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McKay Hollow Madness 25K Race Report: The Cost Of Speed

Before I ran my first trail marathon in 2012 I looked up and read as many race reports from that race as humanly possible. I just assumed everyone writing those reports I found were badass superstars because…who else writes race reports? But here I sit, writing yet another race report, wearing fuzzy brown house shoes and doing a load of laundry and writing my grocery list and I think…if someone finds this race report will they mistakingly think I am a badass? Should I add a disclaimer? PLEASE NOTE: WRITER IS A BORING ASS, DO NOT MISTAKE HER FOR A BADASS.

But, you know, if I’m not comparing myself to my fast and fierce friends…if I’m just comparing myself to myself of 2012? I am a badass. It’s all relative, right? I mean, I was pretty badass after my first 5K considering I had never done that before. I was badass when I did my first burpee or my first hill repeat. Anytime you push yourself physically beyond where you were before? You are a badass. We should all own our badass-ness, dammit.

So – let’s chunk that disclaimer. If you ended up here googling for McKay Hollow race reports? THEN PLEASE KNOW: I AM A BADASS.

I did the McKay Hollow Madness 25K yesterday for the third time. When I ran this in 2012, it was my first ever trail race and my first time successfully running a distance longer than a half-marathon. I just looked it up and my first year’s time was 4:26 (which is MUCH better than I remember, I thought I came in closer to 5 hours my first year) and last year was 4:18. This year? I just wanted to PR. I’ve PR’d everything this year as I’ve gotten a bit faster so I had a long-shot hope of coming in under 4 hours. BUT – last year’s 4:18 nearly killed me, I felt like I left it all out on the course. And that was the start of my upswing of my speed (I PR’d Cotton Row 2 months later) so I wasn’t sure if I could get much faster than that. Also? Course changes this year! A bit more elevation gain! Mandatory Sharpie use as proof you went the right way! All of these things were going to make the race harder, so I really just settled in on coming in faster than 4:18, pushing that sub-4 goal a bit out of reach.

As always thanks to Gregg Gelmis of We Run Huntsville for the photo. I think I’m in the back of the pack which means me and Eric Charette – the overall winner – are in the same race photo. That will never happen again.

This is the shot from the opening stretch of the race. It starts out on the road which is a GREAT way for a trail race of this severity to start out because it gives everyone a stretch to get in a good placement before hitting some of the single-track trails. (Single track = One person wide and therefore difficult for passing.) I love this photo so much. The race had about 150 participants I think, it’s small and very local, but it’s loved by almost everyone who does it. People love repeating this one. It’s insane and amazing and most of those people in that picture are my friends.

As always, thanks to Gregg Gelmis of We Run Huntsville for these photos.

I take downhills faster than someone of my speed. Normally I’m a back-of-the-pack runner but I am getting really good at downhills which tends to put me in the FRONT of the back of the pack. I try to keep that in mind as we work our way to the first major decent, but I still ended up in a walking traffic jam. Even with the road and a bit of trail before the decent, it seems to always back up on Sinks. I’m starting to wonder – three years in – if maybe that happens with EVERYONE except the very front elite pack. Because I was in a fast pack, and people were still walking, so I think I just need to always factor that into my McKay experience. My trip down Sinks will take longer than a normal day because of the traffic and I just need to plan to make that up later.

(Which is basically what happened.)

In order to facilitate a PR I thought I needed to really try to run SOME of the uphills. It’s funny, on trails I kill the downhills and struggle on the uphills. I’m JUST the opposite on the road. So, the first major uphill (Panther Knob) I actually ran for the FIRST TIME EVER and I felt really proud of myself. I got stuck in some traffic again that slowed me down in places where I couldn’t pass, but I was very proud and how many people I was able to pass going uphill. That NEVER happens.

The first 5-mile segment has two major stretches of uphill and I ran most of the first but walked most of the second. The second stretch up Warpath is longer and steeper but it’s right before the first aid stop, so walking it still kept me on target. Having run the first uphill stretch I was already going to be on track faster than last year, and I was. I rolled in at the first aid stop at 1:06. I was also surrounded by several friends who are faster than me on trails so I was happy I was sticking with them. I knew it wouldn’t last long, but the longer I stayed with them the better my chances for a PR.

As always, thanks to Gregg Gelmis of We Run Huntsville for these photos.

I was able to run a good chunk of the next downhill (Rest Shelter/McKay) which felt GREAT. I love the downhills on the mountain, Rest Shelter is one of my favorite. I did well for awhile, but there’s a kind long stretch of trails where I started feeling zapped.

