(photo credit:G. Gallmore)
Early morning, April 21st. I pick up the other half of the trail running "Dumb & Dumber" and we head to Sweetwater Creek State Park. Ah, home away from home. After picking up our bibs, we parked our chairs behind the car & "tailgated" for an hour or so, catching up with old friends, discussing the weather for the day, & just tried to stay loose before the 7:30am start.
I love this race. I love the Douglas County Rogues that put on this race, I love the trail network it's held on, but mostly I love the people who run this race. Over the last few years I have had the pleasure of meeting some amazing people that run in this area and every one of them seems to turn out for this event.
Our race plan was to get out fast, get to the spillway before the crowd and then settle in when we got to the single track. We were hoping to cover the first mile in around 8:30, turns out the adrenaline fueled start got us there in about 8:00. Shortly there after, we turned off the road, onto the single track and headed towards the spillway. In the previous years, I have spent up to 10 minutes in the conga line waiting for my chance to descend & ascend the 10' concrete walls that form the spillway. Due to our strategy this year, we were able to head right down, cross, and scamper up the wall on the other side. Perfect. The only fear was going out too fast in the first couple of miles and paying for it later. After crossing the spillway we headed down the jeep road towards the creek, enjoying a more comfortable 9:15 pace.
(photo credit:G. Gallmore)
The first few miles of this race are really great; gentle rolling hills, some single & double track, just great trail running. By mile 7 we had arrived at the aid station and grabbed some water, this was a walking stop, no need to dilly-dally. Tom & I had discussed beforehand the purpose of the day; we were here to race. The typical chatter was missing from our early morning routine. We were both working a little harder than normal, Tom even more so. As we were on the 1.5 mile cross country run towards the gas lines, I checked in with Tom to see how he was feeling. He told me he was having trouble keeping his heart rate in check. We decided to walk for 2 minutes, to try and drop it under control. It's better to give up 2 minutes early, than to blow up and give up an hour or two at the end of the day. As we turned up the jeep road and began the first true climb of the day, I noticed that Tom was struggling to keep up. I dropped my pace a little to keep him in sight, but he didn't seem to have that extra gear. I had to make a decision - stay and wait, or go and race. We were racing today and I had to go. I turned back and gave Tom a head nod and left. I was hoping he'd work through the issues and bounce back.
My first trip through the gas lines was uneventful. The morning air was cool and I didn't feel the effort too much. In preparation for Barkley, I've done a lot of climbing this year. So, even though I am not fully recovered from Barkley, my legs were able to move me through this section pretty easily. Learning from past experience here, I knew not to push too hard, otherwise I would pay dearly on the 2nd loop. It wasn't long before the gas lines were complete and I was on the mile long, out and back, trail to the school aid station. This is the best part of the day, you get to see everyone that is ahead and behind you. I get such a rush from seeing everybody I know and everyone cheers each other on. This is hands down the best part of trail running. I've never experienced this during a road race. On my way back from the school aid station, I passed Tom, he was probably 10-15 minutes behind me, but was looking like he might have bounced back. Only later did I learn he was really struggling.
Down the sun exposed power lines, back to the park, up Jack's Hill - the next thing I knew I was circling the lake and approaching the creek crossing at the completion of my first loop. At about 3:10 into the race, I was a tad slower on this loop than last year. I was hoping that would help me run close to even splits this year.(last year my 2nd loop was almost an hour slower than my 1st loop).
(Photo Credit: J. Sutton)
(Photo Credit: C. Griffith, x2)
Crossing back across the creek, I began my 2nd loop. I was really beginning to feel the effort of the day. My pace was rising about a minute a mile and I was taking a few walking breaks. I ran 4 of the 5 miles to the tributary aid station by myself, not seeing a single runner. This was without a doubt, the low point of my day. All of this time by myself, thinking about my conditioning, wondering if I belonged out there. These mental demons hit everyone, from the elite to the back of the packers. I was not immune, the difference is that I know how to deal with them better now than before. I divided the remaining trail into sections and calmly worked through them. Before long I had caught sight of a runner ahead and began to reel him in. Lance, from Atlanta, was running his first ultra. We began chatting and getting to know each other a little and before I knew it, we had covered 3 miles to the base of the gas lines. Not knowing if we'd stick together much longer, I thanked him for running with me and helping me get through that low spot. We worked through the gas lines together, passing a couple of runners. "Oxford" was ahead of us and we were gaining. At the top of one climb, I yelled to him, "Oxford, I'm coming for your ass!" He'd look back and said, "This sucks!" Eventually we caught him and he ran with us for a while. Finally, the last mega climb behind us, we were heading to the top of the world on the out & back section.
I really needed the out and back section to the school. I was reenergized by seeing everyone on the traill and I knew when I got to the school that I only had an hour left before the race was over. I had been picking off runners one by one and I think I had moved up 15-20 places on the 2nd loop. My goal of 6:20 was out of the question, but I though I had a shot at beating last year's time and cracking the top 50. Lance & I passed a few more guys on the way to the power lines. It was here he stopped for a bio break, I pulled ahead and didn't see him until the finish. Sorry bro, we were racing, I couldn't stop for a pit stop that late into the day.
The last climb up Jack's Hill was a real grind, "nature's stairmill", Jack's Hill sucks! It bends slightly to the right, so you can never really see the end of it, it just keeps going up! Finally, getting to the last aid station, I grabbed a quick water refill and passed through, no sense in hanging out, the finish line was 2 miles away. I was crashing badly and popping gels and candy like it was my job. My mantra for those last two miles were simple, "You quit at Barkley, don't quit here." While that mantra wasn't completely true, it helped me hang on. The last two miles are mostly downhill, on gently winding trail, I was strugglingto keep an 11:00 pace. I. was. toast. Finally, I rounded the corner and all that seperated me from the finish line was a 1/4 mile, uphill road section. Tom & his kids were waiting for me at the top of the hill; he'd had a rough day and dropped at the water crossing. They ran me in and I crossed the finish line at 6:40:01. 2 minute Sweetwater PR, good enough for 53rd place out of about 240 starters.
Thank you to all of the wonderful volunteers! This race is amazing, simply because of all of the wonderful people who give up their Saturday to come out and support us runners. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you! Mad props to Johnny B., for putting on another great race. Seriously, if you live in the southeast and have not run this race, you are doing something wrong!