Sunday, April 17, 2011

Sweet H2O 50K 4/16/11 (Race Report)

On April 16, 2011, I completed Sweet H2O 50K with a finish time of 8:43:51 and took over an hour off my time from the previous year.

Photo courtesy of Johnny Buice
Most of my earlier ultramarathon race reports have featured dramatic story arcs where I suffered from extreme mental and physical low points, but was able rely on relentless forward motion to push through the hardship and finally cross the finish line with a smile on my face.  This year's Sweet H2O 50K was a different experience for me, because I did not have any low moments during the event.  For the entire 32.6 miles of this course, I enjoyed the company of friends, I moved forward with a deliberate pace of walking the hills while running the downhills and flat stretches, I timed my hydration and food intake consistently, and I benefited from perfect race weather where the temperatures were ten degrees cooler than the previous year.  With my final placement at 193 out of 209 finishers, I will not be confused with an elite ultrarunner, but I still feel that everything came together for me this time around.  This outcome may result in a boring race report, but it was a positive experience on my road to becoming a better runner.

The Sweet H2O 50K takes place at Sweetwater Creek State Park in Lithia Springs, Georgia and is an annual event put together by Race Director Johnny Buice and the Douglas County Rogue Runners.  The race course combines technical single-track trails, pavement, water crossings, dirt road sections, and multiple daunting hills for an experience that provides a war of attrition against runners as cool morning hours under waterside leaf cover give way to the open terrain of continuous hills under the afternoon sun.  Just before reaching the pinnacle of the course, a hilltop section called the Top Of The World, runners ascend a brutal ravine climb only to be rewarded by the view of multiple steep hills and descents ahead, and the realization that this is only the first of two loops along this route threatens to collapse any confidence that the runners had going into this race.

Photo courtesy of  Robert Lewellen
The understanding that this race is at the mercy of Mother Nature became all too apparent in the hours just before the start, when severe thunderstorms caused the creek waters to rise to threatening levels and race officials realized that the trademark creek crossing section of Sweet H20 50K, where runners use a rope to make their way through waist-deep waters to a two-mile trail loop and then cross once again by rope to the main trail route, would have to be eliminated from the course this year.  Thanks to some quick thinking by the race officials, the course was altered to replace the creek crossing trail loop with an additional pavement stretch where the initial section of the race was repeated to replace the mileage. Runners would still cross the spillway twice on the new course and, since a few sections of the trail beside the creek were submerged as waters rose, the legendary difficulty of Sweet H20 50K was not diminished.  With a final distance of almost 33 miles, we still benefited from free mileage for our money on the quickly-altered route.

Days before the race, several friends and I motivated one another with a series of trash talk emails where we each called out our goal finish times.  I enjoyed calling out arbitrary goals, but I remembered my struggles at the 2010 race all too well.  Last year, I was heavier in weight and suffering the residual fatigue from a marathon two weeks prior, so I crumbled under the 80-degree afternoon sun and walked the entire 17-mile final loop to finish second-to-last in the race.  My only real goal for this 2011 race was to enjoy the day and have the ability to run at a decent pace in the final miles, instead of merely surviving the event as I had last year.  I was not in ideal condition this year either, since my recent weight loss had stalled after regaining some pounds over Christmas, but I knew that I had become a more efficient runner and that I could improve well over my previous finish time by making intelligent pace decisions and not losing the plot.

Photo courtesy of Naresh Kumar
For this race, I would be using a Camelbak Rogue 70-ounce hydration pack instead of the two handheld water bottles that I had carried the previous year.  I stashed several gels into the Camelbak compartments with the intention of eating these gels throughout the race instead of eating cookies and candy at each aid station.

