Thursday, April 21, 2011

2011 Sweetwater 50k ~ Race Review

Sweetwater 50k ~ Race Review

In the months prior to the Sweetwater 50k I was poised to do nothing more than place well, and hopefully win. In September, I fully began to recover from a serious ankle injury and was basically left rebuilding my running strength and form. In the 6+ months of ensuing training I revitalized my endurance, strengthened my form, and from running alone learned more about Blood Mountain, Unicoi Gap, and Mount Yonah than I thought possible. Seriously, I feel like can guide you up every turn of these mountains with words alone. I'll miss the Appalachian Trail when I move to Washington the second week of May, but with as many places and people I'll be saying good-bye to, there are double the places to see and triple the people to meet.
Thrill In The Hills 2011 Finish

In February, I posted a 1:42:00 half-marathon, and 2nd place overall, at the Sweetwater Sweetheart Half-Marathon. The course importantly included the 'Power Line and Top-of-the-World' sections, which gave me a good picture of how to train for the tough parts of the course and it left me salivating with ambition, maybe too much, at the possibility of actually winning. The previous year's winning time for the 50k was just over five hours, and the way I saw things, if I just slowed down to a four hour marathon I could easily haul in a sub one hour 5 miles and therefore sufficiently win...against last year's competition. I also ran a great Thrill In The Hills Half Marathon, 1:35:14, which I ran as a tempo run in the middle of what would be a 20 mile run.

Wow, looking back I now realize that I had been out of racing for quite some time. Five years, minimum. Because you can't predict the future by judging the past. Sure, it's easy to see what type of competition usually shows up, but there's nothing stopping anyone, of any caliber, from showing up.

A lot of miles together. Only 31 miles left.
Fast forward to four weeks prior to race day, and the crest of the perfect training wave: the 70+ mile weeks, the outrageous daily elevation gains, the desire to put everything aside just to ensure I can get the most out of my training, crashes with the same type of screeching halt feeling that you get when the wind is knocked out of you, and an odd Achilles injury ensues in the aftermath. I can't exactly describe what caused the flare up or exactly what flared up. I just, instantly, wasn't able to wear any type of shoe that had a heel, and I wasn't about to run on the trails or any type of distance in sandals. I iced a lot, and even wound up with some frostbite caused from a gel ice pack coming into contact with exposed skin for too long on the outside of my left ankle. -I have since sworn off gel-packs and opt strictly for ice in a sandwich bag- So, as far as the running is concerned, I was left to run very short distances, less than 2.5 a week and on the road or track, in homemade sandals, which I have to admit aren't half bad and I'll definitely continue to make and wear them.

Probably making a smart-ass comment. My hair looks good.
The week before the race my good friend Josh called me up and we ventured onto the trail at Collins Hill Park...again, this is the first time in three weeks that: I've run in running shoes, the first time in three weeks that I've decided to run on trails, and the first time in three weeks that I've decided to do more than 2.5 miles. It went great, my heal was still quite tender, especially the next day, but doable. I quickly let Robert, my training and racing teammate, know that even if I wasn't going to finish the race I'd start with him and run as far as possible...and lets be honest, if I'm going to start something I'm going to finish unless I'm pulled off the course against my will. Stubborn, I know.

I decided to take Friday off of work before the race and really do nothing more than relax. The relaxing was great until I tried to sleep. I laid down to sleep at 11 o'clock and at 3:00 AM I finally dozed off for an hour and a half of sleep. Up at 4:30 AM, I brewed some black gold, ate two bowls of oatmeal with a ton of Chia seeds and honey on top to help give myself plenty of pre-race calories. I hit the road at 5:00 AM and arrived at the park at 6:15 AM, picked up my race packet, and waited for the gun to go off at 7:30 AM.

Spillway Crossing
I lined up about mid-pack and listen to the race director giving some last minute instructions about an unfortunate course change: "Due to the rain last night we will not be able to make the river crossing." A sigh of relief and disappointment exhaled from my lungs simultaneously. Instead we were going to have to cross the spillway from the lake and run on the road for the second lap. Not having any idea how this changed my perspective, I looked at Robert and said, "Oh well. I am kind of disappointed, though."

The race director started the race and early on, as in the first ten steps, the ultra running community shined brighter and with more brilliance than any race I've ever been in. The guy next to me was yelling and screaming with such excitement, and also with such profane language, that I really felt like I had just entered a carnival and not a race. With a break in his, "Fuck Yeahs!" and "I'm running to win" I asked him what kind of pre-race fluid he had taken in. A blank stare and maybe even an embarrassed looked streaked wildly across his face as turned away and kept yelling. I guess when you look old enough to be my father and some guy that looks young enough to be your kid questions what the hell you're doing it doesn't sit well. His friends thought it was funny, though.

