Monday, January 12, 2015

Cloudland Canyon 50 Miler

Intro and Background

I've signed up for a 50 mile race four times before this one.

The first time was Dizzy Fifties in 2010. Hubris is what kept me from finishing that one. The second time was Dizzy Fifties in 2011. A complete lack of mental toughness prevented me from finishing that one. The third time was Lookout Mountain 50 miler in 2012. A stress fracture prevented me from starting that one. I was ready for LM50 and I was bummed to be unable to start. Since that stress fracture, I simply haven't been the same runner. And then there was the scam that was Bullet Creek. I don't want to talk about that other than to say it was the first experience I've ever had with a complete fraud.

So, that's why this was special for me. I've tried and failed to do this before. It just seemed like something always went wrong when I signed up for a 50 miler. I was never 100% confident that I was going to finish this until I crossed the finish line. I've done literally a dozen 50k races. I've done 40 miles. But 50 miles has been elusive. I kept expecting to get injured. I expected to wimp out and quit because we cross the start/finish area at mile 38.

Leading up to the race, I had planned to go with five other friends who were going to run the 50 miler. All of them either switched to the 11 miler or did not start the race. Another omen, I thought. I should drop to 11 miles... I'm just not meant to do a 50 miler.

But I just got stubborn and I was going to get this done no matter what.

Boy, am I glad I did.

The Venue

Cloudland Canyon State Park is a place that has to be experienced to be believed. Pictures are good. Pictures may make you want to go, but you really have to see it to really appreciate the beauty of this place. Here are a couple of pictures.
A few of the ~593 stairs. It was cold on race day!

This was taken one week before the race. It was raining and a cloud had settled into the canyon.

And this is the creek at the bottom of that canyon on race day.
The pictures are nothing compared to being next to the majestic beauty of this place. I will go back in the spring, summer, and fall to see the changing character the seasons have on this special spot.

The Race

Run Bum Tours knows how to put on a race. Period. All of the stuff you expect from a great trail race was delivered. A challenging and scenic course. Good organization and communication. Well stocked aid stations. Amazing volunteers. And just a down-home, simple, friendly, community feel.
Pre-race in the group shelter. We were a little late starting (maybe 10 minutes), but at least it was warm inside.

The race started in the dark at 5:00 AM EST (more like 5:10 actually). I was staying in a cabin in Mentone, about 40 minutes away, in CST. So, I had to get up at 2:00 AM CST to make this 5:00 AM EST start. I got about 1-2 hours of sleep because I just could not fall asleep and I had to wake up in the middle of the night. Also, I have almost no experience with headlamp running, so this forced me to take the first 2.5 hours of this race slowly. That probably saved me from myself.
Limestone County representing! Me, Jonathan Spry, and Lanier Greenhaw (left to right).
I had heard that the first 38 miles would be fairly easy and that the last 11 or 12 miles would be brutal. Well, not so much. The first 38 miles were definitely easier but still not easy. While the last 11 miles were stunningly beautiful and brutally difficult, the first 38 miles were varying terrain, changing beauty, steadily difficult, and just plain fun. And very cold. 

The biggest problem was that I couldn't get water. My handheld bottle kept freezing. I ended up breaking the nozzle on my bottle while trying to get ice from it. So, I had to take the lid off and drink directly from the bottle rather than through the nozzle. At the aid stations, I was trying to thaw my bottle lid at the fire. But it was useless. Within minutes of leaving, I'd have a slushy mess in my bottle. But still, I was able to get plenty of fluids by drinking at the aid stations. But freezing is going to be a problem when temps are below 20F.
I still had a nozzle on my bottle here...

Hmmm.. Whatcha got to eat here?

I was fortunate enough to run almost all of this race with my good friend Jonathan Spry. I really enjoyed spending the day with him. We separated occasionally for various physical needs (ahem) or walk breaks, but by and large we were together the whole way.
Yeah, it was cold!
There was this section between miles 17 and 22 that was just brutal to run. Now, on a mountain bike, it would be AWESOME! But running was not so pleasant. The trail was generally downhill, but there were these humps, little 4-10 foot high steep hills. They were just enough to break the running rhythm. You didn't want to walk the whole way because it was generally downhill, but you didn't want to start and stop, either. So, I ended up just taking what the course gave and running when gravity pulled me and walking when I lost momentum. It was very draining and it will make the elevation change of the course be deceptively low. Those little humps were real and they were up and they were down and there were literally hundreds of them. 

