|Photo courtesy of Pace Running Magazine|
I arrived at Croft State Park in the mid-afternoon on the day before the race as a vicious thunderstorm was battering the area. After the storm cleared as quickly as it had arrived, I went for a brief scouting trip around some of the race trails with my camera before spending the evening at the campsite with several friends from Georgia Ultrarunning and Trailrunning Society (GUTS). Since the weather appeared deceptively serene, I decided not to set up my tent at the campsite and to, instead, spread out my sleeping pad in the open bed of my pickup truck. I had nearly fallen into a peaceful sleep when I heard thunder and felt raindrops start to fall. Laughing at my misplaced faith in the summer weather, I quickly gathered my pad and retreated into the cab of my truck, where I spent the remainder of the night catching short intervals of uneven sleep while the rain poured outside.
Hours later, I emerged from my truck to calm skies, ate the pleasant breakfast of sweet potatoes and chicken that has become my pre-race routine with my Paleo diet lifestyle, and made my way to the race start area across the park road from the campsite. At 202 pounds, I was now in the best shape of my adult life thanks to my new eating habits and an intense workout regimen that I had followed for most of the year. Just the same, I knew that a marathon in July weather on unfamiliar trails was nothing to take lightly, especially when the weather predictions indicated 93% humidity for the start time of the race and 71-degree temperatures that would quickly rise into the 90s that day. For me, the Camp Croft Challenge Trail Marathon would be just another Saturday training run where I utilized run/walk intervals to complete the distance, so I decided on a strategy of staying close to other runners to avoid getting lost on the 40 miles of trail system in the area. After an hour of hanging out with GUTS friends and greeting some South Carolina running friends who have become like family after I have run so many races with them this year, I settled into the back of the crowd as Joseph introduced himself and gave pre-race instructions concerning trail markings and aid stations before sending us down the course.
The race started with a short stretch along a gravel park road to thin out the runners before turning onto a single-track horse trail marked by yellow ribbons. I put a piece of peppermint candy into my mouth, the first processed sugar product that I had eaten in almost two months since my last long-distance race, for some energy momentum right away as I fell into a comfortable pace among the marathon runners and relay-race runners who would be completing the race in four relay sections.
Moments after I turned off the gravel road onto the forest trail, the most prominent terrain hazard of this race announced itself in the form of a horse-trodden path that had softened into several inches of mud in several spots after the thunderstorms. I have always disliked running on muddy trails. In fact, I hate running on muddy trails with a passion from the darkest abyss of my heart, and mud-covered ground is my least favorite trail terrain. My previous trail races have fortunately taken place on mostly dry trails, and I have fallen into the habit of quietly avoiding group training runs that take place in excessively muddy conditions. Running in slippery mud requires a certain finesse that I lack, and I avoid the activity whenever possible to avoid rolling my ankles while trying to stay upright during such a run. I joked with the runners around me about embracing the challenge, but I knew that I was in for some rough times as two of the runners near me had to stop to retrieve shoes that had been sucked off their feet in the mud during the first couple of miles. My Montrail Mountain Masochist shoes stayed on my feet, but were soon drenched from the mud puddles from indentions made by horse hooves.
Despite the unfavorable terrain, I was still able to open up into a solid running pace most of the time, and I soon passed several runners. I have never been a particularly competitive runner, but I succumbed to the desire to stay ahead of these runners, and that momentum would carry me along for the remainder of the race. During the past couple of months, I had moved to a faster pace team with my weekend training group and had started using Sunday mornings to push myself at nonstop running on rolling-hill trails near my home in an attempt to improve my “forever pace” at long-distance events. I still took advantage of several trail inclines to conserve energy with walking intervals, but I was happy to be running with more confidence even in the dangerously humid weather.
I passed an unmanned aid station without refilling my nearly full Camelbak hydration pack and almost cheered aloud with relief when the trail took a turn onto a fire road with firm footing and no splashy mud. This flat fire road went on for another mile or two, and I took advantage of the break to enjoy some nonstop running at a restrained, but decent, pace. I took periodic drinks of water and adhered to my longtime race strategy of eating a gel every half hour by my stop watch.
