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.|
|Probably making a smart-ass comment. My hair looks good.|
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.
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.|
|Surprise! The moon out in broad daylight!|
|14 miles in and I'm feeling great.|
|Mmm, oranges. Hair is looking tired.|
|Changing the socks.|
|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.|
|The finish line...finally.|
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.|