners separate from the 12-mile runners to begin the 301 Loop, a mountain bike course that circles the outer perimeter before returning to the start/finish area. This trail marathon has over 8,500 feet of elevation, including a grueling uphill climb at mile 20 that ascends 1,300 feet in just over two miles. The downhill portions of Mystery Mountain Marathon are equally rugged, though, and one sharp 1,200-foot descent at mile 12 is covered with loose rocks that can be unforgiving to a careless runner.
Last year, I completed Mystery Mountain Marathon in 6:18:01. The 2009 marathon was my first race of the season and my legs were fresh after taking the entire summer off from racing. The temperature at last year's race reached a high of 68 degrees and runners benefited from a mostly overcast morning. I finished the race in good spirits, despite having earned two bloody leg wounds from brushing fallen tree branches during the run. By contrast, I participated in this year's event after completing the Long Cane 55 Mile race on September 5 and completing StumpJump 50K on October 2, one week before this race. The weather was sunny throughout the day at this year's Mystery Mountain Marathon and the 82-degree temperature high took an unexpected toll on participants.
Mystery Mountain Marathon is a brutally difficult event. Fortunately, it is also the most fun event of the year. After seeing the course elevation map and reading the descriptions of the terrain, one would be pressed to imagine having fun at this race, but Mystery Mountain Marathon, in its third year, is still one of the best kept secrets for trail runners and everyone goes home with happy memories that last longer than the bruises and soreness. The GUTS group always goes above and beyond the call of duty to sponsor challenging events with a focus on safety. Kim Pike, in her first year as the Mystery Mountain Marathon race director, utilized the necessary runner input to bring the best out of this trail marathon. The aid station volunteers, most of whom were accomplished trail runners and ultrarunners, seemed to know exactly what each runner needed every step along the way. Even during my roughest moments at this year's race, there was never any doubt in my mind that I would reach the finish line and that I would be in good hands for the entire time. There is just something about Mystery Mountain Marathon that is synonymous with extreme fun and I can always find something to be amused about along the way, even when I am at the point of exhaustion.
The fun memories from my experience at last year's Mystery Mountain Marathon came to mind when I briefly considered sitting the race out this year. To gauge my preparedness for my first attempt at a 100-mile ultramarathon in February of 2011, I scheduled three big trail races back to back for the first three October weekends this year. I signed up for StumpJump 50K on October 2, Mystery Mountain Marathon on October 10, and The North Face Endurance 50 Mile on October 16. In recent weeks, I had questioned the wisdom of scheduling these three races back to back and had repeatedly sought the advice of veteran ultrarunners. A few weeks ago, I told Kim that I was thinking of backing out of Mystery Mountain Marathon and, instead, scaling back to the 12-miler or volunteering at one of the race aid stations, so that I could recover adequately from StumpJump 50K and then arrive at The North Face Endurance 50 Mile in better condition. As I pondered my race schedule and goals, however, I remembered having a blast at last year's Mystery Mountain Marathon and decided that, since I got into this sport in the first place to have fun, I really did not want to pass up on the full marathon at this year's event. I resolved to stick to my schedule, but not to have a time goal in mind and not to push myself to beat last year's finish time. This was Mystery Mountain Marathon, the most demanding trail marathon around, and I just could not miss out.
On the morning of the race, I woke up at 3:00 AM, dressed, and drove two hours north to Fort Mountain State Park. I was in the middle to final stages of a head cold that I picked up at my workplace, so I had to bring tissues in the truck to wipe my runny nose on occasion. The timing of a cold could have been better, but I have found in the past that a head cold does not interfere with exercise and that it's best to just rub some dirt on it and keep running until I reach the other end of the cold. If I had come down with a chest cold, I would have been more cautious and taken the weekend off. I went with conventional medical running wisdom that cold symptoms below the neck require time off, while cold symptoms above the neck do not compromise running performance. The cold symptoms had already improved when I arrived at Fort Mountain State Park, but I still washed my hands as often as possible near others until the race start.
At the start area, I picked up my race packet and enjoyed seeing several trail running friends, many of whom had won ultramarathons and trail races during the past year. The athletic prowess and speed of fellow GUTS runners never ceases to amaze me and I knew that I would witness some extraordinary performances at this race from my perspective at the back of the pack.
For this race, I wore the same pair of Montrail Hardrock trail shoes that had served me well at StumpJump 50K the previous week. While the Mystery Mountain Marathon has a less technical course overall, I knew that I would be thankful for the rock plate protection on the soles of the Hardrocks during the rocky descents of this race. Since my strategy of wearing two pairs of Balega socks had paid off well at StumpJump 50K and resulted in no blisters on my feet, I doubled up the socks for this week's race as well after using Kinesio tape on a few tender areas on my toes and putting baby powder on my feet. I wore the same Camelbak Rogue 70-ounce hydration pack, because I've really grown to prefer this pack over handheld water bottles and because I remembered one demanding stretch from last year's Mystery Mountain Marathon that covered six miles of hilly terrain between aid stations. In one compartment of the Camelbak Rogue, I kept Vaseline, moist-wipe toilet paper, and Band-Aids. In the lower compartment that I could assess by reaching behind me, I kept Crank e-Gels and watermelon flavored Sports Beans, with the intent of eating one or the other every half hour to ensure that, along with the aid station food, I was consuming 300-400 calories every hour from the beginning of the race. As always during my long runs, I wore Under Armour compression shorts under my regular running shorts. I also wore Zensah compression leg sleeves, because I had only recently healed from a shin injury that I suffered at Long Cane 55 Mile the previous month. In one pocket of my running shorts, I kept a pouch with S-Caps, with the intent of taking one S-Cap each hour.
I knew that I would not be at my best at Mystery Mountain Marathon, because this was my first time competing in a long distance race just one week after the last. I had recovered well from StumpJump 50K, but my quad muscles were still sore from that race. This was part of my October plan to push the envelope of my physical endurance by signing up for three back to back races, so I took that into consideration when dispensing of any particular time goals. On the bright side, my weight loss had continued during the week after StumpJump 50K, but at a safe speed that would not sap my energy level during Mystery Mountain Marathon. I had initially planned to avoid weighing on the scales during the weeks of these October races, because, if I happened to gain a pound or two during recovery, I did not want that disappointment to screw up my head and affect my confidence at the start of each race. On the morning before Mystery Mountain Marathon, however, curiosity got the best of me and I weighed on my gym scales before breakfast, surprised and happy to find that I had lost another pound during my StumpJump 50K recovery week to bring my total weight loss to 55 pounds.
