Friday, July 11, 2014

Merrill's Mile 12 Hour Run 7/5/14 (Race Report)

On July 5, 2014, I completed 31.68 miles in eight hours and 11 minutes at the Merrill’s Mile 12 Hour Run, finishing my first ultramarathon distance in 15 months. 

Photo courtesy of Deborah Williams
After an injury that caused my DNF (Did Not Finish) at the Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run in April of 2013, I took a vacation from long distance running that stretched out longer than I had intended, due to lackadaisical training and a handful of half-hearted race attempts that ended with more unfinished races under my record.  Over the past year, I had settled into a comfortable weekly routine involving shorter distance workouts to allow the enthusiasm for running to return in its own time.  The mantra, “Use it or lose it.”, applies to endurance running all too well, and many of us who have enjoyed riding the wave of multiple ultramarathon finishes can fall off of the map altogether when that wave figuratively crashes onto the shore.  As I stepped up my running game over the past three months, though, I was pleased to realize that I missed pushing myself through the ultra distances.  I missed those magic moments during the final miles of an ultramarathon when I was able to overcome a mental low point to let a renewed enthusiasm carry me to the finish line.  I missed sensing my body’s shift to survival instincts while participating in these extreme events where my health can possibly be at risk.  I missed my tendency to become cranky and irritable when my brain places all of its focus on simply putting one foot in front of the other when I am exhausted.  I missed the way that random people stare at me when I am painfully shuffling across a restaurant or grocery store parking lot like a 90 year-old man after I stop for a bite to eat during the drive home from an ultramarathon race.  I missed waking up the morning after an ultramarathon and having to place my hand on a bedpost to support myself for the first few steps before the blood starts to flow through sore muscles once again.  Those unfamiliar to the sport may be bewildered at my mindset, but fellow ultrarunners understand.  When I lined up in the back of the pack at the start of the one-mile loop course at Merrill’s Mile this year, my primary goal was to reacquaint myself with all of the above sensations that had been absent from my life for so long.  In other words, I was finally ready to step back out of my comfort zone.

The Merrill’s Mile Run, which takes its name from a mixed dirt and gravel track at Camp Frank D. Merrill, an Army Ranger training base in Dahlonega, Georgia, has been directed for the past three years by Willy Syndram and his ultrarunning organization, Dumass Events (Dahlonega Ultra Marathon Association).  This event has evolved to offer multiple fixed-time options over a two-day period, allowing runners to compete for an astonishing 48-hour run, or to register separately for 24-hour or 12-hour runs.  This year, Dumass Events was working in conjunction with a charitable organization, iCan Shine, which works to encourage children with disabilities through recreational activities, so that runners would be striving for a combined distance of 10,000 miles.  During the weeks leading up to this race, I realized that my own capabilities for earning a high mileage would likely pale in comparison to my performance at the inaugural Merrill’s Mile in 2012, when I had run 41 miles in roughly nine and half hours at a significantly lighter weight, but I also knew that the relaxed vibe of this loop run would be a great opportunity for me to return to the world of ultra distances.  As I woke up in the predawn hours and drove to the race, I decided that I would focus on two goals.  I had to finish a 50K distance, and I had to finish that entire distance on my feet without sitting down.  Since I had not run any distance longer than 12 miles since my comparably sluggish Publix Georgia Marathon finish back in March, I knew that I was in for several hours of painfully slow progress under the summer afternoon sun in the wide open space of the Camp Merrill track, but I was also yearning for that experience in an offbeat way.

Photo courtesy of Wendy Kent Mitchell
The weather was unseasonably kind to us at the start of the race, with temperatures in the low 60s and breezes that gave me a pleasant chill.  These morning hours, while the entire length of the mile loop is cloaked in shade from the surrounding trees, are a good time to go out fast and earn as many miles as possible before relentlessly overbearing sunlight takes hold.  I took advantage during my first seven miles by running the two long straightaways of each loop and taking walk breaks on the two short turns.  During these early miles, I enjoyed conversing with a longtime ultrarunning friend, Paul, who was employing the same strategy.  My running intervals consisted of an easygoing “forever pace”, since I was working through some mild soreness after completing the Peachtree Road Race 10K the previous morning by running nonstop through the massive crowds and long inclines to earn a finish time of 58:24, which was a satisfying time for me at this stage of my comeback.  I knew from past experience at Merrill’s Mile that most participants slow down to a walk as the sun approaches its midday position, so I felt assured that some relaxed running early on would get me started with a solid foundation of miles to motivate me along for the rest of the distance. 

An hour and half after the 9:00 AM start time of the event, my 12-minute mile running pace shifted to a 15-minute mile power-walking pace that I would employ for the next several hours.  I had eaten an orange from my drop bag after my first hour of running, but I soon fell into a routine of taking slices of watermelon from the aid station at the beginning of each loop and nibbling on these slices for the next half mile.  For the remainder of the day, these watermelon slices would be my only source of nutrition and my only source of hydration, since they worked wonderfully well in both regards.  The amazing aid station volunteers soon caught on to the fact that that the “watermelon man” was stopping by for a slice or two during each loop, so they always had fresh slices waiting from a plentiful supply of whole watermelons underneath the station table. 

