|Photo courtesy of Jeff Farmer|
I rode up to Parsons Mountain the day before the race with Shawn, a friend and fellow ultrarunner, and we set up a tent at a campground site that we were sharing with some other friends from the local running community. Just minutes after our arrival, I was thankful that I had sprayed insect repellant on my legs, as per the advice of a runner who had scouted the Long Cane trails days before, because other campers had already suffered several encounters with the small deer ticks that populated the area in record numbers. The stage was further set for a memorable weekend when I woke up in the middle of the night to marvel at the brightness of a full moon on its closest orbit to Earth and heard the ghostly sounds of a pack of coyotes from a few hundred feet away as they ran across the campsite area.
I rose an hour before dawn, thankfully untouched by ticks or coyotes, and ate a crude, but pleasant breakfast of canned chicken breast and sweet potatoes that served as an effective pre-race meal on my Paleo Diet that I was following to chisel myself into a good racing weight. Having realized at recent races that quick sugar suited me during endurance events when my body would immediately utilize that sugar, I filled my Camelbak compartments with Accel gels and Crank e-Gels, and then joined others at the lakeside pavilion where Terri Hayes gave a short introduction before starting the race and sending the crowd of over a hundred runners on our way.
|Photo courtesy of Jennifer Lee Sutton|
My usual ultrarunning strategy calls for running the flat trails and descents while power-walking up the inclines, but the ease of the current terrain encouraged me to run nonstop even on most of the gradual slopes. Pine trees gave way to a lush and green old-growth forest along a trail that sometimes descended into creekside valleys covered with ferns and poison ivy. After I crossed a creek on a low metal bridge, I noticed the continuous line of runners in front of me thinning out. I found myself passing a handful of others at a near-effortless pace during which I sometimes decided to force myself to walk a few steeper hills. I reached the first aid station nearly six miles into the course in just over one hour and was pleased to have covered so much ground in a relatively short time compared to past trail ultra races. I did not need to refill my Camelbak at this first aid station, so I drank two cups of Powerade and quickly returned to the trail that had just turned off the perimeter of the Long Cane system onto a single-track that turned in a series of switchbacks across the middle to the other side of the perimeter. The endless view of pine trees soon returned to the landscape as I climbed up and down a series of mild hills that went back and forth across a grassy petroleum line clearing alongside a forest road.
|Photo courtesy of Jeff Farmer|
I returned to the outer trail perimeter from the middle passage and enjoyed a stretch of flat straightaways where I could open up and maintain a constant running pace before reaching the second aid station. I refilled my Camelbak for the first time and drank three cups of cold Powerade, unfazed by the plethora of sugary candies, cookies, and brownies that were spread out on the aid station table before me. I walked out of the aid station still drinking the Powerade, and then put the crumpled paper cup into the pocket of my shorts as I walked up a forest road incline.
I broke out into a comfortable run at the crest of the forest road hill and picked up my pace on the long descent before turning back onto single-track trail with the white trail blazes to lead my way. I soon caught up with a couple of runners whom I used as rabbits as the trail dipped underneath a wooden railroad bridge and opened back up into a series of mostly-flat stretches marked by the occasional tree root. I was still feeling a slight discomfort in my hip, but my consistent pace was undeterred as I eventually passed each runner and arrived at the Mile 15 aid station in just over three hours to supplement my periodic gels with more sports drink.
As I left the third aid station, I realized that I was on track to finish the first loop in just under seven hours, a solid time that would almost ensure my ability to complete the second loop and finish the 55-mile distance before darkness fell. The heat of the day was starting to show its presence, and, as I pondered the next 40 miles that stretched before me, a thought crept into my head for the first time. Instead of running the entire 55 miles today with my hip tightness, I could finish the first loop with a faster pace and end my day with a strong official 50K time. I had arrived at the Long Cane race with the intention of finishing the full 55-mile course despite any difficulties, but this new idea waltzed into my mind, planted a flag, and settled into my psyche with surprising abruptness. Sometimes, a sudden decision cements itself into our minds and we know with resigned certainty that our attempts to talk ourselves out of this decision will be unsuccessful. I temporarily returned my focus to the 55-mile distance, but, in truth, my choice was already made.
