Just found my favorite 50K race! Before I get into the race, a little drama to set the stage. Terri breaks her race into a two day race fest with the option to run the 50K on Saturday, Sunday, or both. With this being my last long training run before my A-race, Saturday’s race was my only was my choice. My plan was to leave Friday at a good time, and with only a 3 hour drive, I would have some time to chill. I didn’t worry about making hotel reservations with it being a solo trip, and figured I would just wing-it. Friday I took my daughter to her Doc apt as a preliminary exam before getting her wisdom teeth removed. As with all Friday afternoon apt, the doc office was back-up (imagine that – big surprise), and it took forever. Then I decided to take the family out to dinner for some quality time together before hitting the road. Next thing I know, its 7PM and still need to get a few last minute things pulled together. Now it’s 9:30 PM and just starting my 3 hour cruise! It was past midnight and just arriving in this small town of Walhalla in the foothills of NW South Carolina. Like most small towns, everything closes at 5pm, and not a mouse was stirring at midnight. Good thing I tossed that sleeping bag in the back at the last minute. The great thing about my Chevy Avalanche is the back seat drops down and the enclosed truck bed is available from the inside. I found myself a safe parking area in front of a grocery store and set the alarm for 5AM (4 hours of sleep in a truck – wonderful). It took a while to turn the brain off and hit Z-land, but I did sleep well, although it was chilly in the morning up in the mountains.
I figured about 45 minutes to the Cherry Hill State Park where the race starts, and had plenty of time to change, hit McDonalds for a bowl of oatmeal and a cup of joe. I did get a visitor first thing in the morning from a local police officer on patrol wondering why this out of state truck had been in the parking lot during the night. After crawling out of the back of the truck, I assured him all was well, and was just looking for a safe place to catch a few zzzz before hitting the state parks. He said this was a good spot and wished me well.
The brief 40 minute trip to the Cherry Hill State Park was absolutely beautiful going through the Chattooga National Forest. Within a half mile from the starting line, a huge black bear darted ever so gracefully in front of me. It caught me off guard at first until my brain registered what this was. I was not expecting that, and this guy was huge. Wow, this should be an interesting race, and this bear will be out looking for breakfast on the same trails we will be running on.
I spent a few minutes talking to Terri Hayes (RD) getting caught up on lost time before the race. This was the first time running this race, and did very little prep work in reviewing the course. I read a few race reports from years past, remember Christian Griffith writing about jumping in the river to cool-off, lost his running shorts from the swift current, and finish the race with a hilarious race report to share. I figured I would just follow the pack, watch for the orange ribbon at turns, follow the white trail blaze, and hold onto my shorts if having the need to jump in the river to cool off. I already had 50 miles on the legs with some hard weight workouts and hill repeats on the legs going into the race. The last thing I need to do was race hard today, so I started in the back of the pack to keep it easy.
We started with a 3.5 mile out portion on the winding stairs trail which was all downhill on some beautiful and smooth trails. We passed next to some breath-taken waterfalls as the trail is all downhill and fast. Took a few wrong turns with some
I topped my water bottle off, one gel, banana, and piece of banana bread (this was really good) before hitting this next section which would be 10 miles before the next AS. I usually only take one handheld 20oz bottle, but used two for this longer section. I was following two guys and a girl who were very chatty and excited. They gave me the impression this was her first ultra and the two guys were coaching/guiding her along. This was another nice single trail downhill section for a couple of miles down to the Chattooga River. After listening to these other runners, I learned this is where the movie “Deliverance” was filmed with Burt Reynolds. Great – Hopefully I won’t hear any banjos playing or see anyone with missing teeth with a heavy southern accent.
The trail zigzags along the river up and down the hills. Absolutely beautiful scenery with some really narrow sections with overhanging boulders and very step drop-offs. Not a good section to miss step. I passed one of the guys and the girl as they were having a more difficult time managing the more technical trail section. The other guy was trying to keep up, and wanted to pick my brain for some advice on longer races. We chatted for a while and then he started to fad back on the more technical sections.
