On August 4, 2012, I completed my third Hot To Trot 8 Hour Run with a distance of 37.8 miles.
The Hot To Trot 8 Hour Run, a fixed-time event sponsored by Georgia Ultrarunning and Trailrunning Society (GUTS), takes place every August at Sweetwater Creek State Park in Lithia Springs, Georgia. The 1.1813-mile race route loop starts at a picnic shelter that serves as the aid station, descends along a hilly single-track trail, a paved section, and a rock-strewn forest road down to a sandy path along Sweetwater Creek before crossing a wooden bridge and climbing hilly trails covered with tree roots to the final forest road hill that leads back up to the shelter. The 73-foot elevation gain in the final half-mile of the loop seems modest to runners during the first few laps in the cooler morning hours, but gradually wears the body down over the eight-hour duration until most participants are reduced to a lumbering walk in brutal summer temperatures.
The GUTS website description from Race Director Ryan Cobb outlines the risks of this event. “At the Hot To Trot 8 Hour Race, our goal is to provide the race as advertised. As the name implies, you can count on it being HOT. Temps are easily in the 90’s this time of year in Georgia, with humidity off the scale. Hyponatremia and dehydration can be serious. Runners are expected to use proper electrolytes in order to stay alive!” At this year’s race, we were treated to a temperature high of only 84 degrees, but stifling humidity and thunderstorms throughout the day presented a unique set of challenges that ultimately resulted in a comparable amount of dehydrated or overhydrated runners, along with many blisters earned from eight hours in rain-soaked shoes.
A couple of days before this event, I weighed 199 pounds on my gym scales, dropping below the 200-pound mark for the first time since I was 17 years old back in 1989. As such, I was looking forward to competing at the Hot To Trot 8 Hour Run for my third year in a row, because this would be the first real test of my improved running fitness when compared to previous experiences at this race. Unfortunately, an unexpected setback in the form of a muscle sprain just above my left Achilles from sliding on muddy trails at the Camp Croft Challenge Trail Marathon during the previous week threatened to derail my plans. The bruise and small lump just above the Achilles tendon gradually disappeared after a week of frequent icing and Arnica gel treatment, but my confidence was still shaken to the point that I questioned my wisdom of showing up at this race. I made a promise to myself that I would stop running if I felt any Achilles pain whatsoever, even if my Hot To Trot 8 Hour Run turned into a Hot To Trot Half Hour Run. Like most other runners, I had learned the hard way that it only takes one experience of not listening to my body to stop my running career for an extended time, and I did not want to risk my fall season races for this event.
Thankfully, my Achilles felt normal as I arrived at the picnic shelter on race day and set up a camp chair with my drop bag of supplies for easy access beside the route. All GUTS events have a family reunion feel to them, and this morning was no exception as I greeted old and new friends before Ryan called everyone to the start for race instructions. The oppressive humidity was already evident, but overcast skies held the promise of easier race conditions this year.
Hoping that the weather would remain comparably mild, I settled into my usual position near the back of the pack as the runners took off slowly in a single-file line along the trail over a series of abrupt hill berms before spreading out on the paved road section that followed. I intended to run with a careful pace, but still found myself passing a few others along the first half-mile. When we crossed a wooden bridge by Sweetwater Creek, I slowed to a power-walk on the hills, but resumed running along the flats and descents between each climb. Remembering my unfortunate brush with yellow jackets on the course a year ago, I prayed that the experience would not repeat itself.
I had no pre-determined race strategy, other than to keep going until my Achilles muscles started hurting. The ratio of hills to descents and the forgiving terrain of the trails did not aggravate my Achilles at all on the first lap, and I kept my fingers crossed that my good fortune would continue as my legs warmed up. I decided that I would be perfectly happy if I could get just two or three hours of good trail running in as a solid weekend training exercise before calling it a day if needed. The next couple of laps were similarly uneventful, and I was pleased to note by the picnic shelter timing clock that each lap was taking me roughly 12 to 13 minutes. I established a tentative goal of completing four laps an hour. Assuming that I was able to complete the entire race pain-free, this pace would result in 32 laps over the eight hours. Knowing that I would inevitably slow to a walk later in the race just as I had during previous years and lose that pace of four laps an hour, I figured that a goal of 32 laps was overly optimistic, but I liked the idea of trying my best to maintain such a pace for the time being. With this number in the back of my mind, I continued at a comfortable clip by running nonstop roughly 80% of the time on each loop, then power-walking the steeper hill climbs to conserve energy.