My choice of trail shoe for this race proved to be a wise decision.  For my past trail ultramarathons, I had worn the Montrail Hardrocks, because these heavier shoes catered to overpronating runners like me who need added stability.  After I used up my last pair of Hardrocks, I wore the Hardrock replacement line, the Montrail Badrocks, to Mount Cheaha 50K in February. While the Montrail Badrocks felt great on non-technical trail surfaces, I found that they were not handling as well on rocky technical terrain.  I have owned a pair of Montrail Mountain Masochist shoes for almost a year now and have found them to have a better fit than any other trail shoe that I have tried, but I have been hesitant to attempt wearing them for long distance runs due to the relatively low profile heel.  For Sweet H2O 50K, however, I gave in to my curiosity and wore the Mountain Masochist shoes.  I am pleased to report that the Montrail Mountain Masochists gave a stellar performance during this 50K.  I had a better feel for every type of terrain along the trail and the shoes drained so well that my feet felt completely dry mere seconds after each water crossing.

When I arrived at the race start, I was relieved to find out that the thunderstorms that had wreaked havoc on the area overnight had moved on and that sunny skies were soon on the way.  After a brief announcement from the race director about the course alterations, we started along the paved road that would thin the runners along the first mile and half before we entered the single-track trails.  I was happy to be joined by a friend from South Carolina, Jason Sullivan, with whom I would run the entire race.  I enjoyed the opportunity to run with Jason, because of his wealth of knowledge from the 33 ultramarathons that he had completed to date. Like me, Jason is a “husky size” ultrarunner and, as such, has to overcome similar physical and psychological challenges on these long runs where fuel and hydration balances are so crucial.  Jason is a strong runner who has completed a 100-mile race, but he is also able to maintain a great sense of humor. Jason and I were joined occasionally by other runners along the course and the constant company kept all of us from giving way to the self-doubt that can follow runners in solitude.

Photo courtesy of Samuel Louie
When we left the pavement for the trails, we encountered a few muddy sections, but we were mostly thankful that the sandy soil of the area helped drain the trails.  After a short distance on the single-track, we emerged to the first spillway crossing.  The concrete banks were still slick from the storm rains, so I used a rope to climb down to the bottom, where cold water rose above my ankles.  I became the comic relief of this ultramarathon on the other side of the spillway when I attempted to climb the concrete bank without a rope and quickly slid back down to the water.  Laughing at my mistake, I quickly rejoined the others in line for the ropes to climb out of the bank.

After Jason and I climbed out of the spillway and resumed our run on the trails, we encountered a few wide puddles of water that we simply splashed through. My feet had already been submerged in water once, so it was best to embrace the discomfort and not go out of my way to avoid water on the trail.  We soon arrived at my least favorite part of Sweet H2O 50K, a descent down a steep rock-covered hill where the wet and muddy rocks shifted under each step.  I tried not to visualize myself slipping and falling face-first onto the sharp-edged rocks as I grabbed the occasional tree for balance.  A few similar challenges awaited soon after, as we climbed down steep muddy hills that required careful attention.  I was thankful for a large tree that stood in front of the creek at the bottom of one particular muddy hill, because I was able to slip downhill into the tree instead of continuing to slide into the creek itself.  As we passed the site of the eliminated river crossing section, Jason and I watched the rising flood rapids sweep just below the crossing rope and immediately decided that we were thankful that the race course had been altered.  We arrived at the first aid station to the cheers of Kirsten and other volunteers.  Despite the plethora of M&M's, potato chips and other temptations, I stayed true to my resolve and simply topped off the water in my Camelbak before continuing.

Now that we had finished the treacherous descents of mud and rocks, we were thankfully rewarded by a few miles of relatively easy trails along the side of Sweetwater Creek.  I quickly settled into an easy pace of walking the small hills and running the rest of the trail as I talked with Jason and another runner, David, who had joined us.  Since Jason and I were both veterans of this particular race, we knew that it was best to run comfortably on the trails that led to the Top Of The World hills that would soon greet us.  The occasional makeshift bridges of single wooden boards over small water crossings provided endless amusement for us and we kept joking about hearing these boards crack under our heavy weight.  As we left the waterside trail and continued along a scenic rolling hill trail, I settled into my routine of eating a gel every half hour and taking one S-Cap every hour for adequate sodium.