But THIS is what I had to keep reminding myself: Speed comes at a cost. It is NOT free. I could stay a happy runner at every race and just take it easy and I would STILL have loads to be proud of. I could make everything like an easy training run and smile and have fun and never feel too winded or out of breath. And I would still be happy and proud. But – if I wanted to be faster? To PR? To beat goals? It would NOT be easy, and this is a HUGE mindshift for me. I like running because it makes me happy, to intentionally make myself kinda miserable? Goes against most of my running mantras.

This stretch of rolling trail was tough because I just was never able to get my heart rate stable. I was trying to push myself more to threshhold, forcing myself to be miserable more often for the trade-off of time, but I was also trying to get my heartrate back to a steady push point after the uphills. On this stretch of rollers it was getting hard to do, I was having to walk or REALLY slow down on some of the shorter uphills, just to give my heartrate time to get back down. It was tough because I was trying to find that line where pushing Misery For Speed starts to backfire and cause negative returns. That line is a VERY real thing and every runner has crossed it before trying to PR a race. Where you push yourself too hard and you end up doing more damage in the form of cramps or bonking or something.

So, I was really trying to focus on my body. Asking myself: How miserable am I? Do I push harder? Push the same? Or let off a bit?

I was still on track to come in under 4 hours, but the course changes were coming up and I didn’t know how that would slow me down.

As always thanks to Gregg Gelmis of We Run Huntsville for the photos.

We came to my LEAST favorite part of the course – the hike up Natural Well and it hit me HARD. (That is Natural Well from above in the photo there.) It always kills me, but I knew this time that the first course change would come soon after and I was kinda dreading it since the hike up was basically depleting me of ALL my energy. I was worried I was going to crash, to discover I had no energy left to make it to the next aid station at mile 10, much less to the finish.

But, the new climb on the course change was another hand-over-foot part and it was kinda exciting! We were basically following flags, there was no trail, until BAM! The wall of Sharpies was there for us to mark our bibs that we had survived.

As always thanks to Gregg Gelmis of We Run Huntsville for the photos

Immediately after the marker station we hit a trail and a bit of a downhill and I was able to get my run on again. I started feeling MUCH better as that first course change wasn’t as dreadful as I had prepared for. I know the next stretch quite well so I was able to make up a good chunk of time. I hoped that if I came in to the 10-mile aid station by 2:30, my sub-4hr finish was still within sight. I ran a lot more of the rocky trails ahead that I normally run, I was feeling great.

This photo was taken by local trail runner/photographer David Collins, right before the second aid station.
This photo was taken by local trail runner/photographer David Collins, right before the second aid station.

I rolled into that second aid station at around 2:20. I paused and chugged two glasses of gatorade because I was getting SO HOT. It was probably only 60 then, but some parts of the Hollow do not get breezes and I was drinking way more water than normal. I decided I need to really get some electrolytes in me for the final push. I was able to run just a tiny bit, but I actually did a bit of walking on the next stretch, trying to eat my sandwich and gear up for some of the toughest trails coming up. I knew it would be muddy and tough and wanted to make sure I pushed it when I could. I made it around the second course change, no problem, and to the second set of Sharpies.

As Always thanks to Gregg Gelmis of We Run Huntsville for the photos

Once we made it back on the regular course I still walked a bit (it’s a gradual uphill and very rocky I was REALLY feeling zapped) but tried to jog periodically just to make me feel better. But, mainly I knew I could crush the next mile stretch of downhill to make up for it. Which is EXACTLY what I did. I got to the Arrowhead trail, and I felt great, ran that stretch harder than I’ve ever run it before. I knew kinda what my goal was, to get to the bottom of Death Trail by 3:30. I thought it probably took me about 30 minutes to get up Death Trail, but I wasn’t positive.

We got to the last Sharpie Station at the base of one of the suckiest climbs (short but steep) on the course. When the trail flattened out again I started jogging and once again entered that phase: How Hard Do I Push? How miserable do I make myself before it gets counter-productive? I was really struggling because the heat (it was, like 60, but I’m a big wuss about heat and running) and the mud was really wearing me down. Even though the course was in GREAT shape compared to how wet and muddy it can get, that portion had already been trampled by 80 people before me, so it was SLOPPY. But – I grouped up with some local running friends and I let them push me some. One of them assured me I only needed 20 minutes to get up Death Trail. I kept looking at my watch and thinking, “I think we’re going to make it…” I was REALLY trying to push but it was hard. Sometimes a fast walk was all I could muster but I was digging deep.

