After being injured most of last year and having a mild case of burnout, I was a little apprehensive about this race. My last trail race was the North Face 50 over a year ago and that was a challenge with less than one week recovery from the FATS 50K. I had done some running the last part of 2012 with my physical therapy going well, but no real training except for the last 7 weeks going into this race. In fact, I was using this as a training run with no taper, 30 miles on the legs for the week, hill repeats, and weight training. I read a few race reports and decided at the last minute this would be a good run to kick my training in the ass. Nonetheless, my training only included one long run on the local trails, and the remaining long runs performed on a flat 3 mile dirt loop. My weekly mileage was low with only 40 miles per week logged. Didn’t want to ramp up my mileage to hard and fast and risk injury again. My wife said with this just being a 50K, this should be a light run for me. She asked me if I was ready, and I replied not even close, but I got to start sometime.
As I dug deeper into the details of this Mount Cheaha 50K, there was over 7,000 feet of climbing, technical rocky trail sections, stream crossings, and Blue Hell with 1,000 feet of straight up in less than a half mile. I soon realized I had no business toeing the line after taking a look at my brief training window. I had done few hill repeats and weight training sessions, and knew my legs would die on this race before the day was over. To complicate matters worse, it had rained hard the past couple of weeks in the South, and still a steady rain fell the morning of the race. Streams were now rivers, dirt trails now mud slop, and rocks like ice. I got my son Josh setup at the lodge on top of Mount Cheaha (finish line), he wished me luck and said “Dad, this is just a little 50K, no worries and have fun.” I told him this will be a long day for me. I boarded the bus to haul 195+ runners to the starting line some distance south on the Pinhoti trail. The fog was so thick, the chatty runners rambling in a nervous tone, and I managed to get my survival strategy plan together in my head. Don’t race hard, start slow, conserve to save-up for Blue Hell, and stay in the middle back of the pack (let the faster runners go). Remember, this is just a training run and I already had mileage on the legs from the week. After getting off the bus and walking to the starting area, I ran into my friend Olga and her husband Larry from TX. Couldn’t believe my luck and was so excited to see them in the middle of some remote location in Alabama. Both of them are very accomplished Ultra runners in the elite category with tons of talent. After a brief visit, it was time for a 10 min stretch, fall in formation for the start, and a Harlem Shake video shot to get the juices flowing. Too funny!
This race does not start with a countdown, or a gun shot, but the playing of “Sweet Home Alabama”. Next thing I know I’m flowing on very soft pine needles as the trail flows into the heavy dense fog woods like a scene from an Alfred Hitchcock movie. The trails were saturated with water, but at least the raining had stopped, and all was right in the world. Wow – This felt great, and at this moment I realized why we do this, again. I could feel the excitement in my bones, the legs felt fresh, and I wanted to run fast. But this was not going to happen with some 100+ runners in front of me on single lane trails. Remember, start in the back! I reminded myself to settle down, go with the group, and there would be plenty of time later to run hard if anything was left. It was funny to see some of these runners gingerly hopping over small streams worried about getting their shoes wet. I told them to just go ahead and get it over with, it’s a part of the trail experience. This was the last time my feet experienced dryness for the race. I could tell a lot of them were inexperienced and this may have been their first Ultra. After about 2 miles into the race, the conga line thinned out some which allowed me and two other runners to stretch our legs out and pass by a large pack of runners, which should have started in the very back based on their pace. The trail was very wet, but fantastically smooth with some small rises and downhills. I could not see much with the dense fog and it felt dreamlike running in the woods with a comfortable 50 degrees. It reminded me of the FATS trails I have back home. Chandler Springs Aid Station (AS) was only 3 miles into the race and I only needed a splash of water and a gel. The next section was a little more difficult with more dramatic climbs, rocks, and soft muddy trails. I reminded myself again to take it easy on the climbs, keeping the heartrate down, and conserve energy. Another noticeable trait with these trails was the camber. It either sloped left or right, seldom even. This required a little more attention to details with the wetness factor and slippery rocks. After what seemed like 4 miles of steady inclines, the trail dumped out onto a forest service road for a 1 mile haul butt downhill to the next AS. Time to stretch the legs out again and let it fly! I passed several runners along this stretch, and a few got on my heals and followed into the Clairmount Gap AS. I ditched the sweatshirt, another gel and banana, filled the bottle, grabbed a PB&J cube, and now time for some more climbing.
|Smooth Dirt Road|
The first mile was steady going up with a few switchbacks. Then the trail leveled off into rock city and more narrow slanted trails. This was the most technical part of the race and difficult to maintain any sort of a pace with all the rocks. I could not enjoy the scenery because the trail was demanding, and one glance or distraction could end in a nasty fall. After about 5 miles of this, I noticed a runner down with paramedics along his side. A few other paramedics on their way from the next AS, but looked like they may not make it to the injured runner based on the look on their face and exhaustion level from the one mile of travel on these trails. I heard the runner tripped on the rocks and shattered his knee cap. The paramedics had to airlift him from the area because hauling him out was too difficult. I had a few close calls, but always managed to catch myself before going down. Finally, Adams Gap AS #3 (15 mile mark) and felt a little worn after that tough demanding section. With fuel in the tummy, I was ready for some more – Bring it.