The second aid station was a welcome addition to the 2011 course, since I was now able to fill my Camelbak with water before tackling the Top Of The World hills. The trail leading out of the aid station, with its straw-covered path in high grass alongside the bottom of a huge rock wall, made me think of scenes from Akira Kurosawa samurai movies.  After a short climb out of the grass ravine, Jason, David, and I enjoyed an extended flat section of trail through a meadow that led to the first series of hills that marked the beginning of the Top Of The World stretch.  All three of us were gung-ho about the harsh terrain to come and that excitement quickly carried us up the gravel road hill that led away from grassy flatlands.

Wet rocks and mud provided a small challenge on a steep descent to a cold stream crossing that gave my feet a welcome ice bath of sorts before climbing the amazingly steep ravine trail.  We reached the top of the leaf-covered ravine trail and quickly made our way on the first downhill in the Top Of The World series so that the sight of neverending hills over the horizon would not intimidate us.  When I occasionally reported the distance and countdown time from my Garmin watch to Jason, he was enthusiastic that we were making great time with our constant pace.  We both primarily wanted to finish the race strongly, but we could not resist projecting possible finish time of eight hours, eight-and-half hours, and so on.  We finally agreed that a sub-nine-hour finish would be great on this day. Jason, who was returning from a brief hiatus from ultramarathons, was overjoyed to be running an ultra again and his excitement was contagious.  Jason, David, and I were soon joined by Lynne, a fellow ultrarunner whom I had met at Mystery Mountain Marathon a couple of years ago.

Impossibly steep hill climbs followed impossibly steep hill climbs until we finally reached the entrance to Top Of The World.  A friend of ours, Wayne, who was way ahead in the race, jokingly taunted Jason and me when he saw us starting the entrance trail just as he was leaving, and we spent the next several minutes talking about how we wanted to chase Wayne down and pass him on the second loop.  The actual Top Of The World hill, from which the Atlanta skyline can be seen, marks the entrance to an out-and-back trail to the third aid station, so I enjoyed seeing several faster friends running in the opposite direction on their way out of that aid station.  When we arrived at the aid station, I was happy to see my friend, Scott, with whom I had run several races, volunteering at the tent.  I did not have much time to catch up, though, because I wanted to avoid resting at the aid stations for too long and the others with me shared the same resolve.  Jason, Lynne, and I ran together on the way out of the aid station as David moved ahead.

The repeat elevations were not over yet and the three of us made our way back to Sweetwater Creek via the power line trails, where we alternately ran down treacherously steep dirt hills and quickly hiked to the top of each subsequent hill crest.  We were relieved to return to the flat trails beside the creek so that we could resume a consistent running pace as we got closer to Jack's Hill, the final infamous climb of the first loop. Jack's Hill is a runnable trail under most circumstances, but the three of us were happy to power-hike the incline to the next aid station, where a fellow ultrarunner and friend, Cindy, volunteered and greeted us with smiles.  I decided that it would be in my best interest to take one of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich sections for additional energy, but I still maintained my resolve to avoid the cookies and candy at the aid station.  We continued along pleasant rolling hill gravel roads that passed a somewhat unsettling park sign notifying us that we were in a timber rattlesnake habitat. The most pleasant section of Sweet H2O 50K, a mile of winding trail covered with plush pine straw, allowed us the opportunity for a nonstop run to make up time.  After rounding out an extended curve to a paved road, we passed the finish line group shelter and completed our first loop in just over four hours.

Photo courtesy of Susan Donnelly
As we ran a relaxed pace along the paved park entrance road on the second loop, our spirits were given an additional boost when a car pulled next to us with my friend, Sean, a fast runner who had just completed an inspirational running adventure in the Himalayas, riding as passenger.  Sean cheered us on and we talked to him for several minutes as the three of us ran alongside the car.  Jason, Lynne, and I turned on to the main road and avoided traffic hazards by running a makeshift trail on the other side of the guard rail as we complimented one another on making good time.  This paved section on the second loop had killed my spirits the previous year, so I was feeling pretty good to have some running energy left.  We rounded the single-track trails and crossed the spillway once again, surprised to find that the water had actually risen to a higher level around our shins as we walked quickly across to rope-climb the embankment on the other side.

