Settle in for a long one. You know how I tend to do it! One more part (I think!) forthcoming…
I didn’t quite meet the time goals I set for myself at the DoubleTop 100K, but I still count this race as a major success. My lists of positives about my performance, far outweighs my list of negatives:
1) I finished.
2) I finished well before the cutoff.
3) I didn’t fall once over the course of 62.3+ miles. An amazing feat for a klutz like me.
4) I cut the amount of time spent at aid stations dramatically.
5) I had zero nerves at the start line.
6) I worked my pacing plan very well and did a better job of making it realistic.
7) I maintained a very positive attitude for 85% of the race.
Well, #4 is kind of a lie. I was a little nervous about one thing. I drove up to Dalton on Friday afternoon and headed to the park for a pre-race meeting/dinner. It was great to chat with so many different runners. I had to laugh at a guy who referred to the 100K as the “fun run.” He didn’t say it in an obnoxious way. In fact, it is a term I’ve heard before in reference to the shorter distance available at a multi-distance ultramarathon. About 40 people were planning to run 100 miles the next day so 100K is a “fun run” compared to that distance!
In the process of chatting with the runners, more than one story of encounters with locals AKA “rednecks” (is that an offensive term?) came up. The possibility of encountering locals strapped with rifles in the woods alone as a woman and especially as a black woman did have me a little shook up. And I did have a weird encounter…more on that later. So I on race day eve, I was more worried about bumping into drunk Bubba than I was about covering 62.3 miles. I think that’s a good problem to have!
I don’t know where the sense of calm about the race came from but I welcomed it. The day before the race was hectic and the night was no better. Tornados were ripping through Tennessee and Alabama and headed straight to Georgia. Just before bedtime, I turned the TV on to find that a tornado was expected to touchdown in my city at 9:10PM. I called home and begged The Mister to take the warnings seriously. I instructed him to call me back after the danger had passed. I didn’t rest well until I heard back from him. Atlanta was spared. Some places were not so lucky.
Loud thunder through the night caused me to toss and turn. When I woke up at 3:45AM for the race, I was prepared for a miserably awful day of rain and storms. I didn’t need to worry because the day turned out to be absolutely beautiful. I mean gorgeous – fifties and sunny. We dodged a major bullet.
I got to the park around 6:15AM, took care of bathroom business, warmed up a bit in the car, and then lined up for the 7AM start. It still trips me out how casually these things get going. My watch said 6:58AM and no one was lined up. Everyone (about 30 people) sort of ambled over, the RD said a few words, and then the race was on. I got a little worried when the gentleman beside me remarked “The course is marked in orange, right?” Uh, no dude. I had to let him know that the markings had been changed to “blue & white.” Oh Lord, was everyone going to get lost out here? I should have gotten clarification myself on what exactly “blue & white” meant because this would become the source of a bit of stress later.
I started in the back of the pack and immediately fell into last place. This was just what I wanted. I’m learning that when I run with the pack…even the back of the pack, I don’t follow my pacing plan. I also don’t watch for directions and landmarks as closely as I should because I tend to think the person ahead knows what they are doing. Both of those tendencies can cause unnecessary issues later on so I happily stayed last place. I remembered how my coach told me that everything I do at the beginning of the race should be about getting to the last 20% of the race. Blowing myself up at the beginning was not part of that plan.
I used my run/walk strategy from the beginning. I walked any hill and then added in walk breaks on flats even if I didn’t need them. I tried to keep my running pace at 12 min/mile which was a little tough when I had a bunch of energy. I was unfamiliar with the first few miles because we took a different path during the training run. The terrain was a bit hillier initially than I expected so my slightly faster pace was balanced out because I had to walk more. We crossed over the park entrance and I was on familiar ground. I took care to speed walk down the hills instead of pounding down them because I wanted to preserve my quads. I had issues with quad pain towards the end of Lookout Mountain and I wanted to avoid that if I could.
