50 mi. “Take a few breaths and keep going.” Maybe let your exhales be heard, I thought, even though no one else was around. I found myself doing this throughout my time on the trails at this year’s North Face Gore Tex 50 mile race. Same venue, FDR State Park in Pine Mountain Georgia, slightly modified to include a new section of trails that had a few paths you could run without rocks and roots. By exhaling and adding a moan, I was trying to relax and recalibrate, loosen up my shoulders and arms, get back into a good running rhythm. It was short term self-help. I could have used a bit more than that, however. This year’s showing wasn’t a great one. I came in ready to run long but not ready for the rigors of all those miles on that course.
The weekend was setup to go well, I flew in to Atlanta with John Friday morning. Great weather and the arrangements went well with flight times, car pickup and our 1 hour drive to Pine Mountain. Also in the Atlanta area this weekend was an electronic dance festival, Tomorrowworld. We saw signs for that, along with ads featuring top DJs. Our hotel was a bit of a dissappointment, as they assigned me a smoking room. This was a problem for John and I, so we went back to the counter and were told to come back when the manager was in, but that’s what room I was assigned to. We went to packet pickup, it was smaller than in years past, and got my bib number, Smartwool socks, a water bottle and some race day printed materials. We confirmed that this was the spot for the Dean Karnazes meet & greet at 6:30. Then we returned to the hotel and spoke with the manager, this was futile. She told me I had signed up for “QQ2,” a smoking room online, the hotel was full and that was all she could do. I argued back, but from a lousy position. Our Days Inn was full, the host hotel was $315 per night and I wasn’t going to spend $600 more dollars over and above this. We took the recommended ZEP smoke free spray, turned up the A/C to it’s highest setting, left the door wide open and let it clear out. I didn’t notice the smell except when you left and returned. Not Ideal, but we made it work.
We ate dinner at Aspen’s Mountain Grille, the favored Friday spot for this race’s dinner. Good chicken salads and nice service convinced us to return here after the race, too. We went back to the room, I got all of my things ready, and slept til the 3:40am wake up. John drove me to the race site and went back to the hotel to sleep. He knew where he could meet up with me along to course. Being that my goal pace was 12+ min per mile, he’d have plenty of time to reposition himself between aid stations as I ran around the State Park. I was slated for a 3rd wave start, I moved up and started second wave figuring it would be best to be behind the faster people than the slower survivors. This year I had a headlamp with new batteries and a bright handheld light, too. That helped me. Wanting to keep a good pace, more of my speed, I thought this would help with the visibility. I struggle running other people’s pace, I catch myself tripping over so many things and running sloppy. It took a few miles to remind myself of this. Also the “trail awareness” necessary to be good at this venue takes awhile to get back. In the first 20 miles, I tripped, fell, ran into things, etc. In the middle miles, I was smoother and aware of what I was doing, with the strength to perform well. During the latter miles I was tired, weaker and succeptible to more ups and downs both mentally and performance-wise.
I ran at what I thought was a good pace for the first 5 miles to the Country Store checkpoint. Wrong. The first 5 miles in 1:07, that’s already behind schedule. The trail gets wider and some people stop at the first aid station, so I hoped for better and some catch up miles ahead. It doesn’t start to get light for at least another hour after the first aid stop, so slower going and careful footsteps through roots and rockfields. I had Carbo Pro in my rear waterbottle and EFS in the handheld container. I took Salt Stick w/caffiene about ever hour. It was cooler out, in the 60s, but I knew to replenish the salts all day, about one pill per 75 minutes. Once the sun came up, I was in a good place to run. I knew and recognized some of the course. One near fall had me galloping downhill, off the path with my hands at my side as I hovered over rocks, roots and tree limbs. I really could’ve messed up my face on that one! I made some mistakes, but in general, I found that I saw the obstaces, but getting my feet to hop over them became a problem. You’d know to lift your feet to avoid something, but some steps my legs made didn’t listen well to the commands I guess. Odd. I went through the next few aid stations, a pee break at one, some newly mixed powder and EFS at others, making good time. I kept the same pace but that pace very early in my day was too slow. I would need to bring significantly more power and trail dexterity to this event to do well. Street and long distance training is not nearly enough.
I saw John at the first stop he could meet me at – Rocky Point, mile 23. I wasn’t too happy with what I did to get there, I started walking up hills I should have run around mile 20. The three miles from 20-23 were very slow. Maybe a change to new shoes and dumping off the headlamp and flashlight would freshen me up. The next section for 15 miles was the new Farm Lake area. The race director promised some horse trails, some climbs and “animal trails.” The watery creek section was also part of this new area, having us finish out at the Tower station. These miles were ok, I wish I felt better to run more of the segments that I found myself walking. I wasn’t nutritionaly spent, my legs had some ankle and right knee pain since I had twisted and folded both ankles a few times. In general, my running was off, only a few times in my day did I feel like it was “me” out running. Sometimes I felt like I was hiking, speedwalking, whatever. Chafing was evident in the Farm Lake section around my upper legs, lats and triceps. The running visor and photochromatic lenses worked really good! Getting one foot submerged at the creek section meant a change back to the Saucony shoes was necessary and desired. Less than 1/2 mile into the new section I noticed the low arch support from the street-friendly Skechers, so I changed back the the Saucony shoes at the 35 mile Tower station.
With 15 miles to go from the Tower station, I had some highs and lows. Orange peels were my food of choice at most aid stations, and I stayed with my hydration using Carbo Pro and EFS powder in water. Some sections seemed nice, running, passing people, it was me running as I should. Other sections had me plodding on hills and flat sections, feeling soreness in my right knee and both ankles. I was very aware not to fold an ankle over, having that occur would really bring me to a crawl. Coming through the sunny area where the trees were blown out by a tornado a few years ago was good, I kept a good pace. Once through that area and back into the shade, I sputtered on sections that demanded off camber footing and zillions of rocks and roots to avoid. Some of those areas I don’t know how I’d run even in the beginning of a day! I made each rest stop count, more drink, food and well-wishes from the volunteers, and usually felt ok to pace well coming out of the rest areas. Then I would walk up a hill or through a nasty rock section and be back to a slower pace. My last 10 miles took awhile, my pace was so slow. I know I can do well on a course like this, my training has to really focus on technical and hilly trails. Maybe at Quiet Waters Park or Oleta State Park, just spinning the mountain bike trails for hours on ankles and knees that will build up from that experience. It was great to have John as a part of the weekend, he was waiting on the trail trying to get a picture of me when I was close to the finish. Coming in at 12:04 was dissappointment. I wasn’t surprised because I saw my pace decay at the various aid stations. Another runner saw John waiting for me and asked him if he was the guy that broke his ankle here at this race two years ago! I was astonished to hear this… John replied and said it was his father, but what an impression it left on someone to remember all of that?
After finishing I used the cold water ice bath for my lower legs, I cleaned off and we went back to the hotel. I wanted a good meal so I didn’t opt for the food that was served at the post race party for the athletes. John and I went back to Aspen’s Grille and ate a good dinner, then back to the hotel. I couldn’t sleep once in bed, so two Advils helped put out the soreness in my knees and ankles allowing me to put and end to a very long and demanding day. No idea if I’ll revisit this for a fourth year next fall… I kept thinking,”Why do I come to the most trecherous course they have to do well?” Maybe becasue the Western States 100 is twice as long and worse?