Lynne raced ahead, as Jason and I had long suspected that she would, and the two of us continued along the series of dangerous rock and mud descents, relieved that the mud had noticeably dried in the afternoon sun. The subject of conversation repeatedly turned to whether or not we had it in us to finish with a strong sub-nine-hour finish and we agreed that we both had enough energy to knock the second loop out in less than five hours.  My Montrail Mountain Masochist shoes still felt good and I was confident that they would keep me in good form for the duration, although they were more minimalist in the soles than I was accustomed to from my previous bulky shoes.

During this portion of the second loop at the 2010 race, I had been drained of energy and had only been able to walk at a steady pace, so I took comfort in the ability to run long stretches on the waterside trails.  The water level had risen higher throughout the day at Sweetwater Creek and we were trudging through water more often during the second loop, but I was enjoying the feel of the cold water on my feet.  Whenever Jason and I reached a non-technical stretch, I told him that I wanted to run while I could, but that I would not be able to keep running for long.  After a few miles, Jason joked, “You keep saying that you're going to stop and walk, but you just keep running.”  We were both feeling pretty good, though, and we both seemed to know exactly the right moments to start walk breaks.  In the days leading up to this race, I had been listening to a rock song, “Recharge and Revolt”, by The Raveonettes, and I told Jason that each walk break was a chance to “recharge and revolt” before the next long running stretch.

Jason and I started to pass a handful of other runners on the trail and each encounter gave us new momentum.  Jason had accurately predicted that we were going to start passing people on the second loop if we maintained the steady pace and those predictions were coming true.  We reached the second aid station where Jenn, a friend who had just returned from an impressive Umstead ultramarathon run and who had seen me at my worst physical moments at the previous year's Twisted Ankle Trail Marathon, briefly quizzed me on how I was doing and whether or not I was taking in the right amount of fuel and water.   I gave her the thumbs-up that everything was going well.  Another runner, Dean, whom I recognized from previous races, decided to run along with Jason and me as we left the aid station and made our way to the long open meadow section, which I named “the run in the sun”.  I told Dean and Jason about my misadventures along this section during the previous year, when I was walking miserably under the brutal sun out in the open and watching one of my ultrarunning friends, Graham, move farther and farther away in the distance.  There was no walking along this portion of the trail in 2011, though, and the three of us traded jokes as we got closer to the Top Of The World.  I was in a hurry to get this flat meadow section completed so that I could, in turn, get the Top Of The World out of the way. We soon passed a female runner who decided to keep up with us. Rose would accompany the three of us for the next several miles. As I had promised Jason and Dean while we were running through the open meadow trail nonstop, we enjoyed a long walk break when we reached the gravel road leading up to the first series of hills. We resumed an easy run as we descended the rocky section leading to the last big stream crossing.  I avoided the temptation to lie completely down in the stream for a cold ice bath effect as the four of us arrived at the ravine trail climb.

The ravine trail on the second loop was the point in the 2010 race where I had resolved not only to drop out of the race, but to drop out of running altogether.  This distant memory was made all the more distant as I climbed the ravine trail with a smile on my face while Dean constantly joked around with everyone.  Dean's presence on this entire section was a blessing, because he kept all four of us in good humor during the toughest part of the race.  I took the lead on the series of hills leading to Top Of The World and remained about 20 feet ahead of Rose, Dean, and Jason.  I wanted to stick with the crowd, but I was also in a hurry to get this section out of the way as soon as possible.  I could hear Dean and company behind me and I turned around occasionally to joke with them.

