MR. PANCH (spoken)
Miss Ostrovsky. Chimerical
May I have a definition?
MR. PANCH (spoken, voice fading out)
It means unreal, magical, visionary, wildly fanciful, highly unrealistic
I recently located my soundtrack to the musical “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” I saw it at the Alliance Theater a few years ago with Babs and Disco Diva. Go see it if it comes to your city. It is funny and touching at the same time. The blend of the live vocals and lyrics to the “I Love You Song” actually moved me to tears in the theater.
So yeah, chimerical. I would say that word describes the way I viewed the notion of training and running a 50 mile race. I knew I wanted to do it but I had no idea how all of the pieces would come together. How was I going to train and maintain my sanity while working full-time and trying to be a good wife and mother to a toddler?
To make my dream a reality, I set about doing things as efficiently as possible. I enlisted the help of a running coach to plan my workouts. I’m simply not able to run super high weekly mileage. I can’t go out and run for 5-6 hours every single weekend either. What I could do was make sure that all of my training was quality training. I hit the trails on most weekends and trained on terrain that was similar to that of the race. I ran tough trail races to get some experience under my belt. I bought a treadmill and used that to get my runs in when I had no other choice. I woke up at 3:45AM and sweated through 20-mile long runs in Atlanta’s summer heat and humidity to build my base and still be home before my son woke up. I put in the most work that I could given my circumstances.
Somehow the pieces came together. At 7:30 on Saturday morning, I toed the starting line for the Lookout Mountain 50 Miler. Around 9:16PM, 13 hours and 46 minutes later, I crossed the finish line upright and with a smile on my face. Considering that this was my longest running effort to date, I can’t really ask for more.
I felt ready to go Saturday morning. I had obsessively packed and organized my drop bags with my food and other necessities like a headlamp and a spare Ipod. I had an extra pair of shoes and socks bagged up so that I could switch out at Mile 34 (lesson learned from foot swelling and subsequent black toenails at my 50K). I woke up at 4:30AM and ate my usual pre-ultra race meal of Ramen (#judgeme) and drank a Sugar-Free Red Bull. I went to bed at midnight the night before due to a bit of poor planning and was so tired. I don’t drink coffee so Red Bull does the trick for me in a pinch.
Race day temps from 7AM-7PM were supposed to range from mid-thirties to the upper-forties. There was a 10% chance of rain but I recalled my panic at the rain droplets during Duncan Ridge and decided to prepare for the worst. I wore my Asics Storm Shelter jacket which is waterproof and windproof. As a single base layer, I wore a Brooks Infiniti Half-Zip which has warm fleecy material inside. Finally, I wore my SkirtSports Tough Girl skirt-pants. This combo was perfect for the weather the entire time. When it got a little warm, I just unzipped my jacket and base layer a bit. Note: I got every item listed for at least 50% off. Remember what I said about buying off-season? That Asics jacket was $140 last Fall, but I bought it for about $50 in March*.
The Mister, Sister P, and I left the hotel and took a long windy road up to Covenant College. We arrived around 7:00AM due to some directional mishaps. This was way to close to the start for my comfort level but it ended up working out. I only had enough time to drop off my stuff, wait in the bathroom line, and say goodbye to my family before lining up. In other words, I didn’t have very much time to freak out. Right on time and with little fanfare, the race started at 7:30.
I studied the course map in the days before the race and obsessively read race reports on different blogs. I poured over the course packet which described the trail terrain between each aid station in good detail. I even made a little spreadsheet that would estimate when I would arrive at each station.
The course map shows a pretty much downhill trek for the first 15 miles. I figured that meant it would be super easy. In reality, I didn’t feel like this part of the course particularly easy at all. I was quickly introduced to a foe that would follow me the entire race – mud on the course. It had rained heavily in Chattanooga in the days before the race. It was sunny and cold on race day but the trails were downright swampy in a lot of places. I never imagined the mud would be a near constant factor. A girl running in front of me slipped and landed on her butt in a some thick mud less than 2 miles into the race. That’s not the sort of thing that you want to have happen on a single track trail ridge with a drop off the side. I proceeded with caution whenever I saw mud after witnessing that incident. That made for a lot of stop and tiptoe action instead of the continuous easy running that I’d imagined.