Another runner had left the aid station a minute before me, and I kept him in sight as I reached the crest of each small trail incline on the way to Mile 20. I drew closer to the runner on each hill climb only to see him make up the distance on each flat trail. I tripped on a tree root for the first, but not last, time that day, caught myself in time to prevent a fall, and continued running at my comfortable pace. The section of an ultramarathon between Mile 15 and Mile 20 is usually a weak spot for me when self-defeating thoughts and fatigue burrow into my mind and affect my pace, but I suffered no such thoughts this time, and my energy level remained consistent. I eventually passed the runner and told him with a smile, “You’re a tough rabbit to catch, because I’ve been following you for a couple of miles now.” We exchanged well-wishes, and I emerged out of the forest to run a steady descent on a gravel forest road that crossed a railroad track before turning off into the woods on a single-track trail once again on the other side.
I arrived at the Mile 20 aid station and, after being told that I had to run over eight miles in the increasing temperatures before the next station, I refilled my Camelbak with water for the second time, downed some Powerade, and made my way to the junction where I would cross the middle trail passage for a second time to the other side. The races in the South Carolina Ultra Series are always exercises in gleeful uncertainty from a time when runners did not insist on trail distances that are accurate to the exact mile, and I knew that distances given to me by aid station volunteers might vary one way or another by a mile, just as I knew that the Long Cane 50K would be well over 31 miles in total distance and that the Long Cane 55-Mile would likely be a mile or two longer in actual mileage. These relatively flat and mildly technical trails were a slice of heaven after the plummeting assault of steep hills at Sweet H2O 50K just two weeks before, though, so I kept moving with a smile.
As I ran alone up and down switchbacks under the sun just before noon, my futile internal conflict resurfaced. I could finish 55 miles with a sub-14-hour time, but I would rather earn a new personal record at the 50K distance. My biggest goal right now is weight loss, and I do not want to derail my weight loss by recovering from 55 miles. If I finish a faster 50K, I will still feel good enough to go to the gym tomorrow and keep working out. My hip feels all right, and I am running nonstop a lot more than I ever have during an ultramarathon before, but I could injure myself by going out for the second loop. I do not need to prove to myself that I can finish the 55-miler, because I already did that in 2010. I should just focus on the big picture of losing weight right now without getting burned out on running ultra races.
The outcome of my internal conflict was already certain in the back of my mind, but a small number of troops still rallied in support of a 55-mile finish. I soon found myself at the junction to return to the middle trail and, after pondering a set of confusing directional signs for a split second, I remembered the familiar landmark of a deep gulley next to the start of the middle trail and proceeded in that correct direction. During the next few miles, I was passed by three noticeably faster runners who were making up for lost time after mistakenly taking a wrong turn at the junction.
|Photo courtesy of Viktor Trukov|
I judged that I had about five miles left in the race when I finally reached the aid station next to a pretty meadow with haystacks, so I expressed some mild disappointment when told that I actually had six or seven miles left. I had arrived at this aid station at the six-hour mark on my stopwatch, and I realized that my plans for a sub-seven-hour finish were now remote. Seconds later, I laughed off my brief moment of frustration and thanked the volunteers, remembering that I still had a very good chance to achieve a personal record anyway. When asked if I was going to come back to the aid station on the second loop for the 55-mile distance, I smiled and told the volunteers that I was probably going to end my day at the 50K distance. I was having a great day on the trails, and I liked the idea of ending the run while I was still feeling good.
I would need the positive vibes, because the trek from this aid station to the finish area crossed through the harshest terrain of the entire race. While the final miles were nowhere near as brutal as the technical terrain of Sweet H2O 50K or my 75 miles of the Pinhoti 100 race from this past November, a series of fallen trees along the trail challenged my agility and my pleasant demeanor. I also tripped over two more tree roots during my extended running intervals, but somehow managed to stay upright each time. Fortunately, a two-mile stretch through fern-covered lowland next to a creek provided sufficient shade from the increasing onslaught of early-afternoon heat. My decision to finish my race at the 50K distance was continually reinforced by the fact that I had not yet seen any runners passing by in the opposite direction on the early part of their second loop for the 55-mile distance.