As Jonathan and I were running, we talked some about the people who call us crazy and who don't get out and enjoy the beauty of God's creation all around us. Even the first 38 miles, the "not as beautiful" part of the race, was gorgeous. We ran along ridges and could see for miles. There was this one section where the trees were predominantly evergreen and there was a partially frozen creek running along the trail and it just felt like I was in Washington state somewhere. Beautiful. I wish everyone could see and appreciate the beauty I saw Saturday.
And in the middle of that beauty there was this random Ford.
And somewhere along the way, probably about mile 15 or so, Jonathan and I met a man named Rick who really helped us both out. It was the first 50 miler for both Jonathan and I, and Rick really gave us some good advice and set a pace that we both knew would not kill us. We settled in and followed him. One of my favorite things about running is the people I get to meet. I love meeting these people who do this crazy stuff. Rick, thanks so much for the company, advice, and for saving me from myself. I look forward to seeing you again at Mountain Mist!

As we hit aid station 5 at about 33 miles, the temps were warmer and my water bottle stayed thawed. It was now that I realized that I had a chance to finish. I was tired, but I was beyond 50k and I knew I had some energy left. It wasn't going to be easy, but it was going to be done.

The Last 11 (or 12.5 or whatever)

Coming into the start/finish area, aid station 6, I was concerned. Not when I came into the aid station, but before the race. I was worried that I would wimp out. But my beautiful wife was there. She had a fresh water bottle for me. She took some stuff I didn't need any more (headlamp, flashlight, trash, etc.). And she gave me a hug even though I was a frozen sweaty mess.

And I had Jonathan and Rick there keeping things positive and moving forward.

And the beauty of this last part of the race. It was incredible!
Thanks for the photo, Rick!
I'll post a couple more pictures, but they don't do justice to the course. There was a hilly 3+ mile road section that we just had to endure. Then, we turned onto the trail. The trail was very, very rugged. Rocky. Rooty. Uneven. Up and down. Technical. Difficult. But it rewarded us with lots of views. And Rick and Jonathan just kept things positive. And then we got to the stairs and views like this awaited us the whole way.

Have I mentioned that it was cold?
And at the bottom of the stairs, there was this creek.
We ran along this creek for about a mile and a half to the last aid station. This mile and a half was mostly runnable trail, but had some uphills and one creek crossing that was just treacherously icy. I literally got on all fours to cross because all the rocks were covered with ice. It was very, very slippery and I did not want to fall into the creek. And the mile and a half was farther than I really wanted to go. I was more than ready to be finished.

Coming into this aid station, I was very, very hungry. It felt great just to get something in my stomach and that gave me a boost that I needed to get the last 5 miles done.

After the aid station, we were walking on a slightly uphill section and I told Jonathan and Rick that I felt better and that I just wanted this to be over. So, I ran. And I ran some more. I really hope that wasn't a jerk move because they had been with me and so encouraging to me all day. But I felt like running. So, I ran and Jonathan stayed with me until we reached the stairs. I went up a little faster and got to the top and ran most of the last mile or so. I just wanted to be done.

And, anti-climactic, I know, but I finished! My wife was there waiting for me, and that was so very special. I love her. She is awesome.

I ran 11:07:36 which was good enough for 18th overall out of 116 who started and 75 who finished. Nathan Holland was the winner in an astonishing 7:33. Results are here.

The End

I'm now a 50 mile finisher. I cannot say how much I appreciate all the encouragement and congratulations on Facebook and via text message. Thanks, guys. It means a lot to me.

Of course, thanks to my wife who put up with all the training to make this happen.

Thanks to Jonathan and Rick for running with me and keeping things positive the whole way. Ultra runners are good people.

And special thanks to Lanier Greenhaw who encouraged me in the months leading up to this, who inspires me by his consistency and 100 mile races, who was the self-appointed EP sweeper, and who threatened me within an inch of my life if I didn't finish this one. :)

Post race I had one of the most heavenly hot showers I've ever had there at the group lodge. And the post race grub was good, too. Run Bum puts on great events.

I swore I'd never do another 50 miler, and two days later, I'm still thinking that's true. This was much slower than I believe I'm capable of, but I had to get a finish under my belt before I worry about time. And I may never do another one. I just like the 50k and marathon distance better. But if you only run one 50 miler, you won't find a better 50 miler than Cloudland Canyon 50 miler. Unbelievable.

And my right big toe is the only casualty from running 50 miles.