I got to the bottom of Death Trail at 3:35. That gave me 25 minutes to get up Death Trail and make it to the finish. This was the point where I just keep repeating, “Relentless Forward Progress” over and over. This portion is the toughest of the course, you have to hand-over-foot most of it, but the finish line is at the top. I just kept moving forward. Every time I had to climb using my hands I kinda paused on all fours to catch my breath. But I kept pushing, eyes on the prize, a sub-4 hour finish.

I know this trail well enough to know what’s coming and I really knew I was going to make my time. I got to the last stretch that you can run and I started running it, just in time to see my friends on the bluff.

As always - thanks to Gregg Gelmis of We Run Huntsville for the photos. (This one doesn't have the logo because I purchased it! I love it so much!)
As always – thanks to Gregg Gelmis of We Run Huntsville for the photos. (This one doesn’t have the logo because I purchased it! I love it so much!)

Here’s the problem though. If you’re are THAT spent and then you push hard at the end, especially on an uphill in the heat? Your quads get ANGRY. I started feeling them cramping as I was making my way over the waterfall and the jog to the finish line became a hobble as I tried my best to stay upright to the finish. My quads were SO TIGHT and I was in SO MUCH PAIN but I could see that clock said 3:56 and I thought I GOT THIS! so I pushed with all I had to the finish and then IMMEDIATELY collapsed off to the side of the finishing chute.

I couldn’t even stand up my quads were on FIRE. I asked a friend to bring me some Gatorade and chugged it like it was holy water. Took me probably 15 minutes to loosen up but the Gatorade worked like a charm. Leg cramps are NO JOKE, y’all. And everyone was having problems yesterday, I’m just glad mine waited until the end!

All in all it was a great day. I still have a hard time believing when I PR because I never look back on a race and think that I left that much room for improvement. I know I’ve gotten a lot faster this year, and I’ve lost a little bit of weight, but still…I really thought the sub-4 hour goal was too lofty.

If you’re keeping track at home, that’s THREE PR weekends in a row. I got 52 miles at Delano (only got 42 last year), I PR’d my 10-miler last weekend, cutting of 3 minutes from my previous time, and then I PR’d this weekend. My REAL PR goal race for the year is next weekend when I’m hoping to break my 3-year old 13.1 PR of 2:07 with a 2:05. I hope my streak continues, because that’s the one I’ve REALLY been wanting to hit. (I ran my 10-miler at 15 seconds/minute faster than I’ll need to do the 13.1 so I’m hoping that pays off.)

Here’s to learning that Speed is not easy. It’s also not required. I still do plenty of races just for fun because if I ran every race for time I’d start to hate running. I think learning where that line is – the line that divides Productive Misery from Unproductive Misery – is important for every runner. Sometimes I hit on the wrong side of that line, but yesterday I pushed JUST hard enough to make my goal, but not too hard to backfire completely as I’ve done before.

And for those of you who like this kind of information – one of the planners of the course yesterday gave us his data:

I measured about 2600′ on my Garmin Fenix which has altimeter corrected GPS. So only 1000′ less climb than Mist in half the distance! MHM is a beast!

“Mist” which he references is the 50K I hope to do next year. I’ve never felt confident enough to sign up, but it’s going to be my 2015 goal so knowing that the elevation might be spread out a little more than yesterday’s race gives me a bit of hope that maybe I can make the cutoffs.

Getting faster is not a requirement for running. But finding out you can be faster is a huge confidence boost. I think that’s why I still choose races I want to try to improve at, because that feeling of realizing you can do better? Is just hard to replicate in any other way. But with running? I can strive for improvement in many ways, and when I meet those goals? It’s just a concrete reminder that sometimes you’re more badass than you realized.

And ANYONE who finishes the McKay Hollow 25K course is a badass. I think that’s why it gets so many repeat runners, we all love it even though it’s so hard. You cross that finish line and no matter what your time, you still look at what you did and think: DAMN, I AM AWESOME.

Or at least you SHOULD. If you don’t? You and I need to have a talk.

4 thoughts on “McKay Hollow Madness 25K Race Report: The Cost Of Speed”

  1. SISTER!!!! You are more than words can express. So much fun to read the details and description of your day. As always, even though we are not there… We are ALWAYS with you in heart and cheering so loud!! Love that you are sharing your experience of running through pain. (Applicable on so many levels…even tho I’m not a runner!) Way to go on your freaking PR streak.

  2. I just wanted to let you know that I love that you are smiling in every picture!!! You are awesome, don’t ever doubt that.

  3. Some days i really wished i lived in knoxville, so you could talk me into trail running… Sounds really lovely.

  4. You are a freaking beast. I loved the beginning and the part where you talked about productive misery– that is so totally spot on! I feel so thankful to have had a training buddy like you. Congratulations on a freaking AWESOME performance. You rock.

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