On August 7, 2011, I completed the Hot To Trot 8 Hour Run with a distance of 30.68 miles.
The Hot To Trot 8 Hour Run, an annual fixed-time event sponsored by GUTS (Georgia Ultrarunning and Trailrunning Society), takes place every August on a 1.18-mile loop at Sweetwater Creek State Park in Lithia Springs, Georgia. August is a brutally hot month here in Georgia, and the weather on this particular day (91-degree temperature high, 101 heat index at the 4:00 P.M. finish, 81% average humidity, 74 F dew point) presented an array of challenges to the 79 finishers for this year’s event.
Fortunately, the local ultrarunning community that embraces this race every year knows what to expect, and we gladly pay money for the satisfaction of staying upright for eight hours in potentially dangerous weather conditions. The GUTS website description from Race Director Sarah Tynes does not sugarcoat the unique charms of the event. “At the Hot To Trot 8 Hour Race, our goal is to provide the race as advertised. As the name implies, you can count on it being HOT. Temps are easily in the 90's this time of year in Georgia, with humidity off the scale. Hyponatremia and dehydration can be serious. Runners are expected to use proper electrolytes in order to stay alive! Ice is provided throughout the race for your use to keep that core body temperature down! The race director reserves the right to pull anyone whom she feels is putting themselves in danger. If you do not know how to manage your electrolytes, learn BEFORE this run, not during!”
To be eligible for this race, participants must have previous experience at ultramarathons or comparable endurance events. The 2011 Hot To Trot 8 Hour entry list consisted of accomplished ultrarunners with previous race wins, Ironman triathlon finishers with a talent for pushing themselves in extreme conditions, and expendable runners, like me, who have no spouses or children as dependents.
This would be my second year participating in the Hot To Trot 8 Hour Run and I knew from my previous experience that these eight hours could not be taken lightly. In 2010, I had witnessed a collapsed runner who had to be taken to a local hospital by volunteers, and I had also dealt with my own struggles by walking several laps when my body temperature was at risk.
I was especially apprehensive about this 2011 race, because I have been in a lethargic running lull since completing the Black Mountain Monster 24 Hour Run in early June. While my training throughout this summer has been consistent and on schedule to prepare for my first 100-mile race attempt in the fall, the record high temperatures and my resolve to continue losing weight have sapped my energy and turned most of my long runs into chores that I have been approaching out of a sense of duty, rather than pure enthusiasm. The workouts have become easier as my fitness has increased, but I am still impatient for cooler fall temperatures to arrive.
On the night before the race, I woke up briefly in the middle of the night with a nauseous, lightheaded feeling, but almost immediately went back to sleep. I felt better when the alarm went off a few hours later, and I dismissed the occurrence by deciding that I must have been reacting poorly to the temperatures of the past week or to an early-evening spaghetti dinner that I had eaten the day before. The thought of running for eight hours made me feel preemptively exhausted, but I looked forward to spending time with friends and to pushing myself past my comfort zone.
I arrived at Sweetwater Creek State Park in my normal compulsively early fashion an hour and half before the race and set up a camp chair beside the race path near the aid station pavilion, so that I would have quick access to my running gels, S-Caps, and other supplies. Unfortunately, I had not learned from my previous nutrition timing misadventures at Black Mountain Monster 24 Hour Run and I had neglected to wear a stopwatch for this race. Since the loop was just over one mile, I could maintain greater control of my nutrition intake by following the race clock lap times, but I would have ultimately fared better had I taken a stopwatch to ensure that I ate a gel every half hour on the half hour and to maintain a closer watch on my hydration.
As I greeted friends and psyched myself up for the next eight hours, I watched rain drizzle on the camp area from overcast skies and took this as a mixed blessing. Cloudy skies were a welcome addition to this year’s Hot To Trot, but the resultant humidity was going to be stifling from the very beginning of the race. This time around, we had electronic timers on our race bibs, so the volunteers spent a few extra minutes working out quirks in the system to ensure that the timing device would accurately measure runners at each lap. Shortly after 8:00 A.M., Sarah corralled the runners to the race start and sent us on our way. As always, I started near the back of the pack of runners and leisurely advanced as runners bottlenecked into a single-file line at the beginning of the trail.
|Photo courtesy of Joseph Nance|
The 1.18-mile Hot To Trot lap starts beside the camp area where runners are cheered on by the volunteers before entering a short single-track trail and running over a series of small “tank killer” hills on the way to a brief stretch of paved road. The route splits from the paved section onto a jeep road filled covered with small pointed rocks that occasionally punish careless footsteps. When the jeep road ends at Sweetwater Creek, the route veers to the right for my favorite section, a sandy stretch of trail that meanders alongside the creek on the way to a wooden bridge. Another right trail turn after the wooden bridge climbs a couple of trail hills that somehow miraculously increase in height and incline as the heat of the day takes effect. The final stretch of the loop consists of a gradual hill that takes runners by a park restroom and into the trees where the timing chute awaits beside the park pavilion shelter and aid station table at the start/finish area.