I spite of their muddy condition, the trails were beautiful right from the start. There were cool rock formations and caves on my right and a ridge view out into Chattanooga on the left. When the trail wasn’t muddy, it was nicely worn and not extra rocky or full of roots. There were leaves but they weren’t all slippery and treacherous. There were some inclines and one short easy climb. I could never describe this portion as “downhill” as it seems like in the course description. I guess that’s what they meant by “gradual” downhill…it must be so gradual that you can’t tell.
I was running with the mid to back pack runners at the point and met some cool characters that I would see off and on during the race. One woman was from Atlanta and this was her redemption 50 miler after missing the cut-off at the Atlanta North Face 50 miler. I can so relate to that feeling of being pressed to meet cut-offs. I also met a guy who currently lived in Richmond. It was cool to reminisce about my hometown. Someone from my old home and someone from my current home all out here in the woods on Chattanooga. What are the odds?
I reached the first aid station a bit behind schedule. I anticipated that it would take 1:35 to cover the 8 miles but I was 5 minutes off. I didn’t stress out too much about being “late.” But, I began to wonder if having a schedule was a great idea. In the earlier miles, I found myself looking at my watch and calculating and trying to pace myself to match my goal time. I should not have been concerned about that at the beginning of the race. I should have been focused on warming up and not screwing up my Mile 40 game by rushing Mile 2.
I was happy to see that my watch’s mileage was pretty right on target. I hit the Craven’s House aid station right at 8 miles. I handled business quickly at the aid station getting in and out without a lot of fuss. I found a new favorite ultra food in addition to Pringles – those little pretzel nuggets with peanut butter inside. Delicious! I supplemented my aid station loot with sports beans and the “rice cakes” I mentioned wanting to try. The rice cakes were super good and went down easy. I was fine eating them even though they were cold. In fact, I had trouble not eating them when I was prepping them at home and the rice was warm. The recipe ends up tasting like fried rice. Highly recommended!
The 7 mile trek to the next aid station was my favorite part of the whole race. We were running on jeep trails which normally fills me with dread. However, on this trail leaves covered up the gravel and there were trees on either side. It just felt like I was running in a really pretty park. My jeep/fire road aversion comes from running miles on the “road to nowhere” with nothing but gravel and red GA clay on either side at the H9 race and to some extent at the Mystery Mountain Marathon. This wasn’t that type of scene at all.
The fun trail ended in a surprise. The mud started to grow thick again and when I saw what looked like a muddy stream crossing ahead I did a double-take. The course details mentioned a creek crossing, not a stream crossing and that crossing was not to happen until much later in the race. Because of that fact, I figured the water was something I could tiptoe around on muddy banks but I was quickly disabused of that notion. It turns out that the water was not present when they marked the course the day before. The stream was a product of the heavy rains just like all the mud. Crazy!
The only way out was to go straight through the water. I watched a girl in front of me take a header into the lake and I was so pissed that I had to do this now. What choice did I have though? I’m smiling in the picture but I’m pretty sure that was taken before I slipped up and fell down in the water myself. Ugh! The icy cold water got deeper and it ended up coming up to waist level on me at one point (I’m short though). I was very thankful for my Tough Mudder experience with muddy water full of ice cubes. This felt about the same so while I wasn’t pleased to be soaked so early, it wasn’t a foreign feeling.
I had managed to make up some time on the runnable part of this section, but the unexpected stream crossing didn’t do me any favors. I arrived at the Nature Center aid station still about about 5 minutes off my goal time. I grabbed more pretzel nuggets and Pringles and left fairly quickly again.
This race marked the trail with yellow flags at ground level. I kind of liked that because I did not have to worry about looking up for direction and tripping over something. But, the course was also only marked at decision points and there were no confidence flags. As someone who constantly worries about getting lost, I need my confidence flags! After leaving the aid station, the course got kind of confusing. There were a bunch of other runners coming from a different direction. I’m not sure if they were 10K folks or college students or what. The flags led me in a different direction from the other runners but it was confusing. At one point, the trails cut into a grass field and I missed a turn and ended up somewhere that looked decidedly un-trail like. I had to stop, resist the urge to get frustrated and panic, and refocus. Once I calmed down, I saw the flags that I missed before and got back on track.
