Thank you so much for the sweet comments on my results post. Those were the results, now here’s the story. I’m going to have to split this up into two parts. Sorry! You already know how it ends though!
I’ve realized that I don’t really get very nervous about my longer trail races until I am a few miles away from the park. Most of the trail races that I’ve done are held in state parks. You would never imagine that something so tough and exhausting could be held in the same location where people are out camping and enjoying picnics with their families. What happens for me on the drive is that I get close to the park and I can see the mountains looming in the distance. Then I realize that in a few hours I’ll be climbing those mountains. That knowledge instantly makes the pit of my stomach drop.
Driving into the Duncan Ridge 50K was no exception. I saw two mountains in the distance (Coosa Bald and Blood Mountain) and knew I would be climbing both of them. I’d already done one before (twice) and it kicked my butt both going and coming. Was it really time to do this again?
This race was “only” a 50K but with over 10,000 ft of climbing and a (very necessary) 10 hour time limit, it wasn’t your ordinary 50K. When I first set the goal of training for a 50 miler, I selected the Peachtree City 50K as my first ultra and longest long training run. However, the Lookout Mountain 50 miler has about 6,000 ft of climbing and is rated 4/4 for terrain/surface on the Ultrarunning calendar. Peachtree City, on the other hand, is a 1/1. Specificity of training matters in ultras so switching to a race that was a 5/4 was a smarter move…even if I was not looking forward to running the DRT again.
I picked up my race number and shirt and made my final preparations in the car. Taking care of the routine stuff was soothing for me. The weather was perfect for race day with highs scheduled in the low 50s. I wore my favorite Nike running pants, a Nike Element Half-Zip shirt with a bright-orange short sleeved tee underneath (nod to the hunters) and a bright red fleece Under Armour hat (hunters again). I figured I’d ditch the half-zip at the midpoint as the temperature warmed up. It was in the mid-40s at the race start and I debated whether or not to wear my running gloves. I ended up wearing them which turned out to be a smart move.
The time to start was drawing near and I headed over to the starting line. I saw quite a few familiar faces in the crowd. I noted Susan Donnelly who I had run into at the GA Jewel. We both felt like we knew each other from somewhere but neither could figure out where. I realized later that I knew her from her blog! She’s an awesome ultrarunner (1st place female at the GA Jewel and numerous other races). I was a little starstruck to be honest. I’m just in awe of these people who kick so much butt at these races.
I asked Susan if she planned on winning this one. She said there was no way because she was coming off back to back weekends of running 100 milers. Call me a newbie, but I’m still amazed at the feats of some ultrarunners. I’m still wrapping my brain around one 50 miler that I’ve been training for forever. The concept of running a 100 miles, let alone 2 in one month is mind-blowing. What is most interesting to me is that most of these people are regular folks with families and jobs who do this because they love it. Prize money at most ultras is minimal or virtually non-existent so they aren’t doing this to get rich.
I also spotted Dan from the Coosa half my running coach organized. He led the 5 hour pace group at the Atlanta Marathon. I told him that I should have just started with his group since I ended up finishing in nearly 5 hours anyway. Dan is a seasoned ultrarunner and had decided to do the 50K one on the spur of the moment. Let me tell you this, I will never ever do anything involving the DRT without giving it a lot of thought!
Someone in the crowd recognized me as a blogger which was cool. That is probably the first time that’s ever happened to me. Since I write race reports for local Atlanta races though, I shouldn’t be too surprised. I enjoy reading race reports from local Atlantans myself. I suppose I’m just a little more recognizable at trail races due to the small numbers and being one a few black females. Speaking of which, there were 3 other black people (2 men, 1 woman) besides myself at the race. Four out of 150 is a big turnout for brown folks in a trail race LOL!
Bob, the race director whose mere presence as a volunteer at other trail races set off my nerves about this race, gave us a welcome and directions. I listened closely because getting lost in a trail race is a common occurrence (for me). Plus, I have a history of getting turned around out on the DRT. The course was an out and back which was somewhat comforting but there was also a 30K version of the race going on and they would split from us at one point. The last thing I wanted to do was end up running a 30K instead of my ultramarathon debut.
With little fanfare, the race was on at 7:30AM. I set my running watch to Auto Lap at 1 mile even though pace wasn’t a big deal. I do like to go back later and see how I handled specific miles with crazy hills so that I can see if I’m improving. I was still focused on going aid station to aid station. The one time I do check my pace is on a really runnable stretch. I don’t ever want to push the pace too hard, too early.
Pace aside, I did note that the first mile took me nearly 15 minutes to complete. We were hitting the inclines hard right from the beginning. We started in a familiar area but veered to the left when the other times I ran here, we took the right-hand path. I thought this path was tougher and my watch confirmed that we climbed 361ft in the first mile. Thankfully, the course levels off like I remember and the next 2.5 miles were quite flat. I made good time on the next miles and reached the 3.5 mile aid station at around 41 minutes.
