Sunday, November 13, 2011

North Face 50M - GA

I wrote this race report 3 times in my head the week following the race, and each time, I had a different emotional response.  I decided to wait a couple of weeks to allow things to settle down before putting words on paper.   This race turned into a humbling and emotional event for me.  Just goes to show that all ultras are not the same, regardless of the distance, course, or training.

Between the crazy work schedule and getting home late Friday night, my wife and I tossed a few last minute things into the car and hit the road to Lagrange, GA where we would stay the night before the race.  Four hours later, it was midnight with us checking-in to spend a few hours sleeping before the 20 min drive to the 5AM Saturday morning race start in Roosevelt State Park near Pine Mtn. 
I confess, I didn’t review the race course, or older race reports, to prepare myself for the 50 mile challenge.  After all, it was GA, not the northern part with challenging hill of the AT, but just 40 miles SW of Atlanta.  How bad could it be, really!  My goals where to PR for 50 mile distance (<9:30) for a good day, and Western States (WS) 100 qualifier (put my name in the bucket, again) for a bad day.  The weather looked like it would be a near perfect sunny day for running on trials with cool 50s in the morning and 70s during the day.

Morning of the race was routine for getting ready with coffee and a bagel.  The only thing I was nervous about was being sick yesterday and slightly dehydrated from spending most of the day in the bathroom (I will spare you the details – you’re welcome).  Another trip to the bathroom (not good), before we left the hotel for the race, but I was feeling tons better and was up for the battle.  Laura was a little concerned, but also knew I wouldn’t race if I felt that bad.
 I checked-in, pinned my race number on, and a few pics while waiting for legendary Dean Karnazes to get us pumped-up for the challenge ahead.  Dean asked for any first time 50 milers as 25% of the runners raised their hands.  He wished them luck and said “get ready to die.”  

Dean counted down the clock and I was off along with the 1st wave group (3 wave groups total separated by a few minutes to prevent congestion on the single trail).  A short dash across a field and we entered the single track rocky trail into the dark woods.   
Race start - 2nd from right with blue hat

Everything felt perfect with all of us running at a steady pace over the rocky terrain and steep inclines.  Up, and up, and up we went as we dodged low hanging tree limbs.  After a few miles into the first section, I looked back and it was so real to see all the bouncing headlights coming up the mountain side.  It was magical in the complete darkness of the woods to see a string of endless lights.  After several more climbs and stream crossings, we hit the first AS (5 miles) within the first hour as planned.  

 I refilled my bottle, downed a couple of gels, told Laura I felt great and would see her at the half-way mark for the 2nd crew access point. 

That first 5 miles was constantly going up or down with tons of rocks and low hanging tree limbs.  It was a technical trail and challenging in the dark.  I saw a lot of runners tripping and falling on some nasty jagged rocks.  I was careful with my foot placement for it was way too early to roll an ankle now.  I was thinking this was most likely the challenging section of the course, and it will only get easier to run when the sun rises.  Wishful thinking it was!  The next section was just as bad with more rocks of all sizes to manage.  Nonetheless, I felt really good with my skills of running technical trails compared to the problems other runners around me were having.  This one runner in front of me had a good pace, but it was painful to watch him twist his ankles on every other rock.  I finally said enough and found a higher gear on an incline to get away.  Soon I found myself leading a group of 5. The guy behind me had Vibram Five Fingers minimalist running shoes on.  I learned a lot listening to him talk to another runner about how great they work on trials, but not on roads.  He wore them in a road marathon and got beat-up bad with the hard road.  On soft trials they work best, but it takes some time and practice to adjust your body to the natural running form.  I couldn’t imagine how he was surviving all the rocks.  He says it takes more concentration and focus on the trial when it’s this technical.  Good for him, but I will keep my Montrail MM any day.
Coming up on the 2nd AS (Fox Den - 11.2 miles) and daybreak was just starting to break, but still needed the light in the woods.  Another gel, PB&J wedge, and refill of bottle and I was off.  After about 10 minutes, there was enough light to see the trial.  No wonder we were having a rough time running, rocks here, rocks there, rocks everywhere.  It was hard to get into a running rhythm.  I knew this was GA but it felt like the AT100 course.  What happened to the soft pine needle trials and gentle elevation changes I was imaging?  I knew that if the entire course was like this that the PR would not be possible, but WS qualifier was in the bag.  Just keep moving forward, don’t twist your ankle or fall on the rocks, and this will be a good day.  I was starting to feel a little stale but not bad considering the past 24 hours.  Next AS was Mollyhugger (16.1 miles) which I dropped my headlight off in my drop bag.  Another gel, PB&J wedge, and refilled my 22oz bottle.  I looked around and saw a lot of bloody knees and scraped hands.  Imagine that!  

