Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Sweet H2O 50K 4/3/10 (Race Report)

On April 3, 2010, I completed my fourth ultramarathon, Sweet H2O 50K, with a finish time of 9:47:40.

Photo courtesy of Sally Brooking
The Sweet H2O 50K takes place at Sweetwater Creek State Park in Lithia Springs, Georgia, one of my favorite places to run on summer weekends. Due to the massive flooding that besieged the Atlanta area in September of last year, the Sweet H20 course had to be altered for 2010, mainly because a steel bridge that connected two trail sections had been swept away by the floodwaters. To see Sweetwater Creek State Park today is to see a completely different landscape than the park that existed before the flood. Many of the beautiful single-track trails that invited easy running in the past are now replaced by sand-covered stretches that slow down even the most accomplished trail runners. Even now, several months after those floods, the devastation is still evident alongside the creek. I sincerely applaud the efforts of the Douglas County Rogue Runners and the other volunteer groups that made this ultramarathon possible.

Despite being sidetracked by a persistent spring cold over the previous two weeks in the wake of completing the ING Georgia Marathon on a rainy day on March 21, I woke up on the morning of the race feeling healthy and enthusiastic about spending a day on the trails of Sweetwater. I knew beforehand that I would be in for a rough ride at Sweet H2O 50K, because of my residual fatigue from the ultramarathons and marathons that I've participated in so far in 2010, because of the fact that I'm heavier than the average ultrarunner, and, most of all, because, after training for months in cold winter weather, I would be running in 80-degree spring temperatures for the first time in months. Still, on the morning of this race, I rubbed dirt on my concerns and went out the door ready for the challenge. A quote that I had read the previous day, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”, was in my head as I drove to Sweetwater Creek State Park in the pre-daylight hours.

On the way to the park, I realized that I had forgotten to buy sunscreen for this race. Fortunately, I remembered that I still had a couple of free sample tubes of sunscreen that had been given to me by a fellow trail runner a few months ago. I parked at Sweetwater and rummaged through a big plastic container that I keep under the seat of my truck until I found the sunscreen. In an ultramarathon, one small mistake can really wreck a runner's day and I was relieved that I had prevented a potentially disastrous situation by remembering the sunscreen in my truck. I knew that I would be on this trail course for much longer than the faster ultrarunners and that, for much of the afternoon, I would be climbing hills with no shade cover, since the most of the trees were still without leaves on this early spring day.

Like the three previous ultramarathons that I've participated in, Sweet H2O 50K was a reunion of friends from my local trailrunning group and of friends that I had met from my marathons in the past. As daylight emerged, I spent a while catching up with others before we were all herded to the starting area beside the Sweetwater Creek group shelter. The race director gave a few words of advice, before turning the microphone over to a park ranger who jokingly warned us to cover our ears before the Civil War cannon fired to signal the start of the race. As always with these ultra races, I started in the back of the pack out of respect for the faster runners.

The first mile of Sweet H2O 50K took place on paved roads as we ran to the park entrance, then along a road over next to lakes and picnic areas. We were all relieved when we exited the main road into a picnic area where the trails began. After a short stretch along easy runnable single-track trails, runners arrived at the first water crossing of the day, a concrete spillway bordered by steep cement embankments. Ropes had been provided for most runners to make the steep descent into the spillway, but I decided to save time by simply sliding down the cement bank as if it were a playground slide. A couple of surprised and concerned runners asked me if my method of sliding down cement had hurt, but I assured them that I was wearing compression shorts underneath my regular running shorts and that I had not felt the cement at all. I crossed the spillway over six-inch deep water that drenched my trail shoes and then used a rope to climb up the opposite concrete bank. Thankfully, my Montrail Hardrock shoes drained quickly. I was also wearing two pairs of Balega quick-dry running socks over feet coated with Vasoline to minimize blisters.

On the way to the first aid station, as runners enjoyed more easy single-track trails that were occasionally interrupted by scary treacherous rocky descents, I fell in behind two veteran ultrarunners. Rob, who has run over 500 ultra races, was a friendly face that I remembered from previous ultramarathons. Michael, who was running Sweet H20 as his 100th ultramarathon and was running alongside Rob, was another friendly runner who I immediately enjoyed the company of.