I breezed through the first aid station and prepared myself for the next 4.5 miles of running. The first aid station was at the base of Coosa Bald so the climbing started immediately and really didn’t let up until Mile 7 or so. Coosa Bald climbs tall over several miles and it just seems never ending. Just when you think you might be finished, you look ahead and see that the people in front of you are higher up than you. This can be very demoralizing but I’ve done this climb before so my attitude was positive and I moved steadily forward. My third battle with Coosa Bald was going great.
One thing that was not great was the terrain. All of my prior experiences on these trails were in the summertime. I had hoped that I would make better time during this race because I didn’t have to deal with crushing heat and humidity. Silly me, I didn’t realize that I would be running what felt like an entirely different trail. In the summer, the trail was full of thick overgrown vegetation that was fairly harmless with the exception of some thorny weeds and poison oak leaves. Now the trail was full of leaves – slippery leaves that hid rocks and all manners of trail baddies.
Leaf-strewn trails were fine on the uphill when I was hiking and moving slowly. But as I crested Coosa Bald (which was eerily cold and foggy) and started the nasty descent back to the road it got scary. The trip over Coosa Bald in summer is tough enough with the sharp drops and big rocks. When you add in leaves it gets downright ugly. I took Fall #1 (that distinction lets you know I did a lot of falling!) on the downhill. I was upright and then suddenly I was sitting on my butt in the leaves. Nothing hurt so I got right back up and kept heading down the mountain a bit more carefully. I was really gun shy now though and letting loose on this downhill was not going to happen even though I enjoy that sort of thing.
I reached the Mile 8 aid station about 2:13 minutes into the race. My watch was right on target for the mileage at this point. When I hit the 3.5 mile aid station my watch said 3.5. At Mile 8 it said 8. This was comforting since it is usually tracking way behind on trail races. I liked having something solid to rely on to estimate how far I had to go. The last 4.5 miles had taken me a little more than 1:30 but I wasn’t really worried about that at the time. After all, that 4.5 miles took me up 4000ft and down another 1000ft or so.
I came into this race with a main goal of just finishing. I did try to guess a finish time but I knew I would be fairly close to the 10 hour race cut-off. My base, stretch and reach goals were 9:45, 9:30 and 9:15 respectively. I had not given much thought to how I would achieve those goals and where I needed to be at what time. We had two check-in points – Mile 15.5 (turnaround) by 12:30PM and Mile 27.5 by 4:30PM. I simply hoped to be at the turnaround by noon to give myself plenty of time for a slower return trip.
At Mile 8, I was happy to see my Big Peach friend and one of my personal ultrarunning sheros at the aid station. All of the race volunteers are so nice and helpful and generally awesome, but all of that wrapped up in familiar face is even better. I also spotted Dan again along with Jen. Jen had talked me down from the ledge when I was lost at the H9 race. There was also “Hiker Girl” who I ran tight with for a long time at the H9 race. She was doing the 30K that day in preparation for the GUTS Pine Mountain 40 in a few weeks. That meant she could not be my rabbit that day and keep me from getting lost. Boo!
I lingered a bit at the station grabbing food and a few cups of Coke because there was another 5.5 miles to the next aid station. I was about to enter uncharted (or possibly just forgotten) territory on the DRT at this point. I knew there was another huge climb ahead so this 5.5 miles would take a good bit of time. I had been listening to music, but I switched to an audiobook (Stephen King’s latest) in the interest of trying something new to make the time go faster.
The audiobook helped the time fly. It really did. I needed the distraction too because the terrain was just…icky. I caught up with Dan and Jen occasionally but they were moving at a generally faster pace, so I didn’t bother pushing to keep up with them. I would occasionally spot them ahead of me through the trees and it was comforting to know I wasn’t totally alone. The 30K racers had split from us at Mile 8 so the field had thinned out. There was no one behind me that I could see.
So about that terrain. We climbed some more but nowhere near Coosa Bald levels yet. What sucked so bad was that it was a bit muddy and the leaves were slippery. I think we were rounding the mountain on a series of switchbacks. All I know is that I was on a tiny little single (half?) track trail ridge with a very steep drop-off on the side. I had to make myself not look down because it made me dizzy. In addition to the cliff drop-off and random patches of mud this was one of those cambered trails where my foot was leaning to one side. Way to make a girl feel extra stable! My son has taken to saying “Don’t like it. Don’t want it.” when I let him taste something that displeases him. His voice saying that phrase was looping through my head as I navigated this mess. I didn’t like it at all. I didn’t want it. When I think about it, we might have done this section in the H9 because I remember covering some similarly scary trail. Everything just looks so different with all the leaves off the trees (and acting as a Slip-N-Slide instead) that it is hard to tell.
I kept on pushing. In spite of my fears, my attitude was still great. I didn’t feel exhausted at all. In fact, I felt like running but it didn’t feel safe to do so very often. The scary single-track ended and some more small climbs followed. At some point on one of the endless switchbacks, a runner started running towards me. I was immediately and embarrassingly confused. I asked him if I was going the right way and if he was OK (even though he looked strong). He assured me that I was fine and continued running on past me. It was only after he passed that I realized he was the first place runner. I had totally forgotten that this was an out and back course! I felt like an idiot for questioning if he was going in the wrong way and asking if he was OK. He was smoking everyone else in the race and lapping me by hours…of course he was fine!