I emerged onto a paved road, where a sign pointed the way of 2.2 miles to the Parsons Mountain campgrounds. Just after crossing a bridge on the paved road, I encountered the first of a small handful of runners who were, indeed, going back out for a second loop. The final results would later show that only nine out of the 109 runners starting the race had continued on to finish the full 55-miles.
After climbing a short trail that led off the road, I ran through an interesting-looking area of burnt forest land and blackened trees. I soon crossed a forest road and began a punishing series of hill climbs that demanded walk breaks. Having decided once and for all that I would stop after completing the first loop, I had decided not to eat a running gel at the half hour mark when I ascertained that I was coming close to the campground, but the ensuing lack of energy necessitated some mental toughness to compensate.
The stopwatch that had been a pleasant companion so far in the race with assurances of good pacing and reminders to eat a gel twice every hour was now a bothersome foe that seemed to speed the passage of time ever closer to my previous trail 50K record, 7:23:23 from a measured local race course in 2010. I quickened my running pace down the hills, but was reduced to power-walking on the frequent climbs that seemed never to end. I heard voices in the distance and vehicles from the campground, but the view ahead of me consisted of nothing but identical pine trees and green underbrush.
I finally arrived at a clearing to the aid station that marked the turnaround point for 55-mile runners and the shorter home stretch for runners wishing for a 50K finish. I briefly greeted Terri Hayes and the other volunteers, telling them that I had changed my goals from a 55-miler to a 50K personal record, then continued my run down a paved road back to the lakeside pavilion.
I glanced at my stopwatch periodically to beg the time to slow down as I turned off the paved road to climb the final trail hills that led to the pavilion finish. As I ran out of the woods, I called my name and race number to the volunteers as I reached the finish line where two people stood counting the time. I had finished the Long Cane 50K in 7:23:23, the same finish time down to the second as my previous trail 50K record. I was all smiles as I walked to the finish line food table, where I collected my race medal and ate a half plate of chicken with several slices of watermelon. When I told a fellow runner that I had finished this race at the same time as my previous 50K record, he laughed and told me, “My watch shows that this race was actually close to 33 miles, so you actually ran faster than your record time.” Sure enough, I remembered the additional distance and realized that I had, indeed, earned my new trail 50K personal record. I had placed 58 out of 92 50K finishers and earned my best ranking so far for a trail 50K.
After hanging out with some friends at the finish area for several minutes, I joined another running friend, Mark, as we both limped almost a mile back to the turnaround aid station where our drop bags were located. When we arrived, I sat in a camp chair with the volunteers, ate a sweet potato from my drop bag, and cheered runners who emerged out of the forest on their way to their own 50K finishes. Shawn came out of the woods in strong form and announced that he had also decided to end his race as a 50K finisher. I returned to our campsite as Shawn was finishing so that I could take down the tent and save time so that we could drive back to Atlanta soon. I was tired, but the act of walking around the campsite to take down the tent and remove trash would be helpful to avoid soreness in the days to come. Shawn and two other friends, Jennifer and Jeff, returned from the finish area after a short while, and I congratulated all of them on their successful races on a hot and challenging day.
Thanks to Terri Hayes and her friendly crew of South Carolina volunteers for another fun Long Cane race on some beautiful backcountry trails. I am already looking forward to returning to South Carolina next month for the Chattooga River 50K, another race in the South Carolina Ultra Series.
There is no doubt in my mind that I could have finished the 55-mile race before daylight with a sub-14-hour time, and I admittedly have some residual regret at not attempting the full distance. More than anything, though, I am proud that I made a deal with myself and followed through on that deal by achieving a new personal time record at the trail 50K distance in May weather. I am also pleased with my overall performance, where I ran roughly 90 percent of the entire course and suffered none of the energy problems that have plagued me at recent races. My ultimate goal of running faster as a result of being lighter on my feet is falling into place, and that is the most important reward.
See you on the trails.