I managed to finish nine laps just after the two-hour mark, and I was happy to have an extra lap in the bank to maintain my four-lap-per-hour pace as long as possible. That boost in confidence was timely, because the faint sound of thunder began to roll over the course, and I soon felt raindrops. The thought of rain at a Hot To Trot event brought a smile to everyone’s face on the course, and we joked that it was our lucky day. I assumed that the rain showers would quickly pass and evaporate in a punishingly humid fog under the sun, but my assumptions were mistaken, and the rain was there to stay for a few hours. Rain fell in a slight drizzle most of the time, but occasionally poured down in full force. The constant overhead canopy of leaves protected me from the worst of the showers, and the trails remained free of slippery mud. One particular sand-covered hill that was my least favorite part of the course was made slightly more tolerable by the wet weather, so I continued to accept the rain as a blessing.
At the conclusion of each lap, I ran through the timing chute with a smile for the volunteers, and made my way around the corner of the shelter to the aid station, where a small team of dedicated workers were always angels to the rescue with ice water to refill my handheld bottle, gels and Gummi Bears to keep me moving with sugar energy, and even cups of watermelon that put a smile on my face. I settled into a routine of eating a gel after every other lap, so that I was loosely adhering to my established racing style of eating a gel every half hour. At the end of the non-gel laps, I would either grab a small handful of watermelon or Gummi Bears from the aid station, or stop by my own camp chair to take a few gulps from bottles of Powerade in my drop bag. I have learned from experience that eating an excessive amount of watermelon in the middle of a race is a bad idea, because my body retains a lot of fluid when I combine the watermelon with my normal running nutrition. I rarely have the self-discipline to turn away from watermelon when it is placed in front of me on a hot day, though, and I would ultimately pay the price when my hands started to swell later on during this race.
Aside from the short aid station stops, I kept moving steadily around each loop and stayed true to my strategy of running 80% of the course except for the steep hills. The one exception was when I noticed with dismay that some medical tape that I had wrapped around a particularly blister-prone toe had slipped off and slid underneath the sole of my foot inside my wet shoe. Knowing that I would save a lot of time later on by taking the precaution to avoid a rubbing blister, I sat down for the only time during the eight-hour event to remove my shoe and sock to discard the tape.
One of the many joys of the Hot To Trot 8 Hour Run is seeing my friends over and over again as they pass me, or vice-versa, while we all run the laps at our respective speeds. An ultrarunning friend, Johan, who would go on to win this event with the most laps, always had kind words each time he passed. The other front runners were also a sight for sore eyes each time they passed by as the race continued. I paid the favor forward by doing my best to offer words of encouragement or jokes to each runner whom I passed on the course. I took it as a good sign that I did not see many of the faster runners as often, because I was running faster this year and I was lapped fewer times. The endurance of each and every participant on the course gave me strength as I observed the sheer will of people refusing to stop during moments of fatigue.
I passed the four-hour mark with 17 laps under my belt, remaining one lap ahead of schedule on my four-lap-per-hour plan. Exhaustion was bearing down on me, and I kept telling myself that I would walk the next lap in its entirety, but an urge to keep running the laps won me over each time. I kept expecting to end my race with an aching Achilles, and I was pleasantly surprised to complete each subsequent lap with no Achilles pain at all. No matter how tired I was at the end of each circle, I still tried my best to maintain appearances by breaking out into a run when I passed the lap counters at the timing chute.
An absence of specific Achilles pain did not equal a complete absence of pain, though, and the trial of miles soon exacted its toll on me. The cumulative effects of running this eight-hour event after a trail marathon the previous week was all too apparent during the last half of this event, and a sharp heel pain occasionally shot through my right foot in my well-worn old trail shoes when I took a wrong step on the rocks of the forest road section leading downhill to Sweetwater Creek. I eventually began to fall into a routine of mental blankness as my will to move ignored the red flags of fatigue. The kind volunteers at the aid station would assure me that I was doing great each time I passed by, and, when I would tell them that I was about to start walking the laps because I could not run anymore, they would laugh and tell me that I had told them that the last time around. I would then break out into a slow run back down the trail hills to complete the same stage play. Like the teenager who just wants a Pepsi in the old Suicidal Tendencies song, I plodded along thinking about everything, but thinking about nothing.
