|The Louisiana crew including Will Sprouse, but missing David. Sam (far right) and David would prove to be the only two from our group to cross the finish line this year.
When watching the extended weather forecast in advance of the race, the high temperatures went from 50's to 60's and finally settling into the upper 70's, with the overnight low being 58 degrees. Much warmer than is ideal for a race of this distance, and considering the accompanying high humidity, it made for a steamy day. By the time I reached the first aid station about 6 miles in, I was already drenched with sweat and I would stay that way for the entire race.
In the race description, the first 40 miles are described as "rolling hills" with the larger climbs being on the second half of the race. Well, sorta. The first 40 miles actually has more than half of the elevation gain of the entire course. That would have been good information to know going into the event. For my friends familiar with Eagle Rock loop in Arkansas, the "rolling hills" in the first 40 miles are similar to the climbs on that trail. Some of the climbs are long and steep - on one of the first climbs, there were a few runners, myself included, who had to stop half way up to catch our breath and wrap our brains around the rest of the climb. Rolling hills. This was also the section where I saw incredibly fit people having their hands pushing down on their knees to help them in the climb. Rolling hills. The most common quote heard on that sections was some variation of "Rolling hills my ass".
|First 40 looks pretty tame, doesn't it?
BUT - this was an incredibly beautiful section as well. The climbs were rewarded by views of hillsides covered by vivid fall colors. One view, in particular, was right after you rounded a corner on a climb and it completely took the little breath I had away. It was stunning and it looked like the hillside was on fire with color. When another runner rounded the corner behind me, he let out a loud "Woop" when he saw it, and all I could do was smile.
|Not my picture, but this is Mt. Cheaha. The colors are much more vibrant in person.
As I mentioned before, the temperature was a real issue during the race. With the temps and humidity, the race staff was not quite as prepared as they could have been for how much fluid the runners would require. There were a few aid stations that ran out of different types of drinks (Coke, Ginger Ale - both important during ultras for settling sour stomachs), and by the time the later runners went through, some were out of water as well. I suspect this might have been partially responsible for some of the carnage that I saw at the aid stations and along the trail - runners vomiting, full body cramps, etc. Over the 10 year history of this race, this is the second hot year, and I think it caught the organizers by surprise.
Despite the lack of fluids at some of the aid stations, the volunteers for this race were incredible. The BUTS (Birmingham Ultra Trail Society, or something like that) group at mile 27 were the all out winners in my book. You could hear their aid station before you saw it - or should I say, you could hear very loud Jimmy Hendrix music filling the woods well before you could see the aid station. It was so welcome, as their aid station came right in the hottest part of the day. Just before their aid station was a gorgeous waterfall. I stopped with a couple of other runners for a second to enjoy the view, then started the climb up to the aid station. This climb was made immensely more pleasant after crossing runners who were leaving the aid station with popsicles in their hands. As hot as we were, this was a much needed boost.
Leaving the BUTS aid station, I knew I only had a half marathon to run before I could pick up my first pacer, Kelly. Usually during a 100, I don't pick up a pacer until 60 miles or so, and I was a little concerned that I wouldn't be ready for company that soon. On this day though, I was counting down the aid stations until I would get to have someone to keep me company. On this day, the plan was to get Kelly from mile 40 - 65 and Fawn from 65 to the finish. The other runners that I was meeting were fighting their own demons with the tough conditions, so someone with a fresh attitude would be very welcome.
|So happy to have company for the night time portion of the race!
At this race, you can pick up a pacer at mile 40, at the top of Bald Rock (or Mt. Cheaha, the highest point in Alabama). According to the elevation profile of the course, this appeared to be the steepest climb of the race. After some of the climbs that we had already done to get to this point, the climb up Bald Rock was not anything new. Yes, there were rocky sections as you approached the top, and yes it was steep, but at that point it was just more of the same. Knowing that I would get to see my crew at the top was all the motivation I needed to get to the top of the mountain. Randy, Kelly, Fawn and Justin had given up their weekend to come out to Pinhoti to support me and the other Louisiana runners there, and words can not express how grateful I am for each of them.
