Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Sweet H2O 50K 4/21/12 (Race Report)

On April 21, 2012, I completed Sweet H2O 50K with a finish time of 8:44:43. 

Photo courtesy of Jason Green
The Sweet H2O 50K takes place every April at Sweetwater Creek State Park in Lithia Springs, Georgia, and, since I only live 20 minutes away from the park, it was an easy decision to sign up for this race for the third year in a row.  Race Director Johnny Buice and several volunteers from the Douglas County Rogue Runners always go above and beyond the call of duty to put together one of the most rugged ultramarathons in the Southeast, so runners from across the country show up each year eager to experience two loops of technical single-track trails, treacherous water crossings, and endless steep climbs through beautiful green springtime wilderness.  I had finished second-to-last for my initial attempt at this race in 2010, then fared only slightly better by placing 193 out of 209 runners in 2011, so I was familiar with the harsh challenges of the course when I arrived at the park gates in the pre-dawn hours. Thankfully, my apprehension was overpowered by an excitement to be in the company of several great friends once again after a six-month break from ultra distances. 

My goal for this year’s Sweet H2O 50K was to enjoy a happy run on the trails without worrying about my finish time or even worrying about finishing at all. After I reached the Mile 75 aid station of the Pinhoti 100 race behind the time cutoffs in early November and suffered running burnout in the subsequent months due to an extended recovery period and holiday weight gain, I realized that my shortcomings as an ultrarunner centered around my propensity to gain weight after big races. In February, I started following a Paleo diet lifestyle that eschews grains, dairy, and processed foods in favor of meats, fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Over the past two and half months, I have lost 32 pounds and am now down to my lowest weight since I started running ultramarathons in 2009. I no longer crave sugary foods and unhealthy carbs, I feel energetic throughout the day, and my running ability has noticeably improved over normal training runs of ten miles or less. Because endurance events that last longer than two hours can deplete the body’s glycogen stores, however, Cordain and Friel’s book, The Paleo Diet for Athletes, recommends tweaking the diet plan by increasing carbohydrate intake in the days before a long-distance race and consuming standard sports drinks, sugars, or gels during such races. When my first attempt to balance endurance running and weight loss resulted in a less-than-stellar outcome in March with my slowest road marathon time to date at the Publix Georgia Marathon, I settled on a simple solution and decided to stop trying to balance the two tasks altogether. I decided that I would concentrate solely on weight loss for the first half of 2012 while using my scheduled ultra races in the spring and early summer to enjoy social time with running friends and to experiment with different race nutrition strategies without pressure to achieve any specific finish time goals.

Since I was approaching Sweet H2O 50K with a “Whatever happens will happen.” attitude anyway, I decided to test my recent success at metabolizing fat with the Paleo diet by initially replacing running gels with almond butter during the race.  In previous weeks, I had improved my speed at non-stop 10-mile runs without any nutrition sources at all, so I was curious to find out if I could hold off on high-carbohydrate sources for a longer period of time.  I realized that my experiment of attempting an ultramarathon on a food source heavy with fat calories could blow up in my face, so I also included some Accel Gels into my Camelbak compartments along with the Barney Almond Butter squeeze packs just in case I needed to fall back on my standard ultrarunning nutrition strategies after the first few hours. 

My decision to take the finish time pressure off myself was made even easier by the fact that the race course for Sweet H2O 50K is never exactly the same from year to year.  The traditional water crossings over the rocks and rapids of Sweetwater Creek had returned this year after being canceled in 2011 due to high flood waters, and a few of the approach trails to aid stations had been slightly altered.  Even if my nutrition strategy failed, I would not have to compare this year’s race with previous finishes. 

Photo courtesy of Cindy Strickland Ralston
Before starting the Sweet H2O 50K race with cannon fire, Johnny Buice gave a short speech and introduced one of my running heroes, Graham, as a designated trail sweeper.  If Graham, dressed in his customary running attire of a yellow Marathon Maniacs singlet and yellow cap, arrived at the halfway point water crossing or at the Mile 25 aid station before a particular runner, that runner would be pulled from the race.  As I ran with a group of friends along the paved lakeside road that thinned out the runners along the first mile and enjoyed the pleasantly overcast morning, one of the runners in our group noticed Graham running several feet ahead of us and joked that we were already in trouble.  We soon passed by Graham with the assurance that our race was safe for the moment. 