Then I came up on a large fallen tree across the trail which required some crawling over. Another runner was crossing over it, and to my amazement, it was Viktor who I caught up with the last 5 miles of the FATS 50K a couple years ago to beat. Viktor is a strong and consistent runner with a large personality. You know when you are being passed by him because he gives out a hoot and a howler in a heavy Russian accent as he passes. Ok, I told myself, I was not racing today and this is going to be an easy long training run. Viktor saw me and appeared to have picked his pace up based on my effort to keep up with him. I’m a fast downhill runner based on the number of runners I usually pass, and average on the hills, but Viktor was increasing his lead on the downhills, and losing some on the uphills. He was most likely conserving energy because he was racing both days. We passed several runners as we kept increasing our pace. Before I knew it, my competitive nature overrode my brain and the race was on. At this point, I didn’t care, and wanted to get passed this guy. I started to kick it on the uphills, and matched his speed on the downhills as I kept closing the gap. Finally, on a long uphill section, I passed Viktor and another runner at the same time, and never looked back. Within about 1 mile from the AS, my foot snagged a rock and found myself airborne. Luckily, I landed between some rocks and roots with a few minor scratches.
The AS was a welcomed sight, but wanted to keep my stay time short. I grabbed another gel, dropped one of my handhelds off, and two pieces of banana bread on the way out. This next section was a two mile out and back, and needed to touch the wooden bridge before returning. It was a fast two miles with it all downhill, and passed several runners along the way. I was in a good place and just loving the trails. Usually by now, I get a low point in the race, but not today. My energy level was consistent, and I found the new Tailwind mix agreeing with my body. What felt like about two miles, and I ran into a small wooden footbridge with no markers or sign. I stopped for a minute and wondered if this was the turnaround point. With no markers, and such a small footbridge, I figured there was a larger wooden bridge with markers further down the trail. I took off again as a couple of runners I had just passed were following my lead. We went about half mile further downhill and something didn’t feel right. I started to run into a few spider webs and knew the front runners would have already broke the trail. I could not see any scuff marks on the trail and knew I had gone too far. I stopped and talked to the runners behind me for a few minutes as we contemplated if we went too far. One of the guys had a Garmin and he said we were well past the two mile mark, so we were convinced the footbridge was the turnaround point. Back up the hill to the bridge, and a little further back down the trail and I ran into Viktor on his way to the bridge. I asked him if that was the turnaround point and he said yes (He has ran this course a few times). I felt better that we didn’t short-change the course, but also gave up a lot of time and positions with the bonus miles.
I started running up the two mile all uphill to the AS and passed a few of the runners I passed on the way down. I ran into Andy Bruner at the AS (from Augusta and top 10 finisher on Sunday) and he was a huge help. We talked for a minute as he filled my handheld bottles (with ice) and ensured I was taken care of. Andy is a great guy, friendly, and a very talented fast runner.
Time for the long 10 mile river section and ready to hit it with a steady pace in mind. I passed a few more runners and hikers out enjoying the trails. I caught up with Chad and we had about the same pace so we hung out cruising down the trails. We took a few wrong turns, but always able to get back on the main trail. This section was not marked well, and more difficult to follow on the way back with all the side trails that branch out. I snagged my foot again on some roots, didn’t fall, but felt some discomfort in my left leg (knee and hamstring). I backed off my pace some to prevent irritating my leg any further and to minimize risk for injury. The climb back out from the river was challenging and demanding. I was starting to feel the weekly miles, hard training, and hill repeats from earlier in the week. Chad had to pull over due to some cramping and needed to stretch out. I kept plowing forward and managed to pass two more runners before hitting the final stretch. I finished in 7:04 with about 33 plus miles on some beautiful, but challenging, trails in the foothills of SC.
I felt great afterward, no cramping or soreness, no stomach issues, and could have gone back out to run the course again. This area is absolutely beautiful and now one of my favorite 50K races. Looking at some of the Garmin data from some other runner the previous years, and this course had over 10,000’ of elevation change. I would highly recommend this course for first timers and experienced runners with non-technical trails in most sections, beautiful scenery, and great AS with an awesome RD (Terri Hayes).
I drove the three hour trip back home after the race, and had to work the next day. It was a good weekend. Compared to the two 50K I ran the past few months (Mount Cheaha and Sweet H2O), I felt the strongest during this one, had no real low points, and felt great afterwards with 30 minute less running on a harder course. This race was good for my confidence considering being injured all last year, and not starting any real training until January of this year. Looks like the hard winter training is starting to pay off, but will it be enough for my next challenge! Time to start my taper for the Mohican 100.