A universally accepted truth in trail running is that, whether one is feeling good or feeling bad, the feeling will certainly not last. Sure enough, my euphoria of running on a gentle fire road did not last, and I eventually returned to a muddy single-track trail. When another runner and I emerged out of the forest into a small power-line clearing and had to call back a third runner who was starting to run down the wrong trail after ignoring markings on the other side of the clearing, I was reminded of the possibility of getting caught up in a moment and accidentally venturing off course on a dangerously hot summer day. Fortunately, the first half of the course was relatively easy to follow, since the new trail markings for this particular race were supplemented by established tree markings for the half marathon race on the same trails.
I arrived at the first manned aid station shortly after passing a large lake. A volunteer refilled my Camelbak with water as I took my first drop bag that consisted of nothing more than a large bottle of Powerade inside a plastic grocery bag. Having been notified in pre-race emails that the aid stations would only have water with no sport drinks or food, I had arranged for three Powerade bottles to be placed at the major aid stations that doubled as relay-race changeovers, since drop bags were permitted at these locations. I thanked the volunteers and left the aid station with the heavy bottle of Powerade in one hand along with the Camelbak on my back. Since starting the Paleo diet months ago, I had become hypersensitive to the energy boost effect of sport drinks during long races, since I never indulge in processed sugar on normal days. The Powerade put a spring in my step, but I quickly tired of carrying the bottle, and decided simply to take several gulps from my other two bottles later in the race before leaving them at the stations.
I soon reached the most punishing stretch of the entire Camp Croft Trail Marathon, a section of single-track trail that had recently been graded, but not closed to horse traffic after the grading. The result was a mud-slathered path on slippery hills that summoned the worst profanity that I had learned in my 40 years as I struggled to keep from falling on my face during the more challenging turns as the heat of the summer day intensified. I would be tempted to say that the profanity did not count since I was alone on the trail at the time, but I am pretty certain that the entire state of South Carolina heard my curses during a couple of occasions as I sank ankle-deep on muddy descents. Trail marathons and ultramarathons reveal true character through adversity, and, as such, I am embarrassed to say that shortcomings in my character were displayed in full during this event as I battled negativity and the self-defeating attitude that is my worst enemy when I am fatigued.
The graded section of trail gave way to more conventional single-track after a creek crossing that I completed in one piece after some slips on the wet rocks. I passed a couple of runners along the next trail section as I crossed two park roads and managed to keep pace while temporarily returning to a happy state of mind. When I arrived at an unmanned aid station, I placed my nearly empty bottle of Powerade on the table and resumed running empty-handed in a less cumbersome manner.
Runners familiar with the course had assured me that the muddy terrain would stop after the halfway point, but the mud-covered horse trail sections still appeared frequently during the two-mile stretch on the way to that halfway point. These mudslides compounded my fatigue and eroded my disposition. I have had a great many irritable and annoyed moments during trail races while dealing with various obstacles, but this was the first time during a race that I was reduced to the type of seething outrage that one might hear in a Nine Inch Nails song. At times, I repeatedly told the muddy trails exactly what they could do with themselves as I negotiated the deep puddles and often emerged with mud-covered shoes after failing to clear the sections to dryer ground.
I finally arrived at the 13-mile aid station at a river crossing bridge and thanked the volunteers for refilling my Camelback while I took several swallows from my Powerade bottle that was waiting for me on the table. I joked with the volunteers, “My review of this trail so far is that it sucks! I’m having fun, this is a great race, and y’all are doing a great job, but the trails themselves just flat out suck.” The volunteers laughed, and a couple of runners voiced agreement as I crossed the bridge to easier trails and smiles on my face during an extended flat single-track that felt effortless compared with the mud on the other side of the river. I had made it to the halfway point of the race in roughly 2:50:00 and was proud of my progress.
