Like I said though, this was different.
As I stood alone in the pre-dawn darkness at the race venue, I stood there staring at the Start/Finish banner now stretched across the trail, and my mind just kept going back to October 18, 2011. It was on that day, on a morning much like this, that I stood on the front side of the Pine Mountain trailhead, awaiting the 50 mile journey of the North Face Endurance Challenge. You already know how that day turned out; how my race plan fell apart and so did I. How I looked the Mollyhugger aid station Captain in the eye and said "I'm done". Everything that has occurred to bring me to this day, began on THAT day. Quitting just plain hurts, and today was my chance for redemption.
Chris Rodatz, the Race Director, gave a pre-race briefing at 6:30am, and the gun sounded at 7am. The race was now underway, and all of the nervous energy I had been storing now finally had an outlet to escape through.
The first section of the trail is a 1.78 mile out and back. This nearly 4 miles moved along fine, but there was definitely some congestion amongst the 226+ runners sharing the path. We progressed into the woods after this point, and the pack of runners began to thin as some of the rabbits starting pushing the pace at the front of the pack. I had slipped into a group of about 12 fellow runners, but was primarily running with a guy I met via the Facebook page I set up for the event. Tim was chasing his first 50 miler today, and I had planned on tagging with him for at least the first 25 miles of the race. Knowing that I was going to be running in the woods for at least 12 - 16 hours today made the thought of having a running companion that much more appealing. The time just goes so much faster when you've got someone to talk to on the trail.
As we entered the woods around Mile 7, the footing became a bit more tricky. I wouldn't call the terrain overly technical, but there were enough roots and rocks buried beneath the leaves to make attention a requirement. Having said that, however, I don't think I recall a single face plant all day long. That's pretty unusual for an ultra.
I have forgotten to mention the current weather situation for the race, sorry. Up to this point, there was considerable cloud cover throughout. The temperature was hovering somewhere around 60 degrees or so, and the humidity was definitely on the higher side of the scale, due to the rains that had preceeded us on the days leading up to the race. Admittedly, this is far warmer and more humid than what I would traditionally consider "optimal ultra weather" for a race. Ideally, 40 degrees with zero humidity is optimal. Getting up near 60 degrees can begin to cause issues for runners. If the sun breaks through the heavy cloud cover, all bets are off, and runners will begin to drop like flies. It's just that simple.
The first 25 miles of the race progressed without much issue. The clouds remained in place, and the tree canopy was present for most of the race course. The occassional bit of exposure was not a big deal since the sun was obscurred by the clouds.
I had been religiously following my race plan for the aid stations. From the beginning, I was eating at every aid station (bordering on eating TOO much, actually), filling my bottles, and thanking the volunteers. I was wearing the Ultimate Direction Katoa II waist pack, which contains two 22oz handheld bottles. Here's one thing I didn't care for with the race: the official electrolyte replacement drink. Because Hammer Nutrition is a big sponsor for the race, HEED was the drink on the course. Now, HEED is not my favorite drink by a long shot. Not even close. On race day, I couldn't stomach a single cup of it. Because of this, I elected to only use water in my handhelds and rely on S-Caps for sodium replacement on the run. I've never relied solely on water during a race before, so this was a departure from training, which is a no-no. From PBJ sandwiches, potatoes, cookies, gels, etc., I worked each aid station for the 250-300 calories per hour I knew I needed to keep my energy levels sustained, and this worked very well.
Moving into the 40's, I continued to make full use of the aid stations and my S-Caps. I also was religious in drinking my bottles in between aids. At this point, I had been running for 7-8 hours, and there were a few stretches of trail in which I got tired of the aid station food that was offered. It was at this point that my drop bags saved the day. In an ultra, it's extremely important that you utilize your drop bags as a "mini-grocery store" of your favorite nutritional aids. At some point in a race, you're going to get tired of pbj sandwiches, pringles, cookies, and M&M's. It's at that point that you need to be able to hit a drop bag and pull out whatever food works well for you. I only had to do it twice, but my drop bags really came through for me by allowing me to not break my stride in calorie replenishment. If there is a lesson to be learned from this race report, let this be it.
Nearing the 50 mile mark, I knew that I would be dropping my running pal, Tim. He was completing his first 50 miler and was experiencing some cramping issues in the process. It was still daylight, but I knew darkness was soon coming, and I couldn't wait for it to get here. Remember, I train almost exclusively around the midnight hours, so darkness is something I'm well used to running in. Also, the temps and humidity moderate when the sun goes down. Thirdly, I just think it's cool running through the woods at nighttime. Weird? Probably.
