Let me start by saying that I have lot of words to say about lots of things relating to yesterday. Those things are all eloquent things like the previous sentence. I think the best way to split up everything, however, is between the race itself and the Grand Slam adventure as a whole. That means you have TWO long-winded posts to look forward to about running and trails and mud and how happy all of it makes me. CALM DOWN, I KNOW YOU ARE EXCITED.
(Unless otherwise noted, all photos are taken by Gregg Gelmis and We Run Huntsville. They link back to the gallery pages if you wan’t to look at more photos.)
This week saw me with a tough groin strain that seemed to cause me various levels of problems every day. Lucky, I woke up Saturday morning and it felt the best it had felt all week. A little pain with certain, very specific motions, but nothing more. Based on those motions I felt like some of the steep climbs might cause me problems, but that should be it. However, we all had another concern: MUD. Several trails get severely muddy after rain and it had rained all day Friday. Also? Trails not usually muddy can get muddy on a race day when 200-300 people are running over them. So, combine those two facts together and we were all bracing ourselves for a substantial challenge in the trail surface.
WE WERE NOT WRONG.
We got to the lodge and there was a light dusting of snow on the ground and palpable excitement in the air. I peed three times just because I wanted to make sure my bladder was COMPLETELY empty. I have no problem peeing in the woods, but when it’s cold? I’d rather avoid it if possible.
SIDENOTE: I also have no problems with port-o-potties. But this was my first time ever stepping inside of one at a muddy race and when I opened the door and saw the mud on the floor? I almost threw up because my brain’s first thought was not “mud” it was “diarrhea”. BUT IT WAS MUD. (I hope.)
I haven’t run with a GPS in ages but I wasn’t even running with a watch yesterday. I had my phone in a zipper pocket to check at aid stations and that was it. I needed to keep an eye on my progress because I only have about a natural cushion of about 30 minutes from the final checkpoint, and I knew I might lose some of that to the mud. So, if my times/distances are not exact in the upcoming report? That is why.
My plan was just to run based on how I felt. I know the trails, I know my speed on them and how it feels. I was going to run fast/strong on the flats and downhills, but walk/take it easy on the uphills. Spoiler Alert: The plan worked perfectly and I stuck with it all day.
(I thought I’d include a photo of the lead pack of runners so you can see the badasses that show up for the race. I doubt they carried 6 packs of applesauce like I did.)
We did 2-3 miles on the road and wider trails as a means to get the crowd to thin out a bit before the first major descent. This gives you a good chance to find a good place in line before you have to deal with a potential bottleneck downhill. My group did have a bottle neck around two icy/muddy spots on the downhill, but I didn’t stress because it was early in the race and the crowd was running as SOON as it got around the two kinda bad parts, they weren’t walking the whole downhill, so it wasn’t too congested. One girl (I didn’t recognize her, so I’m banking on her not being local) did mutter something about, “We’ve got 30 more miles, we can’t walk at every mud patch…” which definitely sat wrong with me, but I let it slide and tried not to think about it again. I didn’t need that kind of negative energy bringing me down.
I kept a pretty strong pace all the way to the first aid station, making my “A” goal there with 5 minutes to spare. I didn’t want to kill myself banking time early, but if I still wasn’t pushing too hard and could bank some, I knew I’d be glad later when I got to the muddier parts.
The next stop after the first aid station was the trip down Warpath and the top part of the downhill is really technical and it was the first time I thought Oh, man. I’m going to very much prefer uphills to downhills today. And right as I thought that? This guy in front of me bit it and slid about 5 feet downhill in the mud. I like a good downhill and I’m decent at them but even I was a bit gentle on the downhills as it was so muddy and I found myself sliding even on flat ground, without the added pull of gravity.
Once you get past the technical part at the top, though, you get a nice stretch of fast downhill. Of course it was muddy, but not uncrossable. I also learned a valuable lesson I would return to several times, the traction was actually better in the puddles. If there was water on the trail? I stepped into that instead of the mud because the mud would just slide with you.