Mystery Mountain Marathon started with an easy mile around a campground lake, where I fell into a relaxed pace behind the faster runners as I joked around with others and talked about the challenges ahead. The first few miles of this race have a “calm before the storm” feel to them and I used this opportunity to get the blood flowing into my legs after a week of recovery. Many runners have taken wrong turns on this early part of the course and accidentally gone around the lake twice, but the course was marked well at each turn with colored ribbons tied to trees.
I was doing a lot of nonstop running in the first few miles, but still took care to drink water occasionally from my Camelbak bite valve. The second mile of the race gave an early preview of some beautiful scenery, as we ran along a ledge on the Gahuti trail after a rocky creek crossing. One runner near me pointed out how high we were up on the trail compared to the landscape below. I took a quick second of attention away from the trail to look at the treetops below, knowing that I would be running all the way to the bottom of the mountain and climbing back up later on. I fell in with a group of runners and talked with one woman who had worked an aid station at the StumpJump 50K race. Over the next few miles, I would see most of these runners again and again as we passed one another on the downhills and uphills.
We started the first of many long climbs during the third mile of the race as we made our way up to the first aid station. Although this first big hill was a mere speck of what was to come later on, I settled into a fast power-walk and passed a handful of other runners. I realized that I had run more up to this point of the race than I had for last year's Mystery Mountain Marathon, and took that as a good sign that I had a chance to finish this race with a faster time. With the help of Desiree, an aid station volunteer, I refilled my Camelbak, ate a piece of banana, and began a fast climb to the Fort Mountain overlook.
The Fort Mountain overlook is situated near the highest point of the mountain and is a popular place for runners with cameras to take the side trip down the stairwell to take photos of the surrounding mountains and miles of landscape below. Instead of venturing out to the overlook, however, I simply followed the race markings and stayed on course to ascend a short stairway and run around the perimeter of the mountain top. As I climbed a steep 150-foot hill on the other side of the mountain top perimeter trail, I passed by Graham, a friend with whom I had run at StumpJump 50K and several previous races. Graham was competing in the Mystery Mountain Marathon 12-Mile race and was in good spirits as he conserved energy on the hill. At the very top of Fort Mountain, as I began to run down a series of stone stairs with the caution in my steps to avoid a fall, Graham passed me, jumping like a deer from one step to another as he made his way down the hill. I wondered to myself, “How does he run like that?”
I continued to run carefully down the stone stairs, though, because I remembered a friend's story about falling hard on these stairs during last year's race. As I ran by the mysterious stone wall, I passed by Graham again, because he had stopped to take photos. I rounded a curve and was cheered on by a few volunteer friends as I made my way down an easy flat trail to the next beautiful overlook ledge. I passed by Lara, an ultrarunner with whom I had run at Twisted Ankle Trail Marathon and Sweet H2O 50K. Lara is an accomplished, yet modest runner who starts in the back of the pack at trail races and later passes runners with her steady pace. As I passed Lara on this stretch, I wondered if I would be able to keep a distance before she passed me later as she always had in the other races.
As the last half of the Gahuti Trail loop presented itself with a series of comfortable hill climbs and descents, I soon encountered a group of women and was surprised to see two friends, Beth and Stacey, leading the way. Beth, a running hero of mine who consistently places well at road marathons and ultra races, had recently completed her first 100-mile race, the Keys 100 Mile, with Stacey pacing her along the way. At this race, Beth was recovering from tendonitis in her foot and carefully descending the technical downhills to avoid aggravating the injury. I passed her on one of these rocky downhill stretches, but was impressed at how she demonstrated her strength as a runner by quickly making up for lost time on the uphills. As I crossed a road to see three friends, Kate, Whitney, and Russ, working the second aid station on the eighth mile, I joked with them to take pictures of me so that I would have proof that I was actually ahead of Beth during a race.
On the other side of the park road, a series of mostly leisurely downhills led us close to the campground area again before taking a fun trail turn that would lead us to the Mile 11 aid station. During this section, I accompanied two first-time Mystery Mountain Marathon runners and I spared no details as I told them about the hills to come on the second loop of the course. I exercised extreme caution during a couple of rocky sections in this area, because I remembered tearing my right leg on a fallen tree branch last year on this same mile. Thanks to the efforts of a few hardworking GUTS volunteers, the fallen trees had mostly been cleared out of the way for this year's race.
I reached the Mile 11 aid station, I refilled my Camelbak, enjoyed some Gatorade, ate a potato slice, said hello to some volunteers, and took a handful of animal crackers with me as I turned to begin the second outer loop of Mystery Mountain Marathon. The Mile 11 aid station was a daunting part of this race for the participants of the full marathon, because, as we took a sharp right turn from the aid station, we were greeted with the view of a massive power line trail hill before us. The hill seemed to go straight up to the steps of heaven and I could see several other runners climbing in the distance. Beth had caught up with me at the aid station and we talked as we power-walked up the hill together.
At the top of the hill, we took another sharp right turn and enjoyed a short flat stretch of trail before reaching the most treacherous challenge of Mystery Mountain Marathon, a hill that descends 1,200 feet in one mile over loose rocks and mountain bike trail cambers that threaten to twist an ankle with every step. I passed Beth again as she carefully negotiated the hill with her foot injury and told her that she would quickly pass me once she reached the fire roads at the bottom of the hill.
I continued the downhill on my own, running quickly when I could, but mostly keeping a wary eye out for rocks. This was the tricky technical downhill running that has always been a weakness of mine during trail races. Trail running wisdom states to focus on where you want to take each step and not to think about where you do not want to step, because you will inevitably step in that very spot. This is the same as telling someone not to think about a penguin, because that person will always immediately think of a penguin. I found that I could make faster progress on the steepest descents by galloping or skipping down the hill instead of running with normal form. Many faster trail runners like to sprint the downhills fearlessly, but I am not that sure of myself. I run downhills with exaggerated caution, as if I still weighed over a 100 pounds more than I do now. This steep descent seemed to last an eternity. I would think that I was near the bottom of the mountain, only to turn a curve and see another endless stretch of trail going down.
