Last year, I ran the SweetH20 50k, it was my first ultra and it was an eye opening experience. While I openly admit it kicked my A$$, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience & a new love of running was found. This year's race had the makings of a great story. I've had a great winter of training, everything was coming together nicely.
There was a lot of email banter in the week leading up to the race - folk's penning down desired finish times. From the beginning, I have not been shy about admitting my goal - 6:45, almost an hour & a half faster than last year. Whoa, that is still a bit bite buddy....
Friday night, just hours before race time, the Atlanta Metro area was pounded with severe thunderstorms, including reported tornado activity in Douglasville, just outside of the park. Luckily, the rain lifted before the race - but the damage was done. The creek was raging & the water was high. The current was so strong in fact that the RD had to make a last minute judgemnt call and change the course, removing the famed creek crossing.
we were all curious to find out the conditions of the course, luckily we didn't have to wait long. After a few instructions from Johnny Buice, the RD, we were off!
(Me and my buddy Tom, just before the start)
The race starts down a paved road, leading out of the park for a mile and a half, this gives the runners a chance to thin out before hitting the trailhead & the spillway. Tom & I went out a little faster than planned, running about 8:45 on the 1st mile, while I didn't intend on going out that quick, I didn't want to get stuck behind a large number of timid rock dancers once we hit the single track.
We quickly hit the spillway and there was already a little backlog waiting for the ropes.(Jason Rogers working up the wall)
The weather was awesome the entire day! Clear skies & temps in the low 60's at the start, warming up into the 70's by the afternoon. These temps made the early miles feel effortless, I was clipping along at a comfortable 10 minute pace, enjoying the first 6 miles of the course. We ran along the creek early on and saw the ropes where the creek crossing was located. As the day progressed, the creek continued to rise and the crossing surely would have been unsafe.
Before long, I was running through the 2nd aid station, topping off my bottle with Gatorade - wanting to stay on top of my electrolytes. My fueling plan was simple, a gel every 45 minutes & grab anything off of the table that looked inviting. With aid stations every 4-5 miles, I ran with one hand-held bottle and intended on emptying it between stations. I was making perfect time, staying right on schedule as we left the comfort of the gentle, tree covered trails and began our trek over to the gas & powerlines. After a short climb up a gravel jeep road, we quickly turned left and were greeted with an all too familiar sight of what seems like endless roller coaster gas lines.
The first few climbs are not entirely taxing - It's the mental game of not knowing when they will end that gets you. Last year my biggest mistake was bombing down the hills and stressing my quads early on. This year, I was more cautious, knowing I would need to save my legs for the 2nd loop.
We dropped down to creek level at one point and had to go up the ravine, this is a killer climb, especially the 2nd time through.
Rolling through gas lines, Sarah Tynes is waiting for us at the top of the final climb, a good 200 ft jaunt straight up! As only the truely wicked can be, she can be found yelling at us that we need to be running!
There is a short little run out to the Top of the World, a 360 panoramic view of the surrounding area - no photo truely does justice of this view.
We had a mile out & back to the 3rd aid station, this is a great chance to recover and do a quick "systems check" before hitting the powerlines. I was feeling good, keeping my HR in the low 140's, maintaining 10 minute miles on the flats and didn't have any noticable pain. Rolling into the aid station, I am all smiles knowing the hardest part of this loop is behind me. Or is it?
I think this out & back section of the course is my favorite part of this race - probably my most favorite part of trail running. It is here that you get to see the other runners either in front of you or behind you, depending on which way you are running. (Most) everyone is cheerful and offers words of encouragement. "Good job" "Nice work" etc. You also get to see your friends and whoop it up a little bit. Seldom do I ever experience this in road racing and that is really too bad. I always get motivated & run a little easier when I am able to offer encouragement & receieve the same. You should try it, running with a smile on your face does wonders to improve the way you feel.
Having my spirits lifted was surely needed as I entered the next section - the dreaded powerlines. This open section contains some serious elevation change & is usually exposed to the midday sun. The footing is usually very loose making even the decents difficult, this day was no exception. However, the cooler temps did make the trip through a little easier.
Not long after going through the powerlines, I am heading up Jack's Hill and completing my 1st loop. I spent a lot of time in this section with Todd Henderson, the RD of the Pinhoti 100 miler. Last Fall I crewed for Psyche & Charles at Pinhoti and plan on making this race my 1st 100 miler. It was really cool to run with Todd and get to know him a little better-not that knowing him will my make my hundy attempt any easier!
(me & Todd cresting Jack's Hill)
So, just under 3 hours, I finish my first loop and begin to head out on the 2nd. Grabbed my lucky Moon Pie Jersey out of my drop bag and headed out. All systems are a go and one by one, I am picking off the runners who went out too fast. Careful not to become one of those victims myself, I stay within my plan and try not to let my mind wander forward to a faster than predicted finish time. Of course, without the creek crossing, I know my time will be better than planned so I allow myself to think about how much time will be shaved off. The distance will still be the same with the added mileage, but not havign to tackle that monster hill on the yellow loop will probably give me back about 15 minutes.
I'm cruising along the creek around mile 21 without a care in the world when I feel this sting in my left calf. it was almost like someone reached out and grabbed it! Crap, cramps?!?!? I stopped and stretched it and tried to move forward, this was not a good section to have calf cramps as there are a lot of rocks to hop & steps to climb. I was a couple miles away from the next aid station, I knew it would be a minute before I could get some electrolytes. I worked through the pain for several miles, every time I thought I worked out the cramp, it would come right back.
The aid station didn't have any S-caps, so I had them pour some salt into a cup and I mixed it with some water and drank it like a shot. Horrible taste but better than the alternative. I continued to work through the issue and repeated the salt intake at the next aid station. I also had them fill my bottle with Gatorade instead of water at these stations. In hindsight, I don't really know where the cramp came from, I was fueling properly & alternating water and gatorade at each aid station leading up to the cramping issue. Nothing a dose of HTFU can't cure I guess.
I was hoping to get the cramps behind me before I enterd the gas/powerlines, otherwise it would be a long day. It was here last year that I "quit" running forever several times and decided that I would "stick to running flat 5k's in Savannah." - A very low point in the day. There were no drastic lows like that this year. The course was hard, it kicked my ass, but mentally I was sharp and stayed engaged. I worked through these sections and before I knew it I was motoring back up Jack's Hill, in hot pursuit of Todd, who had passed me while I was working on my cramps.
Seeing Cindy & her Gnome at the last aid station is bittersweet - you know the finish is near, which means the joy of this day is almost over.
Only a few miles of gentle trail seperated me from the finish, glancing at my watch, my goal was within reach. it was time to put my head down and do a little more work. A few miles later, I rounded the corner of the last hill(Really Johnny? That hill after the day you put in front of us?) and climbed four steps to the finish line - greeted by a collection of finishers, volunteers, GUTS & Rogue runners - and my best cheerleader, my Sweetest Boo!
Final Results: 6:42:23
68th out of 235 starters
1.5 hours faster than last year.
THANK YOU to all of the volunteers & to Johnny, the RD.
I had a blast, I smiled the entire time and sitting here right now, I wish I was still out there. Well, except for the part where it hurts to climb the 4 flights of stairs to my office.
Thank you fellow bloggers for all of the support & encouragement. We run because we can, never take it for granted.
**Photo's taken by: N. Kumar, S. Donnelly, C. Strickland Ralston & R. Hines.**