I caught up with Janice, a friend from the GUTS group, and, finding her pace to my liking, I trailed just behind her for the remainder of the race. We ran for a few miles on a flat trail that twisted and turned across small creeks and lush fern-covered landscapes. Every now and then, I would take a Galloway walk break when I closed the distance between Janice and myself, then catch up with her again over the next few minutes of easy running.
The actual distance of the second half of Camp Croft Trail Marathon is a subject of debate. The Race Director posted that the bicycle wheel measurement of the entire course comes out to 25.869 miles and was purposely short to include a river crossing near the end, but Garmin measurements of the course depict shorter distances averaging 22 miles or so depending on lost satellite coverage and distance inconsistencies due to trail switchbacks. I did not wear a Garmin watch for this race and had no other way of ascertaining any measurements. The second half of the course did not seem nearly as long as the first half to me, but a lot of my perception may be due to the fact that the entire second half was easily runnable with fewer hills and no treacherous mud. The remainder of the course took me about 2:05:00 to complete, whereas the first 13 miles took me around 2:50:00. For the purposes of this race report, I defer to the classification of this race as a marathon and shrug off the distance uncertainty as a routine trait of low-key trail races that are not USATF-certified.
I was pleased with my running speed during this flat trail section, I was well-energized from my nutrition, and I was confident of a good finish time compared with the field of runners for this race. My ease of mind during this stretch was short-lived, though, when Janice and I were passed by a woman who asked us whether we were running the marathon course or running as a relay team. When we replied that we were running the full marathon course, the woman sternly admonished us that we were running in the wrong direction, because she was in front of the other relay runners and no other marathon runners had come through the Mile 21 aid station that she had just left. When we replied that we had been following the correct markings as per the instructions of the race volunteers, the woman repeated that we had to turn around because we were going in the wrong direction. I told Janice to ignore the woman, because we seemed to be moving along the correct course path. For the life of me, I could not think of any possible way that I had taken a wrong turn on the course, and Janice agreed that she had been following the trail markings as well. Still, the seeds of doubt had been planted in my head by the relay runner, and I started to second-guess myself. There is nothing worse than running a section in a challenging trail race when I am not certain if I am following the course, and this new worry affected my mental game almost instantly. When a second relay runner passed me and Janice, and confirmed that she had just left the Mile 21 aid station that Janice and I had not yet visited, the doubt was in my mind to stay.
The uncertainty about my course direction brought anger along with it. I was running better than I had ever run during a long trail race event, I was proud of my progress, and I was having a good day, so the idea of failing at this race due to a wrong turn really chapped me. I had worked too hard on a hot day to fail due to simple ignorance. The idea of being lost on a trail in dangerously-hot July weather weighed down on me, and, although I could have reluctantly accepted a DNF due to a wrong turn, I hoped that I was not moving along the trail farther off course and putting my safety at risk. Janice and I both noted that we were following the yellow ribbon markers and that the trail matched the race route description so far, so we simply decided to keep running along the trail and DNF if we happened to end up at an aid station off the planned course. In the end, any sort of forward movement felt good, even if I was vocalizing my grumpiness too much at the moment.
Janice and I encountered a third runner who told us that he was running the full marathon, but that he had just been passed by two relay runners who had told him that he was running in the wrong direction. He was glad to see us, because he had been doubling up back in the other direction in uncertainty when he met us. The feeling was mutual, and I was relieved that Janice and I were not the only marathon runners on this section. The three of us soldiered on by walking the steeper hill inclines, but running easily on the flat sections.
We finally arrived at a parking lot and saw the tent for the Mile 21 aid station, according to the race description. I asked one volunteer if two relay runners had just come through, and he replied, “Yes, they were going in the wrong direction just like you.” This pushed my annoyance past the red point. I told the volunteers that the three of us were running the full marathon instead of the relay, and that we had remained on the south side trail loop since the river crossing, as instructed in the race directions. I threw my hands in the air and asked, “Are we or are we not going in the right direction?”