Once the trail finally evened out into a comfortable downhill, I caught up with Laura, a friend from the Galloway group that I train with on most Saturday mornings. I ran with Laura for a couple of miles as we passed by occasional piles of droppings from the extensive black bear population at Fort Mountain State Park. I never saw a black bear during the Mystery Mountain Marathon, but I had seen one at the park years before during a hiking trip and one of the trail volunteers had taken a picture of a bear earlier on this day. Black bears are a common sight at this park and, if you feel like you are being watched while hiking or running at Fort Mountain, it’s probably not your imagination. I told Laura, only half-jokingly, that I was afraid the bears would see a big runner like me and decide that I would be a good last meal before hibernation.
Laura and I reached the Mile 13 aid station and I was happy to see Victor, an ultrarunning friend, and Philip, who had volunteered at StumpJump 50K and cheered me on at various sites along that course. Shortly after I refilled my Camelbak for the grueling six-mile stretch to the next aid station, we saw Beth racing down the fire road to the aid station and Philip took a photo of me as I made an exaggerated running pose with Beth approaching in the background for proof that I was, at one point, ahead of her during a race.
Laura and I alternately passed each other for the next mile of comfortable fire road hills and descents. I was power-walking one uphill stretch when Beth passed me for the final time. She was really speeding up the hill and I knew that I would never catch up with her again on these fire roads where she could race with the uphill strength that has served her well.
The next five miles were a mix of steep overbearing climbs and fun downhills that enabled me to enjoy a speedy pace to make up for lost time. The sun was shining down on the fire road trails by this time, though, and the warmer temperatures of this year's race were really starting to catch up to me. More noticeably, though, StumpJump 50K from the previous week was starting to catch up with me. I knew that residual fatigue from that previous race that I had still not recovered from would hit me at some point and my knees were starting to buckle increasingly as I ran. Still, I charged the downhills to the best of my ability while I could still enjoy the non-technical terrain of the fire roads. I sang the lyrics to various punk songs to psyche myself up for speed on these downhills, although I was feeling my body temperature increase under the sun.
I was relieved that I felt no shin pain at all during Mystery Mountain Marathon. My shin injury from Long Cane 55 Mile had resolved itself after a few weeks of icing and proper recovery. Just the same, I was glad that I had worn the compression leg sleeves once again.
As I made my way down the 301 loop trails by following orange ribbon trail markers tied to trees and passing by the occasional “GUTS Race: Wrong Way” signs that blocked side trails, the easy gravel road terrain gradually gave way to demanding rocky descents where I had to be careful not to roll my ankle. I passed one runner along these rocks and joked with her that I would take the uphill climbs over this any day of the week.
When I arrived at the Mile 18.7 aid station, greeted by two friends, Kirsten and Bryce, I was dazed from the heat and from the fatigue in my legs. I pulled a cooler out from under the aid station table and sat down for a couple of minutes to gather myself and drink cups of Gatorade as Kirsten refilled my Camelbak with water. I ate some M&M's, stuffed a wrapped MoonPie in my pocket to treat myself during the fierce uphill that awaited, grabbed another handful of animal crackers, and continued off the road back onto park trails.
A series of fast descents provided false reassurance before the inevitable climb and, although I was feeling the effects of the heat, I ran these downhills to get the distance behind me as quickly as I could. I knew that I had a long stretch of constant power-walking ahead of me during the climb ahead and I needed to run while it was possible to run. Because I could feel my sweat levels increasing, I took two S-Caps in a short time for additional electrolytes as I continued to eat my gels every half hour.
When a sharp right turn pointed up from the gravel road, I knew that I had arrived at the ultimate hill climb of Mystery Mountain Marathon. The next two miles consisted of 1,300 feet of steep climbing that never relented. I took quick small steps to conserve energy and earnestly started my way up the hill. As laborious as this climb was, I was relieved that the trail was usually non-technical and that I could simply turn my brain off to take one step after another. Every hill ends eventually and reaching the top of a demanding hill demands nothing other than relentless forward motion. To my left, the terrain dropped off to reveal a beautiful rocky creek where I could hear rushing water and small waterfalls. To my right, the mountain turned up at a steep angle amidst trees with an early hint of leaf change. I occasionally heard noises in the bushes and trees to my right and tried to tell myself that these noises came from squirrels or chipmunks.
I felt like I had been walking up this hill for decades, but the trail eventually became less steep and the terrain shifted to a padded ground in a deep forest area next to the creek as I crossed a wooden bridge to the other side. A few teenagers who were playing frisbee while volunteering at the trail at one bridge told me that I only had a mile to the next aid station. I was able to break out into short runs on a few flat sections, but the uphill continued.
I finally arrived at the Mile 23 aid station, where three volunteers, Whitney, Kat, and Tom, refilled my Camelbak and encouraged me as I sat down in a camp chair to eat some potato chips and drink Gatorade. In my exhausted state, I spent one minute too long at the aid station and Laura, whom I had outpaced a few miles back, caught up with me, quickly fueled, and returned to the trail before I stood up. Relieved in the knowledge that I had less than four miles left to go, I soldiered on behind Laura on the trail. The ability to run with any real speed had left me, but I still jogged the downhills and power-walked the uphill along a series of mountain biking dirt road terrain. When I reached an unmanned aid station with water coolers and cups on a table, I simply passed it by and kept moving, since I had plenty of water left in my Camelbak. I walked the final steep uphill of the course, assured that I was near the end.
I finally reached a clearing at the power lines where the final impossibly steep downhill awaited. I took a sharp right turn to run down the same power line trail that I had walked up from the Mile 11 aid station earlier in the race. That same aid station looked so close, yet so far away, as I ran down the hill as fast as my exhausted legs would allow. I saw Laura ahead in the distance as she finished the downhill. When I reached the bottom, a friend, Susan, directed me to the last mile of the trail that followed the same easy path around the lake to the campground.
As tired as I was, I still managed to run the entire last mile without stopping. I could hear voices from the GUTS crowd at the finish area as I kept moving while watching my feet to avoid any last minute tree root stumbles. I had made it through the entire Mystery Mountain Marathon without falling and I wanted to preserve that track record. I rounded the lake, emerged from the woods, and crossed the finish line in 7:21:08. I placed 54 out of 63 finishers for this year's race.
Mystery Mountain Marathon 2010 was my first experience racing a long trail race distance (just barely 27 miles) just one week after finishing a different trail ultramarathon. I was tired and feeling the fatigue in my knees and hips, but I was still in one piece and happy to cross another threshold in my novice trail runner experience. I had finished this year's Mystery Mountain Marathon just over an hour slower than last year's time, but this bittersweet victory was cushioned by the fact that this year's race was almost 15 degrees warmer than last year's race and by the fact that I had finished with an ultramarathon from the previous week under my belt.