At this point, so early in the race, I made my most intelligent decision of the day. Although I was initially running at slightly faster pace than Rob and Michael, I decided to hang back and run behind both of them for the entire time. I knew that these two veteran runners both had a brilliant style of pacing and that I'd be served well to conserve energy by running with them for as long as I could. I also knew that I have a tendency to experience abrupt energy drops later on in races, so I'd be doing myself a favor to proceed at an even more casual pace early on. I remained behind Rob and Michael for the first 17 miles of the race and took note of their easy, but efficient pace strategy of power-walking even the slightest uphills and running effortlessly along the downhills and flats. Every so often, I would go out ahead of these two runners, but I always slowed until they were both running just in front of me again. I enjoyed joking with them, but was mostly content to simply run behind them and listen to their conversations.

The first aid station of the race was located along the sand-covered trails alongside Sweetwater Creek. The sand trails continued for a while until we emerged onto a wide trail beside the old mill ruins that are the major attraction of the park. Eventually, the trail became more challenging with some rocky stretches beside the creek, but I was enjoying keeping the nearly-effortless constant pace behind Rob and Michael. After crossing a bridge where volunteers refilled our bottles with water, the trail became more treacherous through alternating sand paths and muddy flood-damaged areas. There were a couple of times where we negotiated our way over fallen trees into mud-covered trails that threatened to turn the ankle of the unaware trail runner. Without the frequent orange flags that marked the course, I would have been uncertain about where to run along various stretches. We were approaching the famous Top Of The World trail system, a demanding and long run through extremely steep hills that never seem to end.

Before reaching Top Of The World, though, we had to make our way through a deceptively challenging section of this ultra course that consisted of miles of mostly flat single-track trails where we were able to look to our right and see the hills of Top Of The World most of the time. Although these trails were pleasantly runnable and scenic, the mental challenge of believing again and again that I was about to emerge onto the hills, only to find myself running farther down the same flat single-track, just made me all the more nervous about the hill sections that awaited.

We all have to be careful what we wish for and I am no exception. I finally arrived on the hilly terrain approaching Top Of The World and, after a few minutes, I found myself fondly reminiscing about the boring flat trails that I had been so eager to depart.

The hills approaching Top Of The World were exhausting beyond belief. The hills exact a mental toil on trail runners, because you can look out to the horizon and see one hill crest after another in your path. I've seen photos of these hills, but the photos don't do justice to the true agonizing nature of the actual experience. The worst trail of the entire ultra is a sharply steep climb up a rocky leaf-covered ravine that I took small baby-steps all the way up, all the while hoping that the “prime Timber Rattlesnake habitat” wasn't yet crawling with the snakes so early in the spring. I climbed hill after hill, slowly power-walking the steep ascents and then speeding down the tricky scree-covered downhills by leaning forward with my ankles and running with short stride. All the while, I knew that I'd have to run this loop a second time later in the course.

The actual “Top Of The World” summit was worth the effort, as it provided a broad view of the surrounding wilderness and of the city in the distance. After these hills, we arrived behind a school and were treated to an aid station of extremely knowledgeable and helpful volunteers. I refilled my two handheld water bottles, drank two cups of Gatorade, then took a half banana and some chocolate chip cookies before continuing along. I carried watermelon-flavored sport jelly beans and S-caps with me in the pockets of my shorts, but the real food at these aid stations was always a welcome relief.

Photo courtesy of Sarah Tynes
Rob, Michael, and I ran and power-walked together out of the aid station area and through a harsh stretch of bulldozer tracks over one steep powerline hill after another. At this point, fatigue was setting in, but I continued happily running behind these two veteran ultrarunners. It became apparent to me that the ultrarunning skills of Rob and Michael were presently out of my reach, because they were both happily conversing with the same effortless appearance, while I was increasingly having to struggle on my feet. I thought about the insane hills at Top Of The World and realized, without regret, that there was no way that I would be able to finish a second loop of those hills later in the afternoon.