As I left the pavement for the single-track trail, I was greeted by three runners, Randy, Chip, and Faith, who had traveled from Albany to run this race as their first ultra and had recognized me from my blog reports of my previous Sweet H2O 50K races.  I enjoyed the company as we emerged from the short stretch of woods onto the first notable obstacle of the race, a spillway where we had to use ropes to climb down and back up the cement banks.  The water level was lower on the spillway this year, so I accepted this as a blessing that the water crossings to come would be merciful. 

Rob, a friend and accomplished ultrarunner who has completed well over 600 ultramarathons, joined me as I resumed running on the single-track trails after the spillway and began a rather harrowing descent down a bank covered with large boulders that moved under each step.  We continued running a pleasant trail alongside Sweetwater Creek and passed the first aid station, where I waved to another friend, Christian, who cheered the runners from the sidelines while he was recovering from a terrifying amoeba parasite infection that had left him hospitalized for a couple of weeks.  The encounter brought a smile on my face, but also reminded me not to take my running ability for granted during this event. 

Photo courtesy of Graham Gallemore
 Rob and I ran together for the next several miles and greeted other runners while we passed the Sweetwater Creek mill ruins and then negotiated a series of mild technical rocky climbs that provided views of waterfalls and rapids below.  I ate an almond butter packet at each half hour mark for the first hour of the race, and I already had a bad feeling about this choice of race fuel as I began to tire on the steeper hill climbs, but I remained in good spirits while Rob and I ran the tributary section trails that occasionally crossed small creeks by way of unstable boards and shaky stepping stones. 

Since my energy was already starting to wane after seven miles, I ate a handful of sliced orange sections at the second aid station to take advantage of a natural sugar source without realizing that this first sugar fix was too little and too late after an hour and half of technical trail running.  Rob and I joined a few other friends as we left the aid station and ran through an easy, but mildly annoying stretch of tall grassy reeds that brushed our faces at almost every step.  This long straightaway section through the reeds encouraged non-stop running, since I knew that plenty of walk breaks loomed ahead on the series of brutal gas line hills leading to the Top Of The World section that provided a view of the Atlanta skyline from a high point of the race.  We reached the end of the straightaway and climbed a gravel road away from the reeds before turning a corner and seeing the awesome view of one massive hill after another, with the yellow gas line markers atop each hill crest. 

After a couple of mild inclines, we veered off the gas line stretch to descend a hill of large granite boulders and loose rocks that demanded sure footing.  A creek crossing at the bottom of the ravine soaked my feet in cold water before I began the most brutal climb of the race up a steep leaf-covered path that obscured unstable rocks and eroded trenches.  My energy was eroding in turn, and I soon became light-headed as I topped the hill only to return to the gas line stretch and see the endless succession of other climbs before me. 

Photo courtesy of Graham Gallemore
The almond butter squeeze pack experiment had failed, and I suffered the consequences during my exhausted trek up the rest of the gas line hills.  Since I was only a mile from the next aid station, I decided to hold off on taking one of the few standard running gels from my Camelbak, but I knew that I was in for a rough mile.  I exchanged well-wishes with other runners as they passed me on the climbs, and found myself looking over my shoulder to check if Graham was sweeping the course behind me.  Once I finished the gas line hills and reached the Top Of The World summit at the beginning of an out-and-back section, I was able to run the downhill sections with relative ease, but runners continued to pass me on the way to the aid station.  Alternately laughing at my stupidity and shaking my head at my snail-like progress, I found solace in the encouragement of faster runners who were returning from the aid station along the out-and-back dirt road.  As I waved to one friend after another while they hurried along in the opposite direction, I reminded myself once again how fortunate I was to have met so many great people through ultrarunning.

I reached the third aid station and was greeted by a handful of friends who were volunteering for the day.  When I told them that I was running out of energy, one asked me, “Is it because of that Paleo diet thing that you've been posting about on Facebook? There's another guy here on Paleo who is over there in the chair with bad cramps.”  Muscle cramps were thankfully not a problem, but my light-headed exhaustion needed to be remedied.  I drank three cups of Gatorade while a volunteer replenished the water in my Camelbak, then took a big handful of orange slices to eat as I walked out of the station.  As I walked away and ate one orange slice after another, Graham passed me in the opposite direction on his way to the aid station and commented, “I expected you to be a few miles ahead of me by now.”  I laughed and assured Graham that I would do my best to stay ahead of him on the course.