 The first half mile exiting the AS was a nice downhill run with fewer rocks.  I hit a nice pace when nature calls to water some local plant life.  This was a good sign considering my condition starting this race!  The semi-smooth downhill run soon came to an end with more rockfest stuff.  Oh joy!  I felt a low point coming on but knew to just drive through it.  After a few more hills and stream crossings, I hit Rocky Point As (23.1 miles).  I checked my watch and could not believe how much time I was losing between AS.  Was the trail that technical that my pace was deceptively slow?  Had some respectable climbs, but not that demanding.  Ok self, don’t worry about time.  Already figured the PR was gone, but WS was good if I keep moving at this steady pace.  Besides, based on others I’ve seen, I was in good shape (no blood or sprains).

I noticed that the AS were all on top of hills, and the run departing was on a downhill.  This AS was no different except I had 1 mile of the sweetest downhill running on soft pine straw.  I could not believe my luck after the previous 23 miles.  I took full advantage and cranked it up.  I was flying and it felt great.  Wow, what if the rest of the course was like this!  There were no other runners around me, all by myself, and I started to wonder if I took a wrong turn.  Up to this point, the course had some of the best markings I’ve seen.  While flying along, I started to look carefully and saw a couple of what looked like old faded markers.  Trust your instincts and go with it.  The nice downhill run soon ended at the bottom of the gorge as the trail started to wonder along a brook, with fallen trees and mud.  I saw some more trail markings and felt better about being in the right place.  Three more runners caught up to me and started to wonder if they had missed a turn until they saw me.  After crossing the brook several times, it was time to go back up, and up, and up.  We ran into a few day hikers and boy scouts along the way.  We got some good cheering from them, which gave us a morale boost.  

 We hit this rock field with very large rocks which required a lot of zigzagging and hopping on and over hip high rocks.  One runner was flying at us with a smile from the opposite direction, which turned out to be Nikki Kimball.  I was impressed with how effortless she made it look with so many rocks to negotiate.  She had hit the turnaround point and was on her way back for the 2nd half (she took 1st female).  I remember the trail going in and out of the gorge a few times which made for some good elevation changes.  I was starting to feel bad again and had to slow down to regain some control.  The other three runners moved on ahead.  

What seemed like forever, I finally made it to Tower As (28 miles) where I could see Laura again.  She asked if everything was ok because I was covered in salt (more then normal), and my expected time was not even close to what I had predicted.  I told her the trail was more difficult than expected, and I had a few bad patches coming up to this AS.  She got me a cold wet towel to wipe off (which felt awesome), a cold coke to sip on, and a crunchy peanut-butter cliff bar to eat.  I re-lubed my feet and changed socks due to hot spots on the bottom of my feet (no blisters).  Also took 2 S-caps due to the salt crust on my face, and salt rings on my cloths.  I had been taking 1 S-cap per hour, which would have been about right considering the temp and humidity.  She heard some runner was not feeling good with a fever at a previous AS.  They pulled him from the race although he wanted to continue.  I said don’t tell them I was sick yesterday.  Another lady was next to us asking me about how difficult the trail was.  I told her it was technical with lots of rocks.  She was concerned for her husband because this was his first 50 miler, and dropped a heavy weight on his right toe last week (tore it up).  I told her to don’t let this course discourage him for this was a tough course under healthy conditions.  A few minutes later she got word her husband dropped at the previous AS.

Then the ambulance showed up to transport another runner to the hospital.  Laura says this has been going on all day.  I could not believe how much more time I lost, and said I need to go if I’m going to make my WS time. 

I felt good leaving with the tank topped off and fresh socks on.  Time to go back through the rock field before branching off to a different part of the trail.  I remember a lot of long steady climbing on this section.  It started to get warm, and a few section had good exposure to the sun.  This one section looked like a twister had cleared the entire hill side with fallen trees everywhere in the same direction.  Several times we had to climb over the trees.   I started to feel bad again and reduced to a walking pace to let everything settle down.  My stomach was a little upset, I felt week, and my quads started to cramp up.  What was going on with me?  Just a few weeks ago I rocked a 34 miler and felt great the entire time.  Now I was feeling really bad having run less miles.  Ok self, settle down, pull yourself together and get focused.  