Once we bottomed out we came to the chunk of miles I was dreading the most: Powerline and K2. I dreaded them partly because that chunk is not accessible during a lot of training season so we don’t really get to train on it, but partly because I knew it would be terrible conditions. The Powerline trail was a huge mess of mud and it would get caked on and it would suck you in and while it SHOULD have been runnable (because other than mud, it’s not too technical) but I wasn’t moving as fast as I had hoped/wanted to be. Then we got to K2 which is – as the name would imply – a very long and very steep uphill. It was probably the lowest I got during the race, although I blamed that partially to hearing a very negative conversation behind me. Again – I didn’t want that kind of energy so I made sure to separate myself as soon as I could.
Once we got on Goat Trail I was in familiar territory again and just pushed through the next 5’ish miles looking forward to getting to the Red Gate at mile 17 which was – in my mind – when the fun started. I made it to the 11-mile aid station 5-10 minutes OVER my “A” goal which got me down for a bit because I had banked 5-minutes on my “A” goal before and it seemed impossible to have already lost that much time. But, I pushed on and tried to push the negative aside. I had some good conversations with friends to pass the time and eventually found myself on the Mountain Mist trail where I knew I’d be seeing Nikki for the first time. My knees were bothering me from sliding around on the mud so much, and because of the periodic negative thoughts, I really hoped that seeing Nikki would give me the boost I needed.
And it did! But it also made me cry like a baby.
At that point I knew I was less than a mile from the Red Gate which was what I was looking forward to. I needed my hydration pack filled and I wanted to see my friends and get started on some of my favorite trails on the mountain. I got there 5 minutes shy of my “A” goal which made me feel a little better. I really had no hope of meeting the “A” goal finish time, I knew there were really bad muddy points on the back half that would slow me down, but I knew the closer I stayed to the “A” goal, the further away I’d be from missing cutoffs.
The people at the aid station filled up my pack and helped me fix my nozzle which I could not get to turn off. Aid station workers at ultras are angels from heaven. And I don’t believe in angels or heaven, but I did yesterday.
I ran with another friend for awhile, which gave nice conversation to get me distracted before I got to my favorite trail: Bluffline. Once we got to Bluffline, I kicked it in. I’ve run that trail a dozen times in the last few weeks, trying to get better at it, and it really paid off yesterday. I felt great coming down the really technical parts that used to slow me down to a crawl. When I got to the next check point I was 10 minutes lower than my “A” goal but still 5-minutes faster than my “B” goal so I was feeling good. The cool thing about this aid stop is that my friend and Nikki were there again! I wasn’t even expecting them. I could hear Nikki cheering before I even got there and I started crying. I gave her a monster hug, grabbed some peanut butter pretzels, took some more ibuprofen and Excederin, and kept going.
I hit Railroad Bed and was still feeling energized. Railroad Bed is another one I run really well so I tried to bank some time there. The only problem is, there’s a few bridges on that trails, and something weird happened: When I took the steps up on the bridge, I started getting twinges of calf cramps.
I get twinges of Quad cramps often, and sometimes the pain brings tears to my eyes, but rarely do I get that in my calves. It was a new ailment I didn’t know how to deal with. I kept running but whenever I hit an incline on the trail, my calves would twinge so I started dialing it back. I was walking all of the “real” uphills but now I started a fast walk/jog even on the slight uphills, trying to keep the cramps at bay. I was only 4 miles from the last checkpoint/cutoff so I needed to just hold steady.
And that worked fine, I was going a little slower than I wanted due to the teaser of calf cramps, but I still was running chunks. And then we started the HUGE hike up Waterline which – eventually – leads to hand-over-foot climbing and a final really steep climb to the top of the trail. The whole way up I felt my calves just teasing cramping and I was getting nervous. When I finally made it to the top of the trail I pushed on the next trail which is mostly a creekbed with a good bit of water in it. At that moment? I took a weird step and then SCREAMED in agony and collapse as my right calf had finally cramped up fully.