I had a brief minute of confusion about the course markings early on. I raced down a switchback and saw a path blocked with a log behind me and one in front. Now common sense (and my rough memories) says that I should take the path in front of me. But I didn’t see any flagging and there were a lot of down trees so a log across a path is not necessarily an indication that you should not go that way. I had to pause and consider what to do and I hate that. I feel like any time there is a potential decision, the course should be obviously flagged. I even waited up a bit to ask a few runners behind me if they thought we were going the right way. I forged ahead but did not really calm down until I saw a blue & white striped flag a few minutes later. I reached the first aid station (which measured exactly where it should on my watch at 4.95 miles) in 1:02:30. My obnoxious spreadsheet had me arriving at 8:03AM so I was right on time. I grabbed some chips, sent a progress text to my pacer, and was out in 1:30 flat.
The next section of the course was longer (6.2 miles), muddier, and wetter with a few creek crossings. There would also be a big climb to tackle. My confidence was high since I had covered the territory before. At this point, I had moved up a bit from last place to second to last. There was one woman behind me and a couple in front of me. I didn’t see any more people and didn’t care one bit about bringing up the rear. I was still working my plan. Even though I could comfortably run, I forced myself to take walk breaks. I used the very scientific method of running for 3 songs and then walking for one song. I also purposely diversified my Ipod playlist to include slow songs. I can’t run slowly to Beyonce, can you? Mixing up the tempo helped a lot. I figured this would average out to the loose 10 minutes running/5 minutes walking strategy that I wanted to implement. It seemed to be working – except for Michael Jackson. Do you know the album version of “You Can’t Win” from “The Wiz” is at least 7 minutes long?!? Sheesh! And Luther Vandross has some looooong songs too!
This section of the course went really well. I knew where I was going. I was even able to help out the runners ahead of me with directions because there was basically a river and no flagging about where to go next. Again, it might have seemed obvious or like common sense but it must not have been because people had questions. I didn’t consider the possibility that the bad storms last night might have wreaked a bit of havoc on the course markings.
We crossed several creeks and after getting my feet wet one last time, I knew the big hill was coming. I remember it being steep and relentless but I was knocking off a great hiking pace. I had allotted myself 20:00 min/mile for hiking but that felt way too slow. Rather than crawl up the hill, I just walked efficiently and took brief breaks when I felt my heart rate rising too much. The hard part was over before I knew it and we were on the relatively flat gravel road trail that would lead to the second aid station.
It was here that I met the first of my “usual suspects.” These are the people you end up playing tag with for the duration of the race. Sometimes they pass you, sometimes you pass them back but they are always just a few minutes ahead or behind. This set of “suspects” was a father-daughter team doing the race together and I thought that was very cool. I know my Dad would have been down for something like this back in his fitter heyday. I loved the idea of father and daughter sharing this type of adventure.
I thought these were going to be my only suspects but I saw three more people a little bit ahead of us. This new pack of suspects was a mother-daughter team from South Dakota. I kind of didn’t like being with a crowd again because I was suddenly conscious about my pace. When you start running with people you feel compelled to stick with them even if they are moving faster than you want to go. Also, remember what I mentioned about how I stop paying so much attention to directions and blindly start to follow? Well, that happened. Five people missed a major course marking. The SD ladies were a bit ahead and they came running back saying there was a road down there and no flags about where to go. This was the same part of the course we missed on the training run! I should have asked back then for a landmark to look for but I didn’t so I had no idea what turn I missed. I knew that we could take the highway down to the aid station so I rolled with that option. When I retraced the course later that night and took the right path, I would see a single flag on a closed brown iron gate. We were supposed to go around the gate to pick up the trail there. This is the kind of thing that is easily missed because I didn’t remember seeing any branches in the trail. My mind probably saw a closed brown gate and equated that to no entry. This sort of course marking might have benefited from a ground sign. Just saying!
The five of us set off down the road to the Cohutta aid station and all was well. We saw some other racers that had taken the correct trail pop out of the woods on our right. We still had to run another half mile down the road to the aid station. This section took 1:43 minutes and my watch counted 7.3 miles instead of 6.5. We ran out and down instead of taking the twisty trail so we might have added a bit of mileage. I didn’t care at all because I was actually ahead of plan at this point. Once again, I was in and out of the aid station in 1:30 right on target.