I spent the next hour congratulating fellow GUTS runners and waiting at the finish for a few others to cross. The GUTS volunteers had graciously set up a food table where chili was being served. The food hit the spot and I took advantage to start my recovery process immediately.
I'm thankful to Race Director, Kim, and the GUTS volunteers for putting another outstanding Mystery Mountain Marathon together. Mystery Mountain Marathon, the most brutal, rugged, and fun trail marathon out there, is a successful race run for my second year in a row, and I cannot wait to return in 2011.
See you on the trails.
Monday, October 4, 2010
On October 2, 2010, I completed the StumpJump 50K with a finish time of 8:49:14.
The StumpJump 50K, part of the Rock/Creek Trail Series, takes place on the Signal Mountain area of the Cumberland Trail above Chattanooga, Tennessee. This race, which was covered in a recent feature story in Trail Runner magazine, is a cornerstone of the Southeastern U.S. trail running scene and has drawn several nationally-recognized ultrarunners to its start line. I first heard about StumpJump 50K shortly after I began participating in trail races last year and my trail running friends have always commented favorably about the Rock/Creek races, so I was eager to sign up for this year's event and experience the famous race firsthand.
The StumpJump 50K is an out-and-back lollipop-shaped trail course where runners follow over ten miles of the lollipop stick before circling a ten-mile loop and then repeating the initial ten-plus miles in the opposite direction back to the start. Every famous race has a daunting challenge that is touted in stories to inspire dread in the minds of first-timers. Boston Marathon has its Heartbreak Hill, the Peachtree Road Race 10K has its Cardiac Hill, and Mount Cheaha 50K has its strenuous Blue Hell climb. The StumpJump 50K has the Rock Garden, a mile stretch of moss-covered boulders along the 17th mile of the course, just before the end of the loop section. Since I am a slow runner with a track record for falling on highly technical trails, fellow runners that I spoke to about this race were quick to indulge me with their perspectives. “I heard that a runner fell and broke his arm in the Rock Garden section.” “The Rock Garden is covered with giant boulders that move under your feet like surfboards and everybody falls at least once.” “It's impossible to run through the Rock Garden, it'll take you 30 minutes to get through the boulders, and then you'll have to climb a giant hill when you're tired from crossing the boulders.” In the weeks and days leading up to StumpJump 50K, I felt the same apprehension about the Rock Garden trail section that the boy characters in the movie, Stand By Me, had about the legendary junkyard dog, Chopper.
I love the city of Chattanooga and I always have a smile on my face when I make the turn on Highway 24 to see the panoramic cityscape stretched out before me with mountains in the background. When I arrived at the vendor fair and race number pickup at Coolidge Park by the Tennessee River the afternoon before the race, I was greeted by the sight of several booths belonging to trail shoe companies, outdoor stores, and volunteer organizations. I immediately found several friends in the crowd, as the close-knit nature of the trail running community makes every race seem almost like a family reunion. When I received my race packet and looked into the bag, I felt like I was opening presents on Christmas morning. The race bag included the technical Rock/Creek StumpJump 50K running shirt, a pair of Smartwool running socks, and even a pair of Skullcandy iPod headphones. After eating a pre-race dinner and listening to a fun presentation by Jen Pharr Davis, who holds the female speed record for the Appalachian Trail hike, I returned to my hotel. I was sharing a hotel room with Sean, a speedy ultrarunner and co-creator of the Run Bum website. We talked race strategy for a while before going to sleep.
The next morning, I arrived at the StumpJump 50K start area expecting to see the Super Bowl of Southeastern ultra races and I was not disappointed. Vendor booths were being set up alongside a large start line area. I was excited about participating in a trail ultramarathon with hundreds of other runners and I knew that this race would be a completely different experience than my previous trail ultramarathon, the Long Cane 55 Mile on September 5, where I was all alone on the trails for most of the course. I said hello to several friends, many of whom were fellow members of GUTS (Georgia Ultrarunning And Trailrunning Society). In the minutes before the start of StumpJump 50K, I found my way to the back of the crowd, as I always do for ultramarathons, and tried to bolster my confidence by mentally reflecting on my level of preparedness for this race.
Fortunately, my fitness level at the start of StumpJump 50K was a confidence boost in itself. I had lost 54 pounds over the summer and was lighter than I had ever been for an ultramarathon. I thought about the giant 50-pound bags of dog food that people struggle to put into their carts at the grocery store and was grateful that I no longer had to carry that weight on my body as I had carried it for the brutal race experiences last spring. After reading Matt Fitzgerald's book, Racing Weight, I had trained myself to live on a diet of nutritionally dense foods and to strive for getting the most out of food intake during endurance events. I had benefited from being lighter on my feet at the Long Cane 55 Mile run earlier this month and I had lost another 14 pounds since that race.
There can be too much of a good thing at times, though, and I would realize later that I had made my biggest mistake of StumpJump 50K days before the race itself. After reaching a weight loss plateau two weeks before this race and striving to work though that plateau, I had resumed losing weight and, when I weighed in on my gym scales in the morning on the day before StumpJump, I was overjoyed that I had lost four pounds in the past week. In my excitement over breaking through my weight loss plateau, however, it had never occurred to me that losing four pounds the week before a strenuous 50K race might not have been a good idea. I stood at the start line relatively undernourished. Two days before the race, I had felt a flushed sensation indicative of common cold and, after taking Zicam for a day and sleeping a few extra hours, I was confident that the cold onset was behind me. I would discover later that I was not as fit for this race as I felt at the start line. Fatigue and weakness would hit me like a lead brick a few hours into the event.
For this race, I was wearing my Camelbak Rogue 70-ounce hydration pack that had served me well during the Long Cane 55 Mile run. In one compartment of the Camelbak, I kept a small container of Vaseline, several Band-Aids, toilet paper moist wipes, and a few strips of Kinesio tape, just in case I needed more to cover the blister areas on my feet that had recently healed from the previous race. In the second compartment of the Camelbak, I kept a great many Crank e-Gels. Having found the Mountain Rush flavor Crank e-Gel much to my liking, because it tastes like key lime pie and has 150 calories with 230 milligrams of sodium per packet, I was planning to eat one every half hour and utilize the same nutrition strategy that had served me well at the Long Cane race. In one pocket of my shorts, I kept a small pack with S-Caps, with the plan to take one S-Cap every hour. Since the weather was cool (a low of 50 degrees and a high of 73 degrees) on the day of StumpJump, I felt that one S-Cap per hour would be sufficient.