Tim finished the 50 miler strong and I'm really glad I was able to spend time with him on the trail. Good conversation made 50 miles seem alot more like 20, and I'm extremely grateful for the company along the way. As he crossed the Finish line, I stopped at the aid station and the volunteers re-filled my bottles. By this time, it was completely dark so I picked up my headlamp from my drop bag. After grabbing some food from the aid, I headed down the trail for the 4 mile turnaround section that would bring me back to this aid station and then out into the darkness of the wildnerness for the remaining 12 miles. 2 miles into this journey, I realized that the majority of runners had already either dropped, dropped down to the 50 miler and finished, or were on the entire opposite side of the course than was I. I saw a headlamp occassionally, but was completely alone for a few hours.
Miles 50-54 went by smoothly. Physically, I felt fine. My legs weren't very sore, I didn't have any lingering fatigue that was noticeable, and my feet were holding up as well. I'll certainly admit that the countless thousands of footsteps were making my feet feel beat up to a degree, but I didn't have any overt pain anywhere. This surprised me, to be completely honest. At mile 54, I reached an aid station and once again had my bottles re-filled. I have still been taking my S-Caps, so I had no cramping at all. The nice lady volunteer at this aid was extremely helpful and asked if she could get me anything. I said to her that I couldn't think of anything but that I was going to borrow a chair and change my shoes. While I sat down, I'll never forget her asking me if I would like some chicken noodle soup. Chicken noodle is a staple of middle-of-the-night ultra running and it seems to have the magical ability to revive a weary runner.
I cruised up the trail and into the woods and saw even fewer runners than before. Every 30 minutes or so, I would see a sole headlamp coming slowly toward me. By this stage in the race, I knew I would finish and that the buckle was mine. I also knew that running in the completely dark woods is a bit more tricky in terms of footing, so I slowed down and took a tremendous amount of care with foot placement. After about 60 minutes, I reached the aid station near the 100k turnaround point. I'm not going to go into much detail on this one, but these two gentlemen had cooked up two huge pots of shrimp gumbo and lentil soup. In the middle of the woods, in complete utter darkness (aside from the generator-fed lights that illuminated the aid station). I graciously accepted a cup of shrimp gumbo and took it with me down the trail toward the 100k turnaround at .3 mile further. On my inbound return to that aid, I received a cup of lentil soup as I left and filled one of my 22oz bottles with Coke. Time for the jet fuel to bring me the remaining miles to the finish.
With about 4 miles left, I pulled out my cellphone from the side pouch of my Katoa II hydration pack and called my wife to let her know I was inbound and about an hour from the finish. It was great to hear her voice and know that this was about to reach its climax. Having been on the trial since pre-dawn, I can honestly say I was looking forward to just being with her and our sons and just relaxing the remainder of the weekend. It's getting closer with each step I take....
I pass a handful of 100 milers on their 3rd outbound loop through the woods and they're definitely feeling the miles. Most are lucid, but several are pretty close to comatose. I encourage them as best I can, and continue to move toward the Finish. As I finally break from the trail at Mile 65.3, I begin to hear faint music and cheering in the distance. I pick up my pace and start to make quicker progress. Over the horizon, I see a headlamp pointing in my direction, yet it doesn't appear to be moving closer. As I get closer, I get a phone call from one of our sons and he says "we see you". Within moments, I come across them waiting on the trail, camera in hand. I get a sweaty kiss from my wife and we take a couple of dark-as-night photos with my sons. At this point, I turn to my wife and say "I'm going to run this one on in". And that's what I do.
As I ran that final .1 of a mile, I began to enter into the habitated tent-village of a Finish area and people along the sides of the trail began to hoop and clap. Many, many enthusiastic supporters clapping and shouting encouragement and congratulations to me as I ran by. Such a great community the ultra crowd is. With 30 yards remaining to the Finish line, I pass by the final aid station where the RD is sitting, and I yell "Runner 121 INBOUND!!!!" and with that, cross the Finish line with a shout and a fist pump, having reached a goal that was 4 months and nearly 1,000 miles in the making. Sweaty hugs with my family, some Finish line photos by my wife, and Chris, the RD, handed me my buckle and said "Congratulations. Nice, nice race"
I couldn't have agreed more.
A nice, nice race indeed.