On September 3, 2011, I completed 15.5 miles at the Woods Ferry 24 Hour Run before dropping out due to heat sickness.
The Woods Ferry 24 Hour Run, a part of the South Carolina Ultra Trail Series founded by Race Director Terri Hayes, takes place at the Woods Ferry Recreation Area next to the Broad River in the Sumter National Forest. The 7.75-mile course consists of a 1.3 out-and-back trail connecting with a 5.15-mile trail loop, resulting in a lollipop-shaped trail route from the start area picnic shelter. Aside from a few challenging sections where the trail is battered by horse traffic, the rolling hills of the loop are runnable, and they cater to an easygoing pace for the runners to repeat the 7.75 miles for the entire 24 hours.
The main challenge of the 2011 Woods Ferry 24 Hour Run was in the timing of the race start. This year's event started at 4:00 P.M. on Saturday and ended at 4:00 P.M. the following day. The unique start time would give runners the opportunity to continue through the night hours on fresh legs, but it also kicked off the race in the peak temperatures of the day, instead of gradually acclimating runners to the rising heat.
I was confident of my chances to run a good race at Woods Ferry as I woke up early on Saturday morning and drove out of Atlanta with my friend, Julian, for the four-hour trip to the Woods Ferry Recreation Area. At 235, I was lighter than I had ever been for an ultramarathon race. I had also recently rediscovered my running enthusiasm after a rough summer of record temperatures. Finally, I was prepared for this race with an effective nutrition/electrolyte plan and pacing strategy. I knew that the first hours in the 90-degree weather would be tiresome, but I had a predetermined pace of two hours per loop that would ensure a slow and sensible start pace.
I had no intention of running for the entire 24 hours this time around and, instead, my plan was to use this race for an overnight headlamp training run before Pinhoti 100 in November and stop when I had completed 46.5 miles (six loops on the trail system). This would give me the overnight training that I needed with a distance that would not slow me down with a long recovery time. If I could complete the 46.5 miles in roughly 12 hours, this would give me a good confidence booster leading into Pinhoti 100. I was looking forward to an epic Labor Day Weekend spent on the trail with friends and putting some good quality miles behind me in my training.
After grabbing some Waffle House food before noon, Julian and I arrived at Woods Ferry Recreation Area a couple of hours before the race start and set up camp chairs along the race path beside the start area aid station. My yellow running shirt was drenched with sweat almost instantly and I knew that I was in for several hot miles to kick off the race. I drank a bottle of water as I made my race preparations and took an S-Cap 20 minutes before the race start for adequate electrolytes to replenish my sweating. After pinning my race number to my shorts and taking a few blister prevention precautions, I put on a pair of compression leg sleeves to help the blood flow through my calves. Compression leg sleeves are not the most ideal running accessories for hot weather and, in retrospect, I should have waited until completing a couple of trail loops before wearing them.
After a brief pre-race introduction from Terri, I started our first loop out of the picnic area with a small group. I was planning to stick with a friend, Jason Sullivan, as long as possible for our planned two-hour trail loops until I had completed my distance. Jason and I were trying out a pace to get us through Pinhoti 100 by power-hiking the uphills and many of the flats, while running the downhills. The sun was beating down on our group as we moved down horse trails, across dried creek beds, and up a few relatively challenging hills, but we were all having a good time and joking about this brutal race setup of hills on a 24-hour course and a 4:00 P.M. start time. I started drinking periodically out of my Camelbak, being careful not to take in more than 30 ounces of water each hour during this humid initial loop, and ate my first gel when my watch alarm sounded at the first half hour. Whenever someone in our group commented on a measured Garmin mileage, Jason and I congratulated ourselves on making good time according to our predetermined pace. So far, the two-hour per loop strategy seemed almost effortless.
We reached the 4.2-mile aid station in one hour, and I was glad to see that we were slightly ahead of our pace without trying too hard. I ate my second gel on the hour mark and took an S-Cap. My arms were slightly swelling, but I was not worried just yet. Over the summer, as I had lost weight quickly by sticking to a low-sugar diet most days, I had noticed that my hands and arms became bloated during long runs as I ate more sugar than normal via gels along with increased water. I resolved to be careful with my hydration and I took a cup of HEED from the aid station instead of drinking more water.
The second half of the loop seemed like a trail runner's paradise, with several easy downhill stretches on wide single-track or even double-track paths. Our group of four or five runners stayed together and continued running or power-walking at a conversational pace. I was sweating profusely, and I remarked to the others that I would be glad when the sun went down during the next loop so that the temperatures would hopefully take a nosedive. The running was becoming more labored, but I felt safe in the knowledge that this hottest time of the day would not last for much longer. I ate my third gel an hour and half into the run as we reached the end of the lollipop loop for the out-and-back trail to the start. This trail back to the start was downhill, so we accelerated our running pace and made it back to the start area aid station in roughly one hour and 50 minutes.
One runner, who appeared to be having trouble with the heat, was sitting at the picnic table. The rest of us refilled our bottles and Camelbaks to start our second loop. I showed my slightly swollen hands to another runner and told him that the heat was already doing a number on me. When I refilled my Camelbak, I was relieved to see that there was still some water left and that I had not gone through the entire 70 ounces on the first loop. I ate a handful of gumdrops, unhooked my Garmin watch from my Camelbak where I had fastened it to record elevation date for one single loop, and started out my second lap behind the rest of the runners. I quickly made my way out of the park and reassured myself that I only had to do this lap five more times for my planned training run.