I wore my last pair of the discontinued Montrail Hardrock trail shoes. Instead of wearing one pair of DryMax socks for this race, I had reverted to my old trail race habit of wearing double pairs of Balega socks to minimize the onset of blisters. As always with my long runs, I wore a pair of Under Armour compression shorts under my regular running shorts. For StumpJump 50K, I had also decided to wear a pair of Zensah compression leg sleeves to ensure that the terrible shin splints that I had suffered with my right leg during Long Cane 55 Mile would not present a difficulty.
The StumpJump 50K race started with a brief paved road section that circled the school grounds to thin out the runners before we entered a trail off the side of the road behind the school. For the first ten miles of this race, I knew that I would be running everything again in the opposite direction later on, so I was glad that the initial ascent up the paved road would make for a comfortable downhill finish at the end. I started the race in the company of some friends. Cindy, a local ultrarunner with whom I had run at Twisted Ankle Trail Marathon and at Hot To Trot, was starting in the back of the pack with me. Scott, a runner from the Long Cane 55 Mile race, accompanied us for the first few miles and stopped occasionally to take photos. Shawn, with whom I had run at Warrior Dash, had never completed a race longer than 5K before attempting this 50K. I was impressed by Shawn's bravery and invited him to run the first few miles with me, since I always purposely start my ultramarathons slowly in the pack of the pack. I am probably the last person in the world who should give advice on how to run ultramarathons, but I gave a few pointers to Shawn. I advised him to eat before he was hungry, to drink before he was thirsty, and to just keep moving at all times by walking if he felt unable to run.
The first four miles of StumpJump 50K consisted of wide trails with a cushioned dirt and light gravel surface over pleasant rolling hill terrain. This easy stretch of mostly downhill trails was a good opportunity to open up and get some fast miles in before the race ventured into technical rocky territory, but I held back with a slower running pace and briskly walked the uphill sections. I caught up with Rob, a friend from recent ultramarathons and a veteran of over a hundred ultra races, and enjoyed his steady pace as we talked. Two miles into the course, the trail turned next to a school football field and I reminded myself to take note so that, when I reached this area on the way back, I would know that I still had two miles of trail before the finish line. I also took note of the yellow flag markers with the “R/C” logo for Rock/Creek. For the remainder of the race, I would be reassured at the sight of these markers along the trail to direct me along the correct route.
At mile four, we reached an interesting rock formation appropriately known as Mushroom Rock. I barely took time to see Mushroom Rock before beginning a harsh technical downhill stretch that descended over 500 feet in a third of a mile. I ran when I could, but was careful to walk the extremely rocky sections and ledges. During this steep descent, I remembered with no small amount of apprehension that I would have to climb up this same hill for the return trip. At the bottom of this descent, we crossed a long wooden suspension bridge that swayed as different runners stepped onto it behind me. I enjoyed this bridge and the view of boulders on the creek bed below, but I was happier still to reach solid ground on the other side. A steep 500-foot climb greeted us on the other side, but we were rewarded at the top with an easy single-track gradual downhill section. The gradual downhill eventually became a steep descent that took us to the first aid station next to Suck Creek Road, just over six miles into the race.
At this first aid station, I refilled my Camelbak with water, grabbed a small handful of M&M's, and then took a Mini MoonPie to eat as I walked up Suck Creek Road before starting another uphill trail climb. During my weight loss in recent months, I've enjoyed another reason to look forward to ultramarathon races. During a long endurance run, my normal daily low sugar eating habits are thrown aside to benefit from sugar carbohydrates that provide me with energy to continue running. During an ultramarathon, I can greedily consume foods that I normally consider off limits. As I ascended the road to rejoin the marked trail, I savored the MoonPie and took my time to enjoy the chocolate-covered graham cookies and marshmallow that melted in my mouth with each bite. Heaven could not be much better than this.
The trail brought me back to reality with a very steep uphill ascent that thankfully changed to more tolerable switchback ascents after roughly a hundred feet. I ascended this uphill stretch quickly and left some of the runners in my group behind, although Cindy was never far from me back on the trail. I power-walked the hill and enjoyed the short stretches where I could run. After a brief downhill, I crossed a bridge and started to follow a couple of women down a rocky trail stretch on the other side of the creek before I noticed that the Rock/Creek flag markers pointed to the uphill trail instead. I called out to the women, who had just realized that they had taken a wrong turn, and directed them to the flag markers. I would find out later that a great many runners took wrong turns at this intersection and a few of them proceeded a long way down the creek trail before having to turn back. My belief that I am too slow to get lost during an ultramarathon was supported yet again.
The next section was one of my favorite stretches of this StumpJump race. Miles of easily runnable single-track trail with an incredible view of the Tennessee River valley on one side and massive granite cliffs to the other side were welcome terrain to me at this point, as I was beginning to feel an early fatigue. I occasionally quickened my running pace, but mostly stuck to my “If it feels like working, then you're working too hard.” casual running style that allowed me to have conversations with other runners while moving along. I quickly power-walked the short uphills, but resumed easy running for most of this trail. As much as I wanted to take in the view on this sunny October day, I remembered one basic truth of trail running, “You look up, you fall down.”, and paid careful attention to the large rocks and to the smaller, more insidious rocks along the way. The sun was shining into my eyes in several areas, so I had to be extra careful not to lose sight of obstacles along the trail as I ran.
I soon encountered Graham, a veteran ultrarunner and friend, whom I had met at previous ultra races and with whom I had run for several miles at Sweet H2O 50K. Graham, who always sports his yellow Marathon Maniacs singlet, is one of my heroes of the sport, because of his steady pace and his drive to complete each ultramarathon despite the most extreme circumstances. Like me, Graham is a back of the pack runner, but his pace is not to be underestimated. I remembered the sight of Graham soldiering on ahead of me at Sweet H2O 50K this past April when my heavy weight and residual fatigue from previous races had gotten the best of me. The fact that Graham is a fellow Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket gives him additional character points. We ran and power-walked together for a long way on this section before Graham told me to go ahead, complimenting me on my hill-climbing pace. Whenever I happened to glance behind me for the next few miles, though, I saw Graham's yellow singlet not far off in the distance. A large group of fast, fit runners suddenly caught up with me and passed me on the trail and I was told that they had all taken the wrong turn down by the creek bridge where I had followed the flag markers.