This was a critical aid station for a few reasons - it was the last one I would see during the daylight - so it was time to don my headlamp. It was also near the halfway point so it was time to do a little housekeeping - change out of my soaked shirt to put on a fresh one (which would also be soaked with sweat within a few miles, but still worth it), put on dry socks (my feet had been soaked from water crossings within the first 5 miles of the race, and would be soaked again from water crossings soon after changing, but again, still worth it), reapply lube to any place that might have friction to avoid chafing (TOTALLY worth it!), visit the restroom (the only one on the trail other than the start line (except for the woods - natures restroom), and take in some much needed calories to get me through a night of running. Thankfully, this aid station was very well stocked, so I took advantage of it by enjoying some chicken noodle soup, some coke and grabbing a couple of cookies for the road, or trail as it was.
So, Randy helped get me ready and restocked and Kelly and I took off towards Blue Hell - the infamous descent down Mt Cheaha. Evidently this section is well known for not being well marked and it being easy to get off trail and lost, because numerous people warned us about it, so we were going to be extra attentive in looking for the course markings.
|To give you an idea of what Blue Hell looks like in the daytime. Not sure if he is running or in the process of falling.
Kelly and I get into the line of runners heading down Blue Hell. Since it is such a steep descent, I wasn't comfortable having runners right behind me, so I told Kelly to pull aside and let them pass us so we could take our time. Once everyone passed, we started our descent behind an older gentleman named Ed. Ed was also taking his time on this tough section because he didn't want to "fall and crack my skull open" - I had to agree with him there. At this point, my legs were feeling the fatigue and I didn't completely trust them so I went down a good portion of Blue Hell by scooting on my butt. We hiked, tiptoed, scooted down Blue Hell behind Ed until he mentioned that it had been a while since he had seen a flag. At this point we all realized that we were so focused on avoiding grave bodily injury that we had also lost sight of the course markings. Insert foul language here.
We all agreed that one way or another we had to get down, so we decided to continue our descent and look for flags around the bottom. Bad idea. When we got to the bottom, we looked and found nothing. Kelly climbed the hill to the right to look over it for flags, nothing. Ed yelled "Hello" ... nothing. This is when Ed decided to climb back up and try to find where we lost the flags, and Kelly called Fawn (for some crazy reason, we had coverage) and had her text us the coordinates to the next aid station. Worst case scenario, we could hike through the woods in the direction of the aid station and hopefully stumble upon the trail.
After a few slips on the steep climb, giving us all a scare, Ed saw a headlight approaching and yelled at the runner, getting him to stop. He yelled back down to us that he found someone, so we started climbing in that direction. It looked something like this:
|Clearly not me, but this is some other dude climbing up Blue Hell. He got this treat in the daytime.
This was a big mental hit for me. I started the race conservatively as planned, and slowly gained time to put myself right at my 26 hour pace that I was aiming for. This little detour caused me to start thinking too much: How much time had we spent down there? How much energy had I wasted worrying about whether we would find our way out any time soon? What toll would the extra effort take out of me?
We made it to the top, all along the climb begging the other runner and Ed not to leave us there. Of course they wouldn't have, but it seemed important at the time to emphasize the point.
Once we were off of Mt Cheaha, and on a jeep road section, we were able to laugh at what had just happened, and head to the next aid station where Randy was waiting. When I got there, Randy told me that I had 30 minutes to get out of that aid station to stay ahead of the cut off. I never take more than 5 minutes in an aid station except for major maintenance, and then no more than 10 - 15 minutes, so that wasn't going to be a problem, but it made that concern that was in the back of my mind come into full focus. Now, I was no longer pushing forward to get back to my 26 hour pace, I felt like I was being chased by the clock, and I didn't like it.