About to give the camera a surprise.
After an easy mile on the road we took a sharp right and headed straight into the woods and got a 'sneek peek' at the course to come: a mud soaked, water saturated turn, that could easily suck your shoes right off your feet if you stepped too carelessly. At a mile and a half the spillway crossing came into view. As you can tell from the photo above, the sides of the spillway are too steep for wet rubber soles, so ropes were tied to trees on both sides to aide the descent and allow for an easy ascent. A couple of people tried to run up the side to no avail; including Robert, however, I think he would have made it except the guy he ran up after decided that at 80% of the way up the 15 foot embankment he wanted to use the ropes and kindly slid down almost crushing Robert. The water on the first pass was calf deep and cold. The nice wool socks definitely soaked up as much water as possible during the crossing, and at first I was annoyed, but after a couple more impromptu pond crossings I didn't really care...surprisingly no blisters, by the way. The spillway photo, above, comes from Best Pace Scenario Blog, by the way. I'm not one to try and pass off material as mine that isn't.

Surprise! The moon out in broad daylight!
The next few miles really went quite smoothly. Robert and I talked, took our time, commented on 'race strategy' and passed a good number of people. We even occasionally smirked that these people started out way too fast. The first aid station, the Beach Aid Station, was 3 miles into the race and would give us a nice foreshadow of the other three aid stations on the course. It was decorated in Hawaiian grass skirts, flower leis, and bright colorful signs held up by volunteers. Just a side note, the course is a two lap course, so there were only four aid stations, but we passed them each twice to make a total of 8 aid station visits. During my training I primarily trained with as little food as possible during my training runs in hopes that when I got to the race I'd better better prepared to handle any type of nutrient deprivation during the run, and it paid off. I stopped at every aid station, ate and drank bountifully, dealt with the ensuing mile stomach ache, and only at one time felt a case of low blood sugar. I really think that by training minimally with nutrition I was able to maximize the benefits of nutrition on the course. The aid stations were loaded with peanut butter and jelly triangles, pretzels, chips, gummy bears, M & M's, GU gels, Gatorade, water, and even beer.

14 miles in and I'm feeling great.
From aid station one we made our way through the woods and down a good bit of stairs -stairs...in a race? Nice.- the next couple of miles consisted primarily of a downhill course along the river's edge, which because of the torrential rains the night before overflowed onto the course forcing us to either run through water or climb up the embankment through thorns and overgrowth. At mile 7 we reached aid station two, the Tributary Aid Station, which was up a small hill, but on a well groomed section of the trail. The trail had wood chips, bridges over 'swamp land', however everything had turned into a soggy bottom trail, but it looked nice. When we arrived at the aid station we were in the back of a neighborhood, an odd site, but as we left I commented to Robert that the neighborhood should put a big sign up that read: "If you lived here you could quit." It got a chuckle out of both of us.

Mmm, oranges. Hair is looking tired.
The next 3 miles are the crux of the course: the 'power line' section and the 'top-of-the-world' section. Heralded as the pinnacle reason to run the race I had already seen the grade and length of this section, except for the mile lead in trail which was completely flat, but 100% exposed to the sun, I could only think 'this section doesn't matter now, but on lap two the heat from sun exposure was going to beat us up.' We made it to the 'hills' and I encouraged Robert to take his time, essentially, we decided to run up slightly, walk to the top, and carefully jog the downhills. After reaching the, 'top-of-the-world' we were eager to refuel at, School Spur (aid station #3). This aid station was one of my favorites, for a couple of reasons: 1) It signaled that we were headed back to the start/finish line, 2) We survived the hills, 3) Georgia Tech college students that line up on a Saturday morning for a 50 kilometer race have some funny comments for every runner that passes. My comments: "Dude, I'm so jealous of your mustache." and "Reno 911! Reno 911!"

Changing the socks.
When you get to the top of any hill you must go down, and unfortunately a downhill is a runner's worst nightmare. They have the ability to absolutely thrash your quads, they increase the chance of a turned ankle, and leave your legs feeling like jelly. But, that's par with the course. We cruised cautiously down to the river over some of the steepest terrain I've ever run. The thorns from unkempt power line landscape cut my legs up, but 10 miles into a 31 mile race (32.5ish according to the Garmin) any scars picked up along the way are just souvenirs that can't be thrown away. (Goo Goo Dolls reference) We made it to aid station 4, Jack's Hill, which is at the top of a pseudo flat that had I not run the half-marathon I wouldn't have known to take my time and enjoy the rocky, rooted, pine tree lined scenery. One exciting moment that would later come back to help, motivationally, is the Marine that was about a 1/4 mile before the aid station. He had more energy than anyone on the course and had no problem showing how glad he was to be out in the middle of the woods. He was yelling encouraging words, taking pictures, and most of all making sure everyone was smiling and going the right direction. Semper Fi, Marine. Just past the aid station our cheering crew paid us a visit with orange slices, and with how wet our shoes were we asked them to bring us the change of shoes we put into a back to the Beach Aid Station.
Lacing up the dry, 'new', shoes.

