On May 14, 2011, I completed my third Twisted Ankle Trail Marathon with a finish time of 6:19:15 and improved on my previous year's finish by over an hour.
The Twisted Ankle Trail Marathon can serve as a well-earned celebration of fitness for the prepared runner or as a harsh punishment to the poorly trained participant. My previous two experiences at this race have landed on both ends of the spectrum. When I ran the Twisted Ankle Trail Marathon as my first trail race and third marathon in 2009, I was well-recovered from my previous races and I ran on fresh legs to finish in 5:41:59 by using the Galloway run/walk interval method. I crossed the finish line with a buoyant enthusiasm for trail running and with a belief that I was ready to take on the world. The following year, I arrived at Twisted Ankle Trail Marathon with residual fatigue from a multitude of recent races and with a weight gain from undisciplined training. These setbacks, combined with high May temperatures and my overconfidence that this race was “just a marathon” that I had already completed, resulted in a 7:26:31 finish time where I walked for two-thirds of the distance and arrived at the end bloated from borderline hyponatremia symptoms. After sitting at the finish area for almost two hours with shaking hands and a shaken confidence while I replenished with electrolytes, I returned home, withdrew my entry for a 50K race a few weeks later, and took a few months off of long-distance races to put pieces back together.
With no small amount of apprehension, I drove to the start area at James H. (Sloppy) Floyd State Park in Summerville, Georgia on Saturday morning and prepared for my third trek on this course that ascends a ridge along the Pinhoti Trail section of the Chattahoochee National Forest. As always with my races, I was looking forward to a fun day on the trail with friends, but I was also uncertain about whether or not this course would administer another physical and psychological beatdown. I am pleased with my multiple long distance race finishes, but I still think of myself as a below-average runner. I struggle daily with my heavy weight that can fluctuate erratically from month to month, I often make poor choices with nutrition before and during a race, I have a tendency to allow negativity to overcome my outlook when my body is fatigued, and I routinely finish in the back of the pack. Fortunately, the fun aspects of long distance running outnumber the unfavorable moments even on my worst days and, in the same way that a mathematician enjoys puzzling over a theorem, I enjoy experimenting with different ways to maximize my running effectiveness. The transition from a below-average runner to a good runner is a challenge that I continue to seek a solution to and I knew that my latest Twisted Ankle Trail Marathon would be no easy test.
A cool overcast morning greeted me when I arrived at the park and I enjoyed spending time with several acquaintances before Race Directors Becky and Jenn stood on top of a picnic table to announce the race start. When I spotted Samantha and Lara, two runners who always seem to catch up to me halfway through ultramarathon races and finish ahead, I decided that it would be a wise strategy for me to run with them for the early miles and conserve my energy. Never let it be said that I do not learn a lesson every now and then. I was in good humor as I started in the back of the pack and leisurely ran rolling hills around a lake and through campground roads that thinned out the runners in the first couple of miles before we entered the trails. Shortly after entering the forest, we would be climbing the infamous “Becky’s Bluff” that ascended 700 feet in a half mile to a ridge, so I enjoyed the “calm before the storm” effect of the initial easy miles. The weather was noticeably cooler on this morning than the previous year and I hoped that the cloudy skies and occasional breezes would continue through the day.
During the first major uphill climb to the Marble Falls on the third mile, I heard an eerie pulsating sound that gradually increased in volume as I made the climb. I immediately thought about the flying saucer sound effects from 1950’s science fiction movies, such as Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers or The Day The Earth Stood Still. I had no idea what this day would bring, but I knew that an alien abduction would not help my chances of beating my finish time from last year. I mentioned the pulsating sound to Samantha, who told me that cicadas were the likely culprits. I remembered that 2011 was when a brood of cicadas in Georgia would emerge during their 13-year cycle.
There is nothing like a steep trail climb to take a runner’s mind off other surroundings and the sci-fi pulsating sounds of the cicadas were briefly forgotten as we began to make our way up to the ridge. The climb began with a seemingly endless trail hill that steadily increased in difficulty and, while this hill was still runnable, many of us in the back of the pack decided to conserve energy by power-walking. We knew that the real Becky’s Bluff would soon greet us and, sure enough, we soon made a sharp left turn to see a sign warning us that steep hills were ahead. Becky’s Bluff, in all its relentless glory, welcomed us with a nearly vertical view of the trail up the ridge ahead of us. I have always joked that I know that a hill is truly steep when I can reach out in front of me and touch the hill that I am climbing. Becky’s Bluff is that hill and it is a demanding exercise in tenacity that requires hands-on-knees-uphill strength, with the help of an occasional tree truck to grab for assistance. Several runners were briefly resting against large trees, but I have found that the best way to make it up this hill is simply to keep moving, however slowly. I was thankful for the torturous training of the Hogpen Hill Climb 17K race and the Mount Cheaha 50K race that I had completed earlier in the year.