I was cruising at a steady pace along another muddy and rocky section with a cambered narrow trail. Out of nowhere, my left foot got a little too close to the soft muddy edge and my world went upside down. I landed on my back and started to slide down the edge of the bank before stopping myself with my hands on the edge. My right calve got a hard cramp and locked up. I hit hard, but nothing broke. All I could do was hang on to the edge and keep myself still while I worked out this killer cramp in my calve. Wow – was it painful and all knotted up. Another runner from a distance behind me yelled if I was ok as I replied “all was good, just got a cramp and can’t move.” He reached down and grabbed my arm pulling me back on the trail. I assured him I was good, thanked him, and took a few minutes to stretch this cramping calve out and get my mind refocused. He hung out for a few minutes making sure I was alright before moving on. The camaraderie is amazing in this sport. We win together, we suffer together, and we take care of one another. Just amazing! I regained my composure, and took several minutes to stretch my calve out because it did not want to cooperate. With a slow start, I fell right back into a steady pace and into AS #4 Hubbard Creek (~18 miles). I felt a sore spot on my left lower right calve and found a nice scratch from the fall. Didn’t notice it until now; grabbed a wet paper towel to clean the mud out of it.
The next section was very wet with several stream crossings and lots of standing water on the trails from all the rain. The stream crossings were refreshing with the swift cold water, and gave me a chance to wash some of the mud of me from the fall. The dense fog had lifted which gave me an opportunity to look around at the beautiful scenery with water falls, outcrops of large rocks, and Mount Cheaha looming off in the distance. A quick check into Lake Chinnabee AS (mile 22), a hit of coke (cola type), banana, and PB&J square before talking these last 9 miles.
This next section was very runnable, and as a pack of 8, we put the miles behind us. I got a little tired of the conversation, was feeling too good for the slow pace, and dropped the hammer past these guys. After a few more water crossings, the trail dumped onto a dirt road which lasted a little over a mile to the next AS. I asked a guy helping out with the race standing alongside the road, if he had seen any water to jump into because I haven’t step in any for a ¼ mile and felt neglected. He laughed and said it’s all uphill from here.
|Ankle Deep Wet & Muddy Trail|
|Blue Hell - Photo from Olga|
Lake Cheaha AS (mile 28) was set under a pavilion along the lake at the base of Mount Cheaha. I remembered the RD saying to fuel up and hydrate well before tackling this next section. Another PB&J, banana, and two small cups of coke should do it. I felt good and ready to take on Blue Hell with 1,000 feet of straight up. After a brief run to the base, a small group of us started the steep climb up boulders, roots, and mud. I just put my head down and said one foot in front of the other, enjoy the moment, until I get to the top. Don’t look up; just keep going until it is done. Water was pouring off my face, but I was feeling good considering, I thought I would be half dead at this point of the race and barley holding on. A couple runners pulled off to the side and let us by. Another hundred feet and the rest pulled off to catch their breath. I was in a rhythm and did not want to stop as I passed the pack. I looked up and saw a few more runners staggering up the mountain and adjusted my sights on them. I finally caught them ¾ of the way up, and as we passed a race safety aid on the side. I asked when did Blue Hell start, and she replied in a serious tone that I was on Blue Hell. I smiled and thanked her for supporting us! The small group pulled off to the side and I felt a little serge of energy and started running up the steep face, but only a short distance. I finally made it to the top with an awesome view, but short lived as the clouds rolled in.
|Blue Hell - Photo from Olga|
With the legs still feeling somewhat fresh, I hit my running stride again passing a few more runners along more rocky and wet trails. As I approached the finish line, I felt good considering I thought I would be in a world of hurt based on my small amount of training. Maybe I should have not held back as much and pushed it more. With a time of 7:48, I should have done this course in about an hour less with a more conditioned state. Josh had something warm for me to put on, and found a heated bathroom for me to cleanup in and change. The trip back to Augusta GA was smooth, and only a little sore the next day. Nothing another week of training won’t resolve. I was pleased with the outcome considering my conditioning going into this race. The only cramping I experienced was from the fall, and the only low point of the race was around mile 18 which I expected and not unusual. Time to get ready for my next 50K in April.
This was a great race Todd Henderson and supporters put in place for us. It was challenging with a variety of terrains to manage. Not what I would consider a beginner 50K by no means, and a race that deserves respect. Not a PR course, and a race you won’t forget. A must do for you experience trail runners.