A short time after passing the first place guy, I ran into another runner. I somehow started running in the same direction he was running which told me I was doing the wrong thing. The runner was kind enough to get me back on the right path even though I had no idea how I’d gotten off track. Thanks dude, whoever you were! Another runner came up behind me after a very long time of not seeing any other racers at my pace. He figured I had only run a tenth of the mile or so out of the way because he could see me up ahead not too long ago. We ended up running into the Mile 13 aid station together and commiserating about the toughness of the race.
Another familiar face greeted me at this station, Atl Mimi, a friend from Black Girls Run and DailyMile. She had apparently talked to me at the Atlanta Marathon but I don’t think she said her name or else I was spacing out. I knew she was volunteering here and was well aware of who she was this time. I gave her a big old sweaty hug and ended up spending way too much time at her aid station.
There was another female 50K racer there and she was bailing on the race. She said this was way too much hilly hiking for her and something was hurting. It really started to sink in that this was a beast of a race as I finally had a chance to talk to some other runners. In spite of the difficulty though, I was happy and still in great form and spirits. My expectations for a tough race were already high from my experiences with H9 and Coosa. I guess when you go in expecting a nightmare, it suddenly doesn’t seem so bad when it comes true. Kidding…sort of. I totally credit my previous training experiences on the race course with helping me maintain a positive attitude for almost the entire time.
I had 2.5 miles to the turnaround point and I finally started to worry a bit about time. In this section of the course, a lot of people passed me in the opposite direction since they had already reached the turnaround. This was a little unsettling and I hoped that the terrain ahead would be flat so I could just hurry up and get there. Of course that would be too easy and I had to do a fair amount of climbing. I congratulated the other runners that passed me and they encouraged me in return.
The agony of this race was written all over people’s faces. I was excited to see the first female runner pass me and she said something to the effect of being so, so sick of hills. This made me smile because I sometimes assume that it is easy for the people who are kicking butt in these races. It wasn’t any easier for her than it was for me – she can just move faster than I can.
I finally made it to the turnaround (15.5 miles) just 4 minutes shy of the 12:30PM cut-off and far from my goal of 12:00PM. Wow. I had hoped not to be faced with the situation of flirting with the cut-offs but I was facing that problem. I was assured that there were a half-dozen people behind me so I was not the only one who should be worried. One of the volunteers was the race director from the Georgia Jewel 100 where I did some volunteering. She told me to just keep moving and I obeyed getting out of that station fairly quickly.
I stayed positive as I started back and I did indeed pass 6 or 7 runners in various stages of making their way out to the turnaround. I made sure to encourage them when I could. I was a bit worried about the trip back since everyone coming towards me when I was on the way up looked kind of miserable. It was surprisingly not that bad but there was some climbing. The climbing never ends on the DRT. The surprise out there really seems to be the ability to run instead of hike!
I arrived back at the aid station where ATL Mimi was volunteering (now Mile 18) in about an hour. When I look at the numbers now, it took me the same amount of time to make it back that it did to make it out. My pace wasn’t slowing but I started to realize that my overall progress was slow in general and time was getting tight. I felt stymied by the course. It seemed like I was in two modes: climbing or too scared to run because of the terrain. Both modes result in slow progress. 2.5 miles in an hour was not good time.
I was tired of hearing voices in my head – the Stephen King audiobook – not crazytown voices. I put some music back on and set about tackling the next long 5 mile stretch. I had decided I would see how this piece went before I got into panic mode. The music helped and I started singing out loud as I made my way back. I was in a fantastic mood actually. Sure my pace was slow but I was more than halfway through my very first ultramarathon and I felt great. Even Fall #2 which was set to the soundtrack of Ke$sha’s “Tik Tok” didn’t shake my mood. I laughed when I fell because I slipped on wet leaves right at the “Now the party don’t start till I walk in” part. How dramatic!
I covered the crappy part of the trail with the steep ridges again and it was not any better coming back. I was relieved to be done with that and I started up Blood Mountain in a good mood. I came into the race thinking I would ditch my long-sleeved shirt and gloves at the halfway mark but it was still cold. What I was wearing was perfect but short sleeves would have been too light. I even ended up putting my gloves back on so I’m glad I didn’t leave them in the car. They were very necessary.
I did hit a bit of a low point at the top of the mountain where it was very cold and foggy. I started to feel precipitation of some sort. My gear was perfect for the current temps but if it rained I would freeze. I kind of welcomed the downpour that occurred during the H9 because it was warm and sticky out. No one welcomes a rainstorm when it is cold outside and you anticipate being outside for hours.
I had to send up my first prayer of the race. “Please God don’t let it rain!” While I was praying for no rain, I took Fall #3 slipping on wet leaves again. This time I fell to the tune of Kanye West’s “Kiss The Sky”…the things you remember! I was not quite a happy camper at this point. Things were not looking good and I knew I was going to have a mental meltdown if it rained.
To be continued…