Photo courtesy of Jake Moore
I finished my first 16 laps in just under four hours, and was pleased to be more than halfway to my preplanned distance goal, although the snowball effect of discomforts was starting to take a toll on me.  The small gravel of the race course occasionally found its way into my shoes, but I never stopped to take my shoes off, relying instead on my ability to keep the worst of the pointed pebbles at bay by kicking my feet into the ground until the pebbles shifted to a more tolerable spot.  The rising temperatures, while not as rough on this particular day as they had been in past years, still presented a hardship since my weekly routine of early morning short runs had not acclimated me to the midday climates.  I was thankful for my sunscreen and for my running hat with an extended flap to cover the back of my neck.  Since the loop fell just short of a full mile, I was comically annoyed at the notion that I had to complete 32 laps on this course instead of just 31 laps to earn the 50K distance. 

The company of fellow runners occasionally took my mind off of the task and provided a fun distraction.  I was enjoying catching up with several friendly faces that I had missed during my break from the ultra races, and I was reminded that the greatest asset of involvement in a local ultrarunning community is showing up at these events “where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came.”  I was astonished at the efforts of the 48-hour runners, who were still walking steadily despite having been on the course for a day and half.  I was also inspired by the faster 24-hour and 12-hour runners who were lapping me multiple times on the course with smiles and quick greetings. 

Photo courtesy of Jake Moore
My confidence was boosted by a handful of comments about my fast power-walking speed, and I was thankful that, despite my heavier weight in comparison to my 2012 self, I had regained the ability to employ my “Jason Voorhees” walk that had served me well in so many race finishes.  Almost three months ago, after a disappointing DNF at the Sweet H2O 50K, where sweepers caught me at Mile 11, I had kicked my diet soda addiction to the curb in favor of water, and had returned to avoiding processed foods.  On the day of this race, I was enjoying a renewed fitness thanks to having limited myself to fruits, meats, green vegetables, and water since April.  My reliance on watermelon for nutrition and hydration during this race was enabling me to keep the streak alive, although this strategy is rarely practical during ultramarathons.

Relentless forward motion is the key to ultramarathon success, as I have learned so many times, but relentless forward motion often demands the full use of my mental facilities.  During the hottest time of the afternoon, when I had finished over 22 laps and was now on the single-digit countdown to my 50K, I simply listened to a couple of friends as they talked beside me, because I was too exhausted to complete a thought.  As I approached the ultramarathon distance for the first time in over a year, I was now in uncharted territory once again in terms of endurance, and was pushing the distance envelope again to help me prepare for my fall race schedule.  Through it all, my zombielike power-walk kept me going.

Photo courtesy of Deborah Williams
At 3:00 PM, we shifted directions on the course from a counterclockwise direction to a clockwise direction.  The logistics of this change necessitated that I complete two laps without stopping for my watermelon fix, but I emerged unscathed from this minor alteration in routine.  In retrospect, I probably would have taken an Endurolyte capsule later in the day to help me replace some sodium and electrolytes that the watermelon slices were not replenishing, because this might have assuaged the mental low that overtook me from lap 22 to lap 27, but I still found a way to climb out of the lull when I reached a point where I only had five laps left to go.

After I had finished 27 laps, I started running again.  I maintained a power-walk during the first lengthwise straightaway of each subsequent lap, because that straightaway was now mercifully shaded from the sun in the late afternoon and I was enjoying the coolness for a change, but I decided to run the returning straightaway that was exposed to the sun simply to spend the least amount of time out in the open as possible.  This routine of running through the sun and cooling down with a walk through the shaded portion was oddly refreshing, because I was able to shake up my legs after walking nonstop for so long. 

I finished 32 laps (31.68 miles) in eight hours and 11 minutes, pleased that I had not only completed my first 50K in over a year, but that I had managed to do so with a somewhat respectable time considering my lack of endurance training over the previous months.  My first ultramarathon of 2014 was now in the books.  I thanked Willy and the volunteers profusely before sitting down for the first time in over eight hours and enjoying a shaded camp chair at the aid station for several minutes before starting my drive back to Atlanta. 

My completion of a nonstop run at the Peachtree Road Race 10K followed by this 50K the next day at the Merrill’s Mile 12 Hour Run was a much-needed shot in the arm for my confidence and motivation, and I am overjoyed to be adding another ultramarathon report to this blog at long last.  Thanks to Willy and the volunteers of Dumass Events for an outstanding event that got me back into the game.  I am now looking forward to what the future holds for my endurance that I am pleased to have rediscovered. 

See you on the trails.