As we rounded out the first half of the race we realized at about mile 16, that we were starting to feel some fatigue and this is where the race turns into nothing more than a mental struggle with physical pain. The road section that we started out on came back and for about 2 miles we took a beating. I could feel my hamstrings starting to get frustrated at the asphalt and cramping to let me know that either I was still alive, that I was crazy, or that I hadn't run for four weeks and now I'm trying to run 50km...maybe a combination of all three. Either way, when we took the turn to get back on the trail I had to slow things down and really concentrate on my form. Over striding would mean an instant hamstring cramp, and that could have some not-so-fun consequences. We crossed the spillway, which seemed to be a little bit higher, but the cool water felt so good that I splashed some on my legs and it really seemed to help.

One highlight of running trails, and I don't mean this in an, "I hope they get hurt way.", is watching someone take a spill. Fortunately, I didn't see too many at this race, however, about a quarter mile after the spillway the course takes a sharp turn down the side of a hill into a gap, that on a dry day wouldn't have a pond to cross, but the previous night's rain littered the course with some type of variation of these and Robert was fed up with his shoes being wet, even though we were less than two miles away from getting our shoe change, so he decided to skirt around the pond in what, I guess to him, seemed like a more suitable and dryer route. Without a word of notice Robert face planted in the water, effortlessly resembling a dog jumping off the end of a dock into a lake. Not only were his shoes wet, now, but everything from his shoulders down was soaked...and yes, I laughed before I asked if he was okay.

One final push to the finish.
From here on out we took a lot more time at the aid stations and scarfed down a lot more food and I took two gels for the next couple of miles in-between aid stations. The aid volunteers seemed to ramp up the enthusiasm, which was great and really kept the anxiety of the remaining miles down. Also, I found myself beginning to play mind games, sometimes out loud. Like, "Robert, if we were in a 35 mile race, we'd be halfway there. Good thing we're not." And I can't quite pinpoint whether or not I found it to be more comforting to know we were over the half-way point, or if, in some sadistic way, hearing Robert's disgruntled responses made me feel better that I wasn't the only one hurting. Either way, I meant no harm to the guy, but pain/running (they seem synonymous at times) can make you do some crazy things.

The finish line...finally.
We left the first aid station and hoped to see dry shoes just past, and to our dismay our relief party wasn't in the same spot as they were on the first lap. Quickly, and without hesitation we decided to not stop, but instead to curse the situation. And right in the middle of things we turned a corner to a guiding light of cheers about dry shoes, and socks. With my new shoes on and dry socks I felt like I had just started my run. It was amazing what fresh shoes did for the psyche. Unfortunately, we took off down the trail with enthusiasm, which we were about to learn is not a good thing only 18 miles into a 50k.

About a mile shy of aid station 2 I began to bonk, get blurry thoughts, and nervous. At 23 miles the shortest distance back to the finish is to stay on the course, so thoughts of quiting don't even matter. Robert and I exchanged the burden of the bonk, I'd feel crazy for 10 minutes, and then he would, and we just went back and forth, but as we began the climb up the power lines to the top-of-the-world, the bonk faded and although we slowed down and took more walking breaks we took it upon ourselves to help each other and that's something you don't find in the shorter races.

Smiling from sheer enjoyment.
At about 26.5 miles (according to the Garmin) I looked over at Robert and said, "Congrats, man. Welcome to the ultra." We high-fived, lazily, and just kept telling each other, "Good job, man. Keep it up." We continued our run-walk, walk-run, pattern for the rest of the race and when things got tough we just picked markers 20 yards ahead of us and said, "Ok, we'll run to there." and then we'd take each little victory and celebrate it with a walk. About a half mile from the finish we got the courage to just run, and I can't explain the feeling, but it was like someone else was running for me. My mind was relaxed, my legs felt...well, tired, but revived. We took the last hill by storm, either out of excitement to be done or we just didn't want to look foolish and walk in front of the finishing crowd. After 6 hours and 40 minutes Robert and I crossed the tape together, well, technically Robert edged me out, by .2 seconds, but I didn't know we were racing. We finished 65th and 66th out 250 runners and as we sat down I began to ask when we were going to run a 50 miler together.