After 15 miles, we arrived back at the start area to begin our second loop. As we started along the paved road that took us back to the park entrance, I asked Rob how long we had been running, since I had decided not to wear my own Garmin for this race. When he told me that we had been running for 3 hours and 50 minutes, I realized that my chances of making it to the 4.5-hour cutoff point at Mile 17 were slim. The temperatures has risen drastically over the past couple of hours and running that 15th mile on the paved road was taking its toil on me. Michael informed us that we would be just fine if we pushed ourselves a bit harder just to get to the 4.5 -hour cutoff point in a couple of miles to avoid getting pulled from the race, because we could then walk at an easier pace for the rest of the ultra.

The three of us saw another runner walking in the other direction back to the shelter at the start. He grinned wearily at us and told us that he had given up on the race. Rob and Michael ran the paved area across the Sweetwater dam without stopping and, before long, I told them to simply run ahead, because I was having trouble keeping up.

This was the moment when I knew for sure that I was throwing away the Sweet H2O 50K ultramarathon.

Since I was unable to keep up the pace necessary to arrive at the 4.5-hour cutoff, I accepted that I was going to be pulled from the race when I got to the Mile 17 aid station. I kept running and walking at a comfortable pace, exhausted, but happy that the race was about to be over for me. Most ultrarunners have at least one DNF (Did Not Finish) and I was about to have my own first DNF. In my mind, I was running through the scenario in my head and thinking of how I would put a positive spin on my DNF when I updated my Facebook status later on. “Jason had his first DNF (Did Nothing Fatal...haha) at Sweet H2O 50K. Better luck next time.” I was overweight, badly out of shape, residually fatigued from my previous races over the past six months, and I was running in 80-degree weather after enjoying cold temperatures for so long. I had not taken the best care of myself and today's DNF would be a motivator for me to get in better shape to finish future ultramarathons. I thought about the Mile 17 aid station on the sand beside Sweetwater Creek and I envisioned the relief that I would have as I sat down on one of those comfortable camp chairs after being told that I had not made cutoff and that, for my own safety, I would not be allowed to continue running on along the course.

As I left the picnic area to emerge from the road back onto trails to the spillway crossing again, I walked by a group of four runners who told me that they were done for the day. I told them that I was ready to throw in the towel as well, because I was just walking without any run left in me. I made it to the spillway and saw Rob and Michael climbing the embankment on the other side. I continued to fall behind, although I was able to keep the two runners in sight.

I reached the Mile 17 cutoff area, where Rob and Michael were beginning the first of two creek crossings across the deceptively fast currents of Sweetwater Creek by holding onto a rope for dear life and negotiating the slippery rocks beneath the water. A volunteer approached me, taking note of my race number and writing it down in his clipboard. When I asked him about the time, he told me that I had made the cutoff in exactly 4.5 hours and that I was safe to continue.

Photo courtesy of Beth Blackwell
With my dreams of sitting in a camp chair on the creek bank with the other DNF runners suddenly shattered, I stepped into Sweetwater Creek, slid my two handheld water bottles down my wrists, grabbed the rope with both hands, and began to cross. I gained a new enthusiasm as I saw other runners going back across the creek on the other rope and I was refreshed into the present by the cold rushing water on my legs. At one point, the rope buckled from where the girl behind me had slipped on a rock and fallen into the water. She apologized, but I just laughed and told her that I would probably do the same thing. Sure enough, I slipped and fell into the water so that my hands on the rope were the only dry parts of my body. After a couple of comical failed attempts, I finally used the rope to pull myself back to my feet and finished the first stream crossing.

I then began the extremely hilly two-mile loop on the other side of the creek. I was too tired to run, so I let the two girls behind me pass and continued up a harsh gradual hill by myself.