My frayed mental state became apparent during an encounter that is amusing in retrospect. An acquaintance from a local triathlon and running club who had arrived on site to cheer for us from the shelter area called my name as I finished a lap. When I saw that he was holding up a digital camera, I posed for a photo. This friend kept holding up the camera as he asked me a series of questions. “How many laps have you run, Jason?” My mind went blank and I shrugged as I remained in my motionless pose. “How do you feel?” I told him that I felt pretty good, and asked him if he was done taking the photo. “How many more laps will you run?” I shrugged and asked him once again if he was done. He asked me a couple more questions, and, when I finally demanded to know if he was done taking the picture so that I could keep moving to the next lap, he nodded. Minutes later, another friend passed by me on the course and laughed as he told me that the guy had been videotaping me with interview questions instead of trying to take a single photo. With my status as the official unintentional comic relief of the ultramarathon world still very much intact, I soldiered on.
I finished 25 laps just before the six-hour mark on the timing clock. As the rain showers fizzled out and dry weather returned, I kept moving with the help of a stern internal dialogue. Jason, you will get those 32 laps that you wanted if you can finish seven more laps in the next two hours. Do not worry about how much your feet hurt from the gravel. Do not worry about how tired you are from last week’s marathon. Do no worry about how you are having trouble thinking clearly. Just think about seven laps in the next two hours. Just get it done. Just get it done. I somehow managed to find a smile for each runner whom I encountered on the loop, even if that smile was occasionally accompanied by faint mumbles. At one point, as I walked up the final hill of one loop with a small group of runners, one of them asked us how much longer we were planning to keep running, and I replied off the top of my head, “I paid for eight hours.” This drew some laughs from the other runners as we lumbered back up to the shelter.
I greeted the aid station volunteers with a smile at the end of most of the laps and reminded them how much I appreciated their being there, but I also passed by a couple of times with a dazed expression on my face and a weak wave of acknowledgment during those last two hours. As the final hour approached, I noticed that my fingers had swollen to Stay Puft Marshmallow Man size, and I knew that I had lost control of my hydration strategy. When I licked my arm and tasted salt, I ascertained that I was losing sodium, but could not decide whether to modify my hydration or my electrolyte nutrition. The good news was that I managed to complete four more laps during the seventh hour of the race, and therefore, only had three laps left to go in the final hour for my goal of 32. I was incredibly thankful that I had banked an extra lap ahead of schedule earlier in the race.
Those last three laps during the eighth hour were painful, but I was able to summon enough energy to run for short stretches. I stayed away from gels, Gatorade, or watermelon, and took less frequent sips from my water bottle. When I completed 31 laps, my running legs were almost dead. I threw my water bottle into my drop bag, and began my final loop with 25 minutes left on the clock. I walked most of the time, but occasionally broke out into a jog during some of the more generous descents. I eventually joined a group of running friends who were in a celebratory mood for their final lap, and I eagerly shared their enthusiasm. This had been a good day for me, and I felt as though I were the luckiest person in the world for completing this event with no pain at all from the Achilles muscles that had been bothering me days earlier. I passed through the finish chute for the last time with eight minutes left on the clock, relieved that I did not have time to go out for another lap. I had succeeded in my goal to complete 32 laps, beating my previous course record by six laps. I had finished the 2012 Hot To Trot 8 Hour Run with 37.8 miles.
I relaxed in the company of friends as I grabbed a chicken breast from the picnic grill and ate it with some sweet potatoes from my drop bag as a perfect Paleo celebration meal. The ability to complete 37.8 miles in eight hours in August has boosted my confidence for the fall races to come, and that alone would have been reason enough to endure this challenge. The joys of spending a day with friends and the ability to keep pace with some of my ultrarunning heroes, however, made this one of my favorite running memories to date. Thanks to Ryan Cobb and the GUTS crowd for another safe and sensational Hot To Trot event.
See you on the trails.