The next two sections were fun running. I saw a new set of people on the trail after the aid station – a girl and two guys. They were all stopped in a bunch. I was not sure what was going on as I passed and I never saw them again after that. They did not become new usual suspects. The women from SD caught up to me and passed me along with the father and daughter. I later passed them back and I only passed the SD ladies (who were keeping up a good clip) because one of them rolled her ankle. I finished this section in 57 minutes a bit ahead of schedule. The mileage was pretty much on target for me at 4.2 miles. I sent a departure text to my pacer at 10:49AM ahead, 15 minutes ahead of schedule.
I left the aid station with the SD ladies on my heels and headed down a paved road. I mostly walked this section for some reason. I wasn’t worn out but I figured it couldn’t hurt since I was ahead of schedule anyway. My walking pace was pretty fast though since it was a smooth road. I mixed it up a bit more when I we got back onto Pinhoti’s single track, but continued to take walk breaks on any type of hill. This section was a lot easier to run coming back than it was going out! I wrote down that this section was 4 miles but my watch was creeping towards the 5 mile mark with no end of trail in sight. I started to freak out slightly about losing the tiny time cushion I had managed to create. When I finally did pop out of the trail, I saw parked cars but no aid station. I started to wonder if I was crazy and missed the darn thing! It was actually another .5 miles down the road giving me a total of about 5.5 miles for a 4 mile section. If I could read and actually do math, I would have realized that this section was 5.1 miles long anyway. My obnoxious spreadsheet was wrong. All of that panicking for nothing!
I budgeted 52 minutes for the section but it took me 1:15 minutes. Had I written down the correct mileage, I would have allotted 1:07 minutes maybe. Clearly, I squandered my little cushion by walking a little too much. Lesson learned. I planned 5 minutes at this aid station because it was the first time we had access to our drop bags and we would not be back for another 20 miles. I needed to restock my food. Nutrition was going very well. I carried peanut butter pretzel nuggets, Dr. Lim’s Rice Cakes (simply scooped into a sandwich bag…much easier to eat that way) and Clif Shot Bloks. I tried to section out the amount of calories to consume for each third of the race. My goal was to eat all of the food on my person for that chunk of the race and supplement with a little aid station fare. The only thing I could stomach at the stations were potato chips. For some reason, stuff like gummy bears, cookies and PB&J rarely appeals to me during a race. Any other time, I’m all about the sugar. At races, its all chips and orange slices. That is why I bring my own food for the most part. I picked up my headlamp here too because I didn’t anticipate returning until 6:15PM and I didn’t want to risk being caught in the dark should something go wrong.
The aid station I left was the last portion of the course that I had covered in training so I had about 10 miles of uncharted territory ahead of me. I was aware that all 10 miles were on gravel forest road (yuck!) and that the first 7 miles would take me from 1800ft elevation to 3500ft (double yuck!). As long as I know what to expect, I can adjust my attitude so I wasn’t excited but grimly determined to get it done. I changed my playlist to the music from “In The Heights” with “Wicked” on tap next. There is something about the continuity of listening to a couple of musicals that helps me focus more than random shuffled songs.
I started powerwalking the climb and it wasn’t as bad as I anticipated. There was a lot of gain but the grade wasn’t too bad. I had allotted myself 1:40 for this section and felt like I would make it a little faster. I was surprised by the number of cars on that gravel road. Who are these people and what are they doing out here? I’m sure they wondered the same about me since I was walking alone! After about 1.5 miles, I reached a scenic area and pulled out my phone to take the only picture I would take during the race. My phone’s battery was halfway gone at that point so I turned it off to conserve power.
I got a little confused about what to do here once again. I swear the course flagging went in a circle and then disappeared! There were some side trail options available, but I knew that we were to go at least 5 miles up the road. I set off up the road even though that didn’t seem to be indicated by any markings. I didn’t see any blue and white striped flags for a long time and I started to freak out and second guess myself. What I did see with some regularity (every .25 miles) were solid blue flags. I remembered the RD saying there were confidence flags every .25 miles (sometimes!) so I decided that the “blue & white” course markings meant sometimes blue & white striped flags and sometimes blue flags. I calmed down. I think some of the 100 milers (who left earlier in the day) got off course here and got very lost.
