On September 15, 2012, I completed the Yeti Trail Race 15K with a finish time of 1:47:31.
The Yeti Trail Race 15K was an inaugural event that took place on a mixture of new and old trail systems along Sweetwater Creek in Lithia Springs, Georgia, and included the strenuous gas line and power line trail sections that are a highlight of the Sweet H2O 50K race that is run in the same area every April. The Yeti Trail Runners, a local organization responsible for building the newer trails of the course, sponsored the race as a benefit for Because Of You, Inc., a charity for homeless children, and promised a challenging, but fun, race consisting of several miles of steep climbs that eventually taper into easier terrain where the race truly begins. Race organizers advised that the actual route distance was roughly ten miles, but my own race included almost an additional half mile added by mistake when I ran too far by missing a turn during the final half of the course and having to return to the proper intersection.
I am slowly recovering from a muscle strain in my upper back that causes pain to radiate down my left arm, so my drive to the Sweetwater Creek area on race morning was a challenge in itself. The pain subsided somewhat once I arrived at the starting area and walked around to greet friends. Race Director Jason Green assembled the crowd for a pre-race speech and warned us that he and another runner had encountered a five-foot rattlesnake along the course while marking the trails the evening before. We were cautioned to step carefully along the tall grass of that particular section. This particular announcement solidified my decision to line up near the back of the pack and let the fastest runners take off ahead of me.
The first mile of the course meandered along paved roads through a subdivision, allowing runners to disperse before entering a rocky single-track trail that led into the forest. My running ability had continued to improve due to my weight loss, but my new low weight of 183 pounds on race day did not necessarily translate to speed, as I realized when I watched the lead runners disappear from my sight before I even arrived at the turn to this first trail. I reminded myself that the Yeti Trail Race had attracted some of Georgia’s most talented ultrarunners, and that I needed to treat this race as a mere training run before my Georgia Jewel 50 Mile event the following weekend.
My resolve to treat this race as an easy-paced training run did not last long. As the initial flat creekside stretch of trail gave way to a series of short steep climbs on rock-strewn ground, a small group of runners behind me moved closer until I could hear their footsteps right behind me. My normal custom under such circumstances is to move aside briefly to let runners pass me, because I have never enjoyed the pressure of hearing footsteps directly behind me during a trail race. This time, however, I slightly accelerated my pace, determined to stay in front of these runners. I ran up several steeper hills instead of power-walking, and I eventually found myself farther ahead of the group. As I crested one hill, I felt a bee sting on the back of my left leg, just above where my compression sleeve ended, but I did not let the sting deter my pace. I was running the Horseshoe Trail, a wonderfully rugged series of small climbs and creek crossings that been built by the Yeti Trail Runners less than a year ago, and I was pleased to be running nonstop during these first three miles, because I knew that I would reach “The Wall” soon enough.
“The Wall”, an impossibly steep trail from the Sweet H2O 50K course that stops runners in their tracks for a forced power-walk, greeted me in a short time after I used stepping stones to run across a creek. A few of the runners behind me had caught up with me by now, but I soon outdistanced them again with my determined trek up the rocky ravine that made up The Wall climb. In past races, The Wall has always beaten me down with fatigue, but I reached the top in a couple of minutes with a relieved, “Is that all?”, expression on my face. The Wall climb had been much easier this time, since I was lighter on my feet and since I had never made the climb on a cool September morning before. I continued running when I reached the top, but was slowed to a quick power-walk during four steep ascents along the gas line trail. I climbed each subsequent hill with a spring in my step, and then ran down the rocky terrain to the next hill, passing the yellow gas line marker pipes at each crest. I caught up with David, a friend from the Yeti Trail Runners who had helped to create the first few miles of trail, and, as we made our way to the top of the torturous final gas line hill, he suggested that I look behind me at the glorious view of the series of hills that we had just conquered.
We turned off the gas line section and ran down a short forest road before emerging into wide open space once again where the view of the power line trail greeted us. The power line trail climbed up and down hills on a stretch parallel to the gas line trail, but the challenge of the hills on this section paled in comparison to the treacherous loose rocks and scree that covered the trail on the steep descents, inviting runners to trip and break an ankle. David and I managed to make our way down each power line descent without busting our tails on the rocks, and we soon reached the trail markings to turn off onto a ridge section.
The ridge was a newly-improvised route that consisted of close ribbon markers outlining a path through undisturbed woods. The experience of running a trail race that did not even take place on a trail was a fun one, and I enjoyed listening to David’s stories of how he and Jason Green had created this section. After a short while, we made a descent down to Sweetwater Creek by following a deer trail along a leaf-covered hill. After running nonstop for a while, we slowed to a fast power-walk through the area where David and Jason had seen the five-foot rattlesnake the evening before. We fortunately did not encounter any snakes, and we resumed running once the trail led back into the trees.
I was running happily and still feeling energetic on the trails along Sweetwater Creek just past the halfway point of the race. I had not brought any gels and had only one handheld water bottle, but I had only taken a few sips of water so far during the race. I kept up with David as he increased his pace, even during a steep climb that I had normally walked during past trail races in this area. When David and another runner behind us both stopped at an aid station roughly five and half miles into the race, I continued past them and was now running alone on flat trails that occasionally took me over short water crossings.