This Top Of The World series of hills was harsh and unrelenting, but so were the four of us.  This report probably makes Sweet H2O 50K seem easier than normal, because I really cannot recall any specific moment from the race when I felt down on myself or when I was unable to remain in good spirits.  Every part of my body was hurting along these Top Of The World hills, but the camaraderie that I enjoyed with friends old and new made everything bearable and even fun.  During this race, I learned the most valuable lesson of my ultrarunning life so far. I learned that the ability to remain optimistic and to find humor in every situation is the most important ultrarunning tool and that this ability can overpower physical discomfort.  I was getting hot under the sun, my legs were hurting, and I was definitely winding down, but I was also enjoying a fun Saturday afternoon with friends.  In the same way that Charles Halloway shows his son how to defeat the demons and darkness with laughter in Ray Bradbury's novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes, I was reminded that happiness and positive thinking could defeat fatigue during one of the most difficult 50K races of all.

When we reached the Top Of The World summit, I resumed running alongside the other three and we congratulated the other runners that we saw leaving the out-and-back aid station in the opposite direction.  Scott cheered us into the aid station and I enjoyed two huge cups of Gatorade while a volunteer refilled my Camelbak.  Scott offered the last two slices of pizza to us and I politely declined while Jason took a slice.  I was overjoyed when one volunteer congratulated me on how I looked a lot slimmer compared to when she had seen me while volunteering at the same aid station the previous year.  Just as Rose, Dean, Jason, and I were getting ready to leave, we saw two more of my ultrarunning friends and personal heroes, Susan and Rob, running in from the trail. I joked with Jason that I had known that Susan and Rob would catch us at some point.  Rose ran ahead while Susan took pictures of Rob, Jason, and I. Dean caught up to us soon after and the five of us commented on the view of Atlanta as we completed our final Top Of The World trek of the race.

Photo courtesy of GUTS
Susan and Rob stayed behind at the entrance to talk with Sarah, who was volunteering at the intersection, so Dean, Jason, and I kept running to begin the power line trail section.  Dean began joking with Jason and me that he could run the hills in a hurry and we encouraged him along.  When Dean did, indeed, speed ahead of us to run up the hills effortlessly, Jason and I laughed and decided that Dean had been sandbagging all along earlier in the race.  Cramps started to erupt up and down my legs during one steep power line climb, so I took my final S-Cap of the race and made sure to bite down on the capsule so that the electrolytes could start working as soon as possible.  Nothing was going to deter me from a sub-nine-hour time this year.  Jason was clearly more energetic and he told me that he felt like he could run a 100-miler.  When I expressed admiration at his resilience, Jason told me that the pizza slice at the last aid station had given him a real second wind.  I learned yet another valuable lesson. I should not turn down pizza when it is offered to me at an aid station. 

Despite my unfortunate dismissal of a pizza offer, I was pleased with my fuel and electrolyte strategy for this race.  For most of the day, I avoided taking food from the aid stations to rely instead on the gels that I had brought to the race.  Each half hour, I alternated the Crank e-Gels with Accel Gels, which contain protein, and these electrolyte sources kept me on the move when combined with an S-Cap once an hour.  I did take a couple of small peanut butter and jelly sandwich quarters from the aid stations and, at one point after the final Top Of The World pass, I ate a few Gummi Bears.  I also did not hesitate to drink cups of Gatorade or soda at the aid stations.  For the most part, though, I refrained from my usual strategy of leaving each aid station with handfuls of sugary foods.  For this reason, I think that I was better able to judge the level of sodium that I was putting into my body during the race and this enabled me to balance the hydration intake accordingly.  My Camelbak does not have a flow meter for the water, but I am certain that I adhered to my strategy not to drink more than 30 ounces of water per hour.  When I arrived at the finish line, I was not bloated from sodium or hydration excess like I have been in the past. 

Jason and I made our way up Jack's Hill in good spirits as we saw the watch countdown in our favor for a sub-nine-hour finish and, possibly, an 8:30 finish.  Cindy enthusiastically cheered the two of us along as we arrived at the final aid station and told us that we had 2.25 miles left to go.  Jason and I left the aid station debating the mileage, because we were both certain that we were closer to the finish than that.  As it turned out, Cindy was right, because the shorter route to the finish had been removed to make up mileage after the elimination of the stream crossings.