After trudging up the road for more than three miles, I got another visual treat. The trees on my left gave away to a wide view of mountains across the way It.was.gorgeous. I’m still new enough to trail running and being outdoors in general that I am very impressed by this sort of thing. It may be corny but I actually started to tear up. I just felt so big and so small all at the same time if that makes any sense. There is something about “earning” this sort of view under your own physical power (as opposed to just driving up there) that makes you feel awesome. At the same time, I was simply humbled by nature because wow there’s a big world out there. I immediately forgave the RD’s for making us trudge up a fire road to nowhere. In actuality, they didn’t have a choice because the park services people shut down the single-track trail option. You can get an idea of what I saw here or here. It was the Chattahoochee Forest Overlook and we continued the climb up to the top of Potatopatch Mountain.
In the middle of my moment, just when the tears are about to spill, a bunch of mountain bikers appeared. Talk about a mood buzzkill! I decided to get going again and arrived at the Usti Yoni aid station 5 minutes ahead of schedule even though my watch recorded 5.5 miles instead of the 4.9 I expected. I did manage to keep a nice walking pace. The station volunteer was a guy I’d met the night before and he was in good spirits. All of the volunteers were wonderful and I made it a point to thank them all because I know the RDs were pressed to find people to help out. I encountered a 100 miler here who had dropped due to calf issues. I didn’t even want to allow the idea of dropping out of the race into my headspace so I got going quickly.
The volunteer at Usti Yona made the suggestion that the next 6 miles were pretty flat. I quickly learned he had no idea what he was talking about! I was actually in the mood to run after all of that walking, but the road was full of rolling hills. I started to get a little down on this stretch for the first time in the race. Ten miles of hilly gravel fire road is a lot to handle mentally. I became very aware of the rocks under my shoes hurting my feet. I wished I had worn my gaiters when I had to remove my shoes to get rid of a loose pebble. When I took my shoe off, I felt a little shudder in my quad and worried that it was a sign of bad stuff to come.
I ran into more mountain bikers as I neared the end of one road. Some just whizzed by but most nodded and smiled. One assured me that I would hit some downhill soon and the aid station was about a mile away. I was grateful for the heads up. I read all the time about mountain bikers and trail runners having negative encounters, but so far I’ve had no terrible experiences. We are all out in the middle of the woods doing crazy stuff, it seems like we should be friends.
The biker was right and the road did flatten and then slightly descend. My mood picked up as I was able to jog along a bit. I also started to see other 100K people coming back from having already reached the turn around point. Instead of depressing me by highlighting how far behind I was, it made me happy. I had met many people at the meeting the other day and was greeted by name more than once. Everyone looked really strong too even though they had already covered half the course. I was especially cheered to see the eventual women’s winner, Kelly. She was running her longest distance ever and clearly kicking butt! I laughed when Mike, who commented on my course preview post, ran past and confirmed my report about the nature of the crazy hill back in the first 10 miles. It was really good to see people again.
My mood improved even more when the terrain on the side of the awful gravel road yielded a soft runnable dirt surface. This was a great change from running on gravel. More people passed and a couple running together let me know that I was just a .5 mile from the aid station. Finally, after having the last two sections run long, I got one that ran short to balance out the miles! I arrived at Double Top aid station, the turnaround point with a mileage reading of 5.6 miles instead of 6.1 miles. This section took me 1:22 which was a bit longer than my anticipated 1:18. The course docs recorded the overall gain of this section at 300ft but we must have been gaining and losing the same 300ft over and over again because I found this section a little rough. Or maybe I was just sick of service roads.
My course mileage at this point totalled 33 miles instead of the stated 31.5 miles. We were supposed to do a short 1.6 mile turnaround loop to return back to the same aid station to hit that 31.5 miles. I nearly kissed the aid station volunteer when he stated that we did not have to loop – that his station was the turnaround point. Yes! Maybe my watch mileage isn’t too offish and the course up to that point *was* a little long. I actually had a chance to catch back up to my schedule!
I was so cheered by the news that I spent way too much time at the station chatting and mentally preparing myself for the second 50K of the race. I stayed nearly 8 minutes…whooops! I refilled my hydration pack, drank some Coke & Gatorade (so tired of plain water at that point), and updated my Facebook status (sure did!). My final act before setting off down the road was to send another status text to my pacer. I left the Double Top aid station at 3:12PM, 15 minutes ahead of schedule. My body felt great after
33 miles 31.1 miles , an 8 hour 50K. I started to think that I just might reach my time goal this time around…