A short time later, as I reached the end of the out-and-back Top Of The World section and began to climb a series of hills along some power lines that ran adjacent to the gas line hills from earlier in the race, I looked over my shoulder to see Graham behind me in the distance.  I was once again in the company of my new friends from Albany whom I had met at the beginning of the race, but they took off at a faster pace when they also noticed Graham approaching.  I climbed the shorter power line hills with little trouble, but my progress on the dangerous descents that were cluttered with loose rocks was quite slow.  Since Graham is superb at running technical downhill trails at a fast speed, he was starting to catch up with me.  When I finally reached Sweetwater Creek again at the end of the power line hills, Graham was less than 100 yards behind me.  Now that I was on flat ground once again, I picked up speed with a modest running pace as I jumped over a few fallen tree obstacles along the creekside trail.

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Lee Sutton
I slowed to a walk again as I crossed a wooden bridge and approached a pond that led to the next challenging climb at Jack's Hill, a long gradual-incline forest road strewn with erosion, tree roots, and rocks.  The possibility of being pulled from the race when I reached the water crossing at the halfway point did not faze me at the moment.  At my current pace, I could keep going and reach the end close to the ten-hour mark, but I had nothing to gain by resuming a death march for several hours to the finish line.  My 2010 Sweet H2O 50K finish had been a death march for the second loop of the course, but I had no desire to repeat such a slow death march this time around. I could drop out at the water crossing aid station, wait around for friends at the finish line, and stay the course on my weight loss goals.  I was just here to experiment with my race nutrition and have fun with friends, but my experiment had failed and I could still have enjoy the afternoon if I hung out at the finish line after a DNF (Did Not Finish).  In the end, this would just be another healthy day with a long run on the trails as I continued to lose weight on my plan.

The sight of several friends at the aid station atop Jack's Hill made me smile, and I drank three more cups of Gatorade while taking more sliced orange sections to eat as I walked away.  Graham was nowhere in sight as I looked behind me down the hill, but I had no doubt that he would catch me over the next couple of miles before the water crossing.

Photo courtesy of Cindy Strickland Ralston
My return to sugar-based nutrition was just starting to work its magic, although I did not realize it at the time.  Gatorade sports drinks have had a negligible effect on me during most races, but the Gatorade worked like rocket fuel this time around.  I suspected that my avoidance of any processed sugar or electrolytes since my road marathon over a month ago had sensitized me to the effects more than ever now that I was indulging at the aid stations.  I was still moving at a slower pace, but I was no longer light-headed and I was in a cheerful mood.  I shared stories with other runners as the trail moved away from gravel forest roads into a pleasant single-track trail cushioned with pine straw.  I passed a course check-point manned by Johnny Buice and his wife, then weaved around a lakeside trail with two friends, Greta and Dawn, as we made our way back to Sweetwater Creek for the water crossing.

I reached the water crossing in four and half hours with no sweeper in sight behind me.  As a crowd of onlookers cheered from the shore, I grabbed a rope and carefully stepped across slippery rocks amidst the water rapids at an unsettled pace.  The rope that stretched across the creek was the only thing that kept me from falling on my face in the creek several times over, and I held on with both hands as the freezing water cooled my tired legs.

Photo courtesy of Graham Gallemore
I emerged from the first water crossing to begin a two and half mile yellow-blazed trail that rose on a sharp incline into the forest, then circled back down to Sweetwater Creek.  I ate one of my Accel Gels just before starting the climb and benefited from the energy boost minutes later as I passed three other runners before reaching the top.  As I broke out of my uphill power-walk into an easy run at the top of the yellow trail, I felt discomfort from a rock in my shoe.  Having learned the hard way from previous ultras that a reluctance to stop for a minute to remove a rock from inside a shoe can eventually add an hour to a race as a small problem leads to a big problem with blisters, I begrudgingly began looking for a suitable place to sit down.  A runner who had marked the Sweet H2O 50K course the day before had warned me about timber rattlesnake sightings in this area, since the yellow trail had only recently been reopened to the public after being unpopulated by people for a couple of years.  I was still unsure about my ability to finish this race, but I did know for sure that I did not want to become dinner for a rattlesnake if I was careless about where I stepped off the trail.  I finally saw a fallen tree next to the trail and sat down on the log to empty my shoe after briefly inspecting the area.  Hours later, after the race, when a fellow runner posted Facebook photos of rattlesnakes that he had spotted on the trail course at mile 15 and mile 28, I realized that my fear of a rattlesnake encounter was well-justified.