I steeled myself for the next few miles because I was aware that there were 3-4 miles of climbing ahead. In fact, when I was in the water, I could see runners on a ridge high above me. The climbing started shortly after I got back on track and lasted for about a mile. It really wasn’t that bad. Then the trail turned into mostly flat ridge switchback running. I did so much running that I became concerned because I was expecting to climb. Since there were no confidence flags, I was really worried that I might be lost. Eventually, several people came up behind me and that restored my confidence that I hadn’t screwed up. Most of those people passed me but I didn’t really care. It was too early to be thinking about other people’s races. I wasn’t too far off my personal timetable and that was all that mattered.
The climbing eventually resumed. I was happy to discover that it still wasn’t all that bad. None of the climbs in that portion were DRT/Coosa bad. Not a single one. Sure I got winded and had to stop and stretch my calves a few times. There was no “just make it to the next tree” and then pant-pant-pant stuff though. There was no looking up to the top of the hill and wondering when this nightmare would end. I don’t think I even felt the need to internally curse. I just kept plugging away and it was pretty much over before I knew it. I ended up passing a few of the people who had passed me earlier. Along the way, was some nice scenery of which I actually took a few pictures. We basically climbed up to the top of the falls pictured below, crossed the small creek at the top, and then descended back to the race start area at Covenant College.
I had been keeping The Mister and Sister P abreast of my progress via text at the prior aid stations. So as to not waste time sending extensive messages and because my fingers were cold, I just texted “1″ and “2″ as I approached those aid stations. Apparently my shorthand was misunderstood because I got a text from The Mister asking me if I would be at the college at 2PM. Huh? I gave them a copy of my schedule spreadsheet and I was slated to hit the college by 1PM-ish. What is he talking about? According to my watch mileage, I had about 2.25 miles to go. I wasn’t sure about the elevation I needed to tackle, so I texted back that I would be there in 50 minutes or less.
Up until now my watch had been recording the right mileage. Things got a little funny before the college. I had removed the mileage tracker from my shoe when we crossed the stream. I wasn’t about to lose another one of those pricey puppies to mud in the water. I couldn’t have spent more than .5 mile in the water, if that. That meant that I should have arrived back at Covenant at Mile 21.5-ish. I was a little shocked to get there and see that my watch said 20.65 miles.
The big race clock indicated that just under 5:15 hours had elapsed. That would mean that I had covered 2.25 miles in the 15 minutes since I had texted The Mister with a 50 minute estimate. I guarantee you that I was not moving that fast. I’m pretty sure that I covered the 7.5(?) miles of trail after Mile 15 a little bit ahead of the 2:30 minutes I had estimated. The climbs weren’t quite as difficult as I anticipated. But I know I didn’t quite make up the 10+ minutes I was behind. I think the stated mileage for some of the stations was a little off-ish somehow. Maybe they had to adjust on the fly due to the flooding? The girl at aid station #2 which was supposed to be Mile 15 said it was actually Mile 14.5. Hmmm…
Mileage confusion aside, this station felt like the halfway mark for the race even though there was a long way to go. My coach warned me there would be a lot going on here and not to get caught up. I didn’t listen. I was so excited to see real bathrooms! Compared to ducking behind a tree and praying no one comes up behind you, a port-o-potty is like heaven. A nice volunteer filled up my water pack while I was gone. I got my stuff out of my first drop box and refilled my pack with food. I picked over the selections at the aid table…more peanut butter pretzel nuggets and Pringles please! I wasted too much time. I was probably there for 10-12 minutes. No bueno.
The one thing I didn’t get at this station was familial support. The Mister and Sister P had not materialized. It was 12:05PM when I texted The Mister my estimated arrival time. I sent word at 12:34 that I was leaving. Even though I had missed my personal cheerleading section, I was in good spirits when I left. I was nearly 30 minutes “early” according to my schedule. I was going to kick butt at this race and possibly do better than I imagined or at least finish in 12 hours. I came in thinking I could finish in 12-12:30 hours, 13 at the most if things went south. My schedule was based on a 12:05 finish and I was 1/2 hour ahead. Things were going swimmingly!
You know the drill. I’ll finish this up soon. Maybe I’ll get less long-winded after I do a few more of these races?*Now we won’t talk about that jacket being too small around the hips. Operation Drop 15 Pounds in full effect for first quarter of 2012!