The entire loop is runnable, but most of the participants opted to walk the two sharpest inclines along the second half of the course. I was happy to hit the ground running slowly at a 12-minute/mile pace as I talked with friends. Scott, a runner with whom I had completed several races, accompanied me for the first three loops before moving ahead. I also spent much of my first five loops leapfrogging my pace with Daniel, a fellow Marathon Maniac who was running Hot To Trot as his 100th marathon/ultramarathon event. The temperature was deceptively cool, but I quickly found myself struggling with humidity that had me covered with sweat that trickled down into my shoes and socks. I usually prefer to wear black shirts at races, because they have a slimming effect in my race photos, but I was thankful for my white technical mesh shirt this time around.
My energy and good humor came to an abrupt end just an hour and half into the race, when I suddenly felt the same lightheaded, nauseous feeling that I had experienced briefly the night before. I have pushed through energy lows at most of my long distance races, but this was something different. The morning temperature still felt relatively mild, so I did not believe that I was suffering from heat-related sickness symptoms, but I was experiencing a headache and energy drain that I would normally associate with running in much hotter temperatures in afternoon daylight hours. I wondered if I had been pushing myself too hard over the previous week with my intense anaerobic heart rate treadmill workouts or if I had simply eaten something the day before that was not agreeing with me. I could not put my finger on the cause, but it was clear that things were suddenly not going so well in Mr. Rogers’s neighborhood. As I ambled along the trail, reduced to a slow walk, a few other runners expressed concern as they passed by on their own loops. I tried to assure everyone that today just was not my day, but that I would keep moving. Friends who passed by expressed their own irritation with the oppressive humidity as we all wished one another well.
I had eaten two gels during the first hour or so and taken an S-Cap as I normally would in such hot conditions, but the nutrition and electrolytes were not helping. I began filling my handheld water bottle with Powerade instead of water for a more immediate source of sugar and electrolytes as I reached the aid station after each loop.
As the race clock read two hours, I had already accumulated ten miles, but I knew that my race was over and that it was time to stick a fork in me. I was lightheaded, sick, and drained of energy to the point where I could only walk along the loop, even on the downhill sections. Two friends, Samantha and Lia, accompanied me for almost an entire loop when they felt like walking and I told them of my plans to drop out of the race for safety reasons, since I was not feeling well at all. I was trying to decide whether or not to drop out at the end of the next lap or to continue to the three-hour mark before calling it a day. I could justify in my head that I was quitting this year’s Hot To Trot because I felt sick and I wanted to return home to let myself recover.
The three of us crossed the wooden bridge and passed a hiker who warned us of yellow jackets that were swarming around their deserted nest a few feet up the hill. We scanned the trail thoroughly, looking out for yellow jackets, but I did not have to search for long. I felt a sting on the back of my leg and, when I reached down to remove the yellow jacket, I immediately felt a second sting on my ankle. Samantha and Lia were both under attack as well, so we picked up our pace to a run to the top of the hill. I was stung a third time on the back of my leg as I ran up the hill, and I frantically swatted at two other yellow jackets that were circling my head. Seconds later, we were in the clear, but my left leg was hurting from the three stings.
In the aftermath of the yellow jacket attack, I felt a strange gratitude. I now had a solid concrete reason to drop out of this race. I had cause enough to quit when I was feeling lightheaded and strangely weak, but the yellow jacket stings were the final straw. I would bow out of Hot To Trot with a clear conscience, write down on my Facebook wall that I was the first (and hopefully the last!) casualty of this 2011 race, and be happy to run strong another day. I notified the volunteers at the finish chute that I had been attacked by yellow jackets and they assured me that they had sent some people down to the trail to spray the nest after several other runners had complained.
I passed by the aid station table, laughing at my misadventure, and decided to continue along when Beth, a friend and talented runner who was suffering from an Achilles injury, offered to accompany me for another slow lap. As we complained to each other about our bad luck at this race and joked about the situation, I realized that I had some energy to run the downhill stretch to the creek. I was still in a lull, but my lightheadedness was disappearing. I assumed that the yellow jacket attack had taken my mind off of my headache for the present, but I was thankful to be feeling slightly better.
As Beth and I climbed hills on the last part of the loop, I decided to keep going for the duration of the eight hours as long as I felt that my health was not at risk. I was trying to climb out of a low and I was not even halfway through this event, but I knew that I needed some mental toughness training for my upcoming 100-mile race in November. I decided to pretend that I was finishing the final hours of a 100-mile race and to push myself through pain and sickness to get the distance behind me. My initial plans of running 35 miles at this event had been shelved, so I decided simply to work toward beating 29.5-mile distance from the previous year.
As the official clock approached the four-hour mark, I continued moving along, taking watermelon slices with me from the aid station table and refilling my bottle alternately with Powerade and water. I had unfortunately fallen out of my schedule to eat a gel every half hour and to consume S-Caps every hour, so I was now going by feel. I was not eating enough, but I took S-Caps whenever I remembered and I was downing two-thirds of my 20-ounce bottle of Powderade with each lap. I would later realize that I was probably consuming well over 40 ounces of Powerade and water each hour. I was setting myself up for unfavorable repercussions later on in the race, but I was so relieved to be running again without sickness that I did not pay mind to proper precautions about the nutrition/hydration balances.