After I took care of the shoe problem, I enjoyed one of the most fun non-stop runs of the entire race as I took off down the yellow trail descent on the way back to the creek for the second water crossing.  Now that I had returned to my conventional race nutrition strategy of eating a gel every half hour, I was riding high on the energy and I felt confident about my running ability.  As I ran down the yellow-blazed trail, I realized that I was going to finish my third Sweet H2O 50K race after all.  The only question was whether or not I would be able to finish my second loop faster than I had finished the first.

Photo courtesy of Christian Griffith
During my second water crossing, I probably provided the comic relief of this year's race by noticeably wincing each time I stepped deeper into the freezing water that rose above my waist.  I made it to the bank and refilled my Camelbak at the aid station while drinking more Gatorade and eating more oranges.  This time, I grabbed a couple of GU Roctane Gels from the aid station table to complete my own supply of standard gels in my pack before running back to the trail.  A handful of other runners had stopped at this aid station to change shoes after the water crossings, so I gained a lead over them by continuing my run without changing my shoes.  I would later suffer from a couple of small blisters, but I doubt that changing the shoes at this point in the race would have made any difference when I still had a few minor creek crossings ahead of me on the second loop.

I passed a handful of other runners over the next few miles as I ran the relatively flat trail alongside the creek and climbed up a few technical rocky sections above the rapids.  I was surprised at how abruptly my running energy had improved, and I was determined to make the most of it by picking off as many runners as I could before reaching the hilly trails of the Top Of The World section again. I was careful to conserve energy by power-walking most of the inclines, but I also enjoyed more non-stop running stretches with a greater degree of comfort. I was noticing the positive effects of my recent weight loss, especially on the hill climbs.

Photo courtesy of Christian Griffith
The rising afternoon temperatures buffered my running energy slightly, but I was careful to moderate my water consumption to prevent any over-hydration problems.  I did refill my Camelbak again at the next aid station while downing some cups of iced Gatorade and, when the volunteers sadly informed me that they had run out of oranges, I grabbed a handful of Gummi Bears instead.  As I left the aid station and entered the trail of tall reeds that made me think of old black-and-white Japanese samurai movies, I broke into a long non-stop run all the way down the straightaway until I reached the gravel road incline that led to the beginning of the dreaded gas line hills.

My second pass up and down the gas line hills was faster this time around, and I no longer suffered any light-headed tiredness, but the climbs took their toll on me just the same.  I passed three other runners on the steep climbs and took comfort in the fact that I was definitely not the only person struggling on this part of the final loop. I was worse for wear when I finally crested the final gas line hill and started the Top Of The World out-and-back.  When two friends, Jason and Bobby, passed by me in the opposite direction on their way to the finish and asked me how I was doing, I smiled weakly and mumbled a word that is decidedly unsuitable for repeating in this race report.

Photo courtesy of Dawn Nicholson Woodrow
My coherence and good social graces returned in full force as I ran down the next hill, caught up with two other runners, and kept them company while we encouraged one another through moments of tough desolation just before the next aid station.  The idea of traveling seven more miles on my feet to the finish seemed daunting at this point, but I inwardly accepted the challenge and wanted to preserve the lead that I had taken over other runners since starting the second loop.  After a slow first loop resulting from my unwise nutritional decisions, I now felt a need to make up for lost time.

I reached the final aid station to discover a few faster runners taking a well-earned break on some camp chairs.  I reassured the volunteers that I was feeling much better on my second loop now that I was eating proper running fuel, and, suddenly wanting to recreate a hare-and-tortoise scenario, I left the aid station while the faster runners were still resting in the camp chairs.  Although I was temporarily reduced to a fast walk, my spirits were given additional momentum as I gave well-wishes to several friends who were struggling in the opposite direction on their way to the aid station that I had just left.

Photo courtesy of Dawn Nicholson Woodrow
I started running again on the downhill out of the Top Of The World section, then surprised myself by actually running up a couple of hills on the power line section on the way back to the creek trail. When my legs started to cramp on the second-to-last power line hill, I reached into my pack for the first Hammer Endurolyte tablets that I had needed for the entire race.  I bit down on the Endurolyte electrolyte tablets before swallowing them, and their positive effect was almost instantaneous.  My run to the second Jack's Hill climb was uneventful until I looked over my shoulder to see one of the faster runners from the previous aid station catching up to me.  Since I had passed every single person whom I had encountered on the second loop of this race, I was suddenly protective of my placement and I decided that I needed do my best to keep from being passed in turn.  I could only walk up Jack's Hill at a modest pace, but my power-walk was apparently good enough, because the runner behind me was nowhere in sight when I reached the top of the hill and looked back over my shoulder.