I fell in the creek in the middle of the trail and I was so embarrassed. I told everyone, “I’m fine! Don’t fret!” but I was actually blocking the guy behind me because I was in the middle of the trail. He offered to help me up but I knew I couldn’t stand and was trying not to cry so I apologized from blocking his way and just asked him to go around.
I forced myself to stand up and try to walk it out as it loosened up. I was .6 miles from the final cutoff at that point. I needed to push as hard as I could. Unfortunately, that wasn’t very hard because I was terrified of the cramps coming back. I had taken 3 salt pills in the last 2 hours so I didn’t think I needed more salt, but maybe I did.
I got to the final cutoff 5 minutes SLOWER than my “B” goal of a sub-8 hour finish. I asked my friend about the cramps and she told me it probably wouldn’t do any good to take anymore salt. Stay hydrated, stretch, just keep moving.
And that’s what I did.
The last 10K of the course does not have a lot of runnable portions for the average runner. There’s some crazy steep downhill (“Suicide Drop”) there’s a sucky climb (“Crybaby Hill”) and there’s a chunk called “Slush Mile” on a GOOD day, so I knew yesterday it would be TERRIBLE. The steep downhill is called Natural Well and it was a lot muddier than I expected. So there was really steep drops where I would slide on my butt on purpose, but there was also large quantities of mud. The people in front of me were from out of town and thought their chances were pretty good of getting the last 5 miles done in an hour. I hated to be the bearer of bad news. We talked a bit about what was upcoming and they discussed that they sometimes overlook 50Ks as challenging races, sticking mainly to 50-milers. But our race completely changed their mindset on that. “This is harder than several of the 50-milers we’ve done.”
I ran with other friends for awhile during that last 10K and it was nice to have people to commiserate with over my various ailments. I was still running the flats and downhills, but my run was a lot slower. And there were a lot of flats/downhills I just couldn’t run because of the mud. I got to the base of the LAST climb and realized I might could still meet my “B” goal of a sub-8 hour finish. I hiked that uphill as fast as possible. I got passed by two guys on the hill and I yelled at them both saying, “Dammit! There goes someone else after my #344th place finish!” I was trying to stay light and enjoy the experience because it was almost over.
There was a local runner waiting just a hair down from the last aid station. She’s a badass and she recognized me as Grand Slammer. She congratulated me and I started crying. AGAIN. I got to the top at the aid stop and they offered me beer. I almost took them up on it, but was feeling a little queazy and knew I needed to keep it together to try to push that sub 8-hour finish.
I spent the last 1.5’ish miles crying over what I had done. I ran a lot of it, but still walked the inclines because I didn’t want to cramp across the finish line. I could hear Nikki cheering before I even got there. When I rounded the corner and saw all of the people at the finish line I just could not contain my pride or excitement. And the finish line said I was sub-8 hours which made me SO happy. With the trail as sloppy as it was, still hitting my “B” goal was a miracle. Nikki ran with me across the finish line which I didn’t even notice until I crossed and then I hugged her and cried. Some more.
I’m beyond proud. Everyone local who can qualify, should do this race at least once. It’s insane. It’s wonderful. It’s difficult. It’s powerful. I loved every second of it, and even when I was hurting, I never really got in too negative of a headspace. I stayed focused. I trusted my body.
I fell in love with this race yesterday. I already loved the trails…but the course itself, the atmosphere, the other racers, the volunteers, the 31 grueling miles all wrapped into one race day package? THAT – I fell in love with. The tears, the mud, the cramps, it’s all part of a wonderful experience that I wouldn’t trade anything for and it made me committed to the race like I’m committed to donuts. I can’t see my future without the race as a permanent spot on my calendar…just like I can’t see my future without donuts.
That’s how you know it’s true love…when I compare it to donuts.
Bring on Mountain Mist 2016.
And the donuts.