Kelly and I scooted out of there in plenty of time and headed to the next aid station which was just shy of 7 miles away. The Hubbard Creek aid station folks are famous for their hospitality and making their aid station a little too comfortable for the runners. They consist of mainly Boy Scout parents. Years ago, the RD was looking for volunteers to work his aid stations, so he enlisted the help of the scouts. The Scoutmaster requested the most remote aid station possible to turn this into a camping experience as well as a community service project for the boys. Well, fast forward a few years and the scouts have all aged out of the program, but the parents have so much fun volunteering to help out the runners, they have continued the tradition and added a few friends to the mix along the way. And they had a pizza oven and full bar. Seriously.
The section heading into Hubbard Creek is a tricky one for footing - narrow, technical trail with a big drop off to reward any missteps. I knew we were losing time here because my legs were heavy and my footsteps were clumsy - and this combination on this particular section of the trail was making me nervous about serious injury. At one point, I planted my foot on a smooth rock on the trail and slipped, grabbing on to the hillside by the roots sticking out of it, all the while making up new curse words and creating new ways to use old ones. Once I got my legs back under me, I looked up at Kelly and said something profoundly poetic like, "F this race and F this trail, I'm done". And with that, the decision was made. Well, mostly. Kelly spent the next few miles trying to talk me into continuing, even though we knew at the next aid station we would now only be 10 minutes ahead of the cutoff.
This is where I have to give big props to Kelly. She did a solid job as a pacer. She kept up the conversation, made me laugh, and kept us moving forward at a good pace. It really was great to have her out there, and it was also good that she knows me well enough to know when to respect the decision I have made. Kelly is a solid friend to have. (And she LOVES the word moist. Next time you are around her, be sure to work it into the conversation.)
By the time we pulled into the aid station, I was comfortable with my decision to drop. With only a 10 minute lead on the cutoff and the largest climb ahead of me, I figured timing out (missing the cutoff) of this race was inevitable at some point, so I may as well live to fight another day. I declined the volunteers offer of Fireball, but took them up on the grilled cheese sandwiches and waited for Randy to come pick us up. Not the way I envisioned my race ending, but better than this guy:
|A runner at Hubbard Creek who had been vomiting for the previous 6 hours, and the aid station nurse, Jaycee, keeping watch over him.
I leave you with a few things that experience has taught me that may or may not resonate with you:
- Someone asked if I was upset about all that wasted training... There is no such thing as wasted training. I am not training for one race, but for life. I want to be fit and healthy enough to jump into any cool adventure that might come along. Every mile run and parking tower climbed brought me to a better understanding of my mind and body, and deepened the relationships with the people I shared them with. No such thing as wasted training.
- Someone asked if I would regret dropping...No. I don't spend much time looking backwards. Everything that happens in life happens for a reason, and that reason may not be something I am ever privy to. It could be that through my handling defeat graciously, someone else is encouraged to take a risk of their own... who knows, but no, I don't do regret.
- I am not defined by one thing that I do. It is just one thing that I do. I don't call myself an ultrarunner because it is such a small part of who I am. Because my identity is not closely tied to this one thing, it is easier for me to make objective decisions during a race. I entered this race fully expecting to come home with a buckle - to the extent that I was a little aggravated that I had forgotten my belt at home. Had I packed my belt like I intended, when I returned home yesterday I would have just unpacked it and put it back on the shelf for future use.
It was just a bad day on a tough course. The race had a 45% drop rate, and had half of the sub 24 hour finishers as previous years. Tough day for many well trained athletes, but for the ones who pushed through and were able to finish ... how amazing!! We spent time at the finish line on Sunday waiting for friends to come through and cheering for other runners, and every one of them has my complete respect. Ours is a beautiful sport and every finish line is a testament to the human spirit. The fact that the finish line is not guaranteed is what makes it so glorious when you reach it.
On to the next adventure. Happy Running, Y'all!