At the top of the ridge, Lara turned to the left to complete her half marathon route, since she was preparing for a tough 50-mile race the following week, so Samantha and I continued to the right on our own to the Pinhoti Trail intersection of jeep roads covered with sharp gravel. I was wearing the Montrail Mountain Masochist trail shoes after finding them much to my liking during my previous race, and I was thankful that they shielded my feet from the terrain. We continued along this gravel road for the next couple of miles at a good pace by taking occasional walk breaks on some of the hills, and I stayed true to my habit of eating a gel every half hour and taking an S-Cap once an hour. The flying saucer noises of the cicadas reached top volume from the trees along this stretch and I would not have been surprised to hear the robot from Lost In Space sound out the warning, “Danger, Will Robinson, danger!”
We soon reached one of the most fun sections of Twisted Ankle Trail Marathon, a long technical downhill trail where I enjoyed greeting all of the faster runners on their way back up from the aid station (and there were a lot of faster runners ahead of us). The temperature was steadily increasing, but the weather predictions of a 70-degree high reassured me that this race would not turn into the trial of sun and heat that I had struggled through a year before. It is easy to get caught in the moment during the fast descent to the eighth mile aid station and fall on the loose rocks, but my footing held true and I made it down to the roadside aid station in one piece. After refilling my Camelbak Rogue hydration pack with water, drinking a couple of cups of Gatorade, and grabbing a handful of Gummi Bears, I turned around and started to climb back the way that I had come with Samantha following closely behind.
The steady 1.5-mile hill climb on the way back to the jeep roads along the ridge demands patience, since it can drain the energy from an eager runner who reaches the top to realize that there are still 16 miles left in this marathon. Samantha and I talked with a few other runners on our way to the top and, when we finally arrived at the gate marking the return to the ridge trail, I was relieved that I still had some energy left in the bank. At this point of the race a year ago, I had made the mistake of waiting through the first nine miles without taking any S-Caps and had reached a point where I could only walk, so I was glad to have taken the necessary precautions to ensure adequate electrolytes this time around. Samantha and I continued our comfortable pace along the roads and I commented that, as long as I was able to keep running, a faster finish time was a sure bet.
We reached the 13.1-mile halfway point in just over three hours shortly after we left the jeep roads for the idyllic single-track trail along the top of the ridge. A few minutes after we passed the halfway point aid station, I let my enjoyment of the picturesque ridge trail take my mind off my feet and I tripped over a small tree stump to take a rough fall to the side of the trail. I stood up, brushed the dirt off my arms, apologized for Samantha for using the F-word in front of her when I hit the ground, and continued running. I reminded Samantha that, when we saw a large Jason-shaped hole in the ground to the side of the trail on the way back, we would know that we were almost at the final aid station.
Samantha and I continued talking as we made our way through a few uneventful miles by walking the short uphills and running the downhills and flats. I was starting to feel tired and, whenever I commented to Samantha that I was winding down, she assured me that I was running well. I reminded myself to stay positive and I searched for ways to take my mind off my weary legs. The well-wishes of other runners who passed in the opposite direction on their way to the finish were a big help. We passed another aid station where I downed three cups of Gatorade and grabbed more Gummi Bears. Since I was wary of overhydrating myself with water as I had during the previous Twisted Ankle race, I was careful not to drink too much from my Camelbak and I only had to refill the pack twice during the entire race. I relied instead on the electrolytes in the Gatorade at each aid station.
We soon emerged from the trees onto another gravel jeep road that would take us to the final turnaround at the mile 18 aid station. Samantha and I caught up with Lynne, with whom I had run several miles of Sweet H2O 50K a month before. On the series of rolling jeep road hills, we passed by a downed tree caused by the recent widespread tornado damage and I was thankful that the storms had not destroyed more of this area. We reached the mile 18 aid station, excited to find slices of watermelon waiting for us. I remembered my exhausted condition when I had rested in a chair for several minutes at this aid station last year and consumed too much water and watermelon to drive my body into a sodium shortage, so I refilled my Camelbak, took three watermelon slices, and immediately continued along the course.