I climbed down short rocky stairwell between two boulders and found myself next to massive rock walls along a nicely runnable single-track trail with occasional tricky rocky areas. My fatigue was increasing, but I knew that the second aid station at Indian Rock House was just ahead, at 10.6 miles into the race. On arrival, I recognized the Indian Rock House aid station immediately, because pictures of this aid station were featured in the Trail Runner magazine story. The aid station table is sheltered underneath a giant boulder next to the Tennessee River valley overlook. I also recognized Philip, a local friend who was volunteering at this race after completing Cascade Crest 100-Mile a few weeks ago. I would see Philip at several different points along the rest of this race and his motivation at each encounter was a real blessing. I remembered Philip hanging out at the end of Sweet H2O to cheer me to the starting line and I would later joke with him that saving my tail during ultra races was becoming his new full time job.
My standard practice at ultramarathons is to drink water out of my Camelbak, but also to drink Gatorade or Powerade out of cups at aid station stops for additional electrolytes. Most of the aid stations at StumpJump 50K did not have Gatorade or Powerade and, instead, served HEED, because Hammer Nutrition is an important sponsor of the race. I have had mixed results with HEED in the past and I missed the availability of my favorite sports drinks at these aid stations, but I remembered that it is up to each runner to ultimately be responsible for himself or herself during the race when it comes to fueling choices. The pre-race email for this StumpJump 50K event made clear that HEED would be the available sports drink at the aid stations, so I had anticipated this when planning to carry my gels and S-Caps. I refilled my Camelbak at the Indian Rock House aid station, ate an apple slice, grabbed a handful of animal crackers, and continued along the marked trail.
An unexpected and sudden energy drop hit me shortly after leaving the Indian Rock House aid station. During the past few miles, my fatigue level had been increasing, but not at an alarming rate. As I started out along the ten-mile lollipop loop section of this race course, though, I felt a lightheaded tiredness overtake me. I kept moving and, since the beginning of the loop trail was the most runnable section of the StumpJump race, I still enjoyed my ability to run slowly on the single-track trail. I was gradually having to walk for longer sections, though, as the sudden tiredness and ensuing mental disappointment caught up with me. I thought about my rapid weight loss and short fight against oncoming cold symptoms over the past week and realized that I had simply started StumpJump without sufficient energy from a proper taper week. I had made it through the first ten miles of this race without trouble, but whatever energy stores I had possessed were now drained. A slight shin pain was occasionally resurfacing in my right leg and, although this shin pain was never constant and never rose above mere discomfort level, I was downcast to realize that I had not fully recovered from my shin injury at Long Cane 55 Mile.
My stomach was also starting to feel troubled and food no longer appealed to me. I kept eating the animal crackers one by one, but I was having to keep them down with water. I hoped that, although my fatigue was likely the result of inadequate nutrition in the days before this race, my constant schedule of gels every half hour, S-caps every hour, and handfuls of food from each aid station would pay off before long and that I would get my energy back. At this point, though, as I ran and power-walked down a beautiful and mostly non-technical single-track along the loop, I doubted my ability to make the six-hour cutoff time at mile 19. I knew that the dreaded Rock Garden was waiting for me at mile 17 and that, if I still lacked energy, my slow pace would not be enough to continue along.
Cindy and Graham both caught up with me on the trail, along with a couple of other runners, and I told Cindy about my predicament, although I made an effort not to dwell on the negatives. I tried to find things to joke about as my energy level tanked. Fortunately, my mental state was aided by the company of Cindy and Graham and I started enjoying their conversations as they proceeded close behind me on the trail. One of my favorite books is Cash: The Autobiography, by Johnny Cash. During my long trail races, I often think about Johnny Cash's belief that God occasionally sends angels to us in the form of people to help us along when we are struggling with difficult circumstances. Sometimes, a friend or even a total stranger can be an angel in the right place at the right time. I've certainly encountered my share of angels in the form of people during my ultrarunning adventures and, during this trail section, Cindy and Graham were helping me along just being there so that I could hear familiar voices behind me.
We heard singing in the distance and, just before we reached the Snoopers Rock aid station. Two teenage boys were welcoming runners to the aid station with a comical rendition of a Lady Gaga song. I was encountering more of the angels that Johnny Cash described, even if I wished that these two had better taste in music. I refilled my Camelbak at the aid station and asked one volunteer how far I was from the Rock Garden. He told me that the Rock Garden was coming up in just a couple of miles.
I took another handful of animal crackers from the aid station, because I liked eating them one by one on the trail and because they always stayed dry in my hand, regardless of how much I was sweating. I was still disgusted at the thought of eating food and, whenever I downed one of my Crank e-Gels at a half hour mark, I had to struggle to keep it down. I knew, however, that the worst thing that I could possibly do at the time would be to stop fueling myself. I've been advised by many veteran ultrarunners that it's crucial to keep eating even when I do not feel like eating. If I stopped fueling myself, I would hit the wall and never be able to bounce back. The only way that I was going to make it out of my current predicament was to eat my way out of it.
I eventually increased the distance ahead of Cindy and Graham, but I was not alone by this time. Two young women, April and Amy, started leapfrogging me along this section. I would pass both of them during a hill climb and they would pass me on a flat or downhill. We were all reduced to power-walking for a lot of the time, but I found that I was keeping a comparable pace with a handful of runners. I struggled to get farther ahead of April and Amy, but they passed me again and again. Each time, I would joke, “You're passing me again?”
I was barely ahead of April and Amy when I emerged from the trail onto a short section of uphill dirt road and was greeted by two enthusiastic female volunteers from a local cross country team just before I reached the Haley Road aid station. I refilled my Camelbak, grabbed more animal crackers, and was told that I had just under two and half miles until the next aid station. Unfortunately, the legendary and ominous Rock Garden was somewhere between me and that aid station.
I left the aid station with April and Amy still at my heels or continuing just ahead of me. We were ascending several single-track hills at this point and the elevation was getting higher, but there was still no hint of a Rock Garden in sight. April and Amy shared my aggravation and one of them vented, “There's probably no Rock Garden at all! It's just something they made up to scare new people!” I knew that the Rock Garden was there, though, and was eager at this point to find out the truth behind the hype. Was the Rock Garden as dangerous as everyone said or would it be a letdown, like Chopper, the junkyard dog in Stand By Me?
