January is usually my weakest month of the year when it comes to running mileage and race performance. I have a propensity to become burned out on running after the fall races of the previous year, and I go through each January in a lull where I have no desire to run any distance greater than six miles or so before finding my running mojo again sometime each February. This time around, my struggles with IT band pain in my right leg after I limped through the finish line of the Pine Mountain 40 Mile race in early December have presented an additional challenge, because the symptoms, while gradually improving, seem to come and go from one day to the next. My 2013 kicked off with a strong start on New Year’s Day when I ran a pain-free Resolution Run 10K in 49:31, despite a sore throat infection at the time, but the next run found me hurting from IT band pain from the first half mile. I decided to handle the challenges of injury and burnout by concentrating on faster short runs this month with favorable results, but found myself approaching this 24-hour fixed time event with a sense of casual resignation to treat the race simply as a fun social event with friends. I had finished Pinhoti 100 this past November while suffering from heat sickness and finished Pine Mountain 40 Mile with IT band pain less than a month later because, like Charlie Bucket and the Golden Ticket, I wanted those finishes more than anybody else. My performance at the 24 Hours of HOSTELity event, by contrast, is an example of what happens when my heart is not invested in running a strong race on a particular day.
The 24 Hours of HOSTELity race, which takes its name from the race headquarters at the Hiker Hostel in the beautiful mountains of Dahlonega, Georgia, is sponsored by Race Director Willy Syndram and Dumass Events (Dahlonega Ultra Marathon Association). I arrived at the Hiker Hostel early on the evening before the race and enjoyed a walk around the course.
This 24-hour course consists of a well-maintained 0.65-mile dirt trail loop that starts and finishes on a deck behind the Hiker Hostel, where runners have access to a well-stocked aid station and, if necessary, a warm indoor basement area. The trail curves around the hostel and meanders uphill along a series of switchbacks for a total elevation gain of roughly 100 feet only to drop abruptly down a steep descent, known as the Chasm of Despair, just before returning to the hostel. When my right knee started sending slight warning signals after a couple of casual strolls along the course that evening, I knew that my recovering IT band would not find this event to its liking.
After a good night’s sleep in a hostel bunk with friends, I woke up to mercifully warm mid-30-degree race temperatures and dressed in one of my size-medium fluorescent orange shirts that have become my trademark for recent race events. Willy greeted the small crowd of runners with a pre-race speech before leading all of us along the first loop of the course, with the hostel dog, Maggie, running in front of the entire group before keeping watch over us for the remainder of the day.
I started in the back of the pack, but made short work of the first few loops of the course by running continuously, save for a few hill curves that I handled with a fast hike. Thanks to some stretches and hip-strengthening exercises that I had completed a half hour before the race start, my IT band felt fine during these early loops.
My motivation was not quite as sturdy as my knee after the first several loops, because I was accustomed to my January routine of calling it a day after running only six miles. Burnout is an occasional challenge even for the best runners, and there was something uniquely daunting about participating in an ultramarathon when I simply did not feel like running a long distance on this particular day. While I weighed the same that I had at the Pine Mountain 40 Mile race in early December, I knew that I had lost some fitness over the past month and half thanks to the IT band recovery and a persistent sore throat illness that had lasted for three weeks after Christmas. I felt an exaggerated weakness, as though the leg muscles and core strength that had served me so well during my fall races had already softened into marshmallow. Due to the nature of the course, I could have stopped whenever I wanted, but I knew that, injury or no injury, I needed at least one ultramarathon distance in January simply to have the time on my feet in preparation for some early spring races. I kept smiling and soldiered on.
My strength at power-walking hill climbs was fortunately still in effect, and I passed several runners on the gradual ascents while assuring them that they would pass me on the steep downhill. After I completed the first 15 laps of the course somewhere around the two-hour mark, my IT band started to inform me of its discontent, and I took the first of many breaks by sitting down on a camp chair next to the aid station. I did not feel out of place with my lackadaisical approach, since other runners occasionally sat down next to a bonfire across from me or retreated to the chairs and sofas inside the warm basement, but I knew that an impressive 24-hour showing was not in the cards for me on this day.
After a couple of minutes in a camp chair, the desire to get moving again in the cool weather pushed me to my feet. I adopted a routine that would stay with me for the remainder of the race by picking out a particular runner to accompany, regardless of that runner’s pace, and staying with him or her for a lap or two before finding another friend with whom to enjoy a conversation. Depending on my company, I sometimes ran nonstop for a loop, and then returned to fast walking for most of another loop. The variety of pace suited my IT band recovery by way of avoiding extended repetitive motion. The old Beatles lyric, “I get by with a little help from my friends.”, took on a new meaning.