When Samantha and I reached the crest of the first hill after the aid station and resumed running, I sensed that she was picking up energy, so I told her that I would stay behind at my own pace. I ran the downhill stretches at a good pace and kept her in sight until we both reached the top of the gravel roads and returned to the single-track trail for the final seven miles. Samantha then ran ahead and would later finish the race almost ten minutes ahead of me.
I was now on my own as I traversed the hilly single-track trail, although I would occasionally spot Lynne ahead of me when I turned a corner or crested a hill. I was tiring and I felt overweight and heavy, but I was also grateful to have the energy to run the downhills and flat trails at this point in the race where I was barely able to walk a year before. I soldiered on, with the Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers sound effects of the cicadas once again increasing in volume, and congratulated myself whenever I reached mileage goals on my Garmin drawing me closer to the 26.2-mile mark.
The Twisted Ankle Trail Marathon is considerably less technical than many of the other trail races that I have completed, but it still has its share of insidious dangers and the pleasant ridge trails can be deceptive, as I had learned from my tumble earlier in the race. Another hidden lesson presented itself when I stepped on an excruciatingly pointed tree stump and cried out in pain. I limped for a few steps before continuing to run with a watchful eye on the trails. The bottom of my forefoot was throbbing in pain, but I remembered a passage from Marshall Ulrich’s book, Running On Empty, where he overcame leg pain during his trans-America run by telling himself that his ailing legs were not his legs and that they belonged to someone else. I told myself that my hurting foot was not my foot and that the pain did not belong to me. This mental game, as comical as it seems, provided a small amount of reassurance that enabled me to remain moving at a decent pace. I reached the final aid station, downed a couple of Gatorade cups, and started the long downhill to the campground below.
I ran nonstop down the 1.5-mile trail back to the campground road, being careful not to let the race live up to its name by blowing out one of my ankles on the tricky rocky sections near the Marble Falls. I was definitely reaching the end of my endurance chain for the day, but I realized that I had a good chance of taking an hour off of my previous Twisted Ankle Trail Marathon time and I was pleased to be in better condition this year. My hands were not swollen to Stay Puft Marshmallow Man size as they were as a result of my unbalanced hydration and sodium intake a year ago, I had not had to loosen my Garmin wrist strap, and I was still able to run for long stretches with occasional walk breaks. In all fairness, though, I give full credit to the cooler temperatures and I do not doubt that this race may have eaten me alive once again had the temperatures been in the high 80’s as they were during the previous race.
My happiness with my race performance reached a new high when I passed a couple of runners just before reaching the campground. The satisfaction of passing thinner “runner types” during races, despite my weight, may be childish at this point, but it still brings a smile to my face every time. I ran around a campground road, taking short walk breaks on the small hills, and enjoyed the cheers of a couple of camper volunteers as I turned one corner. When I emerged from the trees by the campground lake and saw Lynne on the trail not far ahead, I tried my best to work through my fatigue to close the distance between us.
I remembered the concern of other runners and volunteers at my exhausted appearance at the finish a year ago and knew that I needed to run strong and put everyone’s mind at ease this time. I ran across the wooden lake bridge with a smile on my face and, high-fived a friend, Sean, as I reached the end of the bridge, and accelerated to a near-sprint in the final yards to cross the finish line in 6:19:15 with a placement of 100 out of 122 finishers. I had beaten my previous Twisted Ankle time, 7:26:31, by more than an hour and, more importantly, I crossed the finish line healthy and happy.
I grabbed a couple of Powerade bottles and a banana while walking around the finish area to congratulate other runners who had finished and remained at the park. I thanked Samantha for helping me achieve a smarter pace this time around and thanked Race Directors Becky and Jenn for putting another fun Twisted Ankle race together.
A year ago, I had finished the Twisted Ankle Marathon almost in tears, I was unable to run for several days, and I had questioned my ability to run future long distances races. This year, I woke up at 5:00 A.M. on the day after Twisted Ankle Trail Marathon, dressed in my running clothes, drove two hours to north Georgia with The Replacements blaring from my truck stereo, and completed the 3-mile Warrior Dash race through muddy water, under barbed wire, over a 20-foot wall, over cargo nets, and over two fire pits, as a post-marathon recovery run. I am still striving to make that transition from a below-average long distance runner to a good long distance runner, but, in the general scheme of things, I am happy with my weekend.
See you on the trails.