We ran at a decent clip for the gravel road section and power-walked the two notable uphills.  When we finally reached the glorious pine-straw trail on the final stretch, we began the nonstop run on the last mile and half to the finish.  I encouraged Jason to pass me if he wanted to, because I could see that he had a lot more energy in the bank, but he assured me that he wanted us to finish together.  We both picked up our pace noticeably when we smelled the barbecue chicken at the finish area.  I was grateful for the company and conversation along this final stretch.  When we reached a small hill a half mile from the finish, Jason asked me if I wanted to take one last walk break and finish strong, but I replied that I felt good and that we should keep running.  We exited the trail to a hilly pavement stretch to the finish and picked up our pace, both of us laughing when I commented about how the road was never going to end.  We made the last turn up some wooden steps and crossed the finish line while friends from GUTS (Georgia Ultrarunning and Trailrunning Society) greeted us with cheers.  We both crossed the finish line as the clock read 8:43 and shook Race Director Johnny Buice's hand as he congratulated us on another successful race.

My official finish time was 8:43:51 and I had placed 193 out of 209.  Jason and I had made good on our determination to finish Sweet H2O 50K in under nine hours and I had beaten my previous year's time by over an hour.  I credit the lower temperatures in 2011 with my faster time, but I will gladly file this as a course record just the same.

I spent a long time at the finish area with friends and food.  The barbecue chicken hit the spot, the chairs were comfortable, and, as with all post-ultramarathon celebrations, the stories were fun to hear and to tell.

The first, and hopefully not the last, ultramarathon with no crushing mental low points was in the books for me. I feel like I left everything on the course in physical terms, but I also felt good as I walked around slowly after the race.  My mental state had remained upbeat and my body had rewarded me in turn.  At one point during the race, Jason and I had reminded ourselves that we do not get paid to run ultramarathons, so the primary goal is to stay safe and to have fun.  I am proud of my faster time, but I am prouder of achieving that primary goal.

Thanks to Johnny Buice and the Douglas Country Rogue Runners for making Sweet H2O 50K possible for another amazing year.  Thanks to my GUTS friends for the encouragement and for hanging around at the finish. A hearty fist pump goes to Jason Sullivan for running the entire duration of the race with me and for the fun conversations.  Congratulations to everyone who ran well at one of the toughest and most rugged 50K plus extra mile courses around.

See you on the trails.



  1. Great write up, Jason. Congrats on a great race- very consistent, and it paid off in the end. Well done.

  2. I love reading your recaps.. It appears that this race went really well for you. Hope this trend continues for you.

  3. Hey Jason, great report and I had a blast running with you and Jason S. See you on the trails!

  4. J-Diesel, you rock bro! So glad to have spent some time with you out there, you are a constant source of inspiration! The Pallasades are callign our names!

  5. Wow! That looks like an awesome race, Jason. I especially love the photos in this report. You've pretty much convinced me that Georgia is the best state in the Southeast for trail races.

  6. I really enjoyed reading your recap and running the race with you. Man you were solid and steady for the entire run. No doubts, no downs, no crashes, just a great solid run.

    Sharing the trail with you is a privilege that I hope to repeat many, many more times.

    Dude, never turn down pizza during an ultra. NEVER!!!

  7. Great report, Jason! I loved seeing both Jason's smiling faces at the turn around. You just couldn't tell, because I was in such bad shape at that point! See you at Enoree I hope:))

  8. So glad you had a great experience this just keep getting stroniger and stronger!

  9. I'm the volunteer in the black shirt, with the camera, giving directions on one of the bridges. I took about 100 photos and posted them on FB. To find me my email is

  10. Great job out there - your reports are always so thorough and inspirational. I keep going back to your Stump Jump report...that race is on my bucket list. :)