After I had run just a half mile into the second loop, I suddenly felt faint and had to stop on the trail. My body temperature had spiked and I felt as if someone were shining a UV lamp in my face. I thought about seeing a runner collapse from sudden heat sickness during the Hot To Trot 8 Hour Run during the summer of 2010, and I remembered how fast and unexpected the adverse effects of running in the heat can take over. I thought about turning around to walk the half mile back to the start area aid station, but ultimately decided against this, reassuring myself that I would be okay if I just walked slowly.
I have dealt with ill effects from heat during several races, but, as I continued along the trail, I realized that I was going through something worse than a mere energy lull. I felt dizzy at times and thought about lying down on the side of the trail for a while. When my watch alarm went off, I ate another gel and chased it down with some water to stay consistent with my nutrition schedule, but I felt drained and depleted in a way that I had never felt during a race. I saw a small group of other runners in the distance behind me and knew that I was about to be passed on the trail, but I was beyond caring as I continued my slow plodding pace and tried not to let negativity get me down.
I reached a trail section out in the open next to some power lines and, since I had a clear downhill section, I broke out into a run. I felt my body temperature spike again and slowed down, but my loss of concentration made me lose my footing and I fell hard on the trail. I remained motionless face down on the trail for a few seconds, but then slowly stood up and brushed off the dirt. My knee was bloodied, but I was more concerned with my increasing lightheaded exhaustion than I was about any trail wounds. Falling down on the trail is a part of the package for ultra races and it is something that I always expect. Numerous trail running guide books mention falls, but more attention is given to the technique of how to fall without injury than how to avoid falling, since it is generally acknowledged that runners are going to fall on the trail at one time or another anyway. This particular hazard is what it is, and I actually enjoy being 39 years old and occasionally showing up to work looking like Edward Norton in Fight Club. I laughed at my mistake and resumed walking.
When I finally reached the midpoint aid station, I sat down for several minutes to ease my dizziness with two cups of HEED and a quarter of a peanut butter sandwich, hoping that I could remedy the situation with more nutrition. When I finally realized that my heat sickness was not going to improve anytime soon, I reluctantly stood up and decided to make my way along the rest of the route to the start area, where I would take a long break and rest for a few hours.
|Photo courtesy of Viktor Trukov|
The trip back to the start area was a misadventure of sickness and slowness. I would start to run along a luxurious downhill section, only to feel my body temperature spike with that familiar feeling of having a UV lamp turned on in front of my face. After a couple of attempts to run, followed by the UV lamp sensation, I gave up running altogether and just focused on slow walking back to the start without stopping to sit on a log and put my head in my hands. As I got closer to the start, I met other runners starting their third lap and, when they asked how I was doing, I just shook my head, laughed in embarrassment, and told them that I was feeling sick.
I finally reached the start area aid station with 4:30 on my stopwatch, meaning that it had taken me two and half hours to finish the second loop. I told the aid station official that I was checking out of the race for a few hours instead of going back out for my third loop. I sat down on my camp chair, ate a couple of caramels from the aid station, and put my feet up on my drop bag. After a few minutes, I felt dizziness hit me with full force again, so I got down my sleeping bag in an attempt to fall asleep.
I decided that my race was over. I struggled with the decision for a while, because I have never dropped out of a race on my own accord before. I was embarrassed to finish a 24-hour race with only 15.5 miles, but I decided that I would be all right if my only real injury was to my dignity. I weighed my options and realized that I had nothing to gain from trying to continue this training run when I was feeling sick and lightheaded. My decision was cemented by overhearing different runners arrive back at the aid station to announce that they were taking breaks to recover from the heat.
Julian returned from his third lap and announced that he was suffering from heat exhaustion and could not continue. The two of us went through a half-hearted tough guy exchange (“I'll try to go out for more laps later on if you want to stay for the whole 24 hours.” “I'll try to go out for more laps later on if you want to stay for the whole 24 hours.”), but we quickly agreed that it was best to call it a day and drive back to Atlanta to recover in our own homes. We drove back to Atlanta, stopping along the way for another Waffle House meal that only slightly alleviated our dizzy headaches.
Before I left the Woods Ferry Recreation Area for the drive home, Jason Sullivan reassured me, “Don't let one single run define you.” I'll leave it at that. This ill-fated Woods Ferry 24 Hour Run took place on a day that just was not my day. Some days we have it and some days we do not. I remember feeling as if I were on top of the world after some buoyant long runs the week before this race and I know that I will recapture that feeling in cooler fall weather.
It took a couple of days after driving home from Woods Ferry 24 Hour Run for me to feel normal again. The day after the race, even after a long sleep, I still had the lightheaded “not quite there” feeling. I decided to treat this heat sickness recovery like a flu recovery and rest for a couple more days after I feel better. I am reminded of how quickly things can go from normal to bad on a hot day. I would be lying if I said that I am not spooked about my chances at Pinhoti 100, but I am still excited about that race and I know that I am in good running shape to finish some good fall weather ultras. I missed out on a planned training run and it's not the end of the world. The rough race experiences like this one will make me enjoy the inevitable good races even more.
Thanks to Terri Hayes for putting together another low-key and fun South Carolina race. Thanks to the volunteers who kept all of us safe out there on a hot day. Finally, congratulations to my friends who stuck it out through some brutal temperatures to finish longer distances on the course.
See you on the trails.