I was proud of myself for running at a fairly fast pace by my standards during such a rugged trail race, and that satisfaction carried me along through the next mile and half of flat trails and easy terrain. I briefly greeted one runner as I passed him and then continued on alone through a trail network that was familiar to me after I had run along the same route several times during the Sweet H2O 50K. This familiarity worked against me before long, though, because I became lost in daydreams and failed to notice the most obvious trail marking of the entire race, a log crossing covered with ribbons that indicated a sharp right turn. Instead, I kept running to the left, as I normally would have during the Sweet H2O 50K race route. After running up a gradual hill, I emerged onto a field where a small group of runners stood looking around. One of them, a friend named Vince, asked me if we were on the right trail. I shrugged and told him that I was just following the markings as I continued on. After a few seconds, I realized that I had not noticed any markings recently, and I turned around, knowing that I had made a mistake.
One of the limitations of the low-carb version of my Paleo diet lifestyle that I have been following for months is that irritability can manifest itself out of nowhere in my personality when I am fatigued during a long run if I have not properly fueled myself with running nutrition. I was instantly outraged at myself for accidentally going off course, and, within a couple of minutes, I had exhausted my quota of F-words for the rest of the year while I berated myself out loud for my mistake. I had been so proud of my fast progress over the past mile and half, but I had now cost myself some ground by going roughly a quarter mile off course and having to run that quarter mile back to where I should have followed the markings. I was immediately ashamed of my loss of temper, and I apologized to Vince as he ran behind me and tried to cheer me up. I mourned that I had been doing so well before I had turned the wrong way, and Vince assured me that I was still running well. When we returned to the correct path, I saw David and a few other runners whom I had passed earlier in the race ahead of me in the distance and was dismayed that I had lost an edge. I was also disappointed in my behavior, because I had allowed my mistake to destroy my mental game during this race. When one loses his temper, even briefly, he is telling the world that he is unable to control himself. I had brought my weight under control this year, but, as I ran a flat trail straightaway through a meadow to catch up with other runners, I realized that I have a few other shortcomings that need attention. I rubbed some dirt on the whole issue, then caught up with David and the others as we all slowed to a power-walk up a steep gravel hill to the final mile and half of the course.
My recent mishap had fatigued me in full force, and I regretted not stopping at the aid station for a drink of Gatorade for some quick fuel. I was happy to have only a short distance left to go, though, and I soon ran just ahead of the others to follow a runner for a half mile along a pleasant rolling-hill gravel road section. Unfortunately, I found out that I still had one more F-word in supply when I followed the runner back onto single-track trail, immediately tripped over a tree root, and took a hard fall on the dirt and small rocks. The kind runner stopped briefly to make sure that I was okay, and I laughed at myself as I assured him that the fall had only startled me. With my florescent orange race shirt now slightly marred with dirt, I soldiered on and continued running along the rocky single track with new attention placed on my footing. I suppose that, by falling on my face on a trail, I had taken the Yeti Trail Runners motto, “Taking trail running to a new low”, to heart. My left Achilles, which was still recovering after a series of aggravations since the muddy Camp Croft Trail Marathon this past July, felt weak at this point in the race due to the steep climbs along the route, so I was thankful that I was almost finished.
David and two other runners passed me as we ran the final half mile to where the trail would come out of the woods to the finish. After running faster than my comfort zone for most of the race along brutally technical trails, though, I was wiped out. I slowed to a fast walk up the final trail hill, although I knew that I was so close, but quickly started running again when I saw someone taking photos from the other side of the hill. I turned off the trail onto the paved road back to the finish and passed one runner as we made our way up the gradual hill turn and through the finish line.
I had finished the Yeti Trail Race in 1:47:31 and placed 35 out of 63 finishers. A brief what-could-have-been regret passed over me when I realized that I could have finished minutes faster and placed much higher if I had not made a wrong turn and gone off course, but that was quickly replaced by smiles as I congratulated friends at the finish and shared stories. Several other runners had made the same wrong turn, and several other runners had tripped and fallen on the same spot of the trail where I had taken my tumble.
In retrospect, I am pleased with my overall performance at the Yeti Trail Race. I ran a sub-11-minute overall pace on a harshly demanding hilly trail course with my short extra distance included, and I easily climbed several steep hills that had exhausted me during past races on these same trails. I had let myself take the race too seriously, and I had become competitive to the point of irritation when I had promised myself all along that I was only going to treat this race as a training run, but even this has a bright side when I realize that I am now racing these events and trying to challenge myself to pass faster runners whether I originally intend to do so or not. I have always prided myself on being “too slow to ignore trail markings and get lost on a course”, but I was definitely not too slow to miss a trail marking this time around. When I run the Georgia Jewel 50 Mile this next weekend and find myself alone for long stretches in deep forest, I need to remind myself of my error at this race and pay close attention to the trail markings.
The Yeti Trail Race, with its challenging variety of terrain and its beautiful scenery, is my favorite shorter-distance race that I have run to date. Even with my mistakes and shortcomings along the way, I loved every minute of this event. Thanks to Jason Green, Kirsten Jones, David Milner, and the rest of the Yeti Trail Runners who organized this inaugural race that I hope to run every year from now on, now that I know the correct route.
See you on the trails.