 I crawled into Dowdell Knob AS (mile 32.2), refilled my bottle, handful of M&M and potato chips, and kept moving forward without delay.  I looked at my watch and still in disbelief at my poor performance.  Not only was I going to miss my WS time, but now I was racing the cut-off clock.  I just could not believe how this day was turning out.  The next few miles did not get any better and felt like I was in a death spiral.  I just could not shake it.  

 I made it into Fox Den AS (37.5 miles) where Laura was waiting for me.  She kept me motivated and told me to just focus on finishing.  I told her I was really craving a Ginger Ale.  None around, but she would go to the store and have it ready for the next stop.  She didn’t want to say anything at the time, but afterwards she said I looked really bad.  Salt crust everywhere and my eyes had that sunken-in look (not normal for me). 

This next stretch was no different than the previous stretch.  My pace felt like it was in slow motion as runners passed me, and my energy level hit rock bottom.  There was a few long steep inclines that knocked the wind out of my sails, but never giving up.  I focused on that Ginger Ale waiting for me at the next AS.  This was my worst stretch by far.   

Finally, Mollyhugger AS (42.4 miles) and my cold ginger ale was waiting for me.  I sat down and Laura said I made good time during that last section.  She was worried I might not make the cut-off time, but made it with 15 minutes to spare.  I had no idea I was that close to it.  I filled my bottle up with the ginger ale and finished the rest.  That was so good!  Laura pushed me out the AS and reminded me to just keep moving and I wouldn’t have any problems meeting the time.  She knows me so well, very supportive, knows what to say, and I’m lucky to have her.   

I left the AS just as they were counting down the final seconds.  Another ambulance was transporting a runner to the hospital (should have been me based on how bad I felt and looked).  I saw them stop a group of runners because they missed the time requirement.  I started a slow slog down the trail when a runner ran by.  A few minutes later an AS worker ran by in a hurry like something was wrong.  Further down the trail, the AS worker had stopped the runner that went by me, and informed him he was disqualified because he missed the cut off time.  He was not a happy camper!  Then he looked at me and questioned if I had made the cut-off time.  I assured him I had by 15 minutes and was just slow going to allow this ginger ale to settle.  He said I had to wait until he confirmed it with the last AS.  He radioed in to confirm, and after a 10 minute hold, he said I could continue.  

 Now I was worried if I would be able to finish in time.  I ran the numbers in my head and knew it would be close, but had to pick my pace up.  Just then, the trial sweep approached as he followed me down the trial.  The sweep was starting to irritate me by running on my heels.  I was also in disbelief about the situation I was in – Chasing the clock. 

I felt a little surge of energy from my new favorite drink, tossed a couple S-caps down, and got mad with myself.  My new goal was to ditch this sweep by running hard, no matter how much it hurt.  He had fresh legs, and mine where coming back from the dead with marble size blisters on my feet.  But I didn’t care and started to feel good for the first time in the last 20 miles.  I also had 10 minutes to get back which the AS official took from me while confirming I made the cut-off time.  

Not sure what my pace was, but I could tell he was starting to breath hard as I keep increasing my distance on him.  I saw in my sights two runners slogging down the trial and said the sweep would get a break by following them.  I flew by them, and approached 3 more runners looking like I did awhile back.  One of them jumped on my pace to get some energy from me, but was not able to hang.  I was wondering how much longer this would last before I would crash and burn like before.  I passed a few more runners before coming up on this one guy which exchanged positions with me a few times.  I was running the down hills faster than him, and he had me on the up hills.  I came up on this one rocky long downhill section and said the hell with it, no slowing up for the rocks; just go hard until something breaks.  The other guy fell back until he was out of sight.  I was checking my watch and thinking I made up a ton of time with my rebound in energy, but could not believe I still haven’t hit the last AS yet.  I was running out of time and panic started to hit me.  I was thinking this was a longer distance between the last two AS then advertised.  

 Finally, Buzz Roost AS (47.8 miles), which was the best of them all.  A boy scout came running down the trail to greet me with two cups of cold water.  He asked what I needed and I said to fill my bottle half way.  He ran my bottle back to the AS to have it ready for me upon arriving.  This AS was sponsored by a Boy Scout troop, and I received some of the best support from them.  So very awesome they were.  I didn’t stop as I grabbed my bottle and thanked them for all they do.  I checked my watch again and figured I needed a 9 min per mile pace to finish on time.  Only 2.6 miles to finish, and I could do this if the wheels don’t fall of.  Nonetheless, nothing was going to keep me from finishing.  