Thankfully, we had been running in the correct direction after all. After realizing that the three of us were marathon runners and that we had arrived at the parking lot by the south side trail loop, the aid station volunteers informed us that the two relay runners who had passed us had been the ones who were running in the wrong direction and that we had been following the proper course. Now that my concerns were assuaged, I thanked the volunteers profusely and apologized for my previous crankiness. I refilled my Camelbak, took several large gulps of the third Powerade bottle that I had left in the drop bag for that station, and then listened carefully as a volunteer showed me the upcoming trail turn on the map that the relay runners had missed. A mile out from the aid station, a turn in the trail had been indicated by arrows placed in front of the path along with the normal yellow trail markings, but mountain bikers had removed the arrows on the trail earlier that morning, and several runners had made wrong turns at that intersection as a result. Armed with the correct trail information, Janice and I took off for the final trail section to the finish line.
The next couple of miles were straightaways with a gentle downhill slope. I was all smiles as I followed Janice along this stretch and we found the trail turn that had caused the confusion. I reminded myself that I should not give in to negativity during the rough moments of fatigue, because, as always, things do eventually get better in every trail race. We proceeded down the correct path onto another downhill straightaway that led to a twisting single-track that meandered on top of a steep hill with views of a forest ravine from above. This section had no yellow ribbon markings, but the trail name was helpfully posted on several trees. I tripped a couple of times, since I had not been picking up my feet enough to scale the tree roots, but I somehow managed to avoid falling. I knew that this was the final trail to the river crossing, but this trail seemed never to end with its twists and turns. I happily noted the increasing views of ferns that signified the vicinity of the river, though, and my patience was soon rewarded when we turned onto main riverside trail.
Janice and I reached the river crossing just in time to see two runners ahead of us reach the other side. We both slipped on the rocks just a few feet into the water. Janice got back on her feet to complete the crossing, but I just shrugged and decided to swim on my belly across the shallow water to the other side. I did not win any points for gracefulness, and my white shirt was soon covered with mud, but I did make it across the river without injuring an ankle or busting a knee. We emerged on the other side of the river just ahead of two runners who had caught up with us. I knew from the previous day’s scouting expedition that I was only a half mile from the finish, so I kicked into overdrive when I saw that I had ten minutes until the five-hour mark on my stopwatch.
The final section of single-track was a gradual uphill climb, but I ran the entire distance at a fast pace while glancing down at my stopwatch when the terrain permitted. I was overjoyed when I ran out of the woods into the park grounds, crossed the park road, and sprinted full speed through the finish chute. I had finished the Camp Croft Challenge Trail Marathon in 4:54:29 and placed 24 out of 45 runners.
I grabbed a slice of watermelon, joined a handful of GUTS friends at a picnic table, and waited for others to arrive. When I approached the finish table and discovered my official time, I commented that I had never completed a sub-5-hour trail marathon. The volunteer informed me, “I don’t want to bust your bubble, but the course was shorter than a marathon distance.” I just laughed and said that I was happy with my time relative to the field of runners, regardless of the distance. Despite a few hitches in the form of muddy trails, profanity, and confusion about direction, I had achieved one of my best race performances on a hot and humid July day. I returned to the campsite, where I showered, ate some sweet potatoes, and spent time with the GUTS crowd before leaving for the three-hour drive home. My left calf muscles just above my Achilles were aching when I arrived home, probably a result of the many slips in the mud or maybe an act of vengeance from the trail for my cruel words to it along a couple of sections. Thankfully, the Achilles pain is slowly improving two days later.
My utmost appreciation goes to Race Director Joseph Parker and the Greenville Running Company for organizing a safe and fun inaugural Camp Croft Challenge Trail Marathon. I would like to run this race again, muddy trails and all, because it was a good opportunity for me to gauge my fitness level during a warm summer month. This was the first of many training races in my future, and I’m looking forward to facing the challenge with new lessons under my belt.
See you on the trails.