The beauty of the course also drew me out for another loop each time. The initial switchback hills of the trail provided a pleasant view, but the real reward was found at the crest of the final hill, when the horizon opened up to mountain peaks to the southwest. Despite my increasing IT band pain, I resolved to stay out on the course until darkness so that I could at least enjoy the sunset. As the daytime temperatures crept up to 50 degrees, I shed a few layers to run in shorts and my long-sleeved orange shirt while the sun made an overhead arc on the cloudless day.
The steep downhill run down the Chasm of Despair was beginning to make my knee explode into pain with each loop, and I soon felt as though my right leg were being stabbed just below the knee with each downhill step. Some friends from the Sports Chiropractic Institute were treating runners at the event, so I benefited from a deep tissue massage halfway through the day after my IT band pain began to worsen. The massage alleviated some of the pain and enabled me to keep moving forward for a few more hours.
I resolved to complete at least a 50K distance, because the ultramarathon distance would be good endurance training for the months ahead, as long as I did not entirely blow out my IT band. I kept the injury under control by taking frequent rest breaks at the aid station and by varying my pace along the loop. Because of my casual approach to this race, I did not suffer any mental low points or struggles. The IT band injury simply was what it was, and I put no pressure on myself to go any farther than 50 laps to ensure at least a 50K distance. I was having fun with friends on a sunny winter day, and that was my only expectation from this event.
As the afternoon faded into early evening, I faced a new struggle. Since I had anticipated extremely muddy terrain on the trail loop in the aftermath of rainy weather during the days prior to this event, I was wearing my oldest pair of Montrail Mountain Masochists with the intention of simply throwing them away at the end of the race. The trails were mercifully free of mud, but my shoes had seen better days. The padding of these shoes was almost nonexistent after a couple years of frequent long-distance trail runs, so my heels began to ache with each step. This was not a major setback, but I quickened my pace somewhat, eager to have my 50K distance behind me so that I could call it a day.
In retrospect, I have no doubt that I could have covered at least a 100K distance on this course by participating for the full 24-hour duration, but I did not want to exacerbate my injury and necessitate a longer recovery time. I knew that I was already in for several more weeks of aggressive hip-strengthening workouts, foam roller treatments, and IT band stretches before my next race in late February, so 50 laps of this particular course would be a good stopping point.
The beautiful sunset that I had anticipated all day soon arrived, and I spent the last few loops marveling at the blue and orange horizon over the crest of the final hill. I finished 32.5 miles by completing 50 laps of the 24 Hours of HOSTELity course in just over nine hours to place 19 out of 21 runners for this fixed-time event. With roughly 100 feet of elevation per loop, I had climbed 5,000 feet of elevation with my distance. I took a shower inside the hostel, spent several minutes hanging out with fellow runners in the basement, and then climbed to the top of the mountain, where several of us had parked our vehicles the night before to make room for race-day arrivals at the main hostel parking area.
My adventures were not quite over for the day. I accidentally took the wrong dirt road out of the clearing and, when I tried to turn around, the back tires of my two-wheel-drive truck became stuck in the mud. Being the typical guy, I decided to drive further down the hill in hopes of being able to turn around on the grassy terrain away from the mud, but was still unable to back around and slid further down the mountain. As the Dumass Events logo states, “Poor decisions make for better stories.” I climbed out of the truck and enlisted in Willy’s help to pull me back up the hill with a Suburban and a strong chain. After thanking Willy profusely, I made my way down the mountain in the right direction and returned home.
It speaks volumes about the race organizers, the volunteers, and the setup of the 24 Hours of HOSTELity event that I enjoyed a fun day on the trails despite my IT band injury and my burnout phase. I have decided that fixed-time ultramarathon events are not in my bag of tricks, since I gravitate to the fixed-distance events that give me a feeling of adventure by way of a journey, but I am already looking forward to showing up at 24 Hours of HOSTELity next January in hopes of a much better performance. Thanks to Race Director Willy Syndram, Leigh and Josh of the Hiker Hostel, and to countless volunteers and friends with whom I enjoyed spending the day. Despite my somewhat less-than-stellar performance, I am grateful to have enjoyed putting another ultramarathon distance in the books.
See you on the trails.