The wait was soon over. The sunny single-track trail quickly gave way to a dark, humid cavernous area and the boulders appeared. I had finally entered the Rock Garden.
I was surprised at how quickly the reassuring single-track trail with sun shining through the October leaves had disappeared and been replaced by a formidable setting that resembled a scene from The Lord Of The Rings. Although I was not at an elevation low point, the Rock Garden gave the impression of being situated at the very bottom of a dark deep valley. The terrain was covered with large boulders amid smaller rocks and I had to step from boulder to boulder to make my way. The rocks were mossy, but thankfully dry. I shuddered to think of how difficult this trail section would be on a rainy day. Most of the rocks did not move under my feet, but I was still reduced to a careful walk as I stepped from one large rock to the next. Ever so often, one of my ankles would turn at an angle as I stepped on a rock and I had to adjust my balance.
The actual trail through the Rock Garden was easy to follow since I looked up occasionally to check for the white blazes on the trees, as another runner had warned me beforehand to do. The yellow Rock/Creek trail markers were present, but sporadic, and I understood why many faster runners had trouble discerning a trail path in this area. The Rock Garden was nowhere near as difficult as my worst fears had led me to believe, but it was still very much a dangerous place. I kept thinking about the most painful fall of my trail-running life that had happened last year on Thanksgiving morning when some local trail runners and I were negotiating some large loose boulders underneath a bridge over the Chattahoochee River in north Atlanta. I had slipped on a large rock, striking one shin against another rock, and lodging my other ankle in a crevice. The pain was excruciating and I was told to sit down for a couple of minutes until my shaking had stopped. The resulting injury had left a lump on my shin that remained for months. If I was not careful stepping from boulder to boulder on the Rock Garden and suffered a similar injury, StumpJump 50K would be over for me. I stepped along the rocks, relieved that the reality of Rock Garden was not as bad as the legendary descriptions, but still potentially unforgiving to the careless misstep.
The Rock Garden was over as suddenly as it had begun and I found myself climbing a steep uphill. My relief at my completion of the Rock Garden section spurred me on and I made the ascent quickly with a newfound vigor. I saw a couple of runners ahead of me in the distance that I had not yet seen before and I was happy to finally be catching up to others.
I arrived at the mile 19 Mullen's Cove aid station to my biggest surprise of the race. So far in the race, I had arrived at each aid station to find one or two runners finishing their bottle refills before continuing. By contrast, I emerged from the woods at Mullen's Cove to see a huge crowd of people standing around or sitting on picnic tables. I saw that most of these people had race numbers. Somehow, I had caught up with a great many runners. My outlook for the rest of the race was instantly improved. Philip greeted me and congratulated me on making it to the mile 19 aid station in just over five hours and 30 minutes. I had beat the cutoff time by a half hour. A volunteer refilled my Camelbak with water and another volunteer pointed me to a nearby truck and asked if I wanted some Powerade. “Powerade?”, I asked, and the volunteer pointed to several Powerade bottles in the truck. After only seeing paper cups of HEED at the aid stations up to that point, I stared at the Powerade bottles and felt like I was Indiana Jones staring at some golden idols. When the volunteer handed me a Powerade bottle, I sat down at a picnic table and quickly downed three quarters of the bottle as I ate a handful of peanut butter pretzels. I was surrounded by several other runners who were resting after the tough climb up from the Rock Garden. April and Amy were walking around and a few other familiar runners were refueling from the food table. I stood up after just a couple of minutes at the picnic table and decided that I could gain an edge on these runners if I left the aid station immediately and continued along the trail.
The mile between Mullen's Cove and Indian Rock House at the end of the lollipop loop was an easy flat single-track trail that I ran almost nonstop as I trailed a couple of runners, Matt and Ryan, that I had remembered from meeting at the starting area. Matt and Ryan were racing their first ultramarathon and were moving along very well.
My energy was spiking at this point in the race and I was overtaken by a strong second wind. My resolve to keep eating earlier in the race when I did not feel like eating had paid off in spades. The energy from a constant nutrition schedule, combined with my surprise at passing several runners at Mullen's Cove and the bottle of Powerade that I had consumed, had turned me into a new machine.
A fourth runner was starting to catch up to us as we carefully descended wooden steps between two massive boulders that squeezed together for a tight space. As we made it to the bottom of the stairway, I joked, “This is discrimination against fat people!”, and the other runners started laughing. Soon after, we arrived at the Indian Rock House for the last time. I quickly refilled my Camelbak and was told by a volunteer that I had 10.6 miles to go. I grabbed a handful of animal crackers and continued behind Matt and Ryan. The three of us passed a girl just a half mile later, then caught up with a woman who introduced herself as Vicky and told us that she would run at our pace for a while. The four of us passed a handful of other runners as we quickly ran and power-walked the single-track overlooking Tennessee River. At one point, Matt pointed to our right and we saw two spectacular chimney-like rock formations nearby. I had not noticed these rocks during my first trip along this trail, because I had been so busy watching my feet, and I would not have noticed them this time had they not been pointed out to me.
I was surprised at how much I had actually been running during this StumpJump race. This was the first ultramarathon so far where I had run as much as I had power-walked and, although my “running” was usually a slow jog by the standards of most ultrarunners, I was pleased with my improvement. This was the difference between the 260+ pound Jason of early 2010 and the current Jason who had lost 54 pounds. Vicky and I passed Matt and Ryan after a couple of miles and the two us of continued along the runnable single-track ridge, power-walking the uphills, but running the downhills and flats at a decent pace.
I was feeling great and I wanted to pass as many runners as I could by catching up with them and picking them off one by one. I looked at my Garmin to see that six and half hours had elapsed so far and I decided that I wanted to reach the finish line in less than nine hours. This was a new ultramarathon experience for me, because I am usually ambling along the trail by myself in the final miles and just wanting to finish the race in one piece. I had finished six trail ultramarathons in the past, but this was my first time racing an ultramarathon. I was still at the back of the pack for this race with a slow time after most runners had probably already completed the race, and I knew that I would never ever be confused with runners like Karl Meltzer or Geoff Roes, but I was still excited at my newfound desire to pick off runners and pass them before the finish line. I am always happy just to finish an ultramarathon and I will always be happy just to finish an ultramarathon, but I wanted more this time.