As I downed my last three cups of Gatorade and ice and grabbed a handful of Gummi Bears, I thanked the volunteers of the final aid station profusely and then continued along for the final two and half miles of the race.  I was well on my way to achieving a negative split for this race where my second loop of the course would be faster than my first loop, despite the noticeably warmer afternoon temperatures and the compounding fatigue from earlier miles.

Photo courtesy of Cindy Strickland Ralston
I ran with a friend, Danny, as we approached the final mile of the race and exited the gravel forest road to hurry along the trails covered in pine straw.  I jumped and yelled at one point when I heard a sudden slithering noise under my feet and realized that I had narrowly avoided an unseen snake, but the remainder of the last mile was mercifully free of unexpected terrors.

I chanted to myself, “The faster you run, the faster you're done. The faster you run, the faster you're done.”, as I ran through fatigue on the final stretch up a paved hill, climbed some wooden steps, and broke out into a sprint through the finish line chute.  I put my hands on my knees and doubled over with everything left behind me on the course as a volunteer removed my name tag from my race number for official finish records.  I had finished my third Sweet H2O 50K in 8:44:43.  My finish time was mere seconds slower than my previous year's time, but I had completed the race on a warmer day than last year on a tougher course route and overcome the bad fueling decisions that had plagued me during the first half of the event.  I had passed every single runner whom I encountered on the second loop (over 30 runners), achieved a negative split for the first time at this event, and earned my best Sweet H2O 50K placement yet at 152 out of 194 finishers.

Photo courtesy of Cindy Strickland Ralston
When Johnny Buice congratulated me and handed me the coolest-looking yellow running hat in the world as a finisher's award, I was grateful for my second wind that had allowed me to complete this race after all.  I joined my friends at the shelter and ate a couple of sweet potatoes that I had brought along in my drop bag as a Paleo-friendly recovery food.

Thanks to Johnny Buice, the Douglas County Rogue Runners, all of the volunteers, and running friends old and new for another challenging, but fun Sweet H2O 50K.  I am fortunate to live so close to a true extreme event with so many daunting obstacles where friendly faces are there to push me through each one.

Photo courtesy of Danny Smith
My days of experimenting with almond butter squeeze packs are behind me now, and I will be wiser in the future to follow the fueling strategies outlined in The Paleo Diet for Athletes by consuming normal sugar-based carbohydrate fuels during these events.  Since my second loop of this race went by so unexpectedly well, I have a small pang of “What could have been?” regret for not utilizing better fuel choices during my first loop and achieving a better overall finish time, but, then again, that was not my priority going into this particular race.  I lived, I learned, and, most importantly, I had the happy run that I wanted all along.

See you on the trails.



  1. Way to go, Jason! You are looking really great!

  2. Great race, your finishing sprint through the finish was inspiring. You had so much heart and spirit into it, it gave me chills. Way to go, keep it up!

  3. Great job Jason!!! Love the tale. Made we laugh when you brought up the part about the snake in the last mile. :) I think that is when you started to pull away from me. It was a pleasure running with you if even for short time. :)

  4. As always, a great race report!

    "... using my scheduled ultra races in the spring and early summer to enjoy social time with running friends and to experiment with different race nutrition strategies without pressure to achieve any specific finish time goals."

    Ditto for me as I plod my way back to better ultra shape (and toward ATY 48 Hour next December.) --heather

  5. Fantastic! Great job getting through that tough first loop.

  6. Great race, and thanks for all of your reports. Wish I had met you as your previous reports gave me insight into this, my first ever ultra. I, too, am on a paleo diet and it destroyed me during this event. Out of sheer stubborness I stuck to it through the race, and I have been sick all week. My friend is the guy you referenced who cramped up. Hahaha. I'll be sure to introduce myself next year. I was the tall bald guy with the crossfitters from St. Simons Island. Great experience, and we are all raving about the ultra community that so warmly welcomed us.

  7. Great report on the race. This being my first ultra along with several of my fellow crossfitters from Albany, we were pleased to meet you and to learn from your blogs on the race. Stick with Paleo and you will be glad you did. We have already signed up for the StumpJump In Tenn. Hope we see you there.
    PS. The community of ultra runners was very inviting and very gracious to accept 'outsiders".. great group of people.

  8. Good, good run, my friend. Thanks for sharing the nutrition stuff. Really helpful to benefit from others experience.