I briefly ran and walked with two friends, Philip and Joel, who had both finished Pinhoti 100 in previous years, and I enjoyed asking them for advice about what to expect from that race course in November. I joked with two other friends, Candy and Jenn, as I pushed my pace over comfort zone to run with them for portions of a few laps. Aaron ran with me for the early part of a loop while his ankle recovered, and he marveled at my tendency to make up new and unfamiliar words when I am feeling fatigued. A multiple 100-mile participant, Ed, ran with me for a short while as we compared notes about our strategy for Pinhoti 100. All the while, the eventual top race finishers, Jim, Joe, Matthew, Ryan, Kate, and Kerry would lap me quite often and offer encouragement as they flew by.
|Photo courtesy of Sean Oh|
My favorite thing about this Hot To Trot race is the opportunity to see each and every runner multiple times along the loop and to feed off the strength while observing how each individual handles the challenge of the repetitive terrain. Despite my suffering from the beatdown of humidity and rising temperatures, I was having a blast seeing old friends and meeting new friends along the way. Sean, an ultrarunner who was sitting out this race in favor of taking race photos with his high-quality camera, was waiting at several points along the trail. I would start running intensely when I saw him about to take my photo, and then jokingly ask him if I had permission to start walking again after I passed. Occasional runners complimented me on staying in the race despite my rough day and I assured them that I was now just counting down the clock hours.
The race atmosphere became infinitely harsh as the sun appeared during the final three hours and the heat index passed the 100-degree mark. My hands and arms were starting to swell, but I had allowed myself to become so out of touch with any real nutrition timing schedule that I was unsure of how to remedy the situation. I took advantage of energy bursts when I could and was able to run entire laps on occasion, save for the two notable hills. At other times, I was reduced to a brisk walk pace for entire loops. I provided some unintentional comic relief at the camp area late in the race when Beth, who had stopped her race to recover, offered to pour cold water on me before I started a lap. After roasting in the sun and suffering from rising body temperatures, I was unprepared for the sudden icy blast of water and was glad that no children were standing around the camp area to hear the F-word come out of my mouth.
Since my feet had been soaked with squishy sweat and occasional water from hoses at the volunteer area, I was starting to suffer from blisters. I am normally strangely immune to foot blisters during ultra races, but the conditions at Hot To Trot 8 Hour Run proved to be an exception. I sat down at my camp chair for my one and only time during the race to quickly change socks, but the sock change provided only minimal relief.
As the clock finally drew closer to the eight-hour mark, my hands and arms became increasingly swollen. As I hobbled down the trail at the beginning of the final hour, I was relieved to see Ray, an accomplished ultrarunner with vast experience, approaching behind me on the trail. When I asked him about my swelling, he suggested that I lick the skin on my arm and that, if the skin tasted salty, then I was taking in too much sodium. Sure enough, I tasted salt and I resolved to only take water with me for the remainder of the race and to avoid sodium.
I smiled through my exhaustion when I realized that I was going to beat my 29.5-mile distance from the 2010 Hot To Trot race. During my final two laps, one of my running inspirations, Heidi, offered to accompany me while she was working through her own exhaustion. We talked about our upcoming 100-mile races and joked on the second to last loop, although I had to interrupt a good running pace to limp for a few steps after stepping on an excruciatingly pointed rock along the jeep trail on the way to the creek. I completed 25 laps and matched my distance from the previous year as the official clock read 7:41:00 and I knew that I would have to keep moving strong to finish my final lap before the deadline. I ran by the aid station table without refilling my water bottle and hurried the half mile down to the creek and around to the wooden bridge with my fastest running pace of the day. I was out of breath when Heidi and I caught up with Aaron and Jenn and power-walked with them up the trail hills, but I was also overjoyed that I would be finishing this race with over 30 miles. The four of us resumed running after the final hill and, after thanking everyone for the company, I crossed the finish line at 7:53 on the clock, amazed that I had run a 12-minute mile for my final lap.
I completed the 2011 Hot To Trot 8 Hour Trail Run with 26 laps to total 30.68 miles, ranking 52 out of 79 finishers. I had fallen just short of a 50K distance, but I was pleased to have overcome some harsh obstacles on a hot summer day. It is fitting that I ended up with 26 laps for my 26th race of a marathon/ultra distance.
Thanks to Sarah and the GUTS crowd for another incredible Hot To Trot experience. Thanks to all of the other 78 runners along the course who, at one point or another, shared encouragement, humor, and kindness. Thanks and no thanks to three yellow jackets for taking my mind off fatigue and sickness to give me an unexpected blast of adrenaline.
This Hot To Trot 8 Hour Run greeted me with some brutal hurdles in the form of sickness, summer heat, and even stinging yellow jackets, but it has also given me a new confidence in my ability to keep moving through discomfort and to run faster than normal when I am blessed with a second wind late in a long distance race. I have a long way to go still with my mental and physical preparation for Pinhoti 100 in November, but I know in the back of my mind that I will be ready to face those challenges head on.
See you on the trails.