I realized, gloomily, that I was on my own for the remainder of the race. Rob and Michael had gained distance ahead of me to the point where I could never catch up and I was walking along a trail with no other runners in sight. Since I knew that I was one of the final runners, because, save for a handful of runners, everyone behind me had surely been pulled from the course, I braced myself for a lonely 14 remaining miles. I wondered if I would be pulled from the course again after I crossed back over the creek for making such slow time.

When I finally emerged from the trails, I began the second creek crossing. This time, the water was well over my waist as I waded across, watching my footing along the creek bed. I was exhausted when I walked onto the sandy bank to the Mile 19 aid station. John, an accomplished ultrarunner, was manning the aid station and told me that I had been running for five hours and twenty minutes, leaving me with almost four hours to complete the rest of the course. I thanked him, took a generous handful of food (because I was one of the final runners and there was plenty of food left), and continued to power-walk along the creekside trail.  I was now committed to finishing the second loop of the course, with the Top Of The World hills, in all of their unshaded glory, waiting for me.

Graham, a veteran runner who always wears his yellow Marathon Maniacs singlet to every race, was in sight behind me. I continued power-walking for a couple of miles as he gradually closed the distance. When he caught up with me, we talked for a while and I told him that I was still in the game, although I was too tired to run. He congratulated me on my recent Marathon Maniacs upgrade to silver-level (six marathons/ultras within six months) that I had earned after my ING Georgia Marathon two weeks ago. I was sincerely impressed when I asked Graham how many marathons and ultras he had completed and he told me that he had completed 81. I knew that I was in the company of another great ultrarunner who could pace himself well to get to the finish line. My upmost respect goes to the runners like Graham, who may not win the races, but who continue to push through with a constant pace to keep themselves injury-free to complete one ultra after another with style.

After a short while, Graham told me that he was going to resume running and I watched him go ahead. I continued my power walk along the endless flat stretch of trails approaching Top Of The World and was surprised that I was able to keep Graham within sight the entire time. With the two of us proceeding exhaustedly along a long exposed stretch of meadow trail under the sun just before the real hills began, I thought of one of Stephen King's writings, “The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.”

The impossibly steep rocky ravine incline that led the way to Top Of The World was the low point of the race for me. I tripped over a loose rock as I slowly climbed and, for a second, was too exhausted to continue. During every ultramarathon, I consider quitting the race. This time, as I stood there on the rocky hill, I though not only about dropping from this ultramarathon, but of dropping out of the running community altogether. Before I became a serious runner a couple of years ago, I spent much of my spare time immersed in the music scene around Atlanta, attending punk/alternative concerts, writing concert and album reviews for friends who ran music websites, and collecting a massive number of CDs. When I reached my late 30's, though, I became burned out on all of the music and decided that I was tired of writing reviews of other people's achievements and that I wanted to have achievements of my own. I joined a local Galloway marathon training group and dived headfirst into the Atlanta running community. As I stood still on that steep ravine for a few seconds, I realized that I could give it all up. I wasn't achieving anything. I was only struggling along a course and inconveniencing volunteers who couldn't go home until all of us runners had crossed the finish line accounted for. I decided that I should just stop this running thing and go back to my former life.

I started moving again when I thought about the inspiring runners that I've met over the past year. Christian, who had just finished a loop of the unimaginably difficult Barkley course and was still running fast here at Sweet H2O, Sean, who films himself careening down trail hills, and countless others in my trail group. When I reached the top of the rocky hill, I realized that I didn't want to give up running after all.

I was still too tired to actually run, of course. When I reached the crest of each subsequent hill on the way to Top Of The World, I would pick up a slow jog down the other side of the hill, then wearily climb up the next hill. The sun was really bearing down on me and I was running out of water in both of my two handheld bottles. My feet were killing me at this point and I felt several blisters forming. Was I putting myself in danger right now? I decided that, as long as I never felt light-headed, that I was in good shape. If I ever became light-headed, I would simply sit down on one of the hills and wait for a sweeper to come along. Thankfully, that never happened. I chugged another packet of Sport Beans, drank the remaining water, and kept going. I was so close to the next aid station that I was unconcerned at this point. Having learned a difficult lesson about hydration at my first ultra, I had handled my water and food very well for this race and, at no point during this race did I feel like I was dazed or incoherent.