With Vicky right behind me, I enjoyed the our conversations as we ran along. I gradually increased the distance between the two of us, but she remained close. I would go out farther ahead of her as I climbed the uphills quickly, while she would edge closer to me on the downhills. We moved along as the single track left the river overlook and changed to uphills and downhills with wooden bridge crossings over rocky creek areas.
After a rough steep descent down to Suck Creek Road, I saw Philip for the third time as he and another volunteer stood at the road to greet runners. He informed me that I only had a 10K distance left to run and I thanked him as I jogged down Suck Creek Road to the aid station. I refilled my Camelbak, had a handful of peanut-butter pretzels, and drank a cup of ginger ale before crossing a wooden bridge.
I looked at my Garmin and noted the time of 7:15. I had 1:45 to finish just over six miles of this course if I wanted to finish in less than nine hours. The only problem was that I had two steep 500-foot-plus rocky elevations to climb over the next two miles before Mushroom Rock. I put my game face on and began to quickly power-walk up the first hill from Suck Creek Road.
I reached the top of the first hill and began to run nonstop along the non-technical single-track on the ridge. I passed another runner and continued along, power-walking some of the more demanding hills, but running the rest of the time, even on the gradual ascents. I was able to make short work out of the downhill switchbacks to the suspension bridge, although I slowed to be careful with the rocks just before reaching the bridge. Although I was the only person on the suspension bridge this time, I still slowed to a walk and enjoyed the view of the boulders below. When I reached the other side of the bridge, I focused and started power-walking the last ascent, the most demanding ascent of StumpJump 50K, as fast as I could.
This final uphill stretch was no joke, but I soldiered along. I occasionally had to grab trees to pull myself up the steep and rocky trail sections, but I managed to pass two more runners on the way up this hill and was feeling more positive energy from doing so. I heard voices from the final aid station at Mushroom Rock and accelerated my pace. I did not even take time to look at the actual mushroom rock formation at this Mushroom Rock aid station and, instead, refilled my Camelbak with water for the last time and ate a banana while one volunteer told me that I only had three and half miles left to go. On the way out of the Mushroom Rock aid station, I passed a runner and asked him how he was doing. When he told me that he was suffering from cramps, I offered him one of my S-Caps, but he declined and said that he would keep using his Nunn Electrolyte Tablets until the finish. I broke into a run and continued, enjoying the mostly-flat wider trail that was my reward for making it up the steep hills to the final aid station.
The final three and half miles were the fastest three and half miles of any ultramarathon that I've completed so far. I power-walked quickly during a handful of long hills, but I mostly ran nonstop on the flats and long gradual downhills, doing my best to keep running when I encountered a couple of tricky mud holes along the way. I passed one woman who was limping from what appeared to be an ankle injury, but she was in good spirits as we greeted one another. I reached the trail section adjacent to a school football field and remembered that I still had a couple of miles left to go. I looked down at my Garmin and quickened my pace, because I really wanted to break the nine-hour mark. Yet again, I ran into Philip as he waited by a road crossing to greet runners. He cheered me on, telling me that I was close to the finish. I ran through more rolling-hill trail terrain, thankful for the yellow Rock/Creek trail marker flags at each intersection.
Most of the final trail section was downhill and I ran as quickly as I could find it in me to run. I passed one road crossing and was told by a volunteer that I had less than a mile. After almost an eternity of running along the trails, I passed another runner and joked with him, “This is the longest less-than-a-mile that I've ever run.” He laughed and replied, “Yeah...I wish they would just tell the truth!”
I finally made it to the paved road and was happy to see two GUTS friends, Sean and Wayne, waiting for me and taking photos. They enthusiastically cheered me on as I reached the road and continued my slow run. The road continued up a hill that I would have normally walked at this point in the race under any other circumstances, but I was compelled to reach within and run when Sean and Wayne drove beside me in a SUV taking pictures and yelling encouragement. I reached the top of the hill and continued running along the flat paved road, excited to see a few more GUTS runners waiting. I waved to Matthew and a few others in one vehicle and then thanked Sally as she cheered me on from beside the road. In the distance ahead of me, I was surprised to see Joel, another GUTS runner, and his cousin, Bobby, who was about to complete his first 50K, running side by side. I tried my best to speed up and close the distance between us as I rounded the final downhill to the finish. I was well below the nine-hour mark and overjoyed to have finished strongly by my standards. When I reached the finish line just behind Joel and Bobby, my fast excited pace on the paved road caught up with me and I was mentally dazed as one volunteer, Charlene, removed the name stub from my race number to count my finish and another volunteer put a medal around my neck. This was good surprise, as I was unaware that medals were being given to finishers. I asked a volunteer what my official finish time was and then congratulated Joel and Bobby as the three of us made our way to the food stand, where hamburgers and cold drinks awaited.
I had finished StumpJump 50K in 8:49:14. I had finished the final eleven miles from Mullen's Cove to the finish in three hours and completed the final 10K distance in less than an hour and half, despite the two brutal trail climbs.
The next hour was spent waiting to cheer for friends, old and new, as they crossed the finish line. I ate my hamburger, changed out of my running clothes beside my truck, and limped around to greet others and compare stories. I ambled to a North Face vendor booth and, when I saw a huge basket of MoonPies in front of me, I thanked the volunteers, telling them that I loved MoonPies. I saw a couple of apples in the MoonPie basket and suddenly decided that they looked more appetizing at the moment. I picked up an apple and ambled away, aware that the volunteers were probably shaking their heads in confusion as I left. I stayed at the finish line area until my friends, Cindy and Graham, both made it across. I did not see Shawn before I left, but I was very happy to find out later that he had completed the race.
I did not break my 50K distance record at StumpJump 50K, but I think that this was my best ultra race performance to date. I ran more and walked less during this ultra than I ever had before and I pulled out of a severe energy drop with a second wind motivation that carried me to the end. Considering the demanding terrain of StumpJump, including the harsh Rock Garden section, I think that I fared well. I am still a back of the pack ultrarunner, but back of the pack runners can still race.
I cannot thank Rock/Creek and the Chattanooga running community enough for making this epic trail race possible. I am looking forward to signing up for future Rock/Creek events and to spending more time in Chattanooga. Most of all, though, I feel fortunate to have the well-wishes of trail running friends who motivated and inspired me through a challenging course.
See you on the trails.