 I was cruising along another rocky downhill stretch before the trail turned toward a power line section that went straight up forever.  Lots of switchbacks, steep, and it sucked the last drop of energy I had to give.  I didn’t stop, but also knew the clock was passing me with every step taken.  I was digging-in hard to get up this climb, but with only fumes in the tank, I started to die the closer to the top I got.  What seemed like eternity, I approached the top and felt completely wiped-out.  Ok, just finish with whatever I had.  Maybe I should have eaten something at the last AS, but didn’t want to lose any time.  
 Now I was losing tons of time because my tank was empty!  Not a good decision.  I pushed as hard as my body would allow me, a few more rolling hills, and the only flat stretch on the course before hearing the noise of the finish line.  I hit the open field where we started and crossed with 3 minutes pass the allowed finish time.   

 The North Face officials placed a finisher’s medal around my neck, shook my hand, and said congrats on a great run.  I was surprised to still get the medal, but considering how the day unfolded for me, I was pleased with myself for just finishing.  The metal meant little, but not giving up meant everything.  I was going to challenge the 10 min hold from the AS official, but decided it wasn’t worth it, and to just appreciate the journey this race gave me.

My wife had a chair on the side of the finish area which I put to good use for a few minutes.  After absorbing the moment, we gathered our stuff and headed for the car.  I suddenly got an overwhelming sick feeling and knew what I had to do.  I found a spot away from the general crowd and started several rounds of dry heaves (nothing in my stomach).  When everything settled down, we got in the car and started the 4 hour drive home.  Shortly after hitting the road, I had a crazy craven for ice cream and found a Wendy’s for a large frosty.  That was a first!

Reflecting back, I’m not sure why it was a bad race for me.  I really struggled after the first 20 miles.  It was a challenging course, but I should not have had this much trouble, along with one of the worst finish times ever for me.  Maybe I had not fully recovered from being sick on Friday, and my body was reminding me of who was in control.  Also, I missed my qualifying time for Western States, and will not be able to put my name in the lottery this year.  This really disturbed me because WS is a race I want to run at least once.  Now I need to wait that much longer!  Major bummer!  

On a positive note, this will give me more time to get my races dialed in, and run Mohican again, which will be my focus race for next year.

A bad day, but thankful I finished.


Char said...

Your race was a great example of tenacity and courage. I can't imagine pushing like you did while feeling so bad. I'm glad they gave you a medal. It's a reminder of what you can achieve despite the limitations of your body.

DawnB said...

congratulations, way to go and for not giving up you deserve that medal.

Black Knight said...

Looking at the good things: you finished, you got your medal and you have another ultra under your belt.
Now you know that you can go over the limits. Congrats for your strength and courage.

Anonymous said...

We all have our own perception of pain and how much we can take. Your tolerance for it must be huge. Congratulations, Thomas for staying strong. I've never been interested in doing a North Face race - they always seem brutal to me. We have one here in NY and those trails are not trails, but rather empty riverbeds filled with rocks. Rest well - you'll go get your WS Q next time!

lindsay said...

that's pretty frustrating how they were stopping people mid-race. i'm glad you still got your medal though! what a run... can't say this report made it tempting to run ultras on trails though ;) i think i'm getting all too comfortable in my time off!!!

Olga said...

Wow, what a gutsy going! And I can't believe it took that AS person 10 minutes to confirm your timing! Damn that hold off! One of those things, may be those 10 minutes could save your official finish...or may be you wouldn't have been pissed enough to challenge and run your heart out at the end. Awesome, man.

Big Daddy Diesel said...

Wow, this might be the race report of the year, way to push through and finish!!

And congrats on your Pukie Award

Rooster said...

One of my friends always says, There are no bad days just good days and great days". :)

Wow, sounds like a challenging course. Way to keep it going and I think that is hardest when your riding a fine line, to stay in it no matter what...see it through. Great job!

Alex said...

congratulations !! it was a great , great effort!!
i wish you can join us in running the Greek Marathon next year !

Raina said...

You write some amazing race reports. So much to put into an ultra report.

I can't imagine running any race in a headlamp, especially with rocks and roots. We share the same opinion on the 5 finger shoes. haha!

Not that I have any experience with an ultra, but I am SURE that some of your trouble stems from being sick Friday. Still, you persevered. I am inspired!
"The metal meant little, but not giving up meant everything. " So true.

Have a great Thanksgiving!