I reached the crest of a hill to see Sarah, a fellow ultrarunner, and a police officer volunteering to give people directions. They offered me some ice water and I gratefully accepted.

I was motivated all the more when I started along the out-and-back trail to Top Of The World and saw several runners ahead of me who were going back in the other direction from the school aid station. Most of them looked just as exhausted as I did. We would nod at each other, each of us telling the other that he was looking strong, and keep going. I brightened up when I saw Rob and Michael again and they greeted me excitedly, encouraging me to keep going.

When I was by myself again, I made my only navigational mistake of the entire ultra. I saw the roof of the school through the trees and thought that I had walked too far along the dirt road. I doubled back and walked for a hundred yards in the direction that I had just taken until I realized that I had not missed the turn to the aid station after all. I turned around and resumed the proper direction. Graham, who was just leaving the aid station, passed me in the other direction and, when I told him about my mistake, he said, “This isn't the time to be adding more mileage.”

As before, the volunteers at the school aid station were angels. They sat me down in one of the camp chairs and brought Gatorade and food to me while refilling my water bottles. I broke one of my personal rules about ultrarunning by accepting two Advil from a volunteer, although I was careful to drink plenty of fluid simultaneously to prevent any effect on my kidneys. With my feet hurting like they were, I figured that two Advil could only help. After several minutes of sitting in the chair at this aid station and conversing with the volunteers, I remembered that I had an ultra to finish, so I stood up and grabbed some food for the road. One of the volunteers encouraged me to stay as long as I wanted, but I thanked her and told her that I'd better move along. I was surprised to find out that I wasn't the last runner on the course after all and that there were still one or two others behind me. Shortly after I left the aid station and returned to the Top Of The World trail, I saw the last runner, who was accompanied by a trail sweeper that was picking up the orange flags for cleanup.

I had forty minutes to run the final four miles of the finish line if I wanted to make the 9-hour time limit that was specified on the website. Yeah, whatever. I knew that 10-minute miles were impossible for me now and I decided to not worry about the 9-hour time limit. The aid station volunteers had told me that I would have an official finish anyway.

The last four miles went by painfully, but were relatively uneventful. I continued alone with no other runners in sight, warmly thanked all of the volunteers at the last two aid stations along the way, and hobbled down the trail. I was able to run occasionally, but those running moments were short-lived. During the last two miles of the trail, I felt a pebble in my shoe underneath my heel. I was too tired to remove the shoe and get the pebble out, so I just kept going and accepted the increasing discomfort. I was exhausted, but happy and proud of myself for managing to complete the second loop of this ultra after I had really believed that I would be going home at the Mile 17 cutoff.

When I returned to the camp area along the final stretch and made my way through the altered route to the finish line below the group shelter, the sight of Kate and Philip, two friends and fellow ultrarunners, cheered me up. I started running with them as they accompanied me up the last paved hill to the finish area. I couldn't help but laugh when Philip informed me that, because of the course changes, this year's Sweet H2O “50K” was actually 33 miles in distance. The fact that I had completed 33 miles instead of just 31.5 made me feel much better about my slow time.

I crossed the finish line in 9:47:40 and was greeted by several friends from the GUTS group. I was touched that so many people had remained to see the rest of us finish. I shook hands with the race director at the finish line and then sat down with my Sweet H2O finisher's hat. I later found out that the original 9-hour cutoff had been dispensed with, due to the additional mileage on the altered course.

It felt great to sit down, although I did stand up eagerly to cheer when the final runner passed through the finish line. I decided that, for future ultramarathons, I'll try my best to stay near the finish line until the last runners cross, because it meant so much to me to see friends waiting when I finished. Of course, if I keep finishing in the back of the pack, this shouldn't be too difficult to do!

Sweet H2O 50K (and then some) was a tough cookie to crumble, but I enjoyed the race and continued to learn new lessons about myself, as I have during each ultramarathon race. I can't thank the volunteers and the race director enough for making this a special day.

See you on the trails.


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